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Whaling and gnashing of teeth

From an excellent new Natural History Museum book, Troubled Waters: The Changing Fortunes of Whales and Dolphins by Sarah Lazarus, a description of Japan’s “scientific whaling operation”, JARPA II in 2005:

Of an intended haul of 935 minke whales, 853 were harvested along with ten fin whales.

“Harvested”? Since the harvest is originally the collection in autumn of the ripe corn and other crops, you might think that it still carries a sense of reaping what you sow, ie getting out what you put in. Is it then accurate to apply it to the hunting of wild animals? The OED tells us that it has been so applied since at least 1947, citing uses of “harvest” to mean the killing of animals as various as fish, deer, seals and hippos.

But this is clearly a long-standing example of Unspeak. To call the messy and often drawn-out killing of whales with explosive harpoons a “harvesting” is to Unspeak that reality by evoking a placid agricultural idyll, and in the process downgrading the suffering of intelligent mammals to the status of the feelings of a stalk of wheat. At its base we can spy, too, the persistence of an idea of “dominion” of humans over all the planet’s life. (If it’s already ours, then to say we “harvest” it might make more sense in at least this way.) It’s so subtly persuasive, indeed, that we can imagine the usage gaining wider currency. Surely President Bush could recast the situation in Iraq as a “harvest” of troublemakers?

  1. 1  Gwynn Dujardin  January 25, 2007, 9:10 pm 

    Voice — which is to say, passive voice — seems critical to “harvest”‘s functioning as Unspeak here, in that in passive voice, what is not spoken, or made explicit, is the agent of any given thought or action.

    In the statement “Of an intended haul of 935 minke whales, 853 were harvested along with ten fin whales,” the *hunters (and cultures) who “harvest” said whales go unspoken, and are only gestured to, obliquely, via “intended.”

    Rather, passive voice tacitly reassigns agency from the subject of the action to its object, to suggest here that 935 minke whales were “ripe for the picking” (asking for it) — and that (935 – 853 =) 82 refused to accept their assigned fate (how uncooperative of them).

    So, applying the ‘passive qua pastoral’ formula to Iraq, I would expect to see “harvest” appear in statements such as “Opponents of freedom have been harvested from their dens. . . “

  2. 2  sw  January 25, 2007, 10:35 pm 

    That’s a very nice point, Gwynn: Ungrammar!

    In addition to your point above, Steve, we might stress that “harvest” implies an annually renewed supply, which may not be the case with whales.

    Another dimension of “harvesting”: it is used in biomedicine to describe, for example, obtaining oocytes for IVF or cell lines for culture and experimentation. In this usage, it is somewhat more consistent with the agricultural image of reaping what has been sown from a replenishable stock. Whether this biomedical “harvesting” unspeaks something (the process of obtaining these cells, which might be less idyllic than scything through cornfields on an Autumn day with a pint of grog awaiting you at home), its use here in the context of whale-slaughter is probably intended to echo scientific lingo.

  3. 3  Steven  January 25, 2007, 11:18 pm 

    Very nice points both. Certainly the passive voice Unspeaks the agent, and suggests the whales are “ripe for picking”, as Gwynn suggests. And the imputation of seasonal renewability is there, too, as in certain uses of “natural resources”. And OED’s first citation of “harvesting” cells does indeed predate “harvesting” wildlife.

    The usage I cited is also an example of the unconscious adoption of enemy Unspeak, since in her book Lazarus is plainly on the side of the cetaceans. Total vigilance against this kind of thing is a real challenge.

  4. 4  Gwynn Dujardin  January 25, 2007, 11:43 pm 

    Interestingly, I taught Francis Bacon today — so-called father of modern science, and vocal critic of humanist “affectation” and “flourish” in language. Try as he does to develop a “scientific” idiom “cleansed” and untainted by the Idols of the Marketplace — he cannot help but speak without recourse to fecund figures of speech. sw’s post on biomedical “harvesting” put me in mind of Bacon’s literary-empirical conundrum; and Steven’s post, to the professed need for vigilance on both sides. . .

  5. 5  sw  January 26, 2007, 4:51 am 

    I suppose that only in mathematics does one come close to a scientific language that has not been tainted with the flourish and affectation of rhetoric: although, this language of mathematics can participate in unspeak (for example, it would be interesting to look at how some statistics could be used, rather like the word “community”, to unspeak difference and divergence), and mathematics is certainly not a language without political and economic (and therefore social) consequence. Bacon may have been doomed in his quixotic attempt to purge scientific language of its nonscientific valence, and a more modern approach is to examine how the presumed neutrality of scientific language imports social assumptions into the (ideally) objective domain of scientific inquiry.

  6. 6  Richard  January 26, 2007, 4:59 am 

    organ harvesting? There are moments when the euphemism is almost worse than the straight version.

    This reduction of whales to crops reminds me, though, of a long-standing human/wheat metaphor in Western culture, from John Barleycorn to the Grim Reaper… I wonder if anything like the same association works in Japanese, and what term is used there for “scientific” whaling.

  7. 7  Steven  January 26, 2007, 9:35 am 

    I hope one of my Japanese-speaking readers pipes up on that question.

    Perhaps the equation of mammals with vegetable matter survives in the US military strategy of “shake and bake”?

  8. 8  merkur  January 26, 2007, 10:02 am 

    Interestingly, I taught Francis Bacon today…

    Now that would be interesting. I imagine he has fairly strong views on pedagogy?

  9. 9  Graham Giblin  January 26, 2007, 10:06 am 

    I thought briefly that what the Japanese are doing is more “gathering”, like nuts and fallen fruit – still with the bucolic associations of colourful folk dresses, solitary reapers singing melancholy strains and quaintly-woven baskets. (I wonder if we are supposed to see the Japanese singing at their work, And o’er the harpoon bending.) But these particular fruit are not yet fallen. They must be cut from where they hang (or float) and cutting, according to my favourite online etymology source is associated to some extent with cutting and possibly swords and so perhaps to killing. So in that sense “harvest” is not entirely inaccurate except that Steven is right that harvesting contains the sense of reaping what you sow. Therefore the more correct term would in fact be “reap”. The trouble with that is that “harvest”, apart from its bucolic imagery, also allows the Unspeaker to smuggle in notions of rightness and tradition, of propriety, piety and entitlement. Not to mention that harvest is so morally clean that people for centuries have gone to church with their sheaves for god’s blessing on the harvest. So harvesting can’t be a bad thing. The whales have only themselves to blame.

    Strangely enough, though, it is also now used as a sanitising word, for example, in organ and egg harvesting, as has been noted. It is all very scientific (like the whaling). There is another sterilising use of harvesting, too, which is “data harvesting”, used by internet marketers to transform human beings into numbers. Useful numbers. The header for is, Turn more web visitors into revenue. Although in their case I suppose they reap the fruit of the seeds they have sown. I wish I did, but then I think of all my visitors as people all the time. (Does my halo look fat in this?)

  10. 10  Graham Giblin  January 26, 2007, 10:30 am 

    BTW, Gwynn, as well as interestingly teaching Francis Bacon (was he an attentive student?) did you also teach Francis Bacon interestingly? :))

  11. 11  Steven  January 26, 2007, 10:43 am 


    Interestingly, I taught Francis Bacon today — so-called father of modern science

    Putting aside the issue of Bacon’s remarkable longevity, we might also talk about the rhetorical use of “so-called”, a shorthand way of displaying one’s superiority to conventional wisdom without actually rebutting it. (I do this myself all the time, of course.)


    I think of all my visitors as people all the time.

    That must be emotionally very trying. I think of mine as extraterrestrial radio signals channelled through my fillings.

  12. 12  Gwynn Dujardin  January 26, 2007, 3:08 pm 

    Remind me to stay up all night the next time I post a comment, so I can see what you cheeky Europeans are up to when I’m sleeping.

    OK. Ahem.

    On Thursday, 25 January, anno domini 2007, I, Gwynn Dujardin, Assistant Professor of Renaissance Poetry and Prose at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, delivered an eighty-minute lecture to 65 undergraduate men and women on three treatises written and published by Francis Bacon: _The Advancement of Learning_ (1605); _Novum Organum_ (the “new instrument”; 1620); and _Essays_ (1597; 1612; 1625). I introduced the lecture by directing the students’ attention to passages of prose in which the Viscount of Verulam critiques humanist literary study, and articulates his contempt for “words about words.” My students and I discussed Bacon’s initiative to “advance” a new mode of “learning,” a method scholars now term “empiricism.” We then noted Bacon’s considered interest to define and delimit signification. Finally, I responded, affirmatively and encouragingly, to students’ observations of Bacon’s use of provocative metaphors and other resonant figures of speech.

    Five hours later, in the comfort of my own home, I read the weblog commend of one “sw,” and apprehended significant discursive and conceptual correlations between Bacon’s attempt to derive a “scientific” language and sw’s observations of the use of the word “harvest” by practitioners of biomedical engineering.

    And yes, I found those correlations “interesting.”

    Any questions?

    Silly boys. I can see I’m going to have to be vigilant myself here, if I’m going to post comments!

    Rather, the point is that we all take short cuts: it’s a matter of when we take them to expedite, and when we take them to obfuscate. I shall hereafter eschew obfuscation, and take care not to omit needful words. . .

    In “so-called,” Steven, I confess that I am registering my disaffection with that locution, the “father of x,” with all that it portends. But I want my students (I’ll supply names and addresses next time, Graham) to know that that’s what other intellectual historians have called Bacon.

    And sure, I would like to teach him a thing or two! :)

    Have a good day, everyone . . . or perhaps “once more, unto the breach, dear friends” would be more a propos in this company . . .

  13. 13  Graham Giblin  January 26, 2007, 5:14 pm 

    How dare you call me a European – and on Australia Day, too!

  14. 14  Steven  January 26, 2007, 5:40 pm 

    “Cheeky Europeans”? It’s true that, regardless of their actual national affiliations, I do like to think of SW and Graham as the Cheeky Girls of the blogosphere.

  15. 15  Gwynn Dujardin  January 26, 2007, 8:17 pm 

    Anyone want to throw me a rope down here in the hole I’ve dug myself?

    Happy Australia Day, Graham. My apologies.

  16. 16  John Fallhammer  January 27, 2007, 5:18 pm 

    > I wonder if anything like the same association works in Japanese,
    > and what term is used there for “scientific” whaling.

    Various words are used for harvesting, with all sorts of associations, which I wouldn’t even want to start investigating (because of the immensity of the task).

    The term for scientific whaling is ‘chosa-hokei’. The ‘kei’ bit is whale and the ‘ho’ bit simply means to catch, in quite a broad range of senses. ‘Chosa’ is not literally ‘scientific’ but ‘survey’. It can apply to all sorts of data collection – police investigations, market research questionnaires, geology field trips, audit surveys, etc. I think a Japanese person would take it to mean monitoring whale numbers.

  17. 17  Steven  January 27, 2007, 8:07 pm 

    That’s very illuminating, thanks. Would you say that in fact it’s more euphemistic in Japanese than in English, or does that appearance to a non-Japanese speaker have more to do with the way the Japanese language works in general?

  18. 18  Graham Giblin  January 28, 2007, 1:10 pm 

    It does paint a picture of ‘monitoring’ whale numbers by ‘collecting’ them.

    “To collect them we have to harpoon them one by one and draw them up onto the factory ship and carefully inspect them inside and out to make sure they are indeed whales. Then we put a little tick in our record books. We offer to let them swim away, but they all seem reluctant to do so.”

    BTW, Gwynn, some of my best friends are Canadian.

  19. 19  John Fallhammer  January 29, 2007, 12:13 pm 

    I dunno about euphemistic. ‘Scientific’ or ‘monitoring’ is a lie either way and everybody knows it. I think most Japanese people are well aware of what’s going on. Some are embarrassed but many regard it as a matter of pride in standing up to international pressure. Imagine the fuss if it had been the EU trying to ban fox-hunting.

    Very few people actually want to eat the stuff anyway but the fishing villages are in areas with disproportionate political influence and the noble fisherman is a powerful image in the culture, which inevitably attracts right-wing politicians like flies. Demand will fall even further as the generations who were fed whale at school die out, and the fishing industry is in trouble anyway, so the problem might solve itself in a decade or two.

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