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The Errant Art of Moby-Dick: The Canon, the Cold War, and the Struggle for American Studies

The Errant Art of Moby-Dick: The Canon, the Cold War, and the Struggle for American Studies

by William V. Spanos, Donald E. Pease (Editor), Spanos

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In The Errant Art of Moby-Dick, one of America’s most distinguished critics reexamines Melville’s monumental novel and turns the occasion into a meditation on the history and implications of canon formation. In Moby-Dick—a work virtually ignored and discredited at the time of its publication—William V. Spanos uncovers a text


In The Errant Art of Moby-Dick, one of America’s most distinguished critics reexamines Melville’s monumental novel and turns the occasion into a meditation on the history and implications of canon formation. In Moby-Dick—a work virtually ignored and discredited at the time of its publication—William V. Spanos uncovers a text remarkably suited as a foundation for a "New Americanist" critique of the ideology based on Puritan origins that was codified in the canon established by "Old Americanist" critics from F. O. Matthiessen to Lionel Trilling. But Spanos also shows, with the novel still as his focus, the limitations of this "New Americanist" discourse and its failure to escape the totalizing imperial perspective it finds in its predecessor.
Combining Heideggerian ontology with a sociopolitical perspective derived primarily from Foucault, the reading of Moby-Dick that forms the center of this book demonstrates that the traditional identification of Melville’s novel as a "romance" renders it complicitous in the discourse of the Cold War. At the same time, Spanos shows how New Americanist criticism overlooks the degree to which Moby-Dick anticipates not only America’s self-representation as the savior of the world against communism, but also the emergent postmodern and anti-imperial discourse deployed against such an image. Spanos’s critique reveals the extraordinary relevance of Melville’s novel as a post-Cold War text, foreshadowing not only the self-destructive end of the historical formation of the American cultural identity in the genocidal assault on Vietnam, but also the reactionary labeling of the current era as "the end of history."
This provocative and challenging study presents not only a new view of the development of literary history in the United States, but a devastating critique of the genealogy of ideology in the American cultural establishment.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The Errant Art of Moby-Dick retrieves for all of us the errant art of critical reading, which no mere program of cynical professionalism or fashionable ‘new historicism’ could ever successfully practice in any genuine sense. As such, this work is a major intervention in Melville studies, American literature studies, and the culture of criticism generally."—Daniel O’Hara, Temple University

"An exciting and important work, one that is a major contribution to Melville studies and to American cultural history. It is an eloquent and impassioned defense of theory in the face of a militant resistance to it both by traditional humanist critics and by certain New Historicists."—Edgar A. Dryden, University of Arizona

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Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
New Americanists
Edition description:
New Edition
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6.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)

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The Errant Art of Moby-Dick

The Canon, the Cold War, and the Struggle for American Studies

By William V. Spanos

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7958-4



Israel Potter well merits the present tribute—a private of Bunker Hill, who for his faithful services was years ago promoted to a still deeper privacy under the ground, with a posthumous pension, in default of any during life, annually paid him by the spring in ever-new mosses and sward.... From a tattered copy, rescued by the merest chance from the rag-pickers, the present account has been drawn, which, with the exception of some expansions, and additions of historic and personal details, and one or two shiftings of scenes, may, perhaps, be not unfitly regarded something in the light of a dilapidated old tombstone retouched.

Herman Melville, "To His Majesty, the Bunker-hill Monument," Israel Potter, His Fifty Years of Exile

According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.

Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History"


Traditional American literary critics have insisted that "theory" is a European import inappropriate to the historically specific conditions of American cultural production. It is the enabling claim of this study of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick that, on the contrary, what has been called "postmodern" or "poststructuralist" or, as I prefer, "posthumanist" theory—far from being an imposition of a discourse foreign to the particularities of the American context—has its enabling origins, however indirectly, in the modern American occasion. If the inaugural theorists were European, it was, I submit, a fundamentally American event whose epochal implications resonated and continue to resonate beyond the borders of the United States to encompass the West at large that precipitated their subversive discourses and rendered their interrogation of truth/power relations in the modern West in some essential sense revelatory for American literary intellectuals, whose cultural tradition, in separating theory and practice in favor of the latter, had deprived them of a theoretically viable critical discourse.

This epochal American event was the Vietnam War, a war that bore spontaneous historical witness to the spectacle of a brutal—indeed, monomaniacal—American intervention in a Third-World space, which was justified by invoking the "free world" (Western-style democracies), and, more tellingly, was conducted in terms of the very self-representation of America, synecdochically represented by President John F. Kennedy's "New Frontier," inscribed in the American literary canon. I am referring to that empowering cultural imaginary whose origins lie in the American Puritan theological/theocratic "errand in the wilderness" ("to build a city on the hill"); was secularized by post-Revolutionary writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Robert Montgomery Bird, who transformed the westering frontier experience of individuals like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Kit Carson into cultural myths of "manifest destiny"; was legitimated philosophically (however unintentionally) by "American Renaissance" thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Theodore Parker, who represented the difference between the American errand in the wilderness and the European experience in terms of the difference between the creative principle of new-world "self-reliance" and the decadent principle of old-world authority; and was finally institutionalized by the American culture industry (both the information media and the institutions of learning): that is, the naturalized cultural imaginary, in the name of which America has perennially justified its essentially imperial, racist, and patriarchal historical project.

What I am suggesting, in thus insisting on the relevance of posthumanist theory for the contemporary American cultural occasion is a matter of crucial import for the post–Cold War occasion. It emerged in the aftermath of the Vietnam War as a critical discourse intended to theorize the contradictions spontaneously disclosed by the self-destruction of the self-representation of the American cultural/sociopolitical mission (and by the ensuing refusal of spontaneous consent by various social constituencies to its hegemonic imperatives). As such, it has theoretically precluded the possibility any longer of referring to the American canon as if these aporias in the discourse of canon formation did not exist. More specifically, to practice literary criticism now in terms of the discourse of canon formation that has determined the content and form of American literary studies and their institutional organization (according, that is, to the rules of discursive formation that privileges disinterested inquiry and the transparency of language, in the face of the interrogation of its very "problematic"), is to betray a resistance to "theory" grounded in recuperative ideological presuppositions of dubious lineage. For, however various the manifestations of contemporary theory, what they have essentially in common is their persuasive disclosure—also supported by the inordinate efforts of public officials, the custodians of the American Cultural Memory, and the media to police them—that the American literary history elaborated by the "disinterested" discourse of canon formation is a social construct—a mode of cultural production—which has served to legitimate and reproduce the power of the dominant sociopolitical order both in the United States and abroad.

And yet traditional (humanist) critics continue to resist theory in the name of the constellation of principles that has informed and determined the American canon: the disinterestedness of inquiry, the sovereign individual, pluralism, the genetic model of history, and so on. Indeed, the radical, adversarial critical initiative momentarily achieved by theory in the early 1980s appears to have all but dissipated in the 1990s. This is suggested by the increasing momentum of the campaign to delegitimize theory, inaugurated by traditional humanist critics such as William Bennett, Walter Jackson Bate, Allan Bloom, E. D. Hirsch, and Wayne Booth, and by institutions such as Harvard University (in its adoption of the "core curriculum") in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. I mean the campaign that has culminated in the identification of theory at large with "political correctness" by such politically conservative intellectuals as Roger Kimball and Dinesh D'Souza, and, in the area of American literary studies, by politically liberal intellectuals such as Frederick Crews. It is also suggested by the noticeable retreat from the radical imperatives of theory by certain practitioners of the Historicism, a retreat taking the symptomatic form of forgetting that in theory history is always the history of the present. What, then, is it about the traditional discourse of canon formation that has enabled it to resist the compelling ideological disclosures of theory? Or, to put this question differently, what is it about theory that has rendered it more or less ineffectual in the face of the resistance of the traditional discourse of canon formation? Despite the obviousness of these questions, they have been strangely but symptomatically ignored by contemporary theory. It is one of the purposes of this book on Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, not to proffer answers to these questions as such—they are too complex for easy and definitive settlement—but simply to address them with the hope of reactivating their urgency in the face of the curious and, in my mind, disabling tendency on the part of contemporary theorists, who ought to know better, to overlook their historically specific occasion.

Why Melville's Moby-Dick? Because, perhaps, nothing in the history of American cultural production and consumption can teach us more about the ideological operations of canon formation in general and the formation of the American canon in particular than the apparently erratic history of the reception of the texts of a writer whose raison d'être, as Israel Potter most clearly suggests, was to interrogate the relationship between cultural monuments and sociopolitical power. I am not simply invoking the by now well-known period of rejection or benign neglect of Moby-Dick, extending throughout Melville's lifetime until the 1920s and the period extending from its apotheosis as an American "masterpiece" following World War I to its accommodation to a different historical context during World War II and, above all, the Cold War. I am also referring to the most recent extension of this third phase, which, as a glance at the recent study guide published by the Modern Language Association and the volume of "new essays" published in the Cambridge University Press series entitled "The American Novel" will make clear, continues to represent Moby-Dick as an "American" Classic, a monumental "work" of the American literary tradition, despite the disclosures during and after the Vietnam decade that have put the American literary canon into question.

Appropriating the deconstructive criticism of Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and their American followers, it could be said that this history of the reception of Moby-Dick, far from being the consequence of disinterested inquiry, has been adjudicated by a logocentrism that has measured Melville's text in terms of its correspondence to the metaphysical logos. This would be a valid judgment; but in situating it at the site of textuality, it would also be an extremely rarified one, that is, devoid of historically specific reference. It is preferable, therefore, despite the risk of misunderstanding, to invoke Heidegger's diagnosis of the "ontotheological" tradition, at least as a point of departure, in interpreting this history. But let me be clear about what I mean by this much misunderstood term. Unlike Derrida's and de Man's "logocentrism," Heidegger's "ontotheology" distinguishes between three broad historical phases of the discourse of Western metaphysics: the onto-logical (Greco-Roman, with the decisive emphasis on the latter), the theo-logical (medieval/Protestant), and the anthropo- or ratio-logical (post-Enlightenment or humanist). It thus foregrounds more clearly than the utterly generalized "logocentrism" of deconstruction an epochal transformation of the relationship between the discourses of truth and sociopolitical power: that which bore witness to the displacement of the theologos by the anthropologos, which is to say, of a visible (and hence resistible) by an invisible and thus virtually irresistible center of authority, one which, in fact, enhanced its positive capability of commanding assent, of compelling/pacifying "deviant" elements—whether temporality, words, or differential sociopolitical forces—into its "imperial" orbit.

To be more specific, Heidegger's interrogation of the ontotheological tradition disclosed the all-but-anthropologized ("humanized") modern age (what he calls appropriately the "age of the world picture" [Die Zeit des Weltbild]) to have its enabling origin, not simply in Roman antiquity—the transformation of an always already originative Greek thinking (a-letheia) into a secondary and derivative (technologized)—and calculative—that is, meta-physical, thinking (veritas: truth as the correspondence of mind and thing)—as it is formulaically put by both his sympathetic and antagonistic critics. Heidegger's interrogation of this tradition also and simultaneously disclosed the genealogy of Occidental modernity to lie in a historical transformation of the Roman discourse of truth (and the political practice it authorized) in the posttheological Enlightenment. It was a transformation, in other words, in which an earlier, direct (unmediated) use of power in discourse and practice authorized by the visible center and its commanding gaze was replaced by indirection or deception: a "going around" or "going behind," no less authorized by the centered commanding gaze. Heidegger's resonant formulation of this epochal transformation of truth/power relations in the modern West in his lectures on the Parmenides (no doubt to settle his accounts with German National Socialism) warrants extended quotation:

The essential domain which prevails for the deployment of the Roman "falsum" [the opposite of veritas] is that of the "imperium" and of the "imperial." ... "Imperium" means "command." ...

To commanding as the essential foundation of sovereignty belongs "being above" [Obensein]. That is only possible through constant surmounting [Überhöhung] in relation to others, who are thus the inferiors [Unteren]. In the surmounting, in turn, resides "the constant ability to oversee" [Übersehen-können: supervise and dominate]. We say "to oversee something," which means to "master it" [beherrschen]. To this commanding view, which carries with it surmounting, belongs the "always-being-on-the-lookout." That is the form of all the action that oversees [dominates from the gaze], but that holds to itself, in Latin the actio of the actus. The commanding overseeing is the dominating "vision" which is expressed in the often cited phrase of Caesar: veni, vedi, vici—I came, I oversaw [übersah], I conquered. Victory is already nothing but the consequence of the Caesarian gaze that dominates [Übersehens] and the look [Sehens] which has the character of actio. The essence of the imperium reposes in the actus of constant action [Aktion]. The imperial actio of the constant surmounting over others implies that the others... are fallen [gefällt werden]—in Romans fallere (participle: falsum). The "bringing-to-fall" [das Zu-Fallbringen] belongs necessarily to the domain of the imperial. The "bringing-to-fall" can be accomplished in a "direct" assault [Ansturm] and an overthrowing [Niederwerfen; "throwing down"]. But the other can also be brought to fall by being outflanked [Um-gehung] and tripped up from behind. The "bringing-to-fall" is now the way of deceptive circumvention [Hinter-gehen].... Considered from the outside, going behind the back is a complicated, circumstantial, and thus mediate "bringing-to-fall" as opposed to an immediate overthrowing. In this way, what is brought to fall does not thereby become annihilated, but in a certain manner redressed within the boundaries [in den Grenzen] which are staked out by the dominators. This "staking out" is called in Latin: pango, from which the word pax, peace. This, thought imperially, is [in the present age] the firmly established condition of what has been brought-to-fall. In truth, the bringing-to-fall in the sense of deception [Hintergehens] and outflanking [Umgehens] is not the mediate and derived imperial actio but the imperial actio proper. It is not in war, but in the fallere of deceptive outflanking [bintergehenden Umgehens] and its appropriation to the service of domination that the proper and "great" trait of the imperial reveals itself.

Admittedly, Heidegger's genealogy of truth/power relations in modernity addresses the modern European occasion and is Occidental in scope. To apply it to the historically specific American context as it pertains to the history of the reception of Melville's Moby-Dick, therefore, is to open oneself to the charge of misapplication (the practice that Edward Said has appropriately called "traveling theory"). Nevertheless, Heidegger's thematization of the distinction between the theological (medieval/Protestant) and the anthropological (humanist or post-Enlightenment) moments of the discursive and political practices to which the metaphysical logos has been put—the distinction between the direct and indirect use of force in the practice of domination—is suggestive as a point of departure in the face of an American "critical" tradition (including its most recent New Historicist phase) that has insistently failed to examine the ontological sources of its own problematic. To think the history of the reception of Melville's text in terms of Heidegger's distinction is to locate it within the period in American cultural history that bore witness to the sublation of the theologos of American Puritanism into the anthropologos of the American "Republic." I mean the moment that precipitated supplementation of a visible center elsewhere that justified the New England theocracy and its pacification of "heresy" by violence, including the "diabolic" way of life of the native Americans (in this respect, see Melville's interrogation of "the metaphysics of Indian-hating" in The Confidence-Man), by an invisible center elsewhere that, structured largely on the Roman model, positively enabled a national consensus, specifically, a cultural self-representation that legitimated the imperial practice of Manifest Destiny.


Excerpted from The Errant Art of Moby-Dick by William V. Spanos. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author

William V. Spanos is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the State University of New York, Binghamton. He is the founding editor of boundary 2 and the author of many books, including The End of Education and Heidegger and Criticism.

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