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.
Let’s start with a little backstory:
I had been kicking around the idea that would eventually become this website ever since Fall 2009, my first semester of grad school, when I enrolled in a class called The Ethics of Fiction and the American Novel (pdf course flyer). In hindsight, it was really the ideal class to kick off any grad school career, and the animating impulses behind it have continued to inform my work and thought as they have evolved over the course of the intervening years:”What do we mean by ‘serious’ fiction, and why do we read it? What is its relation to life off the page? Can or should a novel provide guidance, inspiration, or even food for thought for a life well lived? If so, what are the ethical responsibilities of authors and of readers? What, if anything, can works of fiction add to a discussion of ethics in ordinary lives?”
What ultimately came out of that class was an essay called “Expatriate Everywhere: Self, Other and the American Ethos“(pdf), a reexamination of the idea of the American individual, primarily through readings of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, two portraits of New York society that bookend 20th Century American fiction. Rereading it, even from this distance, there are parts that make me squirm in the same way as when I listen to my 7th-grade self sing another stupid song about a girl. And while I’m still not as smart as I thought I was, there are some parts that make me think maybe I wasn’t all that dumb either. That being said, I think it is worth the time to read in full, but for our purposes here I’m just pulling from the last few paragraphs:
This American scholarship of the Self has failed us. We have seen the inviability of the inviolable individual. Our society’s ethos tells us not to look outside of our selves, but to turn inward, steeling our selves, compacting our selves into cold, hard atoms whose only contact with others are accidental violent collisions. We need a new model—a true model—because, as David Foster Wallace said in … This is Water, “The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
What the hell is the Self? It is the ever-present mediator of our experience, yet we rarely stop to think about how it is defined or how it affects such experience. We spend our time reading up, building our selves their own personal ivory towers, “tiny skull-sized kingdoms”(Wallace 117), that by the time we look up it is too late. We are stone cold, 200 feet tall and utterly alone. When these towers come crumbling down, like on September 11th, we are given the opportunity to reconceptualize our selves.
This new model must be able to accommodate shocks, sudden changes, entrances and exits. It must also abolish the individual, acknowledge the essential interconnectedness of all selves. It should replace the “kill-or-be-killed gladiatorial amphitheatre” that we currently reside in with “a busily collaborative beehive or anthill”(Coetzee 119). It should enable us “to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the subsurface unity of things”(Wallace 93)…. [W]e have described the unmooring of the Self, the fluid nature of the boundary between Self and Other, the need to be anchored to a referent to gain meaning, the drift that occurs when we have nothing to anchor our selves to…. “This is water.” We are water.
Taking this as our jumping-off point, I want to update and expand upon some of the ideas I started to develop nearly two years ago.
In the coming days, I’ll be taking on what Adrienne Rich called the “never-to-be-finished, still unbegun work of repair,” stringing things together here as I go. Yes, it will be unpolished and rough around the edges (and around the edges I didn’t even know were there). But writing doesn’t stop when you or I click “Publish,” and I think this project can only be made better by feeding back off of people engaged in dialogue along the way.
Žižek and Ethics: “[T]he only appropriate stance is unconditional solidarity with all victims.” — Welcome to the Desert of the Real! (Verso, 2002)
As much as I dislike my temp job, I love it for the routine it imposes: I wake up at 6:30am, check the Times and reddit, listen to 30-45 minutes of podcasts on the commute, and then sit down at a desk with a legal pad and without a computer or the Internet.
At first, I hated not having computer access. I was totally beside myself, stricken with an aggressive, angry boredom–“How can anyone expect me to do anything without the Internet?” I fumed throughout my first half-week there.
But the tasks I was assigned were decidedly non-digital. They required a stack of papers and a telephone to complete, and that was it. No Internet. So, in reality, I could totally be expected to do something without the Internet, and I was, in fact, doing it without any problems. Weird.
Over the last 10 years, it’s become ingrained in my mind–and in American society in general–that we need computers and the Internet to do any kind of work that matters. (N.B. the meta-level paradox of writing about the myth of techno-necessity on a blog doesn’t escape me.) But the truth of the matter is that people have been doing work that matters without the Internet for a lot longer than they’ve been doing work that matters with it (i.e., the Internet). And I’ve come to realize that the hatred I was feeling was really me hating not having an infinite source of distraction from my own thoughts and the work that matters to me.
Because disappearing a whole day into your web browser requires very minimal input from you. You could, theoretically, spend 8 hours solely writing emails or forum posts/blog comments–but no one does that. More likely, you’ll write one or two messages on a good day, then spend the other 7-and-a-half hours reading, watching and clicking. And I’m as guilty of this as the next guy or girl.
So it would seem that, at least for me, writing for online is best done offline. Offline–where I can think about what I’m trying to say rather than how many/which snarky blog posts or [insert cuddly animal species] YouTube videos I can link to. Because if I can’t think of it unprompted, I shouldn’t be linking to it.
I heard on a Writing Excuses podcast that William Gibson never owned/used a computer when writing Neuromancer and some of his other early novels. This all reminds me of being in grammar school: When you finished your work, you could take out a book of your own and read. For someone who loved reading, the policy was like being told you could spend every free second you saved up doing your favorite thing ever.
And I think the difference between being a grammar school student and being a 24-year-old sometimes-employed guy with an M.A. is that now, reading is seen as a nonproductive use of time/hobby. But writing is still seen as work work or, even worse, schoolwork–something you should still dread, so beyond enjoyable that there’s no way anyone would do it while “slacking off” and/or not working.
I wrote this at work, on a legal pad, during the seconds of free time I stockpiled throughout the day completing my analog tasks. The routine provides me with a route by which to write.
Metaphor of the Day, 9/22: The Fed saying there’s going to be continued weakness in the economy is “[a] little bit like the Fed saying, ‘Actually America, that dress does make you look fat.’“
(Part one of Art and Sports can be found here)
I think both art and sport are at their most transcendent when order breaks down (by accident or by design) and improvisation takes over.
With a lot of sports, this is a built-in feature: you make a move, your opponent responds with his own move, and, based on this new configuration, you make your next move, ad infinitum, creating a feedback loop. In chess, the period of the loop can stretch out as players (or supercomputers) run through possible permutations and outcomes. In football, it may be only a fraction of a second as a quarterback reacts to a blitz.
The array of choices available for any given iteration of the feedback loop isn’t infinite. In sports, it’s bounded by the rules of the game; in music, by the key and time signature. Staying in bounds keeps things intelligible, but transcending the bounds makes art.
While I appreciate the impulse behind #OccupyWallStreet’s call to action, I think the movement’s limited success so far stems from a lack of identity and, consequently, a lack of purpose.
OccupyWallSt.org describes OWS as a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions” that “plan[s] to use the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic of mass occupation to restore democracy in America,” which sounds good in theory, but doesn’t turn out quite as well in practice because the US isn’t Egypt and Wall Street isn’t Tahrir Square. And pretending that they are will not make for productive political action.
In general, Arab cultures have a strong sense of a shared public sphere, while in America there is much more emphasis on the individual and the private–public spaces are increasingly being taken over and replaced by privately owned and operated ones, e.g., charter schools. Wall Street itself is effectively a private space; as the iconic center of the financial world, it’s business is business. A space like Tahrir Square, on the other hand, is public in the sense that it doesn’t have an essential politics associated with it–that’s what people bring when they gather there.
So if protesters are trying to occupy Wall Street in the sense of taking up physical space within a private space, they are impeded by barricades and police. But if protesters are trying to occupy Wall Street in the sense of getting the people who work at financial institutions located there to engage with them (i.e., the protesters), you run into a different problem: that of the “leaderless resistance” (more below). In either case, the impulse to occupy Wall Street is a result of being occupied with Wall Street.
Because this stuff only matters if you believe it matters. Saying the financial industry and corporate America are to blame for the current economic and ecological crises we’re facing is fine, you won’t hear any argument. But, to me, trying to hold financial institutions accountable for the mess in order to enact positive change is like a 5-year-old trying to make a bigger kid kicking sand in his face stop by saying, “The practice of kicking sand in people’s faces is wrong! It has to stop now!” And everyone knows this kid. He’ll stop and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I promise I’ll never kick sand in your face ever again!”–as he throws the first handful. But in real life, that’s not what you do, because making someone else responsible for fixing things that are a problems for you means those problems never get solved. That kid is having the time of his life getting sand all in and around the sense organs arrayed on the front of your head. What you need to do is stop occupying that sandbox, get up, and go to another sandbox. Or better yet: build a new, better sandbox.
Leaderless movements are great, but they have not been successful on a large scale in the US. The American Revolution had the founding fathers, the Civil War had Abraham Lincoln, Civil Rights had MLK. There wasn’t just one person these movements hinged on. Other prominent figures were involved, and every person who gave their support, in whatever form, was integral to their successes. But there has always been a somebody–or somebodies–to serve as a rallying point. Again, I would argue that it’s a cultural thing, not good or bad, but a necessary to consider when trying to mobilize a popular nonviolent movement.
A corollary to the adage “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” could be “If you try to stand for everything, you’ll collapse under the weight and never get off the ground.” And I think this applies to OWS. Everyone wants their own personal interests served first, often at the cost of coming to a consensus. In a leaderless movement, individuals are less willing to make the personal concessions required for consensus because, to them, that isn’t consensus; it’s just someone else’s personal demands. If someone is posting “Vegan Occupiers Deserve Menu Options” on the OWS forum, it’s not that surprising the protest hasn’t received a lot of serious attention.
No one deserves vegan-friendly food, but everyone deserves a safe place to live, a nutritious diet, a well-rounded education, a living wage, and a public sphere where we can engage with one another.
So let’s go build a sandbox.
Earlier this year I opened an account with the online journaling site Penzu. Very cool site, although you really kind of need the paid subscription to access some of the neat features. The one thing I really like–and that is included in the free version–is the daily writing prompts. You can have them emailed to you daily (your choice of morning, noon, or evening). The title of this post is the prompt I received today. And while I’ve totally failed to write in this journal daily as I had planned (a failure so epic that this is the first time I’m even writing “about” one of these prompts even though they’ve been delivered to my Gmail every day for the last FIVE months), this one stood out to me in a way that none of the Woody Allen, Winston Churchill and Groucho Marx quotes that preceded today’s ever did. Why?
This is a question that I ask myself daily and, on good days, try to answer because, basically, I have no money and nothing I “have” to do. I finished my M.A. in English at the end of April and then moved from Missouri to Massachusetts to share an apartment with my girlfriend. I was able to land a part-time job tutoring a few weeks before making the move. Since my plan was to take the year to apply for PhD programs rather than try to get an entry-level job and start a career, I thought I was all set for a laid-back year of deep thinking and writing in the Liberal-Paradise City-Hippie Haven-Intellectual Hub that was “Noho.”
No go. No students means no tutoring, no tutoring means no $, no $ means–what?
After a 1.5-month stint in retail, selling used DVDs and CDs and lots of gimmicky do-dads that were the epitome of (in-)discretionary spending, making an hourly wage disconcertingly close to what I got paid for basically the same job at 16, I had less of a life and more of a credit card bill. Once I broke even, I broke out.
Now I have no money, what will I do?
The primary and ongoing task is to find creative and productive ways to answer the question. Which begs some more questions: How many answers are there? Is there a “right” one? Is this even a question worth answering? How deep does this Zizekian hole go?
So after throwing all of this at you at once, I’m going to cop out and just let it all sit for a while, then try to tackle it one piece at a time.
Does that answer your question?
For the past several years, since I first started using RSS in general and Google Reader in particular, I’ve had the continually awesome experience of reading just insane amounts of information online. Everything is “Oh, I want to learn about that!” Click. Subscribe. Read. Then be ridiculously over-proud of myself for now knowing whatever the hell it is I just learned, but only ever just letting it basically rot in the back of my dome.
But for all my criticisms, both constructive and not, I never actually write anything about it. I just complain. Constantly. So I’m really as bad as the non-contributing, sarcastic ironists that I’m griping about being non-contributing, sarcastic and ironic.
So for every X number of articles/posts that I read on reddit or Google Reader, I will write an article/post/comment myself. What is a good number for X in this equation? I’m not sure yet, so please offer your suggestions in the comments. Is the process of reading-feeding back a 1:1 relationship? 2:1? 5:1? Is it totally subjective and unquantifiable thus letting me off the hook before I even get underway?
In the wake of V.S. Naipaul’s sullying of Jane Austen’s virtue, the Guardian has “The Naipaul Test,” to see how lay readers compare to the Indian novelist in their ability to tell the sex of an author just from their text.
I was 6 for 10. “Sloppy thinking. You clearly need to read more books by men.”