Tag Archives: US History

Clipping Bears Ears

The recent demotion of Bear’s Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante as national monuments pose risk of a deepening widespread and almost inevitable alienation from public lands.  The tenuous status of public lands was apparent in the mandate of protection after intense lobbying of the American Petroleum Institute and other players in the energy industry to cut the limits of National Monuments across the United States, in ways that stand to redefined American West.  And even as our so-called President touts his relation to the common people, apart from the political class, the proprietary relation to public lands that he seeks to instill by removing protected lands of national monuments like Bears Ears stands sadly at odds with the longstanding image of the identification with the legends of the white man in the open space of the American west’s sun-drenched outdoors, whose landscape was open to the grit of white, male conquest of an empty space–although the decision to remove Bears Ears from the list of protected lands suggests an abandonment of that image of the heroic cowboy, replaced by the disillusioned world-weary post-industrialist capitalist character we seem to have as American President.

 

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For Trump has definitively moved away from that imaginary, and the image of the open frontier, or of this land is your land, this land is my land, into a vision where the very same land is now poised to be opened to mineral extraction and prospecting, reducing the area once identified with the West to an area defined by the priority of industrial claims, and transforming it to a terrain inviting the colonization by extractive industries.  With his pursed lips, and evasive eyes, turning his back on a monumental landscape of the West, President Trump appears oblivious the destruction of space to occur across the national monuments opened to prospective mining, extraction of resources, and mineral industries, as if to deny their history, and allow the big rigs of extractive industries to enter to repossess those areas they have claimed on the map.

The preservation of a national monument that would rejoin fragmentary Indian Lands, indeed, was the strategic scope of the declaration of the two regions as part of our protected national heritage, in an attentive to remove previously protected lands from mineral prospecting in southern Utah, with the aim to improving the local economy and attract investment to the state now represented by Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, who have both advocated the proposal to open the region to prospectors, with far less concern for its future of the country–responding to heavy lobbying by uranium mining company Energy Fuels Resources, which provoked a widely criticized Interior Department review, Trump issued executive orders that shrunk the monument to newly reduced boundaries.  For Hatch, eagerly labeling the designation of the national monuments as “unjustified federal land grabs,” evoking the increasingly militant anti-federal lands movement, particularly strong in Utah, who act as if the government had hidden interests in staking claims to a territories form wildlife refuges, conservation areas, national parks, or national monuments, summons a misguided anti-government credo as a basis for ending public lands.

 


Protection of National Monument of Bears Ears would expand claims to native lands in Southern Utah/Joe Burgess for New York Times

 

In replacing a sense of “goods” for the nation worthy of protection by the federal government–the purpose of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which expanded executive ability to conserve areas for preservation of their historical or scientific interest–to a vision of the executive asfacilitating abilities for exploitation of national space, and ensuring energy extraction.

The result is to threaten fragile material evidence of the region’s prehistoric inhabitation in a site recently put off-limits to oil and gas exploration on account of its use value to extractive industries, contesting the inherent value of preserving an area that has been considered among the most “endangered” historical sites in America.

 

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The rewriting of what constitutes a national monument is quite a sense of a sharp change in history, marked by an inevitable separation of the landscape from the past.  The shift of Bears Ears from a site worthy of conservation,seems definitively erased as the revelation of the minerals, oil, and gas that lie beneath the ground within the earlier boundaries of the former National Monument.  The possibilities of extraction had been mapped in surveys of the mineral resources of the region, which focus not on the delicate nature of its environment; the map of minerals ignores sacred remains lying on the surface in its boundaries, and foreground them, rather than the delicate ecosystem of animals and pure water.  Indeed, its pollution would irreparably compromise the region, and replace the reasons cited for its historical and cultural value to its exchange value.

Are we in danger of mipmapping not only our national patrimony, but future?  It is almost as if Trump is following a new map, provided by the extractive industries with which he has thrown in his lot.  And in place of preserving individual sites of antiquity, this map shifts from the above-the-ground complex ecosystem and archeological ruins previously cited as warranting protection for future generations and for the nation:  what was a “good” for the nation is in the course of being redefined, as the underground “goods” able to be extracted displace those lying on the surface of a bioregion of southeastern Utah currently in danger of being compromised–even as the newest national monument in the intermountain desert protected by Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition largely in recognition of widespread evidence of its historic inhabitation.  While Trump argues at his own tribal rallies, exultantly insisting “we’re into [clean air and water” also, folks–but you don’t have to turn off all business!” even as the EPA rolls back clean air and water rules, the absence of attention to environmental preservation in the national monument is striking and mind boggling, if not a relinquishing of duty.

By revoking the region’s status as a national monument, and reducing the protected area to almost 80 percent of the current Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument by 45 percent, Trump has divided Bears Ears into two smaller regions, to allow access to the red, mineral-rich areas, in particular, following on the recommendations of his Interior Secretary drastically to shift the status of a considerable range of national monuments that would include the historic mesas.

 

 

The new geography of the national monument suggests a vision that is stubbornly and insistently reduced to mineral resources, flattening the historical value of the region and replacing any sense of its place by mapping it at a dangerous remove, and foregrounding the value of its industrial resources above its landscape.  Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History could not see the destruction of the open spaces of lands until after they have occurred, of course, at which point they lie at the feet of the Angelus Novus, who is propelled forward in time, seeing only the wreckage at his feet; but the rewriting of the material relation to the land–and the symbolic relation to the land–constitute a broad remapping of the place of the west and western lands within our minds.  If labor was the exploitation of nature for Benjamin, the exploitation of nature rests both on material labor, but the remapping of the landscape we once saw as part of historical memory as a nation to a material resource, destined to be opened to a growing energy market, and be converted into petroleum and gas.  Trump has, in short, turned his back on any romantic concept of the open spaces of the west, with some uncertainty, as he seems to take a step into an unknown future of open access to energy resources mapped as lying under these once hallowed grounds, which stand to become transformed into an industrialized landscape, and changed beyond recognition, without a sense of what we have lost.

We are in danger of losing any sense of the picture on the ground.  The map of resources seems to compromise the map of the land by local inhabitants, or indeed the picture of the region on the ground of a lived landscape, filled with rich traces, and freshwater streams, that has long held status as a sacred site in our national imaginary as a frontier.

 

Wlderness Photography Bears Ears

 

The accelerated arrival of an entirely new relation to the land, as extractive industries that has been used to demote Bears Ears from a nationoal monument stands to transform open spaces that were once identified with the mythos of the nation.  The resulting removal of all regulations that the reduction of national monuments would mean fails to understand the monument as an ecosystem of environmental integrity, and indeed the historical value of the lands as sites:  it is almost as if the difficulty of defining the value in a society which uses GPS to map locations on a UTM projection to locate mineral deposits and sites of potential petroleum drilling–and erases the holistic image of a vanishing landscape that has long been so central a part of our national patrimony.  For by reducing the land set aside in the National Monument to questions of cash flow, the administration seems to have decided to use a map to abstract the Bears Ears area to the value of resources hidden beneath its historic landscape.

 

Mesas of the Valley of the Gods in former Bears Ears National Monument near Blanding, Utah/Alex Goodlett for The New York Times

 

The revisionary mapping of public lands that has occurred within the Trump administration is no less than a dramatic revision of national priorities.  It reveals something like an amnesia of the relation to the land, now seen as an antiquated practice of political regulation, and a rhetoric of opening valuable historical regions to mineral prospecting, in ways that no President has ever elected to disrespect one of his predecessors by rescinding the area of a designated monument that a president has decided to set aside.  In ways that shifts our relation to our own futures and pasts, the remove of the landscape suggests a remapping of priorities and space, removing protections from red rock canyons where some 10,000 artifacts remain.  As parcels of that landscape increasingly stand to be leased to extractive industries, despite the fragmentation of open lands across western states.  Indeed, the encroaching the interests of the American Petroleum Institute on what was once understood as preserved wilderness has become a way to rewrite the state’s relation to federal lands, and indeed the patriotism of the protection of public lands of longstanding historical value.  In ways that reflect the deep anger at the protection lands negotiated by the Obama administration–and done so in a way that tried to involve community stakeholders over time, if concluded late in the Obama Presidency–and the obscuring of claims historically made from 1976-2010 alone in the region once defined as Bears Ears–

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–the division of the national monument into two rumps opens many of the areas where mining claims  were staked, and allows further claims to be made, as well as encourages easy transport of extracted materials from the historic grounds, by denying their claims to historical value.  Indeed, by reopening many of the BLM claims on the region, the decision to parse Bears Ears from a continuous monument seems a give-away to extractive industries.

The gains of that lobby in asserting their claims and rights to access mineral deposits and veins stands to emerge as one of the largest land grabs in American history, reshaping the notion of the protection of public lands and access allowed to drilling, pipelines, and mines on federal lands, as if definitively abandoning any concept of the value in their preservation for posterity.  Indeed, only by recasting the role of government as securing lands worthy of protection as a case of undue restraint on business can the dire effects of  the plans for expanding private leases on public lands be failed to be recognized as a shifting the preservation of historical legacies to permit widespread industrial leases on federal lands in ways that abandon and relinquish a clear long-term view of their value.  When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke questioned whether a third of Interior employees were “loyal to the flag” before the National Petroleum Council, a petroleum industry group–and desired to reduce the “physical footprint” of the Interior Department by reducing the civil service employees who he sees as obstacles to opening up the permitting process for oil-drilling, logging, uranium mining, and energy development he sees as President Trump as having a legal mandate to accelerate, Zinke seems to make an end-run around the public custody or preservation of increasingly fragile lands of sacred resonance to many of the residents who most prize its integrity.

 

Bears Ears Buttes Big expanseGeorgy Frey, Getty Images/National Geographic

 

Valley of Gods, in Bears Ears National Monument 

 

Indeed, the agressively regressive attacks that the Trump administration has made on environmental regulations or responsible custodianship of public lands–leading states to file suit against the Environmental Protection Agency and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt for rolling back agency policies of designating areas of dangerously high ground-level ozone in unprecedented ways–is mirrored in the attack on protecting public lands, on which the Interior Secretary seems to have no endgame save leasing them to industry.  The agressiveness with which Zinke has taken aim at the government’s custodial role over wilderness and public lands–some of the few places where undisturbed ecologies exist–suggest a widespread attack on the notion of wilderness.  Is it possible that the Trump administration is preparing to excavate any federal mandate to protect historic lands, as well as to allow the expansion of extraction across previously protected lands?

When Interior Secretary Zinke complains “I can’t change the culture without changing the structure,” he suggests a broad disbanding of regulations accumulated over time with local groups after consideration of public impact that he wants to cast as obstructionists and arbitrary bureaucrats.  Yet when Zinke suggested that “Fracking is proof that God’s got a good sense of humor and he loves us,” he conjures a terrifying hybridization of manifest destiny and unrestrained corporate greed.  Zinke’s initial review of a full twenty-one National Monuments on federal land stand to change the landscape of the American west.  For in removing acreage of interest to private industry from federal protection, in a particularly short-sighted move under the quixotic banner of energy independence, the Trump administration seems bent on allowing the very federal lands protected by government for posterity to be treated as lots able to be leased for private development, without appreciation of their historical, cultural, or sacred value.  The map of National Monuments under “review” suggest a euphemism analogous to downsizing, and a shift in the conception of the custody of national lands–including the Grand Canyon–that seems to prepare for the excavation of what were the most protected federal lands.

 

 

Reduced Monuments

 

The expansion of national monuments currently designated “under review”–which has led to the recent declaration shrinking Bears Ears and renaming two protected areas that constitute but a rump of the once National Monument he Obama administration named after substantive negotiation with local stake-holders, reveal the dangerously unconsidered course by which protected public lands stand to be declassified in order to meet the demands of private industries, many of whom have already mapped mineral deposits or previously leased mines in their ground.  Zinke tweeted images of how he rode to his first day as Secretary on Interior on a horse named Tonto, sporting a ten gallon hat, flanked by the US Park Police, in a coded gesture to fulfill the demands of farmers and outdoorsmen:  the self-designated cowboy of Trump’s cabinet was on his way to eliminate protected status of federal lands, ready to remap most delicate open areas for extractive industries and the environmentally toxic mining and drilling of fossil fuels, in the name of energy independence:  if intended to evoke Theodore Roosevelt’s commitment to the outdoors, the dark garb and black hat suggested apt funereal garb to preside over the dismemberment of the American West.  But the usurpation of an identity as a cowboy outdoorsman in which Zinke has cultivated seems an apt metaphor, if unintentional, for the disenfranchisement of native inhabitants of a land that has been hold sacred for generations, and is a priceless repository for cultural artifacts and prehistoric ruins, as well as a priceless fossil record of dinosaur bones.

 

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Zinc’s cultivation of the image of a cowboy outdoorsman who loves western open lands exemplifies a dangerous sort of double-dealing.  For his policies he adopts run rampant over protection of the most fragile federal lands.   And despite presenting a public face of affection for the outdoors concealing the agenda of energy industries to shift the landscape of the American West, the re-dimensioning of public lands and National Monuments opens them to coal industries and petroleum and uranium mining.

The redrawing of Bears Ears is isolated, but foretells a terrible vision of the curtailment of federal lands by future leasing, drilling, and mining–at the same time as curtailing access to parks by substantially raising their entrance fees nationwide.  Nowhere are the fears of opening lands to drilling more feared than in the Alaska’s Wildlife Refuge.   Yet under the quixotic directive of ensuring “American energy dominance” the koan of the Trump administration, and the meaningless slogan “Energy Is Good,” the charge to remove regulations on coal, drilling, and oil pipelines are cast as a means to confirm our prosperity and energy independence as a nation, in deeply misguided ways that are based only on doublespeak, but epitomized by the withdrawal of any sense of custody for the increased scarcity of undisturbed open lands, or an obligation to future Americans.

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Filed under American West, Bears Ears, environmental preservation, federal land protection, national monuments

The New Separatism and the Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide: Tracking the After-Images of Southern Secession across the United States (Part I)

No region is an island, but divides are defined in ways that create a transmitted insularity along what might be called the Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide that cuts across the United States, bisecting much of the nation along what almost appears a meridian.  Even before the efflorescence of confederate resentment in southern states clear in the 2016 Presidential election, but not at all clearly perceived in recent years, but evident the apparent toleration of the claims of white supremacy and the far right that are rooted in states rights, and, almost perversely, rooted in the limited abolition for slavery and enslavement to expand across territories of the United States titudes north of 36° 30N,–a latitude inherited from the accident of early surveyors’ decision to mark the boundary line between Kentucky and Tennessee.

The latituidinal divide offered both an “objective” basis to extend slavery westward and a fulcrum to guarantee representation of slave-holding and non-slave holding states in the U.S. Congress, a line of apportionment that guaranteed the preservation of local rights of slave-holding, before it marked the secession of the Confederate States of America. The divide has fed a bizarrely enduring discourse on states’ rights in American history that has in many ways colored the complexion of the world, as a repository for the persistence of a reactionary localism in a globalized world, as the initial session of Virginia after Ft. Sumter in the Spring of 1861 was followed quickly by Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina, sectionally dividing the union,–until its disintegration left only the southernmost states defending slavery as an absolute local good.

Confederate States of America and Clims made by Confederacy

Long after the practice of enslavement was condemned as sinful by evangelicals, and uprooted in European nations, as was the case by 1848, the inner sanctum of the defense of enslavement lay in the preserve of the CSA–a community-sponsored movement to defend enslavement as a local privilege. Indeed, the depth of memories seem to have been provoked by the stripping of symbols of localism and place like the Confederate flag–the emblem of the separateness of the southern identity–exacerbated by a resurgence of regional solidarity reflecting a perceived loss of regional identity and afford continued objects to intrusive federal actions, in a symbolism of nobility that recalls a bend dexter with a bend sinister, and haunts even our most present–and apparently innocuous–as mapping the state of the states in data visualizations parse meaning by blocks whose continuity suggests deeply lying fault lines.

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The resistance of localism–and the national drama, indeed, of the attempt to strip the region of its symbol of autonomy–has perhaps not only had a greater impact in how early twenty-first century politics have played out in America, but of the deep presence of the divide of the seceded states across generations.  Can the survival of this divide be mapped? Or will it, more likely, continue to haunt the nation, as in the American Petroleum Institute decided to  map as a way to lay out ostensively objective record of local variations in gasoline taxes around the country, devised somewhat opportunely in 2014, as the United States was poised to run out of federal money to restore roads, and the chatter on gas taxes rose.

The problem of an alleged discrepancy in tax-rates that the American Petroleum Instituted foregrounded was based on the numbers of cents and decimals–not on percentages, m although the confusion could be excused, viewing the map and its legend without further information, so clearly does it seem to correspond to that blue state-red state divide that has long haunted our social media-saturated spatial imaginaries. If the map was intended to be polemic, and provide fodder to resist calls for calls for raising gas taxes since in counties–the federal tax remaining stable at 18.4 cents/gallon since 1993, the map taps into an ethos of tax revolts by purporting to illustrate an alleged discrepancy in tax-rates along a national fault line.

The divide that the American Petroleum Instituted foregrounded was based on cents and decimals–not on percentages, m although the confusion could be excused, viewing the map and its legend without further information, so clearly does it seem to correspond to that blue state-red state divide that has long haunted our social media-saturated spatial imaginaries. If the map was intended to be polemic, and provide fodder to resist calls for resistance to further hikes in taxes, and suggested the importance of seceding from what it cast, ingeniously in ways, as a sort of necessary secession from higher energy prices–the primary foe of much of the nation, it has seemed for most of the post-Cold War period.

The spectrum of county taxes is indeed much more complicated, revealing that it hardly makes sense to parse in states, although they reflect how some states have passed laws to restrict emissions of dirtier fuels, as gasoline, and have actively sought to do so, in the western states of California, Washington, and Oregon, by placing a larger tax on gallons of gas, in way that “Gas Buddy,” hardly a friend of the American Petroleum Institute, but a data-miner who seeks to give the lowdown on gas prices: the devious color-ramp depicts the bucolic nature of the southern states when it comes to protecting the price of low-cost petroleum for our engines, and the red-hot far west that seems a danger zone that might as well fall off the map. The website allows one to map in real time, by a color spectrum seeing to affirm that the grass is greener as deeply as you drive into the traditional region of southern states, where the rights to cheap gas seem to be preserved, and the status quo of cheap gas is maintained: the land where cheap gas prices allow fertile fields to bloom, and environmentalism is out-sourced for self-interest, unlike the red-hot far west, of which all drivers should beware.

Gas Buddy, screenshot at 7/9/14, 11 am. EST

The data vis in other words affirms that GasBuddy is looking out only for our best interests, showing at a glance “the best gas price, anywhere,” at a glance. It’s not surprising GasBuddy is a big friend of Google, and has gotten rid of any state lines, as well as environmental costs, as if to reveal the county-by-county free market of gas prices for his online audience, in ways that increasingly seem to register the deep danger to the wallet posed by driving out west. This is the map of the triumph of the free energy market, embraced as the United States has become the biggest natural gas producers in the world and the top producer of petroleum hydrocarbons since 2013, raising hopes of the growing green for gas guzzlers nationwide, who try to laminate highway maps and interstates over the green fields that get only greener descending the Mississippi as one approaches the Gulf coast.

Gasbuddy, Heat Map of Average Real Time Unleaded Gasoline,
August 2019

“Prices” here are not based on taxation alone, but “average prices” suggest the significant differences that exist between regions that indeed depend on commercial trucking, and ensuring low-cost convenience stores and supply chains, but have made a decision to prioritize free commerce at the expense of infrastructure and the environment. If it can be credibly argued that many costs of road maintenance, from snow-clearing to cracked asphalt, may not exist in the warmer climes of southern states, and rural roads are often less trafficked, the strong sense of separatism and defense of local privileges shines through the above map of gas prices, which reveals just how modulated the spread of up to a dollar and a half of the cost of gas/gallon are inflected by differences in gas taxes, although these only vary by a spread of about twenty cents.

Rather than be a post about road trips, the Gas-Tax Map provided an opportunity to excavate its layers, and investigate the underlying relations of a deep-seated stakes of states’ rights discourse that seems to underly the polemic visualization, as much as the proximity to offshore refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

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Filed under Confederate States of America, data visualizations, infographics, Red states v. Blue States, statistical maps

Map-Inspired Madness: Mapping the Great White in the Solitude of Ahab's Cabin

The narrated search for the whale Moby Dick takes readers almost vertiginously off the known map, in an era of increased map-printing and the growing claims of map authorship, often insecure of the origins or coherence of their captain’s narrative design.  The quest for the elusive Great White takes readers literally off the map, as The Pequod leads readers off of map, in the  apparently unreliable narrative on a quest for Moby-Dick to areas less mapped as the almost  primal site of whale spawning, unknown to most, where the craft, itself adorned with whale bones—“tricking herself forth in the bones of her natural enemies,” bulwarks adorned with sperm whale teeth, rudder made from a whale jaw bone, seems to seek to arrive by human artifice, or be all too similarly cannibalized by its craft.

‘It is not down in any map; true places never are,’ Ishmael describes the mysterious origins of the real cannibal Queequeg in Moby Dick, who he calls “George Washington cannibalisticslly developed.   Queequeg hails from the South Seas, and his unknown origins betrays the fascination of unmapped spaces and the allure held by being “off” the map.  The concern with mapping places haunting the narrator of the novel obsesses the monomaniacal ship’s captain who leads his ship to the same area of the globe in search of the lone whale he seeks to lead an increasingly wary crew.  Melville wrote with a particular sense of spatiousness in a chapter that first tells the story of the Great White Whale–“Moby-Dick” (Chapter XLI)–poses the question of preserving collective knowledge to gain bearings on the location of the White Whale, that suggests the onset of the first mapped knowledge of whale routes.  If providing pictures of  the specter of the whale from from the point of view of the whale-man, the encounter of ships at sea at the start of the hundredth chapter betrays a  desperation to orient his ship on the high seas.

At the start of the hundredth chapter of the massive narrative, an obsessive Ahab cries hopefully to crews of a passing English ship monomaniacally—“Ahoy!   Hast thou seen the Great White?”   Ahab cries in biblical syntax in desperation to the approaching English ship’s captain and crew, showing his ivory leg to the ship whose captain barely seems to understand him, but improbably turns out to be his twin, having lost an arm last year to the very same white whale:  in a macabre recognition scene, the ships joined the two disfigured by the same whale clink ivory limbs, arm and leg, bound by both how their lives found new orientation after their encounters with the great white whale.  Ahab has prepared to track the whale’s course.    

While legends of sightings are dispersed among whaling ships “sprinkled over the entire watery circumference” in disorderly fashion, each “pushing their quest along solitary latitudes,” sharing knowledge about whales’ locations was prevented given the “inordinate length of each separate voyage” and “long obstructed the spread through the whole world-wide whaling fleet of the special individualizing tidings concerning Moby Dick.”  The sightings of sperm whales of uncommon magnitude provoked rumors and fears of encounters with the whale, as one might expect, even if they were recored at a fixed time or meridian.  For, Melville reminds us again of the unique space of the open seas, “in maritime life, far more than that of terra firma wild rumors abound, wherever there is any adequate reality for them to cling to;” in the “remotest waters” or “widest watery spaces,” whalemen are subject to “influences all tending to make his fancy pregnant with many a mighty birth.”  

Such an expansion of legends of the White Whale on the open seas contrast to the single-minded focus of Ahab’s tracking of Moby Dick, and the certainty that the Captain possesses of his ability to find Moby Dick on the open seas .  Such a fixation is opaque at the book’s start, but is perhaps most manifest in his obsessive desire to track the individual whale by the sea charts kept in his cabin, to which he retires to read each night, and seem to provide the first point of entrance into his psyche–and what Melville calls his “monomania.”  As the ship moves over the seas, Ahab returns often to his cabin to read charts, maps, and logs, as map-reading becomes a keen emblem of monomaniacal fixation–as the belief that maps will help him track the whale that he is committed to kill.  The maps may magnify the sense of monomania, the psychological diagnosis of an undue expansion of mental attention on one object; if repeated reading the maps serves as an emblem of the growth of his fixation despite the survival of his intellect; trying to pursue the whale on charts seems to serve to focus his vindictiveness, as if materializing how the “White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all this malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating at them, till they are left living with half a heart and half a lung.”  Ahab’s fixation on the yellowed charts he unrolled on his cabin table express the monomaniacal tendencies defined in nineteenth century psychiatry of how an inordinate fixation persists in an otherwise rational mind; the fixation on mapping the course of the whale obsesses his attentive mind.  

Is the hope of locating the White Whale by the rutters of past whaling ships and collation of mapped observations an emblem of nourishing an undue fixation of his pathological preoccupation, despite his apparent ability to reason the possible path of the whale’s path?  The extended narrative of the ongoing quest for Moby Dick on which Ahab leads Pequod that fills the content of the novel becomes a sort of psychic profile of the obsessiveness with which Ahab takes the Pequod, and the novel’s narrator Ishmael, to encounter Moby Dick in the South Seas–the site of whale -spawning where the novel culminates.  The retiring of Ahab to the solitude of his cabin matches his withdrawal into his mind and serves to nurse his preoccupations.  What provides a more gripping image of Ahab’s inner psyche than the obsessive attention that he gives to tracking the White Whale by maps?   Ahab retires to consult log-books and charts to cull sightings of sperm whales that almost substitute for an actual map or rutter–and for the trust that sailors might place in maps and charts to guide the ship.  The problem of locating the whale s underscored by mention of the “wild suggestions” of many ships that have given the whale chase of an “unearthly conceit that “Moby Dick was ubiquitous; . . .  had actually been encountered in opposite latitudes at one and the same instant of time;” if”the secrets of the currents in the seas have never yet been divulged, even to the most erudite research,” Ahab seeks to challenge this sense of ubiquity through his obsessive consultation of charts, by following of the outlines of naval courses.  His intensity comes to transform his very brown and visage into a lined map, tracing out courses, so that his forehead comes to resemble a chart; reading maps with such obsessiveness to track his prey seems to remove Ahab’s single-minded pursuit from any oceanic transit, and from the common good of the ship that he commands.

Ahab’s monomania may seem sui generis.  But it is closely tied to the mapping project of Mathew Fontaine Maury and the contemporary project of collating open data on whale migration in Melville’s time, and the promise of investing legibility in a global space of whale migration.  Even more than the bodily injury of the loss of his leg that left him tormented with visions of the White Whale, the obsessive tracking and persistent consultation of charts and maps with other records manifests the idée fixe by which Captain Ahab is obsessed, and indeed the solitary consultation of these charts while his crew sleeps at night stand for the single-minded madness of tracking one whale on the open seas.  The folly of tracking the White Whale on a map embodies Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of a way to track its course by a paper map.   So fully does map-reading come to consume both his mind and his body as he ponders charts every night in his cabin, drawing new lines and courses by pencil, and revising them, “threading a maze of currents and eddies, with a veiew to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac though of his soul, so focussed on a map that, in a brilliant image, his tormented face even becomes a map, bearing the traces of the pencil lines traced on the charts, as if the subject of his fixation rises to the surface of his skin, so entirely consumed his mind by the conceit of mapping the course of Moby Dick.  The appearance of these self-inflicted lines as if engraved on Ahab’s brow–Melville’s image–echo the captain’s fixation with obsessively tracing multiple marine courses on the charts he keeps in his cabin; the courses that are so intensely pondered seem to rise to lines inscribed on his own skin as if in as a consequence of the imprint that tracing possible courses  of the leviathan has brought.  

The conceit of the tracking of whales on maps appears an emblem of Ahab’s madness, if it almost echoes contemporary techniques of Global Positioning Systems.  The utter hopelessness of locating one whale in an ocean map seems apparent; Ahab has indeed so often red maps to transform himself into a map hoping to locate Moby Dick, and the conceit of mapping whales has filled his mind.  Yet, as the “hidden ways of the Sperm Whale when beneath the surface remain, in great part, unaccountable to his pursuers, . . . the most curious and contradictory speculations regarding them, especially concerning [how] he transports himself with such vast swiftness to the most widely distant points”    Melville presents the problem of mapping the course of whales as one by which the crazed Captain Ahab is increasingly consumed, pouring over charts in the captain’s cabin, increasingly isolated at a remove from the crew including Queequeg and Ishmael, and the fate of his ship.  Although whalemen by their expert knowledge often came to the conclusion after the White Whale so often escaped their capture “Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal,” the presumption of mapping the course of the White Whale’s course is perhaps the clearest illustration and emblem of Ahab’s hubris, and monomaniac obsession with tracking the whale above the expert knowledge of his crew, as he “led upon the whale’s white hump as the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race,” so violently did he come to see personified in the whale that had once torn off his leg all evil in the world, and pit himself against it.  Maps provide Ahab with a basis to nourish and expand the “monomania  in him [that] took its instant rise at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment.”  If such a mania began he returned home, stretched in a hammock on his homeward voyage, swaying in a straitjacket in the rocking boat returning across the tranquil tropics, as “his special lunacy having stormed his general sanity,” he obsessed after returning to Nantucket with the one aim of hunting the White Whale.  Monomania had almost fallen out of favor as a diagnosis by 1850, when Melville wrote, but novelists from Balzac to Bronte adopted the image of mental fixation and unhinged rationality that Ahab’s reading of maps convey.  

Nothing in Mellville’s novel is so great an emblem indicating Captain Ahab’s madness than his obsessive consultation of nautical charts and maps of which he is a jealous custodian, and which provide the basis to nourish his determination to locate Moby Dick.  Maps may feed Ahab’s relentless compulsion to track the White Whale.  Ahab’s obsession with maps reflects contemporary attempts to map the open seas:  indeed, the superstitious value of the leviathan held a special place in the “wild, strange tales of Southern whaling,” and the deep sympathy of whaling men for their prey, who they know far better than those naturalists who have perpetuated false legends of their fierce animosity for humans, from Palsson to Cuvier, distorting the actual awesomenes of pursuing any whale tracking the Great White.  

Ahab’s obsessive reading of maps to track Moby Dick seems a figure for his monomania, but reflects an actual mapping project tracking whales on the open seas, which Melville knew well, and a project of mapping the logs of whaling ships in legible cartographic form.  Ahab’s use of maps to track Moby Dick mirrors the cartographical project of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the nineteenth-century Virginian polymath and early hero of open data, who in 1851 sought to map migratory routes of Sperm and Right whales or the benefit of the whaling economy.   If Melville often consulted histories of arctic searches for Northern Whales published from the 1820s, the appearance of an authoritative map of the courses of whales that Maury had accumulated from ships’ logs provided a model that attempted to impose human reason and fixed continuity on a whale’s migrating itineraries and paths, in order best to predict its actual location.

Ahab’s obsessive hope to track the course of the great white whale Moby Dick in the ship the Pequod may mirror the scope and ambition of M.F. Maury’s project–a project that led to one of the odder maps of marine population and migration that appears below, but which is one of the monuments of open data.   For Melville, however, Ahab’s mania seems driven by the hope the map carried for being  able to track  the course of the great white whale that his prey, and to arrive at the moment of confrontation that will in fact never appear on any map.  For unlike the observations Maury graphically collated, the specificity of Ahab’s tie to Moby Dick is not on the map at all.

Whale Chart 1851Maury’s Whaling Map; Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Ahab’s self-imposed sequestering on the voyage of the Pequod in his cabin, surrounded by a variety of charts, seems emblematic of his single-minded obsession to track the elusive Moby Dick.  It is emblematic of a uniquely obsessive sort of map-reading emblematic of his particular sort of hubris:  as he will never know the true path of the majestic whale, his study of the map symbolizes a contest between the mapping abilities of man and whale.

The private consultation of the map in the the secret space of the captain’s cabin reveals the sharp contrast between the whale as an innate cartographer who migrated across seas and the knowledge of routes inscribed in lifeless nautical charts, and the inability to plot or plan the intense longing for his confrontation with Moby Dick within the range of observations of all whales by traveling whale ships.  But it also offers an amazing fantasia of the reading maps and nautical maps as if they were guides to habitation, and a reflection on the nature of map-reading and the comprehensive claims of encompassing known space within engraved maps, and specifically of the colored charts of sea routes, whaling and sighted whales that the oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury produced in the 1850s compiling nautical logs of whaling ships, after having remapped the coastline of the United States from the geodetic Survey of the Coast by the Swiss Ferdnand Hassler, which had tried to fulfill the Jeffersonian dream of a nation facing two oceans, before joining the Confederate cause.

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We have little sense of the amassing of data that existed in Ahab’s cabin, so much as the intense relation that the captain develops to his charts.  Melville describes how Ahab retires to his cabin to open “large wrinkled roll of yellowish sea charts, spread them before him on his screwed-down table,” ready to set himself to “intently study the various lines and shadings which there met his eye,” and escape into the paths that they trace.  The memorable episode in Ahab’s own cabin focusses attention on how the captain’s obsessive consultation of the maps, as a sort of emblem of his search to capture the whale in them.   Ahab processed information in the map as best he could, and “with slow but steady pencil trace additional courses over spaces that before were blank,” while consulting log-books of previous voyages and noted sightings of sperm whales in a desperate attempt to locate the migratory path of the white sperm whale Moby Dick–whose own route he so obsessively seeks to understand and on which he fixates so obstinately. The reading activity is isolated and isolation, because the map is essentially mute, a second order of spatial knowledge with which he has no literal traffic or exchange, but becomes a way to wrap himself in further isolation from the mammal that communes with the productive fecund waters of the sea.  “While he himself was marking outlines and courses on the wrinkled charts, some invisible pencil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked chart of his forehead,” as every night, “in the solitude of his cabin, Ahab thus pondered over his charts, . . . threading a maze of currents and eddys, with a view to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac thought of his soul.”

Such a collective map of the sightings of whales is both the focus and talisman of Ahab’s monomaniacal will:  both as the transcription of the paths of hidden submarine itineraries, “with the charts of all four oceans before him,” and the hubris of understanding the concealed migratory course of that noble whale with which he is so obsessed and that has long evaded his search.  For Melville confides that “it might seem an absurdly hopeless task thus to seek out one solitary creature in the unhooped oceans of this planet” to many; “But not so did it seem to Ahab, who knew the set of all tides and currents; thereby calculating the driftings of the sperm whale’s food, which whales were imagined to follow; and, also, calling to mind the regular, ascertained seasons for hunting him in particular latitudes; could arrive at reasonable surmises, almost approaching to certainties, concerning the timeliest day to be upon this or that ground in search of his prey.”  The privacy of the consultation of the tables that allow him to try to read this map, and to establish the position of the whale he seeks, becomes the basis for the captain’s obsessive hope to track the progress of the whale, better to interpret its location.

The intensive reading of ocean charts becomes a site of reading that obsesses Ahab as a means to determine and decipher the logic of its movement stand at odds with the description of the sublime nature of the sperm whale, whose own head cannot even be read without wondering at the majesty of the form of the “head of this Leviathan,” truly “an anomalous creature,” impossible to interpret or decipher, whose imposing grandeur is of such “god-like dignity” to defy human interpretation.  As the wonderfully described problem of the legibility of the “plaited forehead” of the Sperm Whale is a living surface that defies interpretation, inscribed with “innumerable strange devices for [its] emblematical adornment,” following not Euclidean mathematics, but rather “pure nautical mathematics,” the mapping of the course of the whale seems to defy tracking by Euclidean tools also defies reading, much as Melville described the sperm whale’s forehead forms a “mystically carved container,” the lines of whose face defy clear reading, as the “bumps on the head of this Leviathan” is a surface whose interpretation “no Physiognomist or Phrenologist has as yet undertaken,” and would challenge the abilities of Lavater–despite his study of animal faces–or Spurzheim or Gall, suggesting the intractable indecipherability of the whale, but whose “sublime aspect” and “added grandeur” Melville attempted, in the brow in which “mighty god-like dignity” is indeed “inherent” in a brow “plaited with riddles,” presenting Lavater’s mark of genius in the depressed crescent at its middle, in a brow “so amplified . . . you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcefully than in any other object in living nature.”

As the brow of the leviathan remains challenging to be read, any hope of reading the map of the path it takes seems, despite Ahab’s desire and Maury’s map, Melville appears to assure his readers, as futile as a way locating the actual whale Moby Dick, but becomes an obsessing act of tracing, retracing, and location, that becomes Ahab’s main interpretive project in Melville’s book.

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Filed under American literature, data visualization, Herman Melville, Moby Dick, open data