Graham Huggan, Colonialism, Culture, Whales: The Cetacean Quartet

Graham Huggan, Colonialism, Culture, Whales: The Cetacean Quartet (London: Bloomsbury, 2018) 130 + vxiii pp. $115.20 PDF + EPUB, $160 Hb. IBSN: 977-1-350-01089-5

Colonialism, Culture, Whales explores entanglements between whales and Western civilisation, selecting moments, individuals, and texts from different historical periods, to examine how cetacean representations are organised around recurring and new cultural narratives.

The book adopts a structure of four loosely-connected essays. They are broadly linked by shared themes of colonialism of different varieties, and by an interest in how whales as a material presence operate on culture, and vice versa. The effect of this approach is to lessen the grip of some of the conventions of an academic monograph that would govern a tighter argument across the whole. The essays are – purposely – exploratory and often speak to each other indirectly rather than being welded to the same argumentative or theoretical framework, reflected by the subtitle’s conceit of a ‘Cetacean Quartet’ that suggests a harmonised grouping of individual players. Conclusions can be tentative or leave open more questions than they resolve as each chapter meanders between different possible lenses on its topic. Narrative constructions vary and genres are blended; chapter 1 has a ‘Conclusion’, chapter 2 has an ‘Epilogue’, for example, while chapter 4 shifts between textual readings, theorising, personal reflection, and interpolates the author’s own diary entry of a whale-watching trip.

Does it work? Yes, if one accepts the book on its own terms. In the Preface, Huggan argues for the advantages of resisting ‘a committed line of argument’ in favour of a ‘critical mix’, while making no claim to have enacted that perfectly (p.x). He identifies his approach as ‘foraging’, as acts of ‘collecting, bringing things together, sustaining oneself, or at least sustaining one’s curiosity, from what one finds’ (p.xi), acknowledging that answers to the big questions of globalised culture are never definitive. This makes a good working description of Colonialism, Culture, Whales, even if it also makes the task of cleanly summarising the chapters a difficult one.

All this said, the order of the chapters is carefully chosen. Chapters 1 and 4 frame the rest of the ‘quartet’ with explorations of broad questions about eschatology and melancholia, which Huggan sees as recurring qualities of representations of whales, while chapter 2 and 3 offer closer readings of two contexts that, on the surface, temporally and culturally contrast greatly.

Chapter 1 pairs the novel Shallows (1985) by Tim Winton with the non-fiction text The Last Whale (2008) by Chris Pash, both linked to the legacies of Australian whaling. Shallows unpicks and reweaves a tapestry of whale representations in legend, yarn, history, and religion to challenge grand narratives of the past and tackle environmental questions of the present, while The Last Whale is a work of journalism about the final whale caught at the close of Albany’s whaling industry – a moment in environmentalism that helps mark Australia’s transformation into a leading anti-whaling nation. The ‘new whale’ that became culturally constructed thereafter, Huggan argues, takes on some additional symbolic and environmental meanings, but remains embedded in national and global concerns.

Chapter 2 dives further into the past to focus on the younger William Scoresby (1789-1857), the Arctic explorer and churchman both marginalised and exploited by British Admiralty but who has left lasting marks, on science as well as maps. Huggan emphasises that Scoresby’s religious faith underpinned rather than conflicted with his ‘unflinching professional dedication to improving the efficiency of methods for catching whales’, though his career predated the most intense phase of industrialised whaling (p.30). Huggan discusses Scoresby’s two-volume Account of the Arctic Regions (1820), a text that exploits readers’ expectations of voyage narratives to become a ‘literary vehicle for the presentation of factual information’ (p.40). Although the chapter is thin on close readings of Scoresby’s text itself, Huggan explores it for its narratives of whaling, masculinity, and the Arctic imaginary as well as natural history, all of which are bound up one way or another with imperial exercises of domination over sea, globe, and nature.

Chapter 3 zips forward again, this time to cetacean displays and the captive orca of SeaWorld and other marine parks. Controversies over the treatment and stressful experiences of whales in captivity alongside accidents leading to deaths of trainers spurred a number of campaigns for repatriating the animals to the wild and some high-profile productions such as the 2013 documentary Blackfish. Huggan examines the creation of celebrity, with the celebrity of killer whales like Tilikum and Keiko entwined with that of their human trainers and victims. Garnering extensive social media followings generated as much by the spectacle of violence as by ethical concern, the celebrity orca becomes for Huggan ‘an obscene object of desire for its followers’ (p.76). By working through varied examples of representations and uses not just of whales, but of specific kinds of whales (sperm, right, orca, humpback, blue) in different historical contexts, Huggan’s quartet expands conceptions of their cultural meanings.

The final essay dwells on the melancholic imaginary of whales, put to political use in László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance (1998), and filtered through a forensically-examined disintegrating whale body in Rebecca Giggs’ ‘Whale Fall’ (2015). ‘Whale Fall’ locates the decomposing whale within the descent dictated by the medium of the ocean, and Huggan lingers under the water to explore the cultural appeal of humpback whalesong, before returning to the surface activity of whalewatching and its brief glimpses of fins and tails. Whales, Huggan suggests, are melancholic because they offer reminders of an exploitative past, hint of an apocalyptic future, and represent profoundly othered realms ‘that we humans influence, but struggle – wilfully at times, involuntarily at others – to comprehend’ (p.106).

Huggan concludes that despite the tendency to project human feelings, concerns, and allegories onto whales, a better move is to recognise how unlike us they are, acknowledging alterity rather than claiming companionship. It’s not a new argument, but his closing call for ‘transforming the social and economic conditions that have historically governed our subordinating relationship with non-human animals’ rather than merely ‘saving the whale’ resonates with a number of environmental humanities perspectives. If sometimes overemphasising secondary material rather than primary analysis, the book’s interdisciplinary foraging brings history, fiction, science, politics, journalism, media, and theory to fascinating and sometimes remarkable effect and opens up the worlds of whales to new views; ultimately, the book prompts reflection not about the meaning or symbolism of ‘the’ whale, but about the multiplicity of whalehoods that share our past and present.

Emily Alder, Edinburgh Napier University