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Rhetorical Fin Flips in Mermaid ‘Science’

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Newsletter of the Department of English
at Arizona State University

Fall 2018-Spring 2019
Volume 22

A Q&A with Peter Goggin

But are mermaids real? No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found. Why, then, do they occupy the collective unconscious of nearly all seafaring peoples? That’s a question best left to historians, philosophers, and anthropologists.

—U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website

We can assume that had Starbucks been founded in Phoenix instead of Seattle, it wouldn’t bear a fictional seafarer’s name. Likely, we would be shelling out $4.00 for an iced latte at “Jackalope Coffee” or perhaps, “Goldwater’s.” Of course, there would be no iconic green mermaid logo, but instead: a cactus? A coyote?

Yes, place matters in brand iconography. ASU Associate Professor of English Peter Goggin explores this and more in his recent article published in Shima journal: “Are Mermaids Real? Rhetorical Discourses and the Science of Merfolk” (2018).

Goggin discusses both physical and virtual places where mermaid mentions abound. One unexpected location: a public explainer text on the U.S. NOAA website titled, “Are Mermaids Real?”

Public domain image of a mermaid from NOAA website.

While Goggin’s focus in the article is on the rhetorical practices of acknowledging myth and crypto-science in formal scientific settings, his island-centric focus does inform his work. Part of his thesis is that that an ocean agency’s website might be the exact place to debate the liminal existence of “aquatic humanoids.”

Goggin dissects the linguistic maneuvering by government agencies to educate while avoiding “spoilers” for these legends (he also discusses the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and its Zombie Preparedness campaign). In the case of NOAA, the agency uses hedging language: “No evidence … has been found.” Further, the text defers the final say to “historians, philosophers, and anthropologists.”

As a rhetorician, Goggin takes up this challenge. He acknowledges that while on the surface, any discussion related to merfolk is strangely situated alongside that of “orthodox” science, the resulting discourse—on imaginative themes and even problem solving via Future Studies—is rich and valuable.

Goggin concludes that yes, in fact, mermaids are real, in that “material representations of mermaids do exist in statues, crests, cotton candy, and coffee cups, and ‘real’ mermaids do exist as professional performers at aquariums and water parks, and thus have agency.”

Goggin answered a few more questions about the concept of place and merfolk research; our edited interview follows.

Question: You mention, in the introduction to your article, that your place-based research is frequently informed by “islands, exclaves, and other oceanically or coastally situated locales.” Can you talk a little about this in relation to your island upbringing? (You grew up in Bermuda, is that correct?)

Answer: Yes, I am a born Bermudian and resided, went to school, and worked on the island (except for the few academic years when I was studying for my bachelor’s degree in Boston) until I emigrated to the U.S. in 1985, in my mid-20s. I have returned regularly to be with friends and family. So I have a very strong sense of place and identity with Bermuda and island culture.

My earliest research on environmental remediation on military bases and later with community literacy, environmental activism, and animal agency involved field and archival research in Bermuda and a number of other islands. I was always very much involved in environmental and conservation activities and how situated such matters are—materially, socially, politically, and so forth—in a local context, but also how vulnerable islands are to global impacts, changes, and policies typically sponsored by a dominant mainland/continental lens. Colleagues of mine who do research with rural rhetorics and literacies have made similar observations concerning dominant urban perspectives.

Peter Goggin doing field work, exploring a sea cave in Bermuda called "Jeffrey’s Hole." / Photo courtesy Goggin.

Q: What has your experience been with mermaid lore? As an islander, did you grow up believing in them?

A: Nothing special concerning mermaids/merfolk, though they were certainly prevalent in stories I read in books and comics or watched in movies as a kid. Like lots of coastal/oceanic places, there were plenty of mermaid themes for names of beaches, hotels, houses, apartments, bars, cocktails, businesses, and boats. I wouldn’t say I believed in mermaids themselves, but the places and things were realities and part of everyday life. I could say much the same for the Bermuda Triangle meme—our biggest claim to fame—along with the shorts and being a so-called “tax haven” for American politicians. 

I really never thought about mermaids much as an academic subject until I read Making a Splash: Mermaids (and Mermen) in 20th and 21st Century Audiovisual Media, a book by Philip Hayward, a communication scholar in Australia, and was intrigued especially by his chapter on Crypto-Science and hoax TV. Then I came across the NOAA website that posed the question, “Are mermaids real?” and I was struck by the rhetorical significance of the fuzziness and frictions in the discourses of science and myth and popular culture on this—and other topics like the Bermuda Triangle, Atlantis, sea monsters, Ultima Thule, etc. A lot of pieces related to island and oceanic systems connecting and coming together.

Q: How are coastal or island areas’ relationships with mermaid lore different than landlocked areas’ relationships—other than in iconography?

Image of a melusine, or two-tailed mermaid, adorns a wall of the Riegersburg castle in Austria. / Photo by Peter GogginA: Well, I’m no expert on mermaid lore, though there are scholars who do study this and some pieces on this topic are published in the same special issue of Shima that my article is. One thing that I discovered when I first presented my paper at a conference on mermaids in Copenhagen—what better place—was the range of scholarly interest across multiple disciplines in the sciences, humanities, and arts. One thing that is pretty apparent is that while the mermaid icon often represents temptation and sensuality in the Western church traditions and the Melusine (two-tailed mermaid) as a powerful symbol of transformation and fertility in heraldry and family crests even in landlocked European areas, it is much more prevalent and imbued with multiple meanings in coastal and oceanic regions all over the world. I was surprised to find out at the conference that many countries and cultures of the Baltic region hold strong cultural identities with merfolk symbolism and that the city of Warsaw, Poland identifies deeply with the mermaid as symbol of the city, even though Warsaw is inland. Legend has it that a mermaid swam from the Baltic Sea upriver to the site of Warsaw and became the guardian and protector of the city.

Q: I love the playfulness of the concept of “speculative rhetoric in scientific discourse.” What do you think is actually at work in these kinds of situations, like you outline with NOAA?  Are they truly leaving open possibilities, being playful, or just trying not to alienate those who “believe”?

A: Interesting question. I don’t think they are, in any scientific sense, leaving open possibilities of the existence of mermaids, but they are clearly aware that there are those not of the science community who will see it that way and that the more playful engagement is more conducive to reflection and discussion than flat out denial. It’s also a kind of self-parody of stereotypical scientific discourse, which I think strengthens their own ethos in this public forum. But even in scientific research, scientific communication—like all forms of communication—is based on symbolic meaning. That is, scientists do not merely report knowledge of facts and data, they create knowledge though language and through sensory and cognitive interactions with the observable and imaginable world. I talk in the article at some length about the use of metaphors concerning mermaids in scientific processes and even scientific papers published in highly respected journals on mermaids, herring farts, alien invasion, and the like. Oceanographer Karl Banse’s 1990 article, “Mermaids—Their Biology, Culture, and Demise” published in the journal, American Society of Limnology and Oceanography is famous – or perhaps infamous—in this regard. Here at ASU we have, for example, the Center for Science and the Imagination and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society that purport to encourage the kind of imaginative and innovative thinking that the university supposedly wants all scholars in all fields and disciplines to engage with.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share in relation to your research in this area?

A: Sure. My recent work on mermaids and rhetorical constructs at the boundaries of science and popular culture is informed by previous work I’ve done with environmental remediation in island settings, feral species, serendipity in research, island culture and identity, maritime law and sea-level rise, and currently with rhetorics on “invasive” species and climate change. Here’s to innovation and imagination and mermaids (and all other merfolk)!

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

Image 1: Statue of a sailor mermaid from Portsmouth, Virginia. Image from NOAA website.

Image 2: Peter Goggin regularly conducts field-work for his research. Here, he explores a Bermudian sea cave named Jeffrey's Hole. Photo courtesy Goggin.

Image 3: According to Goggin, the melusine, or two-tailed mermaid—which also appears on the ubiquitous Starbucks logo is"a powerful symbol of transformation and fertility in heraldry and family crests even in landlocked European areas." This particular example adorns the wall of a castle in Riegersburg, Austria. Photo by Peter Goggin.