Michael Jonik, Herman Melville and the Politics of the Inhuman

Michael Jonik, Herman Melville and the Politics of the Inhuman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018) 276 pp. $80.00 ebook, £75.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781108420921

Inhumanity is a rich vein through which to mine the thought of Herman Melville. Michael Jonik’s Herman Melville and the Politics of the Inhuman follows this line through Melville’s work. To Jonik, ‘the inhuman’ means all the material, natural, organic, and inorganic forces that shape the world and human experience of it. It is a broad concept that more or less encompasses all that is ‘not human’ (quite a bit when studying Melville). However, Jonik does not merely follow the inhuman for inhumanity’s sake. He rather tracks this recurrent theme as a way to offer a new and vivid approach to Melville’s intellectual and creative processes. Herman Melville and the Politics of the Inhuman is an account of how Melville thinks through the inhuman forces in his characters, texts, and political contexts.

Through his inhuman lens, Jonik makes a wide range of interventions in Melville studies. He shows how focus on the inhuman necessitates a reconsideration of readings of Melville’s work by scholars including Branka Arsić, Sharon Cameron, C.L.R. James, Sianne Ngai, Charles Olson, Samuel Otter, and Hershel Parker. Jonik understands Melville’s characters as ‘conceptual personae’, following Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. As tools for thinking through conceptual and philosophical problems, Melville’s characters mingle with the other inhuman forces in his work, rather than act as realistic personalities. This approach offers an alternative to Sharon Cameron’s reading of Billy Budd. In his concluding ‘Coda’, Jonik shows how his conception of Melville’s characters ‘does not so much “erode” all distinctions as make legible a set of transindividual relations with inhuman forces’ (230). This depersonalized conception of Melville’s thought also informs Jonik’s account of the author’s composition process in his poetry: ‘The ekphrasis of landscape does not merely constitute a realistic attempt at describing these places but relies on a process of integrating and disintegrating source material into a tessellated mosaic of meaning’ (217). This ‘integrating’, ‘disintegrating’, and ‘tessellating’ approach to Melville’s work accounts not just for Melville’s characters and composition but also for the intellectual traditions with which he engages. As characters and texts become tessellating assemblages, so might branches of science and philosophy, like metaphysics, geology, and anthropology.

These wide-ranging interests develop over Jonik’s six chapters and one coda. Over these chapters, Jonik puts Melville into conversation with a variety of interlocutors. These range from Lewis Carroll’s geometry and Moby-Dick, geology and Pierre, Charles Darwin and ‘The Encantadas’, Shakespeare and The Confidence Man, and Schopenhauer’s influence on Melville’s late work Billy-Budd. Behind all these relations, Jonik is most concerned with the philosopher Spinoza’s enduring influence and inspiration to move Melville’s thought beyond, in Matthew Arnold’s words, ‘the popular philosophy, which explains all things by reference to man’ (qtd. in Jonik 3). For Jonik, Spinoza might be the most important thinker Melville never read. Rather, Melville encountered his thought in the work of thinkers like Arnold and Goethe as well as in reference materials like the Penny Cyclopedia for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (1833). While Jonik documents the meager textual evidence of Melville’s Spinozan encounters and Melville’s more ample mentions of Spinoza throughout his writings, perhaps more convincing is Jonik’s interpretation of the way Spinozan ideas and influences appear implicitly throughout Melville’s work from Moby-Dick onward. Jonik’s thorough reading provides a convincing account, if not of Melville’s Spinozan thought, at least of his Spinoz-ish thought, as concepts like Deus sive Natura (‘God, or Nature’— the Spinozan description of a natural God unfolding his actions alongside humanity) appear in Melville’s work with and without explicit citation.

I call Jonik’s account ‘convincing’ not without hesitation. It is certainly thorough and often inventive. In other moments, as in the chapters on Moby-Dick and Pierre, his argument feels rather like an overly complete catalogue of every conceivable instance of ‘inhumanity’ in each respective novel, ranging from tattoos to weather to rocks. These are certainly instances of Jonik’s subject, but these overdone chapters dilute Jonik’s conception of inhumanity rather than enrich it. If Melville’s inhumanities include both the turbulent vortex of a whale chase and the soft murmurs of rocks and stones, while requiring reference to non-Euclidean geometry as well as geology, they are certainly pervasive, but they also lose much of their use as conceptual and hermeneutic tools. On the other hand, Jonik’s chapters on ‘The Encantadas’ and The Confidence Man brilliantly focus on individual words — the neologisms ‘riotocracy’ and ‘misanthropology’, respectively — to show how Melville’s inhuman approach to these word-concepts flourishes into new understandings of inhumanity, Melville’s text, and that text’s historical and political context.

Take ‘riotocracy’: Amid the Darwinian naturalist sketches that populate Melville’s ‘The Encantadas’, Jonik turns to ‘Sketch Seventh: Charles’ Isle and the Dog-King’ as a meditation on ‘the daily struggle anywhere where new collectives strive for political representation’ (128). Melville’s short sketch follows a ‘Creole adventurer’, rewarded with rule over an island for his efforts in Peru’s revolution against Spain. The ruler establishes a paranoid Republic, armed with a guard of dogs, that soon ends in revolution, establishing a ‘permanent Riotocracy’. Jonik shows how Melville’s account of the Dog-King is a composite of many actual post-revolutionary figures. Melville treats human, political history in the same way he treats inhuman, natural history in other sketches in ‘The Encantadas’. Countering C.L.R. James’s reading of ‘The Encantadas’, which ‘encapsulates Melville’s vanquished faith in human progress’, Jonik finds potential in the permanent riotocracy’s counter-history to that of oppressive post-revolutionary scenarios that populate history books: ‘In its externality to the state, Melville’s permanent riotocracy invokes a figure of commonality opposed to the formation of this modernity’ (137-38).

A portion of this chapter on ‘The Encantadas’ had been previously published in A Political Companion to Herman Melville as ‘Melville’s Permanent Riotocracy’ (2013), but collected here, Jonik’s reading of riotocracy is one piece in a larger argument about literature’s and fiction’s potential to rethink and reimagine historical, political, and scientific formations. This thrust does not come from Melville’s Spinozism or any of the other interlocutors that Jonik identifies in his book, but rather from the author’s unique Melvilleanism. Herman Melville and the Politics of the Inhuman brilliantly captures many of these valuable strains in Melville’s work, and it is most useful—and most pleasurable to think with—when it does so.

Adam Fales, University of Chicago