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On Oceans and Nations

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Third Web Paper
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On Oceans and Nations

Su-Lyn Poon

Melville's oceans do not change: they are inexhaustible and eternal. Not so when we turn away from his pages. Today we see the global commons on the brink of tragedy. We see environmental groups emerging, transcending national boundaries in ways completely unknown to Melville. Through a juxtaposition of then and now, we can trace the process of change from "Moby Dick" to a new global consciousness, through a re-imagining of the oceans.

Mighty themes

The stories we tell promote certain ideas and, in so doing, police social norms and construct common sense. At the same time, however, stories can reveal the underpinning categories for our understanding of the world. By naming the nameless, they enable us to recognize, question and critique our "truths" as historical constructions. Literary theorist Jonathan Culler thus posits two claims about literature: that it is both "the vehicle of ideology" and "an instrument for its undoing" (1:38).

Literature not only facilitates social change, but is itself subject to evolution. In spite of this fact, Melville proclaims: "To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it" (2:349).

"Moby Dick" commands scholarly attention, yet is it 'great and enduring' in the sense that Melville may have intended? I am not convinced that it holds us in the same grip of relevance that it may have readers of the nineteenth century. Instead, I believe that our interest in the novel reflects an interest in the artifact of a particular historical moment, in this 'vehicle of ideology'. "Moby Dick" is important not because it is a static pool of mighty themes, but because it is a crossroads for themes on their way to and from greatness.

To illustrate this point, I explore the evolution of a pair of connected themes: our vision of nature and our interaction with it. They represent the ecological and cultural dimensions to an ever-changing narrative about our place in the world.

Sovereignty in a time of plenty

Melville's understanding of nature is steeped more in indulgent mysticism than any appreciation of its ecological complexity. Imagining himself as one among thousands "fixed in ocean reveries" (2:18), he sees "the image of the ungraspable phantom of life" (2:20) in the oceans. In its endlessness, he finds his freedom. An endless ocean must, by extension, be endlessly populated. The whale is thus described as "immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality" (2:354).

As long as this is 'true', sovereignty is king: every nation is free to draw from this eternal spring. In "Moby Dick", these exploitative practices are structured according to the imperialist order. Lawrence Buell, a literary theorist interested in environmentalist discourses and cultural nationalism, points out that Melville casts Americans to head a ship crewed by "a global village of ethnicities" (3:205). Nowhere is this hierarchy more clearly-marked than in Chapter 40, "Midnight, Forecastle" in which sailors, marked by their non-American origins, perform an exotic dance of subjugation, a cultural show of trivialities that reaffirms the American dominance of the oceans.

A second take

More recently, however, these conceptions of the oceans as inexhaustible resource and of non-American cultures as inferior have begun to lose their charm. They are no longer the mighty themes they once were. Snapped from Melville's reverie, Buell notes: "Oceans are... incomparably the largest commons; if there is to be a 'tragedy of the commons,' this will be the biggest" (3:199). Trumpeted by activist groups, conservation ecologists and the media, the message is inescapable: the oceans are not free, nor can we hope to freely exploit them.

The result has been what Buell calls an "oceanic reimagination" (29), a demythologization of the resilience of nature (201). He notes that these changes have been reflected in contemporary nature-writing, as in Anne W. Simon's "Neptune's Revenge" (1984), Sylvia Earle's "Sea Change" (1995), and Carl Safina's "Song for the Blue Ocean" (1998). All these works have taken on new motifs of "indignation and betrayal" (3:201) in exploring the oceans.

Beyond nation-states

These are changes that have also infiltrated the organization of our thoughts and our world. From a vision of the oceans as global commons, there has emerged a vision of ourselves as a global community that must collectively regulate its use of limited resources. It is becoming increasingly difficult to support the notion of perfect sovereignty in the face of the interstate effects of state decisions. Environmentalist discourses cannot be confined by the artificial limits of borders.

Several key players in the political arena, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), have branched out beyond state borders. Even governments are pressured to work in concert on conservation efforts, forming international governance regimes. For example the International Whaling Commission, composed of 52 member states, declared a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982. (Today, however, new debates to lift the moratorium have emerged over cultural and economic issues. Japan insists that whale meat is an important part of its traditions (4), while Russia is looking to develop oil and gas deposits in whale habitat in the Sea of Okhotsk (5).)

How the mighty have fallen

In defining nature, we not only design the space that we occupy, but also the ways in which we organize ourselves into occupying units. Is the nation detrimental to the oceans? As we begin to act on the realization that it is, a new question emerges: are the oceans detrimental to the nation? Contrary to Melville's colonialist discourse, oceans today may serve as the identity marker of an emerging global culture and environmentalist consciousness.

As the crossroads for themes of changing importance, and therefore a site for evolving conceptions, "Moby Dick" sheds light on the process of deconstructing old truths and targeting new ones. As old hierarchies release their grip, new stories and new story-tellers arrive on the backwaters of change, or are themselves the ones who part the sea.

Though history has seen the shift from mysticism and imperialism to global community, this is in no way the end of the road. International governance regimes have had mixed success with the enforcement of environmental regulations (6) and may be as unsustainable as the practices of Melville's day. In time, this story may turn out to be nothing more than ocean reveries of a different flavor.


1) Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press. (1997)

2) Melville, Herman. Parker, H. and Hayford, H. (Eds.) Moby Dick. Norton Critical Editions (2nd edition). WW Norton & Company. (2001)

3) Buell, L. Writing for an endangered world : literature, culture, and environment in the U.S. and beyond. Harvard University Press. (2001)

4) Strieker, G. "Japan finds whaling moratorium unappetizing." (March 2001)

5) "Big whales pass threat of disappearance - round-up." ITAR-TASS News Agency. Retrieved from Lexis-Nexis. (February 2004)

6) Dietz, T., Ostrom, E., and Stern, P. C. "The Struggle to Govern the Commons." Science v302 (5652): 1907-1912. (2003)



Comments made prior to 2007

Re: Oceans and Nations. This young student, while attempting to explore her own environmental concerns, which are admirable, wrestled an extreme misreading of Moby Dick, into that brief exploration. I have seen similar misreadings of Benito Cereno by those who have called the work racist, when in fact it is one of the earliest commentaries on race, slavery and commerce in American Literature. I wish this student well in her further readings of Melville. I hope this fine university takes a more restrained approach to understanding Melville's works and publication of papers addressing those works ... Chris C, 23 January 2007