Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bartleby, preferrer?

Two recent essays that engage both with "Bartleby" and with the idea of disobedience propose to think about what models of "resistance" are provided by this enigmatic figure/Melville's enigmatic text. Aaron Bady's "Bartleby in the University of California: The Social Life of Disobedience" looks at how disobedience is related to critique, and specifically to critique's dependence on its object, as he describes the difficulty of critiquing the privatization of the university, for example, without taking on the "very language of the corporate university itself." In "Bartleby's Occupation: Passive Resistance Then and Now," Jonathan Poore describes how Melville's story stages the "gap" between the point of view of production and the point of view of the market. Both Bady and Poore distance themselves from promoting Bartleby to an Example, as Deleuze does in "Bartleby, or the Formula," which, it's safe to say, informs the short list of recent theorists (given by Poore) who have: Agamben, Hardt and Negri, Zizek (and to which I would add Tiqqun). And both play with the idea and language of "preference," Bartleby's singular utterance, providing rich interpretations of this textual moment that make it seem all the more relevant to think about the theoretical implications of this term--of preference--for thinking about political activity.

In Bady's account, Bartleby presents the communicatory effectiveness of "negative affect," because his assertion of a "negative preference" (of preferring not to) suspends the possibility of engaging with him in a reasonable way, as soon all those in the office seem to be affected by these words, even the lawyer. Bady writes, "When he is presented with Bartleby, however—that obstinately present absence of affect—he can no longer be a copyist, because there is nothing to copy. He has no choice but to become a writer: he has to invent stories about a character whose apparent subjective core is an absence of subjectivity. Faced with Bartleby—a kind of subjective zero point—the narrator not only finds his own humanity cast into sharp relief, but he discovers that he must improvise, act, invent, and in so doing, becomes a person who, for the first time, also prefers." The analogy that Bady draws to the corporate university, to the UC, then, involves the identification of the UC faculty, staff, and students who protested, or assembled, or disobeyed as the crisis. In the above quotation, Bady describes how Bartleby initiates the "reaction" of the lawyer in much the same way that the chancellor and other administrative figures reconfigure their actions as reactions, in order to also reconfigure responsibility as not their own.

But how does the lawyer prefer? And how does the UC prefer (if the analogy is indeed, as I am reading it, between these figures)? Certainly, "Bartleby" illustrates the dependence of so-called figures of authority on those who are subordinate to them, as Bady also points out. Although it is not spelled out in the essay, Bady seems to arrive at the paradoxical kernel of preference (and its splitting into good and bad) when he describes how critique loses its capacity to resist because it is dependent upon power: "Instead of 'how not to be governed like that'—which might be expressive of a desire for the absence of governance—critique describes 'how to be governed, BUT how not to be governed not like that.'" What would be negative preference (a desire for the absence of governance) is flattened out, so to speak, into a choice between two options that really lead to the same place. This mode of preferring is the outcome of a critique that is not based on truth, but emerges from authority as a justification of its very existence (as power). The tendency to present "choices" as much more complex than action admits, as being conditioned by multiple factors, as (per Bady) "enshroud[ed] a kind of fog of war," etc., also takes on and appropriates the language of preference by disavowing the presence of a wish "not to be," or that one could prefer this "nothing" over a "something." A radical preference includes a capacity for the wish "not to be"; it's this that administrators cannot think, admit, or create.

Marxist interpretations of "Bartleby," as are mentioned by Poore, tend to emphasize the "negativity" or "absoluteness" of his withdrawal/refusal/preference as a way of conceptualizing as necessary the autonomy of this moment of refusal (so that it can be characterized--positively, by them--as a vacuous resistance). As Deleuze writes in "Bartleby, or the Formula," Bartleby's gesture--his rejection of a "non-preferred option," which "continually recharges itself"--is construed as action. Insofar as it can be seen as distinct from the lawyer-narrator, who observes the action, acting qua negative preference can be seen as pure activity, as an act in which the autonomy of movement that it seems to achieve is executed on the basis of this "negativity beyond negativity." My interest in "Bartleby," however, resides in the indistinction between Bartleby and the lawyer-narrator, an indistinction that would posit preferring and negative preferring as two poles of the same process, as is suggested in Bady's reading. The indistinction presented in the story resides in the ambiguity of Bartleby as actor (who prefers not to) and the lawyer-narrator as spectator (who prefers), and the many instances in which they seem to be one and the same figure (seeing each other through and as the bust of Cicero, for example). This ambiguity seems to function to remind the reader that at every instance, the actor is also a spectator, or as Hannah Arendt would put it, that there is "a spectator in every actor." Arendt's idea that preference functions like a "silent sense" to "approve or disapprove" of an action emphasizes the role that spectation has in radical activity, but also suggests that the radicality of Bartleby's negative preferring cannot be separated out from the lawyer-narrator's non-radical (i.e. neoliberal?) preferring.

In "Bartleby's Occupation," Jonathan Poore concludes that Bartleby's recent vogue and exemplary status in Occupy is "peculiar" and I agree with this (see Lauren Klein, "What Bartleby Can Teach Us about Occupy Wall Street"; Jonathan Greenberg, "Occupy Wall Street's Debt to Melville"; Jac Asher, "'Preferring Not To' in the Age of Occupy"; Regina Dilgen, "The Original Occupy Wall Street: Melville's 'Bartleby, the Scrivener'"). Citing Bartleby's failure to resist in the way that contemporary activists, theorists, and literary scholars generally find, Poore writes, "Bartleby sought to express a principled opposition to the market in the form of a statement of preference, but his resistance remains a “dead letter” because to convert principles into preferences is merely to mirror the action of the market itself. Ultimately, then, rather than imagining the state as an effective mechanism of resistance to the market, “Bartleby” dramatizes the pervasiveness of the market (or properly speaking, market ideology), its ability to absorb resistance into itself." Poore describes how "Bartleby" stages a gap between the perspectives of labor and the market and ultimately shows how resistance to the market cannot take on the terms of the market (i.e. must step outside of market ideology), and he argues that critics such as Zizek and Hardt and Negri who invoke Bartleby as a figure also fail to step outside of the language (and ideolgoy) of the market. One aspect of the failure of Bartleby to function as a force of resistance has to do, according to Poore, with the way that privatization converts principles into preferences: "In other words, resistance itself essentially becomes privatized, as political principles find their primary expression in market preferences." This assessment of the co-optation of principles of resistance by the market also implies that the faculty of preferring consists is also already inscribed (and only legible) within the market. But this is also only the case if one returns to the conceptual opposition (between the state and the market, or between labor and the market) that Poore has convincingly argued becomes problematically conflated (in the figure of "society" or "social institutions") in the anti-capitalist movement.

But of course there are places where "society" is the conflation of these terms (i.e. according to Marx's ideas about "real subsumption" of labor under capital) or that social relations, indeed "society" changes as a result of changes in the mode of production. Arendt's idea that preference is the faculty of approbation or disapprobation only makes sense when it can be seen to function in opposition to this "society," where what is at stake is not the idea that "preferences" will only mirror the institution (be it the UC, the market, etc.,) they seek to resist, but the fact that preferences make an intervention in what appears as "the realm of necessity," which is dictated by various social institutions. The impact of this line of thought becomes clearer if we turn to Marxist feminist ideas, following Maria Mies, of the interpenetration of patriarchy and capitalism in the system of Capitalist-Patriarchy. Mies describes how "feminists not only challenged the division of labour but also the very divisions of 'work' and 'non-work'. This approach also put into question the accepted division, following from other dualistic divisions, between politics and economics" (Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale 31). One of the primary challenges raised by Marxist feminists in the 70s was that the "socially invisible" (31) work of reproductive labor is necessary for the reproduction of the working class, i.e. for productive, wage-labor. In effect, therefore, the realm of necessity and of "necessary labor" became redefined as "socially invisible" work. This has many other consequences, of course, but to return to "Bartleby," we might observe that one of the things the text presents is the interruption of productive labor and of the workplace with the reproductive labor of Bartleby, insofar as the office-space becomes his home; the private sphere of necessity, of domestic labor, erupts into the public space of the office (think of the narrator-lawyer's discovery that "for an indefinite period Bartleby must have ate, dressed, and slept in my office"). The text does not render this labor visible as labor, in the way that a feminist interpretation of it would, but it does suggest that what Arendt finds about preference, namely that the faculty of approbation and disapprobation can intervene in the realm of necessity by illuminating what appears as necessary to not be and vice versa, takes place primarily in this realm of reproductive labor, where actions that might otherwise be invisible appear as visible.

This is meant as a provocation, although not yet fully developed, to readings of "Bartleby" that focus on the power of his gesture as a way of creating a praxis based on the "negativity" of preference as a principle of action. As Bady, Poore, and other Bartleby readers have shown, there is no reason to presume that the "negativity" of preference is more immediately political (even if this is perhaps (!?) their unexpressed wish) than any other gesture, but what Arendt's and Mies's ideas about the ambiguous relations between "invisible work" and the "silent sense" present is the even a "wish for nothing," which forms the basis of radical preference, can intervene in what appears as necessary.

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