Bartleby the Scrivener, Immanence and the Resistance of Community – Timothy J. Deines

[R]esponsibility keeps its secret, it cannot and need not present itself. Tyrannically, jealously, it refuses to present itself before the violence that consists of asking for accounts and justifications, summonses to appear before the law of men. Jacques Derrida (1995: 62)

Community is, in a sense, resistance itself: namely, resistance to immanence. Consequently, community is transcendence: but ‘transcendence,’ which no longer has any ‘sacred’ meaning, signifying precisely a resistance to immanence (resistance to the communion of everyone or to the exclusive passion of one or several: to all the forms and all the violences of subjectivity). — Jean-Luc Nancy (1991: 35)

I would prefer not to.
Bartleby (Melville, 1968: 13)

By way of a prelude, I want to recall a double-scene from Martin Scorsese’s recent film on the early life and times of Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, in which two faces, one young, one old, of the artist, whose name is not his own, withhold secrets. The first quotation comes from a press conference in which a Dylan in his early twenties is pressed for an account of his status as rising superstar, a confrontation from which Dylan retreats through the shrewd strategy of question-trading:

Reporter: Mr. Dylan, you seem very reluctant to talk about the fact that you’re a popular entertainer….

Dylan: Well, what do you want me to say?

Reporter: Well, I don’t understand why you, uh…

Dylan: What do you want me to say, what do you want me to say about it?

Reporter: Well, you seem almost embarrassed to admit, to talk about it….

Dylan: I’m not embarrassed, I mean, you know, but what do you want exactly for me to say…. (Scorsese, 2005)

The second quotation represents an older Dylan’s retrospective gloss of this exchange, from a distance of nearly 40 years:

At a certain point, people seemed to have a distorted, warped view of me, for some reason, and, uh, those people were usually outside of the musical community. ‘The spokesman of a generation,’ ‘The conscience of this and that and the other,’ I mean that, that I could not relate to. I, I just couldn’t relate to it. As long as I could continue doing what it is that I loved to do, I didn’t care what kind of labels were put on me or how I was perceived in the press because I was playing to people every night. (Scorsese, 2005)

Dylan’s intentions are not what interest me here, nor what may appear to some as a subject’s abdication of social responsibility, biting the hand that feeds it, as it were. Rather than interpret these scenes as glimpses into the personality of the rock star and subject named Bob Dylan, I want to think about them as the double-scene of a structure and relation that I will soon have occasion to call ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’, following what I take to be Jean-Luc Nancy’s and Jacques Derrida’s shared sense of these words.

In the first graph, Dylan will not, cannot, satisfy the calculated desire of the reporter to know him, or affirm what others may wish to know of him, of his ‘popularity.’ And even if he were to tell everything he knows or thinks he knows about himself, he could never satisfy others’ desire to know him, nor even his own for that matter. Besides, ‘others’ — in this case a reporter surrounded by other media types — simply wish to capture the social phenomenon called ‘Dylan’ in a consumable, commodified form, a form they can put to work for the profit industry. But even if they wanted to know the ‘authentic’ Dylan, such desire would still know no satiation, since authenticity is also a fetish. Thus, there is no suitable reply; he literally must remain a secret to them, and to himself.

The second graph is not unlike the first, though the terms differ slightly. This other ‘Dylan’ refuses the trap that would identify him with ‘a generation.’ He also refuses an identification pushed one giant step further, to the ultimate identification: ‘The conscience of this and that and the other [my italics].’ There is nothing outside of this, that, and the other; it is literally a mythical pronouncement. Not least, it is a sentence of immanence, a once-and-for-all fixture of the meaning of ‘Bob Dylan.’ Dylan would prefer not to. Instead, he speaks of ‘playing to people’ and the ‘love’ of doing so. In this play in the relation between the singular one and the others(s), one glimpses the slightest legibility of a writing of community, in which the sense of community is carried right to the edge of itself, and thus ‘outside’ itself. This is the experience of freedom, according to Nancy, in which ‘you shares me‘ (Nancy, 1991: 29). Indeed, the prevarication, the refusal, and the secrecy are the necessary conditions of sharing; what they are pointing to is finitude, or what Derrida has called the gift of death (Derrida, 1995). The existential fact of finitude is the sure sign that community must always be shared, infinitely shared, among finite singularities. This community will forever interrupt and, in a way, discredit that other community which seeks ‘the immanence of man to man — a humanism’ and credits itself with ‘the goal of achieving a community of beings producing in essence their own essence as their work’ (Nancy, 1991: 2). ‘Dylan’ already knows the game that this breed of profiteers wants to play. He keeps them guessing, sharing with them new faces, surprise postures, concealing secrets.

Today, immanent community is always at stake because where community unceasingly works towards the fulfillment of its own essence, or the confession of its secrets — for Nancy, this means liberal regimes as much as totalitarian ones — it extinguishes thought itself. Nancy’s sense of thought, however, is not that of calculation but of the intellectual experience of intellectuality’s limits. At this limit, in the experience of this limit, not only does freedom become available as its own kind of experience, but more generally the opening, in space and time, that thought frees is the opening through which futurity itself may enter. The alternative is, literally, self-immolation. Strong as this language is — language only possible, perhaps, after having endured the twentieth-century — it is the problematic Nancy invites us to share. The problem is thus how to think ‘community’ in such a way that remains a question of ‘resistance to immanence’ and ‘to all the forms and all the violences of subjectivity’ (Nancy, 1991: 35).

Herman Melville’s famous text Bartleby the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street holds a unique place in a larger discourse on community that includes Nancy’s, to my mind, decisive problematic. Indeed, this text has acted as a kind of quilting point for post-structuralist and post-Marxist critics alike — Agamben, Blanchot, Deleuze, Derrida, Hardt and Negri — who want to say something about modern political community’s limitations and those of communication generally. For my purposes, I want to turn this group of thinkers against itself, in part, in order to nuance the awkward labels I have just imposed upon its heterogeneous thought. One reason for doing this is simply to assess where each writer appears to come down on the question of community. How do these writers think the subjectivity of community, and how do they use this traditionally American text in that effort?

Another reason for taking up these texts — and Bartleby, yet again — is to gain some perspective on what I perceive to be a developing tendency in Americanist literary criticism, a tendency that everywhere claims for itself the mantle of political activism, progressivism, and justice. It is in the work of Russ Castronovo, for example, who writes of recovering ‘material prehistories’ and ‘specificity’ of ‘the dead’ as ‘the first step toward thinking about democracy’ (2001: 23, 249). It is in Lauren Berlant, who seeks ‘a new form of American historical consciousness’ and the ‘counter-memory’ to fill up this form (1991: 38, 6). And it is in Priscilla Wald, who recognizes a ‘need for a new, an expanded, official [national] story’ (1995: 304). This concern with storytelling, national or otherwise, is not troubling in itself. But can such storytelling ever do justice to the finitude of singularities? Are these historiographical strategies capable of overcoming the violences of subjectivity for which Nancy expresses concern? In Americanist scholarship, is subjectivity the end of thought where community is concerned? I can only register these questions here. One thing is certain: after deconstruction, Bartleby can no longer be appropriated in the traditional ways. Deconstruction resists those readings that would reduce Bartleby to a narrative about existential humanist anxiety in a bureaucratized world or a psychoanalytic portrait of a split, even psychotic, personality. Nor can Bartleby continue to be read as a historically-inflected meditation on the alienating effects of modern American capitalism. Deconstruction even troubles recent Americanist approaches to literature that attempt to identify literary scenes of historical effacement in an empty, formalized world of statism and citizenship. At stake in all of this, then, is the imposition of a kind of revelation of secrecy, through the strategy of ‘history,’ upon the singular in the name of social justice, the full historical manifestation of subjectivity, so to speak, in the name of political activism. One can raise these concerns without also abandoning the ’cause’ of justice.1

Bartleby, in short, can no longer so easily be read as a narrative about a subject. If Americanists are persuaded by Nancy’s critique of immanent community — particularly with respect to the strong claim that liberal ideology is as beholden to ‘all the forms and all the violences of subjectivity’ as the worst political regimes, even if the former are therefore not reducible to the latter — then they cannot affirm ‘the pragmatic workings of citizenship and democracy’ without the equal and opposite affirmation of what these pragmatic workings entail, which is precisely ‘all the forms and all the violences of subjectivity’ (Castronovo, 2001: 247). Too often, in my view, this affirmation of liberal polity is not sufficiently qualified by an equal and opposite denunciation and a refusal of the violence that such a polity presupposes. How is it possible to affirm ‘pragmatic’ community — ‘citizenship and democracy,’ for example — while simultaneously denouncing the ‘violences of subjectivity’ that such pragmatism presupposes?

Community: walls versus limits

I begin by recalling a certain dilemma concerning the matter of walls that Melville’s text gives readers to think, leaving aside for the moment the famous utterance or formula, I would prefer not to. At the end of the novella, after Bartleby has endured the slow transformation from mere functionary (a copyist in a law firm) to social pariah (a homeless, speechless being), he is banished to the New York City ‘Tombs,’ or ‘to speak more properly,’ the attorney-narrator says, ‘the Halls of Justice’ (Melville, 1986: 42). The attorney, who is emotionally wrenched by his strange relationship with Bartleby, visits the latter in the Tombs, and finds him in much the same sort of position as before his incarceration: ‘And so I found him there, standing all alone in the quietest of the yards, his face towards a high wall, while all around, from the narrow slits of the jail windows, I thought I saw peering out upon him the eyes of murderers and thieves’ (1986: 43). Later, Bartleby will lie ‘wasted’ at the base of this wall, ‘Strangely huddled…, his knees drawn up, and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones…’ (1986: 45).

In his classic ‘Melville’s Parable of the Walls,’ Leo Marx argues that the scrivener’s fate reflects the fate of the writer in Wall Street, which is to say capitalist, society. As it was to Melville the living artist, says Marx, so too is this society ‘indifferent to Bartleby’s needs and aspirations; it demanded of him a kind of writing he prefers not to do; and, most serious of all, it has impaired his vision by forcing him to work in the shadow of its walls’ (Marx, 1979: 101). Impaired even unto death! And yet Marx reduces the figure of Bartleby at this moment to one of psychological pathology, belonging to the order of ‘hallucination’ and ‘delusion’: ‘What ultimately killed this writer’, he concludes, ‘was not the walls themselves, but the fact that he confused the walls built by men with the wall of human mortality.’ Not unjustly, Marx makes much of Bartleby’s supposed ‘dead-wall reverie,’ an emotional state projected onto Bartleby, it should be noted, by the attorney-narrator (Melville, 1986: 28). Bartleby’s confusion of stone with finitude, argues Marx, represents the psychosis of a madman who has reduced the latter to the former. Thus, Bartleby is finally and quite literally self-absorbed and suicidal because he is unable to separate out his own subjectivity, one might say, from those larger (capitalist) forces that subject him. Had he been able to, he might have recognized ‘no impenetrable walls between the lawyer and himself’ (Marx, 1979: 105). Still, despite such misrecognition, Bartleby remains ‘a hero’ for Marx because his ‘annihilation is the necessary occasion for Everyman’s perception’ and a ‘plea that he devote himself to keeping strong bonds with the rest of mankind.’

In this connection, we might recall that Nancy writes of the ‘suicide of the community’ wholly given over to the death-work of producing the ‘continuous identity of atoms’ (Nancy, 1991: 12). Such a community is suicidal because it kills that which is the presupposition of its own becoming, which is to say, as I mentioned above, thought. Marx is therefore not wrong to identify a confused death obsession, if that is what it is, in the text. But it is perhaps not the confusion that Marx thinks it is, that of Bartleby’s own death with capitalism. Rather, I would submit that it is Marx’s misrecognition of singular death with Death as an empty abstraction that poses the greatest barrier in his text to a reckoning with Nancy’s sense of community. For Marx, Bartleby’s own misrecognition takes the form of walls and the latter’s self-subjection to those walls. The ‘correct’ recognition by Bartleby would have been to see the walls as illusory impediments to the relation of ‘man’ to ‘man’, a brotherhood or fraternity, that could overcome the separation and alienation experienced in the death-shadow of capitalism. The implication of Marx’s piece, therefore, is that mere mortal death should give way to the ‘life’ of the greater fraternity of man, and that this fraternity is capable of resisting capitalism’s own deathwork, expressed in subjective alienation and isolation. Death should cease to be the main concern. From a Nancean perspective, however, this is to commit one more confusion, which is the conflation of death and Death. For the work of identifying man with man, in a humanism, for example, is merely to exchange one deathwork for another. This is what Bataille recognized, according to Nancy, even if he never quite followed through on the insight: ‘Bataille went through the experience of realizing that the nostalgia for a communal being was at the same time the desire for a work of death’ (Nancy, 1991: 17). In reading Nancy’s ‘death’ as ‘Death,’ I am suggesting that it is the abstraction of the latter that constitutes the presupposition of every humanist formation. One can easily see that in pursuing such an argument, everything depends on just exactly how the question of relation gets inflected, and particularly whether one accepts or rejects the idea of a subject, fully conscious and present to itself.

Nancy’s vocabulary offers something other than this sort of humanistic subject formation. For Nancy, this identification of man to man is precisely the problem to be deconstructed, and the only way to do this is by accepting the ‘walls’ that separate ‘you’ from ‘me’, ‘us’, not as barriers that separate atomic individuals but as limits that infinitely interrupt and fatally displace every attempt to construct or identify immanent community, which is to say the work of realizing an actually existing community that conserves itself in spacetime through infinite appeal to an essential identity. Thus, Nancy can write, in but one of a thousand possible examples, of ‘the sharing [partage] of community … between singular existences that are not subject and whose relation — the sharing itself — is not a communion, nor the appropriation of an object, nor a self-recognition, nor even a communication as this is understood to exist between subjects’ (Nancy, 1991: 25). Further, and for clarity’s sake I quote at length:

these singular beings are themselves constituted by sharing, they are distributed and placed, or rather spaced, by the sharing that makes them others: other for one another, and other, infinitely other for the Subject of their fusion, which is engulfed in the sharing, in the ecstasy of the sharing: ‘communicating’ by not ‘communing.’ These ‘places of communication’ are no longer places of fusion, even though in them one passes from one to the other; they are defined and exposed by their dislocation. Thus, the communication of sharing would be this very dis-location. (Nancy, 1991: 25)

One would be hard-pressed to cite a text more aggressively opposed to the reification of consciousness as a principle of communal identity. ‘Communication’ in Nancy’s sense has nothing to do with a ‘meeting of minds’ or with dialogue. It has nothing to do with two consciousnesses sharing in or communing with some common existence, substance, or essence. Nor is it a dialectical matter of subjects working through negativity in an open-ended process of self-actualization, both subjectively and objectively. Constitutive of singular beings themselves is the ‘dislocation’ of a ‘sharing’ that has nothing to do with a subjective sharing, of property, for example. Rather, ‘sharing’ here is the infinitely parting or separating character of thinking ‘to the limit‘. And, says Nancy, ‘one never thinks anywhere else.’

Far from eschewing death, in the sense of finitude, Nancy eschews Death as an abstract principle of communion and communication. When he speaks of a community’s ‘death work,’ he is talking as much about an individual subject’s self-communion and consolidation around his or her own Death as he is of a political community’s foundation in Death. From this point of view, both the patriot and the nation undertake this Death work in that each must find occasion to reaffirm their subjective identities. In other words, they must stake their identities at the limit of annihilation, of themselves and the Other, in order to reaffirm these same identities. Abstract Death thus becomes the speculative occasion for subjective constitution and the presupposition for all efforts to present an identity as a permanent and unchanging state of being. Lowercase ‘death’, nothing more nor less than the principle of finitude, on the contrary, infinitely shares itself and is ‘constituted’ through this very sharing, never resting long enough for identifiable subject/object relations to present themselves.

The uncompromising radicalism of Nancy’s view of the violence of the subject provides a useful theoretical baseline for evaluating Bartleby‘s function in recent left-of-liberal critiques of communitarian and liberal ideologies. I said above that Bartleby, while not in favor with liberal critics of community, is very much a strange sort of textual centerpiece for those trying to think the stakes of (post)modern community, not least in its liberal, capitalist manifestations. Specifically, Giorgio Agamben, Maurice Blanchot, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and, most recently, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have all returned to Melville’s text in order to either posit a thought of non-subjective community or some problem of consequence for this thought. But, as I will show, these thinkers do not privilege Bartleby in the same way, and in paying attention to their differences, one can further reflect on Nancy’s particular intervention in the larger discourse of communitarianism, communication, and community.

Community as agency: Hardt and Negri, Deleuze, Agamben

Hardt and Negri’s use of Bartleby appears in Empire, this collaboration’s much-heralded and criticized attempt to diagnose man’s ontological condition and force, particularly in its ongoing battle against ‘Empire’, the new imperialism that prevents the community of man from casting off mere ‘homo tantum’, or ‘mere man and nothing more‘, for ‘homohomo’, or ‘humanity squared, enriched by the collective intelligence and love of the community‘ (Hardt & Negri, 2000: 203-4). Hardt and Negri refer to Bartleby only briefly, but its textual location is highly strategic, for it serves, without saying as much, to wall off a Nancean critique of subjectivity. At first glance, the Bartleby appears only to affirm Bartleby’s utterance, ‘I would prefer not to,’ as a politically laudable ‘refusal of work’ and ‘the authority of the boss.’ But, finally, they reject what they see as Bartleby’s simple yet absolute negation — a kind of pure ‘No’ — because it does not turn over into a positive political program: ‘This refusal certainly is the beginning of a liberatory politics, but it is only a beginning. The refusal in itself is empty.’ Bartleby, like Michael K from J. M. Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, is thus read as ‘beautiful soul’ who in his refusal of work and authority maintains himself in ‘absolute purity,’ but as a result teeters ‘on the verge of suicide.’ Indeed, for Hardt and Negri, this exact moment is when their own book most ‘hangs on the edge of an abyss.’ It is precisely here, with Bartleby, that they must decide whether they will write a suicidal book or something else. What is this something else? In Hardt and Negri’s own words: ‘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. Beyond the simple refusal, or as part of that refusal, we need also to construct a new mode of life and above all a new community.’ The next section of Empire, entitled ‘Counter-Empire’ begins the authors’ real work, which is the construction, or recollection, of this ‘new social body’ and this ‘project.’

The first point to be made against such a reading of Bartleby is a purely technical one: Bartleby does not commit suicide, at least not in any conventional sense. If readers can agree on nothing else about this text, surely they must recognize this fact. Hardt and Negri’s implication is no different in essentials from Leo Marx’s: Bartleby’s dead-wall reverie — his pure ‘No’ to everything including his own life — lands him in the Tombs, causes his refusal to eat, and finally kills him. Bartleby kills Bartleby, and not the ‘violences of subjectivity’ that press upon his being. In fact, the text tells a different story. It is not Bartleby who turns himself into the police but the landlord of the attorney-narrator’s office building. It is not Bartleby who determines that the Tombs ought not be considered ‘so vile a place’ for someone like him but the attorney-narrator (Melville, 1986: 43). Indeed, this is the only time in the text when Bartleby rises to anger, a circumstance wholly forgotten by readers who only want to read the text as one of absolute negation. In fact, when the narrator calls out to Bartleby in the Tombs, he replies ‘without looking round,’ ‘I know you…and I want nothing to say to you.’ These are not the words of someone devoid of sense, much less the cherished sense of ‘liberatory politics’ that so excites Hardt and Negri. Would Hardt and Negri attribute the cause of violence perpetrated against political dissidents (of which Negri is one) solely to the latter’s resistance to political violence? Surely not. Why then do they insist on misreading Bartleby’s actions in this way?

The second point turns Hardt and Negri’s misrecognition of suicide back on their own text at precisely the moment that they begin to imagine an alternative to Empire. The sheer massiveness of Empire prevents me, in such a short space, from giving this book its due where Hardt and Negri’s wonderfully creative diagnosis of the political, economic, and juridical landscape of the planet Earth today is concerned (the necessarily partial photograph of the Earth from space on the book’s cover accurately depicts its ambitions, and limitations). But it is possible to zoom in on the concept of ‘immanence’ in their work and the tremendous hope they place in its actualization. Meanwhile, Nancy’s critique of immanence, briefly introduced above, should be kept in mind, particularly when he equates community’s immanence with suicide, or the suicide of thought.

In Empire, everything hinges on ‘the discovery of the fullness of the plane of immanence’ said to have occurred from ‘the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries’ (Hardt & Negri, 2000: 73). This discovery represents that event in which ‘the powers of creation that had previously been consigned exclusively to the heavens are now brought down to earth’; it is the moment that ‘knowledge shifted from the transcendent plane to the immanent’ (2000: 72). This is a first move in separating off Hardt and Negri’s new subject from the ontology-destroying plane of Empire. Empire, or ‘Imperial power’, is ‘founded on the rupture of every determinate ontological relationship.’ ‘Corruption’ — an interesting choice of words — is, therefore, ‘simply the sign of the absence of any ontology’ (2000: 202). Against the corruption of Empire, Hardt and Negri first situate man’s epistemological condition on the plane of immanence. They then put that condition to work for the transformation pointed out above with respect to Bartleby — from homo tantum to homohomo. Only through this transformation will man institute a new ontology: ‘When the multitude works, it produces autonomously and reproduces the entire world of life. Producing and reproducing autonomously mean constructing a new ontological reality’ (2000: 395). But Scott Michaelsen and Scott Cutler Shershow ask: ‘what happens to those beings who cannot achieve homohomo, or shoulder the burden of such massively productive, capital-generating labor? And, even more so, what will happen to those who may refuse to seek such a threshold?’ (non-dated).2

While Hardt and Negri are the first to say that they are articulating a new subjectivity by means of this ontological construction, one wonders how it fundamentally departs from one particular feature of subjectivity considered throughout this essay and already present under Empire: its subjection to judgment by the community. If Empire can forsake the proletariat willy-nilly in its impersonal drive for profits, so too can the ‘multitude,’ Hardt and Negri’s name for the autonomous collective, exclude those who fail to sufficiently contribute to the ‘creative’ production of its own essence — an outcome wholly consistent with Nancy’s critique of immanence. Hardt and Negri would call such a critique mystical. But the power of Nancy’s position is that he is able to subsume projects like Empire under the general heading of subjectivity. What this means, to repeat, is that the endless drive of the community — whether it be the community of the multitude, of liberal society, or of fascism, for example — to produce its own essence will have certain inescapable consequences, namely those involving exclusion from the polis, or banishment. This is a most difficult pill to swallow for those who would draw such hard and fast lines between political regimes under capitalism.

The subject is a hard habit to break. And the subject is always an immanent subject, because otherwise there could be no subject. The subject presupposes immanence. Even if one was to posit a subject-in-becoming, at the individual or collective level, that is not bound to a particular substance or idea of itself, as liberalism tries to do, the fact remains that the subject supposes an essence in undertaking the labor that it does. All subjects labor to maintain or realize themselves as the subjects they understand themselves to be. Even when a subject labors with the expectation that it will one day become another kind of subject — a carpenter’s apprentice labors in order to one day become a journeyman, for example — the subjective essence is still what is assumed and pursued by the subject. This is true at the level of the collective as well. When Nancy writes that ‘the subject makes itself into a citizen at the point where the expressed essence tends to express itself in and as a civic space and … to “display” subjective essentiality,’ he is drawing attention to the structural identity between the atomic individual and the equally atomic collectivity, expressed in this case by the figure of the citizen and the public space it convokes (1997: 106).

Gilles Deleuze’s reading of Bartleby is a useful and provocative commentary on precisely this relation between the subject and the community or ‘citizenry.’ And while he quite brilliantly deconstructs the patriarchal presuppositions of subjective relations within modern community, he ends up speculating on a fraternity of ‘men’ and things that, while putatively egalitarian (at least among men), still retains subjective, immanent vestiges and brings his position quite close to those of Marx and Hardt and Negri.

Deleuze asks at the beginning of ‘Bartleby; or, The Formula,’ ‘But in what does the literality of the formula [I would prefer not to] consist?’ (1997: 68). His complex answer to this question invites the reader to consider ‘the formula’ as ‘a kind of limit-function’ in language’s relation to itself and its other. Deleuze unpacks his argument by shrewdly referencing another of Bartleby’s repeated utterances, one that is rarely commented upon — I am not particular. First, Deleuze says that this statement indicates ‘that whatever else might be suggested to [Bartleby] would be yet another particularity falling under the ban of the great indeterminate formula, I PREFER NOT TO, which subsists once and for all and in all cases’ (1997: 69). Wherein lies the persuasive force of this I PREFER NOT TO that it will not be disturbed by, literally, anything that might be said in reference to it or about it? Second, the formula ‘is neither an affirmation nor a negation’ (1997: 70). Because Bartleby is not rejecting anything in particular, not being particular, it does not matter one jot what the attorney asks of him. Bartleby ‘does not refuse, he simply rejects a nonpreferred (the proofreading, the errands…)’ (1997: 71); he would prefer notto, to anything and everything. ‘In short,’ writes Deleuze,

the formula that successively refuses every other act has already engulfed the act of copying, which it no longer even needs to refuse. The formula is devastating because it eliminates the preferable just as mercilessly as any nonpreferred. It not only abolishes the term it refers to, and that it rejects, but also abolishes the other term it seemed to preserve, and that becomes impossible. In fact, it renders them indistinct: it hollows out an ever expanding zone of indiscernibility or indetermination between some nonpreferred activities and a preferable activity. All particularity, all reference is abolished …. I would prefer nothing rather than something: not a will to nothingness, but the growth of a nothingness of the will. (1997: 71)

This ‘zone of indiscernibility’ is the ‘negativism beyond all negation’ lodged, like Bartleby on the attorney’s stair banisters, at the heart of meaning and reason, yet at the same time exceeding or receding from anything these radically simple concepts might be able to say to it. It is a negativism much like one finds in Maurice Blanchot’s own reference to Bartleby, according to which Bartleby’s formula precedes the subjective consciousness that decisionism implies (see Blanchot, 1995: 13-18). Is it any wonder that Bartleby ‘would prefer not to be a little reasonable’? (Melville, 1986: 26). But in saying this, Bartleby does not reject reason per se, because according to the limit-function we are examining ‘reason’ becomes just one more particularity, which the formula abolishes tout court, and not a foundational notion. As Blanchot might say, Deleuze is remarking Bartleby’s negative abdication rather than his positive refusal.

This move by Deleuze prepares the way for a consideration of this most radical of negations in relation to language, literature, and politics. Deleuze remarks ‘the result of this [negativism beyond all negation], which tends to constitute an original language within language; and the effect, which is to sweep up language in its entirety, sending it into flight, pushing it to its very limit in order to discover its Outside, silence or music’ (1997: 72). This seems contradictory: on the one hand, an original language within language; on the other hand, an Outside to language. But this is what Bartleby ‘signifies’ for Deleuze: a limitation that invites the Outside into language. It is this function that attracts Deleuze to Bartleby’s singularity: ‘There is nothing particular or general about Bartleby: he is an Original’ (1997: 83). In fact, Deleuze sees in ‘The founding act of the American novel, like that of the Russian novel,’ a move ‘to take the novel far from the order of reasons, and to give birth to characters who exist in nothingness, survive only in the void, defy logic and psychology and keep their mystery until the end’ (1997: 81). The most radical of these characters is the ‘Original’ type. It belongs, from the perspective of reason, to the genus of ‘innately depraved beings,’ essentially ‘psychotic.’ ‘[K]nowing no Law, [it] pursues its own irrational aim through them.’ Bartleby belongs to this order, like Benito Cereno and Billy Budd. These originals are ‘petrified by nature,’ and being thus ‘they prefer…no will at all, a nothingness of the will rather than a will to nothingness’ (1997: 80). And ‘[t]hey can only survive by becoming stone, by denying the will and sanctifying themselves in this suspension.’ Incidentally, this is not the only version of the Original type, though it is the one that mainly concerns me here. It refers to another pole: the being who does prefer ‘a will to nothingness.’ Ahab is the representative type: ‘Ahab will break through the wall, even if there is nothing behind it, and will make nothingness the object of his will’ (1997: 79). Bartleby and Ahab thus represent the Janus-face of the Original, which subsists beyond the pale of reason and law.

If these types manifest a Primary Nature for Deleuze, an ontological refusal of Law and laws, there also exists the type belonging to secondary nature. This character is the character of sight and understanding, the character who exists in the ‘real world.’ The attorney in Bartleby is just such a type, as is Vere in Billy Budd. Deleuze associates these secondary figures with the figure of the father, the being who is on the side of Law(s) and willing to ‘make the sacrifice of Abraham’ to preserve that Law. This secondary type is of the order of the police, and although it may love the original-type — a love motivated, it may be, by the latter’s perceived innocence and its dependency on the former — it will immobilize, imprison, and even kill the Original-type if it presents a threat to the Law. Of course, it invariably does threaten the Law since it is radically and constitutively opposed to the law, not as the opposite of the Law but as the Other to the Law. It is the infinite coming-unto-the-Law of the future or of nothingness which strikes fear into the heart of the Law and its own conceit of self-presence, of atomic existence. Deleuze remarks this Otherness of the Original, attributing his own analysis to Melville’s art: ‘The original, says Melville, is not subject to the influence of his milieu; on the contrary, he throws a livid white light on his surroundings…’ (1997: 83). The Original does not represent anything or anyone, it simply reflects the infinitely relational milieu of all identifiable things. When Deleuze thus asks, ‘Is there a relation of identification between the attorney and Bartleby?,’ he is asking from the point of view of the father, for only the father, in the classically paternal sense, could have any reason to recognize the Original as a being that could be amenable or, literally, comprehensible to Law’s reason. Accordingly, Bartleby figures as a son to the attorney’s ‘paternal function’ (1997: 76). This is where matters get very interesting in Deleuze’s reading, for he then considers how this filial relationship can be transformed into a fraternal relationship.

Why does Deleuze want to dismantle this paternalism? Because, for him, ‘what Captain Vere and the attorney demonstrate is that there are no good fathers. There are only monstrous, devouring fathers, and petrified, fatherless sons’ (1997: 84). I cannot go into all of the reasons why Deleuze arrives at such a conclusion. The important point is that he turns his analysis towards the problem of a coming or new community that is no longer governed by the paternal function: ‘If humanity can be saved, and the originals [Bartleby, on the one side, and Ahab, on the other] reconciled [to a sane, legal order], it will only be through the dissolution or decomposition of the paternal function.’ Yet somehow, and in spite of everything, beyond this paternal function awaits ‘the fraternal relation pure and simple.’ Understanding this relation explicitly as a ‘society of brothers,’ Deleuze nevertheless invites ‘blood sisters’ into this ‘community of celibates,‘ a community in which ‘alliance replaces filiation and the blood pact replaces consanguinity.’ Blood brothers and sisters are thus drawn ‘into an unlimited becoming’:

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, extending all the way to the homosexual relation between brothers, and passing through the incestuous relation between brother and sister. This is the most mysterious relation…. (1997: 84-5)

One is tempted to say, first, that Deleuze, even though he is reading Melville here, is forecasting a community of infinite affect (‘A burning passion deeper than love’) in which socio-political custom and economic exigency, that is properties of identity and labor, no longer bear any relation to ‘A brother, a sister.’ Of course, one must therefore ask, why ‘brother and sister‘ if ‘all “property” … has disappeared’?3 Are these not also customary determinations and fundamental coordinates within paternal, patriarchal society? But rather than hold up fraternity as a normative communal ideal for his own socio-political milieu (in any obvious way, at least), Deleuze reads this ‘coming’ fraternity back into American history itself and American ideals of communal potential:

The American is one who is freed from the English paternal function, the son of a crumbled father, the son of all nations. Even before their independence, Americans were thinking about the combination of States, the State-form most compatible with their vocation. But their vocation was not to reconstitute an ‘old State secret,’ a nation, a family, a heritage, or a father. It was above all to constitute a universe, a society of brothers, a federation of men and goods, a community of anarchist individuals, inspired by Jefferson, by Thoreau, by Melville …. America is the potential of the man without particularities, the Original Man. (1997: 85)

One might say, in fact, that Deleuze is imagining ‘Americans’ imagining themselves as citizens (‘a society of brothers’; ‘a federation of men and goods’), which is to say as placeholders of certain ‘inalienable,’ ‘natural’ rights. Deleuze does not use this language, but he clearly appears to be pressing, particularly in his citation of Jefferson, towards a communal idea of freedom rooted in the presupposition of Man. For Deleuze’s American brother, while being ‘indifferent’ and having ‘no consciousness of himself’ and who ‘considers all particularities as so many ignominious strains that arouse anguish and pity,’ nevertheless retains ‘the properties of “democratic dignity”.’ As ‘the new Christ or the brother to us all,’ Bartleby, I think it is fair to say, is understood by Deleuze as the figure for a new community articulated around the supposition of the citizen, that politico-legal form that is often supposed hospitable to whatever identity (1997: 90).

But Deleuze also places great emphasis on the question of identity in community. By identity, I am not only referring to an individual’s identity qua atomic subject, its self-naming or self-consciousness; I am also, even primarily, referring to the embeddedness of such self-identity in the relation among and between individuals in a determinate socio-political context. Identity is thus conceived here as, in Deleuze’s language, a ‘property’ and ‘propriety’ obtaining both at the level of the individual and of the community. Where these levels coincide, one finds oneself in the realm of civic republicanism, versions of which understand the individual’s identity to reflect the larger community’s identity and vice versa. Interestingly, Jefferson himself is of this tradition. Now, while Deleuze is certainly interested in reading Bartleby as a deconstruction of the ‘English paternal function,’ as he puts it — which I understand to mean a class-structured subordination to State law — he does not appear to get much further than civic republicanism. So, and on the other hand, while Deleuze reads in Bartleby a communal promise whose premise is the man without property, he does not undertake a thorough deconstruction of the notion of ‘man’ itself, as both an ontological and gendered category. He thus ends up in a communal atmosphere which he calls, to repeat, a ‘federation of men and goods,’ a fraternity of dignified men who relate and exchange in a democratic political context. It is one thing to argue that such a community merely reflects a certain normative idea of nineteenth-century American society, which is true enough. It is quite another thing to put forth such a reading as a norm for the coming community, which Deleuze also does.

Like a modern day siren, immanence beckons. Even when one is trying to get out from under immanence, which presupposes subjectivity, its pull remains so strong for thought that alternative, pragmatic communities, new ontologies, new counter-strategies all-too-often merely posit one more subjectivity. Where subjectivity is grasped as the problem to be overcome — non-dialectically, I should add — these returns of the subject will remain radically inadequate for thought, in the strict, Nancean sense. Although Deleuze takes us to the limit-function, as he puts it, his speculation on how ‘humanity’ may be ‘saved’ returns us to the hither side of this limit and back to square one. From a thought of the limit, we are pushed back into a ‘thought’ of walls.

For Nancy, community is always the question of the limit, which is also the condition for its possibility and its future, as it is for Derrida. This is sometimes true for Giorgio Agamben as well, particularly for that Agamben who is the thinker of the event of language that opens onto the coming community, which I shall come back to. But there is another Agamben, the Agamben of ‘Bartleby, or On Contingency’, who reads the formulaic I would prefer not to in a highly original way, as metonym for the disclosure of contingency, as found in another curious and beautiful text by Melville:

from out of the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring — the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity — he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death. (1986: 46)

This text will be the occasion for Agamben’s thought of the problem that also concerned Deleuze, of the ‘negativism beyond all negation.’ But before turning to that problem, we might suggest a reading of this graph in order to offset Agamben’s own. It appears to simply oppose subjects and objects that cannot meet, bank-notes that can no longer relieve a suffering, pardon and hope for those who can no longer receive them. Errands that might otherwise prove beneficial to some being, giving something or adding something to it in its need, simply miss the mark because the object is not where it was thought it would be. It is not only that what was present is now absent but that absence is always the condition of possibility for every presence. Without wanting to enter the hornet’s nest of those famous critical responses to Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter,’ I would only remark that even if ‘these [figurative] letters’ reached someone or something else, this would not negate the negation that is always constitutive of presence, tracing the impossible possibility of presence. Agamben’s approach is somewhat different than this one, since he does not focus on the ontological status of name and object. Rather, he reads this graph as a commentary on potentiality: these ‘undelivered letters are the cipher of joyous events that could have been, but never took place’ (Agamben, 1999: 269). The problem for Agamben is not exactly whether these letters ever reached their destination or not, having been sent, but rather the significance of their never having been sent. This is part of the problem of potentiality, and Agamben’s piece is a brilliant construction of this idea’s genealogy. I would like to now turn to that construction and its consequences in more detail.

For Agamben, Bartleby represents ‘the last, exhausted figure in a prestigious lineage — including Joseph K. and Prince Myshkin — that embodies ‘The scribe who does not write’ (1999: 247). The scribe who does not write — more exactly, in Bartleby’s case, who does not copy — exemplifies the refusal of a negation, the refusal to be negated — a refusal to either be or do in ways that jeopardize the possibility of the subject to not be or not do. Bartleby, for Agamben, is potentiality made flesh. Strangely, it is Bartleby’s refusal to write that initially prompts Agamben’s inquiry, though writing itself might be the phenomenon that most interests him. Bartleby knows all too well what it means to in fact copy, and not to write at all. At first, he ‘seemed to gorge himself’ on the attorney’s documents, with ‘no pause for digestion’ (Melville, 1968: 12). But then he unceremoniously and finally rejects this mechanical regime. He stops copying altogether, repeatedly snuffing attempts to get work out of him; he becomes useless. Yet, Bartleby’s ‘No’, however resolute in its repetition, may still only amount to a ‘No.’ In this increasingly mechanized world of Wall Street, the world of the copy, the simulacra, there will always be more bodies to replace a worn-out one, an uncooperative one. Agamben is clearly interested in more than a mere ‘No.’ Bartleby’s refusal, after all, is an ‘announcement’ for Agamben of potentiality and the coming community. But could it be that Agamben’s preference for Bartleby, the singular scrivener, is, in fact, still all-too-singular, too committed to the one?

Potentiality revolves around the old confrontation between Nothingness, on the one side, and will and necessity, on the other, as they have been taken up, Agamben demonstrates, in Western religious and ethical tradition. ‘The West,’ he says, has successfully avoided ‘the problem of potentiality by reducing it to the terms of will and necessity’ (Agamben, 1999: 254). (In this regard, recall that the attorney-narrator has avoided, not so successfully, Bartleby’s withering negations by turning to ‘Edward on the Will’ and ‘Priestley on Necessity’ [Melville, 1986: 35].) The result of such refusals has been a philosophical preoccupation with ‘Not what you can do, but what you want to do or must do ….’ For Agamben, this is the moment of an important disavowal in Western thought: ‘[P]otentiality is not will, and impotentiality is not necessity …. To believe that will has power over potentiality, that the passage to actuality is the result of a decision that puts an end to the ambiguity of potentiality (which is always potentiality to do and not to do) — this is the perpetual illusion of morality’ (1999: 254).

This morality privileges act and decision over the concomitant not-to-act, thus repressing, or annihilating, one entire side of the equation of potentiality; ‘to do and not to do’ must be thought together to think potentiality. Indeed, the question for Hamlet, and for us, then becomes ‘to be and not to be.’ Morality, at least in the liberal West, privileges the sovereign will of the individual and the collective over singular and relational flux, the will and necessity — or decision — over ambiguity and indecision. On the one hand, ‘our’ condition is impotence in the face of chaos or Nothingness, the abyss of pure, unordered relation; on the other, only the ‘I’ — individual and collective — can potentially tame that blind necessity through will-power and through decision. The decision that confronts human beings is, alternatively, the repression of potentiality or ‘the experience of being (one’s own) potentiality, of being (one’s own) possibility’ (1999: 43). For Agamben, the repression of potentiality is the definition of evil. Evil is ‘the decision to remain in a deficit of existence,’ which would mean something like a refusal of potentiality’s injunction and limitations. Morality announces an order as such and violates the potential of potentiality. Potentiality, on the other hand, retreats from the scene of the human, from the order of the human, insofar as being human would mean acting or thinking or being any way in particular, according to any particular disciplinary, moral regime (Agamben has written at length on the figure of the quodlibet, or ‘whatever being’, 1993). In its release from a (pre)determined self and to its potentiality, the human — the category whose maintenance we might broadly call anthropology — announces its own limit, which one could describe, in Heideggerian terms, as the relation, in its non-simple totality, between being(s) and Being, the latter constituting the scene of relation of the former, and the former de-constituting the proper universality of the latter. Potentiality could thus never constitute a property or an individual possession; potentiality would always be for each one — each one in relation to every other one — or no one. This release, or retreat, of the human signifies a simultaneous emergence of the singular, which is always more or less than one.

Perhaps now it is possible to see why the relation between morality and potentiality is so central to Agamben’s thinking of relation and community, since morality has often been thought, at least in the West, requisite to meaningful human existence. But the play between morality and potentiality is not without further difficulties, particularly as regards their ordering. In ‘Bartleby; or On Contingency,’ Agamben frames this relation not in Heidegger’s terms but in terms of potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata, the fundamental antinomy of medieval understandings of divine will. The former is an ‘”absolute potentiality” by which God can do anything,’ while the latter is an ‘”ordered potentiality,” by which God can do only what is in accord with his will’ (Agamben, 1999: 254). Agamben argues that the figure of Bartleby upsets the privileging of potentia ordinata over potentia absoluta, exposing the former as the principle of domination, which is to say morality: ‘Will is the principle that makes it possible to order the undifferentiated chaos of potentiality.’ If actuality is only possible through the mysterious or not-so-mysterious processes of will power, divine or mundane, then potentia absoluta is presumably aligned with the chaos, the Nothing, of not-being: ‘a potentiality without will is altogether unrealizable and cannot pass into actuality.’ To will can mean to decide to acknowledge or enter into a ‘deficit of existence’; the willing subject only exists, only counts, within a general material and conceptual environment of calculation, of distribution and scarcity, preferring this to that, sacrificing this for that. Bartleby, on the other hand, ‘is capable only without wanting; he is capable only de potentia absoluta,’ according to Agamben. His absolute potentiality is not ‘unrealized,’ Agamben tells us, ‘it does not remain unactualized on account of a lack of will’ (1999: 255). Rather, Bartleby ‘exceeds will (his own and that of others) at every point’: ‘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. The formula that he so obstinately repeats destroys all possibility of constructing a relation between being able and willing, between potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata. It is the formula of potentiality.’ It appears that this formula thus destroys the relation between potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata due to the undecidability of the difference between what one can do and what one must do. In terms of ontico-ontological relation (analogizing the structure of Agamben’s problematic in terms of being/Being), potentiality comes before, or beneath the difference between potentiality and actuality or morality. Thus, he seems to introduce two orders of potentiality: the first finds itself in relation to morality and will; the second precedes and destroys this relation.4

This second-order potentiality (I will call it Potentiality) also risks foreclosure by the will’s determination of identity and difference. Will collapses Potentiality into a mere binary relation, or into the first-order potentiality. Reading with Agamben, the formula ‘I would prefer not to’ is irreducible insofar as Bartleby refuses to decide on the nature of his relation to scarcity, limitation, and finitude; he refuses to move himself out of Potentiality or do anything that would propel him into a world of naked need, calculation, and decision. It is this withdrawal from the realm of decision that exercises ‘the Law’ — figured by Bartleby’s nameless boss, the attorney-narrator, the man of the Law, the Master — and Bartleby’s colleagues — Nippers, Turkey, and Ginger Nut — who represent the logic of potentia ordinata, for Agamben. From the standpoint of potentiality, potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata do not exist in mere opposition, as if one could be discarded in the name of the other. Yet, a discard, or really a radical repression, must take place in order to solidify the preference for either term. To hold both terms in relational suspension, to conceive the strange relation that binds and un-binds them — this begins to approach Bartleby’s quiet injunction. Agamben writes:

To be capable, in pure potentiality, to bear the ‘no more than’ beyond Being and Nothing, fully experiencing the impotent possibility that exceeds both — this is the trial that Bartleby announces. The green screen that isolates his desk traces the borders of an experimental laboratory in which potentiality … frees itself of the principle of reason. Emancipating itself from Being and non-Being alike, potentiality thus creates its own ontology. (1999: 259)

It is probably no accident that Michael Hardt, translator of Agamben, also wants to found a new ontology in the Potentiality of the multitude. But what does this parthenogenetic ontology look like, and could it still be called an ontology? Bearing the ‘no more than’ seems to indicate a forbearance of the limit that traces the difference from which Being and Nothing spring forth. The delimiting green screen that separates Bartleby from the attorney-master depends upon both character-figures to exist as a screen. It cannot be the case that Bartleby simply announces, much less contains within himself, the formula for Potentiality. He can not be conceived of, in himself, his figure, as any sort of atomic, or, better, in keeping with the strong Marxian autonomism evident in Hardt and Negri, autonomic Potentiality. Rather, the Potentiality to which Bartleby points for Agamben simultaneously inscribes and proscribes every determinable being. Like the green screen — and this text is full of partitions, screens, windows, brick walls, parchment — Potentiality traces the screen of inside/outside, a doubled trace on either side of which one recognizes Bartleby and the attorney. On that-side of the green screen, the third-person perspective, Bartleby sits gesture-less, with a pallor suggesting impotence. On this-side of the green screen, the narrator-lawyer, in the first-person position, peers and gapes, aghast at what amounts to almost nothing at all, namely Bartleby, manic to ascribe some quality of humanity to him. The screen itself, this limit, at which the reader is positioned as second-person, and not Bartleby, would thus seem to hold an important clue to Potentiality insofar as it, first, inscribes the limit which gives to each character its mere individuality, its literal figuration, and, second, de-inscribes each figure as something less than an individual figure and more of a singularity, which is irreducible to a simple, numerical one.

The green screen ‘frees itself of the principle of reason’ even while it constitutes that principle. But it might be better to say that freedom and reason acquire meaning — conventional meaning, anyway — only through the transgression of the trace of the screen. Significantly, Agamben writes that Bartleby’s ‘experimental laboratory’ produces an ‘anthropological change’ (Agamben, 1999: 260). Agamben does not say an abandonment or destruction of anthropology itself. Rather, an anthropological change necessarily carries within it a logic of man into a new manifestation. What remains unclear is the outcome of this residue of a formal anthropology, by which I simply mean the outlines, however lightly traced, of the human as such. This is where Agamben’s two orders of potentiality are most felt. For if the figure of Bartleby ‘announces’ Potentiality, then Potentiality, which was supposed to exceed the ‘potentiality to do and not to do,’ must itself remain an anthropological concept, still too tied to subjectivity and thus still too metaphysical. If, on the other hand, Potentiality remains the limit concept that Agamben perhaps usually intends, then human relation as such is thrown into a more radical crisis, since its conceptual self-destruction, not its perpetual constitution, forces itself upon thought.

Bartleby broaches the question of the human from beginning to end, and simultaneously sustains and interrupts it throughout, until the final despairing cry of the narrator-lawyer, ‘Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!’ (Melville, 1986: 46). It is as if the speaker never could quite reconcile the two sides of this thought — Bartleby, on the one side, and humanity, on the other. And in spite of everything I have just said, Agamben himself finally reaches for another, non-human vocabulary in his description of Bartleby as ‘the new creature’ who, upon being locked in the Tombs, has reached ‘the indemonstrable center of its “occurrence-or-nonoccurrence”‘ (1999: 271). ‘And it is here,’ continues Agamben, ‘that the creature is finally at home, saved in being irredeemable. This is why in the end, the walled courtyard is not a sad place. There is sky and there is grass. And the creature knows perfectly well “where it is”.’ Still, I would submit that what Agamben has managed to do here is merely mythologize Bartleby, in the Nancean sense, and render him a hero around which the thought of the coming community can commune. Agamben, after all, will describe the figure of Bartleby, not unlike Deleuze, as ‘a new Messiah’ who comes ‘to save what was not’ (1999: 270). For his part, Nancy will stress ‘the fact that myths [or description of immanent community] are at the same time most often about an isolated hero. In one way or another, this hero … always makes [the community] commune in the communication that he himself effects between existence and meaning, between the individual and the people’ (1991: 51). Agamben’s Bartleby, from a Nancean perspective, whether it be called human or creature, is the ‘unique fiction,’ which gathers ‘multiple existences’ together and ‘gives them their common figure in its speech and as this speech’ (1991: 57). Perhaps this why Agamben can do nothing less that imagine the prison as the final figure of being-in-common. For the coming community, or being-in-common, the imposition of a figure will necessarily prepare the way for the return of the subject of community.

But from the very beginning, the narrator-lawyer speaks of a ‘somewhat singular set of men.’ He apologizes in advance for the ‘unknowableness’ of Bartleby, saying ‘I believe that no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man’ (Melville, 1986: 3). Bartleby is one of ‘those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and in his case those are very small.’ The original sources of Bartleby’s social existence never see the light of day and come, in speech only, from the man of Law himself. How badly does the Law, or morality, or community want ‘us,’ its subjects (and readers), to believe that biographies are possible, that human beings can appropriate a totalized existence — an essence, in fact — through recourse to original sources, family lineages, national narratives and traditions. Is this not the impetus, finally, behind the seemingly never ending taste for family genealogy, a taste for blood (lines), in fact, that can shore up all of those other false communities that will never fail to fail? Alas, this too will remain just one more false and violent attempt at immanence.

Community as the instant of decision: Derrida and Nancy

As a final maneuver in my argument, I want to return to a point begun, but not finished, by Agamben, at least not this Agamben, in this text.5 It has to do with this question of decision and its relation to justice. To review briefly: in the name of a new ontology, Agamben’s analysis, as I understand it, desires to jettison the problem of decision by claiming that decision reduces the autonomous realm of Potentiality to mere potentiality, which becomes the mere binary opposite to decision itself. Decision and potentiality are thus closed off from the Agamben’s real thought, which is Potentiality. I have at least implied that this strategy is similar to the one employed by Hardt and Negri: to think that which comes before Empire and the subjectivities that the latter consolidates. But the effort to imagine new ontologies is, finally, unthinkable in the literal sense, for it posits an absolute Otherness to thought and the material/ideological conditions of thought without simultaneously tethering the Other to thought. This is a paradox I shall return to in a moment. This Otherness, this new ontology that often seems merely posited, is not even related to thought, strictly speaking. Rather, it represents a kind of fantastic dream that one turns to when philosophical affirmation of the world as it is or as it is determined to be becomes impossible. But this dream itself is a choice, if not a decision in the Derridean sense, one consequence of which, perhaps, is the endless effort to identify one more agency, human or otherwise, that can liberate itself from the ties — economic, political, juridical — that bind it and announce a new presence, and a new subjection. Since all conceivable agency is always already conditioned by these ties, however, thinkers put themselves in the position of advancing ‘new’ ontologies, new identities that come from outside of these agencies. But, the relation of this world to that future remains radically unpersuasive, because every future, if it is not to be a revelation, must come from what already exists.

It is in this context that I find Derrida’s use of Bartleby most amenable to Nancy’s thought of the limit and its opening onto a future and community — a future and community that have always already been available and continue to come. Therefore, by way of an ending, I want to return to that moment in The Gift of Death, the text in which Bartleby appears, that brings decisionism back into play as the very condition of freedom, justice, community (in the Nancean sense), and responsibility.6 Derrida articulates the stakes of responsibility most clearly in two passages that come well in advance of the scrivener. The first describes a certain ineluctable paradox of the responsible decision:

Saying that a responsible decision must be taken on the basis of knowledge seems to define the condition of possibility of responsibility (one can’t make a responsible decision without science or conscience, without knowing what one is doing, for what reasons, in view of what and under what conditions), at the same time as it defines the condition of impossibility of this same responsibility (if decision-making is relegated to a knowledge that it is content to follow or to develop, then it is no more a responsible decision, it is the technical deployment of a cognitive apparatus, the simple mechanistic deployment of a theorem). (Derrida, 1995: 24)

Positive knowledge is both the condition of possibility and impossibility for the responsible decision. One must know, to the extent possible, before one can responsibly decide. But if one knows what decision one will make in advance of the ordeal that defines the decision itself, then one has abdicated responsibility. In this latter case, one has become, like Bartleby in one of his careers, a mere copyist. What is this ordeal?

[T]he activating of responsibility (decision, act, praxis) will always take place before and beyond any theoretical or thematic determination. It will have to decide without it, independently from knowledge; that will be the condition of a practical idea of freedom. We should therefore conclude that not only is the thematization of the concept of responsibility always inadequate but that it is always so because it must be so. And what goes here for responsibility also goes, for the same reasons, for freedom and for decision. (Derrida, 1995: 26)

Given this well-known, if little heeded, aporetic structure, it is possible to argue for decision as the infinitely vexed condition for freedom, liberation, emancipation. It is vexed, first, with respect to the nature of the decision and its exclusions, and second, to the possibility of the subject itself. At the moment of decision (which, Derrida says, ‘belongs to an atemporal temporality’), at the moment that a subjective will is summoned or summons itself to make a decision, any decision, from the most mundane of what is often called ‘everyday life,’ to the seemingly most decisive decisions of sovereign heads of State, for example, no knowledge will ever be available that reduces the infinite distance between what was known prior to the decision and the moment, or instant, of decision itself (Derrida, 1995: 65). This is the ordeal of what Derrida has called in many places the undecidable. And while I would not claim absolute adequation between the two, it corresponds in a certain way with Nancy’s thought of thinking as ‘the experience of limits’ (Nancy, 1993: 122).

Bartleby is explicitly invoked at the end of an exhaustive and stunning discussion conducted by Derrida on the story of Abraham and Isaac and its relation to problems of responsibility, sacrifice, and secrecy. At the conclusion of the discussion, which I cannot begin to summarize here, Derrida draws a kind of lesson: ‘I can respond only to the one (or to the One), that is, to the other, by sacrificing the other to that one. I am responsible to any one (that is to say to any other) only by failing in my responsibilities to all the others, to the ethical or political generality. And I can never justify this sacrifice…’ (Derrida, 1995: 70).

Bartleby’s I would prefer not to is then interpreted as taking on ‘the responsibility of a response without a response’ (1995: 75). In the willingness to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham was responding to God, ‘the One … by sacrificing the other to that one.’ God, Abraham, and Isaac, a masculinist trio that Derrida also questions, is thus a kind of fable representing the general structure of responsibility, which is also the structure of the just decision. So while he does not want to disregard the historical singularity of that event, he also wants to draw attention to ‘all the Mount Moriahs of this world,’ and this particular structure that requires that one, in being responsible to the other, be irresponsible with respect to ‘all the others, to the ethical or political generality’ (1995: 68). Bartleby’s utterance, this ‘responsibility of a response without a response,’ therefore becomes a kind of symptom of this structure: one can only be responsible to one, which is the singular other; in being responsible to the singular other, one must be irresponsible to all the others. Thus, I would prefer not to sacrifice this for that, this other for that other; I would prefer something else, perhaps. But it cannot be helped.

I would prefer not to also responds to the necessary secrecy of such a ‘strange responsibility’ (Derrida, 1995: 74). One cannot explain oneself to all the others without sacrificing that which makes one and one’s decision exceptional singularities, unique and unsubstitutable, singularities, in Nancy’s language, that are the precondition for an experience of freedom. Therefore, even if I could, which I cannot, I would prefer not to share that which makes me singular. If one could share the reasons why, if one could absolutely justify the reasons why one decides what one does with respect to the other, ‘we would share a type of homogeneity’ and no genuine act of freedom would in that case be possible (Derrida, 1995: 57). A free act, according to the logic I am trying to trace, consists of not knowing why the singular other demands of you what it does, and yet responding to it anyway, for good or evil. As Nancy says, freedom is, must be, ‘fully and positively, for evil as much as for good’ (1993: 126). Otherwise, there is no freedom, only administration and technique. I would prefer not to thus ‘evokes the future without either predicting or promising; it utters nothing fixed, determinable, positive, or negative’ (Derrida, 1995: 75). It resembles ‘a nonlanguage or a secret language,’ like the language of Abraham, and takes thought right to limit of its ‘self’. One might even say that at the instant of decision, thought stops being itself, knowledge ceases to know itself, and surprise comes.

The instant of decision, which is strictly unavailable to calculation and thus radically unpredictable, is both the opening for futurity and for the experience of freedom. It should be remarked right away that while unavailable to calculation this instant is not without relation to calculation. Nothing could be further from the truth. And it is precisely this instant, I have tried to argue, that separates Derrida’s and Nancy’s thought of communication and community from the immanent tendencies of Deleuze, Negri & Hardt, and Agamben. It would be crude, indeed, to say that this instant can be simply separated from claims of immanence and subjectivity. Nothing is more terrifying than this instant and this experience, for they quite literally entail that one forget oneself in that strange atemporal temporality that defines the decision. And I think it is plausible to argue that in the space-time between decisions, immanence and subjectivity are always threatening to overwhelm singularity, trying to convince it to forego responsibility and give in to the consensual violences of subjectivity. This only increases the stakes for responsible decision-making, which must begin afresh at every instant.


1 Among Americanists trying to think other than historical subjectivity as the basis for community, I would include Cesare Casarino, Gregory S. Jay, Samira Kawash, and William V. Spanos, for example. See Casarino, C. (2002) Modernity at Sea: Melville, Marx, Conrad in Crisis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; Jay, G. S. (1990) America the Scrivener: Deconstruction and the Subject of Literary History. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press; Kawash, S. (1997) Dislocating the Color Line: Identity, Hybridity, and Singularity in African-American Literature. Stanford: Stanford University Press; Spanos, W. V. (1995) The Errant Art of Moby Dick: The Canon, the Cold War, and the Struggle for American Studies. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

2 In fairness to Hardt and Negri, there is no reason, in principle, why the essence of the community of the multitude could not include refusal. Laziness and refusal could just as well be part of the multitude’s creative ‘work’. But no community can be infinitely inclusive, otherwise it would cease to be a community.

3 Derrida once noted that ‘There is still perhaps some brotherhood in Bataille, Blanchot, and Nancy’ that ‘deserve[s] a little loosening up…’ (1997: 48). I am suggesting that the same applies to Deleuze.

4 Again, one finds a similar logic in Blanchot, according to whom ‘infinite passivity’ precedes a merely subjective passivity that is what it is only in relation to a given world. Infinite passivity, not unlike Agamben’s Potentiality perhaps, ‘does not belong to the world’ (Blanchot, 1995: 16, 15). But in not belonging to the world, does infinite passivity have a political future? I will leave this question for the reader’s consideration, and will only note Derrida’s Force of Law as one possible rejoinder to the idea of infinite passivity. See Derrida (1992).

5 Agamben does appear to make a kind of linguistic turn in later work that brings his position closer to that of Nancy and Derrida, particularly where the question of decision and thought are concerned. But a study remains which reads Agamben’s use of biopower and the figure of the camp through this older analysis of potentiality to see what, if any, conceptual relation exists between them. See Agamben, G. (2000) Means without End: Notes on Politics. Trans. V. Binetti and C. Casarino. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press; (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. D. Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; (2002) Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Trans. D. Heller-Roazen. Cambridge, MA: Zone Books.

6 For Derrida’s most realized argument on the relation between decision, knowledge, and futurity, see Derrida (1992).


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