The Whiteness of the Whale (Revisited)

"I'm talking morning, day, night, afternoon, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick." -- Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino) explaining his unique interpretation of Madonna's "Like a Virgin" music video in Reservoir Dogs (1992) "Am I boring you?" -- Pip, lecturing his sister on Cytology, in Ricardo Pitz-Wiley's Moby Dick: Now and Then (2007)

Like many Americans of my generation, I read Moby Dick in high school. Well, it would be more accurate to say that I was supposed to read Moby Dick in high school. I was assigned the book for Mrs. Hopkins' Biblical Allusions class. We never actually discussed the book in class, as I recall, but rather, we were supposed to read the "Great American Epic" (as it says on the cover of my copy) by the end of the term and then spell out the ways that it built upon religious themes. I remember starting out the novel with high hopes. I had read the Classics Illustrated comic book and had a picture book which stressed the boy's own adventure elements of the story -- from Ishamel's first encounter with QueeQueg to the final destruction of the ship and the death of Captain Ahab. I knew this book was going to be full of blood and thunder.

What I hadn't anticipated was the "Whiteness of the Whale," the notorious Chapter 42, which is where my efforts to make it through the book ran aground. The book is full of the 19th century equivalent of a data dump, where Herman Melville tells us everything he knows about whales, whaling ships, whaling rigs, the melting of blubber, and in this case, the color of the beast. Today, we might describe this as a richly detailed world. When I was 16, it was just boring.

Somehow, I never got past that chapter.

I tried to bluff my way through the paper and Mrs. Hopkins, who was a Sunday School teacher at our church, called my bluff, leaving me with a big red C and with a note expressing her disappointment in my performance. The fact that I never got past the "Whiteness of the Whale" remains a black mark on my intellectual record down to the present day.

Well, I have taken a vow to read Moby Dick this summer and this time, I plan to eat the "Whiteness of the Whale" for breakfast. My decision to return to the scene of the crime and overcome my childhood trauma is the result of my recent encounters with a truly remarkable man -- Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, the artistic director of The Mixed Magic Theater based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Last weekend, my wife and I drove out to Pawtucket to see a truly remarkable theatrical production -- Moby Dick: Then and Now -- which has awakened in me a tremendous hunger to dig deeper into the world of Melville's novel.

I first met Ricardo in the fall through the agency of Wyn Kelley, a colleague in the MIT Literature Section who is a leading expert on all things Melville. (Check out Wyn's essay about Moby Dick and digital media.) Ricardo had launched a remarkable project to get a group of incarcerated and at risk kids to read and rewrite Moby Dick for a contemporary audience. As Ricardo explained, he chose this novel because "everyone was already there," because the book included a multiracial cast of characters and thus offered an alternative vision of what America looked like in the 19th century. He claims that Moby Dick speaks to contemporary concerns even as it encouraged us to look back to the past and understand how we got to where we are today. He knew the book was going to be a challenge to these young men -- a kind of literary rite of passage -- but he also knew that he could inspire them to work through this material and something amazing would come out the other side.

The first time I met Ricardo, he was still fresh from the process of working through the novels with this first group of kids. He stood in my office, reciting lines from their script, in his deep resonant voice, and he spoke with absolute conviction that he was going to be able to translate their script into a theatrical experience. Ricardo wants to get thousands of people to read Moby Dick so that they can participate in conversations with young people about their experience of the novel. Those of you who attended the Media in Transition conference heard Ricardo speak about his vision for the play as part of our plenary session on Learning Through Remixing. If you weren't there, you should check out the podcast here.

For the past few months, CMS graduate student Debora Lui and Project nml staff members Anna Van Someren and Margaret Weigel have been documenting the process by which the Mixed Magic Theater brought this script to the stage, interviewing the cast and crew, and recording their creative process. When it is finished, this documentary will be a centerpiece to a curricular package we are constructing around Melville and remixing, in collaboration with Kelley. Basically, our curricular guide will start from the premise that Moby Dick might be understood as a kind of "mashup" of the Bible, Homer, and 19th Century American culture more generally.

Thinking about the "Great American Epic" as a mash-up helps to make sense of the ways that it mixes multiple genres of writing, suddenly stopping the adventure story for sermons, newspaper headlines, or lectures on cytology. Understanding Melville's work not through a lens of original creation but as part of a larger process of sampling and remixing stories and themes already in broader cultural circulation gives us a way to think about the poetics and politics of contemporary grassroots creativity. This idea about appropriation as a core literacy skill was a central concept in the white paper our team wrote for the MacArthur Foundation last fall.

The stage production, Moby Dick: Then and Now interweaves two versions of the story: an adult cast re-enacts the saga more or less as Melville wrote it while a youth cast stages a contemporary version which unfolds in parallel. In the contemporary version, Alba, the Asian-American female leader of a multiracial street gang which calls itself The One, seeks revenge for the death of her brother, Pip, and ventures, with her posse (Que, Stu, Daj, and Tasha), into the heart of the city in search of the "Great White." Where-as Melville's work dealt with the 19th century whaling trade, this new version deals with the consequences of our modern day drug wars. The juxtaposition -- old and new -- is aptly suggested by the Scarface t-shirt worn by one member of Alba's crue -- Ricardo has told me that in some ways, the themes of revenge and self destruction in the Al Pacino film spoke to his young students in much the same way that Moby Dick spoke to him. (Somehow, I pictured Mrs. Hopkins pursing her lips when he said it.)

There's a really amazing moment early in the production when Ishamel in the 19th century and Stu in the 20th century are both reading a newspaper report: "Grand contested election for the Presidency of the United States.... Bloody Battle in Afghanistan." The passage comes from the end of Chapter One in the original novel but as the program notes suggest, it could have come from the front page of a contemporary newspaper.

The adult version of the story contains its own insights into the book. While Ahab in many media versions can seem a one-dimensional character (a mad man relentlessly pursuing his vengeance and his own destruction to the ends of the earth, unapproachable and immovable in his goals), he is portrayed here as someone who struggles with self doubts, who hears the protests of his crew and feels the pleadings of the Rachel's captain, but can't turn back from the path he sees as his destiny. Around the edges, I saw the glimmers of a political allegory with emphasis placed on Ahab as a man who is lead by his guts and not by his intellect and Starbuck seen as a man whose sage caution gives way to timidity, speaking out against dangerous actions but unable to exert the will to stop them.

The visceral quality of the play was suggested from its opening moments -- when a feverish Ahab stabs blindly into the heart of a whale (which may be a creature of his own imagination) and Alba weeps over the body of her dead brother. From here, the company throws in everything from sea shanties to step dances, from hip hop to African drumming, as it tries to give us a sense of the interweaving of cultural traditions and multiracial identities that Pitz-Wiley sees as central to the story. Here, we are less interested in the "whiteness" of the whale than in the multiple hues of the crew, though in the contemporary saga, the play uses the "whiteness" to both address the cocaine trade and to suggest the complex of forces -- economic, legal, political, and cultural -- which link the war on drugs with violence and destruction in the inner city.

So, what has all of this to do with new media literacies? This is a question that Ricardo and I discuss each time we meet and each time, I think both of us come away with a deeper understanding of how we each think about the value of literacy. Ricardo reminds us that we can not divorce the new media literacies from very traditional notions of literacy. Ricardo wants to empower these young people to read challenging books and to become the authors of their own narratives. He doesn't want to see high culture as untouchable but rather wants to see it as something that can be sampled and remixed to more effectively address our own times. As we have watched him work with these young people, he again and again pushes them to dig deeper into the meaning of the words on the page and they have told our team how this project has transformed how they read. He has done so in part by taking seriously their own culture, listening to the power of their words, understanding how they use popular culture references to address some of the same key concerns as Melville and his readers confronted in their own time and through their own media. We hope to find a similar balance between respecting the past and embracing the contemporary as we frame our curricular guide about Moby Dick.

Ricardo knows something else -- he doesn't want to see these kids left behind as other students acquire new skills, access new knowledge, and learn to operate within a networked culture. He knows that his students are smart enough to confront these emerging literacies head on and he wants to make sure they get a chance to do so. Ricardo doesn't call it this but he's talking about what I have described as the Participation Gap. The Participation Gap pushes beyond a framing of the digital divide around issues of technical access and instead understands the challenge we confront in terms of access to cultural experiences and to the social skills which young people are acquiring through their informal participation in the online world. Ricardo has emerged as a strong advocate for the idea that these social skills and cultural competencies need to be accessible to every kid, no matter what their background.

As I listen to Ricardo, I know two things: first, that I owe Mrs. Hopkins -- and I owe myself -- a second shot at Moby Dick and second, that we owe Ricardo and his young people a renewed commitment to do our part to break down the participation gap. I hope some of my readers will join me in both pursuits.