Health and Wellness
The Cruise Ship as Disease Heterotopia

The Cruise Ship as Disease Heterotopia

Lisa Diedrich

We know the images: cruise ships with sick passengers searching for a place to dock or turned into off-shore quarantine sites as passengers and crew are not allowed to disembark. In the time of COVID-19, the cruise ship has become a harbinger of and a vector for contagion and death.

This is not new. Cruise ships have long been sites of viral outbreaks, as well as the means by which diseases move across borders and boundaries. In its general guidelines for travel, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) includes a section on “Cruise Ship Travel” that begins by noting that such travel “presents a unique combination of health concerns.” The CDC further explains, “Travelers from diverse regions brought together in the often crowded, semi-enclosed environments onboard ships can facilitate the spread of person-to-person, foodborne, or waterborne diseases.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that cruise ships are massive incubators of a variety of diseases, including gastrointestinal illnesses like norovirus, respiratory illnesses like influenza and coronavirus, and even measles. The CDC webpage keeps track of outbreaks on cruise ships so that passengers can better protect their health by checking a particular cruise line’s record before booking a cruise.

Cruising is linked etymologically, as well as instrumentally, to the emergence and spread of western imperialism. The English word “cruise” comes from the Dutch kruisen and was first used in the 1650s as a verb meaning “to sail about touching at a series of ports.” The noun form of the word, indicating a tour by ship, was first used at the end of the 17th century. This lineage is apparent in stories of outbreaks of coronavirus on cruise ships in 2020. As I write, the Holland America cruise ship Zaandam (the name refers to an important Dutch shipbuilding center in the 17th century) is looking for a port to allow it to dock. The ship set sail from Buenos Aires, Argentina on March 7, 2020 and the cruise was scheduled to end in San Antonio, Chile on March 21. After passengers began to get sick and at least four died, Chile refused to allow the ship to dock, leaving the Zaandam searching for a port. Panama eventually allowed the ship to pass through the Panama Canal, and its sister ship, the Rotterdam, delivered supplies of food and medicine, and now both are headed toward Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis has said he will not allow passengers, many of whom are “foreigners,” to be “dumped” in his state

An 18th-century Dutch ship from Zaandaam. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

DeSantis’s claim that the ship is bringing a foreign disease to Florida denies the fact that there are many Americans on board the Zaandam and that COVID-19 is already here in the U.S. and spreading rapidly. DeSantis’s claim is also surprising, or simply cynical, considering that the day the Zaandam set sail, he hosted Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, CDC director Robert Redfield, and executives of the cruise industry to signal support for the industry and alleviate fears of cruising in a pandemic.

In these stories of coronavirus on cruise ships, the ship functions as a multiple and contradictory site, a place of movement and stasis, of freedom and entrapment. In a lecture to a group of architects in Paris in 1967, philosopher Michel Foucault introduced the concept of heterotopia to refer to spaces “capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible.” (25) Foucault gives many examples of heterotopias and links what he describes as three “extreme types”—the brothel, the colony, and the boat. Rather poetically, Foucault describes the boat as “a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea” (27). Since the 16th century, according to Foucault, the boat has allowed treasures to be plundered from colonies, has served as a “great instrument of economic development” for some and extraction and exploitation for others, and provided “the greatest reserve of the imagination” (27). Foucault’s lecture ends by proclaiming, “The ship is the heterotopia par excellence,” arguing that “civilizations without boats,” are places where “dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates” (27). As if espionage and the police, as well as authoritarian dreams of power and control, do not also rely on literal and figurative boats.

I take a tour through Foucault’s rather romantic view of ships as heterotopia in order to draw a direct line between cruise ships and imperialism, colonialism, and even slavery. In her influential recent book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Black Queer Studies scholar Christina Sharpe utilizes as method the concept and image of the wake with its multiple meanings as disturbed flow behind a ship, as a state of consciousness, and as vigil for the dead. For Sharpe, “wake work” is an analytic for mapping the afterlives of slavery and a means of imagining and enacting forms of care. Drawing on Sharpe, I argue that cruise ships travel “in the wake” of the world-historical traumas of imperialism, colonialism, and slavery. In Sharpe’s breathtaking analysis, the ship is not, or not only, the source of dreams but of nightmares in an enduring climate of anti-blackness. Indeed, the racial divide in coronavirus deaths is already startlingly apparent. I am not suggesting cruise ships are like slave ships. Rather I am suggesting that what makes the ship a heterotopia par excellence is that it contains both dreams and nightmares, movement and imprisonment, life and death. The Zaandam and other coronavirus-infected cruise ships provide a glimpse of this history, as mid-journey, they are transformed from sites of freedom to sites of entrapment and potential death.

As a form of tourism, cruising conjures neo-colonial images of wealthy, white, elderly westerners sailing into and out of “exotic” places without staying long enough to experience life in those places . Yet, despite its fortress-like appearance, the cruise ship is not a safe space from disease. Indeed, we might say that it is a disease heterotopia, in the literal sense of facilitating the spread of diseases from one person to another and in a more figurative sense as indicating that disease is not outside our borders and boundaries, but already here, within.

Featured image caption: In the time of COVID-19, the cruise ship has become a harbinger of and a vector for contagion and death. (Courtesy Pixabay)

Lisa Diedrich is professor and chair of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Stony Brook University. Her research and teaching interests are in critical medical studies, disability studies, feminist science studies, and graphic medicine. She is the author of Indirect Action: Schizophrenia, Epilepsy, AIDS, and the Course of Health Activism and Treatments: Language, Politics, and the Culture of Illness.

1 thought on “The Cruise Ship as Disease Heterotopia

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      You have no idea of how excited I was to see this. I didn’t think anyone else was even thinking about heterotopias. This is such a great, modern example of the phenomenon and an important social critique. Thank you!

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