Crossing the Intersections of Nature and Technology in Moby-Dick and Online

Hannah Mueller's picture

Herman Melville had no concept of the internet when he wrote Moby-Dick, but integral to his novel are many of the same anxieties that bloggers have today. The problem of representing intellect and intent through an interface is central to the novel and to blogging. Ahab is searching for the meaning behind the body of Moby-Dick, and bloggers are constantly trying to project the self that inhabits their own bodies onto the computer screen. The conflict taking place between nature and machinery in Moby-Dick translates to this tension bloggers feel between their "real" and online lives. It also expresses how communities take shape or fail to take shape online and on the Pequod. Ishmael offers a way of mediating between nature and technology: he accepts the chaos inherent in life while continuing the search for meaning, for more perfect ways to represent and understand his own life and others' lives.

Ahab, Ishmael, and bloggers all encounter similar problems of representation, but while Ahab and Ishmael approach the world from opposite angles, bloggers must be both "inside" and "outside" the problem at the same time. Ahab needs to know what is driving Moby-Dick, to understand what evil is at the core of the whale that took his leg; he is looking for the "real" behind the structure of the whale's body. Ishmael, as the narrator, is himself behind a different "Whale," that is, the novel Moby-Dick, or, The Whale. A constant attempt to express the "reality" of the Pequod's journey and to understand what is inside himself and causing him to despair is the impetus of Ishmael's own search. Like Ishmael, bloggers exist in the "real" world, and as they project an identity online they are constantly attempting to portray the "real" through the structure of the blog and the written word. At the same time, in their online interactions with others, bloggers always have to play the same game that Ahab plays by trying to discern where the "real" person is behind the names that appear on the computer screen.

For Ahab, this game is the meaning of his existence and is also the search for evil. In his eyes, Moby-Dick is the "incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them" (200). While bloggers do not and have no reason to expect that only evil ever lurks behind their online interactions with others, they are on a similar hunt for meaning behind "pasteboard masks" (178). The usernames that appear on a computer screen are, for bloggers, "masks" in the same sense that Moby-Dick is a "mask" for the meaning Ahab seeks. What is being hidden is the nature of the agent that is using the structure or interface to represent itself. In other words, the physical body of Moby-Dick and the technology of the blog are mediums through which what is "real" or natural is represented. Ahab wants the whale to be transparent so that he can immediately see what its essence is, and because of the loss of his leg, he is sure that this essence is evil. Bloggers, in contrast, have an appreciation of the structure-the technology-they use because it allows them more "freedom of movement." Although bloggers often want to portray the "true" self behind the username, the opacity that the internet lends to their interactions can offer liberation.

Bloggers can see both the good and the bad in their constant re-attempts at representation, which makes them very unlike Ahab. Because he must know what meaning is behind Moby-Dick, Ahab's unswerving, inhuman resolve to kill the whale has made him the quintessential monomaniac in the Western canon. What is it about Ahab's condition that makes him extremely more monomaniac than any other character? In short, since his first encounter with Moby-Dick, Ahab has dehumanized himself. Because he so hates the chaotic life that he sees represented in Moby-Dick, he himself becomes like a machine (Ausband 199). Throughout the novel, Ahab is portrayed using "mechanistic imagery" (Ausband 197). The first description of Ahab by Ishmael casts the captain as a man who "seemed made of solid bronze" (134). He is consumed by "one unsleeping, ever-pacing thought" (174), and this obsession manifests itself in his body as he himself paces the deck with his one living leg and his one artificial leg. Like machine-a mill, a calculator, or a computer-his mind works in endless repetitions. As he stands and polishes the doubloon, he hums, "producing a sound so strangely muffled and inarticulate that it seemed the mechanical humming of the wheels of his vitality in him" (176, qtd in Ausband 201). Ahab becomes less and less human as the book progresses; by the end he has an "iron soul" (582).

The hatred Ahab feels toward Moby-Dick is founded on his fear of the chaos of life, "all that stirs up the lees of things," all the organic disorder that he sees "visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick" (200). Because he hates the life of Moby-Dick so much, Ahab separates himself from all life to the greatest extent that he can, and eventually he sees this separation in its completion: "Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbors!" (602, qtd in Ausband 197). Ahab's hatred of nature leads him to become a machine himself, cut off from all life in his monomaniac quest to destroy the largest living creature in existence.

Ishmael takes a much different approach to Moby-Dick than Ahab does, accepting the chaotic nature of life. "The novel itself, Melville insists, is an organic work, something with a life of its own, and not a completed and perfect structure" (Ausband 198). Moby-Dick is a mixture of many genres, including fiction, nonfiction, and drama. Moby-Dick the whale, Ishmael sees, is similar in that it is living, "not completed" and imperfect. Ishmael describes the practice of whaling: "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method" (395). He could just as easily be talking about the process of writing a novel, a process in which, as narrator, he is as deeply involved as he is in whaling. The "true method," for Ishmael, is not to think that one has the answer before even embarking on a quest for meaning, as Ahab thinks he knows that Moby-Dick is evil and thus must be destroyed. Instead, Ishmael sees most processes-ways of whaling, writing, and living-as emergent ways of learning. He accepts change as necessary and good.

When they are open and productive, bloggers are more like Ishmael than like Ahab. They accept the natural, messy emergence of the blog as an expected and good aspect of the practice of blogging. And, they know that technology is not in opposition to their project of representing themselves and understanding other people's representations of their own selves. Instead, technology creates many new possibilities for expression. Although the machinery imagery in Moby-Dick is based on a much different discourse than the discourse of technology we have today, the words "machinery" and "technology" are compatible in this case. This is because, in Moby-Dick, machinery is set up in opposition to nature, as evidenced when Ahab degenerates into a machine in order to defend himself from the life his fears. Today, technology is also positioned in opposition to nature; we are used to talking about the "natural" and the "artificial," the "biological" and the "technological" (Stone). But today and throughout Moby-Dick, "the boundaries between technology and nature themselves are in the midst of a deep restructuring" (Stone). The word "nature" itself is a category created by people, and since machinery became part of the human experience its meaning has been inextricably linked with, defined against, that machinery (Stone). But what we call nature and what we call technology are in many ways continuous, and to ignore these continuities is to deny the significant ways that technology can allow people to change what their own "nature" looks like to others.

In the talk surrounding blogging, the words "real" and "online" carry increasingly ambiguous meanings. Technology is an interface for the "real" person to project an "online" identity, but what is actually separating the two? Bloggers can feel as though their online persona better represents who they "really" are than the image they give at school or at work. Someone who keeps a LiveJournal or who chats online may feel freer to give his or her own "true" opinion on the internet, through an interface, than face-to-face. The internet provides a new kind of space, "in which people still meet face-to-face, but under new definitions of both ‘meet' and ‘face'" (Stone). Online, we are still occupying a space in which human nature is fully functioning, but technology mediates the function and interaction.

The shifting boundaries between technology and nature problematize the changeable genres of sex and gender in Moby-Dick and online. Ahab and Ishmael, who look at nature and machinery differently, also function as complete opposites in regards to how their sex affects what their gender is. Ahab is figured as sexless since his encounter with Moby-Dick; his lost leg and the injury to his groin by his ivory leg suggest castration (Ausband 208). This separation from his own sexuality is part of his estrangement from humanity as a whole because he wants to escape the chaos of life (Ausband 208). Ishmael, on the other hand, seems not only to have a sexuality, but in fact to have one that does not correspond with his physical sex. The ways he often describes Queequeg suggest a sexual dimension to their relationship; for example, when Ishmael wakes up at the inn and finds Queequeg's arm over him, he says, "You had almost thought I had been his wife" (28). Although it is never made explicit, Ishmael's sexuality is certainly more mutable than Ahab's. Comfortable with the strange and unruly quality of life, Ishmael is much more free, and much more human, than Ahab in the way he expresses his sexuality.

Bloggers, again, are more like Ishmael than Ahab in their similar freedom to express a gender that is different from their sex. Men present themselves as women and women present themselves as men frequently on the internet. Someone might switch genders online because they want to see what it feels like to interact with other people as a member of the opposite sex, and often they find that the ways of interacting are indeed very different. A man who was accidentally mistaken for a woman online found, to his surprise, how emotionally open with each other the women he spoke with were in comparison to men with whom he had spoken online (Stone). Other people practice "computer crossdressing" (Stone) because they identify with a different gender "in real life." Those who identify as queer in their day-to-day lives are able to express themselves more fully online than they can offline. They can actually put forth a "face" that is truer for them than the face they have no choice but to wear offline.

To cross the boundaries between sex and gender in fact means to break down those categories. If someone who has a female sex identifies as having a male gender, and acts out that male gender online, that performance becomes the sole identity of the person within the "reality" of the online space (Stone). So, as the genres of sex and gender break down, so do the genres of technology and nature. If someone's "nature" can be made more appropriate for them online in a "technological" space than offline in a "natural" space, then what is "natural" has invaded what is "technological" and rendered the category meaningless.

Structures are breaking down here like they are in Moby-Dick. Ishmael understands that his own body does not define who he actually is: "Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being" (42). Online, this disconnect between body and self is made obvious; the internet offers "a new, different, and complex way of experiencing the relationship between the physical human body and the ‘I' that inhabits it" (Stone). Ishmael is comfortable with having his body separate from his identity: "In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me" (42). Not identifying himself with his body frees Ishmael not only from playing out the gender that corresponds to his sex, or from playing out any single identity, but also from death, since "Ishmael" is not attached to the mortal body to whom he belongs. The first line of the novel suggests that Ishmael thinks this way. When he says, "Call me Ishmael," he is asking the reader to question who or what exactly is being given a name; is it the body of the narrator, or the narrator's voice, or one of several identities that the narrator will take on? Without specifying to what the name actually refers, "Ishmael" does not locate himself easily in one spot for the reader. So, the identity he projects at different points in the novel can be different, just as a blogger can act out a different identity on different sites on the internet, or even under the same username.

The mutability of identity and its separation from the body can be freeing, as it seems to be for Ishmael and for many people who blog. For Ahab, though, and sometimes for bloggers, the flexibility and uncertainty of reality can be anything from annoying to evil. The internet is an "interface," which "mediates between the human body (or bodies) and an associated ‘I' (or ‘I's')" (Stone). Moby-Dick, for Ahab, is an interface that mediates between the physical world and the deeper intelligence that he believes maliciously lurks behind, underneath, or around the physical world. Ahab feels that a malicious agent reached out from behind the "pasteboard mask" of Moby-Dick's body when the whale took his leg. Moby-Dick represents "All that most maddens and torments" (200) to Ahab because he cannot see what is controlling him, but he was injured by whatever it is.

A violation of Ahab's body occurred because of the "malice" of the whale. Bloggers feel the same way when other bloggers do not fulfill the assumptions that they build up about their identities. When a blogger named Julie, who was supposed by many to be a physically handicapped older woman, turned out to be a middle-aged male psychiatrist, people who had trusted "Julie" online felt betrayed. More than betrayed, even, those who had shared deeply personal secrets with the blogger said that they "felt raped" (Stone). The violation of trust that occurred when a blogging identity turned out not to correspond to real life, led to feelings of physical violation as well. Ahab's lost leg is, to him, metaphorical of this violation. Without being allowed to see what "intangible malignity" (200) plagued him, he is faced only with the body of the white whale, which he subsequently decides to destroy.

The inscrutability of Moby-Dick is infuriating for Ahab, and the opacity of the internet can be so for bloggers, as well. Sometimes offense will arise from some action that other bloggers take; bloggers who are, to use Tim Burke's phrase, "deliberate chameleons" will present one face and then change to another, willfully deceiving other bloggers by using the freedom the internet gives them. For Ahab, when Moby-Dick took his leg it was as if nature had taken off a mask and revealed a terrible face in Moby-Dick, which in turn Ahab sees to be only another mask. It is his inability to know what is really there, and why he was crippled, that is maddening to Ahab. Another way in which inscrutability becomes frustrating is when there is only silence. Ahab cannot receive any answers by talking out his questions, because the whale is silent and apparently not sentient-yet Ahab has to believe otherwise. Similarly, bloggers are very often frustrated when their attempts at online conversation are met with silence; no answer can mean that the views put forth are seen as unworthy of discussion, or simply that no one has read them, but there is no way to know for sure. Ahab, too, wonders why he cannot find any answers. Is it because of malice, indifference, or of non-presence? Does the whale, or the force behind it, hate Ahab, ignore him, or does it simply not exist? "Sometimes I think there's naught beyond," Ahab says of Moby-Dick, but he hates the silence and not knowing so much that he must hunt the whale to the end: "That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him" (178).

The object of Ahab's hunt is the essence of Moby-Dick, whether the whale is the evil in the world or only an embodiment of it. In his dreams, Ahab cries out, "Oh Moby Dick, I clutch thy heart at last!" (560) But Ahab's desire to get at the "heart" of Moby-Dick can never be fulfilled, as Ishmael knows. Even if the whale were an evil being, the evil would not reside in its body, because the body and the ‘I' that inhabit it are separate. So, Ahab's monomaniac quest to break down the structure of the body of Moby-Dick is not going to accomplish his goal. A comparable goal for bloggers would be to destroy the internet in order to get rid of the problems of false identity it sometimes causes. Ahab becomes like a machine because he hates the inscrutability and emergence of life-he feels that he has no control over his own body, when nature can rear up out of the sea and take part of it away from him. Moby-Dick is symbolic of "the organic principle in the universe" (Ausband 207), and Ahab sees in him a place for outside forces to do what they will, with a will and intent that Ahab does not understand. The internet is a similar place, where many people interact and create masks that are not transparent, but are representative of an "I" that may or may not come through the mask.

The interface--Moby-Dick, the internet--is not the source of the problems, however. Instead, some people will have malicious intent, or voices will be ignored and malicious intent will be read into the silence. But to destroy life, as Ahab does, in order to avoid the problems that arise from it, is insane. The internet gives bloggers freedoms they cannot possess in "reality," and for Ishmael, Moby-Dick represents life outside of the body and offers the same freeing possibilities. Both the whale and the internet, like life and nature, are inscrutable and "alive" in the sense that they change in ways that no one person has any control over.

An important part of Moby-Dick and of a blog is community. The community on the Pequod is an example of a community that is not gaining anything because there is no useful interaction between its members. As I explained in my first web paper, the members of the Pequod's crew are not engaging in dialogue with each other, and so their search for meaning is going nowhere. Likewise, Ahab's search for meaning in Moby-Dick is doomed because he thinks he knows the answer-that the whale is evil-before he begins the hunt. The crew itself, as Ahab bends it to his will, becomes as much like a machine as he is; by the third day of the chase, they begin to "function like a single mechanical man, of which Ahab is the head" (Ausband 210). When the ship sinks, it is as if the ship itself and everyone on it are part of one mechanism, sinking together: when Tashtego finally goes underwater, he is still rhythmically hammering at the flag. His motion traps and kills a bird, taking a piece of life underneath the waves as the rest of the dehumanized crew sinks (Ausband 210). Ahab's control over the crew is complete when he takes them all down with him, and his fruitless vendetta against all life claims one last living thing, too.

Except that Ishmael survives, because he recognizes that Ahab is mad and refuses to allow the captain to incorporate him into the machine of the crew. Ishmael appreciates life even though it is confusing and constantly changing, or perhaps because it is so. Communites are alive in that they change and grow as their members interact. If there is no communication, the community stagnates and dies. Any blogger is familiar with the phenomenon of a dead message board, places where anyone can still post but no one does; the atmosphere is that of a ghost town. Although he is essentially alone on the Pequod because everyone else is under Ahab's influence, Ishmael still knows that communication is necessary for a community, and that community is an important part of being human. Writing his chronicle of the Pequod's journey is his way of keeping lines of communication open; and his novel is as much like a conversation as any one book can be. The many different genres and points of view represented throughout Moby-Dick seem to be in dialogue with each other. The book is more like an emergence story than like any other kind of story because there is often no clear narrative progression, but each chapter is offering up something new that might be useful to some reader in understanding other parts of the book.

In my first paper, I compared the conversation that takes place in a classroom to this emergence process. After learning about blogs, it is obvious that online interaction is similarly a process of emergence. As we learned by looking at certain blogs and creating our own, the conversation online takes on a life of its own. There is no telling where a conversation will end up by looking at the first entry on a blog. This is because many different voices are constantly adding new perspectives, influencing each other in a continually evolving attempt to make better sense of a subject, whatever that subject may be. On the Pequod, there is no give-and-take of ideas because everyone except Ishmael is bent to one will-Ahab's. But on a blog, the members of the "crew" are participating in an organic process of interaction, and the result is usually productive instead of destructive. In addition, anyone can come and go from a blog and choose to join the conversation or not; on the Pequod, all the crew members are confined on one boat, never able to escape to pursue other forms of interaction in different communities.

The many differences between Ishmael and Ahab center around the intersections between nature and machinery, the chaotic and living versus the mechanized and dead. In regards to community, the one Ishmael prefers is dynamic and multifaceted; Ahab, on the other hand, prefers no community but a single-minded purposefulness, which he ultimately finds achieves no purpose at all. In searching for meaning behind the "mask," too, Ishmael takes the approach of looking not for a pre-determined evil, but for the unpredictable in life. He embraces life in all its messy glory and begins to see Moby-Dick not as "All that most maddens and torments" made "visibly personified" (200) as Ahab does, but as "majestic...creative (as well as destructive), and worthy of awe" (Ausband 207). Ahab dehumanizes himself to remain as far removed as possible from the inscrutability and unpredictability of Moby-Dick; Ishmael, on the other hand, removes himself from Ahab's project of destroying all the differences and possibilities for change inherent in the crew and in life.

Ishmael is more successful than Ahab in his thinking because he breaks down boundaries while Ahab continually builds them up around himself. When Ahab desires to find one unchanging meaning in the "sinews" of Moby-Dick, Ishmael is able to separate meaning from the body. He also finds meaning in many different places, as evidenced by the multitude of subjects with which he engages in the novel. He is like "a Catskill eagle...that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces" (465, qtd in Ausband 207). This mutability both redeems Ishmael alone at the end of the novel, and makes him the ideal blogger. He allows Moby-Dick to symbolize, for him, the emergent, disordered, strange and unpredictable nature of life, and he embraces that nature. Bloggers are most free, too, when they allow the internet to create a space where they can escape their bodies, "the lees of [their] better being," and project whatever "face" best describes them onto the "mask" of their online username. The difference between Ishmael and Ahab is in how they choose to understand Moby-Dick: as chaos and evil, or as possibility and positive change. Most bloggers find it easy to accept the internet as a place for freedom and possibility, creating an online environment very unlike the Pequod. It is probably safe to say that Ahab would never be able to keep a blog, or even to engage with the anarchic internet at all. But Ishmael would not only thrive online-he has also already created his own distinctly blog-like log: Moby-Dick.






Works Cited

Ausband, Stephen C. "The Whale and the Machine: An Approach to Moby-Dick." American Literature. Vol. 47, No. 2 (May 1975): 197-211. JSTOR. Bryn Mawr College Library. 9 May 2008. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2925481>

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.

Stone, Allucquere Rosanne. "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?" Cyberspace: First Steps. Ed Michael Benedikt. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991. 81-118. <http://molodiez.org/net/real_body2.html>



Comments

Hannah Mueller's picture

brains etc.

I hadn't thought about that--that the brain is another "machine" that we (necessarily) use to mediate between ourselves and the environment. Of course, that is another assumption, that "I" am separate from my brain. But it's interesting to think about how we are affected/limited by the architecture of the brain.

When I wrote this, I had only been thinking about one kind of repetition, described by a saying I heard somewhere (?) that went something like, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting to get a different result." For me, that makes sense with the descriptions of insane Ahab in the book, and with the endless repetitions of a machine. Computers (ones today without I,Robot-like artificial intelligence, at least) don't come up with their own ideas, because they follow--over and over again--the patterns set for them. That doesn't make them insane, but it does demonstrate how they have no "sanity", no sentience.

But not being able to stop thinking is another kind of repetition that we don't have much control over, as you say. In a way, I agree that we're most human when we let out brains "run wild" because it's then that we're most creative. But another way our imaginations run away from us is in dreams, where brains repeat events/thoughts from the day uncontrollably. And animals have those, too. So I don't know--I think there definitely is a "messy/inaccurate opposition" or border between a brain and a machine. There are some ways that the analogy just doesn't work.

As for blog conversations being productive instead of destructive, I was thinking about it in terms of emergence; so, as "productive" or "good" as anything is, in terms of it being useful. Because a blog conversation is "organic," it is looking to get it less wrong in the same way that biological evolution does; not the way a pre-programmed machine does, or a conversation where people already think they know the answer. Maybe "useless" would be a better word that "destructive." I was thinking of Serendip when I was thinking of an "organic," "productive" blog.

Anne Dalke's picture

a tension: dissonant? productive?

More thoughts on the "messy/inaccurate opposition" or border between a brain and a machine in The American College and University: A History (on being educated into increasingly focused attention) and Older Brain Really May Be a Wiser Brain (on increasing diffuse attention as we age).

Hm...a tension? dissonance? there?
with education working against the brain's "natural" tendencies?
trying to "mechanize" them?
productive or....?

Anne Dalke's picture

"Definitely an Exploration and an Experiment"

Hannah--
What amuses me most/first here is the chaotic messiness of this paper, in which you draw on two very different theoretical sources (Ausland and Stone) to really go adventuring into dimensions that aren't quite clear to you yet; as you say, "definitely an exploration and an experiment"--much riskier than the more carefully controlled/shaped papers you wrote earlier in the semester, and a perfect example of form expressing function.

The analogies you work with--Moby-Dick and the internet as "interfaces" where nature and machinery, the self and world intersect and express one another--are not exact, but the crack/mis-match is where the exciting thinking happens (Leonard Cohen: "There's a crack in everything, that's how light gets in...."). I think you'll find it a pleasure to read Al Keefe's Unmasking the Mask (the Interaction Between Blogging and Performance); much of what she has to say there intersects fruitfully with your own speculations about the liberation that opacity can offer, and about the ability to express oneself more fully online than off.

For all my readings of Moby-Dick, I hadn't yet noted the increasingly mechanical nature of Ahab and the crew; thanks for calling my attention to that pattern. I also especially like the analogy you draw between Ahab's attempt to destroy the whale--and so get rid of the evil he represents--and the goals of those who would destroy the internet in order to get rid of the problems it causes: "the interface," as you wisely observe, "is not the source of the problems"; "to destroy life, as Ahab does, in order to avoid the problems that arise from it, is insane."

Perhaps most intriguing to me--and where I'd encourage you to go on thinking, had I the opportunity to assign you just one more paper!--is your following Stone in thinking about the messy/inaccurate opposition between nature and machine. When the mind works (as Ahab's does) in "endless repetitions," does it actually become "less human" (as you claim) or "more so," in its incessent thinking?

I know I'm not the only one "here" who can't stop thinking, who lies awake @ night unable to turn off her brain. It may be then that I become most myself, or most quintessentially human (unlike animals that have figured out the "cost of smarts").  If "human nature is fully functioning" when "technology mediates the function" (as you cleverly observe) then might it not also be fully functioning when the mediator is the unruly, unstoppable brain?

These questions are not unrelated to my final one. You say that the organic process of interaction in a blog--there being "no telling where a conversation will end up by looking at the first entry," for instance, is "usually productive instead of destructive"; what makes for the difference?

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