Rethinking Ahab

In this collection, Meredith Farmer and I have invited ten leading Americanists to give new readings of Captain Ahab to help bring rigor and specificity to the numerous uses of “materialism” in the non-human, inhuman, and planetary turns. We announced this collection via two roundtables at the MLA and C19 this year (see below for more details).



For years critics have viewed Melville’s Captain Ahab as the paradigm of a strong agent: “the supreme individualist of the nineteenth century” whose passions “fuse other men into instruments for his own egocentric will.” The story generally goes something like this: Ahab abuses his power by dragging his crew along on his obsessive quest after an infamous white whale. Then, in the end, everybody drowns. In Eric Wilson’s concise configuration, Ahab conscripts his entire world “into his monomaniacal projects and ends by killing his crew, save one.” Rethinking Ahab rejects this dominant reading, which simply doesn’t hold against the text of Moby-Dick. Our collection will challenge a long tradition of work that figures Ahab as a kind of dictator, what Donald Pease has fittingly described as Melville’s “Cold War Frame.” And in its place we describe the series of “materialist” topics – from [chemical] atomism to vitalism, materialist psychology, and disability – that make Ahab Ahab.

We might mark the advent of a “materialist turn” in Melville Studies with Samuel Otter’s Melville’s Anatomies (1999) and the attention it cast on Melville’s “corporeal obsessions” and “materialist analyses.” But in recent years, materialist criticism on Melville has flourished in a number of directions, as new titles by our contributors indicate. It is telling, we think, that readers can find at least four essays on “materialism” in last year’sThe New Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville (2014) alone. And Leviathan is preparing a special issue on “Melville and Material.”

Here we find a problem. Discussions of “non-human,” “inhuman,” “and “planetary” turns have created the vague but palpable sense that “matter” deserves recognition. But these conversations have very different goals and are based in widely-divergent critical traditions. So while our contributors will offer a range of dynamic new readings of Melville, Rethinking Ahab uses Ahab as a focal point to think rigorously about how their approaches converge—and stand at potentially productive cross-purposes. Put simply, our first goal is to “Rethink Ahab”: to unsettle what is arguably the only critical consensus about Moby-Dick, the myth of his strong, controlling, and even tyrannical will.  But our second goal is broader and arguably more important: to collect and give shape to the multitude of ways that “materialism” is being used to produce criticism in our current moment.

The scholars we have invited to take part in this collection have produced transformative work on both materialism and the history of criticism. They also work in a wide range of disciplines: American Studies, English, Law, and Religious Studies. Because our goal is productive methodological exchange, we will ask our contributors to respond to the following series of questions:

1. Do these readings constitute something like a materialist turn? If so: how might we define “materialism”? And why not a “nonhuman,” “inhuman,” or “planetary” turn?

2. Does this work actually do something new? Here two tracks are emerging: what do we make of the fact that work on Melville and science was a central part of Melville studies until 1951, or the advent of the “Cold War Frame”? And what, exactly, is new about the “new materialism”?

3. The central criticism of materialist approaches is that they decenter “agency” in ways that lead to quietism. How does your work navigate this charge?

4. Do you describe a relationship between Melville’s materialism and aesthetic form?

We expect that the varied approaches and topics of our contributors will be of interest to scholars whose interests reach beyond Melville, the history of science, and science studies—and into the digital humanities, the environmental humanities, critical race studies, disability studies, sound studies, and queer theory.

MLA Roundtable: Rethinking Ahab (Jan. 8, 2016)

Jonathan Schroeder, University of Chicago (chair)
Branka Arsić, Columbia University
Jennifer Fleissner, Indiana University
Donald Pease, Dartmouth College
Geoffrey Sanborn, Amherst College
Michael Snediker, University of Houston
Meredith Farmer, Wake Forest University (respondent)
C19 Roundtable: Melville and the Materialist Turn (March 20, 2016)

Jonathan Schroeder, University of Chicago (chair)
Colin Dayan, Vanderbilt University
Meredith Farmer, Wake Forest University
Paul Gilmore, Rutgers University-New Brunswick
Timothy Marr, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
John Modern, Franklin & Marshall College
Caleb Smith, Yale University (moderator)