Shipping Containers

As a member of the Kostis Kourelis and Richard Rothaus reading collective, I was told to read Craig Martin’s little book titled Shipping Container in the Ian Bogost’s and Craig Schaberg’s Object Lesson’s series from Bloomsbury Academic. It was really good.

The book considered three things in relation to the container – their ubiquity, their standardization, and their impact on labor – as a way of using the container to unpack the hidden elements of consumer capitalism and globalization.

1. Ubiquity. By far, the most compelling aspect of Martin’s book how he presents shipping containers as a key part of the ubiquitous networks of modern capitalism. Moving constantly from factory to ship to truck to store, shipping containers are like Michel Serres’s angels, coursing the globe delivering goods. They are permanently ready, stacked in ports or atop container ships, to discharge their responsibilities and to support to global flow of capital (and here, he evokes David Harvey’s various works and, of course, Allan Sekula’s Fish Story). 

Of course, they’re also ubiquitous in re-use as offices, storage units, and modular housing. These functions fall outside of their primary use, but, at the same time, hint at their ubiquity. They are so common that a few pulled from circulation whether through formal or informal means has no impact on the functioning of the system in general.

2. Standardization. The standardized size of shipping containers was key to their adoption by shipping companies and ports. Martin does a nice job discussing how the shipping container rose to prominence historically and replaced the improvised methods for stowing gear upon ships that had persistent for centuries. By offering a standardized sizes for loading, the container because the basic unit for moving goods both onboard ship and ultimately onto trucks or rail for distribution. For Martin, the packaging of goods upon a ship – traditionally the expertise of the longshoreman – gave way to the stacking of shipping containers by standardized equipment. The rise of the shipping container marked the the decline in the craft of stowage, but more importantly it marked the standardization of space.

The size and shape of the shipping container influenced the movement of goods, their shape, how they are packaged, their various states, and how they are sold. In other words, this largely invisible, if ubiquitous, form and its standardized measure shapes how we experience our larger material surroundings.

3. Labor. While it is increasingly common to read about objects as agents that exert a symmetrical force upon human actors. Martin was not particularly interested in such formulations and focused instead on the human costs of standardization. He examined the changing role of the longshoreman who went from expert in stowage to operator of a crane with a largely automated coupling device that attached to the shipping container. This is not to suggest that a certain amount of technical knowledge and experience goes into loading and unloading a containership (or, presumably, loading and unloading the containers themselves), but that this labor is substantively different from that of the traditional longshoremen’s role. Labor represents main lens through which Martin considers the size and function of containers ultimately shaping human actions.

4. Afterlife of Containers. One of the things that Martin does less with is the afterlife of shipping containers. On the one hand, he describes how their human scale makes them suitable for a range of terrestrial functions from storage to habitation. In fact, the book starts with Martin writing about containers in a shipping container turned into artist studio at some lakeside retreat. The conclusion returns to the various forms of adaptive reuse and adhocism involving shipping containers. 

At the same time, the book does little to explain how shipping containers actually function as angels in the distributed system capitalism. Once they deliver their message, where do they go? What happens then? How does a shipping container carrying South American mulch to Grand Forks, ND find its way back to a port or even a redistribution point to continue on its way? Who owns shipping containers? Who takes the loss when a container becomes an adhoc storage room at a construction site or falls from a ship in transit?

A few years ago, I wrote a proposal for a book on shipping pallets for the Object Lesson series. My proposal was rejected (maybe declined is a better term) because Martin’s book on shipping containers was already in the works. The difference between our books lies in their area of emphasis. My interest was in the afterlife of shipping pallets. Once they have served their primary function as a platform for goods, what happens to them and where do they go? How do individual pallets find their ways into suburban basements, into rural sheepfolds, and into improvised furniture? 

I think Martin’s emphasis on standardization has much to do with the utility of shipping pallets both in their primary function and in their afterlife. In fact, Martin suggests that shipping containers in some ways have made pallets obsolete, but I would contend that the relationship between the two objects has given pallets ongoing importance. After all, a shipping container of standard size is 8 ft wide and most standard pallet sizes fit within this size container with a minimum of wasted space. Their standardized dimensions then contribute to their utility as building materials forming neat walkways, 4 ft. high fences, and lining up neatly in garages, big box store aisles, and basements. 

If shipping containers provided the size, the forms of movement, and the efficiency to activate the seamless flow of global capital, then the byproduct of this efficiency is a kind of flourishing of adhocism structured around containers and pallets organized around their standard dimensions and sizes. 

One Comment

  1. Yes, another Serres reference! One of my favourites in his oeuvre.

    Reply

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