The Iceberg and the Ship: Human and Nonhuman Travel in a Warming Antarctic

Elizabeth Bishop’s well-known poem “The Imaginary Iceberg” begins with the observation, “We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship, / although it meant the end of travel.” While the poem is typically read as a reflection on the nature of art, the choice that Bishop poses at its outset takes on disturbingly literal meanings in the twenty-first century. In recent decades tourists have visited the Antarctic region in exponentially increasing numbers – a trend that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted but is unlikely to stop. Iceberg encounters are a key part of this experience, even while the icescape itself is impacted by anthropogenic warming, to which traveling to the Antarctic region is a contributor. At the same time, icebergs have moved from the periphery to the centre of global public consciousness; their ephemerality and mutability ominously signalling the changes operating at a planetary level. The calving of a giant tabular iceberg is now understood as a political event, framed by global media headlines not only as a visual spectacle but also as a source of communal fear, anxiety, guilt and anger. In this presentation, I propose a new term – “cryonarrative” – as a shorthand for the kinds of stories that humans are telling about ice in the contemporary period, and suggest ways in which this term might help us think about the current meanings being assigned to icebergs. Within tourism and media contexts, icebergs are often subject to reductive narratives that render them as aesthetic objects for human consumption or symbols of human doom. As a counter to this anthropocentric approach, I consider the advantages of characterising and narrating icebergs as travellers on a planetary scale whose journeys are entangled with our own.

Elizabeth Leane is a Professor of English in the College of Arts, Law and Education at the University of Tasmania (UTAS), where she is also Associate Dean (Research Performance). She recently completed an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship split between the School of Humanities and the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at UTAS. With degrees in physics and literary studies, she is interested in building bridges between disciplines, and particularly in bringing the insights of the humanities to the study of the Antarctic region. Her work investigates the stories we tell about Antarctica, how they inform our ideas and attitudes toward the continent, and how they can enable new ways of thinking about our relationship to place and environment. She is the author of three monographs – South Pole: Nature and Culture (Reaktion 2016), Antarctica in Fiction (Cambridge UP 2012) and Reading Popular Physics (Ashgate 2007) – and the co-editor of five collections, most recently Performing Ice (Palgrave 2020) and Anthropocene Antarctica (Routledge 2019). She has published in a diverse range of journals, including Studies in Travel Writing, Polar Record, Performance Research and the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History. She is an Arts and Literature editor of The Polar Journal and co-chair of the Standing Committee on Humanities and Social Sciences within the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. She has visited Antarctic four times as a writer, researcher and teacher, travelling with the Australian, New Zealand and Chilean programmes as well as a tourist operator. Elizabeth is currently working on a book about contemporary Antarctic travel texts and cultures.

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