Killing Bartleby (Before It’s Too Late)
Why did I not die at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?
Why did the knees receive me?
Or why the breasts, that I should suck?
For then I should have lain down and been quiet;
I should have slept; then I should have been at rest,
with kings and counselors of the earth
who rebuilt ruins for themselves…
—Job 3:11-14 (RSV)
“Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street”: I made the mistake of rereading this little gem a few weeks back. Section I, below, retells the story with an eye to heuristic neglect. Section II leverages this retelling into a critique of readings, like those belonging to the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Slavoj Zizek, that fall into the narrator’s trap of exceptionalizing Bartleby. If you happen to know anyone interested in Bartleby criticism, by all means encourage them to defend their ‘doctrine of assumptions.’
The story begins with the unnamed narrator identifying two ignorances, one social and the other personal. The first involves Bartleby’s profession, that “somewhat singular set of men, of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written.” Human scriveners, like human computers, hail from a time when social complexities demanded the undertaking of mechanical cognitive labours, the discharge of tasks too procedural to rest easy in the human soul. Copies are all the ‘system’ requires of them, pure documentary repetition. It isn’t so much that their individuality does not matter, but that it matters too much, perturbing (‘blotting’) the function of the whole. So far as social machinery is legal machinery, you could say law-copyists belong to the neglected innards of mid-19th century society. Bartleby belongs to what might be called the caste of most invisible men.
What makes him worthy of literary visibility turns on a second manifestation of ignorance, this one belonging to the narrator. “What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby,” he tells us, “that is all I know of him, except, indeed, one vague report which will appear in the sequel.” And even though the narrator thinks this interpersonal inscrutability constitutes “an irreparable loss to literature,” it turns out to be the very fact upon which the literary obsession with “Bartleby, the Scrivener” hangs. Bartleby is so visible because he is the most hidden of the hidden men.
Since comprehending the dimensions of a black box buried within a black box is impossible, the narrator has no choice but to illuminate the latter, to provide an accounting of Bartleby’s ecology: “Ere introducing the scrivener, as he first appeared to me, it is fit I make some mention of myself, my employees, my business, my chambers, and general surroundings; because some such description is indispensable to an adequate understanding of the chief character about to be presented.” In a sense, Bartleby is nothing apart from his ultimately profound impact on this ecology, such is his mystery.
Aside from inklings of pettiness, the narrator’s primary attribute, we learn, is also invisibility, the degree to which he disappears into his social syntactic role. “I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds,” he tells us. “All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man.” He is, in other words, the part that does not break down, and so, like Heidegger’s famed hammer, never becomes something present to hand, an object of investigation in his own right.
His description of his two existing scriveners demonstrates that his ‘safety’ is to some extent rhetorical, consisting in his ability to explain away inconsistencies, real or imagined. Between Turkey’s afternoon drunkenness and Nipper’s foul morning temperament, you could say his office is perpetually compromised, but the narrator chooses to characterize it otherwise, in terms of each man mechanically cancelling out the incompetence of the other. “Their fits relieved each other like guards,” the narrator informs us, resulting in “a good natural arrangement under the circumstances.”
He depicts what might be called an economy of procedural and interpersonal reflexes, a deterministic ecology consisting of strictly legal or syntactic demands, all turning on the irrelevance of the discharging individual, the absence of ‘blots,’ and a stochastic ecology of sometimes conflicting personalities. Not only does he instinctively understand the insoluble nature of the latter, he also understands the importance of apology, the power of language to square those circles that refuse to be squared. When he comes “within an ace” of firing Turkey, the drunken scrivener need only bow and say what amounts to nothing to mollify his employer. As with bonds and mortgages and title-deeds, the content does not so much matter as does the syntax, the discharge of social procedure. Everyone in his office “up stairs at No.—Wall-street” is a misfit, and the narrator is a compulsive ‘fitter,’ forever searching for ways to rationalize, mythologize, and so normalize, the idiosyncrasies of his interpersonal circumstances.
And of course, he and his fellows are entombed by the walls of Wall Street, enjoying ‘unobstructed views’ of obstructions. Theirs is a subterranean ecology, every bit as “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life’” as the labour that consumes them.
Enter Bartleby. “After a few words touching his qualifications,” the narrator informs us, “I engaged him, glad to have among my corps of copyists a man of so singularly sedate an aspect, which I thought might operate beneficially upon the flighty temper of Turkey, and the fiery one of Nippers.” Absent any superficial sign of idiosyncrasy, he seems the perfect ecological fit. The narrator gives the man a desk behind a screen in his own office, a corner possessing a window upon obstruction.
After three days, he calls out to Bartleby to examine the accuracy of a document, reflexively assuming the man would discharge the task without delay, only to hear Bartleby, obscure behind his green screen, say the fateful words that would confound, not only our narrator, but countless readers and critics for generations to come: “I would prefer not to.” The narrator is gobsmacked:
“I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.””
Given the “natural expectancy of instant compliance,” the narrator assumes the breakdown is communicative. When he realizes this isn’t the case, he confronts Bartleby directly, to the same effect:
“Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. But as it was, I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero out of doors.”
Realizing that he has been comprehended, the narrator assumes willful defiance, that Bartleby seeks to provoke him, and that, accordingly, the man will present the cues belonging to interpersonal power struggles more generally. When Bartleby manifests none of these signs, the hapless narrator lacks the social script he requires to solve the problem. Turning out the scrivener becomes as unthinkable as surrendering his bust of Cicero, which is to say, the very emblem of his legal vocation.
The next time Bartleby refuses to read, the narrator demands an explanation, asking, “Why do you refuse?” To which Bartleby replies, once again, “I would prefer not to.” When the narrator presses, resolved “to reason with him,” he realizes that dysrationalia is not the problem: “It seemed to me that while I had been addressing him, he carefully revolved every statement that I made; fully comprehended the meaning; could not gainsay the irresistible conclusions; but, at the same time, some paramount consideration prevailed with him to reply as he did.”
If Bartleby were non compos mentis, then he could be ‘medicalized,’ reduced to something the narrator would find intelligible—something providing some script for action. Instead, the scrivener understands, or manifests as much, leaving the narrator groping for evidence of his own rationality:
“It is not seldom the case that when a man is browbeaten in some unprecedented and violently unreasonable way, he begins to stagger in his own plainest faith. He begins, as it were, vaguely to surmise that, wonderful as it may be, all the justice and all the reason is on the other side. Accordingly, if any disinterested persons are present, he turns to them for some reinforcement for his own faltering mind.”
For a claim to be rational it must be rational to everyone. Each of us is stranded with our own perspective, and each of us possesses only the dimmest perspective on that perspective: rationality is something we can only assume. This is why ‘truth’ (especially in ‘normative’ matters (politics)) so often amounts to a ‘numbers game,’ a matter of tallying up guesses. Our blindness to our cognitive orientation—medial neglect—combined with the generativity of the human brain and the capriciousness of our environments, requires the communicative policing of cognitive idiosyncrasies. Whatever rationality consists in, minimally it functions to minimize discrepancies between individuals, sometimes vis a vis their environments and sometimes not. Reason, like the narrator, makes things fit.
The ‘disinterested persons’ the narrator turns to are themselves misfits, with “Nippers’ ugly mood on duty and Turkey’s off.” The irony here, and what critics are prone to find most interesting, is that the three are anything but disinterested. The more thought-provoking fact, however, lies in the way they agree with their employer despite the wild variance of their answers. For all the idiosyncrasies of its constituents, the office ecology automatically manages to conserve its ‘paramount consideration’: functionality.
Baffled unto inaction, the narrator suffers bouts of explaining away Bartleby’s discrepancies in terms of his material and moral utilities. The fact of his indulgences alternately congratulates and exasperates him: Bartleby becomes (and remains) a bi-stable sociocognitive figure, alternately aggressor and victim. “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance,” the narrator explains. “If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity; then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.” To be earnest is to be prone to minimize social discrepancies, to optimize via the integrations of others. The passivity of “I would prefer not to” poises Bartleby upon a predictive-processing threshold, one where the vicissitudes of mood are enough to transform him from a ‘penniless wight’ into a ‘brooding Marius’ and back again. The signals driving the charitable assessment are constantly interfering with the signals driving the uncharitable assessment, forcing the different neural hypotheses to alternate.
Via this dissonance, the scrivener begins to train him, with each “I would prefer not to” tending “to lessen the probability of [his] repeating the inadvertence.”
The ensuing narrative establishes two facts. First, we discover that Bartleby belongs to the office ecology, and in a manner more profound than even the narrator, let alone any one of his employees. Discovering Bartleby indisposed in his office on a Sunday, the narrator finds himself fleeing his own premises, alternately lost in “sad fancyings—chimeras, doubtless, of a sick and silly brain” and “[p]resentiments of strange discoveries”—strung between delusion and revelation.
Second, we learn that Bartleby, despite belonging to the office ecology, nevertheless signals its ruination:
“Somehow, of late I had got into the way of involuntarily using this word “prefer” upon all sorts of not exactly suitable occasions. And I trembled to think that my contact with the scrivener had already and seriously affected me in a mental way. And what further and deeper aberration might it not yet produce?”
When the narrator catches Turkey also saying “prefer,” he says, “So you have got the word too,” as if a verbal tick could be caught as a cold. Turkey manifests cryptonesia. Nippers does the same not moments afterward—ever bit as unconsciously as Turkey. Knowing nothing of the way humans have evolved to unconsciously copy linguistic behaviour, the narrator construes Bartleby as a kind of contagion—or pollutant, a threat to his delicately balanced office ecology. He once again determines he must rid his office of the scrivener’s insidious influence, but, under that influence, once again allows prudence—or the appearance of such—to dissuade immediate action.
Bartleby at last refuses to copy, irrevocably undoing the foundation of the narrator’s ersatz rationalizations. “And what is the reason?” the narrator demands to know. Staring at the brick wall just beyond his window, Bartleby finally offers a different explanation: “Do you not see the reason for yourself.” Though syntactically structured as a question, this statement possesses no question mark in Melville’s original version (as it does, for instance, in the version anthologized by Norton). And indeed, the narrator misses the very reason implied by his own narrative—the wall that occupied so many of Bartleby’s reveries—and confabulates an apology instead: work induced ‘impaired vision.’
But this rationalization, like all the others, is quickly exhausted. The internal logic of the office ecology is entirely dependent on the logic of Wall-street: the text continually references the functional exigencies commanding the ebb and flow of their lives, the way “necessities connected with my business tyrannized over all other considerations.” The narrator, when all is said and done, is an instrument of the Law and the countless institutions dependent upon it. At long last he fires Bartleby rather than merely resolving to do so.
He celebrates his long-deferred decisiveness while walking home, only to once again confront the blank wall the scrivener has become:
“My procedure seemed as sagacious as ever—but only in theory. How it would prove in practice—there was the rub. It was truly a beautiful thought to have assumed Bartleby’s departure; but, after all, that assumption was simply my own, and none of Bartleby’s. The great point was, not whether I had assumed that he would quit me, but whether he would prefer so to do. He was more a man of preferences than assumptions.”
And so, the great philosophical debate, both within the text and its critical reception, is set into motion. Lost in rumination, the narrator overhears someone say, “I’ll take odds he doesn’t,” on the street, and angrily retorts, assuming the man was referring to Bartleby, and not, as was actually the case, an upcoming election. Bartleby’s ‘passive resistance’ has so transformed his cognitive ecology as to crash his ability to make sense of his fellow man. Meaning, at least so far as it exists in his small pocket of the world, has lost its traditional stability.
Of course, the stranger’s voice, though speaking of a different matter altogether, had spoken true. Bartleby prefers not to leave the office that has become his home.
“What was to be done? or, if nothing could be done, was there any thing further that I could assume in the matter? Yes, as before I had prospectively assumed that Bartleby would depart, so now I might retrospectively assume that departed he was. In the legitimate carrying out of this assumption, I might enter my office in a great hurry, and pretending not to see Bartleby at all, walk straight against him as if he were air. Such a proceeding would in a singular degree have the appearance of a home-thrust. It was hardly possible that Bartleby could withstand such an application of the doctrine of assumptions.”
The ‘home-thrust,’ in other words, is to simply pretend, to physically enact the assumption of Bartleby’s absence, to not only ignore him, but to neglect him altogether, to the point of walking through him if need be. “But upon second thoughts the success of the plan seemed rather dubious,” the narrator realizes. “I resolved to argue the matter over with him again,” even though argument, Sellars famed ‘game of giving and asking for reasons,’ is something Bartleby prefers not to recognize.
When the application of reason fails once again, the narrator at last entertains the thought of killing Bartleby, realizing “the circumstance of being alone in a solitary office, up stairs, of a building entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic associations” is one tailor-made for the commission of murder. Even acts of evil have their ecological preconditions. But rather than seize Bartleby, he ‘grapples and throws’ the murderous temptation, recalling the Christian injunction to love his neighbour. As research suggests, imagination correlates with indecision, the ability to entertain (theorize) possible outcomes: the narrator is nothing if not an inspired social confabulator. For every action-demanding malignancy he ponders, his aversion to confrontation occasions another reason for exemption, which is all he needs to reduce the discrepancies posed.
He resigns himself to the man:
“Gradually I slid into the persuasion that these troubles of mine touching the scrivener, had been all predestinated from eternity, and Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence, which it was not for a mere mortal like me to fathom. Yes, Bartleby, stay there behind your screen, thought I; I shall persecute you no more; you are harmless and noiseless as any of these old chairs; in short, I never feel so private as when I know you are here. At last I see it, I feel it; I penetrate to the predestinated purpose of my life. I am content. Others may have loftier parts to enact; but my mission in this world, Bartleby, is to furnish you with office-room for such period as you may see fit to remain.”
But this story, for all its grandiosity, likewise melts before the recalcitrant scrivener. The comical notion that furnishing Bartleby an office could have cosmic significance merely furnishes a means of ignoring what cannot be ignored: how the man compromises, in ways crude and subtle, the systems of assumptions, the network of rational reflexes, comprising the ecology of Wall-street. In other words, the narrator’s clients are noticing…
“Then something severe, something unusual must be done. What! surely you will not have him collared by a constable, and commit his innocent pallor to the common jail? And upon what ground could you procure such a thing to be done?—a vagrant, is he? What! he a vagrant, a wanderer, who refuses to budge? It is because he will not be a vagrant, then, that you seek to count him as a vagrant. That is too absurd. No visible means of support: there I have him. Wrong again: for indubitably he does support himself, and that is the only unanswerable proof that any man can show of his possessing the means so to do.”
At last invisibility must be sacrificed, and regularity undone. The narrator ratchets through the facts of the scrivener’s cognitive bi-stability. An innocent criminal. An immovable vagrant. Unsupported yet standing. Reason itself cracks about him. And what reason cannot touch only fight or flight can undo. If the ecology cannot survive Bartleby, and Bartleby is immovable, then the ecology must be torn down and reestablished elsewhere.
It’s tempting to read this story in ‘buddy terms,’ to think that the peculiarities of Bartleby only possess the power they do given the peculiarities of the narrator. (One of the interesting things about the yarn is the way it both congratulates and insults the neuroticism of the critic, who, having canonized Bartleby, cannot but flatter themselves both by thinking they would have endured Bartleby the way the narrator does, and by thinking that surely they wouldn’t be so disabled by the man). The narrator’s decision to relocate allows us to see the universality of his type, how others possessing far less history with the scrivener are themselves driven to apologize, to exhaust all ‘quiet’ means of minimizing discrepancies. “[S]ome fears are entertained of a mob,” his old landlord warns him, desperate to purge the scrivener from No.—Wall-street.
Threatened with exposure in the papers—visibility—the narrator once again confronts Bartleby the scrivener. This time he comes bearing possibilities of gainful employment, greener pastures, some earnest, some sarcastic, only to be told, “I would prefer not to,” with the addition of, “I am not particular.” And indeed, as Bartleby’s preference severs ever more ecological connections, he seems to become ever more super-ecological, something outside the human communicative habitat. Repulsed yet again, the narrator flees Wall-street altogether.
Bartleby, meanwhile, is imprisoned in the Tombs, the name given to the House of Detention in lower Manhattan. A walled street is replaced by a walled yard—which, the narrator will tell Bartleby, “is not so sad a place as one might think,” the irony being, of course, that with sky and grass the Tombs actually represent an improvement over Wall-street. Bartleby, for his part, only has eyes for the walls—his unobstructed view of obstruction. To assure his former scrivener is well fed, the narrator engages the prison cook, who asks him whether Bartleby is a forger, likening the man to Monroe Edwards, a famed slave–trader and counterfeiter in Melville’s day. Despite the criminal connotations of Nippers, the narrator assures the man he was “never socially acquainted with any forgers.”
On his next visit, he discovers that Bartleby’s metaphoric ‘dead wall reveries’ have become literal. The narrator finds him “huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up, and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones,” dead for starvation. Cutting the last, most fundamental ecological reflex of all—the consumption of food—Bartleby has finally touched the face of obstruction… oblivion.
The story proper ends with one last misinterpretation: the cook assuming that Bartleby sleeps. And even here, at this final juncture, the narrator apologizes rather than corrects, quoting Job 3:14, using the Holy Bible, perhaps, to “mason up his remains in the wall.” Melville, however, seems to be gesturing to the fundamental problem underwriting the whole of his tale, the problem of meaning, quoting a fragment of Job in extremis, asking God why he should have been born at all, if his lot was only desolation. What meaning resides in such a life? Why not die an innocent?
What the narrator terms the “sequel” consists of no more than two paragraphs (set apart by a ‘wall’ of eight asterisks), the first divulging “one little item of rumor” which may or may not be more or less true, the second famously consisting in, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” The rumour occasioning these apostrophic cries suggests “that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change of administration.”
What moves the narrator to passions too complicated to scrutinize is nothing other than the ecology of such a prospect: “Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames?” Here at last, he thinks, we find some glimpse of the scrivener’s original habitat: dead letters potentially fund the reason the man forever pondered dead walls. Rather than a forger, one who cheats systems, Bartleby is an undertaker, one who presides over their crashing. The narrator paints his final rationalization, Bartleby mediating an ecology of fatal communicative interruptions:
“Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.”
An ecology, in other words, consisting of quotidian ecological failures, life lost for the interruption of some crucial material connection, be it ink or gold. Thus, are Bartleby and humanity entangled in the failures falling out of neglect, the idiosyncratic, the addresses improperly copied, and the ill-timed, the words addressed to those already dead. A meta-ecology where discrepancies can never be healed only consigned to oblivion.
But, of course, were Bartleby still living, this ‘sad fancying’ would likewise turn out to be a ‘chimera of a sick and silly brain.’ Just another way to brick over the questions. If the narrator finds consolation, the wreckage of his story remains.
I admit that I feel more like Ahab than Ishmael… most of the time. But I’m not so much obsessed by the White Whale as by what is obliterated when it’s revealed as yet another mere cetacean. Be it the wrecking of The Pequod, or the flight of the office at No.— Wall-street, the problem of meaning is my White Whale. “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is compelling, I think, to the degree it lends that problem the dimensionality of narrative.
Where in Moby-Dick, the relation between the inscrutable and the human is presented via Ishmael, which is to say the third person, in Bartleby, the relation is presented in the second: the narrator is Ahab, every bit as obsessed with his own pale emblem of unaccountable discrepancy—every bit as maddened. The violence is merely sublimated in quotidian discursivity.
The labour of Ishmael falls to the critic. “Life is so short, and so ridiculous and irrational (from a certain point of view),” Melville writes to John C. Hoadley in 1877, “that one knows not what to make of it, unless—well, finish the sentence for yourself.” A great many critics have, spawning what Dan McCall termed (some time ago now) the ‘Bartleby Industry.’ There’s so many interpretations, in fact, that the only determinate thing one can say regarding the text is that it systematically underdetermines every attempt to determine its ‘meaning.’
In the ecology of literary and philosophical critique, Bartleby remains a crucial watering hole in an ever-shrinking reservation of the humanities. A great number of these interpretations share the narrator’s founding assumption, that Bartleby—the character—represents something exceptional. Consider, for instance, Deleuze in “Bartleby; or, the Formula.”
“If Bartleby had refused, he could still be seen as a rebel or insurrectionary, and as such would still have a social role. But the formula stymies all speech acts, and at the same time, it makes Bartelby a pure outsider [exclu] to whom no social position can be attributed. This is what the attorney glimpses with dread: all his hopes of bringing Bartleby back to reason are dashed because they rest on a logic of presuppositions according to which an employer ‘expects’ to be obeyed, or a kind of friend listened to, whereas Bartleby has invented a new logic, a logic of preference, which is enough to undermine the presuppositions of language as a whole.” 73
“In his refusal of the Master’s order, Bartleby does not negate the predicate; rather, he affirms a nonpredicate: he does not say that he doesn’t want to do it; he says that he prefers (wants) not to do it. This is how we pass from the politics of “resistance” or “protestation,” which parasitizes upon what it negates, to a politics which opens up a new space outside the hegemonic position and its negation.” 380-1
Bartleby begets ‘Bartleby politics,’ the possibility of a relation to what stands outside relationality, a “move from something to nothing, from the gap between two ‘somethings’ to the gap that separates a something from nothing, from the void of its own place” (381). Bartleby isn’t simply an outsider on this account, he’s a pure outsider, more limit than liminal. And this, of course, is the very assumption that the narrator himself carries away intact: that Bartleby constitutes something ontologically or logically exceptional.
I no longer share this assumption. Like Borges in his “Prologue to Herman Melville’s “Bartleby,” I see “the symbol of the whale is less apt for suggesting the universe is vicious than for suggesting its vastness, its inhumanity, its bestial or enigmatic stupidity.” Melville, for all the wide-eyed grandiloquence of his prose, was a squinty-eyed skeptic. “These men are all cracked right across the brow,” he would write of philosophers such as Emerson. “And never will the pullers-down be able to cope with the builders-up.” For him, the interest always lies in the distances between lofty discourse and the bloody mundanities it purports to solve. As he writes to Hawthorne in 1851:
“And perhaps after all, there is no secret. We incline to think that the Problem of the Universe is like the Freemason’s mighty secret, so terrible to all children. It turns out, at last, to consist in a triangle, a mallet, and an apron—nothing more! We incline to think that God cannot explain His own secrets, and that He would like a little more information upon certain points Himself. We mortals astonish Him as much as He us.”
It’s an all too human reflex. Ignorance becomes justification for the stories we want to tell, and we are filled with “oracular gibberish” as a result.
So what if Bartleby holds no secrets outside the ‘contagion of nihilism’ that Borges ascribes to him?
As a novelist, I cannot but read the tale, with its manifest despair and gallows humour, as the expression of another novelist teetering on the edge of professional ruin. Melville conceived and wrote “Bartleby, the Scrivener” during a dark period of his life. Both Moby-Dick and Pierre had proved to be critical and commercial failures. As Melville would write to Hawthorne:
“What I feel most moved to write, that is banned—it will not pay. Yet, altogether write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.”
Forgeries, neither artistic nor official. Two species of neuroticism plague full-time writers, particularly if they possess, as Melville most certainly did, a reflective bent. There’s the neuroticism that drives a writer to write, the compulsion to create, and there’s the neuroticism secondary to a writer’s consciousness of this prior incapacity, the neurotic compulsion to rationalize one’s neuroticism.
Why, for instance, am I writing this now? Am I a literary critic? No. Am I being paid to write this? No. Are there things I should be writing instead? Buddy, you have no idea. So why don’t I write as I should?
Well, quite simply, I would prefer not to.
And why is this? Is it because I have some glorious spark in me? Some essential secret? Am I, like Bartleby, a pure outsider?
Or am I just a fucking idiot? A failed copyist.
For critics, the latter is pretty much the only answer possible when it comes to living writers who genuinely fail to copy. No matter how hard we wave discrepancy’s flag, we remain discrepancy minimization machines—particularly where social cognition is concerned. Living literary dissenters cue reflexes devoted to living threats: the only good discrepancy is a dead discrepancy. As the narrator discovers, attributing something exceptional becomes far easier once the dissenter is dead. Once the source falls silent, the consequences possess the freedom to dispute things as they please.
Writers themselves, however, discover they are divided, that Ahab is not Ahab, but Ishmael as well, the spinner of tales about tales. A failed copyist. A hapless lawyer. Gazing at obstruction, chasing the whale, spinning rationalization after rationalization, confabulating as a human must, taking meagre heart in spasms of critical fantasy.
Endless interpretative self-deception. As much as I recognize Bartleby, I know the narrator only too well. This is why for me, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is best seen as a prank on the literary establishment, a virus uploaded with each and every Introduction to American Literature class, one assuring that the critic forever bumbles as the narrator bumbles, waddling the easy way, the expected way, embodying more than applying the ‘doctrine of assumptions.’ Bartleby is the paradigmatic idiot, both in the ancient Greek sense of idios, private unto inscrutable, and idiosyncratic unto useless. But for the sake of vanity and cowardice, we make of him something vast, more than a metaphor for x. The character of Bartleby, on this reading, is not so much key to understanding something ‘absolute’ as he is key to understanding human conceit—which is to say, the confabulatory stupidity of the critic.
But explaining the prank, of course, amounts to falling for the prank (this is the key to its power). No matter how mundane one’s interpretation of Bartleby, as an authorial double, as a literary prank, it remains simply one more interpretation, further evidence of the narrative’s profound indeterminacy. ‘Negative exceptionalists’ like Deleuze or Zizek (or Agamben) need only point out this fact to rescue their case—don’t they? Even if Melville conceived Bartleby as his neurotic alter-ego, the word-crazed husband whose unaccountable preferences had reduced his family to penury (and so, charity), he nonetheless happened upon “a zone of indetermination or indiscernibility in which neither words nor characters can be distinguished” (“Bartleby, or the Formula,” 76).
No matter how high one stacks their mundane interpretations of Bartleby—as an authorial alter-ego, a psycho-sociological casualty, an exemplar of passive resistance, or so on—the profundity of his rationality crashing function remains every bit as profound, exceptional. Doesn’t it? After-all, nothing essential binds the distal intent of the author (itself nothing but another narrative) to the proximate effect of the text, which is to “send language itself into flight” (76). Once we set aside the biographical, psychological, historical, economic, political, and so on, does not this formal function remain? And is it not irreducible, exceptional?
That depends whether you think,
is exceptional. What should we say about Necker Cubes? Do they mark the point where the visibility of the visible collapses, generating ‘a zone of indetermination or indiscernibility in which neither indents nor protrusions can be distinguished’? Are they ‘pure figures,’ efficacies that stand outside the possibility of intelligible geometry? Or do they merely present the visual cortex with the demand to distinguish between indents and protrusions absent the information required to settle that demand, thus stranding visual experience upon the predictive threshold of both? Are they bi-stable images?
The first explanation pretty clearly mistakes a heuristic breakdown in the cognition of visual information with an exceptional visual object, something intrinsically indeterminate—something super-geometrical, in fact. When we encounter something visually indeterminate, we immediately blame our vision, which is to say, the invisible, enabling dimension of visual cognition. Visual discrepancies had real reproductive consequences, evolutionarily speaking. Thanks to medial neglect, we had no way of cognizing the ecological nature of vision, so we could only blink, peer, squint, rub our eyes, or change our position. If the discrepancy persisted, we wondered at it, and if we could, transformed it into something useful—be it cuing environmental forms on cave or cathedral walls (‘visual representations’) or cuing wonder with kaleidoscopes at Victorian exhibitions.
Likewise, Deleuze and Zizek (and many, many others) are mistaking a heuristic breakdown in the cognition of social information with an exceptional social entity, something intrinsically indeterminate—something super-social. Imagine encountering a Bartleby in your own place of employ. Imagine your employer not simply tolerating him, but enabling him, allowing him to drift ever deeper into anorexic catatonia. Initially, when we encounter something socially indeterminate in vivo, we typically blame communication—as does the narrator with Bartleby. Social discrepancies, one might imagine, had profound reproductive consequences (given that reproduction is itself social). The narrator’s sensitivity to such discrepancies is the sensitivity that all of us share. Given medial neglect, however, we have no way of cognizing the ecological nature of social cognition. So we check with our colleagues just to be sure (‘Am I losing my mind here?’), then we blame the breakdown in rational reflexes on the man himself. We gossip, test out this or that pet theory, pester spouses who, insensitive to potential micropolitical discrepancies, urge us to file a complaint with someone somewhere. Eventually, we either quit the place, get the poor sod some help, or transform him into something useful, like “Bartleby politics” or what have you. This is the prank that Melville lays out with the narrator—the prank that all post-modern appropriations of this tale trip into headlong…
The ecological nature of cognition entails the blindness of cognition to its ecological nature. We are distributed systems: we evolved to take as much of our environments for granted as we possibly could, accessing as little as possible to solve as many problems as possible. Experience and cognition turn on shallow information ecologies, blind systems turning on reliable (because reliably generated) environmental frequencies to solve problems—especially communicative problems. Absent the requisite systems and environments, these ecologies crash, result in the application of cognitive systems to situations they cannot hope to solve. Those who have dealt with addicted or mentally-ill loved ones know the profundity of these crashes first-hand, the way the unseen reflexes (‘preferences’) governing everyday interactions cast you into dismay and confusion time and again, all for want of applicability. There’s the face, the eyes, all the cues signaling them as them, and then… everything collapses into mealy alarm and confusion. Bartleby, with his dissenting preference, does precisely the same: Melville provides exquisite experiential descriptions of the dumbfounding characteristic of sociocognitive crashes.
Bartleby need not be a ‘pure outsider’ to do this. He just needs to provide enough information to demand disambiguation, but not enough information to provide it. “I would prefer not to”—Bartleby’s ‘formula,’ according to Deleuze—is anything but ‘minimal’: its performance functions the way it does because of the intricate communicative ecology it belongs to. But given medial neglect, our blindness to ecology, the formula is prone to strike us as something quite different, as something possessing no ecology.
It certainly strikes Deleuze as such:
“The formula is devastating because it eliminates the preferable just as mercilessly as any nonpreferred. It not only abolishes the term it refers to, and that it rejects, but also abolishes the other term it seemed to preserve, and that becomes impossible. In fact, it renders them indistinct: it hollows out an ever expanding zone of indiscernibility or indetermination between some nonpreferred activities and a preferable activity. All particularity, all reference is abolished.” 71
Since preferences affirm, ‘preferring not to’ (expressed in the subjunctive no less) can be read as an affirmative negation: it affirms the negation of the narrator’s request. Since nothing else is affirmed, there’s a peculiar sense in which ‘preferring not to’ possesses no reference whatsoever. Medial neglect assures that reflection on the formula occludes the enabling ecology, that asking what the formula does will result in fetishization, the attribution of efficacy in an explanatory vacuum. Suddenly ‘preferring not to’ appears to be a ‘semantic disintegration grenade,’ something essentially disruptive.
In point of natural fact, however, human sociocognition is fundamentally interactive, consisting in the synchronization of radically heuristic systems given only the most superficial information. Understanding one another is a radically interdependent affair. Bartleby presents all the information cuing social reliability, therefore consistently cuing predictions of reliability that turn out to be faulty. The narrator subsequently rummages through the various tools we possess to solve harmless acts of unreliability given medial neglect—tools which have no applicability in Bartleby’s case. Not only does Bartleby crash the network of predictive reflexes constituting the office ecology, he crashes the sociocognitive hacks that humans in general use to troubleshoot such breakdowns. He does so, not because of some arcane semantic power belonging to the ‘formula,’ but because he manifests as a sociocognitive Necker-Cube, cuing noncoercive troubleshooting routines that have no application given whatever his malfunction happens to be.
This is the profound human fact that Melville’s skeptical imagination fastened upon, as well as the reason Bartleby is ‘nothing in particular’: all human social cognition is fundamentally ecological. Consider, once again, the passage where the narrator entertains the possibility of neglecting Bartleby altogether, simply pretending he was absent:
“What was to be done? or, if nothing could be done, was there any thing further that I could assume in the matter? Yes, as before I had prospectively assumed that Bartleby would depart, so now I might retrospectively assume that departed he was. In the legitimate carrying out of this assumption, I might enter my office in a great hurry, and pretending not to see Bartleby at all, walk straight against him as if he were air. Such a proceeding would in a singular degree have the appearance of a home-thrust. It was hardly possible that Bartleby could withstand such an application of the doctrine of assumptions. But upon second thoughts the success of the plan seemed rather dubious. I resolved to argue the matter over with him again.”
Having reached the limits sociocognitive application, he proposes simply ignoring any subsequent failure in prediction, in effect, wishing the Bartlebian crash space away. The problem, of course, is that it ‘takes two to tango’: he has no choice but to ‘argue the matter again’ because the ‘doctrine of assumptions’ is interactional, ecological. What Melville has fastened upon here is the way the astronomical complexity of the sociocognitive (and metacognitive) systems involved holds us hostage, in effect, to their interactional reliability. Meaning depends on maddening sociocognitive intricacies.
The entirety of the story illustrates the fragility of this cognitive ecosystem despite its all-consuming power. Time and again Bartleby is characterized as an ecological casualty of the industrialization of social relations, be it the mass disposal of undelivered letters or the mass reproduction of legally binding documentation. Like ‘computer,’ ‘copier’ names something that was once human but has since become technology. But even as Bartleby’s breakdown expresses the system’s power to break the maladapted, it also reveals its boggling vulnerability, the ease with which it evaporates into like-minded conspiracies and ‘mere pretend.’ So long as everyone plays along—functions reliably—this interdependence remains occluded, and the irrationality (the discrepancy generating stupidity) of the whole never needs be confronted.
In other words, the lesson of Bartleby can be profound, as profound as human communication and cognition itself, without implying anything exceptional. Stupidity, blind, obdurate obliviousness, is all that is required. A minister’s black veil, a bit of crepe poised upon the right interactional interface, can throw whole interpretative communities from their pins. The obstruction, the blank wall, need not conceal anything magical to crash the gossamer ecologies of human life. It need only appear to be a window, or more cunning still, a window upon a wall. We need only be blind to the interactional machinery of looking to hallucinate absolute horizons. Blind to the meat of life.
And in this sense, we can accuse the negative exceptionalists such as Deleuze and Zizek not simply with ignoring life, the very topos of literature, but with concealing the threat that the technologization of life poses to life. Only in an ecology can we understand the way victims can at once be assailants absent aporia, how Bartleby, overthrown by the technosocial ecologies of his age, can in turn overthrow that technosocial ecology. Only understanding life for what we know it to be—biological—allows us to see the profound threat the endless technological rationalization of human sociocognitive ecologies poses to the viability of those ecologies. For Bartleby, by revealing the ecological fragility of human social cognition, how break begets break, reveals the antithesis between ‘progress’ and ‘meaning,’ how the former can only carry the latter so far before crashing.
As Deleuze and Zizek have it, Bartleby holds open a space of essential resistance. As the reading here has it, Bartleby provides a grim warning regarding the ecological fragility of human social cognition. One can even look at him as a blueprint for the potential weaponization of anthropomorphic artificial intelligence, systems designed to strand individual decision-making upon thresholds, to command inaction via the strategic presentation of cues. Far from representing some messianic discrepancy, apophatic proof of transcendence, he represents the way we ourselves become cognitive pollutants when abandoned to polluted cognitive ecologies.