In his lecture "Waiting for Gaia," Bruno Latour establishes an oblique critique of the political figure of the leviathan. He describes the breakdown of the fictional "we" in the current discussions of climate change, arguing that the ideal political collective, supposed to have vanquished the natural forces of chaos, violence, base instinct, has actually constructed an even deeper chaotic force of climate change. He says:
The human collective actor who is said to have committed the deed [of climate change ] is not a character that can be thought, sized up, or measured. You never meet him or her. It is not even the human race taken in toto, since the perpetrator is only a part of the human race, the rich and the wealthy, a group that have no definite shape, nor limit and certainly no political representation. How could it be “us” who did “all this” since there is no political, no moral, no thinking, no feeling body able to say “we” —and no one to proudly say “the buck stops here”?
I am interested in how Latour articulates this breakdown of the "we"–--when the political system of the sovereign state has failed us, when its political economic systemacity seems to have overtaken any notion of a body politic. How did this happen and in what context? In this essay I want to look at a few art pieces that might offer some answers to this question.
Two important contemporary media projects address this new representation of the Leviathan (and its historical becoming) obliquely through the lens of Herman Melville’s narrative about the white whale, Moby Dick.
One of these is of course the highly influential photo essay, Fish Story by Allen Sekula,1989-1995, a foundational documentary/art photo essay on the global port and container system under deregulated capitalism, from the early nineties. The book documents the growing network of container ships and their ports, seeking to create visibility around the dispersed and flowing aspects of our economic system. Another is a more recent film from 2012, titled Leviathan made as part of an experimental program at Harvard in Critical Media Studies called the Sensory Ethnography Lab or SEL, which focuses on an industrial fishing vessel off the coast of the US eastern seaboard. These two fish stories use Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as an entry point into their aesthetic spaces and symbolic structures. But might seem at first to be about fish and other sea creatures (especially given their titles). The Leviathans they identify are not fish at all, but the diffuse political and economic substructure of capitalism itself. How do they do this? They address the way in which the ship becomes a metonymic figure of the monstrous machine, and ocean a forgotten space or conceptual gap of the capitalist system -- a space in which the ship, as a means of exploitation labor and natural resources, has largely made the processes of colonization and globalization possible.