Consumption for the Common Good? Commodity Biography Film in an Age of Postconsumerism
In bourgeois societies the economic fictio juris prevails, that every one, as a buyer, possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of commodities.
— Karl Marx,Capital
It is a matter of great astonishment that the consideration of the habits of so interesting, and, in a commercial point of view, of so important an animal [as the Sperm Whale] should have been entirely neglected, or should have excited so little curiosity among the numerous, and many of them competent, observers, that of late years must have possessed the most abundant and the most convenient opportunities of witnessing their habitudes.
— Thomas Beale, History of the Sperm Whale, quoted in Moby-Dick
Taken together, the remarks of Karl Marx and Thomas Beale quoted above suggest that both consumers and producers should know a lot about commodities and where they come from, but neither actually do. Herman Melville quotes Beale in the prefatory “Extracts” chapter of Moby-Dick, one of several discursive chapters in which Melville’s own encyclopedic knowledge of whales and whaling — gathered through both reading and observation — overtakes the narrative thrust of his fiction. What meaning can be found in a whale is one question that drives the novel, and Melville is canny about the possible homologies between whales and books. In terms of present-day concerns, particularly significant is the moment when the whaler-narrator Ishmael brings home to readers (who consume whale oil in order to consume books) this bit of knowledge about whaling: “Upon one particular voyage which I made to the Pacific, among many others we spoke thirty different ships [sic], every one of which had had a death by a whale, some of them more than one, and three that had each lost a boat’s crew. For God’s sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! Not a gallon you burn, but at least one man’s blood was spilled for it.”1 For Ishmael, the exchange of blood for oil is an unfortunate necessity that demands mindful consumption, rather than a moral horror that necessitates a different geopolitics, as with the No Blood for Oil slogan inspired by the Gulf wars. For his own part, Melville seems not to have heeded this call to parsimony in calculating the ratios among gallons of ink, oil, and blood spilled for the sake of Moby-Dick.
Moby-Dick would have been impossible to write or decipher in the absence of a global — or at least oceanic/littoral — capitalism. Tracing the “devious zig-zag world-circle of the Pequod’s circumnavigating wake” (167), Melville pushes the novel form to its very limits, in order to tell a tale of whaling, a global industry that he posits explicitly as the vanguard of imperialism’s maps, markets, and missionaries: “Ah, the world! Oh, the world!” (92), Ishmael exclaims as he remarks on whaling’s largely unwritten history. “Ah, the whale! Oh, the whale!” is the novel’s implicit alternating refrain, and one version of the relationship between world and whale is captured in the image of the Pequod, bedecked in whale ivory and bone, as a “cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies” (59). Captain Ahab’s “barbaric white leg,” the whalebone prosthesis he adopted after having been “dismasted” along with his ship (103), echoes this murderous transumption and incorporation of a vanquished antagonist. Described as “cannibal” and “barbaric,” on the wrong side of the civilization binary, these expropriations of whales’ body parts are a kind of reverse totemism, pledging enmity rather than affiliation. We might even call them fetishistic, a variant on the process of reduction by which, “however peculiar . . . any chance whale may be, they soon put an end to his peculiarities by killing him, and boiling him down into a peculiarly valuable oil” (170).
Moby-Dick peers into the mist and mystery of the commodity fetish, as it restores to view not only the human social relations that underwrite a cask of whale oil but also the utter, perhaps even metaphysical singularity of one whale whose peculiarities cannot possibly be boiled off when he is literally rendered into a commodity, however peculiar (or, as Marx might say, “very queer”) its value may be.2 Indeed, the novel’s title bears the name of the whale rather than the names of the men whose blood was spilled for it: unlike whale oil, Moby- Dick’s value as a cultural commodity depends precisely on the singularity of its namesake. In this respect, Moby-Dick differs significantly from a novel like Heart of Darkness, which tallies the costs of the ivory trade in terms that also broach the metaphysical but has not a word to say about elephants. For that, we must let the commodity do the talking.
Could ivory tusks themselves speak, what would they say? As if rewriting Marx’s scenario from the “Commodities” chapter of volume 1 of Capital, the late-nineteenth- century ivory tusks carved on the Loango coast of west-central Africa seem to speak not of “our natural intercourse as commodities,” where “in the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange-values,” as Marx ventriloquizes, but rather of the centuries-long, brutal, and in many ways unnatural history of European trade in which human beings, elephants, palm trees, and other flora were reduced to nothing but exchange-values.3 Relief-carved in an ascending spiral on the tusks are images of human and animal figures, in which the violence of the African/European trade in palm wine and palm oil, rubber, ivory, and slaves is on full view. Images of chained gangs of slaves and forced laborers insist on a continuity among these forms of trade, despite the official European suppression of the slave trade and its ostensible replacement (or even redemption) by a “legitimate” trade in nonhuman products. The cultural and social effects of African and European encounters are legible in images of Africans in European dress. Elephants, elephant hunts, and human porters bearing ivory tusks are depicted in these narratives, in which the commodity tells its story, inscribed on its very body.
It is, of course, not precisely the ivory or the elephants that tell their own story; rather, it is the ivory carvers of the Loango coastal region for whom the tusks are the medium on which the history of Euro-African trade can be inscribed, in a reversal of the reverse totemism in Moby-Dick.4 What is remarkable, however, is the audience to whom the tusks and the carvers spoke: the Loango tusks were commissioned by and produced for European traders, as souvenirs of their African sojourns.5 The tusks served as mnemonic devices that could supplement the tales with which returned traders would regale family and friends.6 They were something like an elite version of the nineteenth-century stereoscope, or the twentieth-century View-Master, which fostered the dissemination of mass- produced photographic images of exotic places; here, however, the images were inscribed by local artists onto a medium of trade itself, and the increasing scarcity of ivory in the late nineteenth century bears witness to that trade’s rapacity. And yet the knowledge inscribed onto the tusks does not seem to have much to do with the knowledge read off of them; we can only surmise that the carvers’ sly incivility in depicting some of the horrors of trade with Europeans might have been read by their intended audience under the sign of adventure, or along the lines of the unfortunate necessity that Ishmael sees in the human blood distilled in whale oil, or, perhaps, as Marx’s “natural intercourse” between commodities. (Although if anyone could be expected to know that “commodities cannot go to market and make exchanges of their own account,” as Marx writes, it would be “their guardians,” the traders themselves.)7
Marx’s insight is that the commodity fetish remains under its own thrall; could they speak, he implies, commodities would not necessarily tell a defetishizing truth. They are as “in love with money” as anyone else.8 Or, as we have seen with Moby-Dick and the Loango tusks, knowledge about the human and animal suffering obscured by the mystique of the commodity does not necessarily interrupt their exchange; indeed, in the case of the tusks, trade depends precisely on the exchange of such knowledge, which, nonetheless, may not have the same meaning on either side of the exchange. The art historian Zoë S. Strother has suggested that carved figures on the tusks should be read not as a continuous narrative, along the spiral, but rather according to a discontinuous logic of juxtaposition, along the vertical axis: the most skilled carvers, she argues, were able to align these juxtapositions in particularly meaningful ways, and the large tusks are too unwieldy to have been intended to be viewed by moving (around) them.9 Assuming for a moment that Strother’s argument is valid, it nonetheless assumes a tension analogous to the one I have described: that is, a tension between a narrative history of violent exploitation that the carvers inscribed as they worked their way around the spiral and the juxtapositions of images, abstracted from this history, that are available to the stationary viewer.10 In this sense, the problem of viewing the tusks could be said to approximate the consumer’s predicament: limited knowledge of the commodity, even when its story is writ large on its surface.
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As always, but especially here, profound thanks are due to Joey Slaughter.
- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851; repr., London: Wordsworth, 1993), 171.
- Karl Marx, Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, 3 vols., trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (New York: International, 1967), 1:71.
- Marx, Capital, 1:83.
- Whereas the Loango tusks bear the narrative of the history of which they are a part, the whale parts on Moby-Dick’s Pequod are “trophies” that not only begin to turn the ship into a whale but also are implied to have some relation to narrative and the ship’s own history. The Pequod’s “quaintness of both material and device” is described in terms of the decorative, representational aesthetic of the grotesque and compared favorably to the bedstead upon which a medieval Icelandic hero carved images of his exploits (Melville, Moby-Dick, 59).
- In an earlier guise, the tusks actually did speak: art historians surmise that the tusks carved for Europeans evolved out of an earlier practice of carving tusks as oliphants, side-blown horns with holes carved for use in Kongo royal courts. Nichole Bridges, “Kongo Ivories,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/kong/hd_kong.htm (accessed April 2, 2011).
- Bridges, “Kongo Ivories.”
- Marx, Capital, 1:84.
- Marx, Capital, 1:107.
- Zoë S. Strother, “Dancing on the Knife of Power: Comedy, Narcissism, and Subversion in the Portrayals of Europeans and Americans by Central Africans,” in Nii O. Quarcoopome, ed., Through African Eyes: The European in African Art, 1500 to Present (Detroit: Detroit Institute of the Arts, 2010), 52.
- My own view is that both modes of reading are available; the syntagmatic, narrative relationship among the figures along the spiral seems primary to the paradigmatic/juxtaposed relationship along the vertical axis, even if, from a single vantage point, the narrative can be read only in fragments. That Strother’s thesis is not universally accepted by art historians is evident in the National Museum of African Art’s title for an online exhibit of a Loango tusk: A Spiral of History. See africa .si.edu/exhibits/loango/ltusk.htm (accessed April 2, 2011).