Shipboard Travels: A conversation between Charmaine Chua and Laleh Khalili (Part I)

Following previous series on Charmaine’s slow boat to China, and introducing Laleh’s first contribution to The Disorder, the first of two posts (the second is here) on what it is to study the labour, politics and infrastructure of oceanic logistics.


Laleh Khalili (LK): Charmaine, both you and I have taken a containership trip in the last few months, you from the West Coast of the US across the Pacific to China and Taiwan, I from Malta through Suez Canal and around the Arabian Peninsula to Jabal Ali, Dubai.  There are lots of things we can talk about: shipboard labour, the politics of the ports, being women in overwhelmingly masculine spaces, etc.  And we both want to know different things about aspects of the other’s searoute which were not similar to our own.

So here is my first question:  What struck you the most about the daily routine of the ship?

Charmaine Chua (CC): I’m thrilled to begin this conversation, Laleh. I want to answer your first question in twenty different ways, but the first thing that comes to mind is the regimentation of everyday life, and the boredom it elicited: breakfast at 0630, work orders doled out at 0700, a coffee break at 1000, lunch at 1130, coffee again at 1500, dinner at 1730. On the days when I would do manual jobs with the crew, we agonizingly counted the mind-numbing hours to the next break. The hours were long, the jobs physically demanding, dangerous and intensive. There is so much repetitiveness to the work that the crew often fought over which of the less-boring jobs they would be assigned to – spraying the deck down with a hose was better than mopping it, taking soundings was better than cutting rags. For those who are watch keepers on the bridge, their work four hours on, four off, then four on again. Not only is sleep was hard to come by because of the shift structure, but shore leave has also become a thing of the past, since there is never enough time to get on land before having to be back for your next duties. When asked, most of the crew describe their jobs with these words: “maintenance, just maintenance. Just following orders.”

I’ve since been wondering about the implications of naming maintenance as the primary form of seafaring work. Ships are easy to romanticize: they remind us of adventure, our smallness, our finitude. But if the most important tasks on the ship are not the technical ones of circumnavigation and exploration (those romantic jobs that gesture to the ocean as an endless horizon of opportunity and freedom) but maintenance, then the primary task of the seafarer is prolong the durability of already existing value. Ships break in halfsinktip over, and are constantly threatened to be compromised by rust and corrosion; in order to continue the mundane task of commerce and transportation, they must appear as if they are running perfectly in order to protect the value already invested in them.


Maintenance is thus about a certain kind of preservation of the status quo: it is the work required to preserve the functionality and durability of a ship in a land of diminishing returns. As Tim Mitchell has noted, ensuring the durability of various infrastructures is a process of capitalization; that is, focusing on durability means that the value of the enterprise doesn’t rest in the steel hull or container holds that are built, but in the revenue stream that is discounted to reflect uncertainty and then sold in the form of stocks or bonds. Seamen thus have to constantly test alarms and practice safety drills, scrub rust and repaint floors, in a continuous project to extend the ship’s productivity for as long as possible. This struck me as an incredibly alienated form of work: if all you are doing is scrubbing floors and cleaning tanks, not only have manual and intellectual labor ben separated from each other, but the total functioning and process of maritime shipping is entirely opaque and illegible to you. You derive very little satisfaction from the content of your job. So you wait for the coffee breaks, you eat your meals, you play poker and drink the boredom away at night. And the next day you start maintaining the capitalist machinery all over again.

What about you?

LK: My impression was that the main tool of the officers were pens and scissors, filling reams and reams of paperwork (which may be a function of steaming on a French-owned ship), and updating stacks of navigation charts.  And the main tools of the deck crew seemed to be a paint-brush as you say.  Once they had chipped the rust and painted their way around the ship, it was time to start all over the again.


That said, my sense is that the boredom is not just a function of new modes of work, although the ever-expanding size of ships, increasing automation (which makes jobs more repetitive and less thoughtful), and shorter shore leaves have only exacerbated the hardships. The great maritime historian Marcus Rediker has a wonderful account of where the phrase “spinning the yarn” came from. He writes:

The maritime story is called a yarn because of a specific labor process on the ship, where work was collective, lonely, and noncontinuous. Ships were isolated for long periods, and the crew lived in close, forced proximity. Many times there was nothing to do. This could happen in the doldrums, when there was little or no wind, and it could happen when the ship was clipping along at a good pace in high winds. Captains therefore created “make-work” of various kinds to fill the porous workday, holy-stoning the deck (scrubbing and whitening it with sandstone) being one of the most dreaded and infamous among sailors. [….] As sailors sat together picking apart the yarn of their ropes, someone would spin a yarn for a bored, unhappy, unwilling, ready-made audience of common labor. The yarn, then, was in several ways a spoken-word equivalent of the work song. One of its purposes was to entertain, to help to overcome drudgery, to make the time pass, to transport both speaker and listener to a different, better place. It was, in short, born of alienation at work aboard the ship, which proved to be a nursery of narrative talent.

I am really sympathetic to the way the work of people aboard ships is full of tedium and repetition, but I also think there is a much longer history of such tedious alienated labour, going back to as far back as there were ships moving upon the deep. This is also why Trotsky considered the ship’s engineers – who did the most skilled and least boring, though also very physically demanding, work on the ship–  to be the proletarian vanguard aboard the ship or the “industrial workers in sailor’s uniforms” [the corollary of this was of course to consider other sailors aboard the ship as petite bourgeois!].

My own sense was very similar to yours. That the sheer tedium of the work was hideous, but my ship also seemed to substantially exceed the minimum number required for a skeleton crew of workers.  So for example there were two second mates onboard, and 4 trainee cadets, which relieved some of the shiftwork pressure, especially on the deck officers.  I have to add though that both the officers and the crew often indicated that despite its crushing grind, shipboard work paid better than what they would have earned at home doing landside work.

In a sense what became really clear to me was the extent to which the hardship of shipboard labour was neither new nor unique, but really like landbound labour for the vast majority of working people: tedious, repetitive, uncertain, exhausting, and ultimately “just a job.”

And yet.

I am fairly certain I wasn’t romanticising the responses of many of the officers and the crew who spoke about the sea with traces of affects –pride, wistfulness, pleasure- different than those experienced by people going to their office or clerical jobs; something akin to the way “soil” can be at once a source of tedious back-breaking labour and intense attachment for someone working on the land.


CC: Absolutely, I’m glad you’ve pointed out that the tedium of alienated labor has a much longer history. Still, the captain of my ship often spoke of the ways that ship labor has only become more difficult over the twenty years he has been a sailor.  One thing he raised was that with computerization, several jobs on the ship (the radio operator, for instance) have become obsolete and many of these roles have been consolidated into more responsibilities for each officer. Reduced crew sizes have also meant an intensification of manual labor, especially when companies try to cut costs, pushing time-consuming repairs that should have been completed in a shipyard to workers on board, who already have an endless cycle of maintenance tasks to complete. I think paying attention to the particular dynamics that have changed since the logistics revolution – from managerial techniques to processes of automation – is also crucial in this regard.

But I also got a strong sense of the sailors’ affective relation to the sea, especially to the sense of travel and globality it afforded. Perhaps that is where our next question can begin: in what ways did the embodied experience of being at sea affect you? In what ways did you see it affect the officers? In a related sense, what were the affective relations and little forms of pleasure you encountered on the ship? What struck you about their lives beyond the work day?

LK: I love this question, mostly because I am increasingly (and as I get older) am aware how much life is sustained by the little pleasures that might one the one hand act as an opiate (in the sense Marx wrote about religion) as a kind of anaesthetising force against the trauma of work, but I also see it as a caesura in the space of work, especially work that demands so much of us even in our off time.  I am sure you are familiar with the fabulous analysis Kathi Weeks has of work in this stage of capitalism.  She argues that:

the focus on work as the arena in which the individual can, with the proper self-discipline, will his or her own self-development and transformation continue to be affirmed today under the conditions of post-Fordist production. … The worldliness of, for example, unruly bodies, seductive pleasures, and spontaneous enjoyment poses a constant challenge to the mandate for such focused attention to and diligent effort in properly productive pursuits (48).


I love this argument and do think that moments of pleasure provide a caesura to the monotony and intensity of the work onboard.  I loved the fact that the Filipino crew members demand karaoke machines as part of their contracts for going shipboard and have raucous and congenial parties at night mediated through singing soft-rock songs onboard.

The relationship to the sea is also fascinating. I heard again and again from both the officers and the crew that their initial impulse to go to sea was not just about escape from the drudgery of landside work, but also the seduction or generational attraction towards a life on water.  The reality often defeated this initial sense of romance, but the romance was certainly there, at the beginning. Among the engineers I found a pride in their extraordinary skill; among the deck officers, especially at night as they stared at a darkened sea in their darkened wheelrooms, there certainly was a reflection about a life that is not bound by the smallness of territories.

And yet, they all, officers and crew, fantasised about a time where they could retire –”nail their seaman’s card to the wall” as one engineer told me– and buy a fishing boat or send their children to university.

For me, the romance of the sea was far more visible, because the work I was doing onboard the ship took me outside the routines and habits of my ordinary life.  I have to confess I had to read the great Allan Sekula in order not to drown in my own sense of awe-and-terror (the feeling of the sublime) whether of the sea or of the extraordinary technology which was moving me from Malta to Dubai.  I kept trying to remember that not just the ship but the sea itself was a sedimentation of dirty, tedious, back-breaking, exploited human labour: layer upon layer of concealed labour in the submarine cables and pipelines, oil derricks, the pollution floating on the surface of the water, coastlines reclaimed (sic) or eroded through human work and depredations of capital and so on.  But the sense of awe remained, especially as I read Moby Dick while steaming through the Arabian Sea.

20150208_172455How did you find your affective life at sea?  I think you were the only woman onboard your ship, right?  (on my ship, I was one of 5 women, which is highly unusual).  I also think we experienced masculinities and gender slightly differently at sea.  Let’s talk a bit about that.

CC: I love the idea of a “caesura in the space of work”. Kathi Weeks gives us an important caution about our investments in productivity when she says that even feminist and Marxist theories contain certain explicit and tacit pro-work suppositions. Repeatedly, the crew (much less often the officers) would say to me when I asked if they enjoyed their work: “It’s just a job.” I learned to take this expedient attitude towards the workday seriously, and to appreciate the rhythms and relief afforded by after-dinner poker games, karaoke, and even the joking, jibing and laughter during work. Many of the crew I worked with had hilarious senses of humor, and we often found ourselves doubled over in laughter while swabbing the deck. Not many of them had a real interest in doing their job well. They did what was asked, followed orders, and tried to make the rest of the time on board as homely as possible.

The officers, on the other hand, had a thicker sense of pride in their work. The European officers in particular saw their time on board as “always working”, and they were unable to understand the disinterest of the Filipino crew in their work, interpreting their attitudes as flippant and apathetic. Still, officers and crew both found ways to sustain these caesurae. The ship is unique in this respect because for the sailors, it is at once home and workplace, prison and promise. It fascinated me to see, especially during karaoke sessions, how much the distinctions between friends, family and colleagues were blurred in surprisingly intimate ways that often belied the performances of masculinity on board. I will never forget watching the captain and chief engineer stand together on the bridge once at sunset, laughing, talking animatedly, patting each other on the backs, and gazing out onto the ocean together in silence.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs for me, I felt very conflicted about my romance with life at sea. Traveling across the endless expanse of ocean (between Tacoma and KaoHsiung, I didn’t see land for thirteen days) was thrilling, captivating, and nourishing in ways I have never felt before. As cliché as it sounds, I felt seized by a sense of infinite possibility and adventure. I thought about how Gandhi wrote the Hind Swaraj aboard a ship, writing the entire work in one feverish draft, switching to his left hand when his right would cramp. I saw on the bow of the ship staring into the ocean for hours at a time. I watched dolphins and fish leap into the air. I had a similar feeling of awe-and-terror in the face of the industrial sublime as I watched containers loading in port.  But I also knew that the very conditions that offered me a temporary, delightful break from landlocked life were the ones the seamen craved: they were constantly longing for the internet and land so that they could talk to their families. I often had to remind myself that my conditions of romanticization were their conditions of deprivation.

On the question of being the only woman on board: this was the hardest aspect of my ethnographic experience. Except for brief episodes of shore leave, I didn’t see or talk to a single woman for 45 days! I prepared myself in various ways, cutting my hair very short to look tomboyish, bringing my most conservative clothes, mentally laying out the challenges I would face. None of the fieldwork guides or qualitative methods manuals I read, however, had prepared me for how deeply embodied the ethnographic practice was. It seems almost silly to say this now, but since most of my adult life has been built around a life of ideas, I hadn’t given much thought to how people would respond to me in ways fundamentally colored by the fact that I was a young, petite Southeast Asian woman. I forgot that these would be the first things a stranger would notice about me! It thus was very challenging to strike a balance between, on the one hand, appearing nonthreatening, friendly and easy to talk to, and on the other, proving that I was a competent, credible researcher. This tension became especially fraught when I became the subject of sexual harassment by one of the men on the ship. I was pursued, invited to the sauna for a massage repeatedly, propositioned, and started to feel very trapped and very unsafe about three weeks into the trip, with no chance of escaping, and no other women to confide in. A number of other men also made inappropriate remarks about my sexuality, and I heard both racist and rape jokes throughout the course of the trip. The greatest tension for me was learning how to incorporate these gendered and racial dynamics into my ethnographic observations, rather than to call them out for fear of cutting ties with the very people whom I wanted to feel comfortable with me. Balancing those tensions and reigning in my gut instinct to retort made me feel quite powerless.


I think I only began to ‘prove’ myself, and the crew only really began to open up, when I started working those manual jobs with the crew. Showing them that I was equally capable of what they called “manly work” – transporting and lifting twelve pound twist locks in each hand, handling a high water pressure gun, working 8 hour days, etc. – and that I was willing, as a complete outsider, to participate in the tedium of their daily lives, turned out to be a very important way to build trust. My most interesting conversations were had bent double in small passageways, scooping crude oil into buckets, talking to the crew about their dreams, families, and passions. It often surprised the crew that a woman could do their job. So in some ways, I was both constrained by my gender and yet able to transgress gender norms in a way that encouraged the men to open up. I found myself carefully assessing my positionality in response to different social contexts on the ship, and quickly learned that being a female researcher required a constant calibration of gendered performance – whether performing friendliness and warmth on karaoke nights, or hardiness during workdays.

How did you experience these dynamics with five women on your ship? I know you weren’t exempt from sexual advances, but how did you process your interaction with these shipboard masculinities? As women of color, of course, our experiences also take on particular raced dynamics. Did you find your various cultural and racial positionalities challenged or troubled as the ship travelled through the Middle East?

…to be continued…

6 thoughts on “Shipboard Travels: A conversation between Charmaine Chua and Laleh Khalili (Part I)

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