"Cetology," Ethnology, and the Kingdom of Whales: Countercultural Critique of the Types of Mankind in Moby-Dick

By Ploesch, Patricia | Melville Society Extracts, July 2003 | Go to article overview

"Cetology," Ethnology, and the Kingdom of Whales: Countercultural Critique of the Types of Mankind in Moby-Dick


Ploesch, Patricia, Melville Society Extracts


The "Cetology" chapter in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick critiques and subverts the intentions of ethnological "science," evidenced in tracts like Josiah Nott's, The Types of Mainland. Types offers a catalogue and hierarchy of human races, and develops the "scientific" assertion that character is infallibly consistent with race. The welding of character to race and its function in 19th century racial "science" is a continued development of the term "transparency," or, the assumption that one's character could be "read" with ease by examining one's exterior. "Transparency" was a foundational concept in 19th century American cultural, racial, and economic constructions, and its use pervaded popular culture journals and "scientific" studies. "Transparency," reinforced in Types of Mankind and refuted in the "Cetology" chapter in Moby Dick, evidences the drive toward what Dana Nelson calls white "national manhood," or, white male hegemony. "Transparency" thereby became a tool in defining one's role in society as either subject to, or propagator of, racial hegemony.

This paper argues that the racial implication of "transparency" and its role in white male hegemony serves as the springboard for Melville's counter-cultural argument in the "Cetology" chapter. …

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