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  • MLA 2018—New YorkPolitical Philosophy in Melville
  • Chair: Munia Bhaumik, Emory University

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Meredith Farmer, Nathan Wolff, Ana Schwartz, and Colin Dewey.

Photo courtesy of John Bryant.

Just as Ishmael faced the icy and "stubborn storm" on his way to the chapel in chapter 7 of Moby-Dick, many of the scheduled panelists "fought their way" through the bomb-cyclone to attend the MLA Convention in New York City. Unfortunately, numerous flight cancellations prevented some of the panelists, including me, from flying into the city. Meredith Farmer and Colin Dewey valiantly assumed the helm and steered the panel. [End Page 130] Because inclement weather prevented many panelists from traveling, I have included all the accepted paper abstracts.

This panel explores the intersection between Herman Melville's writing and political philosophy, including reflections on democratic theory, formal experimentation, affect, the role of citation, the inclusion of political treatises, headlines and events, and references in Melville's work to political thinkers (Thomas Paine, Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, the Cynics, and Aristotle, among others). Our panelists show how Melville draws specifically upon political philosophy, referencing texts such as Hobbes's Leviathan, Paine's Rights of Man, and the Declaration of Independence.

The panel responds to a number of recent provocations to think about Melville in political terms: Maurice S. Lee's tracing of a "subversive political philosophy," Jason Frank's argument on the centrality of Melville to American political thought, Jennifer Greiman's work on democracy, and the recent collections Melville's Philosophies, edited by Branka Arsić and K.L. Evans, and Melville among the Philosophers, edited by Corey McCall and Tom Nurmi, which also excavate the conceptual relevance of his writings to materialism, (post) humanism, and environmental studies.

"Diogenes in Disguise": Cynicism and Politics in The Confidence-Man
Michael Jonik
University of Sussex

In a time when misanthropes and conmen have co-opted the political scene and the truth is seemingly fleeing like a scared doe, Melville's The Confidence-Man offers an especially relevant diagnosis of the dynamics of power, political speech, and modes of dissembling throughout our contemporary situation. To this end, this paper examines the modality of Melville's political philosophical lineage, namely his relation to the ancient Cynics. Whereas Melville's misanthropes might suggest a Machiavellian statecraft or Hobbesian wolfish war of all against all, his frequent references to Cynicism reveal a deeper classical precedent to his political thought. In this novel, as part of the masquerade of characters, Melville introduces a "Diogenes in disguise," recalling not only Diogenes himself but also the classical satires of Lucian, or later Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, in which the anti-foundational figure of the Cynical philosopher takes center stage. For Melville, Cynicism opens a multifaceted and dynamic position from which his characters can instantiate The Confidence-Man's critique of antebellum culture, thought, and capitalism. What is more, Melville's Diogenes eschews the complicity among thought, capitalism, and power. Diogenes's Cynic life-philosophy, animated as the bios kunikos, marks a becoming-animal of politics in which the "multiform pilgrim species, man" might merge into other, [End Page 131] ungenial collectivities. I draw on Foucault's late lecture, "The Courage of Truth," to explore how Melville's notoriously dialogic and dissembling characters, and especially his Diogenes figure, might nonetheless reveal some of the difficulties of "fearless speaking" (parrhesia) for both Melville's time and our own.

Melville and Democratic Portraiture: Moby-Dick as American Laocoön
Paulo M. Loonin
Washington University in St. Louis

This paper addresses Melville's engagement with fundamental questions of democratic theory, both political and aesthetic. Is the democratic portrait possible? Can one represent and enact distinction and recognition (requirements of the democratic citizen) without stratification and inequality (traditional entailments of the portrait genre)? These questions are enacted in Melville's Moby-Dick and are particularly evident in descriptions (portraits) of Captain Ahab and of his ship as a microcosm of the globalizing-American state. The status of Ahab as dictator and of the Pequod as democracy are old questions, but they take on new valances in the context of portraiture. The investigation of political equality becomes...


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