For years critics have viewed Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab as the paradigm of a strong, controlling agent: “the supreme individualist of the nineteenth century”—a dictator whose passions “fuse other men into instruments for his own egocentric will.” But this critical consensus simply doesn’t hold against the text of Moby-Dick. And in response we rethink Ahab in terms of a series of “materialist” frames, which include posthumanism, disability studies, affect theory, animal studies, environmental humanities, systems theory, and oceanic studies. Our contributors leave Ahab’s position as a Cold War icon behind when they recast him as a contingent figure, transformed by his environment—by electromagnetism, chemistry, entomology, meteorology, diet, illness, pain, trauma, and neurons firing—in ways that unexpectedly force us to see him as worthy of our empathy and our compassion. Collectively these materialist readings challenge our ways of thinking about the boundaries of both persons and nations, along with the racist and environmental violence caused by “personhood” and by the “human.”
While our collection deliberately introduces diverse accounts of “materialism,” our goal is not to adjudicate between uses of this term. Instead Rethinking Ahab uses Ahab as a focal point to think rigorously about how different approaches converge—and stand at potentially productive cross-purposes. Put simply, our first goal is to “Rethink Ahab,” or to unsettle what is arguably the only critical consensus about Moby-Dick: the myth of his strong, controlling, and even tyrannical will. (In fact, we suspect that readers will not be able to see Ahab in the same way after reading our table of contents). But our second and more important goal is to collect and give shape to the multitude of ways that “materialism” is being used to produce criticism in our current moment.