The first occupation of Wall Street took place during the final months of 1853 in the pages of Putnam’s Magazine. This occupation was much smaller than the one currently taking place (it consisted of only one person), and initial reception was decidedly lukewarm. Years later, the story would inspire a new generation of thinkers and writers, eventually earning a place in the canon of American letters. I think it’s about time for Bartleby, of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, to come down from the shelf and enter into our contemporary conversation yet again.
Slavoj Žižek gave a talk at the Wall Street protests the other day (transcript here), which I thought was really good. But I was surprised that he didn’t mention Melville’s character. In The Parallax View, Žižek identifies Bartleby’s attitude, embodied in his invariable response–“I would prefer not to”–to any and all appeals, as “the very source and background,” the “permanent foundation,” of a new alternative order (382).
Why? Because Bartleby’s refusals to participate in the prevailing socio-economic order precipitates a crisis of conscience for the story’s narrator:
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.
By refusing that which was heretofore unquestionable, Bartleby establishes the existence of the alternative(s). In Donald Rumsfeld’s terms, turning the unknown unknowns into known unknowns: The narrator knows that another way exists, even if he doesn’t know what that way might be.
This is, for Žižek, a positive form of violence: “[T]he violent act of actually changing the basic coordinates of a constellation”(381). Not solely the act of hitting someone over the head, violence is also the act (non-act) that splits someone’s head open by smashing the boundaries of thought, opening up for the subject new ways of thinking and being in the world.
There’s a lot more here to be fleshed out and expanded on (e.g., the narrative’s place within the financial world of Wall Street), which I’ll continue to write about, but the first step toward a discussion of Bartleby and the insights it may have to offer the ongoing occupation is to smash some heads and open other people up to thinking about it.
Žižek’s The Parallax View is published by MIT Press, 2006.