Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bartleby's Formula Against Exposure

      My previous post’s closing remarks offered a quick, sideways glance at Bartleby: “With shame at her exposed subjectivity, her exposed secreting, Lady Alroy can only pile on the shrouds of a conventional domestic “mystery” and, when those have been rent, merely, in the spirit of her blithe comrade Bartleby, confess, “I have told the truth.”
     This brief transatlantic exchange between indifferences underscores, possibly, the validity of a particular paradigm of intelligibility – of how one can think about one’s being visible and knowable to others. If Lady Alroy appears as a visage of a subject’s having-been-constituted through the secret, and Bartleby, in some fashion, is her comrade in impotent arms, then something in Bartleby’s formula, “I would prefer not to,” might offer an antidote to living being’s capture by intelligibility. Or, more simply: “I would prefer not to” expresses and localizes a “secreting” technique resistant to a specific, modern, and therefore visible, intelligibility.
     When confronted by his employer’s petitions to perform his contractual duties (to copy legal documents with other clerks simultaneously), Bartleby tosses up his formula, to which the employer cannot do, or say, anything. Surely, from a certain vulgar perspective, Bartleby gets his wish; he gets what he, in the end, actually prefers to do: remain hidden behind his screen. What Bartleby prefers not to do in order that he may “do” what he wishes to do (remain invisible) is to enter into a specific form of visibility. In accepting his employer’s petition to work by leaving the concealment of his screen and copying a legal document for the set purpose of examination, Bartleby would open himself up to a visibility not in the general medium of sight (his person being seen by others in the office as soon as he leaves his screen), but instead in the medium of a clerk’s handwriting. That is, Bartleby’s living presence will become visible (and to that discerning critic, his employer, intelligible) through the betrayal of his handwriting alone.
     Yet Bartleby attempts to control this opening into visibility and an inevitable intelligibility through complete indifference. Rather than simply not expose himself within handwriting (which he has already done, prodigiously, numerous times before), Bartleby blanches at a seemingly all-penetrating gaze belonging to his judge and master: his employer. And his blanching, his attempt to conceal himself before the gaze of his employer, takes the form of a curious formula that covers over a secret with indifference, such that what is made a secret (both Bartleby’s motivation to remain invisible and unknown and his most intimate being, his whatever being) hides behind a discourse completely indifferent to signification.
     After all, the syntagma “I would prefer not to” means, for Bartleby and his employer, nothing at all – although it has attained literary, cultural, and theoretical meanings as walled behind double quotation marks (“‘. . . ’”). In uttering his phrase, Bartleby does not, in actuality, tell his boss anything because the phrase itself has given up recourse to signification. Neither mere voiced-sound nor overwrought, metaphoric language, “I would prefer not to” attains a special linguistic status, similar to Levi-Strauss’s “floating signifier” (a signifier of “zero symbolic value, that is to say, a sign marking the necessity of a symbolic content supplementary to that with which the signified is already loaded, but which can take on any value required” [qtd in Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourses of the Human Sciences”). But rather than function as a near-empty linguistic mark that, in facing a non-linguistic void or lack, ensures and actualizes the infinite repetition of finite signs (to make discourses “play” themselves out in intelligibility), Bartleby’s formula serves a shockingly opposite function. Confronting a real threat of his living being’s presence-in-language (how his clerk’s handwriting will be make his intimate being intelligible to his employer), Bartleby’s formula collapses any possibility for an actualized infinite playing out of finite signs, thereby foreclosing both language and exposure. While Strauss’s floating signifier serves as an engine actualizing discourse, Bartleby’s formula serves the exact opposite function: to ensure the potentiality of language. Bartleby’s utterance, in its indifference, is potential (it is able to not be) – a stark contrast to impotential language actualized through the floating signifier (which is not able to not be). Bartleby’s formula is accordingly more “primary” than Strauss’s floating signifier, if we understand “primary” as not chronologically before an event, but as being structurally “prior.” Bartleby’s reticence before his employer’s petition for exposure serves as the locus of a complete rehearsal of language’s potentiality – its being as such in the world without exhausting itself in actualization and impotentiality. By giving over to language any pretense of denominative force, the formula suspends itself in its own authority (power of words and narration) at the edge of language’s complete ineffability not in order that finite signs can play out infinitely, but that the very communicativity of language – its potentiality – can brilliantly emerge in the crystalline gesture of Bartleby’s utterance. Something is, for all its seeming opaqueness, communicated in Bartleby’s formula: communicativity, the potentiality of communication inherent in every particular communication.

(Note: Bartleby perhaps enacts here a constitutive gesture of a language of pure communicativity: “All living beings are in the open: they manifest themselves and shine in their appearance. But only human beings want to take possession of this opening, to seize hold of their own appearance and of their own being-manifest. Language is this appropriation, which transforms nature into face” [Agamben, “The Face” 91].)

Unquestionably, Bartleby’s formula works its magic; it quite successfully cuts off the threat of visibility and its concomitant intelligibility. And it must be remembered that Bartleby directs his formula at a petition for openness – a petition for Bartleby to expose himself to a particular intelligibility in a particular medium (to copy and thereby to show his trace in written forms [not language itself, but a gestic manipulation of language: clerk’s handwriting]). Bartleby, like Lady Alroy after him, seeks, through his formula, to erase his being from the intelligibility of those who are comported towards seeing and knowing him. That is, by allowing himself to be exposed only through his curious formula, Bartleby seeks to resist a penetrating gaze. However, Bartleby’s allowance is of a special, doubled form; he seeks to control his opening into visibility both in virtuality (language as such, language in its potentiality) and in actuality (gestic language, clerk’s handwriting). The formula, because of its indifference towards signification, takes on both forms of allowance simultaneously such that the formula and its utterance constitute the site of Bartleby’s violent struggle to control his own opening into visibility through a radical indifference.
     Confronted with an all-penetrating gaze, Bartleby seems to utilize his formula as a means of hiding himself behind a screen that will actually, in the very gesture of hiding, fully expose him. But nothing like that happens. In its indifference, Bartleby’s formula collapses a seemingly infinite series of withdrawing/exposing into complete invisibility and casts the scrivener into absolute unintelligibility. And it is perhaps for this reason that it can be said that Bartleby is knowable for the narrator and the reader only through his formula.

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