In History of the American Whale Fishery from its Earliest Inception to the Year 1876, first published as part of a report of the U.S. Commission on Fish and Fisheries in 1878, Alexander Starbuck writes: “Whalemen were the advance guard, the forlorn hope of civilization. Exploring expeditions followed after to glean where they had reaped. . . . Into the field opened by them flowed the trade of the civilized world. In their footsteps followed Christianity.” Starbuck casts whalers, “the pioneers of the sea,” as central to an economic, pedagogical, and spiritual process of bringing vast tracts of the globe into the epistemological purview of Western culture.1 Herman Melville, writing in 1850 to Richard Dana about his novel Moby-Dick, is less rhapsodic about the ramifications of whaling’s reach. He writes, “It will be a strange sort of a book . . . I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree.”2 Unlike Alexander Starbuck, Melville refuses the easy turn from the materiality of whaling to the abstract confluence of commerce, exploration, and conversion; rather, he suggests that the material work of whaling and the remnants of the animal bodies that become commodities are not easily cast into a seamless historical narrative, one that denies the violence and domination that accompanies the global spread of capitalism. The only way to extract something from whaling [End Page 71]
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other than oil, Melville seems to suggest, is through strangeness: in Moby-Dick’s staging of the encounter between blubber and poetry, between materiality and discourse, Melville’s narrative strategies challenge the modes of rationalization that govern the extraction of value from blubber, and the meaning of the labor that makes that value possible.3
In this essay, I argue that both Ahab and Ishmael attempt to redeem the meaning of their labor on the Pequod from the demands of pure, abstract profit and remake it into a source of idiosyncratic affective and erotic satisfaction; their relative successes and mutual failures throughout the novel depend largely on the extent to which their narrative constructions of work participate in the ideological structures of the nineteenth century’s increasingly global capitalism. Additionally, just as the working body is the foundation of abstract value in capitalist production, so the working bodies of the Pequod’s crew are the index by which to gauge the satisfactions that Ahab and Ishmael are able to imagine throughout the novel. Central to my argument is an imperative to take seriously the economic importance and global reach of the whaling industry at midcentury. Whaling was a genuinely transnational enterprise, and as such it had to imagine the ocean as a homogeneous source of abstract profit. However, the daily practices of whaling’s labor revealed the ocean as a complex site of heterogeneous encounters; crews from all over the world lived and worked together at great distances from the familiarity of home, often for years, grappling with unpredictable freedoms and dangers. It is in the specific context of the transnational maritime labor of whaling that the...