Allison Turner

Society of Fellows in the Humanities
Columbia University

Castaways and containers: Modernity at Sea

Course Description

In this course, we’ll explore the ambitions, challenges, and failures of globalization through the lens of castaway literature, with works spanning from the eighteenth century to the present. In today’s postindustrial economies, labor has been outsourced to other parts of the world, and we depend on global shipping networks to supply us with commodities and to relieve us of our massive outputs of waste. Manufactured goods, raw materials, trash, people, and nonhuman species all circulate the globe via container ships and shipping networks that we rarely consider when we purchase something at a local Target. This course moves back and forth between early modernity and the present to consider the wastes generated by global economic circuits.

We begin with a unit on a work of speculative fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel New York 2140. Using Robinson’s novel, we’ll identify a set of key concepts for understanding globalization’s impact on the world today. We’ll pair our reading and thinking with a field trip to the Red Hook Container Terminal, Brooklyn’s last operational port. As we read, we’ll be concerned with our own relation to this imagined future city. Is it to be embraced or avoided? Is the world of 2140 already our world? From Robinson’s speculative, amphibious New York, we’ll move back to the eighteenth century. We’ll locate the origins of a global capitalist imaginary in texts written by proponents of colonial exploration and expansion. We’ll then turn to the transatlantic slave trade and to the archives of the black Atlantic to investigate forms of racialized violence and anticolonial resistance in the history of finance capital in the Atlantic world. Finally, we’ll bring our observations to bear on the forms of globalization that sustain contemporary postindustrial economies: from canals and containerized shipping to the uneven environmental harms endured by nonhuman ecosystems and islanders, especially those in the Global South.

Course Objectives

Through readings, lectures, class discussion, and written work, you will learn to

  • Identify and understand key concepts related to oceanic modernity, including colonialism, transatlantic slavery, globalization, capitalism, and anthropogenic climate change;

  • Apply these concepts to analyze representations of maritime experience in literature and other media from the eighteenth century to the present;

  • Generate claims about how literary and cultural objects shape our imagination and understanding of the major events and processes of modernity;

  • Understand and explain how the global circulation of persons, natures, and things has produced and depended upon unevenly distributed personal and environmental harms; and

  • Formulate sustainable arguments in writing and discussion.

 Required Texts

  • Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140 (Orbit, 2017)

  • Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (Penguin, 2003)

  • Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (Penguin, 2003)

  • M. NourbeSe Philip, Zong! (Wesleyan University Press, 2011)

  • Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories (Penguin, 2016)

  • Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter (University of Arizona Press, 2017)

  • Wu Ming-Yi, The Man with the Compound Eyes (Vintage, 2015)


  • Attendance, preparation, and engaged participation (10%) – Regular attendance and engaged participation are ongoing assignments for this course. More than two unexcused absences will result in a lower participation grade. A good seminar is a freewheeling, collective enterprise produced by your interests and enthusiasm. This means that you should come to class having already read and reflected on the materials for the day.

  • Weekly online discussion posts (10%) – You will contribute weekly posts to our online discussion forum. Your posts will reflect your thoughts and questions about the texts and ideas for each week. Posts should be about 300 words, and they should be made by 8 pm on Sunday evening. It’s important to post on time: everyone is responsible for reviewing each session’s online discussion before class. You may miss two posts without penalty. This means that you should write a total of ten posts over the course of the semester.

  • Paper #1 (20%) – Your first paper has two parts: a short keyword analysis and an essay of 4-6 double-spaced pages. Your essay will incorporate your keyword analysis, while also making an argument based on a close reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. I will provide an additional handout with guidelines for this assignment.

  • Paper #2 (20%) – Your second assignment is an essay of 4-6 double-spaced pages on a course text of your choosing. Your essay should be argumentative, and it should make use of close, careful reading. I will provide some possible prompts to guide your thinking, but you are welcome and encouraged to select a topic of your own. 

  • Tropological research project (40%) – Your final assignment is a research project consisting of three parts: first, a short project proposal; second, an in-class PechaKucha presentation (a multimedia slide presentation); and, third, a final paper of 8-10 double-spaced pages. Through these components, you’ll develop an account of a maritime or oceanic trope. This trope may also be a particular maritime or oceanic object (e.g., a canal, a sail, or a shipwreck)—something that pertains to oceangoing in one way or another. Your task will be to select an object and then show how that object functions as a trope—that is, how it functions as a literary figure, motif, or rhetorical device. The project will culminate in an argumentative paper, in which you’ll analyze three texts (at least one course text and one outside text) that make use of your chosen trope. You’ll receive detailed handouts about the project and each component later in the semester. 

Schedule of Readings and Assignments

Unit 1. The (Global) City by the Sea

Week 1

  • Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140 (2017) – parts one and two

Week 2

  • Robinson, New York 2140 – parts three and four

  • Epeli Hau‘ofa, “Our Sea of Islands” (1993)

Week 3

  • Robinson, New York 2140 – parts five and six

Week 4: Sep. 30

  • Robinson, New York 2140 – parts seven and eight

  • Roy Scranton, “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene” in the New York Times (2013)

Unit 2. What Happens in the Atlantic (Doesn’t Stay There)

Week 5

  • Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719)

  • Due in class: keyword analysis

Week 6

  • Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, cont’d.

  • Due by email: paper #1

Week 7

  • Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789)

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Lecture on the Slave Trade” (1795)

Week 8

  • M. NourbeSe Philip, Zong! (2011)

Week 9: No class

  • Due by email: paper #2

Week 10

  • Frederick Douglass, “The Heroic Slave” (1853)

  • Herman Melville, Benito Cereno (1855)

Unit 3. From Passageways to Garbage Patches (Pacific Modernity)

Week 11

  • Melville, “The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles” (1854)

  • Wallace Stevens, “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” (1924) and “Repetitions of a Young Captain (1944)

  • Eric Walrond, “The Wharf Rats” (1926)

Week 12

  • Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter (2017)

  • Due in class: tropological research paper proposal

Week 13

  • Wu Ming-Yi, The Man with the Compound Eyes (2011)

Week 14

  • Ming-Yi, The Man with the Compound Eyes, cont’d.

  • Due in class: PechaKucha presentations

  • Wrap-up


  • Due by email: tropological research paper