Monday, March 7, 2011


I sat down to write this knowing full well if I gave him a chance, Marcuse would rear his head in Melville like Moby Dick does in, well, Moby Dick. It didn’t take but one page of the introduction of the One-Dimensional Man for my hull to be filled with the perfume of rich sperm oil; I was convinced Marcuse had read Moby Dick and chuckled at Melville’s (perhaps unconscious) portrayal of the Machine. Let us gather in the mast-head with Marcuse (who is not so whimsical and absent-minded as those Platonists) to look down at the happenings of the Pequod. He reads aloud:

“If we attempt to relate the causes of the danger to the way in which society is organized and organizes its member, we are immediately confronted with the fact that advanced industrial society becomes richer, bigger, and better as it perpetuates the danger” (Marcuse ix).
This is one of my most-thought-about quotes from One-Dimensional Man because it is so utterly applicable. Let me try to explain its application thus, with a scenario. Cue war-drums:

The Machine is off to battle, or at least preparing to be. Not one of the citizens knows the military objections or the “plan” but that is acceptable – they don’t need to know. Factories churn out soldiers and arms alike, the I.S. curve is slammed into the right most corner of the plane, consumption and output are allowed to swell, and none are any the wiser; the masses are sated with their crumbs. Politicians and stock-holders alike revel in the subtle dominance they utilize. Sure, a few idealists realize the propaganda for what it is, but they cannot deny the revenue this mess is bringing in.
As bombs roll off the conveyor-belts, enthusiastic, middle-class warriors paint symbols of intimidation on their steely shells. Imagine, instead of the menacing sneer of a shark, the missiles are white-washed and painted with the wrinkled visage of a great leviathan that stares coldly from its tonnage at the progress it has mechanized.

Insert paragraph about the technological miracle that is the whaling ship and link it to the instumentalization of the crew and the Machine.

Let us also comment on Melville’s incorporation of Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish1. If we familiarize ourselves with the further discussion of his concept, we see whaling is but a simple example of the real point. Sure, this idea is an accepted rule of the industry, but look at his examples. “What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish, whereof possession is the whole of the law? … What was Poland to the Czar? … What India to England? What at last will Mexico be the United States? All Loose-Fish.” Melville is capturing the spirit of Imperialism – the way in which people are treated like resources and land is a war-trophy. Immediately following this, we see Marcuse in full. “What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish?” (Melville 359). If we assume that liberties are Loose-Fish, then we see the results of such in Marcuse – “liberties can be made into a powerful instrument of domination” (Marcuse 7).

To draw the lines between the two theories, we can see Ahab’s use of the crew’s minds and needs to pull them into his magnetic mission. He has removed them from their initial goals of just whaling and made them hunt for his Moby-Dick. Ahab has stupefied his audience, and once accomplishing that, he seeks way s in which to keep them submissive. Marcuse would argue that the crew is fully convinced that the struggle of Ahab has become theirs. But we don’t need Marcuse to know that; Ishmael’s narrative says it all; “My soul is more than matched; she’s overmanned; and by a madman! … I think I see his impious end; but feel I must help him to it” (Melville 162). Ahab has done his part well; he has calculated the “optimal utilization” of his men; he has calculated his resources (Marcuse 6).

A tangent. Marcuse states that servitude is only an object when the consciousness of servitude is present (Marcuse 7). Ishmael has realized that Ahab has him by his gizzard. So then, how is that Ishmael is forced to serve under him still? Isn’t his liberation of such suffering undone by his coming-to? Why does he say “I have no key to life again”? Enter Marcuse. Domination is efficiently used by “gradually replacing personal dependence… with the dependence on the ‘objective order of things…” (Marcuse 144). Ishmael (and the mates) knows the status-quo and the cost of a failed rebellion. Mutiny is not something to be taken lightly. Marcuse is defines this relationship by calling the defense structure a means to perpetuate a sense of vulnerability that the machine cures by mass-producing bombs.
To what end, then? Well we see that Ahab and his crew are obliterated and that Ishmael is left with a coffin and a story. Marcuse says that we die rationally – and so Ahab dragged his ship to the depths of the sea for his ideology. This was not unforeseen. The vast amount of foreshadowing in the novel made it apparent that the end was bleak; “reveal[ed] it as a rigged game” (Marcuse 257).

1 Melville states: “I. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it. II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it” (Melville 357).

1 comment:

  1. This is a very promising, although also very rough, draft. Clearly you're on a productive track, in trying to draw some of the connections between Marcuse and Melville; I'd suggest that some of the material from the final reading, for instance the beginning of the chapter "The Hat" is intensely relevant to your argument. While one paragraph might not be enough to explain the whaling ship as a machine, one way to begin doing so would be to go the extracts, look at the one from Hobbes, and relate that to the first couple pages of Hobbes' Leviathan.

    While I'm obviously very friendly to your reading, and I think there are some very good details (re: the cost of mutiny, etc.), I think that a final version of this essay would need to deal with at least a couple characters in their complexity, as well as their simplicity.

    Problem 1: It is obviously fair to read Ahab as being aligned with "the Machine," or even identified with it. But (see Hobbes) we can also understand Moby-Dick in the same way. Even more problematically, we could see *Starbuck* as the machine's true representative, and Ahab as a rebel against it (who nonetheless uses its techniques to maintain control over the crew). Melville is irreducibly complicated, and you won't get any tidy solutions, but you need to wrestle at greater depth with the problem of Ahab's relationship with the machine.

    2) Marcuse sees an escape from domination as being at least theoretically possible. How does he see it as possibly happening? Can we relate that (slight) hope to Ishmael? To Queequeg? To Ahab, even?

    3) How do we deal with the fact that Starbuck is *the* representative of capitalism, and also is the person most grounded in his life at home?

    4) Did you notice that Ahab (management) is seizing control of the ship from its owners (capital) and appropriating it for his own purposes? The rising power of managers over owners is arguable *the* central reality of American capitalism over the last couple decades. This is one way of investigating the complicated relationship between capitalism and domination in the novel.

    To put it all another way: this is a promising start, but it's also stepping into a minefield of complexity.

    an aside: all of Melville's novels, without exception, are deeply concerned with domination as a theme.