International Forum for U.S. Studies

An Interview with Dr. Pilar Martínez Benedí

Melville’s Fluid Worldview: Movement, Affect, Sensation

Dr. Pilar Martínez Benedí holds a J.D. from the University of Zaragoza (2000) and a M.A. (2012) and a PhD (2016) in English from the University of Rome "La Sapienza". She was the Melville Society Archive – Walter E. Bezanson Fellow for 2012, with a residency at the MSA in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in January 2013. Dr. Martínez Benedí has spent several residencies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an IFUSS Fellow, most recently in February and March of 2017. (For more on IFUSS visit our website at http://www.ifuss.illinois.edu/).

Dr. Pilar Martínez Benedí

Dr. David Schrag for IFUSS: I’m going to start out with some “prefabricated labels,” and “categorical containers” (things I know you resist and critique in your work), and ask: what is at stake in applying the label “philosopher” (one concerned with definitions) to Herman Melville, a figure usually seen as a writer (one concerned with poetics)?

Dr. Pilar Martínez Benedí: Well, in some sense my work aims (perhaps too ambitiously) precisely at freeing Herman Melville from those labels or categories that have been more or less explicitly attached to him by the early, contemporary reviewers—was he a philosopher with “metaphysical tendencies” or a “prose-poet”? I of course don’t think that there is anything wrong about using one or the other category to refer to or focus on certain aspects of his work rather than others. And categories are of course important, nay, necessary for effective communication in everyday life, let alone in academic writing. On the other hand, however, categories also necessarily reduce the multiplicity of experience, and it is this reduction I resist. Applying the label philosopher (or writer, for that matter) or, put differently, approaching Melville from a political/ideological or from an aesthetic perspective is itself perfectly fine, but over-attention to any label ultimately reduces Melville to a category that cannot contain the complexity of his writing and dismisses that excess that the categories cannot contain. Just as his writing elicits a suspension of categorical certainty, the suspension of the binary philosopher/writer points to the continuities between the two.

IFUSS: In your reading of Melville, you deploy Disability Studies, Animal Studies, and New Vitalism. In this vein, who, in particular, are some of your primary theoretical interlocutors—past and contemporary—and what have you drawn from them?

PB: Yes, my theoretical framework has expanded quite a bit from my initial interest in cognitive science and embodiment to include affect theory, and now to my more recent interest in Animal Studies and vital materialism—all approaches, however, which in different ways decenter the human, at least when understood as a contained and self-sufficient subject. The work of philosopher and cultural theorist Brian Massumi has been fundamental to me. His Parables for the Virtual introduced me to Deleuze-inspired affect theory, and I am now discovering his take on animal studies, aimed at “replacing the human in the animal continuum,” which he considers as a “spectrum of continual variation.” A similar idea of the continuum emerges from the work of political theorist Jane Bennett, at least in her monist formulation of vital materialism, where she posits an affect that is not specific to human bodies, nor to organic matter. This idea of difference in sameness, or of variation in continuity fascinates me, and resonates, in my view, with Melville’s fluid worldview. I am very excited about the possibilities that this expanded theoretical framework offers to clarify Melville’s own simultaneous erection and disruption of categorical boundaries.

Disability Studies, on the other hand, has been an important element of my reading of Melville from the beginning, I would say, although perhaps not in a straightforward way. By this I mean that I don’t use (or, haven’t used so far) disability studies to read the representations of cognitive/bodily difference in Melville, but rather as a tool that I kept in the back of my mind which helped me see how Melville can be read differently, even when disability is not represented. The work of Ralph Savarese (a Melville scholar himself too, by the way) has been absolutely essential to my own “non-normative” approach to the Melvillean text—and to literature in general. The idea is that there might be a boon in what we all too quickly term “cognitive failure”—and that literature might be an ideal terrain to explore such a possibility. His dynamic idea of neurodiversity, which he effectually renders with the term “neurocosmopolitanism,” gestures to the possibility that cognitive difference is itself fluid, that the distance between different neurotypes can be navigated. The concept is easily translatable to other kinds of difference, and resonates, too, with Melville’s own idea, in his last novel, of a “cosmopolitan and confident tide.”

IFUSS: Your work explores what you term Melville’s “alternative epistemology, one grounded in a porous body,” something that has implications “for the relationship between the self and the other and for our interactions with the nonhuman world.” What are some examples of how Melville presents these ideas in his writing?

PB: I could write for hours about this! But precisely for this reason I will try to be brief. Meville’s fascination with the human and nonhuman body has often been noted and analyzed by the critics. My interest, though, lies rather in Melville’s porous, leaky bodies and their implications for the ways in which we relate to the world. Everywhere in his works we consistently see bodies that resist the containment given by the skin and the skull, that reach out of bodily boundaries, or that let the world, or other bodies, in. And the implications of this can be spectacular. Let me just give a quick example from Moby-Dick, where, very early in the narrative, Melville primes his readers to the permeability of the body when Ishmael quips that our eyes are “sashless windows” that let the frost (the outside world) in. Shortly after we find Ishmael sharing a bed with the savage Queequeg, and waking up to the confusion between Queequeg’s tattooed arm and the patchwork quilt, to the extent that only “the sense of weight and pressure” indicates that Queequeg was hugging him. Melville draws attention to these “strange sensations,” to the extent that the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg, so fundamental in the novel, is built up from the sensory confusion of their two entangled bodies under a quilt. How the continuity between the two bodies and the counterpane at the sensory level shapes and affects Ishmael’s open-mindedness about his “pagan friend;” how is that physical embrace connected to his sun sequent embrace of cultural difference? I think that Melville presses us to feel these kinds of connections once and again.

IFUSS: Related to the previous question, in asking if we can think a “less human-centered notion of empathy,” you also talk of “instigating cognitive change” and the “possibility of transformation.” Is what you are suggesting here, in part, a (utopian) political project—something beyond an aesthetic enrichment of how we read Melville?

PB: Absolutely, or at least I’d like think so. Ralph Savarese instilled this idea of a less human-centered notion of empathy in my mind, an idea that I find to have tremendous political implications. Savarese advances this notion as he resists and counteracts the widespread idea of a lack of empathy in autism. What if, he asks, what is seen as lack of (cognitive) empathy is actually a surfeit of (emotional) empathy—as many neuroscientific studies show? What if this emotional empathy were directed not only at human beings, but also to things and to the nonhuman world? Autistics indeed show such a deep connection with the nonhuman world. So, why privilege neurotypical forms of empathy—cognitive over emotional; the human over the nonhuman? I think this idea is worth taking seriously. So far, I don’t have definite answers, but many questions. When the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman are blurred, our sense of belonging necessarily changes. Is it possible to think of a kind of mutual inclusion (again, that “cosmopolitan and confident tide”)? Is it really possible to do without identic categories—what happens to the sense of self and political agency? Can we really believe in a distributed agency that knows no difference between human and nonhuman? Can we really suspend certainty? And, is it desirable? Perhaps Melville was asking himself some of these questions, too.

Dr. David Schrag is Program Coordinator for the International Forum for U.S. Studies (IFUSS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.