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Debate: Whalers of Old Aren’t Like Astronauts Because of the Anxieties of Frontiers

The interplay between biology and culture reflects racial anxieties that can’t overcome the escape velocity needed to float in culture-less vacuum.

Credit: phtorxp/pixabay

Credit: phtorxp/pixabay

An article by Matthew Bruen, titled ‘How the Whalers of Moby Dick Could Help Put Humans on Mars’ (originally published by Aeon and republished by The Wire), compares the whaling industry of the 18th and 19th centuries to space exploration in the 21st – the latter focused on human habitation of Mars. Bruen compares life onboard ships in the ocean with that of the confined space of space shuttles adrift in vacuum. He states that the timeframe for a human expedition to Mars and back is roughly equal to the whaling enterprise, each of which lasted two to four years.

Both whalers and astronauts are engaged in occupations fraught with risks and adventure that require professional competence and camaraderie to tide over crises that might emerge at any moment. Referring to Moby Dick, the iconic novel by Hermann Melville, the article states, “Through determination, daring and an intense focus on a shared goal, the first human beings will step on the Red Planet and join Ishmael’s exclusive fraternity.”

There are two issues that define the whaling expeditions of the 18th and 19th centuries that we need to pay attention to, and both of which have ramifications for the present. First, the whaling expedition is an extension of the notion of the ‘frontier’, which forms part of a larger process involving the national identity, history and popular culture of the US. Second, the human/nonhuman interaction specific to whaling ties up the terrestrial and the extraterrestrial through similar other nonhuman species such as primates and microbes, which are part of the ‘multi-species’ era that is the present.

Many frontiers

The defining moment of American exceptionalism has been the idea of the ‘frontier’. The whaling expeditions were an extension of the frontier on land, into rivers and finally to the seas and oceans. The ‘frontier’ has been celebrated in American literature as what distinguishes the quintessential American trait of the early Pilgrim Fathers who came to settle the continent.

Popularised by Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay, ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’ (1893), the frontier thesis proposed the following: The idea of progress and development in America was marked by a continuous expansion to claim more lands through peaceful settlement with the Indians, unlike the Spaniards in the south. This form of settler colonialism culminated in a specific American character defined by individualism, the democratic impulse and the ability to take risks.

The stock images that appear in popular culture that reflect the frontier culture are the log cabin, cowboys and the indigenous peoples, who are somehow missing in Turner’s account of the taming of the wilderness. This academic essay on the frontier had its counterpart in a more popular stage version performed by William ‘Bill’ Cody at almost the same time. In Cody’s account, the Indians who have to be conquered dominate the narrative. Often, his performance would end with a reenactment of the battle of Bighorn that led to the defeat of the American army (led by George Custer) at the hand of the Indian tribes. The ever-expanding frontier came at the displacement and annihilation of the native Indian populations, alongside that of the Mexicans and African Americans.

It is this idea of the frontier that informed the whaling expeditions of the 18th and 19th centuries, when terra firma yielded to the high seas and oceans. Bruen glosses over the violence and issues of race, class, gender, nation and warfare that underwrote the whaling expeditions and the frontier ethos that informed it. It is best illustrated in Moby Dick through Ahab’s obsession with the white whale. It is not a coincidence that the whale is white, a reflection of the displaced racism inherent in the body politic of the American nation.

The ‘tribal’, ‘black’ and ‘oriental’ characters, or the racial other(s), that make the underclass in the industrial labor of whaling are not yet part of the social contract of the new Leviathan that American espouses to be. As opposed to the Quaker God fearing civilised owners of the Pequod – the ship that Ahab commands – the harpooners like Tashtego, Queequeg, Fedallah, Pip, and Dagoo are characterised through blackness, primitivism, savagery and cannibalism, all marked by a homoerotic masculine camaraderie. Tashtego, who spots the illusive white whale first, is of tribal blood, the last of his tribe and a ‘noble savage’. Pip the black boy who becomes Ahab’s companion is raving mad after an episode of being left alone in a boat in the ocean. His madness enables him to make prophecies. The tattooed Queequeg was a prince from the South Pacific islands. Fedallah the private harpooner of Ahab is a Parsee ‘oriental’. Dagoo is an African moor.

Melville is remarkable in stitching together composite elements of Africa, Polynesia, Islamic, Christian, and Native American cultures, which made the whaling industry a global enterprise. Melville would have been aware of the abolitionist debates of the 1840s and 1850s, when he was writing Moby Dick, using a racial and ethnic underclass to evoke danger and irrational impulses, with mysteries marking oceanic expeditions.

Unto the alien

Credit: furuno/pixabay

Credit: furuno/pixabay

The whaling expedition has never ended. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the frontier has expanded beyond the American territory, through the military industrial complex and the numerous bases spread across the world, through which the US maintains its military supremacy. The white whale of Ahab has morphed into the Communists and, more recently, Islam. The Pequod of Moby Dick has been replaced with aircraft carriers – the new Leviathans – through which the US demonstrates its shock-and-awe strategy to bring errant nations to the book. Instead of the harpooners Queequeg and Tashtego, it has deployed tomahawk cruise missiles and Apache helicopters ironically named after the Native Indians it decimated in the 18th and 19th centuries, to wage war in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

More importantly, the notion of the frontier has transformed, going from the confines of Gaia to that of interplanetary journeys through scientific missions into space. Space is the new frontier. However, the birth of the Space Age was marked by an intense rivalry between the erstwhile USSR and the US to land on the Moon. Russia was successful in launching Sputnik, the first satellite to circumnavigate Earth. The US followed by landing humans on the moon. It was the threat of warfare between two nuclear-powered nations at the start of the Cold War in 1945 that led to the development of satellites – as well as to the cybernetic revolution that transformed the way humans communicate.

The internet was in its infancy in the DARPA military setup, whereby scientists were trying to create a secure and decentralised communication system that would survive a nuclear holocaust. With the end of the Cold War in 1989, the Russian obsession was replaced with aliens of various kinds. This was more evident in Hollywood films and popular TV shows. Star Wars was preeminent in packaging the Cold War in its popular culture avatar. The movie E.T. captured the idea of a friendly alien. No wonder the X Files had FBI investigators exploring ‘alien’ crimes or mysteries; the show had the tag line “The truth is out there”, beckoning to worlds up and beyond.

In his book Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History (2013), Eduardo Galeano mentions Orson Welles’s famous radio broadcast on October 30, 1938.  Titled ‘The Martians Are Coming’, a message announced that spaceships had landed on the coasts of US and that the Martians had attacked America. The ‘alien’ species had tentacles, shot fiery rays and had foaming V-shaped mouths. People reacted to the news by taking to the streets and covering themselves from poison gas by wrapping wet towels. Others corralled themselves in their house armed for the final fight. Galeano says that the extraterrestrial invasion was a lie but the fear it generated was real. The fear has continued till date with the Martians morphing into Russians, Koreans, Vietnamese, Cubans, Nicaraguans, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians…

The aliens invading Earth were imagined as many-legged invertebrates or spineless arachnids. But prior to the invertebrate turn of the nonhuman species, it is important to examine a few ‘companion species’ that made the Space Age possible.

Central to the communications revolution of the Cold War was the science of ethology, studying the possibility of communication between humans and intelligent nonhumans, such as chimpanzees, whales and dolphins (all mammals). Dogs and chimpanzees were the canary birds of erstwhile miners. They were launched into Earth-orbit before humans were.

Donna Haraway has drawn attention to how the gender and race played an important part in the space race. The first animal to orbit space in 1957 was the Russian dog Laika. Ham and Enos were the two chimpanzees that the US sent up to test the possibility of a human exploration of space. (Interestingly, Ham was captured in French Cameroon in 1959; its name is an acronym for ‘Holloman Aero Med’, the airforce facility that was tasked with the mission to conquer space.)

Ham was sent to orbit on January 31, 1961. The subconscious racial underpinning of the exercise recalls the earlier transportation of slaves to America to provide a labour for the American plantations that kept expanding the frontier. In this case, the chimpanzees would have been unwilling companion species sent to test the new frontier. More importantly, it hearkens to the Judeo-Christian cultural matrix that informs Western science. Ham was the son of Noah, who was presumed to be black since the Bible says that he went down from the Levant region towards Africa through Egypt.

At the bottom

Stefan Helmreich, in his book Alien Oceans: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (2009), has said that the whale was the key figure of the sea in the 19th century. It symbolised work, labour, commodity and natural history. The corresponding mascot of the 20th century was the dolphin, symbolising intelligence, environmental awareness and conservation. Helmreich says that the 21st century’s mascot of the oceans is the microbiota. Scientists are busy parsing the microorganisms that make up the seas and oceans in the hope of identifying them through DNA sequencing. Consisting of bacteria, phyloplankton and others, these almost invisible organisms are extremophiles that can survive very high temperatures and pressures. Scientists are holding out clues that could help humans survive the extreme environments of our neighbouring planets, including Mars.

The change of scale from the macroscopic Leviathan to the microscopic bacteria evokes the image of aliens reflecting the strangeness of the marine biota. The taxonomic puzzle that these ‘aliens’ provoke marks them as strange entities that one can’t claim kinship with because their behaviour is unlike ours.

Aliens are strangers somewhere in between ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’. In common parlance, ‘aliens’ in the US invoke racial anxieties. Aliens are not natives, but invasive species. According to American law, an ‘alien’ in America is one who is not a naturalised US citizen. An ‘immigrant’ is an alien who has been legally granted the right to reside or work in the US. An ‘illegal alien’ is a person who has entered the US undocumented or has exhausted the stipulated period of residency and risks deportation if detected. So are white Anglo-Saxon Protestants aliens or immigrants from the perspective of the Indians?

If there is life on Mars are we the aliens who will colonise the red planet? These are questions we need to ponder because our nearest evolutionary kin, namely Ham, reveals that the interplay between biology and culture reflects racial anxieties that can’t overcome the escape velocity needed to float in culture-less vacuum. Keeping these issues in mind will hopefully steer our attempts to navigate the frontiers that lie beyond.

Subhadeepta Ray is an assistant professor in the department of sociology at Tezpur University, Assam.

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