Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Searching for the Obvious?

Let's say your professor has been brave - or foolish - enough to approve your term paper topic "The Cultural Significance of Moby Dick." He probably thinks it's a great topic, in fact. Everyone knows about Moby Dick, right? Moby Dick is.....well, it's obvious. It'll be easy to research. There's probably no limit to the ways you can explore the topic - there's the whale, the book, the name itself, the sea, the search, the author, the reading public, the interpretations, the editions, the genre, the spin-offs, the movies, the Classics Illustrated comic book ..... you get the idea. Did Moby Dick look like something? Google Images indexes aver 157,000 pictures of the creature or of cultural items attached to its name. You could probably find hundreds of Grade A term papers for sale on the subject, if you looked. This could be the easiest assignment you ever had.

Not only your instinct but your instruction will be to base your paper on articles and texts that have been written by scholars, experts, and published in time-honored, peer-reviewed fashion. That much is obvious. If you're in college, your research should be based on textual material mostly written by college professors, and found in journals edited by professionals who know as much about the subject as the scholar they're publishing. Right away you will think of Academic Search Premier, or the MLA Bibliography, or the Literary Resource Center, or JSTOR. These databases will offer hundreds of articles about Moby Dick's "cultural significance," though how you or the database determine what is "cultural" and what is "significant" may depend on a host of uncontrollable factors. After all, everything is "culturally significant", isn't it?

In the MLA, "Moby Dick" brings up 1123 hits. Moby Dick and "significance" gives us 2, but Moby Dick and "cultural" gives us 12. Hmmmm. What about Moby Dick and "cultural significance?" Nothing, but then, why should it? Maybe professors don't really think that way. Isn't everything having to do with culture "significant" anyway? The words describing the topic you chose were really only a way of exploring and narrowing areas of relevance, a tentative focus. It might make sense to ignore the terms entirely! Why not search Moby Dick and "influence?" That brings up 35 results. Isn't ”influence" pretty much the same as "cultural significance?" But in JSTOR “Moby Dick and cultural significance" brings up 858 results. Why is that? One clue might be that MLA specializes in literature, and JSTOR searches across many disciplines - history, psychology, political science, sociology, art, Jewish Studies. Did Moby Dick signify more in the world of the social sciences than in the world of literature? Who's to say? Does JSTOR have better indexing? Who knows what's "better?" Maybe you should have chosen a better term than "cultural significance." After all, no one can doubt that this famous iconic 1851 novel created waves that crossed 16 decades, even though its author died in obscurity?

In Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, "Moby Dick and cultural significance" brings up 6 results when searching "all available dates". But JSTOR searches a much wider range of dates, and MLA searches journals Lexis-Nexis doesn't include. Hmmm. Maybe searching critical, scholarly, peer-reviewed text is the problem. Can Moby Dick have signified in ways and places foreign to literary search terms? Every search engine depends on language to locate text. But search engines depend not simply on language but on a language - a particular way of representing meaning and context.

The same word may mean different things from one database to another or from one discipline to another. Different journals are included in different databases, date coverage varies, keyword indexing and clustering styles vary. Differences in subject descriptors, algorithms, the frequency of updating, graphic user interfaces, languages searched, and search options vary. So it may make sense to abandon the search terms "cultural" and "significance," which are primarily literary, and assign relevance just because we tell them to, and get down to more gritty ways of exploring the topic: searching all over the place for "Moby Dick." Our assumption will be that whenever, however and wherever it's mentioned, it will encapsulate in some way its associations with a world that keeps giving it new meaning.

Maybe "Moby Dick" means something entirely different to a music database than it does to literary or sociological database. From Grove Music Online we learn that a musical work of Armando Gentilucci's from 1988 was entitled "Frammenti sinfonici da Moby Dick." Who was Armando Gentilucci and why did he think Moby Dick could refer to something musical - so much so that he also wrote an opera entitled Moby Dick? And whose words did the opera's libretto use? Gentilucci wasn't the first to set Moby Dick to music. Douglas Moore, we learn, born in Cutchogue, NY, wrote a symphonic poem entitled Moby Dick in 1928. And Tobias Picker, we know, wrote a beautiful tone poem in 1983, The Encantadas, based on Melville's own text for "The Encantadas or The Enchanted Isles, " a narrative about his travels in the Galapagos Islands. Would he have chosen that text if Melville's fame hadn't been established earlier by the canonization of Moby Dick? Isn't that what "cultural significance" is about, even if nobody has ever described Picker's work with those terms? If it were me, I'd take a chance and let my professor play with the idea, though it didn't exactly emerge full-blown from a "scholarly article". If your professor isn't impressed with that, you might mention (or show) her some of Rockwell Kent's wonderful woodcuts - works of art that stand on their own - that illustrated the R.R. Donnelly & Sons 1930 edition of Moby Dick. A simple search of ArtStor will easily lead you to it. Kent's turbulent, adventurous life, much of it spent following Melville's sea legs, is itself a testament to the cultural significance of Melville's book, as even the most basic biographical profile will show.

But forget literature, music and art. What if you searched psychology? Doesn't everything "culturally significant" have psychological roots as well? A quick search of "Moby Dick" in PsychInfo brings up 34 results, including Moby-Dick and Compassion, by Philip Armstrong; Society & Animals, Vol 12(1), 2004. pp. 19-37 and The Narcissus legend, the white whale, and Ahab's narcissistic rage: A self-psychological perspective by Efrain A. Gomez; Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis & Dynamic Psychiatry, Vol 18(4), Win 1990. pp. 644-653. If psychology is fruitful, maybe philosophy will be too. The Philosopher's Index produces nine results right away, including John Bernstein's Herman Melville's Concept of Ultimate Reality and Meaning in "Moby-Dick", Ultimate-Reality-and-Meaning, 1982; 5: 104-117. It doesn't get much more significant than that. Well, then. What if we forget "scholarship" and look at our "culture" directly, say in today's news? Lexis-Nexis Academic Search Premier gives us 259 hits from major worldwide newspapers just in the last three months, like, "Rove may have doomed GOP by overreaching," by Richard Sisk, New York Daily News, an article that quotes the great Karl saying "I'm Moby Dick!" - alluding no doubt to his uncatchable quality.

Why not try Contemporary Women's Issues? You may not find much more than a passing reference to the whale, but some women still invoke him when they feel their self-image threatened: "Those of us who looked like Moby Dick in our eighth month will be surprised that women become 'girly' then.” said Meredith Douglas in The Nation in 2001 review of a book on motherhood. But do pregnant women really look like whales? How about trying a Lexis-Nexis search of Federal Environmental Case Law? In 2002, deciding a complex case involving whale-fishing and the State of Washington's Makah Tribe, a circuit judge opened his amended opinion with this quote: "While in life the great whale's body may have been a real terror to his foes, in his death his ghost [became] a powerless panic to [the] world." Herman Melville, Moby Dick 262 (W.W. Norton & Co. 1967) (1851). This modern day struggle over whale hunting began when the United States granted support and approval to the Makah Tribe's ("the Tribe's") plan to resume whaling. The judge, in effect, was citing a fictional being to make a decision about real animals and people. If that seems strange, doesn't it also prove that this iconic creature lives in our cultural memory?

Why expect anything from the Ethnic Newswatch database, which indexes thousands of newspapers from ethnic and racial groups around the world? Why indeed? A quick search found this entry: 'Moby-Dick' b'Ivrit! 'Moby-Dick' read in Hebrew for first time as part of marathon,Trachtenberg, Rona. Jewish Advocate. Boston: Mar 11, 2004. Vol. 195, Iss. 10; pg. 12. Read in Hebrew for the first time - what can be more culturally significant? That was too easy. Let's look in Medline and see if anything happens. There we find this article: "An instance of sleep paralysis in Moby-Dick", by Herman J, [Sleep], 1997 Jul; Vol. 20 (7), pp. 577-9. According to the abstract, this article comments on an instance in which the description of a fictional character's (Ishmael's) behavior preceded by 25 years the "scientific" statement of the clinical condition it refers to. The author thinks this is noteworthy, as if writers, having no label to attach to someone's behavior, needed to be complimented on the accuracy of their observations.

And what if we search the Library of Congress' American Memory website, which comprises hundreds of digitized scholarly exhibits about American history and culture? Sure enough, we are quickly pointed to a scanned copy of a review for the novel that appeared in the United States Democratic Review, Jan., 1852. The unsigned review concludes:

”But if there are any of our readers who wish to find examples of bad rhetoric, involved syntax, stilted sentiment and incoherent English, we will take the liberty of recommending to them this precious volume of Mr. Melvilles."

Uh-oh. I guess that writer thought he was being culturally significant.

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