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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements and Empowerment

UNDOING THE LINES OF LANGUAGE

In his escape from the disciplined spaces of authority, Bartleby’s first act of disobedience comes as a metaphorical withdrawal from the textual striae represented by the undeviating lines he is required to copy. As a scribe, his professional space is confined not only by the tight space of the office, but also by the rigid linearity of the lines on the page. Spatiality and textuality overlap significantly in his nonwriting gesture. His refusal to copy initiates a process that ultimately translates into spatial occupation. The lines on the page and the lines of spatial mobility overlap and deviate in a form of spatial rhetoric that recalls de Certeau’s theory of walking.13 However, in contrast to de Certeau’s image of the migrational walkers who rewrite the city in their everyday practices, Bartleby unwrites the office through his stillness. Bartleby’s walking, if at all, takes place within the walls and partitions of the lawyer’s office, but it is loaded with opaque and destabilizing overtones. Like the walker, Bartleby is engaged in what de Certeau terms the “multiform, resistant, tricky and stubborn procedures that elude discipline without being outside the field in which it is exercised” (1984, 96). De Certeau’s walker superimposes an elusive language over the tight grammar of the city, creating “unforeseeable sentences, partly unreadable paths” (1984, xviii). This acts as a form of palimpsestual writing of multiple layers. Bartleby’s cessation of writing does not add a new layer, as much as it metaphorically undoes the previous ones. If for de Certeau, “walking” creates a “space of enunciation” that acts out and even escapes the code, Bartleby’s immobility imposes a space of non-enunciation and silence. Through Bar- tleby’s stubborn stillness, textual and spatial mobility are driven to their own cancellation. The lawyer’s constant attempts to “frighten [Bartleby’s] immobility into compliance” (148) meet with more immobility and with a rhetorical formula that performs immobility in itself—insomuch as the “I would prefer not to” reads as a truncated phrase, recurrently stopping in medias res. And in refusing to follow the linearity of (legal) writing, entering the indeterminacy of silence, Bartleby is also refusing to follow the rigid itineraries preassigned for the self in the office. Even if he remains always in place, Bartleby interrupts the “natural arrangement” inside the office. He manages to impose a different spatiality, an opaque and blind space that erases the lawyer’s spatial grammar. Through his paradoxical, immobile mobility, failing to move about the office following the predetermined trajectories—in space and on the page—the spatial language is brought to a standstill.

The unwriting of the office effected by Bartleby begins with his disobedience to the rules of a textually disciplined space. In an office whose main business is the endless production of copies, textual replicas without originals, where any creative deviation is banned from the official discourse, it is befitting that the master, the lawyer, be engaged in a form of “linguistic absolutism” (Hunt 1994, 278). For the lawyer, language is invested with authority, a means of control and stability, and must be kept clean of what he terms “poetic enthusiasm.” It is this dominant form of discourse that Bartleby will drive to its own cancellation, as the safe language of the lawyer at the beginning of the story is made to face the “dead letters” at the end. The process of emptying out the stability of the authoritarian logos is not effected by what de Certeau terms “a tactic of no” which effectively “displaces the geography of legality” (1984, 87). Rather than in negation, Bartleby is engaged in the practice of un-, or the practice of erasing; his role is not that of a direct opposition or refusal, as much as that of an undoing, unmaking; not so much a denial as a desire to un-participate in the socioeconomic structures. As opposed to the direct oppositionality of in-, which, following Webster’s Dictionary,14 conveys a meaning positively opposite to the base word, un- simply vacates the meaning of the base word. Un- conveys, among other things, the idea of depriving of, removing from, and ceasing to be. Bartleby is described as “unmoving” by the lawyer, who, by the end of the story, links Bartleby’s death to the death of “those who died unhoping” (153). As if sensing this undoing quality of Bartleby’s un-actions, at one point the lawyer complains that Bartleby “un-manned” him. There is no intimation as to what comes after the un-manning itself, what the new prospect would be, an idea that emphasizes the lack, the blank, and the concomitant silence. Un-manning, absencing the man in itself, leads to a recuperation of absence, of blankness.

The character of Bartleby has traditionally been considered a Messianic figure. Yet, Agamben claims, “he comes not, like Jesus, to redeem what was, but to save what was not” (1999, 270). Bartleby does not bring an alternative Law, or a renovated textual or spatial practice in the office. Instead, he un-scribes the pages of the Law, empties out its manuscripts, and potentially allows for a new writing and a new Law. Rather than reviewing or redeeming the writing, with the intention of making it right, Bartleby occupies the spaces of writing with the intention of turning it again into a blank slate, a silent page. Even if the blank page is never mentioned, we can easily imagine Bartleby’s desk with the blank pages on top. If writing is the materialization of the many potentialities of the blank page—albeit just one materialization of the many potential pages— copying is not even that, since its potential is always already lost. The act of copying leads to dead letters and to silence. Bartleby opposes the endless copying of the Law with his own replication of the “I would prefer not to,” whose stubborn repetition undoes the deadening power of the copy. Copying the preference “not to” somehow brings back the potentiality that enforced copying had eliminated.

The textual silence, represented by Bartleby’s refusal to copy, reverberates in the blankness to which he drives the conventional, highly regulated forms of professional dialogue in the offices of the Law. What Deleuze calls “the formula,” the repeated “I would prefer not to,” is an exercise of deletion and erasure. Bartleby’s speech act drives language, volition, determination, to a moment of total silence, to the abyss of the not-said (1998, 72). Though apparently an expression of refusal to comply with the demands of the lawyer, Bartleby’s speech act performs its own avoidance of the direct refusal in his interaction with his boss. His phrase does not declare a will to not do anything. It is not an “I will not” as much as a simple expression of preference where the performativity of the “will not” is not present. The assertion becomes a sort of “performativity of pure passivity” (ibid.) that effectively truncates the linguistic sequence. The “not to” at the end reverberates as an expression of indeterminacy, a peculiar blank that does not allow us to look into a world of possibilities, an alternative world, as much as it leaves us looking at a void. It is never clear whether Bartleby prefers not to “do” something, or rather, if the “not to” is the something that he prefers. As Deleuze claims, “the formula is devastating because it eliminates the preferable just as mercilessly as any nonpreferred. It not only abolishes the term it refers to, and that it rejects, but also abolishes the other term it seemed to preserve, and that becomes impossible . . . All particularity, all reference is abolished” (ibid., 71). There is no refusal of particularities, as much as a “formal gesture of refusal as such” (Zizek 2006, 384), a refusal without content, an absolute withdrawal; he “prefers not to” where others might have naturally preferred to replenish their negative preferences by preferring “not to do it.” Broken and fragmented as it is, the “prefer not to” equally breaks the language of power and the power of language; it emerges as “a signifier reduced to an inner stain that stands for the collapse of the symbolic order” (ibid., 385). Bartleby’s negation of opposition, of the second term of the binary, leaves power looking into the abyss, facing the threatening void under its feet. We can sense the lawyer’s fear at overlooking the void in his choice of the image to represent his bafflement at Bartleby’s act of occupation: “I was thunderstruck. For an instant I stood like the man who, pipe in mouth, was killed one cloudless afternoon long ago in Virginia, by a summer lightning; at his own warm open window he was killed, and remained leaning out there upon the dreamy afternoon, till some one touched him, when he fell” (140).

Bartleby’s grip on the lawyer, as much as on the reader, rests on his taking us to the abyss of the not-said, forcing our look upon emptiness. Bartleby himself is a character similarly devoid of content, the embodiment of an empty signifier, a signifier that demands and thwarts the need to be filled up at every turn. Throughout the story, until his death in the Tombs, he remains a question rather than an answer, an empty signifier rather than a replenished sign, a mirror that reflects back the gaps and contradictions of the system. To the lawyer’s demands for Bartleby to sketch out his reasons, Bartleby indifferently replies: “Do you not see the reason for yourself?” (137), failing to fill in the empty space he has opened up. The lawyer variously tries to integrate Bartleby within the boundaries of the Law, where things are either legal or illegal, either will or will not. “Will you, or will you not quit me?” the lawyer demands of Bartleby, to get the same reply time and again, “I would prefer not to quit you,” thus placing himself beyond the confines of the either-or, the yes or no, of the Law. Later in the narrative, Nippers ponders again on the emptiness of Bartleby and of his popular phrase, addressing the lawyer with the need to make Bartleby sketch out his negative preference: “Prefer not, eh? . . . I’d prefer him, if I were you, sir . . . I’d prefer him; I’d give him preferences, the stubborn mule! What is it, sir, pray, that he prefers not to do now?” (136). If Bartleby’s words remain within the level of potentiality, outside the parameters of the Law, neither for nor against it, Nippers’s appropriation turns Bartleby’s preferences into a realization against the Law, an utterance that openly contravenes the Law by declaring the refusal to do, the will to not do something. Finally, the lawyer’s appropriation of Bartleby’s phrase in his response to Nippers—“I’d prefer that you would withdraw for the present” (136)—represents the authoritative imposition of the word of the Law. The will of power imposes itself, in a hierarchical manner, over the other. Where Bartleby’s preference remains elusive to both discourses, Nippers and the lawyer appropriate the phrase to fill it up with content, to distribute it within legal and linguistic bina- rism, for and against the Law. Meanwhile, Bartleby remains in his own immanent sphere, outside the binarism, refusing to respond to the call of authority and the Law. The interpellation is always unanswered. The formula drives dialogue to its impossible replenishment, to a threatening void. How to fill up a negative preference? What is there in the preference for what is not? How to prefer not the absent but mere absence? Not the thing that is not there but rather the non-thing? Bartleby’s silence takes language to nonlanguage. Here, silence is not what remains after the removal of language; rather, it is the blank slate that facilitates the ulterior supplement of language.15

 
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