Economics and Politics (Previously posted Dec 2006)

The Box That Makes the World Go Round

A system of self-propelling factors powers the growth: Globalization drives containerized cargo, and containers fuel globalization. Steel boxes have become the building blocks of the new global economy. Without this ingeniously simple, stackable and standardized receptacle, we would still be waiting for China's economic miracle, and the American urge to spend, spend, spend would have been stifled in its infancy

The ships usually spend four to eight weeks at sea. A global network of shipping lanes now spans the globe, directing traffic. The Artemis, for instance, plies the so-called “A Loop”: from Hamburg to Amsterdam and on to, say, Tokyo, Singapore and Southampton before returning to Germany. Vessels from the “Super-Post-Panamax Class” — which measure 40 meters wide and can't squeeze through the Panama Canal - take 56 days to complete a single lap.,1518,386799,00.html

Allan Sekula: Fish Story

The sea has become a recurring motif which expresses a sense of liminality and flux. ‘Fish Story’ (1995), for example, comprises photographic sequences and texts that display Sekula‘s ability to adopt a series of varying photographic styles. After a brief documentary series of images reminiscent of the work of Alfred Stieglitz, taken on the Staten Island ferry in New York, the project ends in the port of Los Angeles. In stark contrast to Hollywood’s depictions of the sea in films such as Waterworld (1995), A Perfect Storm (2000) and Titanic (1997) (which so often utilise derelict ports as film sets), Sekula traces the handling of cargo-containers, the building of ships and the catching and selling of fish from the inside out. In his own words, ‘Fish Story’ unmasks the ‘bourgeoisie’s fantasy of a world of wealth without workers‘ and depicts an industry hidden behind the myth of an industry-free ’information economy‘. ’Interpretation,‘ he writes in ’Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary‘ (1978), ’is ideologically constrained. Our readings of past culture are subject to the covert demands of the historical present. Mystified interpretation universalizes the act of reading, lifting it above history.'

“Most sea stories are allegories of authority. In this sense alone politics is never far away., So writes Allan Sekula, referring to the maritime narratives that populate his travelling exhibition of photographs, ”Fish Story," and the book of the same name that extends the purview of the show.

“Fish Story” extends Sekula's longstanding investigation of what he calls “the imaginary and material geographies of the advanced capitalist world”[1] as well as his concern, over the course of 20 years as a critic, historian and photographer, with the production and organization of photographic fact and knowledge.[2] In pictures microscopically attentive to visual detail and largely devoid of didactic, ethical or exhortatory content, “Fish Story” positions itself both within and in opposition to the traditions of realist documentary photography and photojournalism. Sekula's saga of ships, shipyards, sailors, welders, scavengers, dockers and fish-market women takes shape in the play between individual moments of “mere” visual description and a larger, associative web of image sequences, captions, site names, anecdotes and historical exposition.

If “Fish Story” has a dramatic aspect, perhaps the villain of the piece is the shipping container, the blank, standardized box introduced by U.S. shipping companies in the 1950‘s. Vehicle of displaced human labor, the rationalized container ship is, for Sekula, the metaphoric antithesis of the ship filled with rebellious sailors, of which Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin provides a famous model.

My argument here runs against the commonly held view that the computer and telecommunications are the sole engines of the the third industrial revolution. In effect, I am arguing for the continued importance of maritime space in order to counter the exaggerated importance attached to that largely metaphysical construct, “cyberspace,” and the corollary myth of “instantaneous” contact between distant spaces. I am often struck by the ignorance of intellectuals in this respect: the self-congratulating conceptual aggrandisement of “information” frequently is accompanied by peculiar erroneous beliefs: among these is the widely held quasi-anthropomorphic notion that most of the world's cargo travels as people do, by air. This is an instance of the blinkered narcissism of the information specialist: a “materialism” that goes no farther than “the body”. In the imagination, e-mail and airmail come to bracket the totality of global movement, with the aeroplane taking care of everything that is heavy. Thus the proliferation of air-courier companies and mail-order catalogues serving the professional, domestic, and leisure needs of the managerial and intellectual classes does nothing to bring consciousness down to earth, or to turn it in the direction of the sea, the forgotten space.

Large-scale material flows remain intractable. Acceleration is not absolute: the hydrodynamics of large-capacity hulls and the power output of diesel engines set a limit to the speed of cargo ships not far beyond that of the first quarter of this century. It still takes about eight days to cross the Atlantic and about twelve to cross the Pacific. A society of accelerated flows is also in certain key aspects a society of deliberately slow movement.

Allan Sekula, “Fish Story”, pp50, 1995

The re-coding of the sea by modernity begins with the rupture between the age of sail and that of steam. As on so many other fronts, it is the modernity of the military that provokes broader cultural change. The passage from the prestige of the panorama to that of the detail is perhaps most strongly manifested in the intertwined discourses of naval strategy and navy intelligence. In classical paintings of naval battles, the position of ships before or against the wind could serve as a key indication of tactical advantage or disadvantage, of offensive or defensive posture. The critical space of naval manoeuvre and engagement was eminently picturable, and legible to a knowledgeable viewer. Coal-fired boilers, torpedoes and long-range naval guns introduced a new abstractness to the maritime space of combat. Abstract measured distance - from coaling stations, from one gun to another - came to matter more than the immediate and local vagaries of the wind. The wind gave precedence to time: under sail, the crucial question was how long favorable or unfavorable conditions would hold. Steam gave precedence to space: the key questions, the question of the gunner and the chief engineer, was “How far?” A contradiction, however, arose from the fact that steam-powered ships, while free to travel thousands of miles in any direction without regard for the wind, were restricted by the capacity of their coal bunkers. Thus establishment and control of coaling stations became a factor of utmost strategic importance. Steam tetherd ships more firmly to the land, by a line that stretched back to the bowels of the earth.

Allan Sekula, “Fish Story”, pp107, 1995.

For Foucault, heterotopias are real-spaces distinct from nonexistent of “virtual” utopian spaces - that seize and activate the imagination, that “are absolutely different from all the sites they reflect and speak about.” These are “counter-sites” within which “all the other real sites that can be found within the culture are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” Cemetaries, retirement homes, psychiatric hospitals, prisons, fairgrounds, motels, brothels, libraries and museums are heterotopic spaces. But the "heterotopia par exellence" is the ship:


… if we think, after all, that the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea.

The ship always exceeds the formidable materiality of its function. For European civilization since the sixteenth century, the ship,


… the greatest instrument of economic development … has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination …. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.

Allan Sekula, “Fish Story”, pp116, 1995 (Quoting Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” trans. Jay Miskowiec, Diacritics 16:1 (Spring 1986), pp. 24.)

The general's enthusiastic remarks predict a protean future for the cargo container. Within the shipping industry, the container comes to be seen as the crucial element in the functional ensemble, submitting all the older heroic machines to its rule:


It is obvious that the ocean transportation industry must rid itself of the box syndrome and begin to accept the fact that the container must be viewed as a vehicle of transportation and the ship itself only as an underlying carrier, or perhaps, more vividly, as merely a form of locomotion for the container.

Allan Sekula, “Fish Story”, pp136 (Quoting R.P. Holubowiz, “Preface,” to Patrick Finley, ed., Jane‘s Freight Containers (London: Jane’s Yearbooks, 1971-72), p. 60. Emphasis in orginal.)

So if the ship is “a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea”, and the container is “a vehicle of transportation” whilst the ship is “merely a form of locomotion for the container” … is the container a ‘heterotopian’ space? In the same vein, if the ship is “the greatest reserve of the imagination”, what then is the effect of the container on that reserve?

     "Supply-Chains, Workers' Chains and the New World of Retail Supremacy" by Nelson Lichtenstein ([](

With this kind of description of the fulfillment of western desires for consumer goods (no matter the cost), it is easy to see why Sekula paints the shipping container as the villain of the piece in Fish Story. The rationalized shipping container and the rise of Asian ‘Tiger’ economies (and the human rights abuses that are associated) are inextricably linked; perhaps it is against this backdrop that projects like Kalkin's Quik House (and its social housing derivatives) become most exciting; the very vehicles of the economy that oppress, become the fabric of freedom?

The 20-Ton Packet

At its heart, ocean shipping is a network business, just like airlines and telecommunications. Passengers, bulk goods, data - all three represent uniform-size cargo, shooting through global transport and sorting systems 24/7/365. Viewed this way, airline seats, data packets, and 40-foot shipping containers are much the same - commoditized units for carrying content.

Just as the Net and deregulated telephony spelled the death of distance for telecommunications, containers spelled the death of distance for manufacturing. By breaking down cargo into standard units, greater amounts could be more efficiently pushed through a network.

At its simplest, port container handling has much in common with how airports handle people. Units are checked in, stored in a departure area, and then put on a plane or ship. Packet throughput is always maximized, and speeding this flow is one of the holy grails of both businesses. That's because it allows planes and boats to do what they do best: earn money by being in transit.

Many of these changes are being pushed by cost-cutting discount retailers as they move toward just-in-time inventory-delivery systems. A store doesn‘t care if its offsite stocks are in a warehouse or on a ship as long as it can get delivery when it needs it. In this environment, a shipping company that can deliver within a specified time frame - and change that delivery time if need be - gains a competitive advantage, says Sea-Land’s Flynn. Eventually, shipping companies might receive planning data from customers before goods are even produced. “The further upstream you get information about an order or a shipment, the more you can do with the delivery process,” Flynn says.

Hong Kong-based carrier Orient Overseas Container Line (OOCL) is already moving business upstream through smarter information management. At a collection center near Hong Kong, a wholly owned subsidiary consolidates goods from some 200 Asian suppliers into containers destined for Arcadia, a UK clothing chain. Once packed, most containers go direct from Hong Kong to individual stores, bypassing Arcadia‘s UK distribution warehouses. Arcadia saves both time and money, says Jeffrey Lau, director of OOCL’s logistics subsidiary, Cargo System (Asia Pacific), so long as goods are packed into the containers in precisely the right order, right down to colors and clothing sizes needed by individual outlets. The company reduces the need for warehouse space and gains on delivery time in the UK. These savings more than offset the cost of sometimes air-shipping items in short supply.

OOCL also provides packing services for electronics manufacturers. In Singapore, it packages stereo equipment, combining stereo components from Indonesia with speakers from Malaysia into boxes with the manufacturer‘s brand name. It then ships final goods to the manufacturer’s warehouses for distribution to retail stores.

“What we‘re seeing here is an exercise in mass synchronicity that’s just never happened before,” Villalon says. “The Internet allows real-time gathering and dissemination of information on both the supply and demand sides.” As such, everyone from ocean carriers to startup companies is getting involved in “third-party logistics” - a fancy name for outsourced management of some segment of the supply chain.

The irony of comparing the processes of container shipping with those of telecommunications is obvious. How can the mammoth bricks stacked on Koch‘s freight ship be reduced, through analogy, to nothing but a series of electrical impulses coursing through a thread of glass? Yet the redolence of the concept of “network,” pumped full of the corporate giddiness set off by the Internet, makes the comparison irresistible. And worthwhile. Since Malcom McLean, it’s safe to argue, no single shift in the big-picture view of the business has been as important as the introduction of systems and insights produced by digital networking.

But the ironies linger. Perhaps they even stand out all the more. Still tapping his unlit cigarette, Koch gazes out from the bridge over stacks of bolted-down containers stretching from the bow to the stern. He doesn‘t see these boxes as part of the unitized superhighway of the networked economy. He sees only a field of silver metal over which the ocean’s waves will crash in the heavy weather of the Indian Ocean, en route to Algeciras, Spain.

The shipping container and digital network packets clearly have a metaphorical as well as an economic transactional relationship. This cyclical process of physical into digital is a key area of interest for me.