All Is Lost: Notes on Broken World Design

J.C. Chandor’s film tells the story of one man’s struggle with nature. It is also a persuasive parable about our collective struggle with life at the end of modernity, as our fragile certainties are giving way and breaking down.

Our Man watches his sailboat, the Virginia Jean, sink in the middle of the Indian Ocean; from All Is Lost
Our Man watches his sailboat, the Virginia Jean, sink in the middle of the Indian Ocean; from All Is Lost.

We will understand what architecture is when our lives depend on it. 1
— Uruguay Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016

The screen is black. We hear the sound of gentle waves. These are the opening lines of the screenplay of All Is Lost. In the film, lean white letters on a black field situate the scene geographically: 1700 NAUTICAL MILES FROM THE SUMATRA STRAITS. The title card then fades into the pale blue-pink offing of a placid sea at dusk. The director, J.C. Chandor, sets his lens at zero degrees, a few feet above the waterline. He holds the shot for a short beat, emphasizing the way the ocean meets the sky along a line conjoining two unknowns, absent any center or boundary. The Steadicam then tracks slowly left across what we soon recognize as the tip of a flotsam shipping container — modernity’s iceberg — that is diagonally submerged, adrift, cut loose from the logistics of contemporary global exchange. If you count the corrugations, it looks as if most of the container has sunk below the surface of the Indian Ocean.

Right after this panning shot, we hear a male voice, tired and rueful; his words timestamp the future-perfect past: “Thirteenth of July, 4:50 p.m.” “I’m sorry,” he continues. “I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried. I think you would all agree that I tried.” We don’t yet know who the protagonist is, or to whom he’s addressing these words, though we assume it’s to a spouse, or other family members. He pushes on: “To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn’t. And I know you knew this. In each of your ways.” His farewell is spare, elegiac, sorrowful.

All is lost here … except for body and soul. … It’s inexcusable, really, I know that now. How it could have taken this long to admit that I’m not sure … but it did. I fought ’til the end, I’m not sure what that is worth, but know that I did. I have always hoped for more for you all … I will miss you. I’m sorry.

The screen then fades to black. As viewers will discover over the course of the next hundred or so minutes, this voice is the voice of “Our Man,” the film’s sole character, played by Robert Redford, who has undertaken to write a letter at the end of a chain of events that begins with the actions of the huge, rogue container.

Our Man is indeed ‘Modern Man,’ and he carries all the gendered, privileged, hubristic flotsam that attaches to that identity.

All is Lost tells the story of one man’s struggle with nature, with the open sea. But more than that, the film reflects and symbolizes our collective struggle with life at the end of modernity. Our Man’s story is Our story. The opening recitation of that repentant letter is addressed to all of us, to the world. Our Man is indeed “Modern Man,” and he carries all the gendered, privileged, hubristic flotsam that attaches to that identity. This is what we come to know about the central character: he is a white male in his 70s. From his fitness and bearing, we assume he possesses enough disposable wealth to afford a 39-foot oceangoing sailboat designed strictly for leisure (based in Portland, we later discover). Further, we know he exhibits sufficient knowledge and skill to navigate the ocean by himself, and that he has sailed over 10,000 miles — the distance between South Asia and the Pacific Northwest — by the time we encounter him. What else can we heuristically deduce? That Our Man, Modern Man, is the type of human being who takes pleasure in the challenge of mastering nature. We also sense that his agency, his confidence, derives from participation in the neoliberal political economy, through some global business or lucrative profession. And it becomes quickly obvious that his current predicament — aging and alone, on a damaged boat in the middle of a vast sea roughly between Indonesia and Madagascar — is both an embodiment and direct consequence of this agency.

The opening scene of All Is Lost, in the midst of the Indian Ocean.
The opening scene of All Is Lost, in the midst of the Indian Ocean.

The unmoored shipping container looms into view, in the early scenes of All Is Lost.
The unmoored shipping container looms into view, in the early scenes of All Is Lost.

Our Man starts to grapple with the freak accident that dooms his boar. From <em>All Is Lost. </em>
Our Man starts to grapple with the freak accident that dooms his boat. From All Is Lost.

The film’s somber introductory vale fades into a second title card: 8 DAYS EARLIER. We hear telltale rhythmic creaking — a boat at sea — interrupted by a sudden, sonorous rush of water. As the scene starts, we find ourselves in close quarters looking down on Our Manʻs face, below the bow, asleep in his berth. He is not young, but also not too old to attempt to sail solo around the world. A portentous crunching sound jolts him awake, just as a rush of foamy seawater, bearing a child’s sneaker, curls across the wooden floor of the forward cabin. He rises, disoriented, and sloshes toward the deck, stopping only to save his journal from the water flooding his navigation desk. He scans the damage — computer, drenched; communications equipment, drenched; GPS, drenched; radar, drenched. He turns and hoists himself up the small ladder onto the companionway, where he sees the scope of his problem: an immense, unmoored shipping container has rammed into his hull, midship. Right away, Our Man lowers his mainsail.

One thing is certain: elemental time and force break free of human device, of human measure.

In his seminal 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin famously writes that film “reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. … Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye — if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored.” 2 What exactly are the properties of the “different nature” that opens around Our Man and us as we absorb the consequences of this freak accident, 1700 miles from land, all channels of communication cut off? One thing is certain: elemental time and force break free of human device, of human measure. For Our Man, the exigencies of triage leave no room for thinking beyond the progressive disarticulation of the “boat” and its “equipment,” which is perhaps why Chandor conveys the narrative almost exclusively through Redford’s facial expressions and physical movements. For most of the film, the camera stays close to Our Man’s face and body, and to the vessel, and the action proceeds without dialogue, in and around Our Man’s fiberglass yacht and its vinyl life raft, surrounded by the immensity of the ocean. Except for the voiceover in the prelude, only eleven words break his silence. Most of these are the words Our Man issues in his radio distress calls, repeated four times in vain: “This is the Virginia Jean with an S.O.S. call over.” Later, in his life raft, discovering that salt water has mixed with his dwindling supply of potable water, Our Man releases one last desperate syllable, stuttering past sunburned lips in a primordial howl, “Fuh-fuh-fuh-fuh-fuuuuuuuck.”

The film’s location feels noteworthy, in the midst of the Indian Ocean; likewise, the date — July 13th — and the eight days prior, the day after July 4th, Independence Day. The name of Our Man’s boat, “Virginia Jean,” suggests a woman who was important in his life; but it also evokes the English colonization of Indigenous people in the land that became North America. But the most significant name in the film is the name on the side of the shipping container, which becomes visible as Our Man steers alongside it to recover the anchor he used to pull his boat free from its bulk, about eight minutes into the film. Chandor trains his camera on the sidewall of the container to ensure we see its name, unrolling right to left: HO WON. (We also see its cargo of sneakers spilling into the ocean.) In the spare mise-en-scène of the film, this is an invitation to wordplay, to add the missing letter so the name reads: [W]HO WON. As Our Man approaches, turning parallel to the container, Chandor keeps the camera on his profile and line of sight, which sweep directly across the sinking word WON, from right to left; we are struck first by its opposition to the title of the film — “lost” — and then by the reading of its mirror image — “won”/“now.” This convergence of simple words with simple meanings belies deeper currents appropriate to the film’s various thematic intimations: anthropogenic arrogance, age, time, entropy, impermanence. 3

Our Man plunges into a new category of sustainability, unrelated to the alibis for neoliberal growth that characterize the practice of environmental design.

Among all these words, “now” deserves a closer look. “Now” is an expression of the most elusive quality of temporality, especially when both our habits of mind and systems of language seem predisposed to the past and future tenses. Its etymological freight includes suggestions of urgency and immediacy. In context, it can communicate command, reproof, or consequence. But in its essence, “now” is the expression of the ineffable, continuously self-refreshing present, the generative signature of “event,” and the particular province of the gerund. Arguably, “now” is all there is; all the rest is memory or projection. The verb in the film’s title fixes our attention firmly to the present moment. The “now” that Our Man inhabits precludes the distractions of either past or future. He is swallowed into the present; now his life depends on keeping his boat seaworthy, which forestalls the luxury of panic (future consequences) or remorse (past mistakes). Urgency defines all action, all logics of repair, all available materials, all skill, all will, all craft, all adaptation, all utility, all strength and power, all direction. Our Man plunges into what we might call a new category of sustainability, utterly unrelated to the alibis for neoliberal growth that characterize the practice of environmental design; he orients himself to a new category of conservation, unrelated to nostalgia for the victims of capital (indigeneity, historical authenticity, the irrecoverable past); he cleaves to a new category of resilience, unrelated to the simplistic desire to return to earlier forms of habitation and commerce; he enacts a new category of economy, unrelated to cost or price or value and their promiscuous ratios; and above all, he adapts to a new category of survival, absolutely unrelated to the achievement of “success.” Our Man’s now is Our now.

Some of the most arresting sequences in All Is Lost take place after Our Man transitions from his sailboat to his life raft. This move follows a harrowing storm that demasts and overturns his vessel, nearly killing him. Grim and resigned, he deploys the self-inflating raft, which he tethers to the Virginia Jean and fills with provisions laboriously collected from the cabin, which is nearly fully submerged. Once on the raft, Our Man pauses and then pulls himself back into the sinking boat. From deep within a storage compartment he wrestles out a package, still sealed. He transfers this last item to the raft, cleans and bandages a deep gash in his forehead, then abandons ship.

Our Man, on the raft, after his sailboat has sunk. Having lost all his high-tech navigational equipment, he learns how to use a sextant.
Our Man, on the raft, after his sailboat has sunk. Having lost all his high-tech navigational equipment, he learns how to use a sextant.

After watching the Virginia Jean sink, Our Man settles into his new and confined reality. Chandor pulls his camera up a thousand feet to underscore the fragility of the small nylon raft and the enormity of his isolation. The first order of business is opening the package, which is labeled “Fragile: Delicate Instrument”: inside, in a wooden case, there is a sextant. There is also what appears to be a greeting card, and we sense that this historical device was a gift Our Man never imagined he would need to use, a sentimental antique, not a piece of essential equipment. Ensuing scenes show him reading a manual, Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen, and studying the instrument, situating its various parts in relation to the horizon and navigational focal points.

Here Chandor introduces an additional perspective on the sea, as the camera moves under the raft, which communicates not only its fragility but also its proximity to neighboring life forms, expressed almost as a parallel narrative. “The camera is in the water looking back up at the life raft towards the surface,” Chandor’s screenplay notes, capturing Our Man’s blindness to the worlds that lie beneath him in his ocean-going voyage. The screenplay continues: “The shot will move in to a close up of the bottom of the raft. There is a small amount of algae starting to grow on the bottom of the raft. As the camera gets very close on the algae out of the corner of the frame comes a tiny small fish, no larger than a minnow, that swims up to the algae and starts to eat it.” Meanwhile, Our Man discovers that with the sextant, the sea anchor, and his navigational charts, he can calculate a route toward nearby shipping lanes where he might intersect freighter traffic.

Our Man's raft, surrounded by other life worlds.
Our Man’s raft, surrounded by other life worlds.

As the film progresses, we see more of the plentiful life beneath the raft. Again, from the screenplay: “As the camera gets closer to one of the minnows a much larger fish comes darting in from the edge of the frame and eats the smaller fish.” Soon, the raft attracts hundreds of small fish, and, in turn, larger predators. Chandor directs the camera to “an extreme close-up of the algae on the bottom of the raft”; then, as the camera pulls back, “we see thirty of the larger fish that are eating the minnows circling below. Then below them are five or six fish probably two- or three-feet long circling below at the bottom of the chain.” Our Man recognizes a new food source, and he deploys a fishing line and hook from his survival kit. Pulling on the line after its tell-tale jiggle, Our Man begins to reel in his catch. From the screenplay:

As he is looking over the edge of the raft a massive shark jumps up through the surface of the water and eats the fish that was at the end of his line. As the shark breaks the surface of the water, its tail knocks into Our Man throwing him to the other side of the raft. It scares the shit out of him.

From start to finish, All Is Lost tell the story of the slow, continuous dislocation of material boundaries as one after another the systems all fail after the initial breach — hull structure, electronic circuitry, mast, bouyancy, hydration, nutrition, human communication — a steady disaggregation of constructed and calibrated parts relentlessly converging with the measureless properties of the sea, which finally swallows Our Man whole. “There are always passages from one to the other, transformations of one within the other, reversals,” Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari write, describing the continuous interchange between the “smooth” space of affects and the “striated” space of properties. 4 In All Is Lost these reversals include the aleatory collision with the current-borne container no longer subject to the grids of commerce or cartography; the exact location of the breach; the insufficiency of repair; the vulnerability of electronic equipment; the disintegration of the vessel at the mercy of forces that overpower its design; the precariousness of the frail raft; the incessant encroachment of marine life indifferent to human intention; the Hail Mary pass in which Our Man, his emergency flares used up, sacrifices his navigational charts and journal to fuel a fire to signal a passing ship; Our Manʻs body sinking into the ocean’s depths.

Like Our Man, we too find ourselves living, and designing, in the aftermath of modernity: its logics, its projects, its technics, its fury.

After eight days on the open sea in storms that are analogous to the crises of our century, Our Man has become a visceral personification of late modernity. At the end, he resorts to confession; again, he tried “to be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right.” But in the end, he seems to grasp what we moderns have been so slow to recognize — that capitalism, our world system, possesses neither truth, strength, kindness, love, nor goodness, much less justice and equity. By the end, his words acknowledge the failure of his increasingly desperate endeavors, likewise the failure of modernity’s hubristic rationalizations; he declares them “inexcusable,” and wonders why it has “taken this long to admit that I’m not sure.” But it has. Like Our Man, we too find ourselves living, and designing, in the aftermath of modernity: its logics, its projects, its technics, its fury. We find ourselves adrift, clinging to the wreckage of our failed projects just as Our Man clings to his failed boat, and we are watching helplessly as they sink, one after another. The pseudo-stabilities of modernity are giving way, breaking open, or otherwise leaving gaping holes in their tired claims of wholeness. The old world of steady-state design in which the future is based on the past has become a sentimental delusion; instead we inhabit an inescapable here and now, dwelling in a calculus of impermanence and imbalance, and on the cusp of another paradigm of design thought and action. In this destabilized context, our women, our men, all of us, might benefit from “broken world thinking.”

In “Rethinking Repair,” the computer scientist Steven J. Jackson describes the concept of broken world thinking; he sets up his argument with a question: “what happens when we take erosion, breakdown, and decay, rather than novelty, growth, and progress, as our starting points?” This will involve, he continues, “an appreciation of the real limits and fragility of the worlds we inhabit — natural, social, and technological — and a recognition that many of the stories and orders of modernity (or whatever else we choose to call the past two-hundred-odd years of euro-centered human history) are in process of coming apart, perhaps to be replaced by new and better stories and orders, but perhaps not.” 5

Broken world thinking is thinking both the capabilities, and the culpabilities, of design. To paraphrase Virilio, to invent the ship is to invent the shipwreck.

Broken world thinking is thinking both the capabilities, and the culpabilities, of design. To paraphrase the philosopher Paul Virilio, to invent the ship is to also invent the shipwreck. 6 But here at the end of modernity, what is at stake is more systemic than just the design of a ship or the possibility of shipwreck. Consider, for example, the car. With the invention of the car comes the invention of the car crash. But there is also a slower and more extended crash, the crash of social and ecological systems that are inextricable from the car’s production, operation, resource extractions, toxic emissions, and disintegrating infrastructures. Broken world thinking is not a matter of learning to anticipate failure, and therefore learning from that failure. It is a habit of mind that productively and generatively thinks through the next states and effects of our systems as the very basis of design. In modernity, to break is to fail. Broken world thinking, in contrast, is optimistic about the inevitability of that breakdown. Jackson is writing specifically about information media, but his argument is directly applicable to building and environmental design. “Broken world thinking,” he writes, “asserts that breakdown, dissolution, and change, rather than innovation, development, or design as conventionally practiced and thought about are the key themes and problems.” 7 Which is to say that broken world thinking challenges our core assumptions as modern designers, the ways we think about and practice design. It demands a shift in our cognition about what design is and what design does.

All is Lost evinces two distinct phases of such cognition. In the first phase, Our Man focuses on maintaining extant order and decorum. He immediately dislodges the errant container and attempts (ultimately in vain) to patch the large hole in the hull of his vessel, with the short-lived goal of sailing away from danger, into the sunset, unharmed. He also attempts to repair his radio, his satellite phone, and his GPS system, all the remnants of modern infrastructure. In these futile efforts, Our Man demonstrates how fixated he is on this infrastructure. In an emblematic on-scene/off-scene cinematic detail, he must, in order to repair the hole below the waterline, set his keel and rudder so that the starboard side of the ship’s hull is oriented up, out of water. That is, he must literally sail in a single direction — in large circles — for hours and hours until the field repair is complete and the fiberglass epoxy dry. The fragility of the repair is matched by its amateurish, even grotesque, ugliness. Likewise, our modern efforts to maintain the existing course of things through design — cases in point, “sustainability” and “resilience” — exhibit an uncanny resemblance to this going-in-circles in order to perpetuate the existing order and continue on the treadmill of modernity. But even Our Man finally cannot muster confidence in his ability to patch things up. Nor should we: our patching will not hold. The storms of this century are too severe.

The primary cognitive impediment for Our Man in the early scenes is his failure to acknowledge that he is on a sinking ship.

The primary cognitive impediment for Our Man in the early scenes is his failure to acknowledge that he is on a sinking ship. In one revealing scene, a huge wave tosses Our Man overboard and drags him underwater, tethered to his craft. He remains literally and cognitively attached to the ship. But in this storm-tossed scene, the mast breaks. Our Man loses control of the ship. He emerges from his unanticipated baptism exhausted; he retreats to his cabin and collapses. Then, seeing that the patchwork hull has finally and fully failed, he begins to accept that his craft is doomed, and he too breaks down as his own mental patches fail. In this moment of extreme emotional and intellectual stress, something fundamentally shifts in his understanding of his predicament, which mirrors our predicament. There is sudden, epistemic advantage to thinking differently.

In the second phase, Our Man abides by a novel, non-modern order, based on the inevitability of breakdown. He begins to imagine an alternative way forward. He abandons the expensive, brittle boat, with its comfortable cabin and high-tech equipment, and settles into the supple-solid life raft that rolls with the waves. As he watches his sailboat sink, he starts to relinquish his modern habits, his modern ways of solving problems. In this phase, he engages pre-modern methods of navigation and crafts a makeshift solar still to desalinate ocean water. He also begins to design things differently.

This phase of cognition presupposes a reinterpretation of the idea of surplus. What he once feared as prodigious threats to his existence — too much sun, too much water — Our Man now reconfigures through a different genre of techne so that those same surplus conditions might ensure his existence: hence the solar still. As part of this phase, Our Man develops an ethics of care and repair by which, in Jackson’s words: “order and meaning in complex sociotechnical systems are maintained and transformed, human value is preserved and extended, and the complicated work of fitting to the varied circumstances of organizations, systems, and lives is accomplished.” 8 Tokens of surplus in the previous order — shaving, a gold ring, a watch, silverware, all the accoutrements of a life of leisure and entitlement, indeed, the sailboat itself in part and whole — no longer embody value. Our Man’s matrix of care begins to change as well. He now seeks other affordances, reconfiguring first the parameters of his gaze and then the technics of his somatic field. New contingencies constrain and describe his world, our world. The provision of shade becomes urgent. The horizon and stars attain new meaning as Our Man deploys the sextant to guide his path. He adapts himself to his surroundings in new ways; when the shark swiftly snares the fish that he’d caught on his line, Our Man becomes acutely aware that he, too, is quarry for a species that demands unequivocal respect.

The narrative progresses from the technics of our modern world (satellite phones and fiberglass boats) to the technics of a non-modern world (solar stills and sextants).

All Is Lost thus describes a progression from the technics of our modern world (satellite phones and fiberglass monocoques) to the technics of a non-modern world (stills and sextants). The film aptly culminates in the use of fire, our most archaic, primordial technic, the control of which helps make us human. 9 On the eighth night, Our Man see a ship’s light in the distance; out of flares, he puts his maps and his journal in a small box and lights them on fire in a last, desperate attempt to signal his distress. But soon the raft is engulfed in flames, and Our Man sinks, spread-eagled, into the watery depths. In social terms, the film’s telling progression starts with the infrastructure of modern autonomy (sailing alone), and after considerable breakdown and reconfiguration, ends, in the final seconds, with a brief shot of opposing hands and forearms, one brown, one white, reaching out and grasping each other in solidarity. Is this the semi-conscious last vision of Our Man as he is drowning, or the fortuitous outcome of his persistence, ingenuity, and luck? Chandor leaves this open to interpretation.

In the final scene of All Is Lost, Our Man attempts to signal a passing ship by lighting a fire in his raft, which ultimately consumes the small craft.
In the final scene of All Is Lost, Our Man attempts to signal a passing ship by lighting a fire in his raft, which ultimately consumes the small craft.

All Is Lost can be appreciated for the astonishing performance by Robert Redford and the skillful direction of J.C. Chandor. For designers, the film is also a persuasive parable in which long-held assumptions about the socio-technical constitution of modernity are systematically dismantled and then slowly, painfully replaced with the epistemological realities of broken world thinking. Design is one of the fields in which a new ethics of care and repair can be enacted — but not design as conventionally conceived or practiced. Our Man does not ponder parametric rearrangements of his cabin furnishings, much less fetishize the new and old tools upon which he depends. Instead, he directs his cognitive skills — his design intentions — towards fitting his life — his perceptions and desires — into the new constraints and conditions. He learns to develop a non-modern technics that is better suited to preserving human life on the thin surface of our planet, a technics shaped not by arrogant domination but rather by humble cooperation. In every sense, he reconfigures his craft accordingly. Again, in that voiceover at the start of the film, he despairs:

All is lost here … except for soul and body … that is, what’s left of them … and a half-day’s ration.

Yet over the course of the film he has demonstrated, through broken world thinking, that what is left just might be sufficient. The old hopes and expectations of modernity might all be lost, but soul, body, and nature remain. The first thing Our Man does in the face of peril is lower his mainsail. Perhaps so should we.

Notes
  1. Uruguay Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016; Marcelo Danza, Antar Kuri, Borja Fermoselle, Diego Cataldo, Jose de los Santos, Marcelo Staricco, and Miguel Fascioli.
  2. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 236–37.
  3. “Won,” for instance, has roots in an Old English verb meaning “to dwell or reside,” to stay in a place habitually — to remain in a condition or a way of life; to continue to be; to have existence; to live. In modern usage, of course, “won” is the past tense of “win”: to be victorious; or to acquire, procure, or prevail. This meaning resonates with its ancient Old English and German roots — to gain, obtain, suffer, exert oneself, bring about, reach, arrive at, get at, get hold of, overtake, be in time for, make or find one’s way; arrive at or come to some place; succeed in doing; contrive; or manage to do something. In a maritime context, “win” means to “gain the land.” OED, s.v. “win,” etc.
  4. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 532.
  5. Steven J. Jackson, “Rethinking Repair,” in Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot, eds. Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), 221, 10.7551/mitpress/9780262525374.001.0001
  6. “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution. … Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.” Paul Virilio, Politics of the Very Worst (New York: Semiotext(e), 1999), 89.
  7. Steven J. Jackson, 222.
  8. Ibid.
Cite
Kiel Moe & Daniel S. Friedman, “All Is Lost: Notes on Broken World Design,” Places Journal, October 2020. Accessed 31 Oct 2020. <>

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