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Melville’s Energies: Aesthetics, Politics, Ecologies

13th International Melville Society Conference, Université Paris Cité, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle and Sorbonne Université, Paris, June 27-30, 2022
Anna Shmatenko

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1The Thirteenth International Melville Society Conference titled “Melville’s Energies” took place over a span of four days between June 27th and 30th, 2022. Hosted by Université Paris Cité, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle and Sorbonne Université, the conference was organised by Thomas Constantinesco (Sorbonne Université), Hélène Cottet (Université de Lille), Michael Jonik (University of Sussex), Ronan Ludot-Vlasak (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle), Édouard Marsoin (Université Paris Cité) and Cécile Roudeau (Université Paris Cité) and was sponsored by LARCA UMR 8825 (Université Paris Cité, CNRS), PRISMES (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle), VALE (Sorbonne Université), CECILLE (Université de Lille), and the Melville Society. The following report was written by Anna Shmatenko, a Master’s student of English and North American Studies at Sorbonne Université, and presents a series of spotlights of a few selected panels rather than a comprehensive overview of the whole conference due to the parallel scheduling of the sessions.

2As indicated by the title of the conference, “Melville’s Energies” brought together an impressive cast of international scholars to examine the forces, both minute and colossal, that animate the works of Herman Melville. Although particular attention was paid to environmental readings of the author’s texts, the conference inspired a wide variety of approaches that endeavoured to take stock of all types of energies that fuel Melville’s writings: political, aesthetic, social, cultural, ecological, spiritual, libidinal, etc. Drawing inspiration from the conceptual pair of motion and stasis underlying the event’s central theme, the discussions that took place over the four days of the conference offered insights into Melville’s oeuvre that helped re-energise and galvanise Melville scholarship into discovering new ways of accessing Herman Melville’s writing, still as pertinent today as it was two centuries ago.

Day One, June 27th

Plenary Address: “Oil & Light, Figure & Shadow: Democratic Aesthetics from Melville to Ellison”

3The keynote speaker Jennifer Greiman (Wake Forest University) opened the conference with a discussion of Herman Melville’s legacy and his influence on African American writing in particular. In her plenary address, Greiman foregrounded traces of Melville’s literary presence in the works of Ralph Ellison whose lifelong project of formulating radical democratic aesthetics was energised by his engagement with Melville’s writing. Isolating figuration as the basis of Melville’s political aesthetics, Greiman argued that by mobilising transient materiality inherent in a metaphor’s functioning Melville was able to engage in a democratic contest against forces of permanence across the body of his work. Although Melville’s influence is already apparent in Invisible Man, Greiman posited that Melville’s figuration became the key that was to allow Ellison’s unfinished second novel Three Days Before the Shooting... (2010) not only to finalise his own project of developing a democratic aesthetics but also to extend the political work started by Melville a century earlier. Greiman recognised the central image of the “Cadillac Flambé” chapter, in which a white Cadillac is set on fire, as a Melvillean figure of racial spectacle — an aesthetic performance, revised by the hand of a Black artist, of a sacrifice ritual that American culture regularly performs on the Black body. Greiman’s reflection on the contrast between Ellison’s ambivalent view of nineteenth-century writers and his invigorated embrace of Melville’s work attested not only to the author of Moby-Dick’s long-spanning influence but also his unique position in the nineteenth-century literary canon, an observation that would be reiterated countless times in the conference’s four-day span.

Melville & the Environment I: A Workshop

4One of the first panels of the conference, “Melville & the Environment I: A Workshop” hosted by John Levi Barnard (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) and Meredith Farmer (Wake Forest University) invited the audience to think with (rather than about) Melville about the place of human consciousness in our rapidly declining climactic and ecological context.

5Launching the discussion, Devin Griffiths (University of Southern California) examined how economic concerns undercut the ecological dimension of Moby-Dick—a text that has been termed by a common consensus a “proto-ecological novel.” He opened with a single question: what does Moby-Dick look like from the whale’s point of view? Griffiths compared the reduction of whales from complex social non-human beings to extractable energy sources with white colonial exploitation of Black bodies for labour. He concluded by positing that occidental comprehension of the world can never be complete without establishing a rapport not only with indigenous cultures but also with the Earth’s non-human life.

6Following from Griffiths’ remark on the complexity of energy encounters in the ocean, Jeff Insko (Oakland University) used Moby-Dick to assess the validity of energy transition as an actionable plan for attaining a post-fossil economy, highlighting instead the urgent need to dismantle the capitalist model of resource extraction and consumption. Arguing against valorisation of productivity and efficiency in contemporary culture, Insko proposed to decouple the notion of energy from work and to remetaphorise energy in a way that distances it from narratives of endless progress. Ishmael, Insko argued, does precisely that by combining labour with leisure when he performs his mast-head duty, a lounging around which is enacted by the endlessly digressing narrative itself.

7Centring on a different by-product of global capitalism, Stephanie Foote (West Virginia University) referred to the ending of “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” to discuss paper waste production. Recalling Bartleby’s alleged occupation disposing of undelivered letters at the Dead Letter Office in Washington, Foote proposed to “think with the material of paper” by shifting the attention from the too-familiar temporalities of the archive to those of the dust bin. Offering her own students’ printing habits as an example, Foote argued for the need to develop a new taxonomy of garbage by extending publication histories to include not only printing, circulation and consumption of texts but also their discarding and decay.

8The discussion that ensued highlighted the role of literature in thinking about the environmental catastrophe and imagining a post-fossil economy. Insko stressed that metaphors do not dematerialise but rather rematerialise objects, helping us better understand their material histories and circulations. Responding to Insko’s comment, Farmer recalled that Melville’s works, written during the period of inception of organic chemistry, are full of hopeful transformations, such as the alchemising of a dead whale into perfume. Levi Barnard nonetheless urged not to forget Melville’s anticipation of the obverse dark side of such ecological framing, namely the exploitation, cheapening and disposability of human lives and labour, especially those of Black and indigenous populations.

Melville & the Environment II: A Workshop

9Ed Sugden (King’s College London) brought the discussion back to environmental readings of Melville by tracking the history of Moby-Dick’s reception, cultural influence and, in particular, perception as a common referent for ecological and environmental concerns across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Though Moby-Dick has nearly always been closely linked to discussions on sperm whale extinction, it was not until a widely publicised incident in 1966 when a beluga whale was stuck in the Lower Rhine that Moby-Dick grew in popularity as a common allusion to ecological concerns, Sugden observed. In the instance of both the fictional and the real whale, the scarring on the creatures’ white skin becomes a palimpsest attesting to multidimensional degradations inflicted by human-beings on their environment. Melville’s magnum opus has since lent its name to multiple ecological enterprises from an anti-whaling eco-terrorist group to a Greenpeace vessel, a track record that, Sugden concluded, attests to the importance of literature in helping us make sense of our socio-political and environmental contexts.

10Turning away from Moby-Dick and to a selection of shorter non-fiction, prose and poetry pieces, Thomas Dutoit (Université de Lille) engaged in an extensive close-reading of some of Melville’s lesser known passages. Having introduced the concept of postscripturality—the notion that events do not take place in the present but rather come into being as a result of their subsequent reiteration after the fact—Dutoit appealed to this concept to stitch together Melville’s proto-environmentalist concerns with his conceptualisation of an ideal writer-reader relationship. In concluding his presentation, Dutoit compared humanity’s retrospective awareness of anthropogenic climate change with Melville’s understanding of the reader as an agent that reactivates the narrative past, which is inscribed by the writer on the page. Connecting these two “postscripts,” Dutoit suggested that readerly praxes can in themselves be understood as a resource that could help humanity cope with environmental issues.

11Returning to Melville’s magnum opus, Nicholas Spengler (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) approached the ontology of the non-human not from the perspective of the eponymous whale but from that of Pip, the Pequod’s youngest Black crewmember. Pip showcases the brutality of viewing Black individuals as material indexes of the labour into which they are coerced, Spengler demonstrated, tracing how the crew’s materialistic perception of Pip—who becomes in their eyes a metonymy for his own tambourine—seeps into his own psyche, driven mad by his near-drowning episode. Yet, Spengler cautioned against interpreting Pip’s offering his body as a prosthetic for Ahab’s missing leg as the climax of the cabin-boy’s submissive objectification. Instead, Spengler recognised Pip’s gesture as an act of generosity as well as a proposition to remedy bodily incompletion through the wholeness of social relationality.

12Responding to the politically weighted distinction Spengler made between the materiality of objects and the metaphorical conception of the marginalised self as objectified, Farmer proposed to view Pip’s transformation—his decomposition and subsequent recomposition—as both literal and figurative: he assumes the role of object as soon as he perceives that the crew view him as such. This reframing of Pip as a recycled material complicated the position that Melville’s texts occupy within the culture that treats Black and indigenous lives as disposable, on which Barnard remarked earlier. The panel closed on the recognition that literary texts are themselves environments within environments (social, cultural as well as ecological) and, as a result, call for the development of a more sustainable reading praxis that would help Environmental Humanities move away from the interpretative practices modelled on extractivism.

Melville’s Exhaustions: A Roundtable

13Exploring the reverse side of the Conference’s central theme, the speakers of “Melville’s Exhaustions: A Roundtable,” chaired by Thomas Dutoit, focused on the various types of exhaustions that Melville and his contemporaries experienced in response to the various political crises of the nineteenth century.

14The first speaker of the panel, Matthew Rebhorn (James Madison University) examined Melville’s mourning of exhausted temporalities in Typee and Omoo. Rebhorn argued that Melville not only witnessed the adoption of white extractivist culture by the native populations of Polynesia and Hawaii but ultimately recognised it as a harbinger of future extinction and resource depletion. Shunning the Western linear model that divides time into units, Melville responds by devising a temporal archive in which he documents the consequences of extraction economy. The archive is exclusively legible through the temporal model of non-linear simultaneity, which pertains to the islands, a model that Rebhorn called “spontaneous living.” Rebhorn specified that to live spontaneously meant not to forget but to be simultaneously present to all temporalities, identifying dance as a key expression of this model in its unique ability to interlock the present (temporality) with presence (embodiment) and thus to reenergise formerly exhausted temporalities.

15Moving from temporal to moral and material exhaustion, Ashley Barnes (University of Texas, Dallas) examined how Melville’s secular critique of capitalism in “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” upholds rather than undermines the unjust producer-consumer relationship it criticises. Barnes posited that by equating profit-seeking with divine providence, shifting the blame for human suffering onto the invisible hand of the market and painting the bachelors’ indifference to others’ pain as enlightenment, Melville imbues what is supposed to be his secular critique with religious overtones. Though his critique fails, Barnes found a source of energy even amid Melville’s secular exhaustion. In the same gesture that he sanctifies capitalism, Melville conversely demystifies the Protestant God, opening divinity up to scrutiny and, in an unexpected reversal, turning denial of human responsibility into a reminder that human suffering is not transcendent but man-made.

16Echoing some of Barnes’ concerns, Justine Murison (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) bridged the gap between Melville’s secular exhaustion with the political exhaustion of the present day. Focusing on medically themed manifestations of mass paranoia against the deep-state, such as wellness culture and COVID‑19 vaccine scepticism, Murison appealed to Melville’s The Confidence Man in order to dissect the rationalist language of secularism through which these counter-cultural trends express themselves. By pointing out how these worrying modern attitudes intersect with those of Melville’s “herb-doctor,” regarded as a “quack” by the ship’s passengers, Murison demonstrated that blind faith involved in favouring pseudo-medicine over scientifically proven solutions is akin to religious belief. From that, Murison concluded that faith and scepticism are not always opposed, and can and often do co-exist, with conspiracy theories in particular constituting a secular form of belief.

17Extending Murison’s effort to connect the past with the present day, Christopher Hanlon (Arizona State University) compared the Dred Scott case with the recent Supreme Court overruling of Roe vs. Wade, linking the widespread unrest associated with the endless compromises over slavery to the political exhaustion of the American nation today. Hanlon juxtaposed Frederick Douglass’ description of physical exhaustion elicited by coerced labour with the expression of white male writers’ “fatigue” and desire for political disengagement, found in countless works from John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1866 Snowbound to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s antislavery lectures. The particular attention that Battle-Pieces pays to “the vanquished,” as Hanlon put it, earns Melville an ambivalent position in this context. Hanlon concluded that, though Melville’s exhausted post-war attitudes, echoed by many other white writers of the time, regrettably persisted, foretelling the failure of radical Reconstruction, Melville’s works (of which “Benito Cereno” is a notable example) never fail to register a sensitivity to the Black population’s exhaustion from having to depend on the decisions of disengaged white men.

18As the discussion made starkly clear, Melville’s exhaustions did not extinguish his creative energy; on the contrary, they motivated him to discover new possibilities for combating the prevailing fatigue of his age and for imagining—and so reifying—a more hopeful future.

Day Two, June 28th

Racialised Vision in Melville

19Centring on Black and indigenous characters’ too-often neglected interiorities over their overly scrutinised exteriors, the talks presented within the framework of the panel “Racialised Vision in Melville,” chaired by Edward Sugden, proposed to move away from considering non-white individuals portrayed in Melville’s work as objects of view and instead consider their own capacity for viewing.

20Xine Yao (University College London) opened the panel with a personal reflection on her relationship with Melville—whom Yao called the “great white whale of the American literary canon”—and with his body of work as an Asian Canadian female scholar. Probing the root causes lying behind the validation that comes from defining her career in relation to white and masculine authorship as a person of colour, Yao unearthed and challenged the fantasy underpinning not only Melville scholarship but also public opinion, one that imagines Melville as separate from the history of white imperialism. Exposing the too often unacknowledged hierarchisation that structures Melville’s representation of racial difference, Yao urged Melville scholars to weed out this harmful fantasy that is responsible for the colonisation of Polynesia and that to this day perpetuates the silencing of native Polynesian voices, for whom and over whom Melville speaks in Typee and his other works.

21Continuing the discussion on the inextricability of white authorship from the history of imperialism and colonialism, Nicholas Spengler (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) traced the racial politics of vision in the works of Herman Melville and Harriet Jacobs. To bring the works of such different authors together, Spengler referred to the work of William Cowper, an English poet whose verse was endlessly quoted by white abolitionists and was familiar to both Melville and Jacobs. Spengler argued that Cowper’s many solitary speakers, who surveil distant locations from removed vantage points, illustrate the fantasy of settler colonialism. He then juxtaposed this form of distinctly white surveillance with Jacobs’ gazing out of the loop-hole in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, what Spengler called her “sousveillance”—looking out from below, as she remains deep in the heart of slavery, vulnerable to recapture. Taking these two points as the two extremes on a continuum characterising racialised vision, Spengler concluded by locating the vision of Benito Cereno’s Babo closer to that of Jacobs, reminding that Babo too has his own textual “loop-hole.”

22Kelly Ross (Rider University), who was similarly interested in the racial choreographies of looking and recognition in Benito Cereno, read “The Bell Tower” as a thematic addition to the former work in light of their shared and deliberate linkage of Black personhood with criminality. The uncertainty over the degree to which enslaved Black individuals could be seen as fully human in the eyes of the contemporary legal system is articulated, Ross suggested, in the portrayal of Haman/Talus, an automaton and an “iron slave,” as well as an ontologically ambiguous figure. Ross argued that Haman’s/Talus’ murder of his creator and enslaver Bannadonna is a cry to the public to witness his agency and recognise his personhood. Yet, his crime is seen not as a willed revolt but as evidence of his belonging to the realm of objects, reflecting the mechanics by which enslaved people’s uprisings were deliberately framed as evidence of the perpetrators’ lesser humanity.

23Tracing the enslaved individuals’ “sousveilling” reciprocation of the white sovereign gaze, the discussion contributed to the scholarly effort to resist what Ross referred to as the principle of the camera obscura, according to which whiteness is both invisibilised and disembodied, while Blackness remains both “overembodied” and highly visible.

An Eye on Race

24Extending the concerns of the previous panel, the speakers of the panel titled “An Eye on Race,” chaired by Kristen Silva Gruesz, explored the aesthetic, cultural and political dimensions of various interracial encounters that take place across the body of Herman Melville’s work.

25Stepping aside from the traditional masculinist iconography of revolution embodied by Babo in Benito Cereno, Mary Grace Albanese (SUNY Binghamton) examined the central role occupied by Black women aboard the San Dominick in bringing about and supporting the violent mutiny. Albanese juxtaposed Melville’s animalistic depiction of a Black woman effortlessly breastfeeding her infant with the twenty-first-century reality of systemic racism leading to lower breastfeeding rates among Black mothers. Reframing lactation as labour, supported by the woman’s metabolic energy, Albanese suggested that by singing and dancing aboard the San Dominick in an effort to encourage Babo’s men to fight back, the ship’s Black women resist spending their reproductive and maternal energies to generate slave capital, using these to power the liberation effort instead.

26Similarly interested in Benito Cereno as well as Moby-Dick, David Blake (The College of New Jersey) drew numerous parallels between the two oeuvres’ “islamicised” corpses: Babo’s and Fedallah’s; the enigmatic gaze of the two dead and mutilated figures spells out the demise of the shaken white superiors who had destroyed them. Blake put forth the idea that the relationships between the islamicised characters and the white captains they serve (Delano and Ahab) symbolically figure forth the socio-political relationships between occidental and oriental nations, thus recasting the issue of contemporary territorialisation in relational as opposed to spatial terms. This framework helped Blake lay bare the process by which native islanders were “islamicised”—i.e. conceived of as the hostile idolatrous other, at once encroaching on the Oceanic territories and devoid of territorial claims, thus furnishing the West with an ideological justification for its colonising practices.

27Taking up the discussion on racial and religious representation, Peter Brown (University of California, Berkeley) examined the depictions of interracial assemblies of characters aboard the Fidèle in The Confidence-Man, exposing Melville’s exaggeration of racial difference as a mechanism that recapitulates rather than dismantles racial hierarchies. Brown showed that the cosmopolitan voice appointing and limiting the representation of racialised bodies is not really polyphonic but instead filtered through a white perceptive subjectivity that arranges them by religion, race and trade in a distinctly Carlyle-esque manner. These reductive categorisations are, moreover, responsible for fetishism and fantasies of embodiment of racialised bodies by white actors, Brown argued, as is evidenced by The Confidence-Man’s Cosmopolitan, whose self-proclaimed title of a “taster of races” reifies an imperialist paradigm of love as consumption.

28Also turning to The Confidence-Man, Alice Hofmann (SUNY Albany) responded to Brown’s analysis of interracial love with a discussion on racial hatred by taking a closer look at the section of the novel in which Melville mocks and interrogates James Hall’s philosophy of “Indian-hating”. Hofmann argued that The Confidence-Man challenges Hall’s linear settler colonial narrative that frames white hatred towards indigenous communities as a pseudo-biological congenital condition that takes its root in ancestral trauma. Destabilising Hall’s taxonomies of racial hatred, Melville reveals it to be a feeling with neither end nor origin, leading Hoffman to observe that the weather becomes for Melville the only appropriate metaphor for conceptualising hatred’s impersonal, if endlessly destructive, circulation.

29The discussion helped locate Melville’s writing in the complex entanglement of cross-cultural currents by which it is at once shaped and which it relentlessly challenges.

Melvillean Historicisms: Migrants, Radicals, Theodicists, and Numbers

30The speakers of the next panel, “Melvillean Historicisms: Migrants, Radicals, Theodicists, and Numbers,” chaired by Jennifer Greiman, took C.L.R. James’ call articulated in the influential Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (1953) to recognise Melville’s oeuvre as a dynamic palimpsest of various historical temporalities—including those that followed the nineteenth-century author’s own time—by uncovering different moments in Melville’s works that speak to various contemporary crises.

31The discussion began with Kristen Silva Gruesz reading Anna Brickhouse’s (University of Virginia) paper entitled “Melville’s Theodicists,” in which Brickhouse thinks about the political role played by theodicy in tolerating and perpetuating what she calls “human-made catastrophes,” among which she isolates chattel slavery in particular. Brickhouse notes how Melville sidelined the fictional earthquake in “The Bell Tower” in favour of foregrounding the twining racialisation and enslavement of Talus, an automaton. For Brickhouse, this juxtaposition in the narrative significance of the two disasters reveals Melville’s own uneasy preoccupation with divine sanctioning of human-made suffering. Demonstrating that the theodist narrator resists interpreting Talus’ murder of his enslaver Bannadonna as a conscious attempt to topple the racial hierarchy, Brickhouse concludes that theodicy performs the political function of upholding the status quo by obscuring the injustices it authorises.

32Similar to theodicy, statistical management of human bodies discussed by Russ Castronovo (University of Wisconsin–Madison), a practice that takes its root in the nineteenth century, reinforces racial difference by framing Black individuals as a threat to white security that must be negated through endless collection of biopolitical data. Having identified Benito Cereno as a story of white racial insecurity par excellence, Castronovo subsequently appealed to a different piece of Melville’s writing, namely “The Lightning-Rod Man,” in which he located Melville’s own political concern with unravelling and moving away from the problematic paradigm of security and danger. Castronovo showed that by framing people primarily as lightning conductors in a thunderstorm, Melville reveals not only the impossibility but undesirability of achieving individual security either through biostatistical mastery or commodity consumption in a world where perpetual exposure to risk is a necessary condition of social existence.

33Following Castronovo, who appealed to one of Melville's lesser known works to reflect on modern political concerns, Susan Gillman (University of California, Santa Cruz) proposed to take another look at Israel Potter, a novel that hardly ever takes centre-stage in Melville scholarship and yet one that, Gillman showed, is capable of making a weighty contribution to conversations on the contemporary immigration crisis. Similar to Benito Cereno, the novel not only places emphasis on revolutionary energies that travel across space, recalling at once the uprisings of enslaved African descendants and transatlantic revolutions, but also on stories of transnational movement and uprootedness that resonate across time, Gillman argued. The prevalence of this latter theme led Gillman to recognise that Israel Potter is replete with migratory energies that speak to the political and social dimensions of Latinx presence in the modern USA, turning Israel Potter into an unexpected contender for the title of Melville's “migrancy novel.”

34Expanding on Gillman’s discussion of Latinx presence in the USA, Rodrigo Lazo (University of California, Irvine) uncovered a proto-Latinx character of Melville’s oeuvre—Isabel from Pierre; or the Ambiguities. Turning to C.L.R. James’ Mariners, Renegades and Castaways—a work that inspired the discussion and was tirelessly evoked by all four panellists—Lazo reflected on James’ detention on Ellis Island—simultaneously a place where migration is celebrated and a site of stoppage—and used this opposition between movement and rootedness as a basis for his argument. Lazo posited that while Pierre and Lucy remain stationary, evoking the fixedness of Puritan settlers, Isabel drifts about without planting herself in any one place, rendering her origins unknowable in a way that makes her less than white in the minds of others. Though constantly in motion, she yearns for rootedness, for the certainty of a single origin, which, Lazo showed, is the key sentiment that motivates the recognition of Isabel as representing the modern Latinx experience.

35Lazo’s revelatory foregrounding of the opposition between motion and stasis in Melville’s work became the unifying paradigm that brought the four papers, already replete with echoing themes, even closer together, capturing the essence of the energetic dynamism that helped Melville anticipate the future.

Day Three, June 29th

Labour and Production

36Closely aligned with the Conference’s theme, “Labor and Production,” chaired by Elizabeth Duquette, provided an insight into the different types of work-energy configurations that compete in, and animate the body of, Melville’s writing.

37Analysing the Neversink’s homebound journey in White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War, Arturo Corujo (Universitat de Barcelona) reflected on the role played by material conditions of domesticity in the process of artistic creation—whether the conceptualised artwork be a piece of clothing—like the eponymous white jacket—or a text. Corujo argued that the affective context of end-of-voyage boredom and suspended activity creates the conditions for reconciling labour and leisure in a way that promotes the artist’s emotive connection with their work. Moreover, taking a closer look at a maritime writer’s particular craft, Corujo showed that monotony and temporal flattening experienced by sailors on a homebound journey prohibits both retrospection and future projection and therefore can instead be turned into a meditative opportunity to revise experience before committing it to paper.

38Also honing in on the intertwining of labour and leisure that Melville represents as being conducive to creativity, Mark Niemeyer (Université de Bourgogne) tracked how the artisanal work model struggles for visibility in Moby-Dick, a novel that brings to the forefront the consequences of the market revolution by portraying the whaling industry’s exploitative working conditions. Although much of Melville’s energy is spent on metaphorising industrial capitalism as the process responsible for mechanisation of human beings, Niemeyer suggested that the dominant narrative of Moby-Dick is cross-cut with portrayals of amateur creative labour that consists of a humanising alternation between concentration and distraction. For Niemeyer, the novel documents the transition during which even the artisanal work of craftsmen, such as the Pequod’s blacksmith and carpenter, is forced to succumb to the now dominant industrial model, with the resulting temporal constraints permanently eroding the intimate connection between the artisan and their creation.

39Geoffrey Kirsch (Harvard University) also interpreted Moby-Dick as a novel shaped by and deeply concerned with the market revolution, focusing in particular on how both Moby Dick and the Pequod can be understood as examples of “corporate personhood”—a legal fiction that frames corporations as individuals in the eyes of the law. Kirsch posited that Ahab’s fear and hatred of the white whale stems from the sheer impossibility of determining whether or not Moby Dick is an autonomous being or a mask concealing the true nature of malign forces that act through it, a tension that is likewise inherent in the ontological and legal dilemma animating the mystery of corporate personhood. Given the Pequod’s captain’s deep-seated hatred, Kirsch pointed out the irony of Ahab’s own abuse of the corporate structure, as he literally incorporates his body, his crew and his ship in service to the impulse that commandeers his entire being—the monomaniac call to revenge.

40The discussion elucidated how the deeply enmeshed histories of the American navy and the whaling industry helped shape the politico-economic system of the modern-day United States, whereby revealing an important reason why Melville’s writing continues to be recognised as an inexhaustible resource even today.

The Art of Surfacing: Pictures, Poems, Gems

41“The Art of Surfacing: Pictures, Poems, Gems,” chaired by Vesna Kuiken, brought together three speakers who are fascinated, like Melville himself, by the juxtaposition between the smooth surface of polished artworks and the painstaking, yet invisible craft that makes up the history of their creation.

42Kylan Rice (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill) opened the discussion by situating Melville’s later poetry within the context of minor verse literary culture that was prevalent in late nineteenth-century USA, arguing that Melville’s contribution and indebtedness to the genre is undeniable, despite the fact that he never acknowledged the connection himself. Rice argued that Melville’s attachment to the aesthetics of surface and minutia, evident in the proliferation of gem and flower imagery (among others) throughout his later poetry, shows his deep appreciation—often dismissed by critics as ironic—of light literary forms, as well as his valorisation of the fine artistic craftsmanship involved in creating them. Although more pronounced in his poetry, this minute imagery is already present in Melville’s great earlier novels, Rice suggested, with the conceptual pair of surface and depth illuminating many of the key moments throughout Melville’s writing.

43The surface/depth theme equally captured the attention of Dan Beachy-Quick (Colorado State University), who structured his experimental reflection around the image of a book’s ocean-like depth that appears in Moby-Dick. Pondering the haunted and infinitely immersive quality of a page’s blankness, Beachy-Quick recalled the contrasting image of Ahab charting maps, using this suggestive juxtaposition to reflect on the relationship between author and book and to attempt to locate the source of genius as it is represented in Moby-Dick. Beachy-Quick suggested that Melville construes genius not as an inherent personal quality but, in an Emerson-like fashion, as a nexus of potent mystical influences proceeding from God that not only energise writing but lie behind the very process of thinking.

44Placing his analysis alongside Rice’s, Samuel Otter (University of California, Berkeley) thought against Beachy-Quick’s consideration of divine creation in Melville’s prose, emphasising instead the author of Moby-Dick’s preoccupation with human involvement in art production, as depicted in Timoleon, Etc. Signalling Melville’s preoccupation with the human labour of sculpting formlessness into form, Otter also underscored the importance of collaboration to Melville’s own creative process by showing how Elizabeth’s—his wife’s—corrections and suggestions, uncovered by studying traces of erased writing in his manuscripts, made it into Timoleon’s final version. Otter brought the audience’s attention to the larger tale told by the history of such erasures and rewritings, a tale that bears testament to the fact that works of art produce colossal effects by means of innumerable minute choices—often as minute as the decision to capitalise or omit a letter—and that these choices are usually the result of participation and collaboration of a great many more agents than the name on the book cover would have us assume.

45In the post-presentation part of the discussion, the audience’s questions prompted the speakers to consider the reader’s role in the intensive task of meaning-making demanded by poetry. Rice, Beachy-Quick and Otter concluded that the reader is a key agent responsible for leading the poet’s project of “carving formlessness into form” to completion; and it is in partaking in this collaborative labour (shared by the poet and the reader) of (trans)forming nature into art that the true spirit of “genius” can be sensed.

Day Four, June 30th

Melville Islanded: Biology, Ecology, Aesthetics

46“Melville Islanded: Biology, Ecology, Aesthetics,” chaired by Michael Jonik, expanded the discussion beyond accounts of literal island-bound environments in Melville’s work, proposing instead to study “islandness” as a condition that characterises both spaces and characters and describes their relationship to the currents of history coursing through Melville’s work.

47In studying the capacity of uninhabitable island terrains to record human histories, Vesna Kuiken (SUNY Albany) compared Melville’s fictionalised account of the Galapagos Islands presented in The Encantadas to Celia Thaxter’s descriptions of the Isles of Shoals in her eponymous nonfiction meditation on the islands’ history, arguing that the two works have existed in dialogue ever since their first conception. Kuiken remarked on the debris—most notably, sugar cane fragments—washing up on the shores of the Galapagos in Melville’s novella as well as on the skull-like patterns on the local tortoises’ shells—the memento mori of the species’ prefigured extinction—recognising these details as the islands’ testament to the violence of colonial extractivism. Conversely, the uninhabitability of the Isles of Shoals does not function as a symbol of anthropogenic histories; instead, Kuiken contrasted, their barrenness betokens their inability to serve as archives of the past due to the impossibility of accommodating human memorial practices in a soilless environment. In concluding her presentation, Kuiken sketched the following insightful juxtaposition: unlike Melville's memory-textured terrains, Thaxter's islands render both spatial and temporal landscapes indistinguishable, threatening to plunge identity into oblivion.

48Stuart Burrows (Brown University) proposed a metaphorical take on the panel’s theme by interrogating the too-often unchallenged view of Bartleby as a character that stands outside of history and apart from the rest of humanity—in other words, of Bartleby as “islanded.” Engaging with Jacques Rancière’s reading of “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Burrows disputed universalist interpretations of Bartleby’s presumed originality by demonstrating that his motivation changes in the course of the narrative, proving the impossibility of reading Bartleby as ahistorical. Tracing the origin of Bartleby’s eccentricities back to the lawyer-narrator’s office culture, Burrows shatters the illusion of Bartleby’s “islanded” removal, restoring his position among the ranks of humanity.

49The dialogue between Kuiken’s and Burrows’ papers reiterated the important recognition that the ubiquitously present condition of “islandness”—exhibited in Melville’s prose by environments and characters alike—not only drives forward most of Melville’s narratives but also helps him synthesise politics and aesthetics in new and unconventional ways.

Plenary Address: “Resource Extraction and Melville’s Extracts”

50The keynote speaker Jeff Insko (Oakland University) opened the conference’s final talk titled “Resource Extraction and Melville’s Extracts” with an image of the Suez Canal obstruction that took place in 2021, evocatively comparing the stranded ship to a beached whale. Although a tremendous event at the time of its occurrence, Insko cautioned against overemphasising the destructive role of such magnanimous events, reminding that the role of Energy Humanities is to shed light on the changes in social and political arrangements brought about by quotidian fossil fuel consumption. In an effort to further this cause, numerous critics have adopted Moby-Dick as a textual analogy for the petroleum industry due to the fact that the whaling industry—a forerunning oil extracting enterprise—acted as its precursor. Though a valuable reminder of the historical continuity of extractivist culture, such an analogy, Insko warned, glosses over a number of important nuances, namely the fact that oil spills are one of the leading causes of whale extinction. Insko likewise highlighted the co-option of Moby-Dick by the adherents to the transition narrative—a narrative that states that oil companies will eventually avert environmental catastrophe in a similar way that they have saved whales from extinction at a time when petroleum replaced spermaceti as the main energy source. Exposing the transition narrative to be a dangerous fiction, a smokescreen concealing humanity’s suspension in a state of permanent non-renewable resource extraction, Insko turned to the actual text of Melville’s magnum opus for insights on how Energy Humanities might counter the destructive effects of extractivist culture. Recalling the image of leaking casks aboard the Pequod—the first oil spill in the United States’ history—Insko brought the audience’s attention to the fact that Ahab himself claims to sport leaks (“I’m all aleak myself!”), a proclamation that makes Ahab legible as a model for extractive capitalism: he is an entity that cannot contain its contents, much like industrial structures cannot put a stop to greenhouse gas emissions. Though the novel cannot reverse the environmental damage, Insko closed the discussion by suggesting that the excess of Moby-Dick’s textual content, which cannot be contained by conventional clauses, seeks to promote the culture of giving back, inviting the reader to partake in the only renewable form of extraction, one which involves quoting, referencing and excerpting.

51Even after thirty-six panels dedicated to a diverse range of interpretations of Melville’s works, the conclusion of Jeff Insko’s closing plenary address was still met with an enlivened discussion and an emergence of still more thought-provoking questions, which points to the sheer inexhaustibility of Melville’s writing. An obvious conclusion seems to take shape here, and it is that for as long as we continue facing new crises—political, social, environmental, or other—Melville will remain a valuable resource, replete with mysterious insights that wait to be deciphered and potent energies that wait to be put to use.

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Anna Shmatenko, « Melville’s Energies: Aesthetics, Politics, Ecologies »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 05 décembre 2022, consulté le 02 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Anna Shmatenko

Sorbonne Université

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