shipwrecks, Jesús Carrillo

narrator Jesús Carrillo
term shipwrecks
published September 2019, Madrid

The term shipwreck joins two 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 West Indies, around 1530 the troubled stories of the drift and loss of so many soldiers and sailors were the way individual destinies nurtured the grand narrative of the Empire, providing both its inner structure and its ultimate truth.


Pre-dating Foucault, the only antidote against physical and spiritual disintegration was self-writing, and the chronicler followed. In order to escape anomy and ignominy each expeditionary would meticulously put his unspeakable experiences into writing: as in a 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 whom we rely for 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 the long-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’s personal “feat” was crucial for this narrative turn. In a twist of Petrarch’s argument, discovery, the fulfilment of both collective impulses and the plus-ultra projection of Empire, was identified with the drift and loss of an individual adventurer, with his error and misdirection. Columbus’s 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, a form of homesickness, was first diagnosed in the 17th century by a Swiss doctor as a syndrome which was rapidly spreading among the many sailors and others who had left their home countries for distant lands. 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 kill and die for, conveniently came to alleviate the Oedipal trauma.


→ After this, art and literature would serve as the logbooks for the endless trip of the self, accounts of the endless quest performed by an individual launched into the unknown and who hopelessly crashes against the reefs of their 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 into. 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 Géricault, counterpointed the sordid expansion of the imperial accumulation machinery. The troubled story of the self, of the only survivor, after a ship has been sunk, 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 an 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 pointless 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 collective progress and civilisation. By the same token, it also prevented any → empathy or alliance with the subjects of domination and enslavement, who were personally blamed for interrupting the narcissistic process of self-recognition. Racism.


Since its inception, colonialism developed through a massive sinking of the stories which both underlie and contest the narrative structures described above. These shipwrecks provide the → dead material that is the 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 exiled tell of a collective sinking which articulates forms of subjectivity that are 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 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 a more predatory activity of the outlaw. Stemming from the same centrifugal impulse as Empire, piracy defined a subject position opposed to that of the colonist. Unlike most of his contemporaries, the pirate charted his actions in the world following his own will to avoid the submission of his personal destiny. His status was not based on the search for the self and the domination of the Other, but on the boundless unfolding of an outlaw subjectivity.


Always moving, always lurking, pirates did not use maps to arrive at any → harbour, but in order to trace the routes of the vessels they wanted to intercept. Pirates were not longing for a home to go back to, but for a slum in which to celebrate their loot with rum and sex, where nobody would recognise them. Without a → territory or a nation, the boat was the pirate’s place and the crew his 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”. A pirate ship was, like a quilombo, a self-managed space whose main and only ruling principle was enabling those who stayed there to live beyond the law.


Crippled, endowed with a diffuse racial identity and loose sexual behaviour, the pirate exceeded the norms which were defining the modern body. The tattoos on his skin were both a declaration of sovereignty over his own body, and a way of blocking off a return to civilisation.


The pirate, as a rebel indigenous person or fugitive slave, lived without alibi or excuses for the dislocation of lives, times and spaces provoked by the colonial process. He made this structural violence and cruelty the logic of his existence, turning them against the dispositives of exploitation, distribution and accumulation designed by the colonial system.


Disconnected from the accumulation and territorialisation circuits, piracy gradually faded away as an alternative to the state, leaving 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 merging of mercantilist capitalism with tactical thinking and autonomy of action. As an ironic updating of such transference, Eyal Weizman – a member of Forensic Architecture – told us about the use of Deleuze’s theory by the Israeli army in order to plan military campaigns in Palestine.


In a period when a new wave of colonial enterprise and the Industrial Revolution coincided, Marx proposed a common → emancipatory narrative for both the proletariat and the colonised and enslaved populations: that of class struggle. In response European nationalisms, allied with capital, worked 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 20th century, the decolonisation → process attempted at articulating the voice of an untamed Friday: a new voice which 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 which was not that of the master, nor that of the proletariat. Decolonisation coincided with the end of the Western revolutionary project and with the posthumous re-articulation of 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 say it? – racial superiority.


The obstacles impeding an alliance between the racialised migrant multitudes and the increasingly precarious European populations cannot be easily circumvented. The confused 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 discourses which justified first the occupation of their lands, and now their expulsion to the seas. They are seen, at best, as occasional support on the path to survival.


The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault contrasts the active attitude of the young African who is using his last energies to attract the attention of the distant vessel, with 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 shown, we can only see the anonymous muscled back of the young African. Of him, we only know his vital strength and instinct for survival.


As in Géricault’s painting, in the contemporary sinking, we are still imposing our Western mindset to manage the lives and deaths of others, unaware of the fact that it is precisely us, who have already given 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 anymore. In the same way the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s Geography in the 15th century banished both monsters and paradise from the surface of the → Earth, GPS has now 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, and 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 our contemporary loss, and explains the nature of our malaise metaphorically. 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 no longer have anyone to write to or to read, being exposed to the storms with no other shelter than a hyper-thin technological membrane.


One may think that these circumstances would provide conditions for the possibility, if not urgent need, to plot new narratives, common narratives, deriving from the storms 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 have not disappeared but instead re-emerge under a ghostly guise.


Devoid of narrative tension, of the capacity to provide our current catastrophe with any possible meaning, as Aeneas expected from collective storytelling, 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 on the horizon, we calm ourselves through the contemplation of those spectres, projecting a melancholic, aestheticising gaze.


Many of us think that → feminism, as an open-ended discourse of emancipation, is Ariadne’s thread we need to leave the labyrinth. Firstly, because of the patriarchal structure of the Western castaway narrative: Narcissus paralysed 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 which impede us to recognise our raft companions on their own terms, and ourselves as one among many.


Secondly, feminism unties the knot which binds the narcissistic inscription of the self with the indifference to the annihilation of others, allowing new inter-subject relations based on the common → care (→ 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 for and reproduction and transformation of all forms of life.


Fourthly, 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.


Lastly, because feminism is common, it does not belong to anybody. It is a non-expropriated discourse of emancipation which may allow us to recognise within ourselves the will and capacity to survive a shipwreck.


In order to exorcise the paralysing sense of loss, it may be useful to follow the old traces 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.