he increasingly common conjunction of contemporary art and logistics (Toscano and Kinkle, 2015) might be cause for incredulity in some quarters—not least those of logistics specialists or art historians. However crucial to the working of contemporary economic life—so much so that theorists have taken to speak of a shift to supply chain capitalism (Tsing, 2009)—the visible manifestations of this material theory and practice of the circulation and assembly of commodities appear stamped by an inexorable banality, especially in that modular metonym for global capital as a whole, the container. Of course, artistic attention to logistics is in many regards a salutary product of the kind of critical realism that would seek to forge the formal and perceptual instruments capable of serving as compasses through the transformations in contemporary capitalism, homing in on its nerve centers and exposed nerves, its weakest links as much as its strongest. In what follows, I want to take a step back from the critical survey of works that somehow thematize the logistical, and reflect instead on some of the aesthetic presuppositions that subtend the orientation of art towards logistics, some of what we may think of as the lures of logistics for a politically or critically-oriented art. I think the best guide to those lures, and to how to disactivate them, remains the photographer, historian and theorist Allan Sekula.

I want to explore here the way in which his work articulates images of logistics and the logistics of images in terms of their specific effacements and distortions of the laboring body, and their iteration of the division between intellectual and manual labor. This involves an indispensable detour through the critique of abstraction, in the conviction that unless we attend to the way in which our artistic and visual practices are responsive to and embedded in capital’s real abstractions (Toscano, 2008), their constructions of really-abstract spaces, together with bodily and social dispositions, we may be lured into the repetition or reproduction of the very mechanisms we are seeking to depict or dismantle. A rapid glance over the now extensive archive of art about that most compellingly banal of object and devices, the container, suggests that the qualities of isomorphy, modularity, abstraction, indifference (or anaesthesia), standardization, mathematical or scalar sublimity that attach to logistical complexes fascinate the artistic gaze, drawing into a risky mimesis or replication of the very design and function of the abstract spaces of logistics. In his article ‘The Instrumental Image’ (Sekula, 1975), Sekula had shown how the relationship between, on the one hand, Edward Steichen’s instrumental images—aerial reconnaissance photographs which themselves speak volumes about logistics originally military meaning—and, on the other, the spiritualization of the instrumental under the sign of modernism and its abstractions, found their intimate bond in what we could call a mimesis of abstraction. A world rendered ‘concretely abstract’ by the geographic and temporal imperatives of capitalist accumulation seems to ‘reflect back’ onto the artistic gaze that very drive to spiritualized abstraction (itself grounded on the separation of intellectual and manual labor) which had been the political-economic content of its aesthetic forms. In contemporary visual practice, especially photographic and cinematic work oriented toward logistical complexes, the mimetic lure of real abstraction has several modalities, among which is the figure of logistics as a depopulated landscape of megastructures.[1]

As Fredric Jameson observes in Representing Capital:

"[T]he dead labor embodied in machinery suddenly swells to inhuman proportions (and is properly compared to a monster or a Cyclopean machine). It is as though the reservoir, or as Heidegger would call it, the “standing reserve” (Gestell), of past or dead labor was immensely increased and offered ever huger storage facilities for these quantities of dead hours, which the merely life-sized human machine-minder is nonetheless to bring back to life, on the pattern of the older production. The quantities of the past have been rendered invisible by the production process outlined above, and yet they now surround the worker in a proportion hitherto unthinkable." (Jameson, 2011: 102)

This annihilation of time by space, of the visibility of labor-time by the amplification of the physical infrastructures of dead labor, poses the problem of cognitive mapping in far more theoretically determinate matter than the mere problem of not being able to represent the vastness and complexity of a capitalist world-system, which shears perception away from production. Here, I want to complement this critical focus on the nexus of logistics, scale, and fixed capital, with an investigation into the relation between abstraction, circulation, labor, and visual representation, turning to Sekula to think the question of logistics as one of the forms taken by circulation, and the need to defetishize these forms while recognizing their efficacy. By thematizing abstraction, I also want to begin to think how logistics might be framed not only through its material apparatuses but also through its legal, operational, managerial and commodity forms.

Good Ship Bad Ship (Limassol). Allan Sekula: Ship of Fools, (1999-2010). From The Estate of Allan Sekula, Los Angeles.

We can draw from Sekula’s work a sustained and systematic critique of how capitalist abstraction—in its monetary, aesthetic, and scientific dimensions—permeates the relationship between photography and labor, repeating in a sui generis manner the subjection of work under capital. This critique of abstraction, which already transpires from Sekula’s earliest statements on the history of photography, is intimately linked, I want to suggest, to the question of logistics—an object of dogged and nuanced inquiry in Sekula’s maritime works. What follows is but a sketch, in view of a more patient, and systematic reconstruction.

Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s work can be briskly summarized in two points: the activity of abstracting from quality which is immanent to commodity exchange (the exchange abstraction) constitutes the real and unconscious basis for all cognitive or cultural forms of abstraction in capitalist society; the exchange abstraction in the domain of circulation is dialectically bound up with the fundamental division between intellectual and manual labor in production. Abstraction precedes thought, and grounds the class character of capitalist society. Sekula’s critical writings both draw on and expand these intuitions, in particular by trying, as he writes, to “locate universal language claims for photography within the historical context of universalized commodity exchange” (Sekula, 2002a: 22).

The ideology of photography is both a response to and a manifestation of this rule of abstraction. Photography is especially conditioned by the exchange abstraction precisely where it thinks it has escaped it, at the summits of ‘art;’ while in its more anonymous, practical existence it is enmeshed with the longer history of image-making as a factor in the measurement, segmentation and control of labor for the sake of capital. The ‘middle panel’ of Sekula’s great essay triptych ‘Photography Between Labour and Capital,’ a critical history of the role of images in the mining industry, can also be seen as a bravura extension and rectification of Sohn-Rethel’s fragmentary comments on Dürer, image-making and the severance of mind and hand (Sohn-Rethel, 1978: 113-16). Writing about the Taylorist photographic motion-studies of workers produced by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, he observes:

“These images presented the workers’ own capabilities as a ‘thing apart,’ and as an abstraction” (Sekula, 1983: 247).

Breaking and capturing the flow of workers' movements by separating their bodies from their images – that too was photography, anticipated in this task by the diagrams of Georgius Agricola's De re metallica, Diderot’s Encyclopédie and Frederick Taylor, milestones in the history of science and capital’s joint production of a disembodied supervisory gaze, overseeing exploitation (1983: 203-49).

Sekula’s critical project in his historical essays is to provide “conceptual tools for unified understanding of the social workings of photography in an industrial environment” (Sekula, 1983: 202) and to struggle against the disappearance of labor in the photographically-mediated fetishism of the spaces of capital. It is this same drive that leads him from the deeps of the mines to the forgotten spaces of the sea. As he reflected:

“The maritime world was interesting to me because it’s a world of gargantuan automation but also of persistent work, of isolated, anonymous, hidden work, of great loneliness, displacement and separation from the domestic sphere” (2002b: 582).

In a world where “the cargo container has become the very emblem of capitalist disavowal,” labor is no longer accessible except through “some great imaginative geographical leap” (Sekula, 1999: 148). And that disavowal—which prolongs negations that shadow the entire history of labor’s representation and misrepresentation—is not countered but intensified by photography’s condition, itself based on a practice of abstraction, of “imaginary temporal and geographical mobility” (Sekula, 1983: 199)—which may be contrasted with the real mobility, animated by solidarity, that Sekula himself practised, and which is most evident in the political travelogue and video-work, Lottery of the Sea (2006). Such an endeavor is founded on the understanding that class conflict is a conflict of representations, and that an image critique of the rule of abstraction requires a partisan position:

“[t]he archive has to be read from below, from a position of solidarity with those displaced, deformed, silenced, or made invisible by the machineries of profit and progress” (1983: 202).

Such partisanship is resolutely incompatible with contemplation, be it of beauty or sublimity:

“[t]he category of the awed spectator does not apply to those who live with the violence of machines and recalcitrant matter” (252).
South African Visitors. Allan Sekula: Ship of Fools,(1999-2010). From The Estate of Allan Sekula, Los Angeles.

Sekula’s credo is that:

in an age that denies the very existence of society, to insist on the scandal of the world’s increasingly grotesque ‘connectedness’, the hidden merciless grinding away beneath the slick superficial liquidity of markets, is akin to putting oneself in the position of the ocean swimmer, timing one’s strokes to the swell, turning one’s submerged ear with every breath to the deep rumble of stones rolling on the bottom far below. To insist on the social is simply to practice purposeful immersion (2002a: 7).

In Sekula’s essays and photoworks, I think we can discern two interlinked facets of the critique of abstraction, which have long and conflicting histories within Marxism: (1) a materialist and corporeal, as well as partisan, practice of photography, practicing ‘purposeful immersion’ into the social; (2) a ‘reduction’ of phenomena of artistic form to social form. One of the unique features of Sekula’s work is that he does both: unveiling the corporeal suffering and material inertness beneath the veneer of exchange, dragging form down into content, so to speak; but also moving from aesthetic form to social form (for Sohn-Rethel, it was the reduction, or mediation, of one form by another that was methodologically unique to Marx’s account of abstraction, and set it apart from any materialism content to reveal the content ‘behind’ the form).

But Sekula also undermines the bad, petty-bourgeois critique of abstraction, ever eager to pin its colors to the mast of some false immediacy. A case in point is Kurt Forster’s apologia for Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim:

“[h]e does not think of the volumes of his buildings within the confines of abstract space (which is also the space of economics); rather he engages these volumes in intimate relationships with one another.”

Sekula comments on this elaborate rhetoric of disavowal:

“[t]he bad objects here are legion: abstraction, economics, and by implication, bureaucracy and modernism. The crypto-baroque promise of redemptive embodiment—‘corporeal qualities’ and ‘intimate relationships’—is not unlike that offered by the virtual world of the Internet” (Sekula, 2002a: 19-20).

In terms of the question of intellectual and manual labor, Forster’s paean is here a particularly egregious symptom, praising as it does the manner in which, in Gehry’s built structures, the “age-old distinction between the hands that design and the instruments that execute has been overcome” (20). Again, this disavows the reliance of this seemingly immaculate complex of finance-architectural design-computing-art with the activity of building and the entropy of materials, not to mention the social relations of the architectural site itself: the builders (from where?), the unions (are there any?), etc. In the end, Forster’s vision of the Bilbao Guggenheim as a monument to our productive capacities masks “a monument to the absolute hegemony of intellectual labor afforded by computer-based manufacturing” (20).[caption id="attachment_11564" align="aligncenter" width="650"]

Sugar Gang. Allan Sekula: Ship of Fools, (1999-2010). From The Estate of Allan Sekula, Los Angeles.

The relentless critique of the supremacy of intellectual labor, and of how it is made possible by capitalism’s specific modes of abstraction is a leitmotiv in Sekula’s writing and practice. It is also an indispensable ingredient of his critical realism. What does realism mean if we sight it through the prism of universalized commodity exchange, of a society in which, as Marx wrote in the Grundrisse, individuals are ruled by abstractions? And how does photographic realism respond to the lived antinomies of bourgeois thought—of a humanist and individualist ideology of the subject of rights and equality in a world subsumed by the imperatives of capital accumulation? Sekula’s own formulation of these questions, voiced more than three decades ago in ‘The Traffic in Photographs (1981),’ still retains its urgency:

"Perhaps the fundamental question to be asked is this: can traditional photographic representation, whether symbolist or realist in its dominant formal rhetoric, transcend the pervasive logic of the commodity form, the exchange abstraction that haunts the culture of capitalism?" (1984: 80)

His own typology of realisms draws from the centrality of the exchange abstraction to capitalist culture. Sekula defines instrumental realism as “an ambitious attempt to link optical empiricism with abstract, statistical truth” (1984: 79; 1983: 201); this is the realism of the Gilbreths, and of all those practices that enlist photography in the scientific management of industrial labor, or in the attendant activity of identifying and policing those ‘dangerous individuals’ that either resist or are expelled from the labor market. The sentimental realism of the family photograph or the humanist portrait is instead conditioned by its repression of the prosaic violence of exchange, from which it abstracts in turn, idealistically. Bourgeois realism—present, exemplarily, in the portraiture of August Sander—is then caught in the antinomy between instrumental and sentimental, between knowing the world and feeling the world, as well as between scientific and political representation. As Sekula sums up this predicament:

“One current defends science as the privileged representation of the real, as the ultimate source of social truth. The other current defends parliamentary politics as the representation of a pluralistic popular desire, as the ultimate source of social good” (1984: 87-88).

Photography thus configured imagines itself as bridging the bourgeois diremption between art and science; it promotes the illusion of a humanized technology.

But Sekula’s formal critique of abstraction is perhaps at its most powerful in his analysis of photographic archives—not the punitively metaphorical ‘archives’ of much recent theorizing but actual ones, in particular the archive of mining photographs from Cape Breton, Canada, which ‘Photography Between Labour and Capital’ delves into with inspiring care and erudition. The concrete analysis of a concrete archive leads to a much more compelling theory of the archive than we have been accustomed to. As a “territory of images” endowed with “semantic availability,” the archive, as Sekula acerbically notes, “liberates” meaning from contexts and contingencies of use and meaning. This liberation is an abstraction—and the availability of such archived images exhibits “the same abstract logic as that which characterizes goods in the marketplace” (1983: 194). Resonating with Sohn-Rethel again, Sekula argues that the dream of a universal language, so powerfully associated with photography’s technical and humanist utopias, is based on the fact that such practices create “abstract visual equivalence” (195).

Sekula identifies the nerve center of the photographic antinomy of bourgeois thought in the combination, within the travelling exhibition The Family of Man, of mathematical quantity with human unity. In the prologue to the catalogue Carl Sandburg had written of The Family of Man as a “multiplication table of living breathing human faces.” Sekula comments:

"Suddenly, arithmetic and humanism collide, forced by poetic license into an absurd harmony. Here, yet again, are the twin ghosts that haunt the practice of photography: the voice of a reifying technocratic objectivism and the redemptive voice of a liberal subjectivism." (1984: 93)

Returning two decades later to the contradictory logic of abstraction that subtends the traffic in photographs, Sekula would register this antinomy again in the person of Microsoft magnate Bill Gates, “the new paradigm of the global archivist,” employing digital technology to turn multitudes into “mini-Steichens” while hoarding for his own private pleasure a great humanist painting of maritime work, Winslow Homer’s Lost on the Grand Banks; but also in the Guggenheim Bilbao’s combination of technophilia and public-relations humanism (2002a).

The attempt, humanistically, to contain the destructive force of the exchange abstraction repeatedly results in an apotheosis of the very distinction between intellectual and manual labor:

"the ideological force of photographic art in modern society may lie in the apparent reconciliation of human creative energies with a scientifically guided process of mechanization, suggesting that despite the modern industrial division of labour, and specifically despite the industrialization of cultural work, despite the historical obsolescence, marginalization, and degradation of artisanal and manual modes of representation, the category of the artist lives on in the exercise of a purely mental, imaginative command over the camera." (1984: 78-79)

Sekula insistently directs our attention to photography’s own role in trying to bridge these antinomies, combining in different ratios surveillance and sentiment, reification and moral instruction, analysis and pleasure. It is precisely as the false but effective synthesis of incompatibles that photography generates its own practical ideology.

Churn. Allan Sekula: Ship of Fools, (1999-2010). From The Estate of Allan Sekula, Los Angeles.

Sekula’s capacity to think together the political economy and division of labor internal to photographic practice, on the one hand, and the historical modalities of the representation of labor and political economy, on the other, allows him to forge an exacting critique of a whole host of naturalizations of capital’s logics of abstraction and exploitation, one that is particularly vital at a moment when the fascination with capital’s abstraction is morphing into a widespread aesthetic. Today naturalization operates through the abstraction of the economy itself, or perhaps better its monumentalization, a fascination with the impersonal and the monolithic appearances of our mode of production (think of the photographs of Edward Burtynsky). The line between the instrumental and the sentimental, extreme empiricism and guilty humanism, is a porous one, and leaves room for the emergence of what we could call an ‘aesthetics of exploitation’ (which does not of necessity mean its aestheticization, and can very well be the product of an orientation against the status quo). That is what Sekula discerned in the turn to the deadpan depiction of the new abstract landscapes of a suburbanizing US capitalism, brought together in the highly influential exhibition The New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape (1975).

In that exhibition, the depopulated homogeneity of business parks and tract housing was presented without comment, in a studied aesthetic of anonymity, of style-less style. This is precisely what beckoned Sekula’s critical rebuke of the ‘new topographics’ photographer Lewis Baltz. Sekula questioned the manner in which this photographic trend, lured by the pictorial examples of modernist minimalism, approached these new spatial phenomena—inextricable from a certain historically and regionally specific spatial logic of capital – by evacuating their social and laboring referent. This was a bad abstraction, Sekula writes in a 1982 postscript to ‘School is a Factory (1978/1980),’ one that “finds an exemplary aesthetic freedom in the disengaged play of signifiers” (2003a: 252), rather than being painstakingly built from, or in view of, the concrete.

Baltz’s images, like those of what Sekula sarcastically dubbed “the neutron bomb school of photography” (“killing people but leaving the real estate standing”) (2011: n.p.), would thus be led by their own economic unconscious—chiefly, modernism’s reassertion of the separation between intellectual and manual labor—to a complicity with the “mystifying translation of a site of production into a site of imaginary leisure,” synthesized in the oxymoronic blandness of the term ‘industrial park.’ As Baltz has famously noted, looking at these new industrial landscapes, at these seemingly limitless tracts of boxes:

“You don’t know whether they’re manufacturing pantyhose or megadeath.”

Sekula’s retort, that what we need is not a topography of abstraction but a “political geography, a way of talking with words and images about both the system and our lives within the system” (2003a: 251-252) is still valid.

Such a political geography involves moving beyond images of capitalist logistics to reflect on the logistics of images, and on logistical images themselves. To think the image in the field of logistics—the military, and now economic name of 'traffic'—is in this regard to confront the possibility of an image shorn of the subjective, reflective, contemplative features generally ascribed to an artistic representation, as a representation for a viewing, judging subject (be it individual or collective). The logistical image is considered primarily in its informational functionality, as an element in a concatenation of actions, or in a flow, which is ultimately not different in kind from other logistical components (charts, material, transport, etc.). Yet, as his purposeful descent into Shedden's mining archive already intimated, Sekula will insistently read against the current of these mechanized, inhuman flows, bringing a critical humanism and antagonism to bear on the frequently faceless images of extraction and circulation. Reflecting on the Cape Breton collection, he writes:

"We are confronting a curious archive—divided and yet connected elements of an imaginary social mechanism. Pictures that depict fixed moments in an interconnected economy of flows: of coal, money, machines, consumer goods, men, women, children. Pictures that are themselves elements in a unified symbolic economy—a traffic in photographs—a traffic made up of memories, commemorations, celebrations, testimonials, evidence, facts, fantasies (1983: 201)."

But just as Sekula strove to unearth the bodily labor behind the modernist sheen, so could he undo the false humanisms that hide the work of abstraction. To see that the logistical image is an image not made for sight, and to draw the consequences from this, is itself a feat of de-fetishization. This was precisely the task that Sekula set himself in responding, in 1975, to the curatorial identification of Edward Steichen’s role as overseer of aerial reconnaissance photography in World War One as an origin-story for modernist photography. Aerial photographs taken under Steichen’s military directorship (and ascribed his authorship on no unequivocal evidentiary basis), had been extracted from their context of use (that of providing information to be immediately used in the tracking and targeting of the enemy) and their mode of production (a veritable assembly line, governed by principles of standardization, speed and efficiency) to be anointed, as individual photographs whose precise referents are long lost, as ‘works of art.’ Bucking this trend to spiritualize images that had been produced as functional, informational moments in the strategic deployment of destructive force, Sekula—in ‘The Instrumental Image: Steichen at War’—wants to return us to an understanding of their existence as “instrumental images,” all the better to understand the ideological coordinates of their transubstantiation into unwitting precursors of a dispassionate modernist gaze (a curatorial move which in turn appears as symptomatic of a certain affinity between “cold” modernism and military anti-humanism). Airplane photography appears here as a point of crystallization in the logistics of representation: “With airplane photography … two globalizing mediums, one of transportation and the other of communication, were united in the increasingly rationalized practice of warfare” (1984: 34).

The Crew. Allan Sekula: Ship of Fools, (1999-2010). From The Estate of Allan Sekula, Los Angeles.

The instrumentality of these images involved representation as a mode of anticipation—anticipating the siting and movement of the enemy, in time to move one’s arsenal of destruction to the correct place, at the correct time. The logistics of photographic production were harmonized with logistics proper, to wit the science of moving troops and materiel in warfare. Sekula stresses the

"fundamental tactical concerns which governed the reading of aerial reconnaissance photographs. The meaning of a photograph consisted of whatever it yielded to the rationalized act of ‘interpretation.’ As sources of military intelligence, these pictures carried an almost wholly denotative significance." (1984: 35)

But the spiritualizing détournement of these images, in curatorship and art history, takes them from the uni-valence of their instrumentality (and from the factory logic that made their ‘applied realism’ possible) by way of the author function (the imprimatur of Steichen's creative mind), to a strangely poly- or non-valent reference; the denotation shifts from the instant of targeting to the generality of war, also making possible a peculiar mimesis with the kind of modernist artistic abstraction that was miles away from their military intent. The aerial photographs become a kind of 'found' modern art, but oddly only because of their supposed 'signature' by Steichen—despite his relationship to the photographs being principally that of a high-ranking army bureaucrat, one who allegedly excelled in solving procurement (that is, logistical) problems.

The factory logic of the production of this image material, with its separation of intellectual and manual labor, and Taylorist intensification and deskilling of work (accompanied by a romantic hagiography of the producer as author) is tied up with a monetary logic of commensurability and accumulation. An exploration of US Supreme Court Justice’s Oliver Wendell Holmes’s essay ‘The Stereoscope and the Stereograph’ allows Sekula to detail the way in which the universalism of the nascent art and technology of photography was explicitly likened, or even identified, to money as a universal equivalent in the exchange of commodities.

The question of form—the crux of Sohn-Rethel’s argument—is paramount here. As Holmes writes, with photography “Form is henceforth divorced from matter [emphasis in original]” (quoted in Sekula, 1984: 97). This is the very fantasy we encounter in celebrations of the supposedly seamless shaping of architecture by computer design, or in the spurious, but nonetheless deeply efficacious, view of the new economy as a cyber-economy of immaterial flows and immaterial work. The fantasy is one of “dematerialized form” in the guise of “photographic sign[s] [that] come to eclipse [their] referent.” This is very much a matter of circulation, exchange, storage and traffic. In Holmes’s words:

"Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear; form is cheap and transportable. … The time will come when a man who wishes to see any object, natural or artificial, will go to the Imperial, National, or City Stereographic Library and call for its skin or form, as he would for a book at any common library." (Quoted in Sekula, 1984: 98)

What’s more:

And as a means of facilitating the formation of public and private stereographic collections, there must be arranged a comprehensive system of exchanges, so that there might grow up something like a universal currency of these banknotes, on promises to pay in solid substance, which the sun has engraved for the great Bank of Nature. (Quoted in Sekula, 1984: 99)

Holmes also memorably writes of “carte-de-visite” portrait photos as “the sentimental ‘greenbacks’ of civilization” (quoted in Sekula 1984: 100 [emphasis in original]). For Holmes, Sekula notes,

"photographs stand as the ‘universal equivalent,’ capable of denoting the quantitative exchangeability of all sights,” they are imagined “to reduce all sights to relations of formal equivalence. … Like money, the photograph is both a fetishized end in itself and a calibrated signifier of a value that resides elsewhere, both autonomous and bound to its referential function." (1984: 99)

Sekula practised and thought photography against the imperatives of universal equivalence, which requires the separation of workers from their means of subsistence, their means of cognition and their means of representation, their mutation into ‘monetary subjects without money.’ Sekula liked to quote the ditty from Brecht’s Threepenny Opera: There are those who live in darkness / while the others live in light / we see those who live in daylight / those in darkness, out of sight. For the flows to be smooth, those in darkness are to stay out of sight, their resistance worn away by scientific management and logistical planning. As our crisis-ridden present throws up ever more intense forms of abstract domination, for which image-making stands as a crucial conduit, but also a potential choke-point, Sekula’s practice of purposeful immersion—excavating the archives of exploitation while patiently composing atlases of resistance—remains an indispensable resource for an aesthetics in and against capital.


[1] Elsewhere (Toscano 2016), I have tried to draw on Jameson’s Representing Capital to argue that behind this long-term visual trend lies the economic unconscious of a massive increase in the ratio of constant to variable capital, with the concomitant elision of the time of valorization from the visual field.


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