Uncovering an Aesthetics of Naval War Literature

deadline for submissions: 
May 31, 2022
full name / name of organization: 
University of Leuven




16 September 2022, University of Leuven (Belgium)

Humankind has always been drawn to the oceans: to the dangers lurking under their waves; their possibilities for exploring unknown regions and their promise of cultural and economic prosperity; the scientific knowledge they hold; … However, of equal importance to human interaction with the oceans is their connection to military power and destruction, as the seas have often been the scene of history-deciding battles (e.g., Actium, Lepanto, Trafalgar, Midway). Naval military tactician Alfred Thayer Mahan goes as far to state that a nation’s “Sea Power” is the conclusive factor in determining its world-dominating force: Only a state with a strong fleet can rule the ocean; and he who rules the ocean, dominates the world. Today’s large-scale maritime exercises (often concerted military actions by different nations, like Exercise RIMPAC), accompanied by PR-stunts that demonstrate national fleets’ military prowess, clearly show the continuing relevance of this thesis (DeLoughrey).

This combination of oceans as not only a still largely undiscovered field of scientific interest but especially as an important locus of military domination, has ensured a seemingly endless source of inspiration for literature, visual arts and (popular) culture in general. It thus comes as no surprise that, ever since Homer’s Odyssey, the oceans’ perils and fortunes, and – more generally – (the failure of) traversing these unknown and threatening masses of water have appealed to Western cultural imagination. Though often neglected in scholarship, the myriad of imaginations of war at sea demonstrate that the militarization of human interaction with the ocean is an important motif in this corpus, as well. Think for instance of the successful Jack Aubrey series about the Napoleonic Wars at sea by Patrick O’Brian (1969-2004), Nicholas Monsarrat’s (1951-1953) popular depictions of convoy battles with submarines during the Battle of the Atlantic, or the countless novels about submarine warfare (such as the 1984 bestseller The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy).

But these narratives of war at sea raise the question how this warfare can be described. After all, war at sea “leaves no traces” (Boelhower), as it takes place in an environment that washes “the evils away” (Torma). What remains is the same seascape that existed before battle: a peaceful horizon over a seemingly endless mass of water. Off course, all war literature is permeated by the question of the (im)possibility of description. And it is important to note that the last few decades have seen the emergence of the scholarly field of war and literature studies that, amongst others, deals with this question. It is remarkable, however, that in most of these studies (e.g., Engberg-Pedersen) war has served as a prism to reconfigure basic categories of time, space, knowledge, and narration at a particular time in the history of warfare, but that these categories, as well as most of influential military theory (Clausewitz being the usual suspect), have emerged from the experience with land and air warfare. The sea, on the other hand, has to a large extent been left out of the equation. Can the established concepts and insights of land and air warfare be transposed to the depiction of sea warfare, or do we need to reconsider these categories in the sometimes otherworldly environment? Which challenges of representation arise when describing a warfare without visual markings, a war that knows no state boundaries (other than the coastal lines) and where time has an entirely different meaning (as this warfare generally is a slow one where battles between single ships can extend over days to even weeks)? Moreover, do we see yet other reverberations of these questions if we shift the focus from surface battles to cultural imaginations of war under water? How to imagine a war in which enemies cannot see each other nor the environment in which they fight? Furthermore, whereas surface warfare allows for a (limited) spectatorship, submarine warfare is hidden from sight. Is an external perspective possible for this warfare and how does this influence its representation?

This proposed turn to the sea in war and literature studies is framed within a larger oceanic or maritime turn that in the past three decades has opened new avenues of study like Blue Humanities (Alaimo) or Oceanic Studies (Blum). After centuries in which concepts and ideas of humanities have originated out of a terrestrial perspective on life, oceanic studies challenges established habits of thought in, for instance, the fields of history (e.g. Abulafia) and environmental studies (e.g., Ghosh) by rethinking them from the point of view of the ocean. The ramifications of this trend in literary and cultural analysis, however, tend to be restricted to the early-modern period (e.g., Mentz), to explore how the sea is imagined in/through culture (e.g., Mack), or to uncover metaphorical possibilities of the sea regarding cultural-critical issues (without – it should be noted – falling back to criticized interpretations of sea practices as metaphors for terrestrial activities). Though novels that depict war at sea are mentioned (e.g., afterword of Cohen), their rhetoric of describing war is rarely subjected to thorough analysis. The aesthetics of naval warfare thus remain mostly terra incognita in scholarly research. Can core concepts of oceanic studies like “fluidity, mobility, adaptability, and flux” (DeLoughrey) help open a seaway to these aesthetics?

As oceanic studies has argued for all fields of humanities, looking at the ocean as a subject in itself, rather than an object to be crossed could well be a fruitful starting point to examine naval warfare fiction. As part of the KU Leuven funded research project Surfacing the Submarine Myth: An Intermedial, Myth-Critical and Cultural-Critical Analysis of Submarine Narratives (2021-2025),this workshop wants to uncover the overlooked intersection of war and literature studies and oceanic studies, and take the preliminary steps towards what we could call an aesthetics of naval war literature. By casting land-based perspectives aside, this workshop posits the question whether the established armory of war and literature studies shouldbe reconfigured. To explore the aesthetics of naval war literature from a variety of angels, topics of interest for the presentations include but are not restricted to:

  • Representation of time, space, knowledge, narration in naval war literature;
  • Simultaneous search for knowledge and for (sea) power in naval war literature;
  • Aesthetics and politics of the ocean and undersea world in naval war literature;
  • Spectatorship (especially regarding the secret, invisible submarine war);
  • Naval war literature and / versus military theory;
  • Aesthetics of naval technology and the logistics of perception;
  • Cultural representation of the ship/submarine as a symbol of (trans)national Sea Power;
  • Naval war literature across national borders;
  • Intermediality in/and naval war literature;
  • Naval war literature and (popular) culture;
  • Rewriting literary theory / naval war literature across genre theory;

We will address these and related topics with keynote speaker Anders Engberg-Pedersen (University of Southern Denmark). We welcome both presentations on representative case studies as well as on theoretical approaches. Authors are invited to send proposals for twenty-minute presentations in English (300 words) and a short bio to lieven.raymaekers@kuleuven.be, michiel.rys@kuleuven.be or bart.philipsen@kuleuven.be. The deadline for submissions is 31 May. The results of the selection procedure will be communicated by the end of June.


Abulafia, David. The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans. Penguin Books, [2019]2020.

Alaimo, Stacy. “Introduction: Science Studies and the Blue Humanities”. Configurations, vol. 27, issue 4, 2019, 429-432.

Blum, Hester. “The Prospect of Oceanic Studies”. PMLA, vol. 125, issue 3, 2010, 670-677.

Boelhower, William. “The Rise of the New Atlantic Studies Matrix”. American Literary History, vol. 20, issue 1-2, 2008, 83-101.

Cohen, Margaret. The Novel and the Sea. Princeton University Press, 2010.

DeLoughrey, Elizabeth. “Toward a Critical Ocean Studies for the Anthropocene”. English Language Notes, vol. 57, issue 1, 2019, 21-36.

Engberg-Pedersen, Anders. Empire of Chance: The Napoleonic Wars and the Disorder of Things. Harvard University Press, 2015.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. The University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Mack, John. The Sea: A Cultural History. Reaktion, 2011.

Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power upon History. Sagamore Press, [1890]1957.

Mentz, Steven. “Toward a Blue Cultural Studies: The Sea, Maritime Culture, and Early Modern English Literature”. Literature Compass, vol. 6, issue 5, 2009, 997-1013.

Torma, Franziska. “Introduction: The Sea as Culture in the Global Age”. A Cultural History of the Sea in the Global Age, ed. Franziska Torma. Bloomsbury, 2021, 1-20.