Melville and Protest; Melville Occupies Wall Street
Chair: Hester Blum (Penn State University)
On November 10, 2011, the self-described "nerdiest protest ever" took place as part of Occupy Wall Street in New York's Zuccotti Park: a group of writers, booksellers, and OWS participants gathered for a communal public reading of "Bartleby, the Scrivener," Melville's tale of Wall Street. While recognizing that the story is an imperfect analogy to the OWS movement's protest against economic inequality, the organizers sought "to invoke the long American history of refusal that informs and enlivens Occupy" (http://housingworksbookstore.tumblr.com/). In doing so, they invoked as well a critical history that has considered how far we can take Bartleby's preference against action as a refusal or a protest.
The two Melville Society panels at MLA took the resonance of "Bartleby" within the Occupy Wall Street movement as a call to consider the broader stakes of protest in Melville's writing, as well as the various applications that have been made of his works in the name of protest. From the "No! in thunder" that he imputed to Hawthorne to the various forms of social or intellectual protest and labor action contemplated (and often unrealized) by characters such as John Brown, Starbuck, Billy Budd, Fatherless Oberlus, Jack Chase, Tommo, and Isabel, Melville's body of work shows an ongoing interest in resistance, refusal, and withdrawal. As critical conversations about him continue to expand, "Melville and Protest" and "Melville Occupies Wall Street" offered opportunities to enhance our understanding of the author's engagement with and relevance to collective action and forms of opposition to power. [End Page 109]
Melville and Protest
Collective Action, Corporate Fiction, and The Confidence-Man
Franklin & Marshall College
Although Occupy Wall Street has claimed Bartleby as a precursor, many of its hallmarks—the people's mic, chains of linked arms, Guy Fawkes masks—rely on a collectivity that trades Bartleby's singular dissent for the submersion of individual will in a group. Both the power and the danger of such collectivity are emblematized by the monkey-rope that "merge[s]" Ishmael and Queequeg in "a joint stock company of two." While it borrows the language of the business corporation, Ishmael's image of shared identity and vulnerability highlights the distance between the antebellum corporation and contemporary overtones of hegemony, dehumanization, and greed. The [End Page 110] Confidence-Man is Melville's richest treatment of the possibilities of corporate collectivity. Not only does the novel abound in corporations, from the Black Rapids Coal Company to the World's Charity, but its central figure also embodies the legal fiction of the corporation as described by Blackstone: an artificial person constituted by succession and capable of immortality. Questions recurrently asked by critics—is the Confidence Man one or many, an allegory of capitalism or of charity, an unlikely hero or the antagonist of all humanity—echo antebellum legal writers' descriptions of the corporate form as paradoxically joining opposites: singular and plural, natural and supernatural, fact and fiction. Read in this context, The Confidence-Man serves as an uncomfortable but bracing reminder of the proximities between imagining radical collectivity and imagining the corporation.
Formal Resistances: Melville's "Beachcomber" Ethic
Georgia State University
Readers of Melville's Omoo have often noted a peculiar tension between the novel's critique of nineteenth-century imperialism and its narrative architecture. The force of Melville's satiric indictment of missionary hypocrisies and colonial travesties on Tahiti often seems blunted by the aimlessness that governs his characters' mock-apostolic adventure. By adopting the ostensibly purposeless narrative trajectory of the "beachcombers" whose itinerant travel it follows, Omoo offers us an early version of the Melvillean model of resistance to the generic constraints of fiction writing. Neither an allegorical satire nor an authentic attempt at fictionalized ethnography, Omoo occupies an unusual position between narrative forms that it also seems to undermine. Like its peripatetic characters, the novel relaxes where it might be expected to penetrate; it unwinds its novelistic devices where it might have put them to work in the service of a particular discursive cause. By succumbing to the itinerancy of its own plotting, the novel embodies a passive resistance to both the power structures that sustain imperial conceptions of cultural identity and the critical labor required to challenge those structures openly. In this way, Omoo models the logic of passive resistance that comes to preoccupy Melville's writing in the mid-1850s. Tracking the development of these investments in narrative failure and radical passivity back to the "beachcomber" ethic of Omoo provides a genealogy for Melville's strategies for resisting facile assumptions about the ethical "work" of fiction as well as its epistemological underpinnings. [End Page 111]
Melville's "Permanent Riotocracy"
Melville's "Sketch Seventh, Charles' Isle and the Dog-King" from "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles" might serve as a cautionary parable for the fate of post-revolutionary societies. Given the opportunity to rule, the Dog-King, a successful revolutionary, cynically repeats the very autocratic system he had helped to overthrow. History, far from the progress of universal emancipation realized in revolution, stammers as a brutal repetition of constriction and fragmentation. Yet the community that replaces the Dog-King provides another instance from Melville's writing of an egalitarian collectivity built around insurgency. How might Melville's "permanent Riot ocracy" serve as a figure for a deracinated form of mutual communal production that can oppose consolidated forms of paternal authority, law, or state control? How could revolutionary time become extended or made "permanent" in order to prevent the return of patriarchal forms of power and to hold open new spaces for protest and communal organization? What would separate the community of protest parading under the guise of universal fraternity (here as a band of pirate utopians) from their diabolical counterparts, the masquerade of false brothers? To explore these questions, I engage not only contemporary works by Marx and Darwin, but also the boisterous mob of writers, critics, and philosophers who have turned to Melville to provide resources for resisting still-rampant forms of imperialism and societal control: C. L. R. James, Michael Rogin, Gilles Deleuze, Donald Pease, and Amy Kaplan. Together they articulate how Melville's "outlandish" politics might speak to our current situations of riot and uprising. [End Page 112]
Melville Occupies Wall Street
Occupation as Opposition: Bartleby and the Spatialization of Power
University of Iowa
Although individuals associated with the 2011 OWS movement were self-consciously inspired by Bartleby's refusal to quit Wall Street and his infamous refrain "I would prefer not to," Melville's cadaverous protagonist was more successful than the movement in confronting the dehumanizing pressures of abstract space. Throughout his story, Melville mentions abstract spaces, zones in capitalist worlds created by blending the private with the social and inhabited by a depersonalized "one" instead of a humanized individual. These spaces include the office (associated by Melville with a notorious murder), the Tombs prison, and the Dead Letter Office. Bartleby's blank mode of occupation, possessing only that which sustains life and [End Page 113] appearance, connects these spaces as he becomes a fixed fact, a motionless occupant, a pallid object. Unlike the denizens of Zucotti Park, who attempted to personalize an abstract space by dwelling in it as particularities, Bartleby became the abstraction that such spaces enforce, occupying abstract space as no one in particular. Confronting this dehumanized mode of dwelling filled Melville's narrator with a sense of loneliness that both infected his language and undermined his own ability to dwell comfortably; by contrast, 2011's images of the personalized 99% fed news cycles with truisms that vanished with the onset of winter. Bartleby's strategy of occupying potentiality by rendering actualizations impossible (Agamben) thus seems more successful at unsettling witnesses than the chaotic strategy of dwelling in infinite possibilities attempted by OWS.
"Old Combustibles": Melville, Guy Fawkes, and the "Unlikely" Face of Protest
University of South Carolina
Online commentators have struggled to explain what many consider the novelty of the Guy Fawkes mask and its role as the face of Occupy Wall Street. Herman Melville's recurrent allusions to Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 remind us that Fawkes's remarkably durable image was fraught with notions of dissent and collective resistance during the nineteenth century. Primarily through a reading of White-Jacket; or, the World in a Man-of-War, I contextualize these allusions by addressing nineteenth-century attitudes toward Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, which reconsidered not only who Fawkes was historically but where "Fawkish" characters might exist and what those figures might represent. I examine two specific features of Fawkes's legacy: first, the unmooring or mobilization of Guy Fawkes in nineteenth-century English pantomimes, penny dreadfuls, romances, and popular tales; second, the rhetorical history of gunpowder, an underexplored yet foundational marker of political dissent dating back to the early modern period. These features coalesce in the figure of "Old Combustibles," a gunner aboard the Neversink who embodies a spirit of resistance that, through the proliferation of gunpowder, inscribes itself across the entirety of the man-of-war world. Melville uses this shared mobility of Guy Fawkes and gunpowder at sea to articulate an ethos of collective dissent, an ethos similarly employed in our own time by Occupiers and global protestors more broadly. [End Page 114]
The Limits of Dissent in Herman Melville's "The House-Top"
The thunderous "No!" that erupted in New York City's streets during the second week of July, 1863, disturbed Herman Melville deeply. The draft riots, among the most violent demonstrations in the nation's history, became emblematic of the pervasiveness of anti-abolition and racist feeling throughout the Republic, including the North, and they challenged Melville's loyalties to protest and dissent as those loyalties came up against his abhorrence of slavery, "man's foulest crime." This conflict in Melville's politics produces a remarkably tense moment, both politically and aesthetically, in his poem "The House-top," published in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866). In a volume of poems that begins with "weird John Brown" and his defiant act of political dissent, Melville positions "The House-top" ambivalently, or weirdly, relative to acts of violent collective protest. The poem's surfaces of right and wrong, stilled by the authority its tight lyric form implies, ripple with this weirdness. The unpredictable and unstable field of riotous collective action activates (just as in "Benito Cereno") a range of uncertainties and inconsistencies that the logic and form of the poem struggle to contain. Such ambivalence reflects the challenges of joining literature to programs of social protest, and it echoes the complexities and internal contradictions of collective action, fired by the unpredictable needs and desires of individual participants. [End Page 115]