Rapti Siriwardane - de Zoysa

The Coastal Uncanny: Between the Reviled and the Revived in the Mangrove Forests of Postcolonial Penang 

Early modernist cultural associations of the sea have long been woven around visions of the romantic-sublime, which have often pre-supposed a series of problematic dualisms between the marine and terrestrially grounded. Among these, imaginaries of the ‘uncanny’ remain pertinent, primarily as a result of everyday perceptions of the sea as being profoundly unseen, uninhabited and ahistoric, irrespective of how oceanic surfaces and depths have remained intensely traversed and contested over millennia, often in gendered ways (Tuan, 2014: Klein, 2017). Yet paradoxically, cultural meanings of the coast, particularly in contemporary contexts have been anything but strangerly (invoking for example Timothy Morton´s notion of ‘dark ecology’), bearing in mind multiple ecological and socio-economic values of seacoasts as providing livelihood resources, acting as liminal zones for flows between land and sea, and as spaces of leisure, recreation, and of excess consumption. This presentation thus troubles this dichotomous and over-simplistic reading between the familiar humanized shoreline and its sublime Other (cf. Gillis, 2012), by focusing on forested mangrove spaces and their often contradictory frames of cultural sense-making – as both an ecosystem and as a managed landscape – never fully attending to neither sensibility, of the entirely grounded, or the fluid. Drawing inspiration from anthropological fieldwork on the island of Penang in 2017 – considered among the earliest colonial outposts of the British East India Company in Asia – historic meanings of mangroves of the island will be traced from imperial and counter-colonial interpretations of non-territorialized ‘native’ space, to present-day articulations as threatened sites of biological diversity (for essential ecosystem services), and as under/unvalued swampland and dumping grounds fitting for modernist urban redevelopment.

Intrinsic to the multiple sensorial meanings of mangroves (between civilizational wastelands to multispecies habitats), awaits the understudied realm of the metaphysical (supra/supernatural) replete with its manifold spirit- and other kinds of folklore that have arguably revived as ‘new’ sense of the coastal uncanny, particularly in rapidly urbanizing contexts that would otherwise perceive these sensibilities as displaced and irrational. In unpacking vernacular meanings and situated practices embedded in these very nature-culture understandings of mangrove spaces, the presentation illustrates how visions and understandings of the uncanny (and otherworldly) also emerge as contemporary developments, in which social memory, circulating narratives of mal/benevolent spirits, and morally imbued energies continue to be enlisted as agents of ongoing livelihood and resource contestations, as well as secondary ‘tools’ in the very rationalist practices of civil society conservationist struggles. Moreover, the presentation problematizes previous work on the ecological uncanny and their implicit theorizations of ecological spaces as passive containers, a reality that is far removed in the case of Penang´s mangroves, and the allure they wield as material, symbolic and relational spaces.

Keywords: Uncanny ecologies; Mangroves; Postcolonial islands; Folklore, Situated practices

Gillis, J. R. (2012). The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History. University of Chicago Press.
Klein, B. (2017). Fictions of the Sea: Critical Perspectives on the Ocean in British literature and culture. New York: Routledge.
Morton, T. (2016). Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence. Columbia University Press.
Tuan, Y. F. (2013). Romantic Geography: In Search of the Sublime Landscape. University of Wisconsin Press.