Ever Given: When the Machine Runs Aground, it Produces Images

In the early morning hours of 23 March 2021, the container ship Ever Given, one of the world’s largest cargo vessels, got stuck in the Suez Canal, resulting in a massive blockage of international commercial traffic. Over the following days, social media platforms quickly started trending with memes based on images of the wrecked ship and the attempts to make it afloat again. The Ever Given had been on its way from Yangshan to Rotterdam when it ran aground during a sandstorm, shortly after it had entered the canal through the harbor of Suez. The ship turned sideways and remained diagonally wedged across the entire width of the waterway for four days before salvage work started setting things slowly into motion. None of the 25 Indian crew members were hurt, the cargo undamaged. But as it remained unable to navigate either back or forth, the ship caused a traffic jam, with several hundreds of other freighters lining up, some of them carrying large numbers of life stock.

Opened in 1869, the channel links the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, shortening the sea route between Asian to Northern European ports by ca. 6000 kilometers compared to circumnavigation of the African continent. The economic damage of the Ever Given blockage amounts to an estimated 400 million USD per hour. At the time of writing, six days after the incident, the ship has just been re-floated, but the blockage is expected to affect global supply chains already under strain due to the COVID crisis.

This direct economic interrelation is not the only reason why the singular accident of the Ever Given obviously hits the nerve of the COVID era: as an article in the German weekly Spiegel stated, the Ever Given wreckage provided us with “a symbol for just about everything”. Indeed, the most popular and dynamic Ever Given memes are based on variations of one particular motive: emphasizing the gigantic scale of the Ever Given, these images show a section of the ship’s bow, towering against the flat desert on the eastern shore of the channel. In one iteration of this motive a front-end-loader and two workmen in safety vests stand on the bank next to the site of the damage. In another one, a caterpillar excavator has its arm stretched out towards the area where the ship has ploughed up huge heaps of sand as it ran aground in shallow waters. The effect of such images is surreal, as the rescue vehicles and workers appear helplessly dwarfed by the literally colossal problem which they are expected to solve. It is obvious that these images show only a small component of a complex salvage campaign – but this is exactly what makes them strong and iconic, as they condense the mess of convoluted disaster into a simple binary: it’s Sisyphus against the mountain, David against Goliath.

In this sense, in many of the quickly spreading memes, the captions added by social media users spell out how the overwhelmingly large, yet immovable ship stands for a range of very different problem complexes: academic workloads, systemic racism, climate change, the COVID crisis – all those things which are systemic and, literally, larger than the individual. The dredger and the front loader, dwarfed by the massive ship on the contrary, embody the futility of any attempt to respond to such complex predicaments and crises. The captions attached to the seemingly hopeless instrument read: “workload model”, “A diversity inclusion workshop”, or “business as usual”, culminating in the summary juxtaposition between “the crushing despair of everything from the past year” and “you, doing your best”.

It is striking how a massive, global dimension of crisis suddenly appears pinpointed to one singular event and location. As long as things are literally in flow, as long as those movements which are expected, enhanced and privileged by a progressivist economic order are running smoothly, we barely notice the complex, heavy industry that constitutes the machinery room of our time. Of course, awareness for the economic and social implications of modern consumer culture has increased over the last decades, as people have become more critical to the conditions of production both in terms of labor rights and sustainability. But how about the conditions of product circulation and transport? When we order a garment online and have it delivered to our doorstep, how often do we ask ourselves, concretely, which route the cotton used for its fabric took, and who had to work for this in the past or on the way, under which conditions, whose risk was it, whose benefit?

This relative invisibility – or rather disregard – of the larger machineries and infrastructures of circulation contributes to the often naïve and affirmative rhetorics of globalization: as if we lived in an age of unbridled mobility, steered by the forces of goods, markets and economic drive. As if this unbridled mobility was a given under all circumstances and for everyone. This was never the case, and this illusion has been made more visible during the COVID crisis. Mobility is never a given, it is contingent upon many conditions. The Ever Given, down to its allusive name, is the perfect symbol of this sobering realization. It seems like particularly strong and powerful images are produced when the machinery is interrupted, when the structure is punctuated by an event that epitomizes the overwhelming complexity of – everything.

But what exactly is it that these images and memes are doing now? The vivid and affectionate reception they find in media outlets seems propelled by a sense of relief – maybe not comic, but ironic relief. On the surface of things, what they show us is an event that is serious and disruptive enough to speak to us in a moment of collective crisis. At the same time, the captions attached to these images allow for an alternative way of communication, of signaling: we are all in this place. After all, social media users from very different backgrounds obviously have very similar ideas and associations when they look at the Sisyphus constellation represented by those images. 

In his recent essay on meme culture, Dirk van Gehlen describes the phenomenon of the meme as a paradigmatically dynamic, connective means of international, borderless communication. The practice of reproduction and recombination of images and slogans goes beyond mere circulation. It builds a common, yet always changing and spontaneously evolving field of references, with shifting roles of recipients and creators. Participation in this game constitutes (virtual) communities. Under the specific conditions of the COVID era, such a fluid practice of media use can make up for the physical stasis and disconnection – so it is hardly surprising that meme culture responds so vividly to the case of the Ever Given, epitomizing both global mobility and its grinding halt. Of course, such a strong effect comes at the cost of reducing complexity, a problem also acknowledged in van Gehlen’s meme theory.

In a historical perspective, the Suez Canal stands for the highly ambivalent policies of movement and connectivity whose costs and benefits are unevenly distributed in a capital-driven colonial and post-colonial world. Throughout its history, from its origins in the age of Empire through its nationalization up to today, the channel has been a site of disruption, of policed movement and a symbol for national, regional, and global narratives and identities. Along this way, it has also produced a trove of images, many of them made explicitly for global circulation, under the conditions of their time. Dredgers and devices for moving soil were for instance already a prominent photographic motive at the time of the channel’s creation. Tourists would buy them on their grand tours to show that they had seen one of the most progressive engineering projects of their time. From a post-colonial point of view, these images of machinery are closely entangled with the aggressive exploitation of soil and labor.

Another typical iconographic motive which resonates with the Ever Given memes is the contrast between the modern, technically (hyper-)progressive shipping industry and the small scale of local practices. The Bedouin, picturesquely leading his pack-dromedary along the channel’s shore, dwarfed by a steamship passing by, or just the contrast between the dynamic vessel and the seemingly timeless desert: these are familiar Orientalist tropes in the iconography of the Suez Canal. Historically, such images have often created cultural difference rather than transcultural community. Are we thus really all in one place when we look at the Ever Given meme? Of course, it is an interesting and dialectic echo to such an image-history when we are now looking at a moment where this celebrated machinery of progress is literally stuck.

This may be another paradigmatic dimension of the current Suez blockage’s internet fame. Even meme culture is not disconnected from a deeper history of images. What we see on social media these days does mostly not reflect this historical complexity. At the same time, the dynamics built into the meme as a medium defined by exchange and communication shows that the machinery of image-making is one that always evolves, and it can add new layers and agencies to a global history of images and their perception.

Selected further reading:
Valeska Huber, Channelling Mobilities. Migration and Globalisation in the Suez Canal Region and Beyond, 1869-1914, Cambridge 2013.
Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, Colossal: Engineering the Suez Canal, Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, and Panama Canal, Pittsburgh 2014.
Dirk van Gehlen: Meme, Berlin 2020.
Stefanie Gänger and Jürgen Osterhammel, „Denkpause für die Globalges­chichte“, in: Merkur, 855 (2020). https://www.merkur-zeitschrift.de/2020/07/24/ denkpause-fuer-globalgeschichte/#more-14759