Allan Sekula, 1951–2013.


Allan Sekula, a great artist and photographer, passed away on the 10th August. R.I.P. Reproduced below, belatedly, is an extract from Sekula's seminal text, Fish Story, which was originally published by Richter Verlag in 1995 (second edition, 2002) but is now long out of print and more readily accessible here. This particular extract also features in the concise essay collection A Film About the Sea: Notes on Allan Sekula and Noël Burch's The Forgotten Space, edited by Jerry White and published in 2012 for the Halifax Independent Filmmakers Festival. The above image by Sekula is titled Hammerhead Crane Unloading Forty-Foot Containers from Asian Ports. American President Lines Terminal. Los Angeles Harbor. San Pedro, California (November 1992), and features in the series Fish Story, Chapter One. This photograph was recently acquired by MoMA, and is currently on display on the third floor of The Edward Steichen Photography Galleries. In London, there is a new display of Sekula's Waiting for Tear Gas (1999-2000) at the Tate Modern, consisting of eighty-one images that Sekula photographed during the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. The display is presented as a sixteen-minute timed slide-sequence in Room 14 on Level 3. The day after Sekula's passing, the FT published a story on the first attempt by a Chinese cargo ship (a 19,000-tonne vessel called the Yong Sheng) at commercial transit of the Northeast Passage above Russia (from Dalian to Rotterdam), an event that Sekula would surely have noted with considerable interest. A few links, too: an obituary at East of Borneo, a transcription of Sekula's letter to Bill Gates from 1999, and a video of the panel discussion that followed last year's screening of The Forgotten Space at the Tate Modern (which is very much worth watching, for a few reasons that I briefly noted at the time).


Dismal Science: Part 1 (Excerpt)

To the extent that transnational capital is no longer centred in a single metropole, as industrial capital in the 1840s was centred in London, there is no longer a 'city' at the centre of the system, but rather a fluctuating web of connections between metropolitan regions and exploitable peripheries. Thus the lines of exploitation today may run, for example, from London to Hong Kong, from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, from Taipei to Shenzhen, and perhaps ultimately from a dispersed and fluid transnational block of capitalist power, located simultaneously in London, New York, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei, and Beijing, drawing ravenously on the rock-bottom labour costs of the new factories in the border city of Shenzhen and in the surrounding cities and countryside of Guangdong province in southern China. The ability of Taiwanese manufacturers to move rapidly from production in Taiwan to production in Guangdong or Fujian province is largely a function of the unprecedented physical mobility of manufactured goods and machinery. Shoes made in one month in Taiwan are suddenly made a month later in Guangdong at greatly reduced cost. The shoes are identical, only the label registers the change. And even labels can be falsified when import restrictions are to be circumvented. The flow of cargo to Japanese or North American or European markets is never interrupted. A ship leaves Hong Kong with its forty-foot steel boxes full of sneakers, rather than Keelung or Kaohsiung.*

The key technical innovation here is the containerisation of cargo movement: an innovation pioneered initially by the United States shipping companies in the latter half of the 1950s, evolving into the world standard for general cargo by the end of the 1960s. By reducing loading and unloading time and greatly increasing the volume of cargo in global movement, containerisation links peripheries to centres in a novel fashion, making it possible for industries formerly rooted to the centre to become restless and nomadic in their search for cheaper labour.** Factories become mobile, ship-like as ships become increasingly indistinguishable from trucks and trains, and seaways lose their difference with highways. Thus the new fluidity of terrestrial production is based on the routinisation and even entrenchment of maritime movement. Nothing is predictable beyond the ceaseless regularity of the shuffle between various end-points. This historical change reverses the 'classical' relationship between the fixity of the land and the fluidity of the sea.

The transition to regularised and predictable maritime flows initiated by steam propulsion was completed a century later by containerisation. If steam was the victory of the straight line over the zigzags demanded by the wind, containerisation was the victory of the rectangular solid over the messy contingency of the Ark. As we will see, containerisation obscures more than the physical heterogeneity of cargoes, but also serves to make ports less visible and more remote from metropolitan consciousness, thus radically altering the relationship between ports and cities.

The story is of course more complicated than this. It would be difficult to argue that the pioneers of containerised shipping had a vision of the global factory. Their innovations were responses to the internal competitive demands of the shipping industry, but these demands were by their very nature of an international character. Historically-militant seagoing and dockside labour had to be tamed and disciplined: the former had to be submitted to the international search for lower wages, the latter subjected to automation. Ships themselves had to be built bigger and differently and by workers earning relatively less than their historical predecessors. International capital markets had to be deregulated and tariff boundaries circumvented or dissolved by fiat or international agreement, but these legal changes follow rather than precede containerisation. NAFTA and GATT are the fulfilment in international trade agreements between transnational elites of an infrastructural transformation that has been building for more than thirty years.

Indeed, it can be argued further that the maritime world underwent the first legally mandated internationalisation or “deregulation” of labour markets with the invention by American shipowners and diplomats of the contemporary system of “flag of convenience” registry in the late 1940s. At the time, American trade unionists concerned about the decline of the U.S. merchant fleet complained about “runaway ships,” drawing an analogy with the “runaway shops” of the textile industry then relocating from New England to the non-union south.† Little did they imagine that within three decades factories would follow ships to a more complete severing of the link between ownership and location. The flag of convenience system, which assigned nominal sovereignty to new maritime “powers” such as Panama, Honduras and Liberia, allowed owners in the developed world to circumvent national labour legislation and safety regulations. Crews today are drawn primarily from the old and new third worlds: from the Philippines, Indonesia, India, China, Honduras, and Poland, with Asians in the majority. Seagoing conditions are not infrequently as bad as those experienced a century ago.†† The flag on the stern becomes a legal ruse, a lawyerly piratical dodge. To the victories of steam and the container, we can add the flag of convenience: a new ensign of camouflage and confusion, draped over the superficial clarity of straight lines and boxes.

My argument here runs against the commonly held view that the computer and telecommunications are the sole engines of 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, email and airmail come to bracket the totality of global movement, with the airplane 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.


* See Xianming Chen, “China’s Growing Integration with the Asia-Pacific Economy,” in Arif Dirlik, ed., What is in a Rim? Critical Perspectives on the Pacific Region Idea (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1993), p. 89-119.
** I owe this insight to Stan Weir.
† See Rodney Carlisle, Sovereignty for Sale: The Origins and Evolution of the Panamanian and Liberian Flags of Convenience (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1981), p. 112.
†† See Paul K. Chapman, Trouble on Board: The Plight of International Seafarers
(Ithaca, New York: ILR Press, 1992)..

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