Over the course of my first semester at the Rhode Island School of Design, I have found myself drawn to the symbolism of whale death as a metaphor for the natural progression of biological society. Initially, this fascination was centered around the circumstances surrounding the event of a natural whale death, an event known as a Whale Fall.
When a whale dies in their natural habitat, a beautiful ecosystem blooms from its remains. The whale’s energy gives birth to a multistage, self-subsistent community of scavengers, predators and parasites, who can thrive for as long as the lifespan of the whale itself, all in darkness. When a whale is taken out of its natural habitat by human intervention, however, historically this same energy is converted into an entirely different form: light.
These two possible fates of a whale’s remains can be likened to two possible fates of an ailing governmental body or nation: dissolution or intervention. Of course, such a dualistic system oversimplifies an event which, in reality, is infinitely complex. However, using these systems can help us better understand the fate of late-stage civilization, and the progression of biological society as a whole over time.
An example of dissolution can be seen in the fate of Ancient Rome: an over-encumbered empire, bloated beyond recognition, is divvied piecemeal by foreign invaders as its governmental body crumbles from within. Such can be likened to the succumbence of a whale to an ever-increasing accumulation of parasites late in its life, who themselves plant the seed of a flourishing ecosystem within the corpse of their host.
Intervention as the fate of a nation can be observed with increasing frequency as modernization becomes ever more singulatarian: governments deemed draconian or obsolete are cast out in favor of sleeker, newer forms of industrialization and governance. Such events can be likened to the event of a whale being plucked out of the water by human intervention and converted into that most liminal of energy sources, light.
I explored the connections between these two forms of whale death and society in my studio final Rain Suns Ocean, Gods emerging. Yet there is a third fate a whale can suffer after death, and my interpretation of this third fate was the focus of my final project for Interventions in Capitalism. Traditionally referred to as Cetacean Stranding, individual whales may beach themselves for a multitude of reasons, including genetic mutation, pursuit from a predator, pain from an injury, entanglement in fishing gear, or old age. Most tragically, multiple strandings can occur when fellow whales from a stranded cetacean’s pod hear its distress call and attempt to come to its assistance.
The intersection between cetacean stranding and human society is present in the form of commodification. Although whales are no longer harvested by humans for their energy as light, they nevertheless remain hunted for their meat as a form of commodity. Although many cultures rely on whale meat as an integral element of their egalitarian economies, other cultures treat whale meat as a commodity, to be canned and shelved as a stock item born of surplus. Such an act, the isolation of small chunks of a whale’s body within tiny metal containers, preserving them with chemicals that deter the agents of spoilage, robs the potential for the bountiful ecosystem that would have swelled at the bottom of the ocean had the whale been left to its natural fate.
I perceive this act of parcellation and commodification as the ultimate form of stranding: not only is the whale robbed of its potential to propagate the flow of its natural ecosystem, it is sterilized and prevented from being broken down even by the unnatural scavengers that feast on those cetaceans unfortunate enough to be stranded on a beach.
As such, commodification is the third fate of society that can be connected to the fates of our aquatic correlatives. Just as commodification of nature is prevalent in human culture, so too is commodification of marginalized cultures prevalent in human society. Such an event occurs when, rather than being dissolved piecemeal by foreign invaders, or acquired and transformed by a superior entity, a culture is encapsulated within the confines of a larger nation. No longer allowed to evolve or transcend, such a culture is kept in a state of eery purgatory, an abomination of what it once was.
By returning my small parcel of commodified whale to the sea, I hoped to gain some small measure of catharsis from the commodification of my own personal culture, to cease the endless distress calls of whales which have deafened me to the sound of music. But as of yet, no respite has been received. I fear that I myself have become stranded, lured by those distress calls to strew my mind across barren shores.