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Flows of Reading

Engaging with Texts

Erin Reilly, Ritesh Mehta, Henry Jenkins, Authors

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4.3 Juxtaposition in 'Moby Dick'

We have introduced many ideas about structural elementsjuxtapositions, seams, and edits—and absent elements—silences and gaps.

Now, let’s explore the connection between juxtaposition and attention at a more conceptual level. In this video, Wyn Kelley describes how juxtaposition works in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

It is worth asking: How does juxtaposition generally work in media texts? The answer to this question depends, in part, on what we mean by "generally". If juxtaposition shapes our experience at the most basic level—in the relationship between shots in a film or panels in a comic—the same principles can operate on a larger scale in longer works.

Melville constructs his novel from a series of fragments—scenes, chapters, even smaller units of the text—which may involve shifts in point of view (See our unit on violence.), in genre or voice, in time or in space. The reader is required to stitch these various elements together to experience the work as a cohesive whole. This reading process may involve multiple shifts in attention; coherence depends on our memory's ability to build a mental map of the characters and events. Some artists want to make this process effortless so that we forget the cognitive labor involved in making sense of the story; other artists want to call attention to the juxtapositions and force us to work harder in figuring out the relationship between elements.

Melville's Moby-Dick has a challenging structure that includes abrupt and seemingly arbitrary shifts in style, voice, time, and perspective. We never know where Melville is taking us as we move from chapter to chapter. Becuase he also shifts between different genres of writing–from fiction to science to history–he forces us to think about how the story is being told as as well as about the story itself.
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