Cruise Ships, Smooth and Striated Space, and Control Societies

Deleuze: “The Ocean, the Unlimited, first plays the role of an encompassing element, and tends to become a horizon: the earth is thus surrounded, globalized, “grounded” by this element, which holds it in immobile equilibrium and makes Form possible. Then to the extent that the encompassing element itself appears at the center of the earth, it assumes a second role, that of casting into the loathsome deep, the abode of the dead, anything smooth or nonmeasured that may have remained.” (The Smooth and the Striated, 495)

In the chapter of Allan Sekula’s Dismal Science about his 2002 project Fish Story, Sekula talks about how major newspapers no longer cover the sea besides “stories of disaster, war and exodus,” a journalistic approach that compresses the sea into a “weirdly blasé and episodic faux-sublimity.” But his writing can also be creatively misread to describe voyages on cruise ships: “The sea is the site of intermittent horrors and extraordinary but tried expenditures of energy, quite distinct form the dramas of everyday life” (53). Doesn’t this sound a bit like Deleuze’s maritime model of smooth and striated space, where man intervenes with striation to distance himself from the threat of the sea’s formlessness?

Both smooth and striated space can apply to the space of a cruise ship. “In striated space, lines or trajectories tend to be subordinated to points: one goes from one point to another,” which can be understood as the cruise ship’s ports as it travels from Miami to Montego Bay, so the free space of the ocean is recomposed as a series of destinations; “In the smooth, it is the opposite: the points are subordinated to the trajectory,” such that Miami and Montego play out as subordinate to a vector of relaxation, more like exterior stopovers on an internal journey: leaving the rhythm of the work week, falling into the pace of the waves and the affects of this comfort economy (A Thousand Plateaus, 478). Does the map of a patron’s cruise require the map of a child? The memory isn’t the journey of the ship’s path, but the superimposed onboard journey of the patron, criss-crossing to between deck pools, margaritas and periods of relaxation (or from hangovers to toilets and nausea). Is it possible for this to be a creative space for the usually work-obsessed traveler, letting them envision new ways to live? On the ideal cruise, wouldn’t the experience of time trend toward concrete duration?

Smooth in some ways, maybe, but the ship’s rigidly plotted course through the ocean and the boat’s compartmentalization (above all the secreting away of a distinctly not-on-vacation support staff) amount to a colossal weight of consumerism lumbering between ports. The cruise is so obviously enormously striated I’m reminded (after first being reminded of Adorno’s great line, “Entertainment is the prolongation of work under late capitalism” [Dialectic of Enlightenment, 109]) of another perspective from Deleuze, on control societies. In “Postscript on Control Societies,” Deleuze writes: “Control is short-term and rapidly shifting, but at the same time continuous and unbounded” (181). There seems to be a hint of striated and smooth in there. The patron’s pathways on a cruise, both exterior and interior, have been delimited in advance just like any consumer-oriented sedative, made appealing precisely as a sort of freedom from the routine—from the scheduled work week, from children, from dress codes and familiar domestic space, etc.

The smooth-type spaces mentioned in the second paragraph and the patron’s psycho-geographical maps, revisited from the perspective of control society, now appear programmed so as to prohibit a truly free motion, like the striated gives way to a smooth that itself reproduces striation, or some combination of the two. On the cruise ship there is a passage between smooth and striated space that seems linked to control; as Deleuze writes (if we imagine consumerism as a sort of religion): “Thus the great imperial religions need a smooth space like the desert, but only in order to give it a law that is opposed to the nomos in every way, and converts the absolute” (A Thousand Plateaus, 495). If, in the case of cruise ships, the smooth space is planned by the forces that striate, forces who, according to Adorno, basically employ the cruise to reproduce conditions of capitalism, what does that say about the still potentially productive experiences of the travelers?

-Duncan Cooper

Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on Control Societies.” Negotiation 1972-1990. Trans. Martin Joughin. New York: Columbia UP, 1995. 177-82.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987. 474-501.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

Sekula, Allan. “Fish Story.” Dismal Science: Photo Works, 1972-1996. Normal: University Galleries, Illinois State University, 1999. 42-54.

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