Figures of Bartleby’s Rebellion

Once upon a time, three friends beneath the soft shade of grape vines shared their Bartleby … for them.

He who criticises or thrusts the game away, has already entered into the game. 

Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of Disaster

Blanchot ascribes to the character of Bartleby, the scrivener of Herman Melville’s tale, a form of combat.  It is however a form of combat that escapes any goal, that reduces itself to nothing; a combat of passivity, of extreme patience. (140-1)  “Its substance or the unimaginable reality of it, exceeds reference.” (140)  It escapes the language of protest, of preferences and proposals.  Expressed in the statement “I would prefer not to”, a preference is affirmed which “effaces preference and is effaced therein.” (145)  He does not so much refuse or deny, as abdicate; “he gives up the authority of speech.” (17)  And for Blanchot, this is understood as an “abandonment of self, a relinquishment of identity”, a “refusal which does not cleave to refusal”, but opens to failure, to the loss of being, to thought. (17)

To think in terms of disaster, is to think within a reality beyond disaster and it’s opposite.  Our reality, after the destruction and horror of our modernity, is that the disaster neither is nor is not.  We live exceptionally, in a permanent state of exception; outside the difference inside-outside.  What Blanchot struggled with was an ethics equal to the situation that gains life in Bartleby’s radical detachment, including from detachment itself.


Sovereignty is revolt; it is not the exercise of power.  Authentic sovereignty refuses …

Georges Bataille, Inner Experience

Bataille, in reading Blanchot’s interpretation of contestation, describes it not as something done in the name of an authority.  Rather, “I contest in the name of the contestation that is the experience itself.”  In other words, the “experience, its authority, its method is not distinguishable from the contestation.” (24)  This is again Blanchot’s passive combat, a combat which measured against any typical comprehension of it, is not, for it is not a joust of a subject against another, nor does it seek a goal beyond itself, and nor is its authority or legitimacy anywhere to be found above/beyond  itself.  It is the expression of what Bataille will call sovereignty, but not the sovereignty of political authority, but that of inner experience, love, laughter … all transgressions of the law that do not thereby affirm a new law, a transgression that suspends, without denying.  She “is only powerlessness, absence of duration, hateful (or joyful) destruction of itself, dissatisfaction.” (223)

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.

Herman Melville, Bartleby

Bartleby is employed as a legal copyist by an attorney who describes himself as a man free of ambition and as someone who “from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best.” (3)  Prudential, methodical, restrained, in sum, “an eminently safe man”, the attorney takes on Bartleby, who in appearance is “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn”. (9)  He is then settled in the attorney’s office, “so as to have this quiet man within easy call, in case a trifling thing was to be done,” with a window view of a wall, and a folding screen separating him from his employer, “which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice”, while the other copyists were to be found outside, in an adjacent space. (9)

Bartleby takes up his labours with considerable energy, initially.  When on the third day he is called upon to proof a copied text, “a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair”, Bartleby responds, “I would prefer not to.” (9-10)

Bartleby’s refusal is expressed without unease, anger, impatience or impertinence.  In other words, the lawyer tells us, “had there been anything ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises.” (10)  Bartleby does not reject the work that is asked of him, with or without indignation – a properly human way to behave – but simply prefers not to do it, as is expressed in his statement, that will be repeated ever more frequently, as demands, proposals, suggestions, offers are made to or of him.  With this first “refusal” and with those that follow, the attorney in response endeavours to reason with him, to bring common opinion, in this instance that of his other employees, to bear on the matter, to hector him in the ways of proper behavior.  He will also try to understand Bartleby, to explain his behaviour, for an explanation there must be.  Bartleby however, not comporting himself as a human being, is opaque, incomprehensible and unmoved by any motive to act.  And because he does not act, the attorney is incapable of doing so in turn.  He is stunned, bewildered, “turned into a pillar of salt.”  Disarmed, pity invades him, pity born of what the attorney surmises to be Bartleby’s poverty, his isolation, his undoubtedly unhappy past.  Charity drives the attorney to patience, tolerance, modest generosity.  The charity nevertheless finds its limits in the need for professional success, in utility and profit in other words and Bartleby threatens to undermine even that.  His “preference not to” is contagious.  It extends finally to his duties as copyist, to his taking up residence in the offices of the attorney, to his just being there.  And then the confusion, disorientation that begin to touch all of the duties of the office and the perceptions of those who seek it out on discovery of Bartleby’s presence.  The attorney, unable to expel Bartleby – the guilt of charity violated – flees instead, sets up office elsewhere, abandoning Bartleby to his fate.  And the fate is well known: arrested for vagrancy, he who never moved, and death in prison, preferring as he did not to eat.

What then is to be made of Bartleby’s “refusal”?  It is not of the nature of a positive rejection: I refuse this or that, for this or that reason.  Something of this character could be disputed, challenged.  Bartleby, however, simply prefers not to, would prefer not to.  He gives no reason for not so preferring, and as stated nothing can be said against it.  “He was more a man of preference than assumptions.” (23)  Bartleby’s expression continually places his behaviour outside any causal, explanatory frame that might account for his conduct.  He defies utilitarian motivation, not by a counter rationale, but by refusing to assume any at all.

Bartleby is little known by the attorney upon being employed (and what need would there be to know him, beyond knowing whether he can perform his duties as a copyist?).  And he becomes increasingly incomprehensible as he persists in preferring not to do what he is asked to do.  Bartleby, in the end, is simply no one – “I am not particular” – doing nothing. (30)  And yet for this, he will be incarcerated and die.  What evil, what crime, does Bartleby commit to suffer such a fate?  All that can be cited is a refusal to perform duties for which he was hired and squatting (the attorney: “What earthly right have you to stay here?  Do you pay any rent?  Do you pay my taxes?  Or is this property yours?). (24)  So then it is by the authority of the employer and property that Bartleby is imprisoned and led to his death.  A life sacrificed to possession and Bartleby in some way a rebel against Capital.

Melville’s character fits in with a long tradition of the refusal of work.  Any worker with any sense, of course, wants to refuse the authority of his boss, but Bartleby takes it to the extreme.  He does not object to this or that task, nor does he offer any reason for his refusal – he just passively and absolutely declines. (203)

This refusal is the beginning of a liberating politics, but it is only the beginning.  The refusal is itself empty … lines of flight from authority are completely solitary, and they continuously tread on the verge of suicide.  In political terms, too, refusal in itself of work, authority, and voluntary servitude, leads only to a kind of social suicide.

What we need is to create, a new social body, which is a project that goes well beyond refusal.  Our lines of flight, our exodus must be constituent and create a real alternative. (204)

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire

For Hardt and Negri, Bartleby’s gesture is ultimately futile, for nothing positive, no positive alternative, flows from his negative refusal.  Bartleby’s rebellion, if rebellion it should be called, is impotent, and therefore self-destructive.  An act is required beyond refusal, an act of constitution.

But then perhaps Hardt and Negri fail to see that Bartleby’s non-action is itself positive and that it involves simultaneously a criticism of the illusion of constitution, the illusion that it is harmonious with freedom and equality.

Where Hardt and Negri see a failed revolutionary, it is possible to discern an image of revolution freed of the act of constitution, of sovereignty.

Bartleby carries out a new type of strike that wears upon his boss more than any kind of luddism. (186)

The Bartleby strike … is a human strike, a strike of gestures, of dialogue, of radical scepticism before all forms of oppression that pretend to be taken as obvious, and including effective blackmail or the most taken for granted social convention – such as the necessity to work or to return from the office after its closure.  But it is a strike that does not spread, that does not contaminate the other workers by his syndrome of negative preferences; because Bartleby has nothing to explain – and that is his strength – he has no legitimacy, he does not threaten to no longer do anything, and thereby establishing a contractual relation.  He does however just enough to remind those around him that he has no more duty than he has desire, and that his preference, on this occasion, is that of the abolition of work. (187)

Bartleby … dies in prison, because his solitary dis/occupation does not spread. … His radical scepticism does not find the comfort of belonging. … [There is nonetheless] a promise of future practice. (188)

Tiqqun, Écographie d’une puissance

Bartleby exemplifies not a labour strike, the suspension of productive activity in the production of commodities, but a “human strike”, the detachment/separation from social, utilitarian functions, necessary for the production and reproduction of State-Capital.  The “human strike” is not the rebellion of workers against Capital, for workers are themselves the product of Capital; but a refusal to work, a displacement from the role of worker, a refusal of identities susceptible to assimilation or appropriation.  A “human strike” is the negative affirmation that one is not any particular kind of individual, that one does not behave in any particular kind of way.  One is, and one is nothing more than what one is, namely, a changing collection of preferences/desires.  The task then is to imagine a politics of desire.

What shall I do?  What ought I to do?  What does conscience say I should do with this man, or, rather, ghost.

Herman Melville, Bartleby

The attorney, contested so often by Bartleby, responds vainly or sympathetically.  His vanity is that of social status and property.  His sympathy is rooted in pity and Christian charity.  Unresolved between the two, the attorney in the end can only flee from Bartleby, in impotence.  But what does he flee from?  What is he impotent before?  Bartleby appears without a past and aspires to no obvious future.  He demands, claims nothing.  He but prefers not to, which is to say, that Bartleby is but a presence, the presence of a life for which life and the way it is lived are one.  He lacks the “depth” of consciousness that is a consequence of the construction of an interior self, set up against an Other, an Outside.  Bartleby lives beyond the distinction; he is what he expresses and is what he desires without inner conflict, remorse or celebration.  And before Bartleby’s life, the attorney is powerless because all that he can give him presupposes and demands that there is someone he can give to: an employee, someone lonely, a victim of poverty and disadvantage, and the like.  But Bartleby is none of these, or if he is, it is irrelevant in that he assumes no such identities.  And against this, vanity or charity is lost.

Bartleby apologises on one occasion, when he is found to be living in the attorney’s offices and because he is “deeply engaged”, he cannot admit his employer to enter. (16)  It is an apology for a temporary encumbrance.  Bartleby impedes the movement of another, but it is because he himself, at that moment, requires that his privacy be respected.  Otherwise, he does nothing against any person.  On another occasion, he is possibly tempted to engage morally with the attorney, when this last is seeking to know something about his employee and states that “I feel friendly towards you”.  Glancing at a bust of Cicero, Bartleby provides no immediate answer, his face remains unmoved, and yet however “there was the faintest conceivable tremor of the white attenuated mouth”, followed by an affirmation that at present he would prefer not to answer. (19)  The attorney is thereby nettled, seeing in Bartleby’s intransigence nothing but disdain and ingratitude for his good offers.  And, when visited in prison by the attorney, Bartleby expresses indignation before him: “’I know you,’ he said, without looking round – ‘and I want nothing to say to you’,” to which the attorney pathetically responds, “It was not I that brought you here, Bartleby.” (31)

The attorney is trapped in his own self, incapable of reacting or acting independently of any concern for how what he does reflects back upon him.  What Bartleby is to the attorney is a challenge to his easy self-centeredness and a call to friendship.  (Cicero: “What sweetness is left in life, if you take away friendship? Robbing life of friendship is like robbing the world of the sun.”).  Bartleby is indignant because he is betrayed.  But the betrayal is not that of a violation of a contract or a moral rule.  It is rather the refusal of friendship, of which the attorney is incapable.

Bartleby’s death is the final refutation of the attorney’s only moral belief: “but no man that ever I heard of ever committed a diabolic murder for sweet charity’s sake.” (25)

Friends do not share something (a birth, a law, a place, a taste): they are always already shared by the experience of friendship.  Friendship is the sharing that precedes all other sharing, because what it shares is the fact itself of existing, life itself. (40)

The friend is not another me, but an alterity immanent in sameness, a becoming other of the same.  To the extent that I perceive my existence as pleasant, my sensation is traversed by a sensation-with which dislocates and carries it towards the friend, towards the other same.  Friendship is this desubjectification at the very heart of the most intimate sensation of self. (34)

Giorgio Agamben

This sharing that Agamben writes into the heart of friendship the attorney cannot live, first because he sees and does all through his exclusive self, whereas friendship calls for a stripping down, a nakedness, of the self in a gesture of exposure, of sharing and secondly, because he is lazy and friendship requires ethical effort and courage.  Bartleby displays both of these virtues, the same virtues from which the attorney can only flee, and this is his betrayal.

It is Agamben’s contention, in turn, that the sharing of friendship is the very essence of politics. (40)  Which is to say that Bartleby is not only an ethical limit which contests all other forms-of-life, he also opens up the possibility of a politics beyond the self, in this instance, beyond sovereignty.

Bartleby couldn’t even hurt a fly – that is what makes his presence so unbearable.

Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View

Reflecting on political violence, Žižek distinguishes between a violence of action, which testifies above all to the agent’s impotence, a violence which aims to preserve what is, to guarantee that nothing changes (e.g. Fascism), and lastly, the violence which changes the points of reference of a reality.  “In order for this last kind of violence to take place, the very place should be opened up through a gesture which is thoroughly violent in its impassive refusal, through a gesture of pure withdrawal in which … nothing will have taken place but the place itself.” (381)

Bartleby, for Žižek, exemplifies such a gesture.  “I would prefer not to” is not equivalent to “I don’t prefer (or care) to.”  To his employer’s orders, he does not refuse them specifically, but rather states a preference not to do them.  For Žižek, this is a passage from a politics of “resistance” or “protestation”, which is defined inevitably in relation to what it rejects, “to a politics which opens up a new space outside the hegemonic position and its negation.” (381-2)

This is not Hardt’s and Negri’s reading of Bartleby, where his preference not to is seen as but a first moment in rejecting existing socio-political order, to be followed by a second moment which is that of constituting a new community, in the absence of which the protest ends in futility.  According to Žižek, Bartleby’s refusal is not the start of anything, something to be subsequently overcome, but rather the primordial and ever present moment that underlies political construction.  And therefore Bartleby does not simply say no to established order, a resistance which the system can always use to reproduce itself through the resistance’s participation in it, even if only negatively.  Bartleby walks away from the system altogether.

But how can this separation be given body, without destroying it, or at least threatening to do so?   Žižek’s concept of the parallax, as the essence of the dialectic, remains in this instance a metaphor; a metaphor that cannot keep at bay sovereignty’s revulsion for withdrawal.

Jacques Rancière

For Ranciere, the tension here amounts to a contradiction, an insurmountable contradiction.

[H]ow can one make a difference [establish order] in a political community with this indifference [Bartleby’s]? Difference must be made by an intercessor, by the Christ-like figure of the one who returns, “eyes turned red”, from the other side, from the place of justice, from the desert, and has nothing to say except indifference.  This intercessor must then perform not one but two operations.  He must oppose the old law of the fathers with the great anarchy of being, the justice of the desert.  But he must also convert this justice into another, make this anarchy the principle of a world of justice conceived on the Platonic model: a world where human multiplicities are ordered according to their deserts.

Bartleby is … the new Christ or the brother to us all.

Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and clinical

What is then to be made of Bartleby’s politics of desire, or politics beyond sovereignty?  Deleuze’s Bartleby is read from what he calls Bartleby’s formula: “I would prefer not to.”  The statement’s termination, “not to”, “leaves what it reject undetermined”, bestowing upon the phrase then a kind of “limit function”. (68)  It neither affirms nor negates, neither refuses nor accepts; the formula suspends both possibilities, and thus Bartleby withdraws from action.  “The formula is devastating because it eliminates the preferable just as mercilessly as the nonpreferred.  It not only abolishes the term it refers to, and that it rejects, but also abolishes the other term that it seemed to preserve, and that becomes impossible.  In fact, it renders them indistinct. … All particularity, all reference is abolished.” (71)  Bartleby expresses not a nihilistic will to nothingness, but rather a growing nothingness of the will.  He is urged to say yes or no to what is demanded of him, but either response would translate into his defeat.  His survival, his strength, is born of his withdrawal from all affirmation or negation; his pure passivity, his being “as being, and nothing more.” (71)  “If Bartleby had refused, he could still be seen as a rebel or insurrectionary, and as such would still have a social role.  But the formula stymies all speech acts, and at the same time, it makes Bartleby a pure outsider to whom no social position can be attributed.” (73)

All of which condemns the attorney’s efforts to understand and to help Bartleby to failure, for the attorney can only grasp another from within a general, hierarchical distribution of social functions.  Bartleby’s radicalism is that he appears and prefers to be outside all such functionality.  Before it, he places preference, the preference not to prefer, or desire, the desire not to desire.  “Bartleby is the man without references, without possessions, without properties, without qualities, without particularities: he is too smooth for anyone to be able to hang any particularity on him.  Without past or future, he is instantaneous.” (74)  For Deleuze, Bartleby is one example among many to be found in 19th century literature of a search for a new man, a man without a name, and as nameless, a regicide or parricide. (74)  Such figures reveal the artificiality, emptiness and mediocrity of our world and its orders.  They reveal the possibility of a world beyond the father, the law, “a society of brothers as a new universality.” (84)  Deleuze’s brothers and sisters are not filial; they are not rooted in consanguinity.  They rather share in the nature of Agamben’s friendship.  They are tied by an “alliance”, a “blood pact”, “drawing its members into an unlimited becoming.” (84)  “A brother, a sister, all the more true for no longer being “his” or “hers”, since all “property”, all “proprietorship”, has disappeared.  A burning passion deeper than love, since it no longer has either substance or qualities, but traces a zone of indiscernibility in which it passes through all intensities in every direction …”. (84)

A community, a political community of friends; of men and women without qualities or property, held together by nothing more than confidence in each other and in their ability to become, together, in this world.

The greatest objection to the principle of sovereignty has never been so well incarnated than by the copyist Bartleby.

Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: le pouvoir souverain et la vie nue

Sovereignty is rooted in the power to establish the exception, the ban, as Carl Schmitt so powerfully stated it.  It is however a paradoxical power, establishing as it does a legal-political order while itself outside that same order.  It is a limit concept, and this necessarily, for the constituted regime is defined against and with what it excludes; and this not as some past, original act, but permanently.

For Agamben, sovereignty, in continuity with and beyond Schmitt, is the mechanism through which life (zoe), common to all living beings, is rendered properly human life, a life given form (bios, and thus, for e.g., bios politikos).  Sovereignty is accordingly a metaphysical act.

The movement of sovereignty can be traced back to the relation of potentiality and actuality: the sovereign actualises potential life.  The relation between the two however is no simpler than that between the constituting and constituted powers of sovereignty.  But it is here, through the work of Aristotle, that Agamben will try to trace a path beyond the violence of sovereignty, by trying to grasp the existence and autonomy of potentiality.

For Aristotle, potentiality precedes actuality and determines it.  Yet it also appears to be subordinate to actuality, in that potentiality only exists in the act.  Aristotle however does insist on the autonomous existence of potentiality (the artist, for example, perceives her/his potential as creator in the absence of creating).  But for potentiality to possess its own reality, it is necessary that it may also not act, that it be in itself the power to not be or do.  (HS:54)  “Every potentiality is at one and the same time a potentiality for the opposite … .That, then, which is capable of being, may either be or not be; the same thing, then, is capable both of being and of not being”. (Met. 1050b10)  The potential to be is in other words precisely the potential that may not act, not realise itself.  It maintains itself in relation to its actuality in the form of its suppression: its sovereignty is its impotence. (HS:55)

If it is recalled that in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, the examples of the potential to not be are always taken from the domain of human arts and knowledge, it can be said that man is the living being who exists immanently in the dimension of potentiality, the potentiality or power of not to be, that is, contingency.  All human potential is equally impotence. (PP:240)

How then is the passage from potentiality to actuality possible?  How is it to be thought?  Aristotle’s answer is the following: “A thing is potentially some thing or act when, in the passage to actuality of which it is the potentiality, nothing will be which cannot be.” (Met. 1047a24-6)  This is not to affirm that all is possible which is not impossible (a mere tautology), but rather points to the condition of the realisation of a potentiality.  The potential, the possible, cannot pass into an act without positing its power to not be, its powerlessness, its impotence.  The powerlessness affirmed does not signify the destruction of its actuality, but rather, its realisation, the way in which power, what is potential, turns towards itself to give itself to itself, without end. (HS: 55-6; De Anima 417b2-7)  In other words, potentiality is that which always exceeds its forms and realisations; it is a power to become, permanently.  (As Aristotle says of thought, in De Anima: “When thought has become each thing in the way in which a man who actually knows is said to do so …, its condition is still one of potentiality, but in a different sense from the potentiality which preceded the acquisition of knowledge by learning or discovery; and thought is then able to think of itself.” 429b5-9).

Returning then to the paradox of sovereignty, for Agamben, the difficulty of thinking through potentiality and the need to grasp its autonomy is essential to the rethinking of sovereignty.  Aristotle’s philosophy offers a paradigm for sovereignty, one in which the sovereign act is that which is realised simply by suppressing its own potential to not be.  But the suppression cannot in fact be effective, for otherwise sovereignty would destroy itself.  The sovereign acts continuously to secure the exception and is thus perpetually at the limit of its own reality.  To move beyond the violence of the exception, it is necessary to think the existence of potentiality, power, without any relation to actuality, to no longer think the act as the accomplishment and manifestation of potentiality. (HS:57)  The figure of Bartleby is precisely an experiment in such thinking, according to Agamben.  Bartleby is an example of perfect potentiality, which nothing separates from the act of creation.  “Bartleby is the extreme figure of the Nothing from which all creation derives; and at the same time, he constitutes the most implacable vindication of this Nothing as pure, absolute potentiality.” (P: 253-4)  Morality and politics has typically sought to submit potentiality to will and necessity. (P:254)  It is what Bartleby’s employer attempts to do, with singular failure.  And the belief that potentiality can be so restrained is the “perpetual illusion of morality” and the violence of sovereignty. (P:254)

Bartleby puts into question the supremacy of will over potentiality.  (P:254)  But he thereby does not do nothing.  Instead, Bartleby’s doing exceeds his will.  “It is not that he does not want to copy or that he does not want to leave the office; he simply would prefer not to.” (P:255)  Bartleby’s formula destroys any possible relation between being able and willing, “between potentia absoluta and  potentia ordinate.” (P:255)

Bartleby is pure possibility, freed from any connection to a reason, or subordination to reality. (P:258)  He unravels exigencies, disarms imperatives and opens up a life beyond moral command and sovereign law.  He creates nothing, but makes all creation possible, a creation never exhausted; what Agamben calls a decreation.

Bartleby’s politics is not a politics of truth or goodness.  It is rather a politics of the gesture, of a form of life; a life lived as such, in friendship and in openness; a politics of pure possibility.


Works referred to, in the order cited:

Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Georges Bataille, “L’experiénce intérieure” and “Méthode de méditation”, in Œuvres Complètes V, Gallimard, 1973.

Herman Melville, Bartleby and Benito Cereno, Dover Publications, 1990.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Harvard University Press, 2000.

Tiqqun, Tout a failli, vive le communisme!, La Fabrique, 2009.

Giorgio Agamben, L’amitié, Éditions Payot et Rivages, 2007.

Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View, The MIT Press, 2006.

Jacques Rancière, “Deleuze, Bartleby and the Literary Formula”, in The Flesh of Words. The Politics of Writing, Stanford University Press, 2004.

Gilles Deleuze, “Bartleby, or The Formula”, in Essays Critical and Clinical, Verso, 1998.

Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: le pouvoir souverain et la vie nue, Éditions du Seuil, 1997.

Aristotle, “Metaphysics”, in The Complete Works of Aristotle: Vol. Two, Princeton University Press, 1984.

Giorgio Agamben, “La puissance de la pensée”, La puissance de la pensée : essais et conférences, Éditions Payot et Rivages, 2006

Aristotle, “de Anima”, in The Complete Works of Aristotle: Vol. One, Princeton University Press, 1984.

Giorgio Agamben, “Bartleby, or On Contingency”, in Potentialities, Stanford University Press, 1999.

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