- ALA 2018-San FranciscoBartleby Now
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High-spectrum, refusenik, divinity. What do we think about Bartleby now? Philosophers and critics have grappled with Melville's inscrutable figure as the boundary of the human. Emblem but also enigma of an unfolding allegory about capitalist production, Bartleby seems ready to absorb and project nearly every set of modern concerns and anxieties. In recent [End Page 141] years, cognitive and affective approaches to literary studies have informed a return to this iconic text. From Amit Pinchevski's assessment of "Bartleby's Autism" and Sianne Ngai's formulation of a "Bartlebyan aesthetic" of inertia to Giorgio Agamben's findings of a divine subject of "pure, absolute potentiality" and Nancy Ruttenburg's discernment of "the limit case of all character," we see how the subject of Melville's "Story of Wall Street" continues to elicit wide-ranging materialist and metaphysical conjecture. Panelists were invited to assess this critical and, indeed, popular attachment to Bartleby, either by taking up the history of his signification or looking to his ongoing potentiality. Jeffrey Hole takes up the interpretive lens of managerialism, a formal and ideological regime that aligns all interest and expression with market value. Hole reads Melville's story not as a tale of refusal but rather of "managerial deferral," which produces a "thanatopolitics" of the destroyed worker. Wendy Anne Lee takes a different turn to consider the peculiar scenario of "Bartlebyan intimacy" and its ongoing, millennial-friendly appeal. Lee offers context for the story's affective logic by way of an earlier narrative formula of seduction. Finally, Ralph Savarese looks to the current neuroscientific emphasis on gastroenterology to extend his own previously published critical insights on Bartleby's digestive practices. The scrivener's dyspepsia, Savarese argues, prefigures the vital connection between stomach and mind.
Thanatopolitics and the Managerial Regime
University of the Pacific
Although literary critics and theorists have focused extensively on Melville's title character, often attending to Bartleby's repetitive response, "I would prefer not to," this paper turns instead to the figure of the narrator-manager and, consequentially, the emergence of managerialism, a regime of knowledge that brings to bear a form of power to align human and nonhuman life with the nature of the market. "Bartleby" dramatizes the stakes of this managerialism—its disastrous effects on imagination and creation, its propensity to reorganize life around concepts of market and value, its reduction of the human to homo oeconomicus—allowing us to anticipate and recognize the manager as the figure par excellence of our neoliberal present. While Bartleby's "passive resistance" may appear as a form of revolutionary potential, in the end Melville's story casts doubt on this potential, depicting how the manager prevents revolution or resistance from coming to fruition. This is not the story of Bartleby's refusal, in other words, but the story of managerial deferral, a refusal of the refusal. Resistance—passive, potential, or kinetic—has from the opening been re-absorbed, re-framed through the lawyer's "biography," a narratological [End Page 142] and managerial ordering of life and politics, first marked by sympathy but ultimately by death, a thanatopolitics aimed at the dangerous worker.
Our Bartleby Problem
Wendy Anne Lee
New York University
As tote bags and outerwear sported by millennials and emblazoned with Bartleby's tagline suggest, Melville's scrivener remains a figure of curious allure. With his opt-out mantra and skinny-chic style, Bartleby's contemporary appeal is undeniable. But what is his particular message about sociality and why does it resonate so visibly today? Attending to the lawyer's specific spatial placement of his clerk, I consider the kind of intimacy suggested by their relation, what the lawyer fantasizes as the scenario in which "privacy and society were conjoined." What does it mean to be isolated "from my sight, though not remove[d] from my voice"? What desires are fulfilled or staged by this...