The quantity of quality is degree
For a brief period decades ago, I used to go running semi-regularly on the Bay Ridge esplanade between Shore Road and the Belt Parkway, which afforded a continuous view of the harbor. As I remember it, there were frequently cruise ships, the giant ones that seemed defiantly out of scale with everything else in the water — absurd, floating manmade parodies of sublimity. I would then spend the entire run focused on them, as though they posed some elemental mystery. Could anyone on the boat could see me, as a unique person, or did I just seem like one of the scampering insects that Orson Welles’s character talks about in the Ferris wheel scene from The Third Man? I wondered if you felt associated with the ship’s hugeness while onboard, or whether it made you feel small in a different way. I could sometimes see tourists waving from their tiny cabin balconies, too late for goodbyes and too soon for regrets as they sailed toward the Verrazano Bridge.
I was thinking about those memories (or manufacturing them) because during the languid throes of post-holidays ennui, I happened to watch a few episodes of Mighty Cruise Ships on the Smithsonian channel. This show is not a Below Deck–style exposé or a vicarious plunge into other people’s quasi-luxury holiday (though there are an inordinate number of clips of tourists zip-lining); rather it attends to the more infrastructural concerns of cruising: shots of the galleys and endless rows of workers engaged in salad assembly, shots of uniformed crew members climbing down through portholes to inspect machines and tanks and various pumps and engines. One memorable scene involved maintenance workers emptying an inflow filter of hundreds of baby lobsters.
But primarily the show focused on the captain’s deck, with a special emphasis on docking: drama-free sequences where the massive ship is brought into port in a grim industrial zone on the outskirts of some touristic locale. Gratuitous graphics would depict the necessary maneuvers, which didn’t seem that logistically complex despite the protracted elaboration of dredging channels and cross currents and wind shear. These long segments tended to simultaneously draw attention to the ship’s hugeness and its essential simplicity. Yes, it was basically a floating city, but it also just needs a parking space.
What Mighty Cruise Ships makes very clear is that the ship itself aims to be more spectacular than any possible destination for it, largely negating the idea of sight-seeing. As the show depicts them, the destinations are all utterly interchangeable, clogged with masses of people waiting for buses or standing in lines, while aboard the ship everyone has their own chaise longue, everyone has an assigned seat at the table. The cruise ship presents itself as the apotheosis of the nonplace, an environment of pure administrative efficiency that no longer needs to serve as a conduit to an actual place but promises that purgatory itself is heaven.
This is largely the same conclusion that David Foster Wallace comes to in “Shipping Out,” a 1996 Harper’s essay about his being sent on assignment on a luxury cruise. In a footnote, he remarks on the “literally hundreds of cross-sectional maps of the ship on every deck, at every elevator and junction, each with a red dot and a YOU ARE HERE. It doesn't take long to figure out that these are less for orientation than for reassurance.” This reminds me of one of the planks in Damone’s five-point plan from Fast Times at Ridgemont High: “Act like, wherever you are, that’s the place to be.”
In Wallace’s view, the cruise is meant to blot out the experience of existential despair not by giving you a sense of reasons to live (i.e. destinations worth crossing off a bucket list, etc.) but by inducing a condition of womb-like helplessness to make you forget you have ever lived at all. He emphasizes the “authoritarian” dimension of the cruise’s enforced leisure — a “pre-articulated” and tightly constricted horizon of experience similar to what Adorno describes as “the spell” of consumer culture — and the masochistic pleasures to be found in how they liberate you from the burden of decision making:
They'll micromanage every iota of every pleasure-option so that not even the dreadful corrosive action of your adult consciousness and agency and dread can fuck up your fun. Your troublesome capacities for choice, error, regret, dissatisfaction, and despair will be removed from the equation. You will be able — finally, for once — to relax, the ads promise, because you will have no choice.
Of course, it is no accident that casinos are typically embedded in cruise ships; slot machines are an even more pure distillation of that kind of decision-less decision making, where one has decided to surrender to fate over and over again in order to remain suspended in the “machine zone.” Winning comes with no consequences or responsibilities; losing is just a matter of time, which you are already losing all the time. (Wallace repeatedly reminds readers how old most passengers on cruise chips are.)
But that view is contradicted by how some contemporary cruises deliberately overload passengers with choices, which I learned about not from Wallace or Mighty Cruise Ships but from an episode of Rick Steves’ Europe on Mediterranean cruises that fortuitously happened to be airing on PBS around the same time. In his blandly forthright manner, Steves describes how in most cases, cruise lines make their money not on the base cost of passage itself but from the many layers of extras they sell you along the way, once you have agreed to strand yourself miles out to sea in an enclosed environment where every single consumer-facing component has been optimized to persuade you to spend. Passengers can either give in to this, racking up surcharges on an ID card that doubles as a tab, or they can orient themselves entirely to trying to resist, looking for whatever angles there may be for gaming the ship’s system.
From this point of view, the cruise ship’s totally administered environment is not experienced as some sort of soft totalitarianism but as a perpetual gamification. Every waking moment is for sale and presents you with an elaborate economic-calculation problem fraught with information asymmetries. It’s as if the experience of gambling metastasized and became the core of every aspect of everyday life, shaping what you eat and drink, where you walk and how you think. I have never been on a cruise, but I have been to the land-based variant, the all-inclusive beach resort, which seems to offer the exact inverse of this: a mirage utopia in which you are limited in your consumption only by your stomach’s capacity. But it’s all too easy to end up in the same gamified state of mind, treating every moment of the day as a value- maximization challenge, trying to find the best ways to get the best food and liquor from the various bars and restaurants and not to waste any stomach space on the bloating garbage that the resort makes most readily available.
As a result, one can start to lose track that there is any intrinsic value to anything, that anything can simply taste good regardless of whether it is the best available deal. That is, one begins to live entirely in terms of exchange value and must structure life as nothing but a series of deals more or less advantageously struck. The cruise-ship nonplace becomes “relaxing” or “pleasurable” to the degree it accommodates (or imposes) that mind-set and sustains it, and prevents anyone from having to relapse into a search for life’s meaning or the inner purpose of doing anything. The question then is the degree to which the cruise serves less as a getaway than a kind of condensation of life in general, a microcosm. You find that you no matter where the boat is docked, you can’t really leave, Hotel California–style.
Wallace spends 20,000 words or so building up to the dismaying discovery that a luxury cruise doesn’t produce satisfaction but lowers your threshold for dissatisfaction, so that every instance of “pampering” has its determinate negation in a newer and deeper opportunity to complain. The shipwreck is invented with the ship, as Virilio would have it. He concludes with some anecdotes about how some people don’t hit their marks, some people are unhypnotizable, and we should be assured that he is one of them, all his self-deprecating humor aside. Some people have given up and given in to corny programmed fun, but some still have the courage of despair. But Wallace’s epiphany is really a kind of optimism: It represents the capacity for human striving as unextinguishable. No one is pampered into docile nullity, no one blue-pills themselves once and for all.
There is a similar optimism in a moment from one of the Mighty Cruise Ships episodes that at first perplexed me. In an episode focused on the preposterously named ship Quantum of the Seas, then the largest cruise ship in operation, much ado was made about what seemed like one of its more inane features: a gondola attached to a giant crane mounted atop the ship’s highest deck. The idea was that passengers could get in the pod and be lifted high above the ship for a panoramic view of their surroundings. But why? Footage from the episode lingered on dozens of people standing in line for their chance to ride in it, even though it basically only afforded them a wider view of the same endless ocean they could already see from the railing.
But they probably didn’t want to see more of the ocean. Instead they must have wanted a totalizing view of the ship itself and, by extension, of their own experience from a transcendent viewpoint, somewhere they could be in and out of it all at once, enjoying the spectacle while also being immersed in it, impressing themselves with how so much expensive investment of time and money into leisure was all concentrated directly below them. It wasn’t that different from how when we checked in at the all-inclusive resort, the TV in our room was already on, playing an advertisement for the very resort we were already at. The point wasn’t to convince us that we made the right choice so much as to show us all the ways it could disappoint us, all the luxurious opportunities we were about to miss. It seemed like it was there to remind us what it was like to still be looking forward to coming to the resort, so we could be there without being there. The passengers in the pod perhaps felt something similar when their turn came up. For a moment, you’re too good for all this.
Thanks for reading. Please subscribe to receive new posts.