CIAO DATE: 6/00
Understanding the Global Political Economy through a Painting: Gericault's Scene de naufrage
International Studies Association
41st Annual Convention
Los Angeles, CA
March 14-18, 2000
Some of the more pessimistic commentaries on the phenomenon of globalisation has taken recourse to various metaphors to explain the dilemma of the affluent, predominantly western, democratic nations: among those alluded to is the lifeboat which has escaped from a doomed ship, is full to the point of capacity, and yet more those in the water seek a place on it. Thus, do conservative catastrophists annexe Nietzsche, and the decision to break out the hatchets and sever the hands of those struggling to come over the side, in order to successfully save those already within.
An equally compelling metaphor, referred to most notably in Robert Kaplan's book, The Ends of the Earth, is the painting by Jean-Louis-Andre-Theodore Gericault, 'Scene de naufrage,' but more popularly known as 'The Wreck of the Medusa,' which commemorates the ill-fated voyage, and end, of that ship in 1816. Specifically, it depicts the fate of those 150 members of the crew who, lacking sufficient life-boat space for them, were placed upon a raft and abandoned to their fate by incompetent and cowardly officers. The painting was, therefore, understood as much in political, as it was in aesthetic terms.
This paper argues, in the first instance, for the adoption of this painting as the leitmotiv and emblem of economic globalisation, while in the second, it explores the contemporary relevance of this painting for the scandal which is the current state of mainstream accounts on the global political economy with their stern judgements from the safety of the lifeboat, their casting adrift of whole continents, their sense of threat from those less fortunate, and their refusal to ask why their are insufficient life-boats in the first place. Finally, it urges a more adequate understanding of 'reality' than is presented in the plethora of detached and superficial accounts which assail our understanding of economic globalisation.
In Salle 77 of the Denon wing of the Louvre Museum can be found an overwhelming richness of paintings in a collection prosaically described in the catalogues as 'Large-Format French Paintings.' It is the repeated experience of this writer at least, that one canvas resists being claustrophobically driven out from its surroundings, which include works by Gros, Delaroch, and Delacroix, and this is, a large canvas by Jean-Louis-Andre-Theodore Gericault, completed in 1819, and now entitled Le Radeau De La Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa) , but originally titled Scene de naufrage (Scene of shipwreck) . Which is to say that it repeatedly retains the ability to arrest eyes which could otherwise easily roam to other works in an attempt to see (but certainly not to appreciate) the maximum expanse of painted surface afforded by all-too-rare visits to a unique and fragile treasury in the company of thousands bent on achieving the same objective. The reasons for this are many: they extend from the artistic radicalism which Gericault developed in the course of his work, to the contemporary significance which the last voyage of the Medusa, and the fate of those who sailed in her, now has as a leitmotiv for economic globalisation. Both, furthermore, are related in the context of this paper and will be developed accordingly in a framework which proceeds from a brief narrative of that voyage, to two considerations of Gericault's painting, to a juxtaposition of the Medusa's with certain of the dominant, recurrent themes and sentiments of the global political economy.
For some, this may be an unnatural enterprise (especially in the knowledge that Gericault had no political objective); for others it may be an exercise in the all-too-obvious, or worse, an intellectual debauch; and for others still, an overly ambitious attempt to purchase a (probably) vulgar understanding of politics with the sublime currency of great artistic expression. So be it: the intellect does what it can to make the world not only meaningful, but more meaningful, and Yeats's short prayer of command is worth summoning:
The saga attending the last voyage of the frigate, Medusa, lasted all of fifteen days in the year 1816, between the 2nd and the 17th of July that year, to be precise. Under the command of a royalist captain, Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, an evil man by some accounts, she set sail for Senegal in company with three other vessels, from the island of Aix, via Tenerife, on the 17th of June 1816 with 365 crew and passengers on board. Within days, she began to experience troubles which presaged a troubled voyage: a cabin-boy was lost overboard, and bitter quarrels broke out between the captain and his crew and passengers, who included soldiers still loyal to the defeated Emperor Napoleon. On the morning of the 2nd of July, courtesy of appalling incompetence in three areas command, navigation, and seamanship the Medusa ran aground (most probably) on the Arguin Reef, in calm seas and clear weather. 1 The ship was irretrievably holed.
In close succession over the next day, the weather turned foul, the inadequate capacity of the lifeboats became obvious, the raft was built, places were allotted between it and the lifeboats, and the decision taken to abandon ship. Conceptually, the life-boats were to tow a well-made, but improvised structure which would hold the one hundred and fifty persons, including a naval officer in command, not accommodated in the former; all, therefore, were to be saved. In the event, however, the buoyancy of the raft was seriously challenged before even one-third of its complement had boarded it a situation remedied only by casting off food supplies in favour of people; with all embarked (save for the naval officer, who declined the opportunity, the raft "floated," but only in the sense that a dynamically unstable platform submerged one metre beneath the water, and bereft of oars, rudder, and navigational equipment, may be assumed to fulfil the definition. In this condition it was briefly connected to the Medusa's four life-boats, until, for reasons covering "self-interest, incompetence, misfortune or seeming necessity," the latter slipped their ropes.
What applied to the raft hydrodynamically was true also of those aboard it: control was impossible. As a consequence, it and they were at the physical and psychological mercies of wind, sun and tide upon a vast ocean, a destabilising combination at the best of times, and these were not they. By the second day despair and delusions made their appearance three suicided while others fancied they saw land or vessels coming to rescue them. On the second night delusion was compounded first by drunkenness and a bout of self-destruction, and then by a bloody mutiny of the soldiers against their officers, resulting in a considerable reduction of the human cargo. When the third day broke, delirium, now more widespread than before, was a constant menace to the remaining sixty survivors. To qualm their hunger, some opted for the eating of the corpses left over from the mutiny; others, appalled by this, chose to drink urine and eat shit. Whatever the preference, it had to be enjoyed knee-deep in water because, although the ravages of the night before had serendipitously lightened the load to be floated by more than half, they had not achieved a truly positive outcome for those remaining.
Thus, with due allowance being made for declining energy and antagonists, the pattern of the next ten days was established. Another mutiny, regularised cannibalism, murder, and (effectively) the execution of the sick in the name of the increased period (six days) of survival for the self-defined healthy, determined that after little more than one week only fifteen survivors remained on what was now becoming an increasingly buoyant raft. But in the last week they suffered torment by possible hope a white butterfly of a species common in France, settled upon the makeshift sail. To this end all saw it portentously. To some, deranged by hunger, it represented a tasty morsel of food; for others, sceptical but more in possession of their faculties, there emerged the cautious possibility that, logically, land was nigh; to others still it was a divine message, while there were those of a contrary disposition who saw in it a mockery of their pitiful condition. Though, in geographical terms the pessimists appeared to be vindicated when, day after day, no land appeared, the possibility that it had transcending providential significance received confirmation when, on the thirteenth day, the fifteen were rescued by the brigantine, Argus.
Proceeding from the popular interest which the rescue had created, and then a deep personal fascination sharpened by the published accounts and personal interrogations of two of the survivors, Correard and Savigny, the story of the Medusa's raft came to fill Gericault's life, almost like an obsessional condition, or worse, an all-pervading illness. By the end of February 1818, he had decided not only to paint an imagined instant of the disaster, but to do so under conditions which underlined the takeover of his person by the event: he forbade himself contact with polite society by shaving his head, and forbade others (with the exception of models, students and close friends) contacting him by an appropriate notice on his door, and he painted remorselessly in the surrounds of a scale model of the raft, wax models of the survivors, and other aids to memory and endemic mortality such as his own paintings of severed heads and dissected limbs. And though what he painted was entitled "Scene of shipwreck," observers were aware that it was the scandal of the Medusa that was on display in the salon.
Gericault, in this later move, was attempting to evade being opinionated just as he was, earlier on the conceptual phase of the painting, concerned not to be political, symbolic, theatrical, shocking, thrilling, sentimental, documentational, and unambiguous. But, if this was the case, at least two problems of his own making defeated these objectives: his own deliberate ambiguity which, perspective upon perspective, infiltrates the image; and that surpassing quality of the painting-as-art which ensures, in Barnes' words, that it "outlives its own story." And both advantage the purpose of these pages the latter by allowing the investigation and timely recall of an almost forgotten narrative of nearly two centuries' providence, while the elision of that time in respect of the former forces us to acknowledge that Gericault inhabited his creation with many, even contradictory, meanings which, when explored even briefly, permit a richer, albeit starker, comprehension of global political circumstances and the rationality which informs it.
Obviously, it is the studied ambiguity which needs to be confronted. Thus, first consider those aspects of the painting which contemporary salon critics complained of: neither the nationality of the victims, nor the place and time of the scene could be inferred. Then, if a broader inquiry is mounted, we find that: the time of day is indeterminate; the ship on the horizon is but a distant speck and need not be the Argus; if it is sunset, then the chances of the raft being sighted would be minimal; if it is sunrise, the distance to the ship is so great, and the wind in the painting so unfavourable, that the distance between the two vessels might actually be opening; and the inhabitants of the raft are themselves depicted equally between those evincing hope and those evincing despair (though many have their backs to the spectator) and the largest number overall seem to be undecided. The bodies also challenge our understandings: these men who have cannibalised their dead comrades, drunk urine and eaten shit survivors of three mutinies and 13 days of solitude and exposure to the elements exhibit no signs of their suffering and bear no obvious wounds of battle. Indeed, all, even the corpses, are "full of muscle and dynamism."
Absent the known outcome, the rescue by the Argus, and the conclusion of the body-language and the dispositional display is "an image of hope being mocked;" that these men, like the great majority of human beings, are in the plight they are in a state of flux between hope and despair because the conjunction of elemental forces deny them anything more than a radically contingent existence. Take the known outcome into account, and the conclusion underlined is that this existence might be radically contingent, but it is radically contingent upon the type of elemental forces represented, in the first instance, by Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, and in the second, by the healthy survivors of the raft, within a relationship well described by Neitzsche:
Their mind-sets make us more aware of their common identity than of difference because, when informing command decisions, they respond in ways indistinguishable from each other. Both describe and understand survival in classical economic terms, namely that of scarcity. It is, therefore, subject to the cost mechanism, but the price is to be paid by others. Indeed, this is rendered inevitable by the transaction: since the costs are, literally, to be extinguished, it is by its very nature terminal. At the same time, it is held to be a virtually unavoidable transaction because the alternative to conducting it is the demise of all. In other words there is no alternative. Thus, all that remains is for the transaction to be effected expeditiously and efficiently for the benefit of those best equipped to ensure its performance. All reservations are dismissed and all ethical qualms are stilled on one ground that is unassailable: to act in this manner is the epitome of rationality; to act otherwise is madness.
The Medusa as Metaphor
Let us understand this ship as a type: it was a frigate a fast-sailing, light, general-purpose warship yet one not considered substantially armed enough to be a ship-of-the-line. Its utility was what commended it. In calm seas and weather it could just about accommodate to its inadequacies, which included insufficient armament and a lack of life-boat capacity for the personnel it was likely to carry. It was, therefore, hostage to the professional competence (or lack thereof) of the officers in particular, and the crew in general, as well as the vicissitudes of ocean transit under sail in a wooden ship. By extension, whenever it ventured to sea it did so, essentially, as the embodiment of a wager that disaster would not befall it. Thus, and finally, if disaster did befall it, the rationality which privileges "higher men" would operate mercilessly. Accordingly, the Medusa was exceptionally well named: just as, in mythology, the gorgon by the same name was mortal but possessed the power to petrify those who saw her face, exposure to the full logic of the ship would ensure death. It is no wonder, then, that several commentators on world politics have revisited the theme of the Medusa and its raft, or at least those themes abstracted from their history which are convivial to the prescriptions they want to advance. In this context the Medusa assumes a representational status greater than that described above: it is transformed into nothing less than the Enlightenment project, the survival of which, in a time of dire threat, is entrusted to those privileged members of the human race who live within it, and is dependent on their willingness to take the corresponding hard, yet rational, decisions.
Towards the end of the Cold War this theme came to the fore, first, in the Report by the US Presidential Commission On Integrated Long-Term Strategy (also known as Discriminate Deterrence), and then, three years later, in pronouncements by Jacques Attali, former head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The former, an apparently unanimous document, was produced by a group of thirteen of America's leading experts in global politics and strategic analysis under the co-chairmanship of (then) recently retired under-secretary for defence, Fred Ikle, and nuclear strategist, Albert Wohlstetter, and included, inter alia, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Samuel P Huntington, Henry Kissinger, and generals Andrew Goodpaster and John W. Vessey. Its purpose was to provide answers to questions posed by "the changing security environment" of the time. 2 Appropriately, therefore, it was described by Paul Kennedy as "one of the most important public overviews of what American grand strategy should be, as seen by its intellectual and policy-influencing elite, or at least an important part of it." 3
On Africa and Latin America, host to what Discriminate Deterrence describes as either "Third World Conflicts" or "low intensity conflicts," the matter of their tragic economic, political, and social circumstances is simply not mentioned, either in themselves, or as a constellation of causes of the insurgencies, paramilitary crime, sabotage, terrorism, and other forms of intra-state violence. 4 Rather, the concern is with these effects and, thus, their causes, as permanent, implacable, security threats to "US interests" which, over the long term, will need to be managed and/or ultimately defeated in a military sense. 5 The notion that their resolution lies in radical economic reform and the establishment of regimes of real political and social justice, that the predatory capitalism which has determined so much of Africa and Latin America's misery might be an appropriate site of investigation and understanding is totally absent.
In Millennium: Winners and Losers in the Coming World Order, Attali voices essentially the same anxiety, albeit in the interests of "modernity" and the "beleaguered North," but extends the logic as he makes the categories of threat more obvious. Africa is, thus, a "lost continent" while Latin America is undergoing a transformation to "terminal poverty." To both continents, and to the global South in general, moreover, he applies the same condemnation "millennial losers." But they are losers whose dispossession, envy, and consequent reactions "true world war of a new type, of terrorism that can suddenly rip the vulnerable fabric of complex systems" recall for Attali an historical precedent "the barbarian raids of the seventh and eighth centuries" because the peoples in question have no prospect greater than "migrating from place to place looking for a few drops of what we have in Los Angeles, Berlin, or Paris." 6
Implicitly, therefore, their condition is seen as both beyond hope and demanding of eternal vigilance. 7 And, as with Discriminate Deterrence, it is the provenance of the pronouncements that is significant: Attali, as Walden Bello makes clear, is a leading French Socialist Party intellectual and member of the European policy-making elite; he is not a "reactionary" so much as he is a "liberal" who, with relative ease, has logically deduced that that the interests of the "rich, white North" and the "poor, coloured South" are irreconcilable. 8
Nor are these forecasts alone in their profound pessimism, even if they lack the tendency, explicit in two subsequent works, to see the world through the optics of the Medusa. In the lengthy elaboration of his celebrated Atlantic Monthly article, "The Coming Anarchy" Robert Kaplan introduces it through a judgement in a letter from a US diplomat friend:
But for the sheer terror of the situation it is sufficient to turn to a series of profoundly disturbing lectures published given by the distinguished statesman and writer, Conor Cruise O'Brien, in which he draws from a 1970 essay on Frederick Nietzsche, which borrowed in turn from Andre Gide's metaphor of an already full lifeboat surrounded by survivors in the sea, all clamouring to get on board:
Compounding the metaphor, he proposes that such forms of thinking are that which prevail in "a guarded palace in a city gripped by the plague" where the besieged survivors hear "a frolicsome demon, gaily whispering in [their] ear: "You're damned!" 11 Of perhaps even greater significance is the fact that he subscribes to it, advocates it, in the knowledge that the guarded palace syndrome tends to "aggravate the tendency to flinch from reality." 12 His reasoning is as follows: at the centre of Western culture is the Enlightenment tradition of applying reason to the human condition; this tradition has become debauched through "wishful fantasy, unwarranted reassurance, and intimations of quick fixes" especially in commentary and analysis of the "reality of the relations between the advanced world and the Third World." The former, he argues, comprise a large number of people who, possibly because of suppressed guilt, are "habitual flinchers" from this reality, and thus, by definition, are insane. But the reason is irrelevant because of the inexorable procession from collective denial to collective madness. 13
The palliative for Cruise O'Brien is necessity the necessity for the "privileged inhabitants of an increasingly overcrowded planet" to learn to ascertain the extent and limits of the guilt, and then of what can be done, and then finally, to accept the "need to get on with living with the conscious acceptance of that degree of guilt which is inseparable from our condition as the kind of people we are, in the kind of world we happen to live in." To entertain any other possibility is to court "illusion" and degeneration "below the level of homo sapiens," and ultimately, to countenance the return of fascism. And, he adds, "We are actually in the position of the people in that lifeboat which I referred to earlier:" 14
If I have understood the foregoing according to the intentions of the various writers, the plight of the privileged which they describe is essentially a clinical one, not only in the sense that they seek to teach to the well from a vantage point among the sick indeed, among those condemned to die, but also in the sense that we are to view the patients' conditions impersonally, coldly, and with detachment. As Christopher Hitchens has wryly observed, missing in this exhortation to master the purely functional is any sense that what is being committed is more accurately covered by the terms "crime" and "abandonment." Missing, too, is any deep curiosity as to why someone like Chamaureys should have been appointed captain in the first place, how the Medusa managed to separate from the three other vessels it was in convoy with, why he and his brother officers took a frigate into waters avoided by even (smaller) brigantines, how and why it foundered in perfect sailing conditions, and why there was insufficient capacity in the lifeboats. In other words, if the Medusa and its raft are as significant as their appropriators would have us believe, then something more than a superficial understanding of what they represent is required. This is not to say that the appropriation is illegitimate; rather it is to suggest, with Hitchens, that the appropriators only "know enough to mention the Medusa, without knowing enough to know that they are missing the point." 16
Thus, if it is the Enlightenment tradition of applying reason to human affairs (as Cruise O'Brien would have us believe) that is vindicated in Chamaureys' decision, and the subsequent executions of the sick and wounded on the raft, is it not equally justifiable to equate the Medusa's command in the period leading up to it running aground with the reckless ignorance with which those who claimed to be children of the Enlightenment invaded, Africa and the Americas, raped, and pillaged their peoples, and in so many cases, annihilated their cultures? Indeed, notwithstanding their respective magnitudes, is there a meaningful difference to be observed between the nature of decisions taken off the coast of Mauritania in July 1816 and the Structural Adjustment Programmes of globalisation in general, and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in particular, which have produced, annually, a death toll in the global South of at least at least six million children under five, each year since 1982, according to estimates by the United Nations Children Fund and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa? 17
Equally, are not the sacrifices of the raft being parallelled by IMF Managing Director, Michel Camdessus's proposition that the time is nigh for the introduction of a "second generation of reforms" which might the "sacrifice of a generation" 18 (emphasis added). And the latter, it should be noted, was being advanced at a time late 1998 in full knowledge that, chronically, Africa and Latin America had been devastated by Enlightenment economics, and acutely, that the Asian financial crisis was the latest reproach to any notion of an idee maitresse. Is he not the echo of Chamaureys after Medusa had rounded Cape Barbas, ignoring successively the probability that he was lost, the change in the colour of the water (which indicated shallows), the weeds which were slowing his vessel (which indicated shallows), the decreasing readings of the lead line (which indicated shallows), the fact that they were taking on fish (which indicated shallows), and the advice of the Ensign-of-the-watch, the one person on board who had taken the trouble to work out the ship's position, that they were definitely in hazardous navigational waters? Where, indeed, was Camdessus' butterfly, that transient appearance of something that could be constructed as a portent of hope for those afflicted?
Extending the Metaphor: the Raft as Fractal
To say that the raft was a fractal of the Medusa is to say only that, existentially, though its condition might not have exactly replicated the dominant condition of the frigate, it had the same general features no matter from what perspective it is examined. At the same time, in keeping with all fractals, it was irregular all over, but the irregularity was constant on all scales that is, it was self-regular, and looked the same when examined from far away or nearby. If we understand this, we understand who, metaphorically, was on this vessel that could not quite float, yet refused to sink. It was, and remains, us, whether Enlightened or not. Question: who is "us?" Answer: the great majority of humanity who are disposable as, and when, they become a "misfortune to higher men." And though it risks profanity to equate the conditions of people in the global South with those in the global North, it is also the case that, as political-economic vectors in the global North are increasingly southern, so are their victims an increasing "misfortune." This, after all, is the nature of a fractal.
Gericault's bodies make more sense now: Barnes' proposition that the painter created them with health and muscular dynamism because he wanted to detach them from a particular historical event in the name of representing a larger predicament is compelling and powerful. In the light of his reading of the structural mood of those pictured one he decides is dominated by agnosticism and despair consider his focus on even those still living in hope, at what might be their moment of deliverance:
By way of illustration, and following Gericault's intention, let us dispense with the treacherous Chamaureys and the arch-survivalists of the raft: in their place let us insert one of the Enlightenment's crowning applications of reason to the human situation, nuclear deterrence, with its attendant form of living which requires a life of political and economic sacrifice, and chronic terror, in the course of preparing for a war that hopefully will never come. The result "endo-colonization" in Paul Virilio's terms is nothing more than the infinite deferral of an event in exchange for living in a state indistinguishable from occupation and defeat. 19 Moreover, the inference that the slavish addiction to the Enlightenment's rationality, rather than democracy, denotes our preference, ultimately, for the raft, as Barnes, again, points to: "We don't just imagine the ferocious miseries of that fatal machine; we don't just become the sufferers. They become us."
If we doubt these formulations, or worse reject them out of hand our regard for Scene de naufrage will probably be covered by the adjective "macabre." Or perhaps there will be due artistic concern expressed for the fact that it is, even now, partly a ruin, and almost certainly doomed in due course because Gericault mixed chemically unstable bitumen with his paints to intensify the dark and forbidding effects he wished to juxtapose with those of light and hope. Conversely if we are persuaded by them, then Scene becomes an aid-to-memory. It is a reminder that, under the rise of the new capitalism, with its renewed emphasis on the Enlightenment tradition, compassion will be derided as intellectual delinquency, strength will be preferred to virtue, and privilege will parade as morality. Would that we could reduce that tradition, specifically its power to reason without mercy, as, on his death bed, did Gericault his painting: "Bah, une vignette!"
Note 1: At this juncture I must acknowledge my principal debt to a single source for all of the historical material deployed above in respect of the data on the final voyage of the Medusa, the saga of the raft which followed it, and the artistic commentary and historical details relating to Gericault's painting namely, Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (London: Picador, 1990), pp. 115-139 (hereafter cited as Barnes, History). It is the case, however, that I first became more sharply aware of the significance that the painting could have, in the context of contemporary global politics, through an essay of considerable insight by Christopher Hitchens' in one of his regular Minority Report columns, namely, "Africa Adrift," The Nation, 27 May 1996, p. 8 (hereafter cited as Hitchens, "Africa Adrift"). Back.
Note 6:Jacques Attali, from his book, Millennium: Winners and Losers in the Coming World Order, as cited in Walden Bello, "Global Economic Counterrevolution: How Northern Economic Warfare Devastates the South," in Kevin Danaher (ed.), 50 Years is Enough: The Case Against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (Boston: South End, 1994), p. 14 (works hereafter cited as Bello, "Global Economic Counterrevolution," and Danaher, 50 Years is Enough). Back.
Note 7: Jacques Attali, Millennium: Winners and Losers in the Coming World Order (New York: Times Books/Random House, 1991), as cited in Bello, "Global Economic Counterrevolution," in Danaher (ed.), 50 Years Is Enough, p. 114 and 19. Back.
Note 10: Conor Cruise O'Brien, On the Eve of the Millennium: The Future of Democracy Through an Age of Unreason (New York: The Free Press, 1994), p. 132 (hereafter cited as Cruise O'Brien, Millennium). Back.
Note 18: Soren Ambrose, "IMF Bailouts: Familiar, Failed Medicine for Asian 'Tigers,' "Corporate Watch web site: http://www.igc.org/trac/corner/worldnews/other/other83.html Back.