- Herman Melville and the Politics of the Inhuman by Michael Jonik
Herman Melville and the Politics of the Inhuman
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018. x + 268 pp.
Michael Jonik's Herman Melville and the Politics of the Inhuman is a remarkable show of erudition, which moves seamlessly from Deleuze and Spinoza to Proust and Wordsworth, taking readers on a journey that is not only about understanding Melville's work. Instead Jonik thinks about the present with Melville, situating and extending his philosophical thinking. "This book," he writes, "is an attempt to hear what Melville still has to say to us—in terms of how a rethinking of the extent of our relations, of our deeply inhuman condition, might open new potentials for understanding the 'world we live in'" (19). Jonik's work offers not an argument so much as "a reading" (7) and "an attempt to register" (15) a "profoundly nonanthropcentric philosophy" that casts characters as "emerging composite bodies or collectives" decoupled from the discrete identities of "individual human personhood" (6). For Jonik this philosophical orientation places Melville "at the intersection of the material and the political" (4–7). His book operates by developing two threads united by the idea of a "Spinozan-Deleuzian conceptual lineage" (8, 147): that Melville read Spinoza and that Melville, in turn, can be profitably read by turning to Deleuze.
Jonik begins with a compelling and exciting account of Melville's connections to Spinoza, which is indispensable for scholars interested in work on Melville and materialism or philosophy. We learn that Melville repeatedly either cites or directly engages with Spinoza or his ideas. Jonik explains that Melville encountered information about the philosopher from his reading of Matthew Arnold, along with Pierre Bayle's Historical and Philosophical Dictionary, the Penny Cyclopedia for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and Goethe's autobiography, Poetry and Truth. Then he offers images of Melville's related marginalia, building a strong foundation for his claim that Spinoza blazed a "risky" (3) path to a "monastic ontology" (4) that "inflect[ed] Melville's representations of materiality" and his "incipient inhuman politics" (7).
Here Jonik makes his aims explicit: "the key philosophical question this book will engage is how Melville draws on Spinoza's radically nonanthropocentric [End Page 163] relational ontology to dramatize his own politics of the inhuman, producing 'characters' who seem unmoored from personhood, cast into the 'whelming sea' of the impersonal or the inhuman" (10). Those characters, we learn, do not have fixed identities. Instead they are collectives in the process of becoming, perpetually composed and decomposed, "constituted and deconstituted by inhuman forces" (11). In many ways this new ontological narrative is becoming familiar. In Animacies, for example, Mel Y. Chen aligns Deleuze's assemblages, Latour's hybrids, and Karen Barad's agential realism as new models of coexistence, which point to systems or actors that are "provisionally constituted" and "illusorily bounded" (5). Jonik brings similar theoretical insights to Melville, whose characters metamorphize into "hybrid human-inhuman forms" (19). They are "imbricated in material-affective relationships," which is to say that in many ways their actions are shaped by interactions that occur outside the realm of cognitive awareness. And they "become invisible within landscapes," which means that even symbolically or representationally the boundaries between these shifting characters and their environments are far from clear (19). So we read about "Ahab's prostheticity" reaching "across the world of the novel" (32), Isabel's reciprocity with her guitar, Pierre's atypically strong responses to his father's portrait, and the ways that causation is always "lost in the mid-regions of the impalpable air" (98), along with less frequently cited but powerful passages about the inhuman, broadly construed. These descriptions are consistently insightful, compelling, and important in a moment when we need language that helps us depart from a philosophical tradition that frames "man" as the "measure of all things."
Jonik's turn to the inhuman is timely as his readers confront the Anthropocene. But his leap from ontology to politics takes a different route. He repeatedly describes the politics inspired by Spinoza's "nonanthropocentric relational ontology" as "political ontology" (6). But the term political...