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.