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Plunging into the Atlantic: The oceanic order of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick

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This essay analyzes how Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick (1851) divorces itself from a land-based world view by embracing the exploratory potential of the ocean. Melville uses the ocean as a perspective from which to examine the world. The text's embrace of this oceanic perspective foregrounds the distinction between two empirical concepts that organize an environment's space: mundus (world) and nomos (order). Using Carl Schmitt's discussion of these concepts, along with his theorization of them as central to understanding “the nomos of the earth,” the author argues that Melville's text examines the nature of oceanic space on a narrative level via Ishmael's many digressions and shifting perceptions. The analysis integrates Schmitt's theories with Immanuel Wallerstein's macro-analytical optic of world-systems analysis, which offers a comparable conceptualization of global space. As a novel written from the point of view of life on the ocean, Moby-Dick can move fluidly to analyze topics and entire philosophies central to the nineteenth-century world. The first three sections (“Etymology,” “Extracts,” and “Loomings”) emphasize that the novel contains no single fixed point of departure, but instead several entangled beginnings that readers must negotiate. While discussing the rest of the novel, the author draws particular attention to Ishmael's comment concerning why he wants to go whaling: “I want to see the world.” Captain Peleg misinterprets this statement because he remains tied to a land-based world view, whereas Ishmael has embraced the expansive potential of an oceanic perspective. In the end, the nomos of Melville's text outlines an oceanic order that contains an endless flow of information.
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Keywords: Carl Schmitt; Herman Melville; Immanuel Wallerstein; Moby-Dick; exploratory process; nomos of the earth; oceanic order; world system; world view

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 1, 2011

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