A Problem of Knowledge

Donika Kelly


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Inanimates in ExileElectrocuting the ElephantThe Hour of the Pig

A Problem of Knowledge responds to the 1818 New York state court case Maurice v. Judd. At the center of the case was a dispute over the categorization of an uninspected cask of whale oil. At the time, fish oil was taxed under New York State law and required an inspection stamp, but the plaintiff’s cask bore none. Instead of paying the fine, he claimed whales were not fish and so their oil was not fish oil.

I found myself compelled by the claim that a whale is a fish even though I know better. What’s more, I found myself wondering how much it matters that we get the category right when the whale population was decimated by hunting and commerce.—Donika Kelly

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Donika Kelly reading A Problem of Knowlege, 2022.

A Problem of Knowledge
Maurice v Judd, 1818

Which began with oil in the cask.

Which begat the proposition:

the whale is not a fish

and thus its oil not fish oil

and thus requires no inspection

and thus requires no stamp

and thus the fine

should go unpaid.

The proposition an affront

to the commonest sense: the whale

a fish in the three empires of nature,

just as a bat is a bird

as a barnacle goose is a fish

as a ship at sea is a fish.

Common knowledge.

The whale a fish in the empire

of the commonest mind,

(though be-lunged, warm blooded,

the calf at the breast, the tail

perpendicular to the body),

exists only in water.

Anatomy no amendatory argument. The facts

of the whale which are very like a whale

and its oil: luminous,


The fact: a whale is no more a fish

than a man a fish. This, the problem

of knowledge, which matters

not at all to the whale,

who, though neither man

nor fish, finds itself dead,

harvested by the whale iron and the rope,

the lance and the long patience of men.

This, the triviality of taxonomy, science

abutting the bottom line,

statute and regulation in the Empire

State: wheresoever located in the great chain

of being, the whale is worth more

in its profitable parts,

the baleen commonly called bone,

the oil commonly called fish,

the latter, subject to inspection, to tax.

The verdict: the fine to be paid.


Many thanks to D. Graham Burnett’s Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature (Princeton University Press, 2007), a lively book that brought the evolving and intersecting worlds of early 19th Century science and law to life.