Professor of Anthropology, Department of Anthropology, Princeton, New Jersey
“When human beings jump in the marine environment, they know they are not at the top of the food chain. This knowledge, along with the darkness and murkiness of the environment, create the scope for conjuring up monsters who are waiting to pounce on us just beyond the realm of our vision.”
White Sharks are not monsters, nor are humans, but both offer much to fear, and admire. Two very different beings who overlap rarely and when they do it often is in a form of a conflictual, mutually preferentially avoided context. However, there is one space wherein humans and these great fish do come face-to-face in a different setting. It is in the Shark’s home space, mediated through a very particular human-controlled environment: cage diving. The opening quote frames this experience in a manner I am sure every reader can identify with, even if only in one’s imagination. But in the pages of this book, we come close to sensing that the Sharks might also be suspecting something similar about the whole endeavor. This context alone, as revealed via the sections of text focused on before, during and after the cage diving encounters and activities, makes Iridescent Skin worth reading. But the cage diving interface is actually only a small part of the adventure....
Dr. Raj Sekhar Aich, a marine social scientist and interdisciplinary multispecies researcher, invites the reader along for extended fieldwork at the intersection of two sentient species, Humans and White Sharks. This frame lets us know we are in for a voyage. And what an expedition it is. The book you hold in your hands (or the e-version of it on the device in your hands), is an enticement into the experiential journey of a scholar/artist/narrator who starts out with the goal of appreciating/assessing a multispecies entanglement but ends up traversing a tangle of personal, social, historical, ecological and perceptual water/land/species-scapes. On the surface this is a narrative about a brief slice of time, place, and context with a focus on one town, one ship, one cage diving enterprise, and two species. But in the end, this is not simply a tale of sharks and people, of cage-diving or human-other being conflict. Nor is it just another academic analytic. This is an expedition weaving (auto)ethnographic and multispecies chronicles with imaginative place-making and narrative journeying. Prepare for a deep dive into various modes of perception, sensation, and analyses, invoking a deep entanglement of the entire sensorium. This is an immersive multispecies anthropology. You are about to take the plunge yourself, so I’ll not keep you too long, but here are a few key thoughts offering a little signposting and wayfinding.
The shark diving narrative forms the most traditional core of the text. An anthropological frame facilitates introduction to and experience in the town of Bluff, its history and the peoples in it. This frame carries through on the water and off of it. The cage-diving enterprise is situated in a particular history, context, economy and politic. The setting, the background, and the quotidian vignettes are welcome elements enabling the text to be as effective as it is. Core to the ethnographic moment are the descriptions of the cage-diving enterprise, the boat, the characters who people the boat and, centrally, the White sharks who swim up and ‘interact’ with Raj, the boat and the various humans involved. Here the narrative works on multiple fronts enabling us to envision and feel the experience. There is excitement in meeting the sharks, even if all too briefly, revealing for a moment what being a few meters away (or closer!) to a massive creature like the white shark is like. Each shark is a stranger but each is also an individual, like the people on board the boat and in the town. We know so little about the sharks yet we get to share space with them and in doing so push against a certain aspects of human hubris. Here is where the amazing imagery comes in to play. The photos of the sharks, even when we only get glimpses of parts of their bodies, are powerful. There is always the sense of movement, immersion in a foreign life-medium (ocean), and the sense that maybe this interface is not such a good idea all around. But it is a truly fascinating reality, spend time with it.
Surrounding the ethnographic narrative and analyses, and molded to it in often surprising fashion, are the artistic, personal, reflective, often vulnerable, thoughts and experiences of Raj as he undertakes the journey of PhD research; friendships, isolation, comraderies, loneliness, and all the other chaos and confusion of a deeply moving and often non-linear life experience that he found in Bluff. Histories of childhood in India, artistic imaginings and personal revelations, move and spread across the pages offering one a sense of the experience, the mental landscapes and the emotional processes this research experience fostered. These are not the typical contents of the products of doctoral theses, and yet they act to make the intellectual contribution more real, more visceral and more convincing. Let them wash over you as you read and don’t worry about the details or force specific logics in the connections, follow Raj’s lead.
On many levels this book feels like a multi-modal sensorium even though it literally consists only of text and images. There is an accompanying documentary that I recommend if you can access it, that only adds to this sensation. The power in this book rests in the respect Raj has for the sharks, people and places he spends time with. There emerges a depth well beyond the descriptive and beyond the analytic in the reflections and unfolding narrative. The honesty of conflict, confusion and challenge, of grace and humanity/animality, and of care enliven the overall impression one obtains thinking with Raj, the sharks, the sea, Bluff, and beyond.