- Organizing Melville
In Moby-Dick and beyond, Melville critiques the kind of taxonomic thinking evident in the static categories, rigid hierarchies, and teleological order of much antebellum natural science. We can read this critique into broader narratives of romanticism (organic holism, subjective power, tensions between science and literature). But classificatory systems can also be unsettled by flat ontologies that leave romantic epistemologies behind and instead posit autopoietic systems (as in Niklas Luhmann), heterogeneous assemblages (as in Gilles Deleuze and Bruno Latour), and even the kind of distributed networks [End Page 107] that Caroline Levine has discussed. The sheer mixing, morphing, and meshed interconnectivity of the object world militate against taxonomy—a dynamic evident in Moby-Dick, not only in its depictions of nature, but also in the potentially commensurate status of whales and texts and in the Sub-Sub-Librarian's experiments with a disorganized chowder of sources that resists the professionalization and organization of literature as it was being constructed in the antebellum period. Drawing on a new source for the Sub-Sub-Librarian's "Extracts" section, this paper asks what it means to think of source study and its knowledge production as a kind of flat ontology.
Let's say that there are two dominant ways to think about taxonomies of nature: as ontological systems governed by laws made manifest in the phenomena that are organized and as constructions in which provisional categories are imposed upon phenomena by human organizers. This dualism can be conceived in various registers, and romanticism can point toward a synthesis in which objective ontologies and subjective constructions are ultimately commensurate. This paper, however, considers a different way of understanding taxonomies, one in which the natural objects to be organized become potential agents in their own organization. This possibility appears in Melville's writings in the form of self-organizing, non-human actors including coral insects, automatons, and rookeries. Such examples of semi-agential organization open up a set of questions regarding the status of taxonomical thinking in the nineteenth century: Where does order come from if not from God, Nature, or Man? What role does agency play in conceptions of the human? What happens to taxonomical theory when coherence and comprehensiveness give way to partial systems generated by multiple and incommensurate sources? My paper takes up such questions in light of nineteenth-century taxonomic discourses in natural philosophy and information management.
University of Sussex [End Page 108]