Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Parlor Ponds by Judith Hamera

Judith Hamera. Parlor Ponds:  The Cultural work of the American Home Aquarium, 1850-1970. The University of Michigan Press:  Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2012) 280 pp.

I've just read Judith Hamera's great new book on American home aquariums.  It's a fantastic work, not only because it is one of the first really scholarly works looking at the aquarium hobby in America, but because Hamera successfully applies performance theory (her particular field) to this subject and manages to shed light on the cultural work that the home aquarium performs throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Her main thesis, that the success of the aquarium hobby in America is predicated on it's ability to mitigate the crisis of masculinity in American culture in the 20th century is an interesting premise, and Hamera builds a strong case for this theory while simultaneously throwing light on the hobby as a whole.

Hamera is Professor of Performance Studies and head of the Department of Performance Studies at Texas A&M University. Performance Studies might not come instantly to mind when thinking about home aquariums (although Gregg Mitman and other historians and sociologists of science have made the case that the aquarium is akin to a looped film clip or a play), so Hamera explains why she thinks that her field is particularly suited to investigating aquaria:  "The aquarium's visual and rhetorical promiscuity demands an interdisciplinary approach that the field of performance studies is ideally positioned to provide." (9) Aesthetics, theatricality, and textual conventions abound in the aquarium setting, according to the author, and these pieces require attention that is less focused on an individual component of the aquarium, and more on the overall cultural impact of them.

This book is not a history of the aquarium hobby in America, but it does proceed chronologically.  The first chapter examines the "visual affinities" of the aquarium. Hamera links home aquariums to several common landscapes in the early 20th century, including the zoo and the landscaped garden, and suggests that the aquarium was most closely linked visually to the landscaped garden. The author likens the home aquaria to the garden, suggesting that "the laboratory of the home tank, like the labor of the garden, was personal, an extension of domestic space and management...the tank was its owner's personal world." (21) This chapter is where Hamera strengthens her main thesis that the personal power of collection and creation that goes into building an aquarium alleviates stresses caused by modernity, particularly the stress of masculinity loss. One can always be a master of the universe, even if you just built the universe out of glass and your subjects are fishes.

Hamera carries this theme of modernity and creation throughout the book, including the next chapters regarding British and American writings on aquariums, their uses and meanings. These chapters are largely historical, and outline the ideas surrounding the popularity and purpose of aquariums at the turn of the century.  Relying on primary sources such as hobbyist books, literature, and hobbyist journals, Hamera traces the trajectory of hobbyist ideals.

By far the strongest contribution Hamera makes to the conversation of hobbyist culture is chapter 4.  This chapter deals with the animals kept in the aquarium, and asks a very important question:  what significance do fish have to aquarium keepers? Are they akin to other pets, such as cats and dogs, or do they serve another function altogether? Hamera points out that fish become objects through immersion in the technology that sustains them and they are constructed "as objects of owner's responses to them or actions against them." (136) The author goes on to highlight particular species that have become particularly popular to hobbyists and questions this popularity.  This chapter contributes greatly to the conversation about the place of fish in animal studies.

Unfortunately, Hamera stops short of discussing fish as commodities as well as objects.  While she does mention the value of tropical fishes over local varieties in her later chapters, and even includes information on hobbyists becoming breeders in Chapter 5, she fails to sufficiently draw out the economic aspects of the aquarium hobby. In Chapter 6, she discusses the nationalistic overtones of collecting tropical fishes, and the desire to have salt water aquariums as a symbol of "exoticism".  Hamera sees the ability to own, propagate, and in some sense subjugate foreign organisms as an important key in discovering and observing the masculinity inherent in the hobby. But, the author leaves out the other very important aspect of the salt water aquarium: economic symbolism.  In fact, even in her conclusion, when Hamera recounts a tale of a man who built an aquarium in his garage, big enough to attract the ire of his wife and the suspicion of the local police (who believed him to be growing marijuana because of the florescent glow), she fails to investigate the financial strain of this hobby and link that to masculinity.

Overall, this book is an amazing addition to the scanty literature on American aquarium hobbyists.  It is a fantastic source for anyone looking at the aquarium and its symbolism.  It's historical narrative is not complete (it was never meant to be a history book) but it provides a useful timeline and framework from which to work.

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