This paper pursues three viewpoints implied by intermodal shipping. Taken together, these three viewpoints include 1) the singularity of the shipping container, 2) the political ecology of the cargo ship, and 3) the general conditions for thinking economy and ecology delineated by the shipping industry at a global and (when seen from below) planetary register. We offer the term intermodal aesthetics to describe the optic and haptic encounters implied (even if disavowed) by the shipping industry, and suggest that seeing with the box and its oceanic environs proves necessary for thinking across the division of globalism and planetarity recently made important for humanities and social science research into the social conditions of climate change. As a simultaneously aesthetic and ecological division, intermodal aesthetics implies a pressure on cultural form concerned with tracking the entanglement of economy and ecology in a warming (and acidifying) world. To this end we read encounters with shipping logistics and marine ecology through Allan Sekula’s The Forgotten Space and Shezad Dawood’s ongoing Leviathan series.
In 2009, container ships were responsible for ninety percent of global trade in manufactured goods, and the globe’s ninety-thousand active ships consumed 7.29 million barrels of oil equivalent fuel per day1Paul Evans, “Big polluters,” New Atlas, April 24th 2009. https://newatlas.com/shipping-pollu
tion/11526/.. Yet intermodal shipping has evaded international regulations on environmental impact during the period in which it came to dominate global trade. Neither the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) nor the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) have meaningful policy or oversight dedicated to the shipping industry—only a string of non-binding recommendations and statements of concern. This is despite the industry’s astonishing consumption of fossil fuels relative to other forms of transportation, and in spite of that consumption occurring in some of the most sensitive environments on the planet2The Paris Climate Agreement drafted in late 2015 famously made no mention of maritime trade..
Intermodal shipping relies predominantly on low-grade bunker fuel distilled from diesel because of the material and economic advantage it provides to heavy load shipments. Bunker fuel is so central to the shape of post-1970s commerce that energy historian Vaclav Smil describes the diesel engine powering intermodal shipping as one of two “prime movers of globalisation,” though the lion’s share of attention, environmental discourse, and regulation has been directed to gasoline-based engines on land and in the sky3Vaclav Smil, Prime Movers of Globalization (MIT Press, 2010).. This elemental asymmetry in what since the first IPCC report in 1990 has been a preoccupation with air over water in the scientific and conceptual apparatus of climate change extends through the technical, cultural, and political discourses responsible for advancing concern for climate. From measures of the depleting ozone layer in the stratosphere since the 1970s, to tropospheric radiative forcing that first dominated IPCC reports on aerosols and other greenhouse gases in the 1990s, the atmospheric has organised research, policy, and the politics of metaphor at the same time that the planet’s hydrosphere and its ecology has borne a kind of forgotten responsibility for anthropogenic climate change4The sea was never forgotten entirely, especially in the canon of ecological thought. Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us (1951) for instance, takes the sea as primary to all other ecological concerns of 20th century industrial society. The point is instead that how it was remembered and figured was always through a benign lens that somehow neglected the political ecology of 20th century trade (i.e. the intermodal).. Our argument here is that intermodal shipping containers formalise an aesthetic of postindustrial capitalism in its very shape, function, and optical modality: a way of seeing the world and its ecologies in order to compensate for the drives of capital, and hence also a way of rendering certain ecologies optically invisible and ecologically forgettable. We call this way of seeing intermodal aesthetics and it will be the purpose of this short essay to characterise its intimacy with and indifference to the concerns of climate.
Intermodal aesthetics are not immune to environmental degradation—boxes rust and hulls peel, just as salinity and airstreams enter into the calculation of cost and circulation time—and yet the primacy of interchangeability abstracts both content and context into the logic of turnover time. This matters for the industry’s relationship to policy for two reasons. First, oceans have borne the weight of advanced globalisation in the form of the logistics revolution during which time seaborne trade quadrupled from 8 thousand billion tonne-miles in 1968 to 32 thousand billion tonne-miles in 20085“World Seaborne Trade,” International Chamber of Shipping, http://www.ics-shipping.org/ship
ping-facts/shipping-and-world-trade/world-seaborne-trade.. Second, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that since the beginning of the industrial era oceans have “absorbed 525 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, presently around 22 million tons a day6“ “Ocean Acidification,” Ocean Portal | Smithsonian, Smithsonian's National Museum of
Natural History, 18 Dec. 2018, ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/invertebrates/ocean-acidification.”.” As a result, acidification of the oceans has increased by roughly thirty percent over the past two centuries, for which there is no comparable acidification event for the last 55 million years7“Lesley Evans Ogden, “Marine Life on Acid: Predicting Future Biodiversity in Our Changing
Oceans,” BioScience 63 no.5 (May 2013): 322–328.”. This dramatic shift in ocean chemistry has an array of strange and devastating effects on marine life, such as the inability of fish to navigate and shelled creatures to build their homes; attempts to disentangle further effects from the simultaneous stresses faced by the ocean—such as those of massive algae blooms—have become the object of recent scientific enquiry8“Ulf Riebesell, et al., “Toxic Algal Bloom Induced by Ocean Acidification Disrupts the Pelagic
Food Web,” Nature Climate Change 8 (2018): 1082–1086.”.
If the sea has been excluded from dominant narratives, concepts, and concerns of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, then cultural modes of perceiving, understanding, and attuning to the hydrospheric will increasingly bear the responsibility of remembering that which, by definition, must remain forgotten amidst the tectonics of planetarity and globalisation detailed at length below9“ Here we build on insights offered by Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod, and Astrida Neimanis in their introduction to Thinking with Water (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013) regarding the cultural materiality through which concepts and relations to water come to matter, precisely in the absence of this transnational concert of concern we mention. ”. It is against this backdrop that we read Shezad Dawood’s ongoing Leviathan Cycle, and the fifth installment in particular, as an aesthetic and conceptual intervention into the antinomy of political economy and political ecology. This intervention presses upon capital’s abstraction of maritime space—by way of the cargo ship and its largely unregulated labour and environmental envelope—until it starts to rub up against a paradoxically enlivened marine biology amidst the toxic trails of the shipping industry’s estimated 1 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions between 2007-201210Smith, T. W. P et al. Third IMO Greenhouse Gas Study 2014, (London: International Maritime Organization,
In thinking with Leviathan’s intervention, we build on recent work on feminist transcorporeality and posthumanism by Stacy Alaimo and Astrida Neimanis in order to reposition the political ecology of intermodal shipping11Stacy Alaimo, Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times (Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 2016); Astrida Neimanis, Bodies of Water (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).. In particular, we are interested in drawing out the theoretical, political, and environmental concepts made available by the archive assembled across Leviathan in order to figure the largely uncounted contributions to the increasingly toxic composition of what Neimanis calls the planetary hydrocommons—a commons, to be sure, both because it remains res communis and because what is common to all living bodies is their internal immersion in water. But what happens in an increasingly planetary condition of dissolve, when acidity levels rapidly increase and when the future tense of environmental catastrophe brings into relief some of the forgotten scenes of a sovereignty never fully shed of its ocean borne figure?
- i. seaways
The soulless, standardised box that is the shipping container, Marc Levinson argues, is the thing that sets globalisation in motion, shrinking the globe and expanding economies; its regularity, rigidity, and anonymity bracing what is a nearly seamless global system built upon containerisation12Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World
Economy Bigger (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).. Critically, the intermodality of this system allows for linear progression, fluid horizontal movement, and the bypassing of that which is not in aid of growth and unimpeded free-trade. It has become a kind of headless monster of capitalism’s facility with maritime space, but not a monster you would ever encounter in its depths. Instead, intermodal shipping is a monstrous abstraction of materiality, turning all bodies, fabrics, substances, elements, and relations into cargo and commodity. Even empty space itself comes with a price.
It is precisely this momentum that Allan Sekula’s The Forgotten Space butts up against, the ‘essay film’ manifesting as an assembly of neglected frictions across infrastructure spaces of the globe. The film’s declared project is to address what lies in the wake of containerisation by stacking stories across scale—a failed attempt at providing toads with safe passage in their migration under railroad tracks; a tent city nestled between two railway lines at the Alameda Corridor; and the absurdity of the Korean and Indonesian crew on a ship that never sails near North America eating richly subsidised Californian rice (while Korean rice farmers go bankrupt). Just as momentum builds, the film halts, pivots, and peels back another layer again, its agitated, recursive style intervening in a homogenous global space of fluid linearity. In the tangential gathering of the film, time is repeatedly scratched over in a thickening present of equally significant infrastructural contradictions.
The Forgotten Space grows out of Allan Sekula’s larger project of “critical realism,” and most immediately from his photographic series Fish Story. Sekula is seeking the recuperation of art (and the photograph most immediately) from a “mystified, vaporous, and ahistorical realm,” and its reclamation “as a discourse anchored in concrete social relations.”13Allan Sekula, “Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes on the Politics of
Representation),” The Massachusetts Review 19 no.4 (Winter 1978): 859. By this he means to recall the commitment to making available a kind of cartography of the present through which a divided and alienated social could rediscover relationality in the service of what Georg Lukács, in the original formulation of social realism, imagined would be necessary for triggering and maintaining social revolution. In this way, Sekula long stood out from the late 1970s onward for his resolutely socialist commitment to a documentary and photographic realism oriented by labour relations in a rapidly globalized world, since the commitment to both realism and labour relations in those same years largely disappeared from the cultural compass of postmodernism.
The common thread of contestation through Sekula’s practice is an opposition to abstraction, to a reading of form within a perimeter at the loss of contingency. It is in aid of this greater project that The Forgotten Space stacks infrastructure spaces and their contradictions, and it is what is at stake in his insistence on working in “sequence” rather than “series.”14Allan Sekula, ‘Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes on the Politics of Representation)’, in Dismal Science: Photo Works 1972–1996, ed. Debra Risberg, Illinois State University, 1999), p.249. The repetition of seriality gestures toward a certain endlessness, which in turn implies fundamentally uniform and fungible parts. The sequence, in contrast, is anchored in specificity: each part takes up its own space as it maps out a present in which every image tethers the rest, thus posing a problem to the abstraction produced by logistics. The Forgotten Space as stack becomes an ethical response to the present, in which the camera frame attempts to render sequentially the complexity of space through time in a manner adequate to that of the lived conditions of the world.
As conceptual apparatus, the stack provides a logic for an alternate spatial rendering of the world through an aesthetic procedure that shrinks the distance between an international and largely impersonal division of labour in different sectors implicated by maritime trade. Throughout the film, we become bored in solidarity with operators and maintenance crew in Hong Kong; frustrated with the exploited truck drivers of America; livid for the standing reserve of labour growing at the edges of logistical landscapes in Los Angeles, not just for their living conditions, but for the toxicity that surges through all the bodies that The Forgotten Space stacks. Insofar as we move through these spaces with the box, following the global grid coordinated by various ports, the stacking of stories and scenes of violence on the working and immiserated body becomes an affordance of seeing with, as opposed to against, the intermodal. Even as the scales of trade and means of circulation threaten to overwhelm the film’s focalization of globalization through intermodal aesthetics, living labour will turn out over and over to defer any fully automated and posthuman circulatory system across capitalism’s grid.
But here the promise of labour that The Forgotten Space recalls remains contingent precisely on the intermodal aesthetics capable of stacking in the first place; the stack doubling as a vista onto both the forgotten labour and the means of abstraction necessary for the reproduction of globalization’s turnover time. These means are not only found containerised in ports, but also computationally stacked in the digital architecture underwriting the logistics revolution. This second, “accidental megastructure” of the stack, as proposed by Benjamin Bratton, interweaves the continental, urban, and perceptual scales, perforating certain borders and introducing others15Benjamin H Bratton, The Stack: on Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015), 5.. The container, whilst stackable, remains fundamentally atomistic, encouraging individual components to take flight to faraway sites of consumption. Bratton’s conception of a stack, while still modular, has a different temporality: components are fundamentally part of a whole by way of their messy simultaneity. It is by way of this globally contemporaneous stacking that The Forgotten Space accumulates, building a kind of meshwork, its interruption of linearity carving out the globe as grid.
And yet, while The Forgotten Space remembers a political ecology that both fulfills and is shed in the wake of the ship’s journey through the infrastructure space of globalization, it stops before peeling back to a broader ecology still. In a film suggesting that the violence incurred by the evils of “productivist, ‘globalized’ capitalism”16Noël Burch, “Essay film,” Notes on The Forgotten Space. 2010. www.theforgottenspace.net/sta
ticnotes.html. may be understood by addressing the sea, it seems strange to not encounter the violence done to the sea itself. Whilst the space which is forgotten is ostensibly maritime, the film remains stubbornly buoyant: this global grid never breaks below the surface, seemingly unable to enter into the question of the ecological otherwise of cargo, hesitant before its toxic wake. What about the ocean as such, as more than a fluid, flat surface? What of the hydrospheric, and the complexities of its more-than-human ecologies? In terms of the ocean’s figuration, the film employs a rather frugal aesthetic, extending only as deep as extractive potential permits. The stacking, then, becomes a continual omission, a building of erasure, and in this way the ocean is constituted as globalism’s grid alone.
The globe, Gayatri Spivak argues, is on our computers: “no one lives there.”17Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 72. In this sense it is in the genre of an abstract ball, a “gridwork of electronic capital.”18Ibid Her proposition is that such an abstract globe be overwritten by planet. The veracity of planetarity lies in its resistance to neat contrast with globality, in the inability of saying “the planet, on the other hand.”19Ibid Which is to say, planetarity unnerves the rationalization of the earth into a mode of ownership, returning it to the grounds for alterity—what Povinelli, echoing Spivak’s proposition, calls the otherwise of late liberal reason. The Forgotten Space tracks the logistical spaces created, but made invisible by globality, turning the intermodal into a paradoxical kind of object: the means of globalization, and a situated mode of seeing its stacked contradictions as well. But even the film cannot flip the box upside down to see what its modality is designed to excise form calculation: the very ecology that lubricates intermodal mobility and absorbs its hidden costs. The camera is focalized through the ship as an environment, and we know this because each chapter returns us to the stable frame atop the ship’s cabin. We must plunge down below the deck—beyond even the physical limits of the ship that reaches deep down beneath the ocean’s surface. Doing so will get us closer to the otherwise of cargo, even if it is made available without the feel-good resolution of so many environmental documentaries looking to raise awareness, since the planetarity that exists in the milieu of the sea involves for Spivak an “underived intuition… not susceptible to the subject’s grasp.”20Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Planetarity,” Paragraph 38 no. 2 (2015): 292.
- ii. the leviathan cycle for a dissolving grid
Dawood’s Leviathan cycle signals in its name a mythological genealogy reanimated by the warming waters of climate change. Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) famously figured the sovereign head of the commonwealth at the top of a monstrous body politic whose civil peace it guaranteed. Hobbes’s warning in the wake of the English Civil war (1642-1652) came in the form of natural philosophy of political form, where the material interests of competing subjects promised perpetual war of the strong against the weak until an absolute figure settled and transformed the “war of all against all” into the legal fabric of the commonwealth. Hobbes’s figuration of the body politic as this monster thus translates the latent danger of the sea into the potential for civil breakdown in the wake of the sovereign state. Even as the liberal political theory that would in time redefine the relationship between the social contract and the state amidst the French revolution dethroned Leviathan, the imprint of this originary figure on modern statecraft would remain latent in the cultural imaginary of the sea.
By episode five of Leviathan, the state has dissolved in the wake of a vaguely termed cataclysmic event with which episode one opens. Characters have come in and out of focus through each of the 15-25 minute episodes as the camera wanders around the beaches and buildings where human and nonhuman life now share the camera’s attention after the melodrama of the viewer’s present is imagined as expired. From the UK to Paris, Venice, the beaches of Morocco, and finally the port of Rotterdam, Leviathan folds the ruins of sovereignty into a landscape whose mood remains distinct from human voice, but none the less active because of it. The growing impact of nonhuman animals, plastic debris, rocks, and vegetation on this mood is marked by jump cuts to an archival viewpoint where the bodies of whales and fish are dragged up into the production line of global capitalism, made passive and inert at the cusp of their becoming cargo. In episode five, for instance, the cargo ship captained by the episode’s titular character, “Ismael,” wants to focalise the narrative, but cannot because footage drawn from the National Film Board of Canada and Eye Filmmuseum in the Netherlands jumps us around diegetically from one side to the other of Leviathan’s opening event. Dawood’s films are intermodal dissolves where archival past and lived present blend boundaries, in turn troubling the distinction between them and the categories of bodies that register on screen. Faint echoes of the sovereign state remain in the embodied discourse of the ship’s captain—Ismael literalises the power of the sovereign by submitting Ben from episodes 1-4 to sexual submission and eventually obedience—but it is now radically restricted in space. No longer extended or extendable across territories of land, the residue of the state seeks refuge on the cargo ship.
State boundaries find themselves replaced by elemental ones as the grid dissolves beneath this lost tribe at sea. The terrestrial—though watery—human bodies are contained atop the ocean, set apart from the waters below by the bulk of the cargo ship. Yet they are also bodies being undone, the stability of their “terra firma presumptions”21Stacy Alaimo, “Jellyfish Science, Jellyfish Aesthetics: Posthuman Reconfigurations of the Sensible, disintegrating in the midst of this unknown future that has been threaded through concerns of marine conservation, migration, and mental health. For Alaimo, such an undoing comes from an encounter with a very material ethics of transcorporeality, which stresses the intermeshing of, and movement between, substances of the human and the more-than-human world. Transcorporeality is both descriptive and prescriptive, since it understands the environment not as separate, inert, or empty but rather as interior to and continuous with all bodies22Alaimo, Bodily Natures, 2.. The dissolve Alaimo is speaking from is that of the sea creatures who, in acidifying seawater, are no longer able to draw upon the calcium carbonate necessary to build their shells—a rather apocalyptic figuration invoking a certain bodily vulnerability. Our protagonist, Ben, is indeed exposed, his flesh laid bare and human exceptionalism violently displaced. The human once more becomes matter amongst an ever-cyclical re-organisation of matter, carrion of the gods, or at least of Ismael (formerly George).
Thinking with the ecodelic possibilities of such a shell on acid, Alaimo marks the contemporary moment as one in need of material immersion over transcendence. Immersion is both descriptive and analytic for Alaimo: it details the practice of engagement with the material embeddedness of the subject as body, exposed as it is to differential flows and forces eroding and remaking it in time and place. Thinking with a dissolution of bearings and certainty becomes a way out of the mess arrived at in an epistemological framework of totalising confidence. In a changed world—be that of anthropogenic climate change, or a post-cataclysmic Leviathan — the human is no longer safely ensconced, set against a backdrop of world. Instead, Leviathan’s characters have become little more than barnacles clinging to the body of a dead whale. The elemental border is the whales’ demise as they approach humanity at the surface, becoming prey by way of their lingering mammalian need for air. But as humanity pillaged the seas, so it pillaged itself, “and the humanity that we held so dear was a corrupted thing.”23Shezad Dawood, Leviathan, “Ismael” (2018). The reckoning with self as the stuff of the material world finds itself to be an emergent otherwise when the world in which it is situated has turned its back to the hubris of (a certain mode) of humanity. This ship is emptied of cargo, and the human drama of its interior spaces becomes only loosely anchored to the sovereignty of self that the cycle more generally has been imagining back into the dissolve of the sea. This dissolution of self feels familiar in the experience of Leviathan when it seems as though all one can grab hold of is either a fragmentary descent into madness or some new and calming attachment to the landscape in which this descent unfolds but is not itself in a state of madness. It bears repeating, in other words, that the narratology of madness in Leviathan does not immediately translate into a madness shared beyond the human. The mood of the cycle suggests otherwise.
It is not that the wake of state-sanctioned sovereignties means all bodies on the planet become coequal with flesh, brought back to the material entanglements from which they originate. That entanglement was already radically unequal in distribution, and the future tense of our present that Leviathan imagines for us is one where that unequal distribution has been intensified. The otherwise of cargo in the series—the milieu of bodies and elements that come back to the foreground of the cycle’s mise-en-scène—is also in a condition of dissolve. But it has been for some time; the archive confirms as much. The difference is that the humans plunge into the same economy of dissolve is reason enough to freak out and grab hold of whatever might delay dissolve. Holding onto the ship proves tempting, but in our reading of episode five the ship is also a violent reminder and remainder of the unnerving proximity of the sovereign and the flesh, so only a provisionally stable object. And for Eric L. Santner in his rereading of the problem of reading flesh in the annals of psychoanalysis and governmentality, “this visceral yet somehow virtual dimension of the flesh that begins to haunt everyday life in modernity needs to be grasped… as the royal remains, the residues of the substance of the king’s sublime body that has, in the age of popular sovereignty, entered into the life of the people without ever fully being able to find its proper locus or fully binding Verfassung.”24Eric L. Santner, “The Royal Remains: The People’s Two Bodies and the Endgames of Sovereignty,” ed. George Edmondson and Klaus Mladek Sovereignty in Ruins (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 206. The flesh cannot become a constitution of the polis—a fully binding Verfassung—but it begins in the era of popular sovereignty to constitute power. This paradox or differential animates so many anxieties about the body in Santner’s reading. The remains of the sovereign are distributed across the flesh of the polis in this genealogy, so that attention to the flesh proves promising and disorienting for Freud and Lacan, and the primary locus for biopolitical formation in Foucault, but never as the final cause of this or that symptom. As a residue, the flesh bears a certain responsibility—it is both responsive and formative to the distributions of power’s tensions—already dissolving the leviathan of pre-modern sovereignty into its biophysical constitution. Stripped of the apparatus of state power, or at the very least in the process of being stripped from it, Leviathan couples the dissolve of the sovereign’s body down into the hydrological scene of a landscape newly enlivened by the otherwise of late capitalism.
Our argument has been that even though intermodal aesthetics has accelerated an abstraction of materiality into the calculus of capital and its global grid, the intermodal is also emerging as a focal point for a number of scenes of dissolve in the wake of Smil’s prime movers of globalisation. The ship charts the grid, but the milieu of its environment has become enlivened as concept and concern of a specifically hydrological phrasing to climate change. The intermodal names the movability across a wide range of landscapes, and it implies containerisation but does not specify to what end. Here we are thinking of visual culture, and the frame of the camera in particular, through the lens of the intermodal—that is, as a kind of container that passes through environments and gathers them as subjects, objects, and the otherwise of a given mise en scène—both because of the camera’s injunction to form, and because of its proximity to the industrial network from which the name originates.25For more on the industrial origins of cinematic visuality, see Jonathan Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production. (Hanover: Dartmouth College Press, 2006).
The intermodal therefore helps to bring together varied stresses on the general materiality differently phrased across much of the work in the environmental humanities responsive to the work of Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, and Karen Barad. Dethroning the human as the exclusive locus of agency in the animation of the world has meant phrasing materiality in the language of political form. The question that has occupied this essay is sensitive to such phrasing, but is nevertheless eager to specify how an intermodal organisation of matter at the threshold of capital’s logistical grid and the otherwise of cargo matters. What makes the intermodal a strategic designation is that it gathers without the pretence of retaining any conceptual distance from the thresholds of economy and ecology. We are trying to keep both in focus, even if they begin to blur. The intermodal is our way into the water because it floats around in this interstice, helping to focalise the irreducibility (but persisting intimacy) of planetarity and globality. Intermodal aesthetics are thus both a way of tracing political form without essentialising or even preferring material properties, and a way of figuring ourselves into a political orientation with the otherwise of cargo—the multiplicity of species, qualities, elements, and extents of ecology that are both invisible to the calculus of globalisation, and rub up against its underbelly and its toxic trails. Maybe we don’t need less intermodal aesthetics; maybe we need more.