Cargo Cult – an extract from Alberto Toscano & Jeff Kinkle’s Cartographies of the Absolute

This is an extract from Cartographies of the Absolute, the new book by Alberto Toscano & Jeff Kinkle, out later this month from Zer0 – TS

Cargo Cult


Cargo Cult is a photomontage from Martha Rosler’s series Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain, produced between 1966 and 1972. The series, starkly inter-cutting the devices of female domestic labour (fridges, washing machines) and commodified nudity, was produced – initially for political circulation and intervention rather than gallery display – concurrently with Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful (1967-72), another series which projects the imperialist carnage of the Vietnam War into the feminised décor of American domestic space. Though its theme – the profitable ‘industrialisation’ of women’s beauty – is blunt enough, the possible connotations of the image are not exhausted by its apparently direct materialist-feminist intention.

The term ‘cargo cults’ is commonly used to refer to the collective ritualistic practices of certain groups, principally in Melanesia and Micronesia in the Pacific, which reacted to the traumatic encounter with colonial power and capitalist technology by mimicking the appearances of the devices of alien domination (say, by building a wooden airport and airplane) in the messianic belief that this would bring the ‘cargo’, the unexplained plethora of goods which the white man – who could never be seen producing these goods – seemed to dispose of in unlimited amounts. In the 1950s and 1960s radical anthropologists – most memorably Peter Worsley, in his The Trumpet Shall Sound (1957) showed that, against a condescending gaze on this primitive reaction, many dimensions of the cargo cults showed a rational response to both the trauma and the fluctuations of capital (a system which viewed from these islands seemed to involve no production and a thoroughly irrational and unpredictable fluctuation in values).

Affixed to an image of shipping containers which we might surmise contain the components of the export of the Western beauty myth (be these cosmetics, domestic appliances, or indeed the military ordnance needed to ‘open doors’ to US capital), the term cargo cult of course echoes the anthropological inversion already at work in the history of the idea of commodity fetishism – beauty under capital is a monetised social relation between things, just as the beauty industry is in turn an irrational, ritualised invocation of future ‘cargo’. Of course, and here lies the opacity of circulation and logistics, crystallised in the standardised, intermodal anonymity of the container, the boxes could very well be importing the ingredients of commodified beauty.

Against the tendency to take the preponderance of logistics as warrant for the disappearance of labor, Rosler (like Allan Sekula in his maritime works, which we’ll touch on shortly) juxtaposed the standardised singularity of female beauty with the black, male labour on the ship (the foreman appears to be white). Alongside the articulation of the opacity of trade and the surface spectacle of glamour, and of these in turn with the disavowed physicality of work, Cargo Cult also opens up to another dimension of an aesthetics of logistics,if we link it to Rosler’s Bringing the War Home (2004) – the reprised version of the series with reference to the Iraq invasion.

Though open to a variety of organisational understandings, and critical to the spatial and temporal logics of contemporary capitalism, logistics is first of all a military preoccupation. As Sergio Bologna writes, the original function of logistics was:

 to organise the supplying of troops in movement through a hostile territory. Logistics is not sedentary, since it is the art of optimizing flows […] So logistics must not only be able to know how to make food, medicines, weapons, materials, fuel and correspondence reach an army in movement, but it must also know where to stock them, in what quantities, where to distribute the storage sites, how to evacuate them when needed; it must know how to transport all of this stuff and in what quantity so that it is sufficient to satisfy the requirements but not so much as to weigh down the movement of troops, and it must know how to do this for land, sea and air forces.i

While developments in logistics have been pivotal to the ongoing transformations of contemporary capitalism, from the just-in-time organisation of production of ‘Toyotism’, to the world-transforming effects of containerisation (itself accelerated by its military-logistical use in the Vietnam War), they have long influenced the strategies and tactics of war.

The history of the container itself, that exquisitely banal keystone of the subsumption of the planet by trade, is in this regard an almost perfect synthesis of the military and the economic. Having launched the appropriately named Ideal X, the world’s first container ship (actually a converted oil tanker), in 1956, the trucking impresario and ‘father of containerization’ Malcolm McLean made massive strides in his hegemony over and revolutionising of the transport industry when in 1967 his company Sea-Land garnered the contract to ship war material in containers from the port of Oakland (to which we’ll return) to Da Nang in Vietnam.ii In a war in which, as Paul Virilio delineates in War and Cinema, the ‘logistics of perception’ played as much of a role as material logistics, containerisation was a response to the military risks incurred by the laborious process of unloading ships (whereas in ‘peaceful’ scenarios, it was mainly the economic struggle to lower labour costs and undermine dockworkers unions that was key). In this light, we can read Cargo Cult as a multi-layered dialectical image that presages, but also preemptively criticises, much of the concern of contemporary art with the question of logistics.

i Sergio Bologna, ‘L’undicesima tesi’, in Ceti medi senza futuro? Scritti, appunti sul lavoro e altro (DeriveApprodi, 2007), p.84.

ii A cinematic trace can be found in the scene from Apocalypse Now Redux in which Willard is imprisoned in ‘conex box’ and read Time Magazine by Kurz.

Cartographies of the Absolute is out on 27th Feb from Zer0 Books