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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements and Empowerment


Force is not to be confused with power. Force arrives from outside to break constraints and open new vistas. Power builds walls.

—Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

The notion of dissensus thus means the following: politics is comprised of a surplus of subjects that introduce, within the saturated order of the police, a surplus of objects. These subjects do not have the consistency of coherent social groups united by a common property or a common birth, etc. They exist entirely within the act, and their actions are manifestations of a dissensus; that is, the making contentious of the givens of a particular situation. The subjects of politics make visible that which is not perceivable, that which, under the optics of a given perceptive field, did not possess a raison d’etre, that which did not have a name. . . . This . . . constitutes the ground for political action: certain subjects that do not count create a common polemical scene where they put into contention the objective status of what is “given” and impose an examination and discussion of those things that were not “visible,” that were not accounted for previously.

—Jacques Ranciere, “Dissenting Words”

Bartleby is not the political nomad, the fugitive that eludes state power by placing himself outside of it, away from it, at a physical distance. Neither is he the social rebel that escapes social imprisonment by creating a space of his own beyond the community, a romantic retreat a la Thoreau. And again, he is not a transgressor of the Law, and therefore he is not subject to its disciplinary mechanisms. And yet, we all assume that Bartleby is indeed resisting power, resisting the vertical imposition of authority represented by the many walls that enclose his existence. What is, then, the nature of what Deleuze and Guattari would call the “force” with which he challenges power? And what could be its limits and ends? And where would its spatial coordinates be located? Bartleby’s is an immanent rebellion: he positions himself within the Law but outside its reach. He introduces within the “saturated order” of the office a form of almost mute “dissensus,” in Ranciere’s understanding of the word above. This dissensus initially threatens the sutured organization of space in the office, a place that reads as a microcosmic version of what Ranciere calls the “police” state, based on “the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying” (1998, 29). In the face of the panoptical strategies inside the office, Bartleby prefers “to be stationary” (148), to stay within the walls of power.

Unlike the man from the country in Kafka’s story, Bartleby’s stationary gesture has a destabilizing force premised on its overlapping of spatial and ideological elements.11 The firmly located site of resistance, at the crux between the horizontal and vertical lines that converge in his cubicle, contrasts with the blurry, indeed inscrutable, nature of Bartleby’s demands. And it is, perhaps, the elusive and uncanny echoes of Bartleby’s occupation of space that continue to inform modern attempts at refounding the social order through new spatial practices—as its becoming a popular icon of the recent OWS movement clearly conveys. Then and now, Bartleby seems to illustrate the inherent incompatibility between the personal and the political uses of space. Then and now, Bartleby’s intervention highlights the interdependence and conflict between what de Certeau calls “spatial practices” (1984, 81)—those unmapped and erratic “trajectories” of the individual’s everyday experience—and the panoptic strategies of control designed to maintain the social order. In the face of rampant market capitalist economies at the beginning of the twenty-first century, where the public space as well as the “space of the body” (Lefebvre [1974] 1991, 201) are inexorably receding, Bartleby’s occupation of space resounds even more than his refusal to work.12 Though a long critical tradition, pervaded with Marxist undertones, has assumed Bartleby to be engaged in a “protest against the numbing world of capitalistic profit and alienated labor” (Barnett 1974, 385), Bartleby’s “revolution,” if one at all, stems from the preliminary appropriation of a dominated space and significantly ends there. In this sense, Bartleby rewrites Lefebvre’s claim that “a revolution that does not produce a new space has not realized its full potential; indeed it has failed in that it has not changed life itself, but merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatuses” ([1974] 1991, 54). Bartleby’s actions represent a reversal of the formula, insomuch as their revolutionary nature comes as mere potentiality, never substantiated beyond the interruption of spatial practices. Though readers have variously envisioned the potential in Bartleby’s actions to effect significant changes in the “ideological superstructures” and “political apparatuses,” that potentiality remains pure, unscripted, and unrealized. The act of physical occupation of space, though silent and immobile, figures as both origin and destination, means and end, or rather, as Agamben (2000) would have it, means without end. It is a political act that refuses to be totalized—an act with no telos, neither embodied in itself nor as final destination.

Bartleby’s actions can be located beyond the binarism of negation and affirmation, means and ends. He is not a transgressor or a trespasser out to break the Law. He expresses a negative preference that does not oppose one Law with its contrary. His refusal to copy, and its resultant blank page, are not replenished by his production of an alternative text. So what is the nature of the dissensus that he represents? It is our contention that Bartleby undoes the certainty and stability of the logos and premises that support and supplement the “striated” space of the office. In this sense, he is the counterimage of the nomad hero. Bartleby enters a heavily striated territory to blur its spatial lines, materializing Deleuze and Guattari’s claim that “striated space is constantly being reversed, returned to a smooth space” (1988, 474). His immanent act vacates the premises of the Law without ever negating it, rejecting it, or even going outside of it. The lawyer significantly laments that Bartleby has managed to “order him away from his own premises” (131). Bartleby’s indirect refusal cannot be located within the dialectical struggle of authority and rebellion. It escapes the binarism by asserting absence, reclaiming the void, undoing the inscriptions—tex- tual and spatial—of power. Bartleby’s image after the lawyer leaves his chambers, standing alone in the office, “the motionless occupant of a naked room” (146), the premises finally emptied out, allows a glimpse into a smooth world devoid of its previous screens and doors. He drives textual and spatial lines to their total disinscription and to the confrontation with their own absence, with silence.

If, as Deleuze and Guattari (1988) indicate, the dynamics of striated spaces are based on the confluence of vertical lines and horizontal planes, the office is one such disciplined place. The textual and spatial realms significantly complement each other in the narrative. The horizontal linearity of the texts that Bartleby is required to copy, with perfectly delineated lines—and no margin for the expression of the self—bespeaks authority and control. And so does the threatening verticality of the physical walls surrounding him. These intersecting lines form a tight grid that ensures the stability of the power relations in the office. And it is this tight arrangement of lines that intertwine and intersect perpendicularly that Bartleby will come to destabilize.

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