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  • “Above and Beneath Classification”: Bartleby, Life and Times of Michael K, and Syntagmatic Participation
  • Gert Buelens (bio) and Dominiek Hoens (bio)

The history of the relation between the law, norm, or rule on the one hand and what forms an exception to that rule on the other is complex and multifaceted.1 In the most general terms, one could posit that the exception is that which escapes from the rule. Thus, confronted with the strangeness of Michael K, his noncommunicativeness, his odd combination of meekness and intransigence, the medical officer in J. M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K assigns K a place “above and beneath classification” [Coetzee 151]. Michael K is at once too large and too small to fit into the administrative and humanitarian categories that pertain at the prisoner camp. He appears to the medical officer—whose good intentions and patient, selfless interest in K cannot be doubted—as a recalcitrant, nonidentifiable object that flirts with dehumanization. To put it in Bataille’s terms, Michael K is formless (informe), and his existence can, by mere virtue of that fact, be called scandalous.2

Let us take a closer look at the expression “above and beneath classification.” We can note that (1) it names something that situates itself on the outside of any classification; (2) this something must have a paradoxical status, since it is at once above and beneath classification; (3) the nonclassifiable is regarded as such from a classifying perspective. Although the latter point may sound tautological, it nonetheless touches upon one of the most difficult dimensions of the exception: if the exception is always an exception to the rule, how can it exist otherwise than by virtue of that rule? how can it be more than just the rule’s negative? But if the exception radically breaks away from the rule, then how is it possible for that rule to identify the exception and recognize it as such? This crucial problem has formed the basis for reflection on the relation between rule and exception. Freud, for instance, saw the exception (crime) as constitutive of social ties and the social order. Lacan needed a special topology to show the extimate character of what is at once inside and outside the symbolic order [Lacan, Miller]. Religious ways of thinking could be said to have located the exception as transcendent to any human order. For Badiou, the secularization of the infinite cannot be thought apart from an immanent, rather than transcendent, event that is disruptive of all order. In Derrida’s subtle analyses, the originary supplement appears as both constitutive and deconstructive. Agamben regards the exception as having become the political rule. These interpretative frameworks, in spite of some deep distinctions, all show not only that the rule cannot do without the exception, but that the exception is just as dependent on the rule. Even when the exception is regarded as a kind of pure, ruleless being-as-such, the rule is at the very least conceptually [End Page 157] indispensable for this pure, mere being to be thinkable in the first place. In brief, however much one may want, for political or other reasons, to assign the exception a central place at the expense of the rule, that rule remains inescapable.

Nonetheless, the inevitability of the rule should not lead us to conclude that it is also immutable, nor that we should adopt a conservatism that accepts the rule as a repressive normativity or as an inclusive and exclusive apparatus of judgment. That this is as impossible as it is undesirable is suggested by what we indicated under the second item: the exception is both above and beneath. The exception is the paradoxical given of that which at once escapes from existing categories and lacks all identity in that escape. The problem that Michael K and Bartleby, the second figure of exception we consider in this essay, present for the rule resides not just in the recalcitrance that allows them to show up the limits of the rule, but also in the doubling with which this goes hand in hand. Michael K and Bartleby are as pliant as they are obdurate, show great loyalty even...