Bartleby, the Scrivener


Herman Melville

The idea for “Refusal” as a series, as our first series, originates with “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” In the last five years Bartleby has become a hero for those who resist. During Occupy Wall Street he was emblematic of the desire to disconnect from an oppressive economic culture. The phrase “I would prefer not to” appeared on t-shirts and coffee mugs throughout the hipper quarters of cities around the world. And now “resistance” has become the stance of the moment, and it appears that Bartleby is relevant once again.


In our culture we protest in cordoned spaces and times, in the anonymous safety of a crowd, or a social media site. We can “speak against” and risk nothing. To proceed in these safe zones, partitioned out beforehand, is to hand over the victory one seeks. When the contestation is absorbed into acceptable modes of expression, the game is lost before it begins. In fact, it becomes a game in a literal sense, in that the moves are prescribed and contained, and only a predetermined array of outcomes is available. Bartleby offers resistance where it counts - in the local circumstances of one’s own life. He says “enough,” and the stakes are instantly revealed. Bartleby’s example is powerful because he reveals that in the American economy (which is indistinguishable now from any other concept of “America”) you - who you are in the realest sense - you are not enough. You do not matter. From top to bottom, from innovation to immigration, only economic value matters. In this light, the sooner we can replace the human being, the better. Bartleby tested this hypothesis, and risked everything in doing so. He discovered that he, like the Hunger Artist, would rather die than participate in his own dehumanization. We, now, receive the invitation to sell out well before we reach this point in our lives. Our comfort grants our survival, but it prohibits transcendence. We are subsumed into the culture and handed only an illusion of freedom. And with the Internet, we are faced constantly with our complicity in real evil. Comfort and complicity, in fact, are of apiece.


We are told that survival is enough, and that we should be grateful. This message is reserved especially for the poor, whose humanity is thought of only in material terms. They should feel lucky to be here at all, scum as they are. So the rhetoric goes. As the future seems apocalyptic for more (and more, and more) of us, it appears that we may in fact cling. Our dependence upon our institutions to sustain us will deepen, even as we are sold a narrative of the human experience that is at odds with our nature. The feeling I often have is that there is no way out.


We who? I can not think of questions of refusal without thinking of those who wish to no longer be refused, who long to be brought in from the world. The ability for the insider to refuse is a luxury. I have a job that allows me to live in one of the great cities of the world. I receive upwards of four months of paid leave per year. I spend my summers in Europe. And so when I think of my own refusal (when I want to refuse even all this), I imagine myself accused by those who cry out. Bartleby preferred to be cast back out in the name of his own integrity. I can’t do that. You can’t do that. But what can we do?

Brian Chappell, Mouse Editor
October 2017