1. Sailing without Ahab
Treating “Ahab” and “Ishmael” as two opposed philosophical positions and ways of making sense of the world suggests that Moby-Dick can be understood as the story of conflicting and overlapping visions. The focused, obsessive, monomaniacal drive of Ahab’s cyborgism constructs itself through a violent intimacy between matter and the human body. The Captain’s twice-made artificial leg both extends his physical capacity and marks his efforts to conquer and incorporate even ivory and bone. By contrast, “Ishmaelism and Other Fantasies” represents a commitment to plurality that whiles away inattentive hours at the Mast-Head, oblivious to whales or other directed goals. The cumulative argument of this essay suggests that bringing a speculative Ishmaelite alternative into contact with the dominant Ahabian strains of the novel and its reception can help make visible a “blue humanities” eco-poetics of entanglement with the ocean and its more-than-human world. This access to alien nature may prove especially valuable for Melville’s readers in today’s Anthropocene conditions.
2. Ambiental Cogito: Ahab with Whales
The essay is a reconstruction of Ahab’s ontologies, focusing especially on its understanding of matter and life. It argues that life is for Ahab something divorced from matter, and that this ontological divergence of the material and living comes to regulate his treatment of the embodied. In resisting Ahab’s thinking about matter and its sensuousness, and by attending to the ontology suggested by whales’ bodies, Ishmael formulates a different understanding of matter, form, and life. The essay argues that thanks to his belief in the inherent livelihood of matter, and as a result of his proposing the continuity of bodies despite their discreteness, Ishmael advocates a different ethical treatment of human, as well as nonhuman life.
3. Ahab after Agency
Mark D. Noble
Read in the light of Moby-Dick’s several redistributions of human agency, Ahab’s claims to exceptional personal and political power can seem both out of place and out of date. And yet so much in Melville’s novel depends on Ahab’s gigantic volition. His claims to sovereign agency drive the plot, for instance, while repeatedly succumbing to febrile embodiments that threaten the coherence of agential claims. This chapter revisits the two main threads comprising Moby-Dick’s account of Ahab’s obsolescence: moments when agency slips away from or manifests outside the self and the series of debates with Starbuck about what fixes the purpose of laboring bodies aboard his ship. The novel’s dissolutions of individuated agency run alongside Ahab’s insistence that agential sovereignty stands apart from the requirements of capital. Aligning such moments helps illustrate Melville’s curiosity about what links the appeal of materialist ontologies to features of modern political economy.
4. Thinking with a Wrinkled Brow; or, Herman Melville, Catherine Malabou, and the Brains of New Materialism
Christian P. Haines
This essay examines Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and the philosophy of Catherine Malabou in terms of how they represent brains as thinking matter. It offers a reconsideration of the new materialisms with respect to how they avoid the problem of how thinking occurs as a material act. Rather than arguing for idealism or for a return to an earlier moment of critical theory, the essay proposes a recuperation of the Kantian transcendental in materialist terms. The brain becomes the site through which thinking, understood as both speculative and organic, interrupts the flow of matter, without departing from the material world. In making this argument, the essay proposes not so much the abandonment of the new materialisms as their revitalization through an attention to the organic specificity of thinking a thing.
5. Phantom Empathy: Ahab and Mirror-Touch Synesthesia
Pilar Martínez Benedí and Ralph James Savarese
Is Ahab really the unempathetic creature he is often made out to be? We view his tyrannical, yet frequently avoidant, behavior through the lens of Mirror-Touch Synesthesia, a condition in which individuals experience tactile sensations when observing touch to others. Unlike developmental Mirror-Touch Synesthesia, where such sensations occur in the corresponding body part, in acquired Mirror-Touch Synesthesia after amputation, they occur strictly in the missing limb. Both versions are associated with increased emotional, yet typical cognitive, empathy. Our aim is to provide a more generous account of Ahab’s physiological predicament and to draw attention to how Melville uses a range of phantom phenomena to rethink relations between self and Other.
6. Phenomenology beyond the Phantom Limb: Melvillean Figuration and Chronic Pain
Michael D. Snediker
“Phenomenology Beyond the Phantom Limb” considers the excrescently figurative textuality of Moby-Dick as a material phenomenon in its own right, inseparable from the novel’s sustained fascination with the vicissitudes of chronic pain. Its account of the novel’s formalism seeks to trouble the mimetic impulse subtending many extant accounts of the text’s import for disability studies, wed as they invariably are to the representational centrality of Ahab’s ivory leg at the expense of the textual lavishness in which the lineaments of characterology and plot are floated if not saturatingly immersed. More than the dry-land terseness of what Peleg describes as Ahab’s “sharp, shooting pains,” it is the roiling language of figuration—neither strictly metaphorical nor descriptive, per se—that begins to convey the inner life not of what pain is, but how pain feels. Perversely autonomous, as though compelled against the self it slowly deteriorates, the duress of chronic pain would seem to convey the ontological alterity of an object were it not for the fact that its substance unfolds through time with all the animating contingency of an event, an exasperating redundancy whose intensity speaks less to the mythologically elusive white whale so much as the ubiquitous, undulating sea itself.
7. ‘The King is a Thing’; or, Ahab as Subject of the Unconscious: A Lacanian Materialist Reading of Moby-Dick
In this essay/chapter, Russell Sbriglia takes a Lacanian materialist approach to the question of Ahab’s subjectivity and the “extimate” things it generates. The essay/chapter begins with a consideration of the resonances between what new materialist Jane Bennett terms “vibrant matter” and objects in Moby-Dick such as Ahab’s prosthetic leg that assume a strange vibrancy and vitality of their own. Like Bennett’s vibrant matter, Melville’s vital objects exert a “thing-power” that not only inhabits but inhibits the wills of human beings, especially the will of the “unsurrenderably willful” Captain Ahab. Unlike Bennett’s vibrant matter, however, the thing-power of Moby-Dick’s object-actants is not separate from human subjectivity but the very result of it—albeit a subjectivity different from the traditional Cartesian model of subjectivity that new materialists seek to counter: namely, a Lacanian materialist model according to which the subject is a product not of consciousness, but of the unconscious. Focusing on key instances throughout the novel in which Ahab anticipates this Lacanian subject of the unconscious—a subject that is the plaything of its unconscious thoughts and the “inscrutable, unearthly” things those thoughts generate—Sbriglia demonstrates that, contrary to the still regnant reading of Ahab as a poster child for “imperial subjectivity” in classic American literature, Ahab’s subjectivity is ultimately more thingly than kingly.
8. Approaching Ahab Blind
“Approaching Ahab Blind” is a meditation on the difficulties and pleasures of giving and receiving compassion. The essay focuses on Chapter 100 of Moby-Dick, in which Ahab, crossing from the Pequod to the British ship Samuel Enderby, confronts the material difficulties posed by his prosthetic leg. In that chapter, Melville unexpectedly reveals a remarkably different Ahab—abject, hopeless, fearful, grieving—than the domineering man who is otherwise vilified. In so doing, Melville makes the social responses to disability—and the responses of the disabled to those responses—the source of Ahab’s character, and hence of Moby-Dick. Castiglia’s interpretation interweaves with accounts of his own blindness, and specifically of his experiences learning to walk with a stick while re-reading Melville’s novel. Thinking through the “disabled affect” that he shares with Ahab, he considers the values and difficulties of compassion as a political and critical disposition. Castiglia’s particular concern is with the novel’s narrator, Ishmael, and his response to the materiality of disability, from which he first turns away toward abstraction only to be called back by disability’s matter. Repeating that dynamic, Ishmael registers on the level of style the difficulties of giving and receiving compassion, and thereby generates what Tobin Siebers calls a disability aesthetic.
9. ‘this post-mortemizing of the whale:’ The Vapors of Materialism, New and Old
In response to recent criticism of new materialism by defenders of so-called old materialism, I propose in this essay that Melville’s Moby-Dick nods to both and points beyond them. His depiction of the try-works’ division of labor underlines the power of the conditions of work to limit workers’ imaginations and demands, while at the same time offering a new materialist way out of its ‘determinations:’ when Melville depicts the effects of a whale’s strange aroma on the crew, he asks us to imagine the conditions under which a crew might just become “motley.” Melville also invites us to imagine the possible power of the people to swerve out from under the determinations of sovereignty when he recasts Hobbes’ Leviathan as a whale of a creature, not entirely indefeasible as such. Leviathan may be “the text,” but it is an old text and Moby-Dick invites us to approach it in new ways, detailed here. The democratic invitations in Melville are most clear, however, when we focus on the olfactory sense, privileged at the fleshpots, where the haptic and the aromatic combine. Touching and breathing, in the dark and on the foremast, Melville’s men dare to breathe together, perchance to conspire in a democratic dreaming so powerful that it makes Ishmael forget all about his terrible oath. That oath, as political theorists would call it, is nothing less than the social contract.
10. Ahab’s Electromagnetic Constitution
Donald E. Pease
Contributors to the voluminous archive of scholarly commentary on “The Quarterdeck” chapter usually restrict the focus of their scholarly attention to the argument between Ahab and the Pequod’s first mate, Starbuck, over Ahab’s decision to change the Pequod’s mission to a hunt for Moby Dick. With a few notable exceptions, commentators of “The Quarterdeck” focus on Ahab’s overbearing will, framing him as a near-dictatorial controlling agent. However this dispute all but eclipses Ahab’s remarkable, complex transactions with the crew that drastically alter this hegemonic reading. In order to afford Ahab’s materially consequential relations with the crew long overdue attention, I situate his altercation with Starbuck within an encompassing drama of political representation that Bruno Latour, perhaps the pre-eminent theorist of new materialist practices, terms a “trial of force.” To explain the electromagnetic experiment underpinning Ahab’s trial of force, I examine “The Quarterdeck” chapter as a drama divided into seven separate scenes that address the following inter-related matters: 1) how Ahab engages quandaries that preoccupy both vital and historical materialists; 2) why Ahab stages an electromagnetic experiment with the crew on the quarterdeck; 3) how, why, whether, and for how long Ahab successfully represents the crew’s interests.
13. Ahab’s After-Life: The Tortoises of “The Encantadas”
Matthew A. Taylor
My essay views the unlikely resemblance between Ahab and the “strangely self-condemned” tortoises of “The Encantadas” as indexing Melville’s fascination with living memento mori—vital embodiments of life’s deathly essence. Whereas Emerson and Thoreau imagine a single Life subtending the individually living, Melville conceives of something like a transcendental death-in-life that simultaneously animates and deadens the world. I focus in particular on Melville’s representations of death’s spatialization within deep time, bodily amalgams of life and death, life’s parasitism or vampirism, and the lethality of an impersonal or universal life. Such a perspective, I contend, challenges the premises of both the optimistic evolutionary theories circulating in Melville’s age and the affirmative bio-centric philosophies of our own. Against any effort to find in life a positive ethics or politics, Melville offers an aesthetics in which the world is a dead-letter office and we the messages lost in the sending.
15. Melville, Materiality, and the Social Hieroglyphics of Leisure and Labor
After making his way through a mountainous ridge to a New England paper factory, the nameless protagonist of Herman Melville’s “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” (1855) finds himself awestruck by the factory’s centerpiece—a grand machine that yields perfectly pristine sheets of paper. “Your great machine,” announces the narrator to the proprietor, “is a miracle of inscrutable intricacy.” The narrator is confounded by what seems both its magic and science and his experience trying to comprehend its inscrutability is synecdochic to the wider concerns of perception and interpretation that Melville stages as a hermeneutical problem. This essay examines key moments in the story where the relationship between an object’s material status and the processes of its commodification limn a crisis between sensorial perception and hermeneutical interpretation. More specifically, by highlighting the production of the production of paper in the story, this essay interrogates how notions of abstraction and objectification were being reframed at the historical moment when capitalism was emerging as a particular world-system—a turn that Melville’s story anticipates with its frequent allusions to the possibility that the shirts of English bachelors may have been imported to the U.S. only to assume a new incarnation as paper. Approaching the question of how objects and things were being reconceptualized through a materialist framework—in terms of both formalist aesthetics and historical materialism relative to political economy—resituates exegesis not simply as a literary exercise but as social anthropology as well. Turning to aspects of Marx’s well-known critique of alienation and his idea of commodity fetishism, this essay argues that the paper in Melville’s story functions as a “social hieroglyphic” that both illuminates the opacity of things that increasingly necessitate acts of translation to be comprehended as well as prefigures developments in late capitalism.
16. Melville’s Basement Tapes
Within the ranks of postwar Melville scholarship, the politicized preoccupation with Ahab’s personality did not necessarily do justice to how Moby-Dick cut against the grain of any mere humanism. Indeed, many postwar interpreters, in framing Moby-Dick in terms of the problems and prospects of individualism, did so imperfectly and in tension with the demands of their technological surround. Tensions between humanist pathos and posthuman surrender, between the creative agency of the human and the agency of technological structure, between linear history and a genealogical blur between past, present, and future may be glimpsed in Howard Vincent’s The Trying-out of Moby-Dick (1949). These tensions will be explored by way of the cybernetic influx of Vincent’s Cold War moment as well as the production, two decades later, of Devo’s first recordings in Vincent’s basement (known as “Harpoon Hall”). I will focus on the manifestos produced by this Kent State punk outfit in the early 1970s and I will pair Vincent’s obsessive exploration of the mechanics of Melville’s writing with his basement’s role as an obsessive shrine to hunting whales. Ultimately I will cast this convergence between Vincent’s artifacts and Devo’s critique of “technological society” as a consummation of the second Melville revival. I will position Devo as a Melville-inspired rethinking of Cold War science—especially cybernetics—in light of the possibility that machines have always possessed a logic of their own.