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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 20, May 13, 2023

Newton’s Review of Melody Jue, Rafico Ruiz, eds., Saturation: An Elemental Politics

Saturday 13 May 2023



Reviewed by Samm Newton (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Saturation: An Elemental Politics

Melody Jue, Rafico Ruiz, eds.

Duke University Press

2021. xii + 332 pp.
(e-book), ISBN 978-1-4780-1304-4
(paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-1146-0

Saturation: An Elemental Politics, edited by Melody Jue and Rafico Ruiz, is a rich and varied collection of essays that offers a multidisciplinary foray into how the concept of saturati can be employed as an interpretive lens in (and beyond) the environmental humanities. The essays approach environmental media from a variety of angles including anthropology, science and technology studies, history, and media studies.

The authors describe saturation as a material heuristic, a way of analyzing overlapping or interacting elements that are otherwise difficult to delineate. As a guiding framework, saturation highlights the challenge of pinpointing where something ends and another begins, especially when it comes to human interactions with the environment and the agency of the nonhuman world. It builds on concepts like entanglement, networks, co-production, and intra-action. While these terms can be useful as well, they tend to have a terrestrial bias.

Jue explains that the saturation approach began with interrogating water. It seems to be a natural extension of her previous work on milieu-specific analysis, for example in Wild Blue Media: Thinking through Seawater (2020). However, the saturation approach can be useful to foreground more-than-human worlds, well outside watery environments. For example, while many of the essays are situated in fresh or saltwater contexts, others experiment with saturation in unexpected places—electro-sensitivity and understandings of wireless media, HIV and viral emergences, mixes of merchandise in Manipur’s Ima Market, and data saturation in Big Tech. However, I found the essays surrounding marine systems most compelling.

Saturation is organized into four sections, beginning, reflective of this approach’s genesis, with “Water.” The essays in this section explore the material and cultural dimensions of water as a medium of saturation. Water saturates our environment, bodies, and culture and can help us to better understand the world around us. For example, Stefan Helmreich’s chapter, “The Color of Saturated Seas,” explores the concept of saturation in the context of oceanography and marine biology. Helmreich looks at several maps of the ocean that are color-coded to communicate information about things like ocean acidification, sea surface temperature, and tsunami wave amplitude. In these, and many other oceanographic maps, color symbolism associates deep red with danger and azure blues with healthy seas. In reference to visualizing ocean acidification, high aragonite saturation (which is healthy) is represented by blues, and the low aragonite saturation associated with ocean acidification is in red. He writes that “the saturation of colors—or, to be exact, the symbolic heat of red—takes on a rhetorical life of its own, at times tethered, and at times not at all, to an invocation of physical saturation” (p. 32). Through seawater, he argues, we can see that these color choices are not neutral and can distort understandings of the ocean. Thinking with saturation here shows how eco-iconography culturally and aesthetically constructs perceptions of the natural world.

The second section, “Thresholds,” focuses on boundaries and edges. The essays here use saturation to make biopolitical violence visible as thresholds are crossed, contested, and detected. For example, Max Ritts’s chapter, “Saturation as a Logic of Enclosure,” looks at the role of Ocean Network Canada’s Digital Fishers program. This case study shows how digital saturation of marine space creates the conditions for its enclosure. Saturation allows Ritts to bring online workers, who geotag data images of marine life, and distant environments—in this case open oceans that are difficult to physically access—into conversation with one another and to discuss how both are transformed in the process. He writes that saturation “carries us into marine spatial enclosures, via immersions into digital gaming, and cognitive enclosures, via immersions into marine space” (p. 146). He argues that this process, touted as bringing humans closer to marine nature, creates divides and boundaries that may seem unintended, but may also be a calculated tool of state interest and capitalist activity.

Another use of saturation is to ask questions about transformation. The “Phase Change” section contains essays that employ saturation to look at the interplay between different states of matter and the many forms of material transformation. Rafico Ruiz approaches the theme of phase change through a historical analysis of the Poseidon Desalination Plant in Carlsbad, California. “Drought Conditions: Desalination and Deep Climate Change in Southern California” looks at the history of desalination and iceberg utilization in the 1970s and argues that the saturating properties of water across all its phase states is a prerequisite for water commodification. He uses the term “environmental mediation” to show how resource frontiers (like fresh drinking water) reflect matter “becoming out of phase” (p. 207). This environmental mediation is apparent in the histories and practices of saturation and desaturation associated with desalination.

The final section, “Precipitate,” is modeled after the idea that solid materials are formed through processes of saturation and precipitation. These precipitates can be understood as a material archive of past and present environmental and cultural processes. Lisa Yin Han’s chapter, “Precipitates of the Deep Sea: Seismic Surveys and Sonic Saturation,” treats dead whales and geologic images as physical precipitates of marine sonic saturation and reflection seismology, processes used pervasively for resource extraction but also in military activities. Many scholars have asked questions about the value of the ocean—who decides what is worthy, and what is worthless—but Han’s use of saturation as a heuristic is an avenue for exploring a new aspect of this question. It allows her to analyze a “vibrational space of encounter between technology and resource” through the material archive that precipitates as the sea is saturated with sound (p. 227). And, by treating whales and images as precipitates, it allows her to foreground the nonhuman world in her analysis.

While they are split into sections, the themes within the essays overlap in many ways and drive home the utility of saturation as an interpretive lens in their respective work. The sections are not that distinct and are themselves saturated with references to fellow authors in the collection and build upon each other’s work and ideas. Some of the theoretical and abstract language surrounding the concept of saturation within each essay may be intimidating to those outside the field of media studies. However, the editors do introduce "saturation" and its various applications in an understandable and engaging way, which will help outside readers ease into the broader themes of the collection. Additionally, most of the essays are short and to the point.

Overall, Saturation makes a significant, valuable contribution to research on environmental issues. It asks readers to think critically about the material world, and to explore the ways in which the “elements are not a neutral background, but lively forces that shape culture, politics, and communication” (p. 1). Scholars in the humanities who are interested in examining how the interaction of history, media, technology, sensory experience, the environment, and the body shape contemporary climate, capitalism, colonialism, and petrochemical dependency issues will find these thought-provoking essays to be of interest. The saturation approach offers a framework for highlighting the more-than-human world that all environmental researchers would benefit from, both within the area of environmental media studies particularly, and throughout the environmental humanities more generally.

[This work from H-Net is licensed under a Creative Commons License]

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