Cetology Now: A Sketch for the Twenty-First Century

By Helmreich, Stefan | Melville Society Extracts, July 2005 | Go to article overview

Cetology Now: A Sketch for the Twenty-First Century


Helmreich, Stefan, Melville Society Extracts


In his "Cetology" chapter in Moby-Dick, Melville, through the narrative voice of Ishmael, seeks to take the measure of whales of all sizes and dispositions. Tacking away from the ready book-learning categories of Cuvier and Linnaeus and the emergent conventions of biology, Ishmael names the whale a fish, not a mammal. In line with popular belief in the mid-nineteenth century, he submits that the whale is "a spouting fish with a horizontal tail" (NN MD 137). The classification that follows, dividing whales into types, swerves still further from the ordered grids of natural science, even as it rests upon the encyclopedic impulse that organizes many anatomical typologies of Melville's day (1): "It is some systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera that I would now fain put before you. Yet it is no easy task. The classification of the constituents of a chaos, nothing less is here essayed" (134). Melville proceeds, then, to a classification of whales neither by family, structure, nor behavior, but rather by books: "According to magnitude I divide the whale into three primary BOOKS." These are "I. THE FOLIO WHALE; II. the OCTAVO WHALE; III. the DUODECIMO WHALE. As the type of the FOLIO I present the Sperm Whale; of the OCTAVO, the Grampus; of the DUODECIMO, the Porpoise" (137). The three divisions thus class whales according their proportion, measuring them by analogy to sheets of paper folded in two, eight, and twelve. Melville satirizes the very idea that whales can be contained in books, can be put to paper. His Ishmael takes the most material, tangible feature of books--their size--and wraps the life of these uncontainable fish in this literal dimension.

If one were to return to the classification of whales now, to a twenty-first-century cetology, to the problem of mapping the terrible arc of today's cetaceans' trajectory toward diminution, disappearance, and even, perhaps, species-death, what schemes might suggest themselves? I submit that refusing the outlines of common sentiment about whales and actually embracing the cutting-edge idioms of biology--biotech, genomics, and bioinformatics--that is, to some extent reversing Melville's strategy--might afford the most unruly and revelatory classification. More, these latest languages can, I think, help us sound (or see, depending on your sensory preference) the distributed ways in which the disquieting deaths of contemporary whales are being gathered into representation. Beginning from a biology now reformatted by the sciences of genetics and information databasing, and drawing upon media techniques more modern than Melville's books, I propose that one could divide today's whales according to three different modes of representation, or FORMATS: I. THE ANALOG WHALE, II. THE DIGITAL WHALE; III. THE SIMULATED WHALE.

THE ANALOG WHALE: A whale of the waves, rising though mostly falling.

As the type of the ANALOG, consider the whale fall. A whale fall is the sunken carcass of a whale, which in its deep death can give rise to a rambunctious ecology all its own. Whale falls appeared in a particularly phantasmatic format when they were first discovered in 1993, appearing to the analog soundings of U.S. Navy SONAR as wraitlalike outlines reminiscent of submarines. SONAR, or sound navigation ranging, is an appropriately analog form of representation for this fluid, decaying figure. A whale fall delivers a dose of nutrients to the bottom of the sea far more potent than the steady fall of "marine snow," small bits of organic detritus that continually drift down to the lightless world of the deep. A whale fall is given its first going over by scavengers such as fish and sharks, after which creatures like invertebrate worms settle on its bones, often digging roots into the marrow for minerals. Such minerals are processed by microorganisms that take up residence inside the cells of these busy worms. According to Dr. Craig Smith of the University of Hawaii, the decomposition of whalebone lipids in combination with seawater sulfate reduction can produce sulfides off of which the endosymbiotic microbes residing within worms can thrive. …

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