Critical Experiences: Week 1

September 21, 2020

The Critical Experiences course will teach us to infuse our projects and work with intention. How can one, given a random or arbitrary topic, develop a mental map or immersive vernacular of the subject?

I was assigned the topic Sea Slugs, under the broader theme of The Deep. The Deep in context of this class refers to oceanic systems (hydrothermal vents, algae, sea slugs) and places where human activity intervenes with the ecology of the sea (undersea cables, globalization, bioprospecting). From 2011 – 2014 I worked around scientists, naturalists and researchers at the California Academy of Sciences which provided me with a foundation of knowledge about these organisms. I became familiar with their startling range of colors, diversity of lifecycle and had gone to search for them in the tide pools at Pillar Point, a park south of San Francisco.

I had known sea slugs as tidal, but they do exist at many depths throughout the oceans. But their existence seems more like a precipice to depth than something that defines its essence. Despite their diversity (over 3000 species) and photogenic looks, the Wikipeida article on nudibranchs is surprisingly short.

My initial research also lead to a small press out of Berkeley that was active in the 1970s. Sea Slug Press quickly became my fascination as I tried to source more information. From what I can tell, it focused on erotic poetry and xerox art that attempted to dismantle the sexist / exploitive presumptions of mainstream porn / erotica.

Trying to track down the detritus of an elusive small press in Berkeley during the early 1970’s certainly evokes ruminations on depth and recursion. Through further research I formed a web of defunct venues and people who seem to only exist as referenced in the Berkeley Barb. It brings to mind the plot of a Thomas Pynchon novel. One of the two publications I found is ominously named “Clues“. I tried emailing people who were active in Berkeley poetry during that time but no one seems to have any idea what Sea Slug Press was, though some said it sounds like something that would have been around at that time. It exists only as metadata now: titles, names, addresses.

How does Sea Slug Press relate to Sea Slugs (nudibranchs)? Why call it Sea Slug Press? On the California coast one can commonly encounter nudibranchs, I know them as tiny bright yellow or pink things with tendril-like extensions. Nudibranchs, like other slugs, a hermaphroditic and thus might make an apt mascot for a progressive erotic literature press.

I also feel I should bring up the connection of sea slugs and my last name. Mollica shares the same latin root as mollusk, mollis, according to one site this translates as: soft/calm/gentle/pliant/yielding/irresolute/effeminate/agreeable/pleasant

For class we also read the introduction to adrienne marie brown’s book Emergent Strategy. I first read this book last year, and it left a deep impression on me. The introduction includes explanation of how organizing can take inspiration from nature through adaptive behaviors. One of these is the idea of biomimicry, that an organism can imitate other organisms to make itself more fit for the environment. Nudibranchs are known to present characteristics of the organisms they consume: if a sea slug eats a jelly fish it will be imbued with its prey’s capacity to sting.

Another resonance with Emergent Strategy is the idea of pleasure activism. brown notes that often the things we take pleasure in are demonized in culture. “We try to leverage control over the natural world by making our emotions and sensations less reliable than our thoughts, and then burn at the stake anyone who stays attuned to the ways and power of pleasure in the natural world. It’s counter productive.” (page 33)

Was Sea Slug Press’s mission a reclamation of pleasure from subversive to unashamed? To dislodge the puritanic stranglehold on the discourse surrounding pleasure? “tired of readin sexist crap that exploits th sexual madness of suffering people ? tired of tit shots and degradation? you want to read hi class aware smut book?” (Berkeley Barb, Volume 18, issue 19(431), Nov. 16-22, 1973)