Signs at Sea

Michelle Atherton

Shipreck and debris, 'Missed the Boat' 2005 Michelle Atherton

Early on the morning of Saturday 14th December 2002 the Tricolor, a cargo vessel the size of two football pitches, sank in dense fog after being rammed from behind by another ship, the one was hurt. The Kariba managed to limp back to port with a smashed hull as the Tricolor lay in the Channel with its submerged cargo of 2,862 luxury cars and 77 machinery parts.

In the representation of this incident in national and international news reports two discursive elements intersected, that of the technological accident and the commodity. Historically this combination has long held our fascination, demonstrable from the earliest novels to contemporary films and television dramas. What is replayed in such narratives is a phantasmagorical dimension, the world of the commodity as it encounters the unexpected, in the form of the accident. Both of these aspects figure heavily in our post-industrial age, but this essay uses the sinking of the Tricolor as a case study to explore the contemporary signification of such a collision. Current theorists1 have argued that the affect of catastrophe narratives in the media is to arouse anxiety in their audience, however I will argue that as this story unfolded it was transformed into a comedy which countered any such response and as a consequence served to highlight the difficulties of representing, or imaging the accident and the instability of its meaning.

From the very beginning of this tale there was evidence, quite literally that the usual modes of communication, the usual sign systems, had not come into play. The ships crashed in the marine equivalent of no-man’s land, the West Hinder Traffic Separation Scheme, in one of the main shipping lanes leaving Belgium. This stretch of sea is covered by French search-and-rescue operations but is in no one’s territorial waters. To prevent accidents the Channel is scanned by high-powered radar systems, but in this case it was not possible for the coastguard to warn the vessels as they were just a couple of hundred yards beyond the reach of either French or British radar. The Channel’s sign system of ownership and communication is not in place in West Hinder – the Tricolor sank into a gap between places. In this section of the sea the officer of the watch is not required to radio in the vessel’s location or course. Here the authorities have deemed identification unnecessary, as vessels do not figure within the usual system for communications and technology goes unregistered. This organisation of signification in West Hinder could be said to act as a metaphor for our own comprehension – linguistically speaking. In West Hinder it is as if objects and incidents are signifiers without identification, un-coded and therefore without any signified, any ‘set’ meaning. There are gaps between the signifiers, it is as if these accidents emerge from indeterminate, unconscious waters, where something is not or cannot be said. In this gap the commodity meets with its technological accident, raising the question of how to imagine and interpret a collision that is so displaced.

Tricolor, 'Missed the Boat' 2005 Michelle Atherton

In investigating the implications of the Tricolor story the most useful starting point is to be found with one of its key components, the accident. This is why this ship and its cargo became headline news over Christmas 2002 and on into the New Year. This happenstance involved a commodity catastrophe exactly at the point in the year where we experience the most concentrated period of consumerism. Accidents are commonly perceived as unforeseen or unexpected events and a number of philosophers including Sigmund Freud have observed that it is humanly impossible to come to terms with the enormous influence that chances and accidents have upon our lives. We have difficulty conceptualising a ‘pure’ accident, one without a rationale. Accidents may engender a sense of powerlessness and hence it is interesting to note our compulsion to apply categories and schemas to notions of randomness, for instance, the creation of a science out of chaos. Narratives incorporating accidents are constantly being re-told within the media and in turn have been analysed by theorists including Paul Virilio, who has written extensively on the relationship between the accident, accelerated modernity and the media event2 . In his thesis he provides a logical rationale for the accident, arguing that the man-made accident should not be viewed as a chance event but rather as an effect of modern speed and technological progress. He comments that in inventing the train we invented the derailment, and contends that the 20th Century saw the accident literally become a heavy industry where, in our daily lives, we are constantly running up against the unknown in the form of a dramatisation of the accidental event. Virilio considers the affects of such reports upon the audience and therefore provides a useful framework with which to explore the significance of the Tricolor account.

Divers securing cutting lines, 'Missed the Boat' 2005 Michelle Atherton

In such dramatisations, the reporting of accidents, Virilio suggests that the media applies an “accident thesis”3 . Here the accident is no longer viewed as a completely unexpected surprise but rather there is an “a priori thesis”4 applied by the media, which involves speculating on the origin or cause of the event, and where a presumption of wrongdoing tends to win out. The viewer is encouraged to feel “doubt and worry”5 as adequate contextual information is not really provided. This lack is sufficiently disguised so as not to provoke panic, yet the emotive impact of a story is scripted. Virilio argues that in this way the mass media generates and regulates emotions and therefore the anxiety commonly experienced over the origins of accidents is an integral part of the management and synchronisation of collective mass emotion.

Media representations of the Tricolor incident could be said to follow Virilio’s scenario up to a point, but ultimately the story refuses the anxieties that he suggests dominate such narratives. The television reports did describe the event rather than its causes and the main commentaries failed to explain how or why the Kariba collided with the Tricolor, a question that remains to date unanswered, or at least unreported. The overall lack of contextual detail preserved this occurrence in the form of an: “ ‘event-instant’, where all progress converges on an inescapable problem which is that of perceptions and images.”6 The restricted commentary coupled with the limited succession of images, largely consisting of the red hull of the Tricolor just below the waterline and the smashed bow of the Kariba at port, did not inform the viewer about the factors that brought about the collision. In their haste to report the accident the media failed to mention the ‘roll-on-roll-off’ construction of the vessel, a similar type to the sunken Herald of Free Enterprise7 or that it took the Tricolor, a boat the size of two football pitches, only thirty minutes to sink. The media actually omitted important information that would have added to the disturbing affect of the narrative. Their representation gave a chaotic impression of the event mainly through the image of its aftermath, which left the viewer to fill in the gaps. Hence the reports did, as Virilio implies, pivot around psychological affect, but what exactly was this affect, and what of the audience’s agency? In his thesis, Virilio does not take account of the viewer’s position as an interpreter of the story. For when left to their own devices, without any contextual information, viewers may arrive at differing interpretations of this colliding narrative and not necessarily experience “doubt and worry”.

The story of the sinking of the Tricolor is essentially a shipwreck narrative, of which there is a longstanding tradition in Britain. Most of the first novels, published during the Romantic era, were maritime tales. Historically, this period saw Britain’s imperialist expansion and the spread of its markets across the seas. At that time a significant percentage of the population was employed at sea and the shipwreck was an everyday occurrence, often with devastating results, as there were no search and rescue procedures. To make sense of these tragedies a providential logic was brought to bear in the novels8 . Not only was the shipwreck used as a metaphor for the breakdown in national identity, but also as an additional narrative device to instruct readers in divine justice, for in these stories the hand of God could be seen in the affairs of men. A change in the elements causing too little or too much wind was characterised as a judgement from heaven. Britain is now a more secular society, but it is possible to argue that the historical legacy of the maritime narrative still has a resonance in the collective imagination of these islanders, where a nationalistic and a spiritual dimension is often evoked in the explanation of experiences at sea.

In the 21st Century for Westerners, the economic, political and cultural importance of the sea has declined as the aeroplane has usurped the ship as the preferred mode of long-distance human transportation. Shipping disasters now most frequently happen in the less affluent parts of the world. Simultaneously, the amount of raw materials and goods that are carried around the world by sea has commensurably increased but it is as if these commodities have no past, no existence prior to their acquisition at the counter, check-out or on the garage forecourt. So while container ships with unidentifiable loads make invisible journeys, the symbolic potential for the contemporary shipwreck narrative in the West mainly resides in the reworking of survival stories, where the human subject comes face-to-face with death. In this context the diegesis of the Tricolor detailed lives put at risk but as all the crewmembers were successfully rescued the reporting of the accident did not involve any tragic loss of life and no traumatic encounters are recounted. From an observer’s point of view, there is no narrative of annihilation here to arouse anxiety, and so the implications of this accident are somewhat different, but in what way?

Kariba, 'Missed the Boat' 2005 Michelle Atherton

If there is no tangible threat upon which to pin our fears, perhaps as Virilio suggests, the uncertainty that surrounds the accident itself exists in the sinking of the ship for no known reason? The two key television reports came out at the conjunction of two time-frames, at the beginning of the salvage operation when the original crash had already taken place and when any potential future accident, caused by the Tricolor as hazard, was only waiting to happen.9 Uncertainty might circulate around a causeless event in the past and possible undetermined repercussions in the future. It is as if there were no now to this event; the accident itself is missing, with no ‘live’ coverage of it, no discourse of the ‘real’ that lends veracity to the narrative. Equally there is no bodily presence to this account, for in the removal of threat to the human subject the incident becomes strangely de-peopled. The characters involved have no voice because, probably for insurance reasons, there are no interviews with the crew and the companies concerned remain largely silent. The TV coverage did not include any personal testimonies and so severed all causal connections by withdrawing or precluding consideration of the affects of the incident on those people who experienced it. The usual identification of viewers with the ‘victims’ was thwarted at the human level, and a national ‘identification’ along the lines of ‘one of our ships has gone down’ was also not available to British viewers because the Tricolor was Belgian- registered. The Tricolor becomes a ghost ship, a machine out of human control, and the collision becomes the unstoppable sinking of one vessel with its mechanical cargo. If uncertainty is conveyed at all it is through this aspect of the narrative, as the lack of causality, before and after the actual crash, conjures the image of technology out of control.

This narrative lacks tragic consequences for the viewer although there is the potential for another element to take on this role e.g. the threat to the natural environment. Coming from the perspective of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud suggested what provokes anxiety does not involve an object, rather it is caused by an absence of the object. Jacques Lacan contends that anxiety is not without an object but is merely another kind of object10 . An object that cannot be symbolised in the same way as all other objects. Is it possible that an accident could be represented as such an object? Lacan goes on to suggests that anxiety arises when it’s not so much a case of the possibility of absence but when there is an enveloping presence. An accident in and of itself, the breaking of a glass, isn’t automatically anxiety provoking, unless, according to Lacan there is the potential for the object to engulf, to threaten in some way. What threatens in this accident is unmanageable mobile technology. The sinking of the ship with its load is a reconfigured car crash at sea. But in its submergence the mechanical converges with the ‘natural’ potentially provoking an anxiety about the by-product of this relationship in the form of pollution. During the initial accident little of the fuel was reportedly spilled but later a salvage tug accidentally knocked out an oil tank door resulting in slick stretching to two and a half miles long. This had a severe impact upon wildlife, “injuring 800 birds” in the local coastal region and providing a somewhat apocalyptic vision of an oil-drenched shoreline11 . The confrontation between the machine and nature is brought to a close when the sea overwhelms the ship and its cargo, laying them to rest in West Hinder. The mechanical is subsumed by the natural, disaster is averted and order is restored. This narrative holds no tragic dimension for its viewers, no fearful after effects and so no need to ensure that this accident does not reoccur; there is no drive to know why.

As the story of the Tricolor rejects the usual anxieties surrounding such narratives it brings into focus not only its affect but also the impossibility of representing the accident, particularly in its multiple form. It is as if in trying to apprehend these events the accident vanishes. The subsequent diary of the wreck detailed in the newspapers described two other ships running aground on its under water bulk closely followed by three other near misses12 . The Tricolor became the site of an accidental pile-up endlessly replaying itself at every opportunity. Any disquiet over its submerged presence, a potentially hidden menace to passing ships, was usurped by the repetition of the mishaps. In this rerun of accidental incidents there was a complete refusal that an accident could occur in the same place, as various newspaper reports suggested that the ensuing incidents could only be caused at best by carelessness or at worst by “idiots”13 . Any notion of an accident being repeated in the same spot had to be dismissed and denied and then reformulated as farcical. The difficulties and as a consequence the enjoyment to be found in the representations of accidents lies partially in our understanding of it as a chance event – after all - it was not meant to happen. Inherent in such a thesis is the view that the accident is already absurd14 . In the event that the accident is repeated it is then fully transformed into a preposterous performance, a ridiculous situation. For an accident to happen once may be construed as accidental, but if it happens twice something uncanny occurs and in its repetition the accident becomes something else. Hence the impossibility of representing the multiple accident – the accident in repetition.

Vicky, 'Missed the Boat' 2005 Michelle Atherton

Within this dynamic of the un-representable accident, in the repetition of the accident over and over again it turned into a farce. If this is recognised by the audience a pleasure may be taken in the continual rerun of these comical accidents and an enjoyment found in what seems like the utter helplessness of this situation, the buffoonery of these blundering ships, as they just can not stop themselves from crashing. The subject matter of a farce is often said to reflect the social mores of the time or indeed to be completely meaningless15 . This display highlights our current preoccupation with technological accidents and commodities, but rather than being meaningless there are constant slips in its signification. We watch the play, positioned at a distance by the improbabilities of the situation, as all reason is opposed and we desire the absurd16 . The characters are the vehicles, as technology out of control takes on its own subjectivity. In returning to the scene of the accident these objects become subjects, the inanimate becomes animated. The ships are lured by the wreck of the Tricolor, acting like a beacon, lighting their way to self-destruction or at least a certain meeting point. As the farce unfolds the vessels congregate round the sunken cargo – those eroding cars - those previously exclusive commodities. Here a wakeful moment of fantastical recognition occurs to our characters, as the commodity’s inability to cover what is lacking becomes visible in its role as the lost object at sea.

As the Tricolor remained submerged the signification of its cargo is further transformed as an accidental effect took hold upon the cargo. The cultural critic Jean Baudrillard17 comments that although waste is often viewed as dysfunctional, a morally abject phenomenon, wasteful expenditure actual takes on a particular social function in that it becomes a site of producing value. That waste is vital in an affluent society in defying scarcity whilst in contradiction signifies abundance. He writes that:

“The Accident; that gigantic ‘happening’, the finest offered by consumer society, through which society affords itself in the ritual destruction of materials and life the proof of excessive affluence (proof a contrario, but one that is much more effective in the depths of the imagination than the direct proof by accumulation). Consumer society needs its objects to be, more precisely it needs to destroy them... The value created is much more intense in violent loss18

In this argument consumption acquires meaning through its constituent element of consummation, through destruction and the greater the violence the greater the value. So what of the destruction of £30 million worth of luxury cars? The commercial function of these vehicles has been halted; they are stopped in their tracks, consumed by the man-made accident. In this story we see the cars shipped to an early death on the seabed as this luxury item is returned to its mass-produced status. Ordinarily, the story of the car always ends with a wreck but it is as if these cars were produced directly for that purpose, hyperbolic in their bypassing of the open road, as they crashed on the aquatic highway. In this exaggerated, farcical situation the cars have lost all surplus value moving in one step from a luxury to a waste product. The question then becomes to what does this accidental waste testify? In this underwater context the signification of the waste again shifts as the possibility of asserting affluence through destruction is thwarted through the very sign through which it is affirmed. These cars were never owned in order to be discarded. This waste frustrates as it fails to attest to wealth but rather signifies affluence refused. The sign value is inverted and in this conversion they become comic in their representation, as this waste is the sign that says exactly what it isn’t meant to say.

Cars on a raised section of the Tricolor, 'Missed the Boat' 2005 Michelle Atherton

This radical loss of surplus value is not necessarily a static state as the cars still have the potential to be resurrected through the image of the shipwreck. The automobile has become an icon of Modernity, but in it’s sunken condition it transformed into a symbol for Modernity’s anti-thesis, the accident. In this way the Tricolor is the commodity version of the Titanic, signalling the end of our love affair with the car. In such a configuration it is possible that the cars could be brought back from the dead and given added value, through life as a ruin – Modernity’s ruin.

These interpretations are both confounded by the intervention of the car manufacturers who have arranged for all the vehicles to be destroyed as soon as they reach dry land. All access to and documentation of the cars has been prohibited. These cars have moved from being the most imaged commodity to one of complete invisibility, which is the only part of this accident that is not accidental. It is as though the changes in the signification of the cars caused by these events makes them un-representable. The salvage attempt here is upon the signification of the vehicles, an out of control symbol that can only be contained once destroyed by their makers. What is at stake for the manufacturers is the signification of the car, the potential revelation of its obsolescence. This is an attempt to stop something being said that might be said, these cars are wrecks before the wrecks occurs In this account representation keeps getting disrupted, initially by the impossibility of representing the repeated accident and then by the denial of the commodities significance in a submerged context. By the end of the story it is as if the narrative has to be repressed, a refusal of the commodity’s involvement with the accident. This occurs at a literal level by the companies but also by the audience who ultimately fail to identify a human-interest story as they consciously refuse object-as-subject relations. It is important to note however that repression always allows for a kind of proliferation in the dark, from where things return albeit in a disguised form.

Tricolor Salvage, 'Missed the Boat' 2005 Michelle Atherton

The story of the Tricolor is compelling, not in terms of a discourse on the ‘real’, the catastrophe, but rather as an imaginary discourse on the deception of surface appearances. This tale is ultimately concerned with representation, the desire to present the things that are un-representable. As the media reports accumulated and the accident in its repeated form became un-representable, anxiety was replaced by comedy. In recognising preposterous events the viewer could take pleasure in these chance events whilst creating a defence against them – it was just so absurd. Within this contradictory frame the significance of the cars was disturbed, their instability shown, as they momentarily became a signifier for commodities vanishing point, capital refused. As signification slips out at sea, perhaps what is reassuring within the realm of representation is that accidents will always happen.


  1. See Paul Virilio Unknown Quantity (Thames & Hudson France 2003), Renata Salecl On Anxiety (Routledge London & New York 2004), Patricia Mellencamp High Anxiety. Catastrophe, scandal, Age, & Comedy (Indiana University press, Bloomington & Indianapolis 1992)

  2. For key reading please see Virilio Unknown Quantity

  3. Op.cit., p41

  4. Ibid.

  5. Ibid., p42

  6. Op.cit., p212

  7. The Herald of Free Enterprise was a passenger ferry owned and operated by Townsend Car ferries, which capsized on leaving the port of Zeebrugge, Belgium. The vessels bow doors had been improperly closed resulting in the loss of 135 lives, making it the worst disaster in the history of English Ferries and resulted in changes to the bulkheads and the introduction of reinforced doors.

  8. James Kelly _Robinson Crusoe, Shipwreck and Puritan Epistemology _unpublished paper delivered at Shipwreck conference at Tate Britain 09/05/03

  9. Simon Montague, BBC News 16/12/02 and Stephen Sackor, BBC News 10/07/03

  10. Jacques Lacan, Le Seminaire. Livre IV. La relation d’objet, 1956-57, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, (Paris: Seuil 1991) p243-6

  11. Ananova Oil slick from Tricolor ship wreck ‘injured 800birds’ 25/01/03 (

    It would be interesting to compare the pollution caused by the spilt oil with that produced during the life span of such large automobiles. The consequences of air contamination are less tangible and symbolically rather less prominent as it literally remains unseen.

  12. A. Clarke Channel Wreck to be a Hazard for Months The Guardian, London, February 21, 2003

  13. Ibid

  14. Jean Baudrillard Symbolic Exchange and Death (Sage. London 2003) p161

  15. J. M. Davis Farce, Methuen 1978 p

  16. Eric Bentley The Life of the Drama (Henry Bolt and Company, New York 1967) p 288

  17. Jean Baudrillard The Consumer Society: Myths & Structures (Sage, London 1998) p 42-47

  18. Ibid., p47