Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The pull of the sea

In One-Dimensional Man,  Marcuse presents the idea of needs of a societal construct that become imbedded into the ideology and reality of individuals while not being things that independently people inherently need.  This, claims Marcuse, is a form of societal control by causing individuals psychological distress if they go against the conditioned norms in the society.  In Moby Dick by Herman Melville, though not quite the modern society that Marcuse is discussing, is still relevant in showing how economic needs dictate the ideology of the people of the northeastern fishing towns and how this is so far reaching that it leads them to feel compelled to inflict on themselves great hardships.
                To further clarify the aspect of societal control explained by Marcuse, he states that people have natural biological needs and then needs that society makes people feel that they cannot live without.  Through the Freudian process of introjection, the self analyzes the difference between the demands of the outside world and internal demands.  Marcuse claims in modern society there is a “minmesis: an immediate identification of the individual with his society and, through it, the society as a whole”(Marcuse 10).  In this way, in technological societies, perhaps even in societies driven by capitalism such as Nantucket in Moby Dick, the individual is unable to see the difference between a need that is created by society and a biological need such as for food or being a member of a family.  The extent to which these societal based needs become an internal ideal shows how the individual thinks of themselves as a member of society first and for the demands, of the case of Moby Dick, the capitalistic whaling industry.
                At the beginning of Moby Dick, Ishmael represents this minmesis by expressing the near compulsion to get involved with a whaling expedition.  He states “Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your fist voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration”(Melville 9).  This passionate exclamation represents how much he holds the job of being a sailor as an ideal, to which he says the first time brings a level of near nirvana.  Additionally this quotation reflects Marcuse’s perspective on societal needs in the way that Ishmael claims this need to go to sea is inherent in every healthy boy.  Further, not only is it healthy and expected to have a desire to become a sailor but Ishmael implies that it would be insane to think otherwise. This directly relates to the claim of Marcuse that “the intellectual and emotional refusal ‘to go along’ appears neurotic and impotent”(Marcuse 9).  This aspect of following the dictates of society represents a form of socio-psychological control in which members are society are conditioned to meet the needs of society rather than inherent needs as well as the fact that going against this would be crazy.  The need to belong to a group is a biological need in humans and going against societal needs creates alienation.
In the case of Moby Dick, to ‘go along’ is to take part in the fishing industry of the sea towns in New England.  The economy needs sailors to take part on dangerous expeditions for next to no money and Ishmael buys into this idea so much so that it becomes a part of his ideal self.  At the same time he discusses the pull to be a sailor, he recognizes the hardships.  He discusses how he is treated by saying “they order me about some, and make me jump from spar to spar, like a grasshopper in a May meadow”(Melville 9).  This quotation shows that when a sailor, Ishmael is not free to make many of his own decisions and in the next paragraph along these lines justifies this by saying “Who ain’t a slave”(Melville 9).  When discussing joining the crew of the Pequod and his compensation for a three year commitment he states ”if we had a lucky voyage, might pretty nearly pay for the clothing I would wear  out on it”(Melville 77).  To commit three years of time to a lifestyle on a ship surrounded men, a number of which he doesn’t particularly care for aside from Queequeg to make next to no money is a desire which does seem to be insane. Clearly there is not biological need for this type of existence and hardship, if anything it goes against the desire for self preservation.  In this way, the beliefs of Ishmael that he should join a whaling expedition show how deeply engrained societal needs can dictate ideology in an individual.  In a way, ultimately the desire to belong to society and not be seen by others and by oneself to be separate creates a breakdown in reason.

1 comment:

  1. Your introduction certainly shows some understanding of one aspect of Marcuse's argument - but even this early, I'd like to be clearer on what you're claiming about Melville, and (ideally) to have it presented through an actual citation to Marcuse's text.

    You negotiate the relationship between Melville's society and our own, via Marcuse, through a "perhaps." This is troubling; you should explicitly make the connections, or point out the connections, via Marcuse - not guess.

    In the third paragraph, you have an interesting approach. For my part, I think that Ishmael's desire for the sea is mostly ironic, and much darker/gloomier than you make it out to be - but that doesn't mean that I don't think your argument is workable at some level. Ishmael *is* neurotic, and I think you could easily elaborate on his need to "go along" at some level, even if you aren't really even beginning to move toward all the necessary details - yet.

    The way I'd question you in the 4th paragraph is to make you think harder about biological need. Ishmael, after all, is a poor man, without opportunities or prospects. He is economically at the bottom of his society, as he repeatedly makes clear.

    That doesn't make you wrong - just because he is poor doesn't make this *particular* response to his poverty necessary - but you would need to acknowledge and work with his poverty, showing how he is subordinated to a larger, repressive system in *other* than an economic sense (as Marcuse argues) for this to work convincingly.