Ghost(ed) Ship
— publié dans : De la dérive (2020)
— auteure : Moira Hille, artiste, chercheure et militante, Autriche

Moira Hille

Since 2010 at the latest, the European media applied the term ghost ship to certain boats used for border crossings, such as in June 2014, when a boat with 243 people aboard, leaving Libya towards Italy, disappeared; or in early 2015 1, after Frontex caught an unguided cargo ship with 450 people on board and brought it to Italy 2. The term ghost ship has also frequently been used in the media to describe rubber boats found in the Mediterranean Sea, such as in spring 2016 3.

Barche fantasma or ghost boat or ghost ship is used in Sicily and Lampedusa for those arriving ships that are not noticed by authorities and media and are therefore considered unreal. Those ghost ships also stand against the governmental concepts of Italy and of the EU of closing ports and showing the impossibility of such closure 4.

Boats in the Mediterranean Sea used for crossings are considered ghost ships when they are set on autopilot, transporting migrants without a crew 5. They are named ghost ships when all passengers are dead and the so-called refugee boats float on the water. They are called ghost ships when boats can no longer find their way. The cases of the ghost ship in the Mediterranean were different as were the boats and the travelers, and I wasn’t able
to identify a common signification or happening that was shared by those ghost ships that wasn’t by other boats traveling on the Mediterranean Sea 6. Only, that they were all considered to be carrying migrants and refugees. This means that it is not a signification that can be found as a condition of the boats but rather something
that is produced outside, a projection, a move towards the boats. A practice of turning boats, ships, vessels, and their travelers on board into ghost ships. I am referring to this turning as ghosting and to those ships as ghosted ships. I see ghosting as a way to place a ship outside material reality and outside a concrete place and its relations into the sphere of the uncanny, deadly, in-between. While today, ghosting is often used in reference to social media 7, i.e. the practice of unfriending someone without telling them. Ghosting could therefore be seen as a current cultural expression of cutting relations without equal negotiations. I suggest reading the practice of ghosting within a long tradition of western separation, racism, and colonialism, in order to under- stand the multiple forms in which western thinking manifests its violence today.

With the ghosting of ships, a concrete history is being ghosted, made invisible, erased, forcibly rendered lost, not really traceable, and somehow unreal. It marks the attempt to not just relegate the ships to an obscure space in the past but to exile them out of the realness and reality of the very present, to banish the ships, and the people on them, from the perceptible and visual present and capture them in a form of visuality that can only be proven and described by the spectators – those standing at the shores. With the ghosted ships, continuities of anti-Blackness do not only take place within the violence of the European border regimes on the Mediterranean, but are also inherent to a European perception apparatus that does not suddenly emerge but runs through a long history of moves towards white innocence 8.

Images of migration in the Mediterranean Sea prevalently circulating in European mainstream media have shaped how current politics of migration are viewed by the public. Most images depict refugee boats, life vests floating on the sea, dead bodies on the shore. In these images, the representation is marked by an abstraction, in the way that we often see a seascape, a body of water that could be anywhere. This “ anywhere ” or “ somewhere ” is already one way to distance one’s perception from a concrete place.

I see the terror, I see the violence, but the relationship to the concrete place is lost, denied, and hidden. With reference to what Eve Tuck and Marcia McKenzie generally describe as a tradition of separation in Western philosophy, – that goes as far as the separation of human and nature and “ taking anthropocentrism as a universal developmental pathway ”, – I follow Megan Bang, Lawrence Curley, Adam Kessel, Ananda Marin, Eli S. Suzukovich III, and George Strack in the idea that Western separatism “ privileges settler colonial relationships to land, re-inscribes anthropocentrism by constructing land as an inconsequential or inanimate material backdrop for human privileged activity and enables human dislocation from land ” 9. This disregarding of land and place, especially in settler colonial societies, enables the denial, write Tuck and McKenzie, that states are built on genocides 10.

I would thus argue that the current strategy of ghosting, through placeless visual documentation, can be followed back to the 18th century ghost ships in white folklorist storytelling, which couldn’t be located, which appeared and disappeared again. They were placeless as well as timeless. Ghosting is a dislocation, and those ghosted ships are therefore considered to exist parallel to those who imagine being situated at a distance.

Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang refer to the various ways in which colonizers and settlers attempt to “ reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity ” as “ moves to innocence ” 11. Tuck and Yang write about these settler’s moves to innocence as “ strategies or positions that attempt to relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving land or power or privilege, without having to change much at all ” 12. Gloria Wekker’s concept of white innocence enables a focus on the manifesta- tion of innocence in the conceptions of white European identities and white European humanitarianism, and therefore a guiding analytical tool towards the Mediterranean Sea 13.

The attempts to abstract the Mediterranean as a “ somewhere ” and not as a concrete place aim to keep the very reasons for the deaths in the Mediterranean outside of a space where European citizens are obliged, due to European ideas of humanity, to intervene, while the very cause of these deaths is induced by a long and continuous history of colonialism, dispossession, and global exploitation 14.

The practice of ghosting allows white Europeans to avoid the relationship and responsibility Europe has as the very perpetrator of these deaths and murders, which ultimately disturb the very idea of Europe, its innocent and democratic self, in its foundation. In this sense, ghost ships can be seen as both what this innocence has preserved and as its ghostly hunters.

[1] Wikipedia, “Ghost Boat investigation,”

[2] “People smugglers adopt new ‘ghost ship’ tactic,” Deutsche Welle, January 2, 2015, http://www. ship-tactic/a-18168457

[3] Barbie Latza Nadeau, “Ghost Ships of the Mediterranean,” January 6, 2015, ghost-ships-of-the-mediterranean

[4] Wilfried Embacher, “Urlaub Auf Lampedusa: Tödliche Wege Ins Glück,” Der Standard, August 25, 2019, toedliche-wege-ins-glueck; Alessandra Puato, “A Lampedusa 230 Barche Fantasma Dei Migranti. I Pescatori: ‘Togliete i Relitti, Siamo Bloccati,’” Corriere della Sera, July 22, 2019, https://www. lampedusa-230-barche-fantasma-migranti-pes- catori-togliete-relitti-siamo-bloccati-84fb- fe50-ac5c-11e9-8470-d02c1b58748e.shtml

[5] “Why Migrant Smugglers Are Using ‘Ghost Ships’,” The Local, January 2, 2015, why-migrant-smugglers-are-using-ghost-ships

[6] I am using the term refugee here with reference to political self-designation in protest movements.

[7] “Ghosting may reflect an old relationship dissolution strategy—avoidance”, Leah E. Lefebvre et al., “Ghosting in Emerging Adults’ Romantic Relationships: The Digital Dissolution Disappearance Strategy,” Imagination, Cognition and Personality 39, no. 2 (July 2019): 125-50.

[8] I use capital Black and lower case white. Both categories are constructions and expressions of racist worldviews. By capitalizing Black, I want to draw on the use of the term in social movements, and as political self-designation.

[9] Megan Bang et al., “Muskrat Theories, Tobacco in the Streets, and Living Chicago as Indigenous Land,” Environmental Education Research 20, no. 1

[10] Eve Tuck and Marcia McKenzie, “Relational Validity and the ‘Where’ of Inquiry,” Qualitative Inquiry 21, no. 7 (2015): 633-638.

[11] Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (March 2012): 3.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Gloria Wekker, White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016). Even though Wekker’s focal point are the Netherlands, and the Dutch society, I consider her analysis essential in regards to white European identities in general.

[14] Ida Danewid, “White innocence in the Black Mediterranean: Hospitality and the Erasure of History,” Third World Quarterly 38, no. 7 (2017): 1674-89.