This essay proposes a reading of the American photographer Allan Sekula’s 1995 essay “Dismal Science” alongside The Forgotten Space, an essay film he directed with Noël Burch in 2010. These works are still resonant today because they suggest the possibility of picturing the totality of capitalist modernity. Sekula’s representations of the shipping container and the subsequent shifts in maritime economy recuperate the prospect of a panoramic, totalizing view in an era marked by a prevalence of detail and data over meaningful grand narrative. The totality the container embodies and represents, however, is not the whole of a frictionless and seamless accumulation of capital but a nonsynchronous, polemical, and critical totality of struggle and antagonism. Sekula turns the shipping container from a stand-in for a system of commodity circulation to an allegorical sign of the continuing fight between labor and capital. Rather than envisioning this totality of struggle as a merely thematic concern, Sekula’s compositions eschew commodification on the level of form by delving into the constitutive tensions of realism and reintroducing a living context of militancy and resistance into the matter of representation itself.

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