Herman Melville's Moby Dick: A Survival Guide to the Twenty First Century


This section is unfinished: it may be just a placholder, or an initial draft of the intended content.

Alfred Korzybski in Science and Sanity provides an overview of the profound shifts in perspective in the modernist period. Let's now take a wider view that includes what happened before and after that modernist period. David Chapman, in his hypertext book Meanginess provides, in a "A gigantic chart that explains absolutely everything", a tabular view of "the past, present, and future of culture, society, and our selves". Chapman is a meta-modernist, which as we'll find out means he doesn't believe in big and over-riding truths and therefore the title of his chart "mocks its unwieldiness and ambition". The chart really just tries to explain, in a way that I find interesting but also highly contestable, a seres of transitions in Western (and actually really mainly North American) culture: philosophical. cuitural and political systems that were functioning but have been to collapse in on themselves, through the counter-culture of the sixties, to the sub-cultures of the seventies, leading to the fragmentation and atomisation of our current culture, often describe as the condition of post-modernity. Chapman then goes onto suggest - in the optimisitc spirit that we might learn from what hasn't worked up until this present moment - what might happen next.

We'll look at the details of these transitions in more detail later in this book, but what I want to emphasise here is that Chapman's chart shows general trends on how society as a whole is functioning. What is interesting to me about Melville is that he was able, to some degree, to anticipate these transitions from the 1850s, as Neitzsche did slightly later, and even to pass us down across the years some potential ways ahead.

Chapman outlines various eras, or "Modes" as he calls them:

  • the "Choiceless" mode (up to 1700) characterised by "incoherent traditions, accepted without question" - so feudalism would be an example of that (though you could argue that areas of the world contunue to "Choiceless" if that definition is used).
  • the "Successful systems" mode (1450-1914) characterised by "Attempts to formalize/ rationalize/ systematize culture. Classicism followed by Romanticism." Now you could definitely argue that it would have come to news to Herman Melville that he was writing Moby Dick within a period of history that would be described as the "Succesful systems" mode. This system may have been successful to some, but from the point of view of an African-American slave or a Native American whose land had been colonised, the catastrophe predicted by the end of Moby Dick had already been happening for some time.
  • The "Systems in Crisis" mode (1914-1980), characterised by "Failure of all foundations. Nihilism: meaninglessness, materialism, disenchantment of the world". In many ways, this is the mode that Moby Dick starkly predicts. For him, as for Nietzsche, and as for the countless people caught up in the dark whirlwind those "Successful systems" created, the crisis had already started

Then Chapman takes us through the stages of response to this sense of crisis, often described as the modernist and postmodernist stages:

  • The "Countercultures" mode (1964-1990): "Failure of mainstream culture, society, and self to provide meaning; disgust at hypocrisy, business-as-usual, and moral breakdown"
  • The "Subcultures" mode (1975-2001): "Countercultures deny diversity, are revealed as idealistically impractical, fail to find new foundations; mass movement cannot provide community"
  • The "Atomization" mode (2001 onwards): "Subculture does not provide adequate breadth or depth of meaning; exploitation/parasitism relationship with mass-scale culture and society"

The last mode, the "Fluid", the step beyond Atomization that we may be standing on the verge of, leaves us facing an "overwhelming ocean of meaning", a culture based on "trivality" and "collapsing" institutions.

Chapman's argument, at least in part, is that we are facing new challenges, that to understand the present mess, you need to carefully trace the steps by which we got here. And that is clearly a forceful argument, and one that might suggest that digging up Herman Melville from the mid-nineteenth century and asking him for answers to contemporary problems is mis-guided. Yet I'd insist that all the clues of where we would end up were around in the mid-nineteenth century were visible if you happened to me paying attention, and Herman Melville as definitely paying attention.

If, for example, you look at the "overwhelming ocean of meaning" that many inhabitants of the the early twenty first century try to swim in, you could contrast the insane pace of internet age communications with the more genteel pace of the mid-nineteenth century, with the telegram just beginning to revolutionise the ability for information and meanings to spread. And yet, in the Etymology section of Moby Dick, where the "painstaking burrower and grub-worm of a poor devil of a Sub-Sub appears to have gone through the long Vaticans and street-stalls of the earth, picking up whatever random allusions to whales he could anyways find in any book whatsoever", we already have too many contradictory sources of information to cohere into any kind of static truth about what a whale really is or really means.

If you look at Chapman's attempted solution for the Fluid mode he hopes will follow our current mode of Atomization, it really describes the very spirit of Ishamel's narration in Moby Dick, his attempts to keep above water in the "overwhelming ocean" and evokes it with a metaphor that couldn't be more fitting:

Watercraft on the sea of meanings. Meta-systematic, complete stance: reinstates rationality, universality, coherence, but recognizes their nebulosity

If you aren't familiar with meta-modernism (and at the moment not many people are), this is going to sound pretty abstract and unintelligible, but bear with me: we'll explore these ideas properly as we progress.

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