Shipping and the Shipped
Frederick Douglass, Up From Slavery
A history of shipping cannot be separated from a history of the shipped. Nor can the shipped ever really be separated from the ship. The drag of the ship, the draft of the hull, fantasy in the hold, the shipwrecked and the drowned, the transported and the containerized, the work and the days of the sea, shipping and the shipped features a motley crew. Once aboard these ships every landing is but a leave, every landfall, but a stranding. Shanghai-ed or modularized, set adrift or stowed away, only the shipped can explain shipping, and only shipping can tell us why Norwegian fishermen would end up guarding a slave fort in 18th century Ghana or fleeing a slave revolt on the Caribbean island of St. John twenty years later. Yet as Frederick Douglass reminds us this moving multitude also promised a certain escape. No other workplace ever held such romance, no other logistics ever promised such flight. No distance but the distance of the sea submerges our imagination in what might be beyond the horizon.
The Trinidadian CLR James wrote a book about the sea, not while looking out at it from the island of his birth but while imprisoned on Ellis Island in New York harbour. The book was presented in evidence, and in vain, by the defense in the deportation case the US government brought against James for being a communist. James would be shipped off to England. In the book, James interprets the whaling ship as the first factory, worked by a motley crew of 'renegades, mariners, and castaways.' This crew owed its existence, was thrown together, by that other kind of vessel plying Atlantic waters, one that mostly goes unspoken in the book but nonetheless haunts the factory ship as it would later the factory proper, and as it does the social factory today. These are the vessels of the first and still most momentous feat of commercial logistics at the truly bloody dawn of capitalism, the logistics of the African slave trade powering settler colonialism. With this massive logistical movement the infrastructure of capitalist accumulation was put in place. Not only did this slave trade infrastructure inaugurate the plantation societies of the global south - the slave labour camps perpetuated to this day by ongoing neocolonial violence shipping the indentured and the migrant. But also they disrupted and deprovincialised the old sea coasts of Europe and their own shipping subaltern, tossing them into what the great theorist of modernity Cedric Robinson called racial capitalism. So it was that Norwegian fishermen ended up in Ghana and St. John. Yet this global tale of shipping was for the motley crew not only one of severe hardship and cruelty, but through what Marx called the cosmopolitan vocation of production and what James called the future in the present, a lived fugitivity in this world. And the ship bore the fantasy of that fugitivity as much as it was stained with the history of its crimes.
But this is not just a Black Atlantic story. As Vijay Prashad points out, when Vasco de Gama sailed into the Indian Ocean he found a cosmopolitan world of trade from East Africa to Southern India, and from the Malay Straits on to the South China coast. Indeed his ships and their emerging accumulative appetites and prejudices inaugurated the destruction of this cosmopolitanism. As a result today the motley crew is as likely to be found working the floating factories of today's logistical capitalism in Shenzhen or Long Beach, as in Kingston or Liverpool. As this latest global logistics hits landfall it brings settler capitalism to West Papua, Northern British Columbia and Zambia with new or renewed voraciousness. But we can perhaps also sense that these new logistics bring with them to other shores the submerged sociality of the shipped.
Today logistical capitalism connects the algorithm of work on the one hand to the logistics of supply and demand on the other. Shipping remains as much at the centre of capital's infrastructural imagination as it was in its first gruesome mobilisation. Its crew, its cargo, its nets, and its containers, connect the ship to the deepest mines and forests with more demand for improvement than ever because of what Ned Rossiter calls the development of soft infrastructures that enable them. Logistical capitalism carries with it today the historical trauma of crossing again and again the dead labour of 'critical infrastructure,' that forcible enforcement of lines of goods, people, money and energy, also known as resilience.
Yet for all this, the danger within remains, and the fugitivity of the motely crew is everywhere apparent: from transnational activism amongst Filipina domestic workers, to port blockades in Oakland, to the Gulf Labour project, to the proliferation of anti-dam, anti-logging and anti-mining movements. These movements raise the question of whether the ship is arriving or escaping, piloted or pirated, modularised or marooned. The hapticality of those forced to repeat infrastructure always somehow escapes.
Shipping and the Shipped was conceived in conversation between Stefano Harney and the Mumbai-based artist Ranjit Kandalgaonkar, and the title derives from Harney's book with Fred Moten, The Undercommons: fugitive planning and black study (Minor Compositions, 2013). The installation features work by Kandalgaonkar, and by the artists Wu Tsang and Arjuna Neuman. One enters the installation in the accompaniment of two texts, one from The Undercommons, and one from the philosopher Denise Ferreira Da Silva's whose thought helped to inspire The Undercommons. One is also in the presence of Ranjit Kandalgaonkar's luminous treated photographs, pictures taken by his father of the ships his father sailed, captained, and piloted. The photos invite us over the horizon of the sea to where time drifts like smoothed wood. We enter the next room but soon we begin to feel that horizon upturn us, and we find ourselves stranded together amidst the sounds of the motley crew, the ship-breaking yards of Alang in Gujarat all around us. We move like sonar through this perilous labour, this breach in the hull and the earth. Now we are engulfed in a horizon, our fantasy of flight concentrated on a single porthole. Through it we can enter another room to find the video work of Wu Tsang in his collaboration with Fred Moten. Here words drift, beginning to ask what brought us together, but soon the sands shift, the ship drags. We were, it seems, always already together, in what Denise Ferreira Da Silva calls a difference without separation. To have been shipped is to have been sent together to each other. Crossing Kandalgaonkar's horizon again one enters another room to find Arjuna Neuman's film, Serpent Rain. Made in collaboration with Da Silva, the film explores anomalous time. What kind of time could be made with the raw elements, the timeless sea, and with slave-time, a time without value or future? Neuman and Da Silva invite us to another universe that turns out to be ours. We recall Ranjit's father's photographs, time folded in sea and sand and sky.
Inspired by Norway's grip on the sea, Shipping and the Shipped is for all those who long to be transported and all those who have long been transported.