“Moby Dick, as a medium of information, cannot be found fault with.”
— Anonymous Reviewer, 1851.
BORN IN NEW YORK on August 1, 1819, Herman Melville achieved limited notoriety during his lifetime. After the financial success of his first two novels, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), subsequent writings were met with mixed, sometimes scathing reviews. The 1851 whaling epic, Moby-Dick; or, the Whale was no exception. While praised by a select few critics as an instant classic, Moby-Dick was seen by many as tedious, verbose, even profane. It was not until the 1910s and ’20s — three decades after Melville’s death in 1891 — that a “Melville Revival” swept the literary world, leading to reappraisals of his work and a flurry of new interest.
Since this rediscovery, Melville’s seafaring masterpiece has provided a source of inspiration for numerous philosophers and literary theorists, among them Carl Schmitt, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari. In recent years, a group of media theorists, cultural historians, and literary scholars in Germany have been particularly drawn to Melville’s white whale, focusing on Moby-Dick’s ongoing relevance for information theory, law, rhetoric, animal studies, and other topics. Led by Bernhard Siegert, Markus Krajewski, and Harun Maye, the group holds yearly conferences devoted to Moby-Dick and publishes an ongoing chapter-by-chapter commentary in the German literary journal, Die Neue Rundschau.
This year’s meeting took place on July 12–13 in Bad Homburg. For Melville’s 200th birthday, I sat down with Siegert, Krajewski, and Maye to discuss the project.
BRYAN NORTON: Professor Siegert, Professor Krajewski, Dr. Maye — I’m thrilled to have you join me for this interview. I would first like to hear about the origins of the group and its format, which is very unique. Each of the participants provides commentary, about half an hour talk, on a chapter of their choosing from Moby-Dick. No titles. No introductions. Each chapter is simply treated as its own unit. How did this all get started?
HARUN MAYE: Well for the group itself you might say there are two origin myths.
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: Yes, Harun and I thought, well, we have some friends who are very good readers, so let’s form a reading group, just for pleasure. The plan was to go away together for a weekend. Stefan Heidenreich had a cottage at the Kyffhäuser, which would have been ideal. However, this retreat never happened, but we held on to this idea. The only thing missing was a suitable text. Moby-Dick came to our mind very early. Which other text had so much to offer in terms of modernity, classical subjects, and those perpetual questions at the same time?
BERNHARD SIEGERT: And then the second point of origin was a conversation I had in my office with Markus. We were just sitting there talking about conferences we would love to go to and why we hated the ones we got invited to. We started speculating about the best way of doing a conference. We would have friends around and for two days just talk about a novel that everybody finds exciting and enjoys reading. We started to think about what kind of novel that would be. We agreed almost from the start there was only one novel this could be — Moby-Dick.
BRYAN NORTON: And why Moby-Dick? Why not another encyclopedic novel, like Gravity’s Rainbow?
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: Well, Pynchon was out of the question since it was already at the time the topic of Friedrich Kittler’s Oberseminar. We thought something like the Bible would have been a bit too big. So it was a very brief discussion over what obvious choices remained.
BERNHARD SIEGERT: There was a good opportunity to begin this in 2006. Joseph Vogl was organizing a huge conference on Political Zoology that year in Weimar. We suggested putting on a preconference as a sort of warm-up. He was very fond of this idea. The first meeting happened the day before Joseph’s conference.
BRYAN NORTON: How did this become an annual event?
BERNHARD SIEGERT: We skipped the next year in 2007. But at the end of the first workshop so many people said this was so great that we just had to do it again. The second meeting was organized in 2008 by Friedrich Balke in Cologne.
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: We thought, there are only about 115 chapters left, so let’s do the whole thing!
BRYAN NORTON: And was the format already decided at this point? The commentary for each individual chapter?
BERNHARD SIEGERT: Yes, we agreed from the beginning what the ideals were. No obligation to do all these things you normally do at a conference. No titles.
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: No introductions.
HARUN MAYE: And no publications!
BRYAN NORTON: So, the idea was just to have each participant select a chapter and see what they make of it. How did the publications come about?
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: After three or four years, we had this whole collection of commentaries. We saw that the commentaries weren’t all that bad. The pressure was growing to do something with them.
BERNHARD SIEGERT: We thought it would be awful for everyone to start publishing these commentaries here and there in a disorganized way. First, we discussed websites.
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: But we decided that this would be too precious to just put online. And we didn’t want to maintain a website. We were trying to decide what to do with the commentaries when in 2011 I was in Frankfurt for the 125th anniversary celebration of the Fischer Verlag. With the name Fischer Verlag there is this metaphor of getting something from the ocean, which was great. I ran into a friend of mine, Alexander Roesler, who is an editor at the Neue Rundschau. I explained the project to Alexander, and he immediately said let’s do it!
BERNHARD SIEGERT: First we did a special issue in 2012 for the Neue Rundschau.
HARUN MAYE: And now we have three commentaries in each issue, four times a year.
BRYAN NORTON: The series is titled Moby-Dick: Ein historisch-spekulativer Kommentar. What exactly is this historical-speculative methodology?
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: From the outset, we knew we did not want to go into philological criticism. We began wondering what a good term might be for our approach. I recall that we started with Dalí and his method of speculative paranoia.
BERNHARD SIEGERT: The idea was to look for secret relations in the texture of the text which only a paranoid could see. You are allowed to make connections that have nothing to do with each other upon first glance. This has also a certain kind of arbitrariness that Nietzsche uses when he is doing genealogy. You start at this arbitrary point in the present and jump backward in an unexpected way.
HARUN MAYE: The term speculative historical reading came out later as a result of this practice.
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: Right. And the approach was also not to be loaded with existing scholarship. The idea was to have fresh meetings, readings from scratch, you could say.
BRYAN NORTON: Of course, many philosophers and theorists had already written on the novel. Carl Schmitt’s Land and Sea. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari write on Ahab’s becoming whale in A Thousand Plateaus. Is there a way of understanding your commentary as participating in these conversations?
BERNHARD SIEGERT: I think so. Juridical questions were very present at the outset. Readings of Carl Schmitt’s Land und Meer. And it really is no surprise that the first chapters we read were those like “Chapter 89: Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish,” those dealing with sovereignty — the question of: “To whom belongs the whale?”
BRYAN NORTON: And does media theory fit in anywhere?
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: You could also say that media theory is the disciplinary framing we all share.
HARUN MAYE: Yes, in Germany you have the field of media theory that reaches back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, which in the United States became a discussion later on with the reception of Friedrich Kittler. When we began this group in 2006 it wasn’t really a big thing to do “media theory” any more. There no longer was the need to directly frame a research topic this way. It was just common sense that this was what all of the group members were doing at the time.
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: We all have backgrounds in this field, so it was quite obvious that we didn’t need to go into all of these questions of defining media. We were free to work with other figures of thinking here.
BERNHARD SIEGERT: And in addition to this, I think members of the group also experienced the prehistory of German media theory. We were active in academia before this thing was called “media theory.” All this became important for our reading of Moby-Dick. Lacanian psychoanalysis always comes up in our reading. Deleuze. Foucault. What in the United States is called French theory or poststructuralism. It is impossible to think of German media theory without this conceptual framework, so in this way I would say German media theory is somewhere in our Moby-Dick project. But it isn’t in this canonical way where you say now that we have read McLuhan we will apply it. Actually, we never really refer to McLuhan in the group.
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: Well in the beginning Matthias Bickenbach did refer to him in the St. Elmo’s Fire chapter.
BERNHARD SIEGERT: And the try-works. He interpreted the fire in the furnaces as McLuhan’s TV.
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: Yes. Very historically speculative, emphasis on the speculative.
HARUN MAYE: Friedrich Kittler is also completely present, indirectly, through Lacan, Derrida, and so forth. Although we aren’t doing Kittler Studies, per se, the group really sharpens one’s attention to aspects of media theory like instruments, paper, and the history of science that are so central to the novel. Certain objects take on their own sense of agency. And the ocean of course is the most central medium in the novel!
BERNHARD SIEGERT: The ship, too, the Pequod. We wanted to do a close reading of the ship itself as an object in its own right, as an artifact rather than just a metaphor.
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: And the chart.
BERNHARD SIEGERT: Yes, we take these media that appear in the novel very seriously, trying to reconstruct their history in great detail. You need the work of an oceanographer like Matthew Fontaine Maury, for instance, to read “Chapter 44: The Chart,” in order to go into this history of mapmaking, chart-making, oceanography in the 19th century. In a way, this truly is a classical exercise in German media theory — combining Foucault with archival work and the history of science.
BRYAN NORTON: What is interesting about that chapter as well is the presence of paper. Ahab seems to disregard many of his nautical instruments in favor of the medium.
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: Right. And this is because of the statistical knowledge he gains from the chart. Ahab always adds data about where he spots whales, which he overlaps with the territory of the ocean. He then knows where to follow the season-on-the-line, as it is called.
BRYAN NORTON: And you don’t just have the ship alone out to sea. It exists itself on a sort of information network.
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: Of course! The Pequod encounters other ships and Ahab asks if they have seen the whale, where and when it was last spotted. The chart is updated constantly.
BERNHARD SIEGERT: In this way, it is more or less like Moby, the white whale himself. He exists as a sort of archive of encounters. He has harpoons and scars all across his body.
HARUN MAYE: Reading and writing are omnipresent too. Questions of readability and unreadability of Ahab, of the whale, the ship, and of whiteness in general. These are central for Melville.
BERNHARD SIEGERT: I think that is what made “Chapter 99: The Doubloon” such a highly sought-after chapter for commentary. This chapter is an entire exercise in interpretation, how to read simultaneously in a literal, allegorical, metaphorical sense and so on. The novel itself contains within itself an interpretation of interpretation.
HARUN MAYE: And since this hermeneutical work has already been done over and over again, we focused more on materiality, media history, and on material practices of reading and writing in the novel. It wasn’t just about meaning and interpretation for us.
BERNHARD SIEGERT: Yes. We had this broader perspective of cultural techniques, the history of sciences like zoology, sources on whales and whaling. We were able to discover Melville’s reflections on reading in the novel where we would never have expected them. In “Chapter 68: The Blanket,” for example, practically the entire skin of the whale appears as a conglomerate of media and sub-media that helps you to read.
BRYAN NORTON: Right. In your commentary, you mention how part of the sperm whale’s skin is being used as a bookmarker by Ishmael. This whole feedback loop is uncovered between whaling and techniques of reading implicated in the novel.
BERNHARD SIEGERT: Exactly.
BRYAN NORTON: The group has been meeting now for nearly 14 years straight. What remains to be done for the commentary?
HARUN MAYE: We have eight chapters remaining, I think, plus the prologue and epilogue.
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: When we finish, there will be a print-on-demand version and a complete collection in a single volume.
HARUN MAYE: We are also thinking about publishing a translation in English.
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: We are not officially in negotiations just yet, but some big publishing houses have already displayed interest.
BRYAN NORTON: And where will the remaining meetings take place?
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: Burkhardt Wolf mentioned he may host the next meeting in Vienna.
HARUN MAYE: And for a final meeting we are talking about going to the Mystic Seaport — Nantucket itself.
MARKUS KRAJEWSKI: We want our last meeting as a group to be on the only whaling ship still afloat — the Charles W. Morgan.
BERNHARD SIEGERT: Which is also the sister ship of the Acushnet, on which Melville sailed. So if you are on board that ship, you would know how Melville himself would have sailed.
BRYAN NORTON: Well, I can’t think of a better way for the project to end. Professors Siegert, Krajewski, Dr. Maye, thank you very much for your time.
Bryan Norton is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania. He works in media studies, the history of science, and German literature and philosophy.