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

Part One just over here.


LK: First of all, before we proceed, can I say how much I am enjoying this conversation?  Part of this is the ability to compare my experiences with someone of the same political disposition and theoretical commitments who can comment on the contrasts and similarities of the experience of travel aboard a containership, but part of it is also our gender identification.

I felt a kinship with you upon meeting you (as I did with Deb Cowen upon reading her amazing book) precisely because of us confounding gendered expectations of who would do this sort of research in an area –maritime labour, security, travel, and labour– that has always been –and continues to be– marked so profoundly as masculine. And I was really curious about your experience.

I think although I experienced one instance of ass-patting, by and large I think I had it a lot easier than you. One reason may have been that CMA CGM, the shipping company on whose ship I was steaming, actually takes onboard passengers as a matter of course, and there were two other women passengers, both in their 70s, on the ship with me. Whereas –and please correct me– my impression is that you were on a shipping line that doesn’t necessarily take on passengers. I also think my age –I am 46– probably to some extent insulated me from some of your experience. Two other factors also mattered hugely: one that there was a woman cadet being trained to be an officer onboard who could really hold her own with the male officers and crew; and the second, that the captain’s wife was also traveling with us, and her presence at the table, for instance, completely changed the tenor of the meals.  So there were 5 women on a ship of 37 people.

But what really struck me was the range of masculinities aboard the ship. The European officers certainly performed their manliness very differently than the Filipino and Keralan crew, and even within the rank of the Europeans (most of whom were Croat), the deck officers crafted their bodies in a different way than the deck officers: the latter worked out in the gym to build up their arm muscles and upper bodies into taut masses of muscles; the latter, not so much.

Of course sailors have always had a reputation for transgressing boundaries of landside sexual norms. Isolation aboard the ships for long periods of time often translates into intensely homosocial and homosexual relations. And seafarers have been iconised as objects of same-sex desire in the European context. Allan Sekula’s Fish Story has a wonderful brief essay about Hart Crane and his sailor/lover/object of desire. In her wonderful account of her travel aboard a Maersk ship, Rose George also talks about how the free condom store in the medical supply room of the ship was quietly depleted over the course of her trip. I also noted the development of affectionate relationship between older and younger Filipino crew members onboard the ship – which made me wonder about the extent to which such affection exceeded the bounds of mentoring or apprenticeship.


What I also really want to talk to you about is your port experiences. You have written beautifully about the slowdowns at West Coast US ports and about the production and processing of waste in a Taiwanese port. What else struck you about the ports? I am curious particularly about the security around the ports, the process of entry into the port, and what sorts of ships you saw entering the port.  I also really want to know how shallow the approach was to Taipei and to the West Coast ports, because as you know, there seems to be this rush to produce ever bigger ships, with ever deeper draughts, and what I am really wanting to know is how much infrastructural change, dredging, reclamation etc. this would require.

CC: I’m deeply enjoying this conversation as well, Laleh, and feel so honored and fortunate to have found you as a fellow traveler.

On ports: Since I got off the Ever Cthulhu, I have been doing more research and fieldwork in Singapore, the hypermodern logistics and maritime hub I also happen to call home. Here, the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) is in the process of moving its multiple terminals across the island to one integrated mega-port site on the western corner of the island by 2025 – a project that requires terraforming a piece of reclaimed land that 5% the size of Singapore’s current land area. The logistics of such an undertaking are, as you can imagine, monumental. In an interview with the project manager who heads the reclamation operations of this new site, what struck me was not only the cost and intensity of infrastructural planning, engineering and capital investment poured into the project, but also the way in which the project manager so casually talked about dredging, mining sand from seabeds, and blowing up islands as if these mammoth manipulations of earth and water were no different from moving chess pieces around a board. You asked in your wonderful entry on the port of Khor Fakkan: ”What are the cocc_EPL2_2015-02-01 13.10.44nstraints on the growth of these ports? Not land…” and I have been thinking in a similar vein about this unmitigated expansionist attitude with which the state treats sand, seabeds, rocks, islands, etc. as fictive commodities to be put in service of their massive infrastructural and bureaucratic projects. As Timothy Mitchell points out in a recent lecture on architecture and representation, building large infrastructures that have expansionary fringes (for Singapore it is the sea, for Dubai it is the desert) means that the potential to develop land is almost entirely in the hands of the state. I am curious what forms of politics this gives rise to, where it is the state, more so than the corporation, that has extraordinary access to sites of development. Do you have thoughts about what the implications of Mitchell’s argument might be for maritime trade in the Middle East?

In a related sense, in your recent wonderful inaugural lecture on the sinews of war and trade, you point out that your experience on the container ship not only brought you in close contact with what you call the ‘security seas’, but confirmed how deeply war and trade are intertwined at port sites: you saw a number of naval warships in the darkness of the harbor; you saw sand berms, high walls and manned watchtowers while sailing through the Suez Canal; you saw security fences and checkpoints being rolled out at ports. I had only fleeting interactions with the militarized and naval components of sea travel, but I did have similar experiences with the erection of barriers, checkpoints, and security gates placed in front of the ship as we pulled into harbor. As you know, Deborah Cowen argues that rather than working directly to secure states or populations, such models of supply chain security work to protect international trade as an object, presumed to be vital to the security of states and populations. How, from your perspective, are these processes of securitization tied to trade?

What also strikes me about the ports was the extent to which their industrial and logistical operations are practically invisible to the eyes of the population whose very economic growth and ’success’ has hinged upon them. With the move of the Singapore port to the Western corner of the island, the terminals whose industry and ceaseless bustle have been visible from most office buildings in the downtown core will soon be replaced by more waterfront condominiums. In fact, the foremost concern on policymakers’ minds when I interviewed them was how to “keep the maritime industry visible in Singaporean’s imaginations”cc_EPL2_2015-02-21 17.20.33 now that port operations were becoming less visible to the populace. You remark similarly while gazing at the towers in Dubai that “the port is far enough away that the humans are not seen; that the turning of the containerships and the movement of cranes becomes the beautiful ballet of growth and prosperity, and behind those windows people probably think more about the ‘wisdom and foresight’ of the shuyukh that run these emirates and whose parastatal organisations found and manage and profit from and within these dystopias, and less about the constraints of capital, the abundance of labour, and the endless availability of seas to be reclaimed.”  This beautiful quote has me thinking about the ways in which ports are not only central to national economies and global capital in purely material economic terms, but are also projects of modernity.

In many other of the busiest ports in world, state narratives about these cities’ successful futures frequently hinge upon their continued relevance and centrality to the circuits of global trade. Ports thus also become central sites of desire – not least in terms of the fact that the goods they bring in rely on an expanding consumptive desire that is run on cycles of debt and credit – and especially in the global South, are central to all sorts of political myths about nation-building, economic development, moving from ”third world to first”, etc. What are your thoughts about this role the port plays in national imaginations of modernity?

LK: The invisibility of these new mega-ports is something that Allan Sekula –whose work was all about making visible the things we all are unable to see– has written about eloquently (he has said so many of the things we all want to say; and he has said it so incredibly poignantly and powerfully).  I found that some ports were more invisible than others.  For example, the port of Salalah (Oman) or the port of Khor Fakkan (UAE) are well in view of the leisure beaches that are immediately adjacent.  But Jabal Ali, by contrast, is invisible, even from the height of Dubai Metro, and can only be glimpsed chimerically at night when the cranes are lit up in that very theatrical way.  Some of this invisibility is intended to occlude the regimes of labour exploitation within the spaces of the port, whether in the port itself or in the free zones or special economic zones that now so often anchor the port complexes. These free zones are free of regulation and of scrutiny and so need to be kept away from prying eyes. There is also the production of trade as a securitised object, as Deb Cowen brilliantly puts it.  But I also suspect some of it has to do with the general technocratic impulse to keep “complicated” stuff out of the view of ordinary people who can’t possibly “understand” their complexities.

I also suspect that some of the invisibility is intended to mask the fact that some of these ports are indeed security places in the straight-forward military sense. Aside from a more permanent US Navy base at Jabal Ali, a General Accounting Office report on US military drawdown from Afghanistan via Dubai has this very instructive image, which shows that the US military (or its contractors) also maintain warehouses in, and ship military hardware via, Jabal Ali for the more episodic work of deployments and drawdowns.

So the politics of invisibility and security really meld into each other in all sorts of ways having to do with both war and commerce.

cc_EPL2_2015-03-05 18.21.27

As for ports in national imaginaries, I think this is a really interesting question and far more complex to answer – perhaps because ports are not simply spaces on the shore, but also where face-to-face trade happens, exchanges of goods, capital and people (whether as slaves, indentured labourers, or modern immigrant workers) are effected, and a kind of cosmopolitanism reproduced in a very everyday non-dramatic sort of way. This has always been true, and the struggles between coasts and hinterlands have greatly shaped this imaginary as well. These struggles have also been struggles between different modes of economic being: agricultural or pastoralism vs trade or seafaring for example. I have been re-reading a fabulous history of Manama specifically and Bahrain more broadly (by my SOAS colleague Nelida Fuccaro) where these kinds of spatio-political and spatio-economic logics are crucial to the shape not only the city of Manama takes, but also to its municipal and national politics.

I also wonder the extent to which these works of reshaping the landmass and ocean-floors through dredging and reclamation don’t feed from and into two different logics. One is an economic logic (of needing more land for warehouses and berths etc) which Polanyi so beautifully delineated in his discussion of land as a fictive commodity, but another is a territorial logic in which the expansion of the landmass literally expands the city-state’s control over not only landside territories, but also expands their reach into the sea via their territorial and exclusive economic zones now expanding further from their original coastlines.

In Dubai, you also have this rather extraordinary act of hubris in the creation of these various “Palms” (Deira, Jumeirah, Jabal Ali) which are supposed to be seen from the space and which also add to that imaginary of the port as a space that can be remade ever so easily by human hand. So, land reclamation in these ports acts not only as an economic or territorial tool but also as a spectacle of sovereignty.

And of course Mitchell is absolutely correct that for all of this you need the state.  Singapore and Dubai (and in fact many other Arabian Peninsula states) are perfect examples of this.  In these city-states, it is often hard to disentangle the apparatuses of the state and those of capital because so very often these are woven together through the weft and woof of the infrastructures, with the states and parastatal organisations acting as private firms do, and with their personnel interchangeable between the state and private sector. The capital that flows in the making of these infrastructural projects cannot easily be separated into Weberian ideal types of “state” or the “bourgeoisie” or whatever, and it is hard to draw national boundaries through the substance of this capital (or in fact the labour that transforms and multiplies this capital) in the way a lot of scholarship attempts to do. I think this is something that Adam Hanieh (another SOAS colleague of mine) in particular has been very persuasive in showing in his work on capitalism in the Gulf countries, but I do think given the fact that ports today require these vast infrastructural investments and that they are so central, so indispensable, to the operation of global economies, that these kinds of post-Weberian analytic framings must apply to ports beyond the Persian Gulf as well.


I have one last question for you – and it is related to what we have been talking about. Did you have a sense of how the financing around the port of Singapore worked? This is something I am intensely interested in, as I am also in the work of the Baltic Exchange, the exchange for shipping derivatives, where there is futures speculation over shipping routes. I am curious as to whether or not you had any sense of how these sorts of financial instruments merge with the logistics markets….

CC: I think this question of the relationship between finance and logistics is absolutely crucial to understanding contemporary operations of capital, though I myself am just beginning to read and better understand these relations. Some initial thoughts:

When I first started on this project, my interest in logistics markets was compelled by a gut desire to counter a tendency for some literatures in political economy to overemphasize the ‘financialization of everything’ without understanding the dense materiality and unevenness of the global movement of commodities. Since then, of course, looking more carefully at the processes of making and moving has made it clear that my earlier assumed separation between the financial and real were dreadfully naive, and that in fact logistics infrastructures and the production and distribution of commodities have become increasingly mediated and shaped by financial markets. In truth shipping corporations, ports, and logistics operators continue to pour capital into their heavy costs of operation even as they accumulate on financial markets. They must valorize their fixed capital assets in this way precisely because their market value depends on perceptions of growth and profitability. In this way, corporations have to promise shareholders futures that can be capitalized and sold as investment in the present. It is in this sense that we must think of ships, port infrastructures, and as you say, even shipping routes, as much as financial assets as they are tangible things, beholden in significant ways to rise of shareholder value.

The clearest instance of this was when the captain and chief engineer of the Ever Cthulhu told me that ships are increasingly being built with ‘shareholder cabins,’ so that shareholders can take cargo cruises to survey the state of their investment. When they did so, the captain reported, they would nitpick at everything from rusty steel bolts to mismatched paint — “so you have to make sure your workers are competent, so that the investors continue to have faith in the company.” As I have previously written about, one big reason why NSB (the company I took my cargo trip with) is shifting to a flag of convenience and laying off all its German crew is that the company was beholden to shareholder demands to generate more profits. And so of course this need to promise higher rates of return requires cost-cutting measures and labor disciplining that, as Mazen Labban puts it, “extend[s] the power of capital over living labour and intensifie[s] the antagonism between the owners of capital (shareholders and managers) and workers.” Beyond the anecdotal, a huge glut of private equity investments have been flowing into shipping in recent years, as asset valuations have hit rock bottom and PE investors are looking to capitalize on downturn periods. This has potentially devastating consequences, since these companies in particular areOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA under pressure to generate faster turnovers, and look to pull out ASAP in 3-5 rather than 20 year horizons. Much like the mortgage crisis, shipping is being financed under terms that are far too easy, and as one Maersk employee remarked to me in an interview, ships are being built ‘more and more, bigger and bigger everywhere, often for reasons that are not economic.” I think his statement underscores some of the irrational rationalities that underpin these modes of speculation.

On the other hand, however, states also play a hugely consequential role in overseeing the circulation of stocks and flows, especially in the financing of port economies. In Singapore, the port is financed by PSA International, which is in turn financed by a state-backed investment entity, Temasak holdings. Temasak holds large sums of money from the Central Provident Fund, a compulsory savings scheme for all Singaporeans, which it uses for investments with long gestation periods (quite different from taxation, this literally involves borrowing from citizens’ savings accounts and paying them back in the distant future). There is also the fact that many shipping companies are state-backed and labelled as ‘security assets’, and are mandated to be part of states’ critical supply chains during protracted military conflicts. Israel’s Zim company, for example, recently under attack by Block the Boat activists in the US, recently shifted its stakes to a holdings company in Singapore. But even though it is now privately owned, Israel still maintains a ‘golden share’ which it uses to prevent the sale of the company into foreign hands. Similar state-owned shipping companies exist all over the world, from Chile to China.

So in one sense, we have to note on one hand how the financialization of logistics creates great instability by relying on shareholder value while on the other, shipping is also a sector that is particularly positioned to ride out the volatility of the market because of deep state-backed ties between war and trade. I suspect there is much more to say about this than my very initial speculations. I’m very interested to hear your take…

LK: I have to confess that this relationship is one that I know the least about and am most curious and feel I have to do more work to better understand.  My sense is that this financialisation of logistics and the shipping bubble is something that has been happening for a while now, but its acceleration and its secondary effects are definitely worth thinking through.  I also findOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA it interesting the discussions around the Chinese push to create the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which will inevitably have enormous impact in the transportation sector.  Much of the writing about the AIIB mention roads and rail, but ports are enormously important to China as well, as their takeover of existing ports (for example Piraeus in Greece) and massive investment in new ones (for example, most recently, Gwadar in Pakistan) indicates.  This shifting landscape where capital seems to flow into shipping from various geopolitical centres in the world is absolutely fascinating to me, primarily because it is far from the “denationalised finance capital” transforming the globe that we hear about.  You mentioned Israel’s insistence on keeping Zim “national”; for me, the fact that the Gwadar port will come with a naval base for China is also crucially important.

In any case, it has been a pleasure to talk to you about all of this, and I think in the interest of not driving our readers to tears of boredom, we should wrap up.  But I do hope that we can chat again in the future.

CC: Thank you, Laleh. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

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

  1. Reblogged this on Deterritorial Investigations Unit and commented:
    Great interview on logistics networks and intermodal transport systems – particularly in regards to the interrelationships between immaterial capital (the so-called ‘financialization of everything’) and material production (labor and the physical networks that undergrid the system).


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