Walter Benjamin also traveled on freighters

In 1925, Walter Benjamin travelled on a freighter from Hamburg to ports in the Mediterranean. In their Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings recount the trip (pp. 240-241):

“On August 19 the ship [a freighter] sailed from Hamburg, with Benjamin in unusually high spirits.  Although he was worried about the possible lack of comfort afforded by this least expensive mode of travel, he was soon not just reassured by delighted: ‘This journey with the so-called freighter is one long aria of the most comfortable situations in life. In every foreign town you bring along your own room, indeed, your own little… vagabond household –; you have nothing to do with hotels, rooms, and fellow guests. Now I am lying on the deck, the evening in Genoa before me, and the sounds of unloading freighters all around me as the modernized “music of the world”’ [Gessamelte Briefe, 3:81]

He enjoyed traveling by freighter so much that he did it again in 1932 (p. 370):

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As Marcus Rediker says, it is amazing to realise that the conversations Benjamin had with seafarers inspired his luminous “The Storyteller”.

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The Logistics of Counterinsurgency

It was a great pleasure to have an occasion to think through how my previous work on counterinsurgencies connects to my current work on logistics.  The occasion was an invitation to lecture at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. The abstract is as follows:

It is a banal cliche of military thinking that the deployment of coercive forces to the battlefields requires a substantial commitment in logistical support for the transport of goods, materiel, and personnel to the war-zone, the maintenance of forces there, and their eventual withdrawal from there. In counterinsurgency warfare, which is predicated on the deployment of large numbers of forces, persuasion or coercion of civilian populations into supporting the counterinsurgent force, and the transformation of the civilian milieu as much as the military space, this logistical function becomes even more crucial. In this talk I will be thinking through the ways in which the making of logistical infrastructures -roads, ports, warehouses, and transport- has been crucial to the wars the US has waged since 2001 in Southwest Asia, and how these infrastructures in turn transform the social, political, and economic lives of the region they leave behind.

The lecture can be seen here:


Update (added on 11 May): Upon watching the opening clip of the lecture (the famous “What have the Romans ever done for us” scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian), Prof Barnett Rubin writes that

It is not widely known that this scene is based on a passage from the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, 33b:

R. Judah, R. Jose, and R. Simeon were sitting, and Judah, a son of proselytes, was sitting near them. R. Judah commenced [the discussion] by observing, ‘How fine are the works of this people [the Romans]!  They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths.’ R. Jose was silent. R. Simeon b. Yohai answered and said, ‘All that they made they made for themselves; they built market-places, to set harlots in them; baths, to rejuvenate themselves; bridges, to levy tolls for them.’ Now, Judah the son of proselytes went and related their talk, which reached the government. They decreed: Judah, who exalted [us], shall be exalted.  Jose, who was silent, shall be exiled to Sepphoris; Simeon, who censured, let him be executed.

I absolutely love this, because of course the original Talmudic text even better confirms the argument I make in the lecture.

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Lecture on “Capital and Coercion in the Making of Arabian Transport Infrastructures”

I was invited to give a lecture on my current research at the wonderful Center for American Studies and Research at the American University of Beirut.  The abstract for the talk:

In this talk, I will be thinking through the overlapping role of the US and UK militaries and US and UK petroleum companies in the making of non-oil transport infrastructures of the Arabian Peninsula.  In so doing, I am hoping to excavate the ghostly presences of colonial and mercantilist structures so frequently present in metropolitan commercial cooptation of countries of the global South through tracing the role infrastructure construction plays in structuring global labour relations, the movement of capital, and the embroilment of powerful militaries in local politics.

The lecture can be seen here:


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Podcast on Logistics with Deb Cowen and Charmaine Chua

I had the good fortune of having an amazing conversation with a couple of extraordinary scholars and friends about logistics and having the conversation recorded in a podcast.

Charmaine Chua (University of Minnesota) is an extraordinary young scholar working on logistical lifeworlds especially around Singapore.  She has a series of wonderful writings at Disorder of Things blog which can be found here.  She and I had a conversation some time ago about our respective containership trips.

Deb Cowen (University of Toronto) should need no introductions to the regular readers of The Gamming. She is the author of the amazing The Deadly Life of Logistics which I reviewed here.

As Charmaine writes in her introduction to the podcast,

Together, we take a look at the increasing ubiquity and prominence of logistics as a mode for organizing social and spatial life. We discuss how this seemingly banal concern with the movement of goods is actually foundational to contemporary global capitalism and imperialism, reshaping patterns of inequality, undermining labor power, and transforming strategies of governance. We also ask: what might a counter-logistical project look like? What role does logistics play in anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles across the globe?

We had a brilliant time talking to one another as we always do.  The podcast can be heard over at the Disorder of Things blog.

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Logistical Territories

The Financial Times has been doing some fascinating investigative reporting on ISIS finances a great deal of which of course is of interest to me because of the ways in which it ties into the movement of commodities and products across territories.  But what I want to write about here briefly is this wondrous map:

ISIS map

Of course the map is itself of interest: it follows a barrel of oil from the point of production to refineries and for export.

But what is of interest to me is the shape of ISIS-controlled territory.  I have been re-reading Lauren Benton’s magisterial A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900. I love how she builds on large bodies of historical and geographical literature to talk about sovereign territories (in her case of empires) as not flat and un-variegated spaces, but as “corridors and enclaves”.

Looking at this map of ISIS sovereign territory reminds me of her corrective geographic conceptualisation of sovereign territories. So much of the territory under ISIS control look like ropes strung across logistical routes, skirting less populated areas, tracing existing roads and transport infrastructures.

Of course, this is precisely the point of Benton’s book: that we think of empires as if they were wholly and monotonously controlled by the metropole, but that in fact this geographic imaginary of a fully controlled space does not correspond to the historical reality. This historical reality was of spaces of control that ran along littoral areas, riverine strings running towards the interior of the country, flatlands and the like.

And these spaces of sovereign control were in fact logistical spaces, transport routes, and routes of war and trade.  So a “real” map of state coercion (policing) and territorial control would have to correspond fairly closely with its transport maps.

Also, tangentially, the map above reminds me of China Mieville’s The City and the City where two cities belonging to two different countries with wholly distinct legal systems overlay one another.  I have used the book as an allegory for other stuff as well (seeing and un-seeing; hegemony; etc.).  But the map of Syria above, with the palimpsest of sovereign control over the territories reminds me a bit of The City and the City.


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Colonial precedents for the flags of convenience?

East Indiaman

Ships fly a flag of convenience in order to avoid the regulatory arms of the state or transnational institutions.  But here is a fascinating colonial precedent to the flag of convenience – from 1674:

Thus, when the [East India Company] committees insisted in 1674 that a new Admiralty regulation, which required all English commercial shipping to fly only the English merchant flag, should not apply to Company ships within the boundaries of its charter, they and the Admiralty under Samuel Pepys [seriously?] reached a compromise: Company captains would simply switch their flag for the English “red ensign” when outside of the East Indies. The point specified for the transition, however, was not the Cape of Good Hope but St. Helena. While contemporary maps might have located the island geographically in the Atlantic or Africa, for the Court of Committees [of the East India Company] it quite clearly was situated conceptually and jurisdictionally “in India.” (Philip Stern, The Company-State: Corporate Sovereignty and the Early Modern Foundations of the British Empire in India, p. 42)

This flag of convenience mattered to the East India Company, because India was the milieu of its monopolistic corporate sovereignty.

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Rescue at sea

This wonderful piece by Keith David Watenpaugh reflects on why fishermen rescue migrants at costs to their livelihood:

This last July, as the Mediterranean refugees were still being largely ignored by the EU,PBS Newshour’s Lisa Desai interviewed Captain Slaheddin of a Tunisian fishing boat that sails from the port town of Zarzis.  As the captain explained:

One time we rescued 10 migrants. [though in Arabic he used the work for refugee, al-laji’. When they got on the boat two of them started praying. It gave me chills, all over my body. We are fisherman. We are here to make a living. We are not here to rescue people, but we have a feeling of humanity. So if I find someone on the sea I will save him…

It’s a powerful feeling to see someone helpless, hungry and being burned by the sun. It’s very hard: you are in front of someone who is calling for help.

Captain Slaheddin used the very old Arabic word al-bashariyya for the concept of humanity, rather than the modern neologism al-insaniyya, which an Arabic-speaker familiar with the concept of human rights would probably use.  The older word carries with it a broader sense of the feeling of corporeal human and human-ness – the feeling of belonging to a humankind, as opposed to an animal or supernatural kind. That solidarity of the human against the vastness of the sea and an empathetic consciousness of how small and fragile human life is in the face of it is what moved him to rescue.  Like most fisherman, Captain Slaheddin most likely grew up fishing as the son of a fisherman and had seen the terrible price the Mediterranean can exact throughout his entire life.

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