On not-doing … — a triptych


Jeremy Fernando in Berfrois:

I would prefer not to

A response — Bartleby’s response — foregrounding the fact that it is the “I” that “prefers not to”: not that ‘I cannot’ nor ‘I will not’ but that this is a preference. That it is not based on anything other than a decision by the “I”: when asked “why do you refuse” by Mr B, his boss, Bartleby’s response is simply, “I would prefer not to.” [1] Thus, to read this response, Bartleby’s response, as an absolute refusal would be untrue: just because he “prefers not to” does not mean that he will not. But just because it is not a complete rejection of the request also does not mean that it is a delayed compliance: Mr B comes to realise, rather quickly, that “his decision was irreversible.”

So, even as it an inclination — and like all preferences, one that might well be unjustifiable — its effects, in relation with every situation, every moment in which there is a response, are lasting.

Quite a few thinkers — Giorgio Agamben and Slavoj Žižek amongst them — have attempted to read Bartleby’s response as a form of passive resistance. Their claim is that his response, that is always also a non-response, short-circuits the system. If he had out-rightly rejected Mr B there would have been an immediate expulsion, firing: “had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been anything ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises.” The trouble was, as Mr B continues, “there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner, touched and disconcerted me.” And here, Mr B makes what one might call a fatal error: “I began to reason with him.”

Whilst most readings, readers, focus on Bartleby, perhaps we should momentarily turn out attention to the other interlocutors, those that are attempting to elicit not just a response but a particular act, action, from him. I — allowing all echoes of the unjustifiability of my choice — would like to propose that they were unable to move him, influence his actions, have power over him if you prefer, as they structured their statements as requests. Not only did they open the possibility of non-compliance, it was a far more fundamental mistake: requests function on the logic that both parties involved are operating under the same rules, form, customs, reason — in other words, the exchange is one that involves pre-set options, and not actual choices. That in a situation, to echo Mr B, “a slight hint would suffice — in short, an assumption.” The assumption being that the one receiving the address would know what, even the right thing, to do.

Perhaps then, what is truly subversive about Bartleby’s response is that it takes Mr B’s questions seriously; takes it as a question which offers the potential for a true response.

More here.