ELIT Seminar: “Moby-Dick and Money as an Ethical Test”, Eileen John, 5:30PM May 10 (EN)

The Department of English Language and Literature invites you to a public talk by Professor Eileen John (University of Warwick).

Title: “Moby-Dick and Money as an Ethical Test”

Date and time: Wednesday 10 May, 17:30

Place: G160

Abstract: My starting point is a contrast that can be drawn between Melville’s final novel, The Confidence-Man (1857), and his now most renowned novel, Moby-Dick (1851). The central actions of The Confidence Man are the ingenious efforts of a series of figures – or one morphing con man – to extract money from fellow passengers on a riverboat. Money appears here as a trigger for a kind of relentless ethical testing. In the money-extracting project our ethical possibilities seem at least horribly diminished, if not void altogether. Is confidence in people ludicrous? Moby-Dick is also saturated with references to and concern for money. There is no shying away from whaling’s status as a commercial enterprise, and the valuing of money by people is a significant moving part in the plot. However, Moby-Dick roams around the functions of money and our ways of valuing it in a more free-wheeling and less ethically devastating way. What is money, such that our handling of it can be ethically revealing? Does ethical life in some way depend on creating something with the functions of money, e.g., able to facilitate a collective exteriorisation of valuing? Do we need money to exist, so that we can appreciate non-monetary relations and goods? Herman Melville’s fiction leads me to a surprisingly non-cynical thought about money, which is that it is an ethically demanding and deep component of human life. Whether or not I make this thought compelling, I hope to show that understanding money cannot be left to the economists; the likes of Melville are called for as well.

Speaker bio: Eileen John is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick. Her work is in aesthetics and philosophy of literature, with a special interest in how literary works engage us in philosophical and ethical inquiry. Recent papers concern the nature of fiction, artistic disagreement, and works by Emily Dickinson, Jenny Erpenbeck, and J. M. Coetzee. She co-directs Warwick’s Centre for Research in Philosophy, Literature and the Arts.