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.
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?