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Emptying Out the Premises. Static Heroes Reclaiming Space

The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity. . . . During these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law.

—Franz Kafka, “Before the Law”

You must take him away, sir, at once . . . he now persists in haunting the building generally, sitting upon the banisters of the stairs by day, and sleeping in the entry by night. Every body is concerned; clients are leaving the offices; some fears are entertained of a mob; something you must do, and that without delay.

—Herman Melville, “Bartleby, the Scrivener”

In Kafka’s short parable “Before the Law,” a man from the country awaits entrance to the premises of the Law through a single doorway. Despite waiting “at one side of the door” for years, the man is denied admission. Right before he dies, he asks the doorkeeper why no one has tried to go through the gate in all these years. The compassionate, yet intransigent, doorkeeper answers: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it” ([1915] 1999, 4). The final act of shutting the door conveys the opaque closure of the premises of the Law as well as its impenetrable character; it also reinforces the idea of the Law’s absolute power and authority, which remains uncontested in Kafka’s story. Almost a century before, Melville presents a parallel scene in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” that illustrates not only that the Law can be infiltrated, but also that the gesture of merely standing at its door may be an effective way of resisting and interrupting its power. When, after having occupied the lawyer’s chambers for some time, Bartleby is finally evicted from the premises of the Wall Street office, he “persist[s] in occupying the entry,” “sitting upon the banisters of the stairs by day, and sleeping in the entry by night” ([1853] 1961, 147).1 Though spatially outside the office—just like the man in Kafka’s story—Bartleby continues to be the source of “great tribulation” and remains, as it were, still an insider, still occupying the chambers. Bar- tleby’s acts of occupation, whether as “motionless occupant” inside the office, or as man standing at the door, manage to cast “a general gloom over the premises” upon which the lawyer in the story constructs his assumptions. Paradoxically, in the end it is the office of law that abandons its premises.

This chapter illustrates how Bartleby’s occupation of the physical chambers of the Law is no act of mere disobedience in the workplace. His apparently harmless gesture turns into a form of “political action,” in Ranciere’s understanding of it: “In the end everything in politics turns on the distribution of spaces. . . . For me, political action always acts upon the social as the litigious distribution of places and roles” (2003, 201). Bartleby’s occupation of the lawyer’s chambers in the heart of Wall Street transcends the spatial coordinates of the office to overlap into the sphere of power and politics.2 The narrative reveals how spatial occupation can translate into potential ideological resistance, inevitably reverberating in recent political movements that have made of the occupation of public space their foundational moment—with “Occupy Wall Street” as a case in point.3 The lawyer and Bartleby employ different strategies to occupy and dis-occupy the physical grounds of the Law. As if following Ranciere’s notion that the “distribution of spaces” is at the heart of politics, their spatial rhetoric bespeaks their efforts to imprint the legal premises with the words of power, or with the inscrutable silence of resistance. Either the lawyer stands his ground, asserting spatial sovereignty over his own office, or he is displaced from it, as he himself argues: “If you do not go away from these premises before night, I shall feel bound—indeed I am bound—to—to—to quit the premises myself!” (148). As his words betray throughout the story, the lawyer will only “assume the ground,” whereas Bartleby occupies it.

In the face of a static and reductive space, one defined by the rigid spatial practices in the office, Bartleby stages his particular intimate revolt by engaging in a peaceful undeclared act of spatial occupation. Standing the premises becomes his surprising response to the stifling environment in the law offices in mid-nineteenth-century New York. In this sense, his actions are hardly attuned to traditional American spatial practices. In 1853, when Melville wrote the story, the young country was engaged in massive land seizure in the West. The Gold Rush and the westward expansion, among other instances of spatial mobility, served as foundation for the quintessentially American image of the pioneer. Emerging out of this context, Bar- tleby is the atypical hero of a culture that prides itself on spatial mobility and dynamic action. Bartleby is no new Adam, forging his life in the virgin land; he is no frontier hero opening up trails into the wilderness, beyond the confines of civilized life; and neither is he the quintessential flaneur, asserting his right to redefine the urban space in his daily itineraries throughout the city.4 As a paradoxical “wanderer who refuses to budge,” he remains within clearly demarcated landscapes, heavily structured and mapped, rigidly inscribed with the writings of (legal) authority. His static occupation of space, as we explore below, sets him apart from a long American tradition premised on mobility: from the myriad heroes in flight from reductive social niches, to explorers sounding the edges of the unknown, to settlers appropriating new spaces. Instead, Bartleby’s occupation of the office resonates as a powerful political act, in Ranciere’s sense. Unlike the man from the country in Kafka’s story, Bartleby’s physical occupation, as we explore in this chapter, translates as ideological dis-occupation, as a canceling out of the conceptual premises of authority and power inscribed in the physical premises of the office.

 
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