- Toward an Ethics of Silence:Michael K
In this paper, by a focus on the representation of Michael K as a figure of silence in Life & Times of Michael K, I attempt to draw out J. M. Coetzee's assertion of a fundamental ethico-political aporia. This aporia, which derives in contemporary theory from Jacques Derrida and Maurice Blanchot's separate work on Emmanuel Levinas and expresses the constitutive gap between any given politics and individual ethical responsibility, is developed in somewhat different terms by Giorgio Agamben, upon whose reading of Herman Melville's character Bartleby I model my understanding of Michael K. The account of Bartleby as a figure of potentiality offered by Agamben provides both an intriguing explanation of Michael K's curious irrecuperability as well as a possible prospective (utopian), euporic resolution of the antinomy that K embodies in a thinking of a "coming community." Through this reading I seek to address a misunderstanding I find in much criticism of Coetzee's novel regarding its "political" shortcomings. I then conclude with a suggestion about what Life & Times of Michael K, and Coetzee's work in general, teaches or reminds us about literature.
The peculiarity of Herman Melville's great, enigmatic creation Bartleby derives from his unique lack of engagement—a lack that is in no way simply a refusal—exemplified by his formula "I would prefer not to."1 Much has been written about Bartleby, and Giorgio Agamben's conception of him as a figure of contingency, of potentiality maintained in radical passivity,2 is perhaps the most suggestive and pregnant for a thinking of the relation of the ethical to the political. By putting action in suspension through a maintenance of potentiality, "I would prefer not to" as the "restitutio in integrum of possibility, which keeps possibility suspended between occurrence and nonoccurrence, between the capacity to be and the capacity not to be," necessarily draws attention to socially expected forms of understanding, behavior, and response.3 This leads the Wall Street lawyer, Bartleby's employer, to a critical self-evaluation, almost to a breakdown, though in the end he seems incapable of really [End Page 307] understanding Bartleby's lesson. Bartleby's final words to the lawyer as he wastes away in prison, "I know where I am" (Melville 669), certainly sound like an admonition, if not an outright condemnation of the lawyer's ethical failure.
Bartleby's minimal formula should be understood as a form of silence. But the quiet of the "silent man," as Bartleby's fellow inmates dub him (670), cannot simply be understood as reticence. It is an indeterminate suspension of response that has the metalinguistic consequence of drawing attention to the discourse and to its practical as well as ethico-political presuppositions, one might say a (mute) "speech act" of passivity, whose illocutionary effect is a radical suspension of the conditions of response. Within Agamben's broader concerns, this potentiality does not simply indicate the social placement of any given discourse, but relates to the human condition of language itself. In the preface to the French translation of his 1978 Infanzia e storia, Agamben delineates the contents of an unwritten book on the human voice and describes a fundamental experimentum linguae, an experience of language itself, of the thing of language (an experiment prepared by the Saussurean revolution in linguistics, as refined by Émile Benveniste and in a different way Roman Jakobson, and its reverberations in poststructuralist thought of the period, but an experiment also always implicit in the experience of poetry, broadly defined). There is no fundamental human voice, Agamben suggests, that is subsequently articulated by the letter, by grammar, into human speech. Voice—the mute, meaningful precondition of language assumed by the metaphysical tradition, by Martin Heidegger as well as G. W. F. Hegel—is an illusion (explored in the 1982 Language and Death). There is no ineffable silence or meaningful voice before language, merely the presuppositional fact of language as such (always entered, as Claude Lévi-Strauss argued, as a synchronic totality), which is experienced in the experimentum, through shifters, through rhetoric, through that which draws attention to the artificiality, conventionality, and nonreferentiality of...