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by Steven Henry Madoff

Reticence and Mortgage: Bartleby as Sanctuary

We’ve hardly begun to show our supreme uninterest. It’s not because our attention has slipped. No, quite the opposite. Our attention is on high alert. Our attention is mega-attention, giga-attention. Our attention is on fire. Which is why we’re now ready to show that we have accidentally stopped paying attention—whatever interest there was, now a winter leaf. Oh, sorry, it slipped our mind, we were in the other room when the call came in, phone was dead, the email got dumped in the spam folder, how did that happen? In other words, we would prefer not to. It’s an ethical matter, really. Well, of course, it’s an existential one too. Which is to say that we don’t want to get blown up, exploited, patted on the back with the condescension of the Big Hand, spat on, burned, shot, kicked, put on a list, expatriated, color-type, gender-type, god-type, you name it. So, the file got lost when the warrant came in. Sorry, the system’s down. Just give us a couple minutes, hours, millennia. Going out for a second on lunch break, e-cigarette, be right back.

Question: Have you ever read “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street”? By Herman Melville. 1853 (elsewhere that year Vincent van Gogh is born, Christian Doppler dies, the Crimean War begins). The setting is a locus of inimitably quaint technology, pure nineteenth-century vintage. Bartleby, it’s rumored, once worked in the Dead Letter Office in Washington. Already eschatology intersects a consciousness infiltrated by microcosmic entropy. Here is the place where “sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, molders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers anymore.”[1] Ah Bartleby! It’s his phrase we now turn to as political portent, oath, and slogan.

Bartleby ends up in a prison yard. Debtor’s prison, as it once was called. A wraith of mysterious origins, who worked in a law office. The proscriptions of capital apply. He comes from nowhere, comes to work in the copying out of rules, a legal tender, so to speak, tending to laws as dead to him as the letters of the dead, and to each request for him to work, to copy (an endless mise en abyme of the repetition of the sign of law), to this he speaks his existential claim on all collaboration with the empty signature of absented governance. He says, “I would prefer not to.” “I would prefer not to” is his deferential negative, a condition of refusal, polite yet wholly in an anti-supplicative mode, indicating a dispersive deflationary state of passive absolutism. Well, what does he want to do instead? The case of “not” is the case of not this, but also of the “not” as “this,” as an object unto itself of supreme Not-ness. He’s cooled to low centigrade. He’s ice disappearing into permanent imperviousness, this Not-law like cubes rattling in the empty glass of Bartleby’s final satiation.

Now Bartleby’s calling again. He’s on the line, maybe online, from who knows where, but he’s chattering his repetition into the mechanical chamber of bureaucratic doom, whispering his hovering oath of disobedience-as-truth—if truth’s not too buried under the preemptive ambitions of our un-democracy. He’s saying: “At present I prefer not to”; “At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable”; “I would prefer to be left alone here”; “Do you not see the reason for yourself”; “I would prefer not to quit you”; “No; I would prefer not to make any change”; “I would not like it at all; though, as I said before, I am not particular”; “I like to be stationary. But I am not particular”; “No: at present I would prefer not to make any change at all.” Bartleby, in his hall of mirrored phrases, both limited and recursive, prefers not to make any change at all. He’s the perfect mirror of Law as its reversal.

And yet, of course, he’s only about change, about a fundamental undoing through not doing, dead set with his dead letters, his unwritten scrivening, to passively refute the ossified rule of external regulation, of Law as calcified imagination, as calcified life. He isn’t interested in people, only in place. He prefers the closed-in, the screen around his desk, the office door, then the office hallway, then the high walls of the prison yard, then the final blocked entrance of self-imposed starvation. To be closed in is apparently a form of place as erasure, as non-identification in the face of the clarity—that is, the clear light—of the law as Law and its copying as the infinite affirmation of strictures. To be closed in is to reduce the extension of identity, to impose Not-law as the emblem of Bartleby’s existential claim, which is to be fatherless in the book of Authority. And yet he’s a father of tyranny himself, the autocrat of his stiff little “prefer not to” that’s unquestionably his zenith of particularity.

Bartleby carries the symbolic heft of the father of all those who prefer the one to the many, the Olympian or Stygian solemnity of the separate, the performance of Not that clips the chain of fraternity and assumes the imprimatur and ultimacy of the single. His preferences, one after the other, accumulate a certain iconoclastic prestige. His tie to Being is just as emphatic as all other things muttering their agency, but just as emphatically he remains uncondoned by any agency of the consensual. And like Nature, which is chained to the habit of insistence, Bartleby is the terrifying encompassment of insistence as opposed to adjustment, which is the hallmark of being in society with others. His imperiousness of the Not is the finger that points toward the regions (social, sacrificial, eschatological) of a supernal determinacy to rest at the entrance of the not-done. And so, Bartleby’s conditional tense—his famous “would prefer not to”—is again a mirror and reversal of Law, of nineteenth-century society’s high diction of decorum, with its faint whiff of Englishness. The clerk as lord. It is not, therefore, actually conditional. It is yet another mirror image. It’s the signal of rebuttal and repudiation unto death.

That’s the story, first and finally, literally and toward his ultimately civic gravitas. Not as Gilles Deleuze theorizes, who in his own reading of Bartleby points to the scrivener’s “negativism beyond negotiation,” but lodges this in a formula of indeterminacy, when refusal isn’t indeterminate at all.[2] Not Jacques Rancière’s (brilliant) quibbling with Deleuze over a theory of representation that’s proposed as the meta-business of Melville here and elsewhere (Moby-Dick, Pierre).[3] And definitely not the mystifying inability of Giorgio Agamben to understand Bartleby’s actions, stated again and again in simple English; who builds a fascinating but useless armature of references to the ancient tradition of the Skeptics to claim, astonishingly, that “I would prefer not to” isn’t a negative or terminus at all, but like some glittering low plinth on which anything may leave its footprint of contingency that lies across the threshold between one decision and another.[4] Each of them has, of course, written incisively about politics, and yet all that seems at stake for them with the provocation of Bartleby is intellectual capital. For us at this moment, a more violent urgency is at hand. For them, the story is a diving board into the pool of literature and language’s burdens of mimesis and mediation, aesthetically, formally, ontologically—it’s “entire system of signification,” as Rancière says. Yet the sheer weight of making Bartleby the signifier of sui generis-ness per se, of the breaker of representation also per se, never addresses the inseparable relation of speech act to act in the story. Or more kinetically, the intensification, the slow locomotion from one to the other, and that language alone and language as such are not the meditative omphalos of Melville’s tale. Bartleby’s (in)actions are. In fact, he’s the mid-day twin of Billy Budd—Melville’s hero who, in a single second of explosion, hammers home the certitude of ethical life. Instead, Bartleby’s famous speech act is fundamentally and finally significant only as the languorous accretion of meditative refusal in its fulfillment as deed; a machine of the arrogant certainty of active refusal; a minotaur of refusal stomping in its cage. He succeeds within his narrow power to rise above contingency like a True North of moral inflexibility ad honorem to fix his No among the stars. His terminus is both specific, personal and mortal, and a spectacle, in his particularity, of generalization.

He never says he’s not-quite-not. He says he prefers not to, meaning plain and simple that he’s not going to do… anything whatever except say he’s not going to do anything whatever. Anything, that is, except die in one last putsch of obedience to the inscription of Law. Carl Schmitt famously wrote: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”[5] But Bartleby? He’s the sovereign of exception who decides through the expression of indifference to decision, who is himself the catastrophic sign of determinism and exclusion, of the rigidity of Law. Avatar of a pure negativity, yet one without the centrifugal urge of malice, he embodies the clarified sense of contradiction, which is an utterance against or apart from saying, of claiming through speech, receding into the performative state of reversal, of inaction-as-action, conditioned by his unspoken necessity to do against and activate with his always rearward gesture the practice of not-Law. Which is to say that Bartleby as an object of demonstration for us is not solely or crucially aesthetic. No, he’s Our Man of Political Inversion.

His case exudes what can be called foundational personal irony that lends its iron to our political call. Foundational personal irony is the irony of a schism of the self within itself, of consciousness as a consciousness of consciousness as a conquest of de-affirmation. That’s our pale-eyed scrivener behind his screen in the attorney’s office: the chill archetype of a de-affirming affirmatization rung out in that complement to contradiction: the hiss of reticence, from the Latin “again” and “be silent” (re and tacere)—to be silent again in that particular sense of withholding and withdrawal, again of moving rearward in a repetition of near muteness. That’s our man of weaponized opacity, the eternal ethical armament against Law’s legibility, with its prosecutorial demand for obedience. And precisely that is our theme: this negative formation without malice, this utterance of not-Law that isn’t anarchy, but a will toward the counter-voice of resistance.

And so there’s another word to put alongside reticence, and that is mortgage, as Bartleby’s identity as the servant of Law makes him property as such (a container of administrative place) and ties him to that first sense of mortgage as literally, from the French mort and gaige, a dead pledge, since “the deal dies when the debt is paid.” He who worked in the Dead Letter Office ingested the mortality of expired communications, becoming a cipher of the interim, hoofing it toward theological ascension and the hard gravity of political disobedience, of the mortgage concluded with the final payment of refusal. He’s the Not of no-longer-property, the No of the serenity of after-mortgage, in which preference is the cudgel of that foundational personal irony that cleaves, that makes the air thick and blank, an illegibility imposed on Law’s impositions. The debt was paid; a message sent by Melville 165 years ago and picked up now, again, while autocracies roam the world. And to which we now must answer.


Steven Henry Madoff is the founding chair of the Masters in Curatorial Practice program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Previously, he served as senior critic at Yale University’s School of Art. He has served as executive editor of ARTnews magazine and as president and editorial director of AltaCultura, a project of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His books include Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century) from MIT Press; Pop Art: A Critical History from University of California Press; Christopher Wilmarth: Light and Gravity from Princeton University Press; What About Activism? from Sternberg Press and The Power of the Unseparate: Network Aesthetics and the Rise of Interdisciplinary Art, both forthcoming. Essays on pedagogy have recently appeared in volumes associated with conferences at art academies in Beijing, Paris, Utrecht, and Gothenburg. His criticism and journalism have been translated into many languages and have appeared regularly in such publications as the New York Times, Time magazine, Artforum, Art in America, Tate Etc., as well as in ARTnews and Modern Painters, where he has served as a contributing editor. He has curated exhibitions internationally over the last 30 years in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. He holds his BA in English Literature from Columbia University, his MA in English and American Literature from Stanford University, and his PhD in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University.

Herman Melville, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” in Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories. Penguin Books, New York, 2016, p. 54.

2 Gilles Deleuze, “Bartleby; or, The Formula,” in Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1997, pp. 68-90.

3 Jacques Rancière, “Deleuze, Bartleby, and the Literary Formula,” in The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing, trans. Charlotte Mandell. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2004, pp. 146-164.

4 So Agamben writes: “Bartleby does not consent, but neither does he simply refuse to do what is asked of him.” But did Agamben actually read the story? Is there any point in the story in which Bartleby does what’s asked of him? Doesn’t Bartleby, in fact, refuse in his actions? Agamben is so busy inventing his narrow case based solely on blinkered literalism that he isolates Bartleby’s words from his deeds and contorts the story into a grand philosophical echo chamber that ignores Bartley for what he is: an engine of refusal, of civil disobedience. See Giorgio Agamben, “Bartleby, or On Contingency,” in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1999, pp. 243-271.

5 Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, trans. George Schwab. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005, p. 5.

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