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.
But I get ahead of myself. Perhaps it is important to start with some older fish stories, some older Leviathans to see how we jump from whale to boat. Leviathan, is an ancient Hebrew word, most probably derived from even more ancient near eastern mythological sources, and was used in the Old Testament to describe a wriggling serpent with skin-like shields, impenetrable to arrows, who would be killed only at the end of times. Many early maps including Ptolomy’s Geographia, began using the figure in the water regions. By the Medieval era, leviathans were common marginalia, haunting the edges of charts and the space outside knowledge. A fierce creature without fear, the leviathan acted as the embodiment of the evil, uncontrollable and chaotic forces of nature. [i]
By the age of discovery, the ocean began to play an ever more important role in creating world systems -- integrating and connecting economies, enabling and propelling new territorialization by appropriating people and land on new continents and islands.[ii] As the watery regions of our world were increasingly known, leviathans eventually disappeared from the watery spaces on maps, or at least became aestheticized motifs. This aestheticization would be consistent with the adoption of the figure of the leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, in his 1651 essay on the importance of the social contract and the rule of the sovereign. Hobbes took the biblical understanding of leviathan (“There is no power on earth to be compared to him.” Job 41. 24), and applied it to an understanding of the necessity of statecraft in which strong government kept the chaotic “state of nature” at bay. As the figure of the leviathan was displaced from ocean to land, it was re-figured as an unstoppable force of civil law and the right to property. The sovereign-leviathan became the massive corpus of the nation-state composed of its citizens. Indeed, the project of the state, especially in conjunction with the project of imperialism and the birth of modern capitalism during this period, became the new image of the leviathan.
But if we look again at the ocean as a necessary but invisible space to this historical project of statecraft, we can begin to read the figure of Hobbes’s leviathan against the grain, not as a powerful central government, but as one of the origins of the self-perpetuating logic of state that depended on economic expansion outside of its domain. As historian Carl Schmitt long ago noted in his 1942 book about the British Empire, Land and Sea, that as the British state expanded to empire, “the leviathan was turning into a machine.”[iii] That is the power of the sovereign had to be upheld by the apparatus of wealth acquisition—most especially the ship.
In the era of Empire, the ocean acted as medium for the ship as well as a useful gap in communication, information, and knowledge—a buffer between the citizens of Europe and expropriation happening in its name elsewhere. It reinforced a perception that the ocean and anything beyond was not a part of the national political imaginary. As Marcus Rediker, Cassandra Pybus, and Emma Christopher argue in the introduction to their volume Many Middle Passages, “most people in the eighteenth century, like most people today, tended to regard as real only the land…. The oceans were vast, ahistorical voids.”[iv] The ocean began to operate as the medium on which nation-states and capital could extend their reach, even as, or more correctly, because it was, strategically left out of the purview of territorial law and the ideal of sovereignty.
This conception of the free sea was already circulating in England by the time Hobbes wrote Leviathan, thanks to a translation of Hugo Grotius’s Mare Liberum, dated to around 1616. In this tract the Dutch jurist described the “ocean, the expanse of water which antiquity described as immense, infinite, bounded only by the heavens, parent of all things, which can neither be seized nor enclosed, nay which rather possesses the earth than is possessed.”[v] He self-consciously referenced the ancient romantic imagery of the ocean, and leveraged it toward his main argument—that sovereign nations should be free to exert state power economically and militarily on the high seas. (This treatise was a defense of the Dutch East India Company against Portuguese claims to exclusive trading rights in the Southwest Pacific).
Grotius’s grandiose claims have since supported the continual renewal of doctrine of free trade and free cruising, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.[vi] The high seas are waters outside a 200 mile perimeter off a nation’s shoreline, now defined as the Exclusive Economic Zone. <The EEZ zones are hotly contested (especially in the South China Sea, and in the North, where new petroleum resources have been identified as ice caps melt, causing Russia, Canada and the Scandinavian countries to update their territorial claims>. Outside of these zones, the ocean is still mostly a vast unregulated space.
This loose narrative I am spinning here, in which the leviathan exits the ocean, becomes landed, mechanized, and sets sail again in order to navigate the “empty space” of the ocean is basically the sort of “big picture” history and argument that Sekula writes in Fish Story, begun in 1989 and completed in 1995. Documenting the ramifications of the discourse of the “free ocean,” the book includes hundreds of photos (these are just a few) that he took at just about every major port around the world then in operation – many of them new huge super ports built to load and unload the ever larger super container ships. These images are punctuated by lengthy essays, one called “the Dismal Science,” in which Sekula unpacks a history of the naturalized construct of the open “unbounded” ocean in direct correlation to the development of a “bounded” and invisible game of contemporary production and distribution of capitalism. As he moves from national and empirical maritime history toward the advent of transnational capital and trade, he insinuates that power, once manifested in the figure of sovereign state has become a “fluctuating web of connections, lines of exploitation that run from London to Hong Kong, to Shenzhen to Taipei…. Drawing ravenously on the rock-bottom labor costs of the new factory in the border city of Shenzhen…(48)
Sekula positioned the development of containerization as the key element to the history he tells. Though pioneered in the fifties and sixties, and developed in an ad hoc way over the decades, costing companies, governments, ports, and labor unions billions, it finally reached a point of relative fluidity in the eighties. The regularity and relative ease with which boxes could be moved from trucks to trains to ships and back to trucks or trains created a sense that transnational production and distribution was inevitable.[i]
Its closed box, sealed at the factory and not opened again until delivery at the store, and with its “superficial clarity of straight lines” (50), came to represent a certain elegance and regularity of the global factory. For consumers, Sekula argued, it perpetuated a sense that globalization was a “dematerialized, fluid information exchange” in which people could call in mail orders for goods that would magically appear on their door step (50). It also erased everything in between: The radical deregulation of dock and ship labor, as well as the deregulation of tariffs and taxes between countries. In the end Sekula declared: “The container has become the very emblem of capitalist disavowal.” (248)
The labor crisis has always been at the forefront of Sekula’s mind. His earlier photo projects dealt specifically with labor rights, and this is what took him to the ports in the first place. Many of the photos in Fish Story feature the life, work, and politics happening during the automation and deregulation of the port operations, as well as the out-of-sight labor activities on board the ships when at sea. <Labor on board > It is these photos where Sekula references Melville’s whale story most clearly.
Melville’s tale is well known for deflating the romance of whaling by focusing the reader’s attention on page after page of details about Ishmael’s life on board the Pequod and his knowledge of whales and the whaling industry. Many literary critics have argued that Melville’s ploy to hold up the story by suspending time with digressions into cetology, folklore, essays on the ship’s tools, structure and operation, not only becomes an allegory of time spent on the ocean, but also highlights the role of the Pequod as an extension of the period’s industrial mechanizations and behemoth—and leviathanian—appetites of capital.[ii] The high seas become an ambiguous space onto which the rule of law and the rule of nature seem to intertwine. The Piquod was, in effect, not just a whaling ship, but a floating sweatshop factory dominated not by an enlightened monarch, but by a despot consumed with revenge.[iii] Melville focuses on these themes, but strategically through an exhaustic recounted of the labor it took to keep the ship afloat and harvest the whale blubber. As such, the larger thematic of the book works in strategic resistance to a long history of exaggerated tall tales of adventure at sea often told by fisherman.
Like Melville, Sekula, put his title in playful paradox to the images of the work of a sailor’s life. This forces the reader to reconsider the fluidity and romance of globalization often encapsulated and framed as “fish stories.”[iv] Sekula organized photos after photo of (mostly) men working on the decks, in the engine rooms, at the ports, first for galleries as framed pieces, then as slide shows, and finally as a quite considerable book. All of these formats, but especially the book, lend an experience to viewers in which they experienced the slow rhythm of work, the monotony of the ship’s life, and also the repeated exploitation of their labor across global space.
In the last part of text in Fish Story, Sekula focuses on the vessel at sea. He charts the history of ships as mutinous heterotopias. Building on Foucault, he argues that this floating piece of space offers a model of normative culture simultaneously “represented, contested, and inverted.” In these terms he describes Melville’s Billy Budd, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, and also notes a 1950s reading of Moby Dick by Trinidadian socialist CLR James in which he argues that the crew of the Pequod is seen as a universalist republic (one that tragically, does not usurp power from Ahab). Sekula then pivots into a discussion of how containerization has squelched the heterotopic potential of ships. Most container ships, even more rigorously than the Pequod, cull their international crews from countries with the least regulations and lowest labor costs; at the time of Fish Story’s publication these were Philippines, Indonesia, China, Honduras). But, Sekula argues, the size, the regulations, and the systemization of the ships themselves “blunts the mutinous longing” of the sailors. (184) As ports have shifted away from metropolitan space to Special Zones, as ships have become mechanized, as companies keep costumers focused on the catalog and the doorstep and not in between, the ship and its sailors at sea are forgotten.[v]
Throughout the entire project, Sekula attempts not just to create a visibility for this overlooked space, but also to remind us of its material intensity. He says, “Our society of accelerated flows is also, in certain key aspects, a society of deliberately slow movement.” (50) Literally, these huge ships use 300 tonnes of fuel a day, depending on how fast they are moving. And it takes roughly about 2 weeks to cross the Atlantic, and three to cross the Pacific. And that type of slowness is nothing compared to the slowness of life at sea for indentured ship hands pressed into service, some who don’t see land for years or decades.
Sekula tries to captures this slowness, in what has now become the iconic photograph of the series: the container ship making its way through the ocean, taken from the back of the ship atop the containers. The ship feels at once huge and lumbering and also relatively small as it tries to cut through the rough gray waters. Not the fluid fast pacific of the political imaginary.
Fish Story and Sekula’s later films on the same subject have become important hallmarks in critical realism. His Marxist critiques and anti-aesthetic documentary style have led to a slew of similar exposes of capitalism’s systemic reach. <i.e. photos of Ed Burtansky, >[vi] And yet, his persistent contextualizing voice-over, acting as a guide to reading the images in a clear and unambiguous way, now feels a bit overweening.
An alternative approach that has become more prevalent lately is a kind documentary filmmaking in which the voiceover is completely abandoned for the affective and intensive materialist potential of the footage itself. One of the most interesting proponents of this method is Sensory Ethnography Lab, run as a cross-disciplinary graduate program out of Harvard. Their 2012 film Leviathan, directed by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, was featured at the Whitney Biennial. (It now has a wide release and it available for streaming on Netflix.) Leviathan focuses on a commercial trawling vessel operating out of New Bedford, Massachusetts (also the origin of Melville’s Pequod). In titling the film Leviathan, the filmmakers, like Sekula, reference the allegory of Ahab and the great white whale and connect the modern industrial fishing industry to the 19th century whaling industry.
The 87 minute video captures the immense power of the machines that operate the huge cranes, and vast nets and trawlers of this huge commercial boat that essentially scrapes the bottom of the ocean around Georges Bank to catch cod, haddock and yellow tail (and in the process damages the reef and coral). While it might seem that such a film, to expose what’s going on under the water and in the boats, needs panoramic and establishing shots as well as a narrator. But the filmmakers resisted this. Instead, all images are up-close, cropped, partial, and very intense, filmed by multiple go-pro cameras that the filmmakers simply stuck to various parts of the boat itself.
SEL’s method of observing and critiquing this industry is a combination of materialist aesthetics and ethnography, essentially converting Clifford Geertz’s notion of “thick description,” into a purely visual medium. Geertz’s ethnographic field approach was to write an accumulation of observations that not only focused on human subjects, but also their material technology, unspoken codes, and gestural signifiers. It was a strategic kind of anthropology developed in the sixties, to improve upon patronizing methods of the past and to get at unspoken or extra-discursive cultural structures. Yet it still privileged the observational acuity of the anthropologist who collects all of this data and mediates it for the reader. SEL’s use of multiple go-pros attached to the ship itself (ostensibly the field upon which the film’s ethnographic subject operates) seeks to collapse this “objectifying” distance. We experience the activities of the ship through the barnacle eyes of the go-pros attached to the ship itself. It makes the views compelling, strange, even horrific and gothic.
Even from the angle of this go pro camera, probably mounted on the arm of one of the trawlers with a view of the prow, we are positioned to identify with the ship, plunging in and out of the water, getting partial views of its body and the birds that flock around it and the sea that envelops it. With no voice-overs, but with very calculated sound design and editing, it enhances our experience as the boat encounters the unbelievable power of the ocean and the overwhelming abundance of its creatures. We can hear the machinery of the boat, the intense sound of the birds, as well as the deafening sound of the water. It creates an overwhelming luscious, absorbing and dis-orienting experience, we lose a human positioning in the film.
In this clip, with no sound, you can imagine the ship’s cranes, the squish of the nets and the flapping of the fish. Here the go pro is positioned at the bottom on the ship’s hull. We see the net release and the fish fill our space. Eyes and bodies are everywhere in total chaos, filling the monumental void of the ship, and eventually obliterating our vision. The immense life of the sea meets its anonymous death.
When the film does focus on more “human” spaces and activities, it still positions us in a similarly intensive way, as if, again, we were the eyes of the ship only getting fragments and close-ups of the workers’ tattooed, sweaty skin. Even the few traditional shots like this one—of a bleary eyed modern day Ishmael who appears to be barely awake as he operates dangerous cranes to the tune of death metal—are composed through the reflective mediated glass of the ship. His humanness is absorbed into its operation and he obviously struggles to keep up with its persistent demands.
Like Sekula, SEL seems to be using Melville’s underlying message for their film: that the real monster is not the sea creature, but man, his machine-ships, and his designs to control nature. As Melville famously wrote, “there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.” Indeed, both Sekula’s and SEL’s films show this madness to be so thoroughly widespread as to be almost fully automated. Loosely speaking, Sekula and SEL are interested in the fact that there are no Ahabs on board the container and industrial fishing ships. If these ships have captains they do not entirely control the course of the ship. The individual’s madness has been replaced with a emergent “madness” (and blindness to that madness) rooted in the uncontrollable leviathan that is the systemacity of capitalism itself.[vii]
Though very different in approach, SEL’s Leviathan is consistent with Sekula’s earlier project in that it too emphasizes a geopoetics of the ocean. Both shorten our conceptual distance to its space and offer a different experience of the ocean as material, not cartopgraphic, but I also think its fair to say that SEL’s ambition is to further close the gap between the space of perception and the space of the ocean.
What I want to ultimately suggest is that SEL’s current trajectory of a materialist critical realism offers us some interesting strategic openings for thinking about the ocean. As the ship, we become enmeshed and slowed down by the tension of the water and the claustrophobic swirls of the gulls. The ocean is seen as a powerful force in its own right, excessive of human control, in which our understanding of the ship’s ambitions become delayed and potentially rerouted.
I see SEL’s work is part of a larger trajectory for realism in art, in creating a sensitivity to aspects of our earth, and our treatment of it. I am interested in the artists <Dean> who make ships turn into beached whales, and photographers who capture beached whales as dry-land toxic chemical spills. If these images of disaster upset or even disgust us, it’s worth taking a moment to also ask why.
Such images might offset what Sekula articulates as our current emphasis on the abstract measured distance of the ocean. The processes of modernity and technology give us the sense that we don’t really have to pay attention to the ocean as a chaotic force anymore. We takes instant and multiple measurements the wind, calculate currents, monitory shipping lanes instead of worry about the elements. But in using Moby Dick, and Melville’s alternative sense of rhythm and charting—especially this one found at the back of the original edition in which one can see how Moby Dick makes Ahab meander around the ocean—we get a different kind of experience of the ocean and of ships. The absurdity of finding any whales, let alone a single particular whale, in such a vast ocean is shown in the circuitous trajectory of the ship. Ahab’s ambition looks a little like an ant scurrying aimlessly across a sidewalk. Extended to the present moment, the map charts the absurdity of whale blubber as a 19th century energy solution and as such becomes a useful and humbling allegory of our current methods of resource extraction from the ocean, including commercial trawling. Like it or not, our seemingly efficient methods of resource extraction and transportation rarely cut a straight line.
I’m going to be upfront and partisan here in stating that I think we need more materialist anti-epics like Leviathan. Without the stabilized Hollywood shot-reverse-shot and other overly conventional Euclidian coordinates of representation, we lose ourselves in the vastness of the ocean and the immediacy of its creatures. And in attending to the closeness and thingness of the world to our bodies, what Deleuze refers to as the smooth space of haecceities, we suddenly have an alternative access to the world.
Artistic representations have long exploring the potential of the ocean to overwhelm us and hence to act as a powerful debaser of human progress. From Turner’s Slave Ship to Tacita Dean’s chalkboard series. But I’m not talking only about the sublime disaster here.
It seems to me, that one of the things art can do affectively, as a “cartography of sensation,” is not only to call attention to the politics of labor on the ship, and to the function of the ship itself, but also to refocus our attention toward the ocean as a space of irresolution, delay, and failure. If we can learn to reside in that space a bit longer perhaps it will force us to more thoroughly consider our eventual and inevitable choices as our journey moves onward.
[i] Discuss NAFTA and GATT as to creating a “friction free business infrastructure.” (50).
[ii] See especially the collection of essays edited by John Bryant, Ungraspable Phantom: Essays on Moby Dick (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2006).
[iii] Leon Fink, Sweatshops at Sea
[iv] He tells of a Sea-Land crew picking up the first super container ships from the Daewoo ship yard in South Korea, and finding a curious inventory of improvised quite rudimentary tools. He tells another of the “company town” outside an old fishing village in Mipo Bay, Ulsan Korea, a large ship yard that is the center of Hyundai heavy industry in which he describes the origins of the Korean shipbuilding industry trace to the purchase of a plans from a bankrupt Scottish yard in the 1970s. A number of unemployed Glasgow shipwrights migrated to Ulsan. And equally to a Korean crane driver, trained by Americans during the Vietnam war to unload military cargo, cum shipping executive.
[v] The system of labor exploitation deregulation operates through loophole of the “flag of convenience,” laws, which allow ship companies, no matter where they are based, to be able to register their ships in countries that have little or no taxes, lax regulations and labor laws. As Sekula puts it, “The flag on the stem become a legal ruse, a lawyerly piratical dodge.”
[vi] Abigail Susik, Convergence Zone: The Aesthetics and Politics of the Ocean in Contemporary Art and Photography,” feature essay in Drain Magazine, vol. 15, “Supernature,” Spring 2012.
[vii] In reference to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion that Capitalism induces a schizoid tendency of the split subject. This depiction of global operations as a Leviathan is a departure from critiques that have targeted corrupt governments more directly. Take the 12014 film Leviathan’s portrayal of a “venal, organized church, along with a sickeningly corrupt political system and a sloshed, atomised society.” (Shaun Walker, Gaurdian, Nov. 6, 2014).
[i] Chet Van Duzer, Sea monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (London: British Library, 2013). Van Duzer surveys the way monsters on the edge of the mapped medieval world orient viewers to Africa’s coasts, the north seas in Olaus Magnus’s 1536 map, sawfish off South America by 1546, or leviathans off the mythical Java la Grande — treating all as markers of mapped space.
[ii] Peter Miller, The Sea: Thalassology and Historiography (University of Michigan Press 2013). See also Baudel’s Le Mediteranee…
[iii] Carl Schmitt, Land and Sea, p. 51. (Quoted in The container principle, 94)
[iv] Marcus Rediker, Cassandra Pybus, and Emma Christopher Many Middle Passages, Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World (University of California Press, 2007). See also Marcus Rediker’s The Many Headed-hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. As Rediker has also noted, the ocean’s isolating qualities has also enabled it to be a space of contestation, resistance, and anarchy. He has productively resuscitated the term Hydarchy from maritime history. Hydarchy was coined by an English nobleman the term to describe the unique self-organization of the ship as a political entity – a floating island both related to the rules of its port of call, and thus an extension of the nation-state and, especially in the midst of the ocean seas, but also one with a potentially anarchic space of resistance.
[v] (Sekula, 43 / Grotius, 1916 trans., p. 37)
[vi] Another reference point: The USS Leviathan – WWI battle ship covered in dazzle camouflage.)