I’d followed this story from the start, but as the journey dragged on I was only catching up much later, usually a month or so after the fact. This is the last of the series which follows a container ship on its travels – a HUGE container ship – as a meditation on ethnography and much else besides. Great project. Read back to some of the earlier posts, especially the first ones, for commentary on size. But this bit on waste is also worth retaining:
One of my first conversations with the captain when we were still in Oakland was about this very vexing problem of waste: as we experienced longer and longer delays at the US ports, the primary question on the captain’s mind was what to do with all the garbage the ship had accumulated. Recent US environmental regulations prohibited the release of these wastes into the 24-mile coastal waters off the US shoreline, and their presence was starting to give the captain a headache. “Grey water” – the collected dirty liquid from laundry machines and shower stalls, was nearing capacity in the tanks, so the laundry room had to close. Sewage could not be disposed, and food waste, biodegradable and otherwise dumped into the ocean every three days, was gathering the smell of rot and decay into corners of the deck. “Apparently,” said the chief mate, “the US does not want to shit where it eats.” – and so it protects its waters from waste, making the world’s ocean into its toilet bowl.
There is some rich irony in all this: environmental regulations declared a ‘victory’ for communities in the US may have alleviated the blight of pollution in US territorial waters (itself somewhat of an oxymoronic term), but this only means that that garbage is disposed of somewhere else – received, recycled, cleaned, and ingested by populations unable to escape from its detritus. I think often about this circulating image as an allegory for the inequalities of the global economy: boxes full of garbage, wastepaper and scrap travel east and are recycled to keep China’s manufacturing and packaging industries humming, while those same containers travel back west with goods made cheap by indentured labor – goods soon to be discarded in a yawning hole and brought back east again not long after they are purchased: computer chips, 6 month-old iPhones declared irrelevant upon the release of newer models, barely sturdy furniture, dollhouses, plastic utensils, etc. etc., the whole rejected flotsam and jetsam of our ravenous, bulimic society in giant landfills, representing a grand dialectical tussle between value and its antithesis.
In China, however, waste is business. Not only are a ship’s eastbound containers laden with refuse and scrap; the endlessly traveling ship is itself a massive waste-producer. As we neared the Chinese ports, the chief engineer and captain ran over the long list of overhauls and waste management procedures they would have to accomplish on top of the rush of cargo operations. In Hong Kong, I watched as a crane lifted a hulking mountain of garbage collected over a month at sea into a waiting barge below, the smell of heavy fuel and rotten food mixing together in the humid air. In Yantian, a sludge disposal company with a freshly-painted barge drew alongside the Ever Cthulhu in the harbor in the afternoon, and I watched as it lifted a pipe by crane onto the ship’s deck, and pumped 75 tons of sludge from the engine room’s tanks into the barge waiting below. The business of sludge management is “so lucrative”, the chief engineer says, that while companies in the EU charge shippers for its disposal, in China, companies purchase this black, sticky mess. When put through a refining process, half of this sludge is usable as fuel; the other half is burned off in a waste plant. So profitable is this business that after they were done with the job, the company sent gifts: the Chief Engineer received a few beautiful calendars, and the crew ten boxes of Tsing Tao beer.
Jing-Mei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park, Taipei, December 2015
Co-written with John Hutnyk
Although this will no doubt change in years to come, Jing-Mei currently seems to occupy a tricky position as both memorial site, prison museum and cultural park. It is missing from the current edition of the Taiwan Lonely Planet whose maps of Taipei narrowly crop it off. Both the 2-28 Memorial Park and Museum and the Chiayi Prison museum are given decent attention.
Visiting Jing-Mai on New Year’s Eve (31 December 2015), it was almost completely deserted bar a woman exercising her border collie. Although it was a damp, grey afternoon which over-emphasized the new brutalism of some of the sites architecture, it was still difficult to imagine the appeal of the space as a cultural park in better weather given the proliferation of creative and cultural parks throughout Taipei and Taiwan. The logic of defining the space in relation to other restoration and repurposing also seems problematic given many of these parks such as Huashan 1914 Creative Park (a former winery turned into a series of design-concept stores, cafes, galleries and an arthouse cinema) celebrate culture as consumerism first and foremost.
So who exactly is Jing-Mei aimed at?
The history of the site is documented in the park brochure. Its military education, military prison and military court uses are the stuff of the exhibitions, but especially the ongoing court functions (until 2007) also fold into the emerging story the museum. As with the first displays at Abashiri prison museum in Hokkaido, a portion of the work of the brochure is to document the efforts made to preserve artefacts and buildings for the prison museum – a narrative about itself, which is revealing in its frankly told tale of political manoeuvres. In 2001 the vice president of Taiwan, Annette Lu Hsui-Lin visited and learning that the Ministry of Defence proposed to reconstruct the site, she recommended preservation, and in July 2002 the Human Rights Advisory Panel under the Office of the President tasked the Council of Cultural Affairs to preserve the site as a park. Relocating the Ministry of Defence court functions was largely completed by 2007, and this very valuable and large urban area was renamed, from the ‘Memorial Park of Court Martial During the Communist rebellion’ to, on Human Rights Day, 10th December 2007, as ‘Taiwan Human Rights Jing-mei Park’. Change of Government in Taiwan in 2008 meant another change of name ‘after much deliberation’, with ‘opposition from various human rights groups’ and a public hearing in April 2009 so that in 2010 the park and the facility at Green Island in the south were made a part of the newly announced ‘Taiwan Human Rights Museum’. The brochure ends with a flourish: ‘The objectives of the museum were to preserve the two historic sites and to promote human rights education by fully utilizing the four major functions of museum: to preform studies and research, to handle collections and preservation work, to organise exhibitions and publications, and to educate the public and promote knowledge’ (Brochure of preparatory Office of the National Human Rights Museum, middle pages).
Having visited Jing-Mei a few days after Chiayi prison museum, it was difficult not to draw direct comparisons between the two sites and to reflect on the ways in which different forms of prison museum underpinned by apparently very different ideologies and political objectives re: audience and narrative might nevertheless be complicit in reproducing dominant discourses on incarceration. The Chiayi inmates were absent but in Jing-Mei they are very much present as dissidents, readers, mistaken identities, unjustly jailed or otherwise put upon victims. They are referred to throughout as ‘victims’ by the English language audio-guide. The narrative of their everyday experience structures the layout of the displays in the buildings, from courtroom and lawyer consultation room (though lawyers are de-emphasized as court appointed) through health and shopping, living quarters (bugs), eating, reading, washing and relaxing. Guards are absent in this case.
There is a strange tension at work where the careful reconstruction of the various living spaces of the prison facilities ‘humanizes’ the experience of those detained there and, as such, does more perhaps to affirm a well-regulated carceral state which includes a prison library, provisions store and visitor room than spaces (such as Chiayi prison museum) now devoid of such markers or in which such referents have been repositioned within glass cabinets.
There is an attempt to ‘reconstruct’ objects within the space in which they were used, arrangements on a doctor’s desk, packets and tins on shelves which despite being ‘under glass’ are focused less on the authenticity of the objects (many are replicas or ‘imagined’ as representative of the time and space) and more on creating scenes of snapshots of how life was for those incarcerated under the White Terror than a celebration of relics and fragments taken out of context.
The yard outside the cellblocks which it is possible to walk around was where the inmates were allowed to exercise for 15 minutes, 3 times a week. Although the yard is compact in line with the small size of the prison itself, it is difficult not to draw comparison with the cages where those kept in solitary confinement in today’s U.S. supermaxes (but elsewhere too) get their exercise. In this respect, the role of memorials such as Jing-Mei but also places like Robben Island and Camp des Milles should not simply be about collective memory of human rights violations associated with now defunct political regimes. Calling to mind the notion of ‘human rights’ in this way seems to echo Slavoj Žižek’s now dated but no less relevant ‘Against Human Rights’ paper in New Left Review. In it he claims that human rights are evoked to designate those who have lost all possibility of their ‘humanity’, stripped of personal, national, religious and cultural identity. Human rights only come into play when there is nothing left of what makes us more than biologically human. Might not the same be true of human rights memorials if they only work to ‘remember’. If once again ‘human rights’ only come into play after a moment is past? Instead, we might look at how such spaces permit a questioning of the ongoing techniques of exclusion, punishment (torture) and surveillance which rely on extra-judicial acts regardless of whether those subject to such techniques have been sentences via judicial or non-judicial procedures and, in turn, consider the ways in which the domestic criminal ‘other’ is constructed and framed within contemporary sites of detention according to the same or comparable discourses of fear associated with notions of global terror.
Coming out into the yard from the cells was itself something like a role-play. It was, I think, inevitable to look up and imagine what life within the courtyard, with only a rectangle of sky, despite being in the middle of a large city, would be like. Immediately sound became more important, and the sight was of either walls and security towers, or the distant but small sky. Isolation cell – an experience often depicted in cinema and literature, but here for the first time in my experience enacted thought the sequence of leaving the oppressive close cells and moving into the yard. And these cells were nowhere near as small or as claustrophobia inducing as the ones at Chiayi.
This too was perhaps set up through the earlier role-play with the telephone. We have long been aware that the issue of prisoner or detainee presence in the narrative is an important marker, perhaps something taught by the critique of older histories by the subalterns school and other modes of counter-privilege discourse, that of course then fetishise and celebrate resistance narratives in a kind of mirror exoticism way, but in this case the prisoner experience foregrounding the narrative is seductive. It sets up experiences of albeit remote but empathetic connection. The phone connects the ‘victims’ to the visitors. But the central place for victim narratives just also be considered with its filters. No prisoner, convict or detainee narrative is not recorded under duress. Even where such records are admitted as interrogation transcripts, the intervening screen of perspex and perspective sits between the visitor and the inmates. Role-play with the telephone does not invoke this dilemma, but rather pretends towards accessing unmediated experience – what is it like to talk with my son on an old black telephone through a mediating glass, with security camera by the ceiling corner looking down at us recording? The screen does not convey the duress that was always, to some degree is always, the undertone of prisoner testimony.
Do such sites via both role-playing and their status as ‘exceptional’ sites allow a persistent ‘bracketing’ out which encourages complicity and passivity on the part of those who visit and attempt to engage at whatever level, from whatever background? Or do they demonstrate the difficulty of calling into question the carceral within contemporary society?
As an aside, I also wanted to include a reference within this post to a slightly bizarre collection of laminated posters stuck to the toilet doors in the female restrooms. The stock images of famous, primarily European monuments with short maxims printed below in English and Mandarin seem both at odds with the site’s curated narratives and exhibits but also lacking in an obvious objective as either affirmation or critique of the official curation. I have no idea who posted these here, why or how long they had been there for. Nevertheless, there was clearly some intentionality behind them even if this was simply to provide some amusement to those based at the site.
Without trying to read anything into their existence or the choice of images (celebrated monuments from elsewhere), they did make me think about the potential to disrupt or subvert curated historical narratives evoking in some sense (despite the intentionality) Barthes’ idea of the punctum. Although the punctum is, precisely, not something we can actively seek out, it does strike me that there will always be something, an object, a reaction, an act, occurring within the space of the prison museum that doesn’t fit the intended narrative, curation or guided visit. In future I’m going to pay more attention to these. SF
These guys still owe me roadie fees from 1976 or so (I carried a guitar lead to the back of a van once, and also packed a few pipes in there too) so best they go out on that reunion world tour and make some money!
Arbeit – Freizeit – Schlaf ist das scheinbar in Stein gemeißelte Triumvirat des idealen Alltags im Kapitalismus. Der Mensch stellt seine Arbeitskraft zur Verfügung, um existenzielle Bedürfnisse zu befriedigen, aber auch um sich Sachen leisten zu können, die ihn in seiner Freizeit von der zu ablenken, damit er möglichst schnell wieder bereit für selbige ist. Der britische Kulturwissenschaftler John Hutnyks hat sich in seinem Aufsatz Shopping is Civil War anhand unterschiedlicher Musikvideos mit dem Irrsinn des Shoppings in der warenförmigen Gesellschaft beschäftigt:
SHOPPING IS CIVIL WAR
By John Hutnyk
Six supermarkets featured in six music videos. In different ways, I can see why these clips go together and it is not merely arbitrary. It worries me that all my life seems headed for the aisles; shopping surrounds me with monstrous collections of commodities.