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ELH 71.4 (2004) 1039-1063

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"Leviathan is a Skein of Networks":

Translations of Nature and Culture in Moby-Dick

University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand


Moby-Dick emerges at a point of crucial historical transition in several areas of American life. By the mid-nineteenth century, the growth and global expansion of the nation's economy following the War of 1812, and the pugnacious expansionism exemplified by the Mexican War and the ideology of manifest destiny, were giving way to signs of strain and impending civil discord: 1850 and 1851, the years during which Melville wrote his novel, were the years of the doomed compromise between opponents and proponents of slavery.

The oceans provided a space in which these contending currents met and mingled.1 Echoing contemporary politicians and apologists, Moby-Dick's narrator rhapsodizes about the contributions made to America's economy and the dissemination of its influence by the vast whaling fleet which, at the apogee of the industry, spanned the planet.2 The tensions aboard the Pequod, condensed into the malignant figure of the White Whale, therefore embody contemporary strains and threats produced by industrialization, at both the natural and the cultural levels. Cesare Casarino has enumerated the vicissitudes of globalizing industry that were enacted on the "factory floor" of the whaleship: an epochal shift from mercantile to industrial capitalism, an ensuing redefinition of the relationship between labor and capital, and the unpredictable effects of intimate and extended interaction amongst a radically "international, multiethnic, multilingual and especially multiracial labor force."3 Moreover, the catastrophic fate of the Pequod, suggesting the transience and fragility of these economic and social transactions, uncannily anticipated the collapse of the sperm whale fishery as well. For the middle of the century was also a turning point for whaling: during these years "Californian fever" began to take labor away from the centers of the [End Page 1039] industry, which were further undermined by the financial crisis of 1857 and the concurrent flight of investment capital; the obsolescence of spermaceti and whale oil was assured by a cleaner, cheaper and more easily accessible alternative once petroleum began to flow from Pennsylvanian oil wells in 1859; and the Civil War, during which whaling vessels proved easy targets, completed the decline. Meanwhile it became increasingly hard to deny, in the second half of the century, that overexploitation of cetacean species had made voyages longer, more expensive, and less remunerative—and thus, in the end, financially nonviable.4

That the animal, dead or alive, should figure at the center of these historical and economic shifts is no surprise. Over its two-hundred-year history, industrialization has produced, among its other effects—urbanization, degradation of the economic status of women, redefinition of labor structures, environmental depredation—a radically altered relationship between humans and other animals. Industrial techniques have absolved farmers from close proximity to their livestock; assembly-line specialization of tasks has alienated slaughterhouse workers from the living creature being processed; geographical and psychological gaps have widened between an increasingly urbanized human populace and other species.5 Meanwhile, natural history and social science alike have dedicated themselves to modernity's long project of rewriting authoritative perceptions about relationships between human societies and nature; in the mid-nineteenth century this entailed a transition from Christian to evolutionary notions of the "chain of being," which simultaneously broke down received divisions between the human and the animal, and installed new ones.6

The whaleman stood with one foot on either side of these many faultlines. He was praised as a harbinger of American values and vilified for his immoral relationship with the "innocent savages" of the Pacific.7 He was both a romantic adventurer into wild space and a prototype of the industrial laborer, farmer, and meat processor. His experience routinely alternated between dangerous encounters with the vast materiality of the living animal and its reduction to dead and partial resources, a commodity to be measured by the barrel, reified by the factory ship's technological procedures and its specialization of labor.8 No...


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