Thinking Inside the Box

The fluid transition from sea to land

Alex Colas from Birkbeck University presented a paper entitled: “Infrastructures of the world economy: Thinking inside the box” at this year’s Millennium Conference held at LSE.

Contributing to growing scholarship on shipping containers and containerisation (the work of William Walters for example), Colas sought in his paper to “make the shipping container the protagonist of material analysis in international systems”.

As Colas highlighted throughout his presentation, the humble shipping container has made an unparalleled contribution to the globalised world in which we live. With 90% of the world’s sea transport going through the container, the container itself has come to be a powerful and pervasive metaphor for globalisation and standardisation. This can be explored through many contexts – the transformation of ports, shifting labour geographies and the shipping process itself to name but a few.

Containerisation has certainly been a driving force behind the process of globalisation. However as Colas highlights, containers are more than objects of the global. Rather, they are engineers in a complex system of transportation that works to create the global whilst simultaneously (re)creating the local. Colas suggests that these metal boxes have contributed to an ‘unsituated world’ in which shipping companies  seek to overcome the traditional land/sea circulation barrier by creating a simultaneous, fluid transfer of the container from sea to land mediated through the space of the urban container port. This compression of space and time demonstrates that objects need to be seen as entities that play an active part in the generation, stabilisation and reproduction of order and space. Furthermore, Colas highlights (through clips of the popular television series The Wire) that containers, as well as being agential in themselves, are mediated by all sorts of power relations, constructing a complex dialectic between actors, space and the materiality of the container.

Building on Colas’s use of The Wire, It would perhaps be a useful exercise to examine other popular fare to gain a deeper understanding of the role of containers in geopolitics and IR. One only has to look to the medium of film to see that containers are a pervasive presence. Whilst they may appear to provide mere receptacles of human action, films such as Lord of War (2005) demonstrate that they are nonetheless indispensable to the construction of the narrative. In a film about the arms trade, containers prove pivotal in the transportation of the weapons. Their banality acts as a mask – as rotten potatoes roll out of one container, the illicit contents of the others goes undetected. The container becomes a facilitative space of deception, illegality and mobility. The ‘reel’ world as represented in The Wire and Lord of War acts as a mimetic of the real, making popular representations an area ripe for academic investigation.

Colas highlights that containers have been fundamental drivers of global processes and have had an unprecedented effect on logistics and labour organisations. Moreover Colas demonstrates that containers as well as being transformative objects in themselves, have also transformed the way in which circulatory barriers have been overcome through seamless transitions from water to land. Containers are a worthy protagonist of material analysis in international systems and there is much room in academic discourse for the full story of the container to unfold.

Rachael Squire

Having completed a BSc in Geography, Politics and International Relations, Rachael is now working towards an MSc in Geopolitics and Security at Royal Holloway while working part time for a Member of Parliament. As part of her ESRC 1+3 award, Rachael will go on to take up a PhD position on the geopolitics of rumour and conspiracy. Rachael has a particular interest in the geopolitical significance of the shipping container and is hoping to build on this during her dissertation next year.

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3 thoughts on “Thinking Inside the Box

  1. Rachael: Excellent post. This does a nice job combining Colas’ main point about how the container (and the container port) is a social protagonist while also getting into the topic of how containers obscure social relations.

  2. Cool. It sounds similar to what architect Keller Easterling has written about containers in Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and its Political Masquerades and specifically on containers: “Interchange and container: The new orgman.”

  3. Reblogged this on critical logistics and commented:
    Rachael Squire from Royal Holloway has written an excellent post on a paper presented by Alex Colas. She will take up a PhD position next year and I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work! To quote her last sentence, “Containers are a worthy protagonist of material analysis in international systems and there is much room in academic discourse for the full story of the container to unfold.”

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