Imperfect notes on an imperfect world
Imperfect world
In Conversation with Laleh Khalili

In Conversation with Laleh Khalili

Imperfect World

…the oceans remain the crucial space of globalization: nowhere else is the disorientation, violence and alienation of contemporary capitalism more manifest. But this truth is not self-evident and must be approached as a puzzle, or mystery; a problem to be solved.

Allan Sekula & Noël Burch, ‘The Forgotten Space: Notes for a Film

Much of what we use and touch every day is likely connected to the sea: many items would have been wholly or partially produced abroad, and most – if not all – of the remainder would have relied on commodities that would have arrived on tankers and other ships. Yet this all forms part of that background web of global interconnections that we too rarely recognize or reckon with, but are vital to how we presently live.

Laleh Khalili, the Al-Qasimi Professor of Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter, has sought to bring these realities to light. In her work, she explores the forgotten space of the sea that Sekula previously grappled with. Indeed, Khalili wrote the introduction for the third edition of his remarkable photo essay, Fish Story. She has developed these ideas most fully in her 2021 book, Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula. Khalili explains her focus:

Many people who liked to photograph or film or write about maritime transport were interested in the subject as kind of an aesthetic sublime – awed by the engineering vastness and complexity of this system of trade. And it is massive, both in the things that you see and in the things that are made invisible. It looks massive when you are on a coast somewhere and you see those container ships or tankers, or when you fly over Gibraltar and you see all of those ships waiting to pass. The massive things that are invisible are the routes, the amount of goods that travel – the things that we have difficulty aggregating in our brains. There is a sense of awesomeness and a sense of rupture from the past, which everybody keeps reproducing. What gets lost in the reverence for that massiveness is the human element, the human scale, the historical.

I wanted to situate a work that dealt with the invisibility of the mega-ness of trade, and with the invisibility of the Arabian Peninsula.

In foregrounding these dynamics, Khalili is examining at an industry and a region of fundamental importance for the global economy. The manufactured goods that fill up ships in the busiest ports in Asia are largely made with energy inputs that arrive on vessels from the Middle East. In a recent feature, The Economist points to the defining feature of the region’s geopolitics and economy:

First, and most obvious, it is awash with hydrocarbons. It accounts for 36% of world oil production, 46% of oil exports, 22% of natural-gas output and 30% of liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports. Those numbers will only rise. The region has vast reserves (52% of the world’s total for oil and 43% for gas) and low production costs. At a time when Western oil majors are skittish about investing, Gulf firms are adding capacity.

Location is important, too: the region connects Europe, Africa and Asia. Some 30% of the world’s shipping containers pass through the Suez canal in Egypt, while 16% of its air cargo flies via airports in the Gulf.

What Khalili does is make visible the maritime space of the Arabian Peninsula, identifying historical patterns and precedents in contemporary practices, highlighting the role of law and capital, revealing the technopolitics that shape the way ports are located and operate, as well as the considerable costs on coastlines and captains.

Khalili’s approach is one that emphasises connections and context, moving from the complexities of global finance down to the realities that it manifests, what it means to be working at sea and on ports. For these reasons, and many more, we were keen to have a conversation with her. The structure of the episode is the first 30 minutes is a discussion between Peter Chambers and myself around Khalili’s work, followed by a conversation between Chambers and Khalili. For more, see her page, ‘The Gamming’, a title suitably inspired by Melville, and she has some great pieces in the LRB exploring the intersection between finance, geopolitics and commodities.

Thanks to Laleh and Peter for this thought-provoking conversation.

Imperfect notes on an imperfect world
Imperfect world
’Imperfect world’ is a series of conversations exploring exploring where politics, society, and technology meet. Hosted by Japan-based scholar, Dr Christopher Hobson.