Friday, October 15, 2010

The Slave Ship: Fashioning a Maritime Future

 Why a Ship?  In ways more than one, this age has been defined and fashioned by the existence of ships. The sight of a ship, sailing lonely and resolutely, in an ocean marked by its openness and vastness has been a potent imagination for mankind.

One of the greatest philosophers of our age, Michel Foucault, in his Heterotopias: or Other Spaces identified the ship as one of the prime examples of a heterotopia. Heterotopias, as understood by Foucault, are a space, which are at once, a curious conglomeration of multitudinous spaces. The anthropometric identification of space is defined by the occupant (both physical and ideological) of the space.

The ship is primarily a vessel, a container which contains within its hollow belly people, individuals, items, cultures, symbols, politics, possibly every imaginable symbols of humanity, each marked by their obvious differences. It travels an uncharted landscape marked by the absolute absence of humanity and the symbols that define humanity. It is a sole representative, an ambassador of humanity. It etches its mark in the ocean, the ports and cultures that it touches.

The West imagines itself as a ship. It gives the West an ever mobility; it is a verb of movement. And since the West predominates everything that is not the West, the ship has come to define the culture of modernity. It is an absolute symbol of presence, of belonging and possession.
How does therefore the East imagine a ship? One is indeed appalled by the absence of ideas. A ship that sails the East, and from the East, travels with the intention of always coming back. A journey from the East is marked by a metaphor of returning. In a technical parlance, it is called sedentary travel; one travels only to come back. The West simplifies it by calling it insularity. Since her metaphors of travel are always already designed by a desire to come back, the ship is imagined richly in terms of flow, not from within, but from without. It signifies transaction, mercantilism, riches and fertility.

Whereas the East is pregnant with the idea of completion which is defined by returning, the West finds itself desiring a structural incompleteness which it views as a possibility for further development. This philosophy of different imaginations is reflected in the maritime history of these two cultures. The vocabulary of conquest is therefore missing in its entirety from Eastern maritime history.
The oceanic landscape of the world is dotted by the presence of small landmasses breaking the monotonousness of blue water with curious names; many of them are indeed naval bases of western nations, some developed, some underdeveloped, some past the prime in the index of development.

A vocabulary of globalisation based on scarce, resource based economics interprets them as strategic geopolitical sites, as sites of hegemony, control. They control and direct the flow of resources and strategies. True. But they are also wastages. Some of the Western nations can ill afford them in an age which is defined by the general decline of West. But, these nations have clung to them. This is perhaps bad economics, a contradiction in terms in the rulebooks of classical and even neo-classical economics. I call them the relics of the past...a resultant of the differential imaginations that have shaped both the West and the East. The outbound journey, which is also an expansion, has exhausted itself with the emergence of a new world with even newer players, and now it exhausts the site of its emergence.
P.S. This very brief piece fails to be a foreign policy commentary by consciously desiring to avoid that trajectory. :-)

Rajarshi Mitra takes cursory interest in the general human condition, from politics to poetics. He generally means no harm, but is an avowed sceptic. A versoholic of sorts, he also teaches English Literature in a college.

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