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Bartleby holds or occupies space. He sits behind a folding screen, stands in a dead wall reverie, and remains so physical that he stands before the other clerks as an unwelcome tenant, an idler who has nonetheless laid claim to property. Though supremely embodied, a ruined column or an object whose sound behind the screen is most like the scrape of his chair, he takes on all the qualities of a phantom. Both chattel and real estate, movable and immovable, material and immaterial, affixed to the office as if part of its very walls, Bartleby reveals something about the ends of the law, once returned to the claims of spirit.
What happens to the person who exists in dialogue with walls? Who stands only to bear witness to his own incapacitation? In self-willed ascesis, Bartleby stands forth as if a monk, a body worked up into spirit, a ghost of impairment that becomes the host of plenitude. What is the meaning of the portable green screen, first put up by the narrator so that he can command as if a disembodied voice, and then removed, leaving Bartleby the motionless occupant of a room? In this time of unrelenting taxonomies, when persons became things—either perishables in the market or fixtures on land—and where felons died in law but lived in fact, Bartleby stands at the limit screen or chancel of these categories, destabilizing the definitions crucial not only to property in slaves but to the regulatory beneficence of civil society.
What first seems phantasmagoric is locked into a nature lived as a spectacle of servitude and possession. What we turned into ghosts originated in the legal language of property and persons. These juridical inventions, once summoned in the name of order and civility, were presented as the most natural, the most reasonable things in the world. As I move through these habitats of law’s creatures, I offer grounds for the gothic, a hybrid place into which are seeded legal fictions, spiritual beliefs, and historical fragments. The very notions of character, metaphor, and motive are there transfigured.