In shipwreck coincide both terms of modernity, the conqueror and the conquered: from beginning to end, two incommensurable narratives seamlessly sinking in the dark waters of the Ocean.
According to the first Spanish chronicler of the Indies, around 1530, the troubled stories of drift and loss of so many soldiers and sailors were the way individual destinies nurtured the big narrative of Empire, providing both its inner structure and its ultimate truth.
Pre-dating Foucault, the only antidote against physical and spiritual disintegration was self-writing, the chronicler followed. In order to scape anomy and ignominy each expeditionary should meticulously translate his unspeakable experience into writing: as in confession, as if sending a message in a bottle to an unknown addressee, ultimately a figure of the self. By the same token, the figure of the modern reader was also formulated; the stranger on which we rely a kind of understanding we could not expect from our compatriots, dazed as they were by the chants of mermaids.
The historian was consciously borrowing from Petrarch’s gesture, 150 years earlier. Our first “modern” spent a life writing letters in Latin to a long-time-dead Cicero expressing his longing for a horizon unreachable from his imperfect present; for a time when individual and collective destinies, hand in hand, would finally unfold their promise. Petrarch’s Sonnets to Laura tied his longing with masculine desire in an inextricable way.
But impersonating sovereign power from a volcano in Nicaragua, or from a Caribbean island whipped by hurricanes, involved submitting individual destinies to the service of the king and diverting intimate desires to climbing the ladder of the state structure. The interpretation of Columbus personal “feat” was crucial for this narrative turn. In a twist of Petrarch’s argument, discovery, the fulfillment of both collective impulses and the plus-ultra projection of Empire, was identified with the drift and the loss of an individual adventurer, with his error and misdirection. Columbus letters to the kings, explaining the eschatological dimension of his enterprise, ended up as the letters of a castaway: as mere literature with no legal consequence.
Betraying the hopes of the poet, the full accomplishment of desire, now translated into the systematic conquest of the other, was transferred to the abstract realm of the State. In the meanwhile, the heroic narrative of the individual was displaced to the margins: to a perpetual, futile and narcissistic search for the self, a knot that is still binding the account of the fragile Western subject.
Nostalgia, home-sickness, was diagnosed for the first time in the XVIIth century by a Swiss doctor as a syndrome which was rapidly spreading among the many sailors and ex-patriates currently leaving their countries. Nostalgia is the defining sentiment of the modern castaway. “Nation” and “society”, both objects of nostalgia and projects for the future, something to preserve and something to die and to kill for, conveniently came to alleviate the aedipal trauma.
Since then, art and literature would be the log of the endless trip of the self; the account of the endless quest performed by an individual launched to the unknown which hopelessly crashes against the reefs his own impotence. Walter Benjamin reminds us of the melancholic structure of the modern narrative: “our subjectivity recognises its own misfortune in absolute evil”. Self-writing, writing in exile, would sustain the exploration of new seas to sink. Loss was a meandering path to individualisation. As Duchamp would say, “Art is like a shipwreck; it’s every man for himself”.
Corresponding with the key moments of the colonial process, literary and artistic shipwrecks, from Shakespeare to Defoe, from Tintoretto to Gericault, counterpointed the sordid expansion of the imperial accumulation machinery. The troubled story of the self, of the only survivor after the sinking, was plotted under the shadows cast by the sunlight of imperial expansion.
Despite its futile nature, without the figure of the wanderer, the modern individual would be unsheltered, as Cervantes harshly reveals. Beyond the anachronistic fantasy of Don Quixote there was only a miser and opaque present, unable to reflect any value whatsoever. Between iniquity or madness, we should better pursue meaning within ourselves, even if it is an ultimately futile quest.
The untold story sustaining the narrative of the wandering subject, who recognised his individual self in the shipwreck, was the domination, exploitation and killing of a faceless “other” deprived of singularity. The realisation of impotence had a self-legitimating effect, excusing the Western subject from taking any responsibility with regard to the annihilation of millions executed on behalf of colective progress and civilisation. For the same token, it also prevented any empathy or alliance with the subjects of domination and enslavement, who were intimately blamed for interrupting the narcissistic process of self-recognition. Racism.
Since its inception, colonialism developed through a massive sinking the stories of which both underlie and contest the narrative structures described above. Those shipwrecks provide the necro compost upon which Western discourses of both individual loss and collective destiny germinate and grow.
The stories of the slave, the deprived, the refugee and the exile tell of a collective sinking which articulates forms of subjectivity radically different from those of the Western castaway. Their nameless bodies, stacked in a ship’s hold or floating lifeless in the sea, cast a different kind of shadow.
As constituent parts of the grand narrative of Western domination, they played the role of the other to be a submitted. Both feared and despised, we imagined them dark, fugitive, ambushed; uttering unintelligible languages and plotting a community in the shadows; cannibals endangering our physical integrity, which should be defended through taming and subjugation, through conversion and civilisation. Each Robinson Crusoe needs his Friday, but he will never get to really know his real name.
Beyond that colonial other the only radical alternative to Empire was piracy, a viral and parasitic practice in which individuals rejected the expectant passivity of the castaway in order to embrace the predatory activity of the filibuster. Stemming from the same centrifugal impulse as Empire, piracy defined a subject position opposed to that of the colonist. Unlike most contemporaries the pirate charted his actions in the world following his will to avoid the submission of his personal destiny. His status was not sustained upon the search of the self and the domination of the other, but upon the boundless unfolding of an outlaw subjectivity.
Always moving, always lurking, pirates did not use maps to arrive at any harbor, but in order to trace the routes of the vessels they wanted to intercept. Pirates were not longing for a home to come back, but for slum to celebrate the boot with rum and sex where nobody would recognise them. Without a territory and without a nation the boat was their place and the crew their tribe. The boat, as Foucault reminds us, is the perfect heterotopy “a fragment floating in space, a place without place. Both enclosed in itself and abandoned in the infinite sea”. The pirate vessel was, as the quilombo, a self-managed space whose main and only ruling principle was to keep on living beyond the law.
Crippled, endowed with a diffuse racial identity and with a loose sexual behaviour, the pirate exceeded the norm which was defining the modern body. *The tattoos on his skin were both a declaration of sovereignty upon his own body and the marking of a non-return path to civilisation.
The pirate, as the rebel indigenous or the fugitive slave, lived without alibi the dislocation of lives, times and spaces provoked by the colonial process. He made of that structural violence and cruelty the logics of his existence, turning them against the dispositives of exploitation, distribution and accumulation designed by the colonial system.
Disconnected of the accumulation and territorialisation circuits, piracy gradually faded away as an alternative to the state, remaining its trace in the romantic imagination of the triumphant Western bourgeoise. Three centuries of piracy also resulted in the development of new navigation technologies and the infection of mercantilist capitalism with tactical thinking and with the autonomy of action. As an ironical updating of such transference, Eyal Weizman, a member of Forensic Architecture told us about the use of Deleuze theory by the Israeli army in order to plan military campaigns in Palestine.
In a period when a new wave of the colonial enterprise and the industrial revolution coincided, Marx proposed a common emancipatory narrative for both proletarians and colonised and slaved populations: that of class struggle. Since then, European nationalisms, allied with capital, had the mission to deactivate the promise of an Internationale of “les damnés de la terre”. This promise was enunciated, we should not forget, from the axiomatic view of a European who imagined a seamless community of exploited workers all over the world.
During the XXth century the decolonisation process attempted at articulating the voice of an untamed Viernes: a new voice that emerged from the debris of the shipwreck and from the spell of alterity in order to bear witness in the trial of colonial domination. This new voice was to rehearse a narrative that was not that of the master, but it was not that of the proletarian either. Decolonisation coincided in time with the end of the Western revolutionary project and with the posthumous re-articulation a leftist discourse in which the lament of the castaway, the song of the old romanticised survivor of the shipwreck was taken as a life raft.
We are thus facing, on the one hand, discourses grounded on centuries of sinking and annihilation, but also of resilience and survival, and on the other, discourses which assume the shipwreck as a destiny, but are unable to give up their alleged intellectual, political, and why not saying, racial superiority.
The obstacles impeding an alliance between the racialised migrant multitudes and the increasingly precarised European populations cannot be not easily circumvented. Our perplex left in Europe is neither able to understand this disaffection, nor able to recognise our own responsibility in the massive sinking taking place on our shores, or just, perhaps, as a narcissistic reflection of our own shipwreck. Those, on their side, cannot find in the discourses of the European left anything but self-blaming versions of the same civilising discoursed which justified first the occupation of their lands and now their expulsion to the seas. They are seen, at best, as an occasional support on the path to survival.
The raft of the Medusa by Gericault opposes the active attitude of the young African who is using his last energies to attract the attention of the distant vessel, to the passive attitude of the mature man who is holding the naked body of the dead efebo lying on his lap. Whereas the dignified features of the old European are clearly exposed to our vision, we can only grasp the anonymous muscled back of the young African. Of him we only know his vital strengh and his instinct of survival.
As in Gericault’s painting, in contemporary sinking we are still imposing our Western mindset to manage the life and the death of others, unaware of the fact that it is precisely us, who already gave up, who cannot even imagine a rescue.
In a world as seen from a satellite, where nothing or nobody can hide, the narrative of the modern castaway does not seem to take place any more. In the same way the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s Geography in the XVth century banished both monsters and paradise from the surface of the earth, the GPS would have definitely erased the image of the wanderer, his loss and his hope to be found.
Where there is no place to hide, nobody can be found. Paradoxically, technological hypervisibility produces radical invisibility. As Julian Barnes narrates in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters today’s castaways do not cherish the hope to be seen since there is no lookout in modern boats. They are technically invisible to instruments of geolocalisation which are not designed to look for them.
The nightmare described by Barnes reveals the ontological dimension of contemporary our loss and explains metaphorically the nature of our malaise. Without a lookout scanning the horizon and without a possible receiver of our message in a bottle, the Western subject has lost one of the foundations of its constituent narrative. In a hyper-represented universe, the longing, reflective modern self would not have anymore whom to write or whom to read from the shore, being exposed to inclemency with no other shelter than a hyper-thin technological membrane.
One may think that these circumstances would provide the conditions of possibility, if not of urgent need, to plot new narratives, common narratives, deriving from the inclemency in which we are all living. However, even if the two founding narratives of the West: seamless expansion and shipwreck, have been swallowed by the maelstrom of late capitalism, their images instead of banishing re-emerge once and again under a ghostly guise.
Devoid of narrative tension, of the capacity to provide our current catastrophe with any possible meaning, as Eneas expected from collective story-telling, their ghostly images haunt us, libidinally exhausted, but avid to placate our anxiety and fear. Unable to raise our eyes to look for a remote sail in the horizon, we calm ourselves through the contemplation of those specters, projecting a melancholic, aestheticising gaze.
Many of us think that feminism, as an open-ended discourse of emancipation is the Ariadna thread to leave the labyrinth. Firstly because of the patriarchal structure of the Western castaway narrative: Narcise paralyzed in self-contemplation. If we do not interrupt the circularity of masculine desire, encouraged today by a new wave of regressive clichés, we will not be able to dissipate the ghosts with impede us to recognise our raft companions in their own terms, and ourselves as one among many.
Secondly, because feminism unties the knot which binds the narcissistic inscription of the self with the indifference to the annihilation of the others, allowing new inter-subject relations based on the common care of life.
Thirdly because feminism emerges from the denunciation of a structural inequality which affects the management of life at all levels. By contesting such inequality, feminism is also contesting the subordination to a sovereign law which decides which life should be preserved and which could be wasted, orienting all energies, wills and desires to the caring, reproduction and transformation of all forms of life.
Four, because it radically questions the mythic structure of the dual scheme governing our thoughts, imagination, desires and actions, releasing the possibility to think, imagine and act together in many different ways.
Last, because feminism is common, it does not belong to anybody. It is a non-expropriated discourse of emancipation which may allow to recognise within ourselves the will and the capacity to survive the shipwreck.
In order to exorcise the paralysing sense of loss, it may be useful to follow the old trace of the pirates, rehearsing a pirate, nomadic, feminism, a quilombo feminism, which may articulate new subject positions from the principles of dissidence and no-return.