ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Humanity at sea: hybridity and seafaring

Location Appleton Tower, Lecture Theatre 3
Date and Start Time 20 June, 2014 at 09:00


Nicolas Argenti (Brunel University) email
Chryssanthi Papadopoulou (British School at Athens) email
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Fusing nature with human nature, boats are hybrid places. This session addresses the human need and potential to create and adjust to such composite environments. It views mariners as hybrid humans, and examines the impact of seafaring on their perception, corporeality and sociocultural identity.

Long Abstract

Because boats bind 'the state of nature' with human nature and intent, Foucault has characterised them as heterotopias; places without firm ground "given over to the infinity of the sea". Michel Serres has called them "hamlets in a fragile shell": human microcosms adrift in a barren wilderness.

Such hybrid places redefine human nature. Boats can only be populated by hybrid humans: biologically adapted to the marine environment, incorporated in the micro-society of the boat, yet simultaneous bearers of the biological and sociocultural norms and conditions of their home-land environments. Boats have their own rules of engagement with their inhabitants: they induce a floating sense of emplacement, a nomadic sense of belonging, which leave a permanent imprint on the mariners' memories, perception and identity. Simultaneously, boats affect mariners' corporeality.

This session aims to examine the impact of the hybrid place of the boat and/or seafaring on humans. Some of the questions it might address include: How does seafaring become enculturated by maritime peoples? In what ways does life at sea affect people's sense of emplacement and identity in the age of nation-states? To what extent does the sea affect human biology and idiosyncrasy? How do memories and discourses of the sea and maritime activities enter into other fields of thought and culture? What are the contrasts between the social formations particular to 'floating hearths' and those restricted to land? How do mariners negotiate the boundaries between these socio-natural spheres?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The ship as the symbol of immigration in the Greek cinema of the years 1957-1984

Author: Eleni Mitakou (NTUA)  email


The film is a prisoner of the time filmed and this makes it a historical document. The quotation and the comparison of a number of Greek films with references to immigration, dated from 1957 up to 1984, will explore the use of ship representations, described as transitional spaces or as symbols of hope.

Long Abstract

Immigration, a multi-dimensional phenomenon, with economic and social effects on society was ignored for many years from the Greek film industry. Testimonies, saved in national or private archives reflect the desperation of people leaving, packed, uncomfortably fitted on board ships, trying to keep in their memory that last image of saying goodbye.

It was only in 1957 that the first movies with references to immigrants were filmed, presenting a one dimensional perspective of the return, of the successful businessman, a deus ex machina to his relatives. In the next two decades film productions created dramas with references to immigration revolving around love stories or comedies. Instead of presenting the life changing journey, the film companies, as a result of the prevailing censorship of the time, chose to show the amenities and comfortable compartments of the ships. These commercial films, products for mass entertainment, presented cruise ships with several decks and lounges. The passengers, according to their income, were placed vertically from the upper to the lower deck. The ship became a place of encounters and the space of great love stories.

The true dimension of the immigrant's trouble, his/her family and the reality of a depopulated rural landscape were first presented in 1966 in the movie Until the Ship Sails. The moment of the embarkation is the only reference to the grimness of the upcoming trip. Thus the ships became the symbolic image of immigration in Greek cinema, representing either the encounter with success or the image of the unknown.

The philosophical archetype of the ship: a boat-journey to metaphors, images and dreams

Author: Chryssanthi Papadopoulou (British School at Athens)  email


Phenomenologists and poststructuralist philosophers weave a philosophical boat-archetype. Boats are presented as floating hearths, nooks for the recess of existence, gateways to boundlessness, and primal substances of dreams. This paper views the place of ships through the eyes of philosophers.

Long Abstract

Maritime archaeologists attempt the revival of the places of past ships through the study of their remnants, namely shipwrecks. Materiality, however, is but one ingredient of the multiplicity that is the Ship. Increasingly mariners' and societies' narratives on boats are incorporated in the mental reconstructions of the experienced places of past ships. This paper shows that philosophers' perspectives on boats constitute yet another key source on the place of (past) ships.

The writings of phenomenologists and poststructuralist philosophers weave the philosophical archetype of the boat. Boats are presented as floating homes containing and producing memories as intimate as those of one's childhood house. Boats are also employed as images of the dialectic between individuality and being in the world. They are protective nooks for the recess of existence and concurrently gateways to the embodiment of boundlessness - namely of the oceans. Finally, boats are depicted as a primal substance of dreams. They appear to the dreamer as metaphors of mind-wanderings, fears of seafaring accidents and/or re-interpretations of seafaring experiences.

Through a journey embarking from the works of Michel Serres, Michel Foucault, Gaston Bachelard and Gilles Deleuze, passing swiftly through the straits of Jungian psychoanalysis, this paper reaches the tangible shores of mariners' accounts of dreams and experiences onboard ships, and maritime archaeologists' analyses of the place of the ship. Boats are presented as heterotopias, artefacts, hybrid environments, and rites of passage to self-discovery. Sea-travel is thus examined as both an experienced reality and an allegory of perceiving, embodying, and consequently being.

Heterotopia as a tool for the analysis of space: theoritisizing ships in a Foucaultian way

Author: Stergia Sarantopoulou (N.T.U.A.)  email


Attempting to contribute to the discussion on the heterotopean character of ships, we propose a theoretical analysis of the foucaultian notion of heterotopia. We try to redefine the concept aiming to provide every possible description of ship's spatiality, a concrete Foucaultian theoretical toolbox.

Long Abstract

The idea of heterotopia, as an original philosophical neologism, was often misused or overused by such disciplines as architectural theory or geography, always filling in theoretical- methodological gaps: space as scientific object is rarely directly treated and thoroughly defined.

By lecturing on the theme of heterotopia in front of students of architecture, M. Foucault is slightly removed from discursive studies inaugurating a new discussion: a discussion on space, as if space constituted a new, independent object of research. He is thus differentiated from his own point of departure -discourses- to appoint space as the core of potential researches. Instead of revealing the "énoncés" the researcher is now asked to trace spacialities: localized relationships, placeable networks of power, materialized social procedures or functions. Space is no longer a strategy that enforces discursive function but almost the opposite: space does not only represent,but produces reality.

Located in the open hypotheses presented above, an analysis of the ship as a heterotopia, presupposes a description of its space as the generator of its subjects and their social environments. From the "Ship of fools" to Lecorbusier's floating asylum and the conterporary cruise ship, the heterotopic character of the floating vessel is verified by its capacity to shape and even produce its own inhabitants.

A woman on a boat: apprenticeship, gender and corporealities on a Sicilian fishing vessel

Author: Brigida Marovelli (Trinity College Dublin)  email


This paper aims to explore the ethnographic experience on a fishing boat as an anthropologist and as a woman.

Long Abstract

During my doctoral research, I spent part of my fieldwork on a fishing boat in Catania's gulf, Sicily. My contribution is mainly based on my interactions with the boat's crew, while fishing anchovies and sardines.

I aim to explore two aspects of my experience on the boat: how people acquire competence and knowledge; and how gender plays a role in researching marine environments.

The first part of the paper is dedicated to the bodily experience on the boat and on how the senses are involved in the apprenticeship, which every member of the crew needs to undertake to become competent in this context and to move appropriately in the challenging space of the boat. I analyse the way I learnt to be on the boat without interfering with the fishermen's activities first, and taking part to the fishing then.

Through my relationship with the fishermen, I then observe how my presence on the boat as woman was perceived and what kind of discussions it originated. The gendered dimension of this environment allowed to explore the relationship to space, in particularly to the seascape. Fishermen of this crew made a distinction between the safe domestic sea of the gulf and the high waters, wild and dangerous. The same differentiation was extended to women: some were domesticated (wives staying at home); others were wilder and uncontrollable (normally lovers and female anthropologists too). Powerful men were needed in order to tame the sea as much as to tame women.

MSV Heterotopia? Life on a wooden cargo vessel in the Indian Ocean

Author: Edward Simpson (SOAS)  email


This paper examines the idea of heterotopia through the lives and works of contemporary seafarers in the Indian Ocean.

Long Abstract

The Mechanised Sailing Vessel (MSV) is a wooden cargo ship registered with the Indian State. An MSV motors into port in Northern Somalia. Cargo from Dubai: metal and plastic trinkets from China, used Japanese cars, pasta and hose pipes. On the return leg, the ship loads goats, three decks deep: kebabs on the hoof. And so on, back and forth, throughout the sailing season before returning to India with empty holds for a rest.

In this paper, I draw on my own research as well as the auto-ethnographic works of sailors with camcorders and cell phones. Through their lenses we see what has only been imagined by most of those who have written about the Indian Ocean: what happens when the ship leaves the shore?

We see that passages of the MSV are in the gaps of today, not in the rot of a maritime tradition. MSVs routinely pass between nations, languages and through competing types of authority and regulation. MSVs go where no one else does, can, or 'should' - they float because of pirates and war and sanctions. On deck, however, everything is strangely familiar and routine. Sailors eat, sleep and work for months at a stretch. They fish, pray, watch films and talk to their friends.

Things seem heterotopic, but are they? Did Foucault ever go to sea? What else can be said of the tensions between land and sea that the passages of the MSV highlight?

Small 'floating villages': vertical asymmetry aboard Scottish trawlers

Author: Joseph Webster (Queen's University Belfast)  email


Drawing on ethnographic data collected while working as a deckhand on two Scottish trawlers, this paper analyses the spatialisation of social, religious and economic inequalities that marked relations between crew members while they hunted for prawns in the North Sea.

Long Abstract

Drawing on ethnographic data collected while working as a deckhand on two Scottish trawlers, this paper analyses the spatialisation of social, religious and economic inequalities that marked relations between crew members while they hunted for prawns in the North Sea. More than this, it explores these inequalities as a wider feature of life in Gamrie, Aberdeenshire, a Brethren and Presbyterian fishing village riven by disparities in wealth and religion. The paper argues that inequalities identified by fishermen at sea mirrored those identified by residents onshore, with boats coming to be experienced as small 'floating villages' in the process. Intriguingly, these asymmetries can be traced along a vertical axis, with greater to lesser wealth and religiosity moving from top/above to bottom/below. Here, the skipper's cabin and cliff-top 'fisher mansion' were (literally) places of lofty prestige, standing in stark contrast to the lower echelons of the crew bunkhouse and 'prefab' council house. Mortality too, flowed from heights to depths, with Gamrics referring to the top of the village as 'heaven' and the lower Seatown as 'hell' - a view again echoed on and offshore by the strategically elevated placement of churches and wheelhouses, creating, in effect, a pair of downward looking all-seeing eyes. Thus, this paper seeks an analytical conflation (as opposed to a polarisation) of 'humanity at sea' (and on land), with the result that boats become villages-in-miniature and villages become boats-writ-large.

The Mediterranean trawler, or the world upside-down

Author: Naor Ben-Yehoyada (Columbia University)  email


This paper uses Aristotelian poetics to connect the drama onboard a motorized trawler in the Channel of Sicily and the outside world. It shows how onboard space and unfolding social relations become a key and an emblem for processes that lie beyond the ship, and in which it participates.

Long Abstract

This paper uses Aristotelian poetics to connect onboard drama and the outside world. Following Greg Dening's treatment of the mutiny on the HMS Bounty, I describe how the space onboard a motorized trawler in the Channel of Sicily, as well as the authority it displays and relationships it encloses, becomes both a key and an emblem for processes that lie beyond them, and in which they participate.

Mazara del Vallo, a fishing town at the southwestern tip of Sicily, 90 miles northeast of the tip of the Tunisian shore, boasts millennia of connections to and tensions with the other side of the Channel of Sicily. In their endless fishing voyages, the Sicilian and Tunisian fishers of Mazara personify both the reemerging Mediterranean imaginary that their fleet's expansion has conditioned since WWII and the current decrepit, diseased, disillusioned, and internally torn shape their craft has taken. The stark contrast between nostalgic tales of joint catches, gains, and exploits, and the stagnant, tense-ridden, and trying present, reveals the consuming effects that the fleet's mode of operation has had on people, relations, and the sea. Both in the daily on-board routine, which Tunisians and Sicilians call "slavery," and in their versions of what being Mediterranean seafarers entails nowadays, they offer a complex perspective—moving both temporally and spatially—on the vicissitudes and tolls of the sea's reemergence.

Denationalized ships, multicultural crews and the "race to the bottom" in the global maritime industry

Author: Johanna Markkula (Stanford University)  email


Based on research onboard a cargo-ship with mixed Swedish-Filipino crew, this paper explores how the specificity of the modern cargo-ship as a physical, social and political environment shapes the everyday lives of contemporary seafarers in terms of isolation, mobility, nationality and belonging.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the contradictory social, political and legal dynamics of the life-world of a contemporary cargo-ship and its crew. Based on fieldwork onboard a freighter with Swedish-Filipino crew, I look at the ship as 1) a specific physical technology and living environment of which seafarers are an integral part, 2) as a social environment with complex and contradictory dynamics shaped by both internal and external forces, and 3) as an ambiguous political unit, simultaneously outside national boundaries and deeply embedded in the nation-state system; a situation which shipping companies make instrumental use of through practices such as Flags of Convenience.

The paper begins by considering some of the key ways in which ships have been conceptualized, including ships as prisonlike, isolated total social institutions; ships as microcosms of cultural diversity, global villages or heterotopias; and ships as mobile technological links of connection that are vehicles of globalization.

The second part of the paper is ethnographical and looks at the ship as a living environment with its own life course whose specific physical characteristics influences the lives of the people working onboard. It explores how seafarers think about the ship, feel part of the ship, and the practices of belonging and place making through which they take ownership of their vessel. As detached floating sites in which people both work and live, ships blur the boundaries of home and away, work and leisure, dwelling and travelling.

The paper concludes by proposing an alternative way of conceptualizing the contemporary cargo-ship.

London boaters: the narrowboat, the new traveler and the rhetorical creation of "nature"

Author: Ben Bowles (University of Roehampton)  email


Itinerant boat dwellers on the waterways of England position themselves as close to ‘nature’ partially due to a particular understanding of temporality (called “boat time”) and partially due to the way in which they experience their own marginal position vis-a-vis the state and sedentary society.

Long Abstract

Boats are complex objects, not least as they are important foci at which boaters position themselves between a sedentary society which they partially reject and a vision of nature which they attempt to draw. Literature on UK traveling populations has tended to focus exclusively on Gypsies or New Age Travelers. Such a limited focus, however, neglects a traveling community who have been growing in number since the 1970s; the itinerant boat dwellers (or 'Boaters') of the UK inland waterways. Boaters often speak about their choice of dwelling as allowing them to enjoy a closer relationship with, and proximity to, 'nature'; this despite the fact that they have chosen to live aboard man-made vessels floating upon waterways made or modified by man. What leads boaters to make such claims of proximity to a 'natural' order? This paper proposes a two-fold answer. Firstly, boats are described as places where a specific type of elastic or fluid temporality can be experienced. This "boat time" is taken to be closer to 'natural' ideal rhythms. Secondly, boats are intriguingly positioned as both vehicles and as places of dwelling. They are the intermediaries through which boaters experience all of nomadic life, including the boater's problematic relationship with agents of the state and boater's marginal position with regards to a pervasive sedentary society. Faced with this conflict many boaters align themselves towards a rhetorically invoked 'nature'. This paper provides a portrait of boats as sites of alterity as experienced by a marginal traveling population.

The love of flowers: boats, time and the navigation of catastrophe in the Aegean

Author: Nicolas Argenti (Brunel University)  email


As the EU pays fishermen to scupper their boats, the last of the wooden fleet of the Aegean island of Chios is being destroyed. Mourning the loss of the boats he built in his youth, the island's last boatbuilder is haunted by the massacre of his ancestors in the catastrophe of Asia Minor.

Long Abstract

Following an EU programme to curb overfishing in the seas around Europe, skippers are being offered incentives to hand in their fishing licences and scupper their boats in return for generous payoffs. As a consequence, the last wooden boat builder in Chios is living out his final working days destroying the boats that he built in his youth together with his now deceased masters. A descendant of refugees from the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922, Takis remembers the loss of his home and his ancestors in the flight from Anatolia in the same breath that he speaks of the EU's 'barbarous' directive to destroy the last of the island's wooden fleet - itself a memory of the skills of the Asia Minor refugees who built the Chiot fleet in the century since their arrival on the island. This paper examines how an EU fisheries directive has triggered a crisis through which the loss of a wooden fleet and a body of practical knowledge merges with memories of displacement and violence two generations previously; the destruction of the sociality embodied in boat building recalling the forfeitures and sacrifices of the refugees in the flight from Asia Minor.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.