Whales, Workers, & the Uncanny Love of Oil Extraction

In his blog, Jason Haslam (Department of English, Dalhousie University) considers the pre-history of petroculture in the whaling industry and specifically the interrogation of the oil-extraction industry in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). Melville’s novel, Haslam shows, asks important questions about the human relationships, and costs, of the industry on terms that resonate with transformations in the oil industry today.

It’s likely a poor starting place for a blog entry to say fossil fuels and whale oil are, well, different….  The differences between the two substances—one from the fossilized remains of long dead animals, one removed from a recently living animal hunted for this purpose—are obvious, as is the variation in the uses of the two products.  But, still, just as the world we live in is permeated by petroleum, the mid-nineteenth century was slick with whale. Petroleum, as both industry and environmentalists are quick to point out, infuses every aspect of daily life, the world over, albeit in ways that reflect the different purchasing and social power of various communities.  It’s used as a fuel, yes, but it’s also used both directly and indirectly in the manufacture of plastic, foodstuffs, roads, cosmetics, and so on.  Whale oil, likewise, was in the nineteenth century used primarily as fuel for lighting (in the form of candles and lamps, including lighthouses) and as lubricant for machinery (though not as fuel for said machines); other parts of various whale species, though, were used in fashion and other domestic necessities, luxuries, and food. D. Graham Burnett notes that “English schoolboys, quite unknowing, spread a thickness of pulped Bryde’s whale on their muffins” (“Whaling,” in Fueling Culture 375). (Not to spread this on too thick [cough], but whale-oil margarine was a major industry well into the twentieth century, as Sarah Laskow writes: “By 1935, 84 percent of the world’s whale oil was going directly into margarine. Unilever bought up all the whale oil that Norway produced, for instance, and sent it directly to its factories in Germany.”)

There are other, more direct connections between whale oil and petroleum production, as well: Laura Saunders writes in Forbes that as the American whaling industry started to collapse—from a combination of scarcity and the introduction of kerosene—capital moved to other industries, including petroleum itself; both Standard Oil and General Motors owe at least part of their origin to whaling corporations and their financial resources.

So while a direct comparison of whale oil and its production to petroleum would be foolhardy at best, still one can see the beginnings of an oil culture in whaling that could be—and was—adapted to a society built on fossil fuels.  While we may not be slathering petroleum on our muffins, it is used it to make food dye—after people stopped using coal tar for that, anyway.  (Hungry yet?)

But—English major that I am, and following such scholars as Heidi Scott—I think that where whaling and the fossil fuel industry can really be compared is at the level of rhetoric.  And that’s where Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick barges into the discussion.  The rhetoric of energy resources is shared between the petroleum and whaling industries, and Melville’s novel is one way to understand this connection, as Scott argues in her chapter “Whale Oil Culture, Consumerism, and Modern Conservation.”  Perhaps just as importantly, though, Moby-Dick shows some of the ways a culture can both be soaked in oil, but still start to move beyond an unquestionable reliance on that resource (one scholar even thinks the novel could provide a model for how we can go to Mars…). Just as whaling seemed “natural” and necessary to the nineteenth century, so too do fossil fuels to much of the contemporary world; but, the novel seems to say, society can—because it must—find ways past it, and if it doesn’t, then that society is sunk.  The novel seems to say that one way to think beyond oil is to look to the interpersonal and social relations built within an industry or energy culture, and see how they can exceed that existence.

Most of the novel superficially shows the abundance of whales and whale oil as a resource. Ishmael, the narrator, easily dismisses worries about the potential scarcity or even extinction of whale species by overhunting, stating “we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality.”  As Scott memorably puts it in another piece, “The superabundance of pure whale oil is one of the majestic aspects of the whale ship, which glows like a Christmas tree on the open ocean” (71). Likewise, the abundance of whale oil, and the labour of its extraction, is the germ of economic prosperity:

New Bedford [. . .] is a land of oil, true enough: [. . .] nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. Whence came they? how planted upon this once scraggy scoria of a country? Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion, and your question will be answered. Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.

The abundance of whale oil fuels social prosperity, both literally and economically.


New Bedford at the turn of the twentieth century (from the Library of Congress; http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.02435)

But the novel also recognizes the physical limitations built into this system, limitations that deny the possibilities of endless growth.  The novel often focuses on how the gathering of whale oil seems to require more energy than it will eventually produce. The most well-known of these moments takes the form of Ishmael’s discussion of one of the main consumer products of whale oil: candles. Discussing the dangers of whaling, Ishmael admonishes the reader: “For God’s sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! not a gallon you burn, but at least one drop of man’s blood was spilled for it.” The novel provides a moral motivation for energy conservation: the cost of extracting that energy ethically—and even physically—outstrips the energy it generates.


Spermacetti candles, Otago Museum, NZ (photograph, Jason Haslam)

But there is hope for something new. Several relationships in the novel are presented in terms of what I’m calling “gothic energies,” like prophecies of doom, evil doubles, and horror-driven insanity. Most interesting in this light are Ishmael, the narrator, and Queequeg, the harpooner. They are paired through both gothic and romantic images: early in the novel, Ishmael wakes to find Queequeg’s arm around him, “in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.” This moment of connection—often read through the lens of queer studies and theory, of course—invokes in Ishmael an uncanny memory of death and childhood. As a child, Ishmael was once sent to bed for sixteen hours as punishment for climbing into a chimney—for entering into energy culture incorrectly, in other words, and disrupting it. He then fell into a fevered nightmare: “Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine. My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bed-side.” Ishmael then compares this gothic memory to his current situation: “Now, take away the awful fear, and my sensations at feeling the supernatural hand in mine were very similar, in their strangeness, to those which I experienced on waking up and seeing Queequeg’s pagan arm thrown round me.” Ishmael recognizes a new, uncanny social relationship that replaces the invisible hand of an energy-driven market with an intimate human connection that stands outside social norms.

What does this have to do with petroleum and energy extraction?  What I argue in the longer piece from which this blog post comes is that the personal relationships, the human networks, built within this oil-extraction industry cannot simply be ignored as society tries to move beyond oil. Ocean oil-extraction workers like Ishmael and Queequeg, and seaside oil towns like New Bedford, seem wholly defined by oil, and yet as communities, as people, they exceed that connection to oil. Closer to our own time, and moving from the shore inland, I always think of Kate Beaton’s Ducks in these terms; as she writes, “Ducks is about a lot of things, and among these, it is about environmental destruction in an environment that includes humans.”  Any change to that larger energy system will therefore necessarily need to happen within those human communities, and not be forced on them from outside.

Bringing this home, again, this Huffington Post article by Chris Arsenault cites Jennifer Turner, a former oil worker now finding jobs for people in renewables; she “believes the long-term outlook for renewables is more optimistic than for oil. ‘We just need to avoid excluding workers,’ she said.” The loves, lives, and literatures of people living with and in the oil industry must be seen as a necessary part of any, even small, transformation to it.  Moby-Dick transforms this resistance into a queer gothic resistance from within and against extraction culture. Ishmael and Queequeg’s embrace threatens the dominant energy order, even as that energy brought them together.


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