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February 23, 2006


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Steven Shaviro

I haven't gotten my copy of The Parallax View yet -- it should arrive next week -- so I can't comment directly, but I kind of wonder why Bartleby has become such a touchstone for recent Euro-theory. Deleuze has an interesting article on Bartleby in Essays Critical and Clinical; Agamben apparently wrote an essay on the story also (though I haven't read it and don't know where to find it); and I am just reminded by trawling through the web that Hardt and Negri cite Bartleby as embodying radical refusal as well (Empire page 203). So I wonder why this particular text has become so extraordinarily and convergently privileged, precisely by political thinkers who otherwise are arguing with one another about everything. It's a great story, sure, but that's not enough to explain it; what is it about Bartleby's absolute refusal, or "radical passivity" (to use Thomas Carl Wall's phrase) that seems to call out in this particular moment? Is it another symptom of our current sense of impossibility, of our common failure to think beyond the horizion of what k-punk calls "Capitalist Realism"?

Kenneth Rufo

Agamben has a short (4 pages, I think) thing on Bartleby in the Coming Community, and a much longer chapter called on Bartleby and contingency in his Potentialities, for what they're worth.

What I find so fascinating about this obsession with Bartleby isn't just its frequent use but the radically divergent interpretations of Bartleby's fundamental gesture. His preference not to is simultaneously pure potentiality, resistance, passivity, negation, refusal. At some point, someone needs to write the book that explains the trajectory and inventional resource played a) by Bartleby and b) by the random Japanese friend, who surfaces so frequently as the interlocutor to the philosophical heavies.

petar milat

Steve's question whether "Bartleby" is symptom of our current sense of impossibility, seems to me to be crucial.

Our Slovene friends have recently devoted one entire volume of their journal "Problemi" [7-8/2004, www.drustvo-dtp.si] to the Bartleby-thing, with another brilliant interventions by Dolar & Zupancic.

But again, for Euro-theory "Bartleby" is just one among the figures, beside St. Paul and Glenn Gould [both for Agamben, Virno or Negri]. So, maybe the question could be why the issue of figurality altogether has re-emerged recently in European theory.


That seems an odd way of talking about the 'deadlock', Jodi. I don't mean the Bartelby (whose prominence I think is precisely about establishing a shared terrain of reading even while - or because - the readings diverge).

I mean it sounds like a version of Agamben's 'passive politics', which is not the command to 'do nothing'. Nor is the absence of politico-ethical guarantees equivalent to the proposition that one should 'do nothing'. These are questions, my not having read the book, but it seems a stretch to suggest that the embrace of the abyssal is commensurate with 'doing nothing'.

Btw, isn't the question of figurality the question of composition (in the sense in which the Operaisti used the term)? Or subjectivation (or subjectivity) rendered in a less subjectivist (positivist) register?

Amish Lovelock

Bartleby only comes in a little bit right at the end. I kind of saw parallels with the Margeret Garner story that he uses in The Fragile Absolute. Of course, she certainly did not do nothing in the usual sense of the words but the choice of killing her children rather than letting the system of slavery work was a kind of radical refusal.

Amish Lovelock

The Wolf-man at the end of Tarrying with the Negative doesn't do anything either. Adam's Benjaminian Turn might have been there from the beginning.


"the simple deconstructionist move of turning what seems to be impossible into a condition of possibility."

I'll be the Nazi here, and say: What?? Care to elaborate on this at all? Maybe why it seems to you a)"deconstructionist" and b)simple?

I absolutely agree with Angela (and of course Derrida) that Bartleby does something more than "nothing." It's not much more, but it's certainly something. The distinction does seem rather crucial, in matters Bartlebian.

Adam Kotsko

Zizek, the Lacano-Hegelian... Benjaminian? An interesting dissertation (AMISH!):

"Zizek and Benjamin: Wherein I Cash In on Academic Trends"

"Benjamin avec Zizek: A Messianic Perversion?"

"You May NOT: Situating Zizek's Disavowed Benjaminianism"

"Refusal from A to Z: The Negative Politics of Agamben and Zizek"


"It seems like the simple deconstructionist move of turning what seems to be impossible into a condition of possibility ...[] ... Accept the deadlock. Embrace the deadlock.

Really? Well, thanks for the offer, but I prefer not."

Well, thank goodness for that ...

Steven Shaviro:
"Is it another symptom of our current sense of impossibility, of our common failure to think beyond the horizion of what k-punk calls "Capitalist Realism"?

Yes indeed, that's part of it ... the refusal, passively or otherwise, to accept its terms, to completely reject its post-political declarations on neo-liberal "administration", to construct one's own ...

Amish Lovelock:
"I kind of saw parallels with the Margeret Garner story that he uses in The Fragile Absolute. Of course, she certainly did not do nothing in the usual sense of the words but the choice of killing her children rather than letting the system of slavery work was a kind of radical refusal."

Yes, it was certainly ... the very origin of black subjectivity out of the void of "refusal" [plus ten thousand other, comparable examples he "uses"].

For what its worth - and all these extravagant, at times hilarious, Bartleby hysterics aside (and, while I agree with much of what Chabert argues in the other comments section re:Baud on EU refusal) - what I'm picking up here is the sheer poverty of political - and activist -imagination of the American, and increasingly European, intellectual left ...


Padraig, thanks for that diagnosis. Perhaps you would be willing to offer a low-interest imagination loan? I'll put up every book I own written by someone French as collateral, we could probably get others to chip in too.
To be fair, though, all the people quoted on the Bartleby stuff are more on your side of the pond than this one.
Jodi, blushing apologetic term check, if you don't mind: politicization, what's that mean? Is this to do with the sense of 'political' you mentioned in your post on politics and ethics - politics as conflict? Politicization then as creating conflict? If so, then at least one version of the politics of refusal, the Italian 70s one, is not a doing nothing. That's also, in my understanding, not 'refusal' as such but 'refusal of'. Which is also 'affirmation of'. Like I've said before I'm not fussed on the terms, I think it's the projects that are most interesting regardless of the names they get. Some of the energy around theoretical debates seems like it sometimes implicitly a fight over what the best final perspective or idiom'd be, which doesn't strike me as very useful. Which is not to say all theoretical debates are about that - I trust folks here to be working out problems honestly and not be looking to score points and garner followers, Zizek and Negri and luminaries less so.
take care,


Nate writes:
"offer a low-interest ... loan? ... put up ... collateral"

More [symbolic unconscious] Kapitalist Realism?
I rest my case ...


Hi Padraig,
If I was interested in making a parallel ad hominem (something like "what I'm picking up here is the sheer humorlessness of the Irish, and increasingly American, intellectual left") I would perform a similar "I rest my case" here. Or, how about "what I'm picking up here is a sublimated statist urge to play the role of sovereign and jurist, as evidenced by the use of the legalistic metaphor"?

I haven't indulged in an overt and self-aware act of electronic self-righteousness in a good long while, it would be refreshing. Let me know if you're interested, we could get off, happily outraged in a coupling of mutual exclusion and guilt attribution. That would, of course, make you a quintessentially American leftist.

Also please note that you're the one who used the term 'poverty' in the context of a moral denunciation of those who find themselves in that condition. Of course, you meant it metaphorically - the intellectual poverty of some indeterminate set of US dwelling book reading leftists - but if my joke demonstrates (or might demonstrate, you did pose it as a conditional) a sublimated acceptance of the playing field of capitalism, doesn't your use of that metaphor do the same, depicting forms of poverty as a moral failing? (I'm not actually arguing this, as I find it a specious form of argument, but it's the form you started to use, so by your own lights, then, aren't you as much guilty and muck covered as the rest of us?) I was, after all, playing off the wording in your comment in attempt to make a joke in order to leaven the vinegar in your comment, in hopes it might be made into seasoning for an exchange more productive than simple mutual disrespect. If the latter's what you prefer though, that's fine with me. Let me know. We could take it to mine and really let the expletives fly. (It'd be rude to do so here at Jodi's without first asking her permission.)

Barring that, would you care to say more about what it would mean to refuse the terms of capital(ist real)ism? Among other things, there's an epistemological question here, of how to tell instances whether or not people are right when they think they're doing so. The porn folk Josef talks about might have thought that's what they were doing, I'd disagree. I think the same of Zizek, due to his statist and party centered politics, both of which are in my view forms of the capital relation.



Let he who is without hypocrisy cast the first [electronic] humourless sneer?

Not being too fond of leavened Diet-Vinegar Lite in these circumstances [though the last time I bumped into Zizek he was reluctantly munching on some cold, soggy, vinegar-free chips drenched in re-crystalizing vegetable oil ...], I'll respond to your claim of Zizek the statist party-political hack in the context of Kapital Realfusal and without reducing him to a psychoanalytic case study.

Zizek does argue, re[p]eatedly, that Kapital's master signifier is - democracy, that Kapital's political form, liberal parliamentary democracy, is structurally contingent on private property and its ownership and/or control of the relations of production/reproduction, and is, therefore - formal logical games aside - undemocratic, being grounded in capitalism with its inherent class antagonisms and distinctions. And this consequent undemocratic inclusion/exclusion of democracy engendered or over-determined by "class struggle" forever limits democratic competition. "The ultimate democratic illusion, and, simultaneously, the point at which the limitation of democracy becomes directly palpable, is that one can accomplish social revolution painlessly, through "peaceful means," simply by winning elections. This illusion is formalist in the strictest sense of the term: it abstracts from the concrete framework of social relations within which the democratic form is operative."

This is hardly the position of someone with a statist, party-centered politics: it should therefore be clear that The Party as envisaged by Zizek, while functioning within the symbolic political domain, is NOT party-political, it operates outside liberal democracy. That is the challenge; and the difficulty with many leftist movements in the West is their withdrawal from the full implications of this stance, forever falling back into the safe party-political. For instance, the gradual - in some cases rapid - collapse of the anti-war movements in many countries in the West as a result of their hijacking by party-politics [often by a fringe political party of the Left] and the resulting spectacle of ineffectual ritual protest/demonstration ...


Clearly the root of our disagreements is gustatory. I find cold soggy chips a delight, at least under the right circumstances, for instance when well-warmed by alcohol. Anyway, as regards liberal democracy and the like, I agree with your take, I think, and your echoing of Mao's old saw that the revolution will not be a dinner party. Also as I hope I've said enough times - I don't really know Zizek very well. I do have impressions, though, based on bits of things I've read by him, certain "Lenin" and "Party" noises, which are part of why I've not prioritized reading the guy. I do plan to rectify that eventually, but only when I have the time and stomach to handle a plate of cold soggy chips.

Also, statist politics is not limited to the liberal democratic. There have been many a fight within marxism about the parliamentary road to whatever named they preferred, fights I'm only just starting to get to know, and I'm thoroughly convinced by the negative aspect of those arguments. Parliament's not a worthwhile avenue.

But Lenin's politics was also state centered - not revolution by parliament but revolution by seizure of the state. Differently state centered, sure, but no more acceptable. Also, I don't see the state centric model - whether social democratic and electoral or bolshevik and seizure - as being distinct from the capital relation. I see both as not only fighting over/within the terms of capital(ist real?)ism but actively reproducing those terms. Among other things, continuing or even increasing the production of surplus value.

take care,


you mention zizek in the context of this sentence: "Bartleby politics is thus the reverse of Deleuzian, multiculturalist micropolitics".

yet one of the few compliments zizek pays deleuze in his book 'organs without bodies' (on p190) is the deleuzian critique of minority's 'right to narrate'. a becoming-other or becoming-minority has little to do with 'multiculturalism'.

and you'd actually discover many linkages between 'bartleby politics' and d&g's nomadology (e.g. they state that the nomad is 'he who does not move', who evokes a stationary process, that is, station as process).

one final point: i wouldn't speak of bartleby as 'doing nothing'. rather he subverts the duality between activity and passivity - a radical or absolute passivity. he isn't simply affirming, but neither is the formula of 'i'd prefer not to' a simple negation. in 'being and time', heidegger terms this a "silent call of conscience" and contrary to being merely negative, he says it's the "most positive thing of all". bart offers us a 'repeated exposure to impossibility' (to borrow a phrase from thomas carl wall) and that *is* something.

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