October 17-19, 2019 (Université de Lille, Université Paris-Diderot) Melville’s Measures



« The measure! the measure! » cried Ahab.


Ahab’s exclamation notwithstanding, Moby-Dick more readily calls to mind the longing for the “unshored, haborless immensities” (ch. 32), “indefinite as God” (ch. 23), than down-to-earth measures taken to apprehend or comprehend “the ungraspable phantom of life” (ch. 1). Significantly enough, “if money’s to be the measurer,” Ahab’s doubloon is an ambivalent gold standard, at once the symbol of rampant capitalism that has transformed the world into a “great counting-house,” the effigy of Ahab’s sovereign self and a figure for Ishmael’s continual forging of symbols of his own coinage. Even as it bears the stamp of Ahab’s empire, the gold coin remains a source of numberless speculations for Ishmael. “The measure” is rife with ambiguities.

Maps, timetables, and other measuring tools may well guide us through Melville’s “voyage[s] hither” into the outlandish (Mardi); we readers still lose our bearings, and much more, along the way. In White Jacket and Billy Budd, states of emergency require that half-measures be ruled out, and if Melville’s works can be read as guidelines or blueprints for a common measure, it is ever yet to come. Of course, in mid-nineteenth-century America, Bartleby would prefer not to copy nor to compute; he already occupied Wall Street, walled-in in an office, entrenched in unrelenting opposition to the reckonings of a “calculating people” (Moby-Dick, ch. 41) and to globalization even before the word gained currency. A telling sign of the times, “Bartleby” remains a measure of our current perplexity in the face of digitalization and all-inclusive quantification.

The question was, and to a certain extent, still is: What remedial (counter-)measures can be taken in a context of pervasive counterfeiting (The Confidence-Man) when conflicting standards and competing values proliferate and vie for hegemony (Pierre; or, the Ambiguities)? How can latter-day pilgrims orient themselves when old landmarks and familiar coordinates no longer make sense (Clarel)? Is there still a universal unit of measure, a “true” measure and sole criterion that might serve as a litmus test? Melville’s increasing interest in poetry and metrics may have something to do with his desperate search for “forms, measured forms…spell-binding the wild denizens of the wood” (Billy Budd). Can it be that these forms should be but another name for inflexible norms and a smokescreen for the repression of brute forces (Billy Budd)?

The aim of this conference to take measure of Melville’s grappling with the measureless by surveying the various sets of gauging, computing, measuring instruments designed to circumscribe and contain it. In the end, we may wonder whether Melville’s works amount to an irregular system of sorts or whether measures are bound to anagrammatically “erase sums.” In what sense do they unsettle and even subvert “the art of measuring” advocated by Newton in his Preface to Principia Mathematica? To what extent are they doomed to be appropriated as canonical criteria by academe? If measures re-assume (yet another anagram) the part once played by a unique lost paradigm, what will result from their multiplication? Or, in Melville’s own words, “If Luther’s day expand to Darwin’s year / Shall that exclude the hope—foreclose the fear?” (Clarel)


Panels or individual papers may address, but are not limited to, the following topics:

  1. “Horologicals and chronometricals” (Pierre). Melville’s novels raise key questions of sizes and scales in maps and charts, weights & measures: surveying space, sounding depths, probing deep time, questioning probing into volumetrics, measuring out giant whales in the minutest detail; redrawing scientific taxonomies and systems of measurement as well as anthropometric and zoological classifications. Readers come to be queerly quizzed: How many inches of Ahab’s leg have been incorporated into the belly of the whale? To what extent is man a political animal and/or a beastly brute? What is the accurate ratio? As African American slaves were still subject to the 3/5 (three-fifths) rule, how did such an unstable statistical definition of identity (now a subject, now an object, now an infinitesimal number) challenge one’s sense of personal integrity, of being “an unfractioned integral” (Moby-Dick, ch. 107)?
  2. Alternative measurements: accurate units of measurements like feet, pounds, nautical miles, grades, or degrees yield in front of the unaccountable. What is a mob? Are there shades or degrees of intensity in whiteness, that colorless, all-color je-ne-sais-quoi that evades classifications? Is it possible to characterize and categorize blubber? What does it mean to classify the whales by their volume (like books)? More largely, are even the most accurate measurements not doomed to remain forever indeterminate? Are not measures a grid that involves the erasure of gaps so that the real only surfaces when the whale (which could be read as the “whole”) happens to breach through?
  3. Is Man still “the Measure of the Universe” (Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, Act 2, sc. 4, l.72)? Melville’s Leviathan explores a pluralistic universe in which the non-human looms large and the inhuman, be it the super-human or the sub-human “Not Me,” exceeds the self beyond measure. What does measuring up to the hidden God or dead deities still mean in a universe ruled by chance or haphazard contingencies?
  4. “If money’s to be the measurer, man…” (Moby-Dick, ch. 36). To what extent do Melville’s writings question the power of “the Almighty Dollar” by means of alternative standards of exchange, ranging from the barter systems peculiar to “primitive” societies to belletristic intercourse in American literary circles complicit in a market-oriented society?
  5. A Measure of Justice: triangulating aesthetics, ethics and politics. Cross-examining the Fugitive Slave Act, the Alien and Sedition Act and the enforcement of the Law in the State of Exception. Meting out punishment, adjudicating between coercive measures and measures of clemency, and writing down the literary record of the trials of justice. Exploring the extent to which the toughest disciplinary measures (manacling, lashing, flogging, hanging) may still hold in store unforeseen pleasures (Billy Budd). Accounting for the need for poetic Justice.
  6. Measure for Measure, beyond bounds. Rewriting revenge tragedies, reassessing hubristic retribution and extravagant largesse. Dramatizing the moral tragedy inherent in double-binds.
  7. “Buoyed up by that coffin…” (Moby-Dick, ch. 136). Measuring loss, deprivation and, conversely, the power of possibility.
  8. Symmetry, balance and “ragged edges.” How can we interpret metric patterns and dissonant harmonics? To what extent do Melville’s poems and sense of rhythm in prose redraw the boundaries between metrical rules and free verse and even revisit the notion of tempo?
  9. Correspondences and discordances between fiction, poetry, drama, music and the visual arts. Reappraising high and low productions. Measuring Melville’s canonicity.
  10. “Sans commune mesure”? Critical and cultural translations in and of Melville’s works. Are Melville’s works lost or regained in translation? Are translations and critical interpretations mere sarcophagi or life-buoys similar to Queequeg’s made-to-measure coffin? What does Melville’s text amount to once it has been “transferringly measured” (Moby-Dick, ch. 110)?


KEYNOTE SPEAKERS (confirmed): Branka Arsić (Columbia University); Cody Marrs (University of Georgia)



We welcome papers from graduate and doctoral students. Proposals (500 words in English or French and a short bio) to be sent to: melvillesmeasures@gmail.com

Proposals will be reviewed by the Conference committee:

Dawn Coleman (University of Tennesse, Knoxville)

Agnès Derail (École Normale Supérieure)

Philippe Jaworski (Université Paris-Diderot)

Ronan Ludot-Vlasak (Université de Lille)

Bruno Monfort (Paris-Ouest Nanterre)

Mark Niemeyer (Université de Bourgogne)

Samuel Otter (University of California, Berkeley)

Cécile Roudeau (Université Paris-Diderot)






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