Saturday, June 24, 2017


Recently, I had the opportunity to reread a story that I enjoyed years ago, when I first read it, but that I hadn't had a chance to return to: Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" (1853).

If you've never read it, but would like to, you can get a copy of it here (via Project Gutenberg) or here (as a PDF).

I'm not a fan of giving away the plot, so I'm going to focus predominantly on the things that struck me upon rereading it, in light of some of the other reading and thinking that I've been doing lately.

Perhaps the most famous component of Melville's tale--and a ready source of fascination for scholars the world over--has been the impact and significance of Bartleby's repeated comment, "I would prefer not to."

Initially and inexplicably applied to any and all requests that his employer makes of him, the phrase takes on additional resonance as the story unfolds. Interestingly, the narrator of the story admits that he feels "unmanned" by Bartleby and his phrase: as his employer, the narrator expects Bartleby to simply comply with his demands, as part and parcel of his job as a scrivener.

When Bartleby fails to do so, the narrator increasingly finds himself at a loss for a solution to this odd behavior.

Herein lies the genius of Melville's story: by stating, "I would prefer not to," Bartleby is not simply resisting the dictates involved in fulfilling a job that demands his compliance. He's also undermining the system itself by pointing to a flaw in the definition of "work"that underlies his employer's requests and the logic of Wall Street labor in general.

As the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben points out, Bartleby doesn't say, "I won't do it." And then again, he also doesn't say he will do it either.

Saying "I won't" is an overt and straightforward form of defiance. Instead, Bartleby has the nerve to express a preference.

The employer/employee relationship, as the story's narrator understands it--and by implication as we ourselves have generally come to understand it--isn't supposed to allow for the expression of a personal preference with respect to our job.

It's a job; we're paid to do what we're told to do.

As the narrator tells Bartleby at one point, "Either you must do something, or something must be done to you." This is the logic upon which the narrator operates, and by implication, it is the logic that underlies the workings of Wall Street and the definition of labor in America.

Do or be done unto.

But what does this assumption (as the story points out, the narrator is a lawyer who makes a good living operating on assumptions) do to the idea of the laborer as an individual?

The brilliance of Melville's formulation of the problem is the confrontation of power implicit in Bartleby's response. When an employer asks us, "Will you, would you, or could you" questions with respect to the tasks that we are being assigned, we're not really supposed to feel entitled to say "no."

If we do, and the employer listens, then the kudos typically go to the employer, because the assumption is that s/he is not required to consider the question of their workforce's "preference" in any given situation.

If, as employees, we say "no" outright, we are putting ourselves in the position of being perceived as not doing our job. As actively defiant.

But what is involved in doing our job is not necessarily always clearly spelled out when we take the job itself. Instead, it often depends upon our employer's understanding of our role and responsibilities, because our employer is by default the one with the power.

By saying, "I would prefer not to," Bartleby confronts this assumption outright. An employer's power lies in the worker's compliance. But without Bartleby's compliance, the job can't and won't get done.

Bartleby's phrase also encapsulates his implicit refusal to be labeled a "bad" or "negligent" worker. He simply has "preferences" with respect to how his time and his labor are employed, and he does not operate on the assumption that those are set aside the minute someone else begins paying him for his work.

Obviously, Bartleby could be fired--that would be a much simpler and less philosophical story, obviously.

But instead, Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" muses on the implications of Bartleby's brand of resistance.

One of the points I find most interesting is the fact that Bartleby's behavior is characterized as "contagious." Shortly after Bartleby begins deploying his famous phrase, everyone in the office is inadvertently remarking upon their own preferences, even if they openly disagree with Bartleby's peculiar behavior.

Likewise, at the end of the story, we learn that, according to rumor, Bartleby was previously employed in the "Dead Letter Office" in Washington, but lost his job due to "a change in the administration."

"Dead letters" are letters that cannot be delivered to their recipient, but that also cannot be "returned to sender." If the rumor is true, then, as the narrator points out, Bartleby's previous job probably consisted of opening these letters and then burning them.

The narrator sees this as the daily experience of profound despair by a man already "prone to a pallid hopelessness."

More importantly, I think the conclusion of Melville's story is designed to make us question where Bartleby belongs and what his work or his preference for not working might mean in the overall conception of business-as-usual in America.

Does work really define who we are and who we are perceived to be, even in spite of ourselves? Is productivity a measure of our meaning?

And what does it mean for us, and for humanity at large, if they are?

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."