Great Barrier Reef stories, chapter 2: let’s talk about coral sex

29 November 2017
The second chapter of Killian Quigley’s ‘Great Barrier Reef Stories’ explores how we respond to & narrate nonhuman sex. Killian considers how the rethinking of coral spawning discourse can lead us to view coral sex as important, compelling, precious, and as vulnerable as we ought to.

By Killian Quigley, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute

Talking with family and friends about coral sex can be uncomfortable. Most coral species are hermaphroditic, which suggests existential completeness in a way that can make humans look half-deficient, or at least a bit boring. At places like the Great Barrier Reef, coral colonies spawn en masse, and in sync, in what might be the world’s most technically and visually accomplished orgy. Gracefully promiscuous, they discharge innumerable spheroid parcels containing gametes (eggs and sperm), which float toward the surface like perfect submarine balloons. They’re giving it all away, sure, but if they’re profligate, they’re also romantic: spawning events tend to happen in springtime, and just after full moons. (Their timing depends on other factors, like water temperature, too.) I think of nocturnal poetry – of John Donne, of Anne Finch, and of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Hearkening to a nightingale by “moon-light,” Coleridge savoured its “delicious notes,” sung as if the bird were anxious that the night “Would be too short for him to utter forth / His love-chant, and disburthen his full soul / Of all its music!” How dazzled, one wonders, might Coleridge have been by coral spawning, its unburdening, its music?

The corals of the Great Barrier Reef began spawning early this month. Over the next couple of weeks, the austral spring will continue to warm, meaning even greater extravagances are to come, after a full moon on December 4. Spawning events are riots of colour, motion, and – above all – of life and life-making, and at the Reef, the dissipation occurs on an almost unimaginable scale. It has recently, and memorably, been called “the greatest orgasm on earth.” Sex and desire are, to put it very mildly, significant features of our selves, our ways of being and relating, our imaginations – our stories. And so it’s interesting to consider how we respond to – and narrate – nonhuman sex on a spectacular scale. Is it romantic? Is it sexy? Is it even recognisable as sex? Is it loving?

That we have some difficulty with these questions is partly a consequence of the distance we perceive between ourselves and coral “selves,” between organism-us and organism-them. Coral hermaphroditism is only one example of the ways these animals can bridge or disrupt familiar categories. The art historian Marion Endt-Jones has put it well: coral, she writes, “obstinately refuses to fit the philosophical and epistemological binaries that have structured Western thought since the Enlightenment and that are still deeply engrained in our cultural and institutional frameworks.” This matters for Great Barrier Reef stories, because those frameworks, and the binaries that inform them, do a great deal to direct the ways we interpret the world, and the ways we narrate happenings and transformations therein. This is especially relevant, I think, for stories of intimacy, love, and sex. Not uncommonly, sexual behaviour among nonhuman beings is considered and described in terms of bare reproductive function. But when human beings are described in similar terms, the effect is often to dehumanise – to deprive certain persons of the mind, agency, and dignity that, many believe, set us apart.

“Animals have sex and human beings have eros” – thus the critic and philosopher Allan Bloom. For thinkers like Bloom, sex isn’t an enticement to celebrate humans’ physicality – let alone animal qualities – but a domain in which it becomes more important than ever to differentiate between ourselves and our nonhuman neighbours. This seems related to the tradition of dualistic thinking that we commonly trace, in the Western tradition, to the work of the seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes. And it’s vitally related to stories, so very many of which involve – indeed, derive their entire raison d’être from – sex, love, desire, intimacy, and related energies. See, for instance, chivalric romance, which flourished in late medieval Europe through works like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot, and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. Little as we may recognise ourselves in their tales of knights, damsels, courts, and fantastic beasts, the sense of “romance” cultivated by these works still exerts a powerful influence upon Western culture. And the conventions of chivalric romance promoted certain values, characters, settings, and storylines, which contributed to a widespread sense that those values, characters, etc. were inherently romantic. In the chivalric instance, this tended to entail the prioritisation of heterosexual love, aristocratic ideals, and an almost religious devotion between lovers.

What about coral romance? There are almost as many reasons to care about Great Barrier Reef sex as there are gametes ballooning skyward. But without the language and concepts we need to not only recognise, but appreciate, spawning as sex – or something like it – we are unlikely to find it as important, compelling, precious, or vulnerable as we ought. In Beyond Good and Evil, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observes the ways language can limit us: “Where there exists a language affinity it is quite impossible…to avoid being prepared in advance for a similar evolution and succession of philosophical systems: just as the road seems to be barred to certain other possibilities of world interpretation.” Nietzsche’s point, here, is that with shared language come shared horizons, and if those conduce to mutual understanding, they can also make it hard to look beyond those horizons to truly original vistas.

Not that no one’s trying. Earlier this year, the Borscht Film Festival, in Miami, hosted Coral Orgy, a splendidly immoderate event at New World Center. Frank Gehry’s building – its interior as well as its exterior – was overwhelmed by footage of coral spawning, courtesy of Coral Morphologic. The night’s superstructure, in other words, was coralline. This encouraged attention to coral lives in ways that, Monica Uszerowicz observed, were “as psychedelic as…educational.” As Uszerowicz pondered the shapes, colours, and textures projected all around her, she wondered at their surprising mobility. Animal Collective scored the spectacle, but from her vantage, Uszerowicz thought it might’ve been the corals that were singing, “their neon-green circular orifices opening and closing in serendipitous time with the music.” Coral love-chants, and coral souls: these words don’t get us past the horizons we’ve inherited, but in the weird mixture that is coral romance, we might unburden ourselves of certain bounds, and inherit new fluidities.

Killian Quigley is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at SEI. Share your impressions of these stories – and of others – with him at @killian_quigley and A couple of other things that have moved me recently: this interview with the classicist and translator Emily Wilson, who is ever so convincing on the power of language and story; and Ellen Gallagher’s maritime, submarine, and coralliferous art.

Header image: coral spawning by Pei Yan via Flickr Commons.