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


The shift, which is so hard to grasp, from the space of the body to the body-in-space, from opacity (warm) to translucency (cold), somehow facilitates the spiriting-away or scotomization of the body.

—Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space

The history of space in the West, from Lefebvre’s perspective, reveals a long process involving the interaction between bodies and spaces, a sort of asymmetrical process that traces the shift from the “space of the body” to the “body-in-space” ([1914] 1991, 201). This process, if we follow Lefebvre’s theorization, has resulted in a gradual “decorporealization” of space: bodies, enmeshed in “abstract” or homogenized spaces, become emptied out, made useful, turned docile.16 “Lived space,” Lefebvre argues, initially was isomorphic with the habits and behavior of the body; it responded to the flesh, to bodily gestures, and to sensuous activity. The capitalist and corporate advancement gradually produced an “abstract,” decorpo- realized space, dissociated from the rhythms, practices, and textures of the body, only attuned to the cold calculations of the logos, signs, and numbers, as DeLillo’s Cosmopolis exemplifies. However, the origins of the political investment of the body can be traced back, if we follow Foucault’s reasoning, to the seventeenth century. What Foucault terms “disciplines,” emerging out of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ formulas of domination, produced “disciplined,” “docile bodies,” subjected to increased exploitation and domination. As a force of production, the body became irredeemably “invested with relations of power and domination” (Foucault [1915] 1911, 26). This political technology of the body resulted in and from the creation of a new space, a new “political anatomy” where the body was enclosed within a world of “disciplinary monotony” (ibid., 141). The “abstract space” produced by modern market capitalism resulted in hierarchization, homogenization, and social fragmentation. The body, now dissociated, enters a ready-made space to fill out a prefabricated niche, a cell. Foucault’s and Lefebvre’s words seem to illuminate Bartleby’s first entrance, as one more commodity, into the space of “disciplinary monotony” represented by the lawyer’s office:

In answer to my advertisement, a motionless young man one morning stood upon my office threshold, the door being open, for it was summer. I can see that figure now—pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby. (122)

Bartleby is the “docile” body ready to enter the cold, transparent world of the office, to occupy his small cubicle behind the “ground glass folding-doors.” Rather than appearing out of place, he seems the perfect type to carry out the required job, “silently, palely, mechanically.” Even if his appearance at the lawyer’s office, motionless, standing silently on the threshold, anticipates his spatial intervention and conveys his liminal status—neither in nor out, neither entering nor leaving—he is ultimately the “body-in-space,” the body that adapts to the contours of his “hermitage” to become, as the lawyer articulates, “a fixture in my chambers” (138).

Situated in the rigidly demarcated area of Wall Street, the office is represented by the lawyer as an organic, seamless, natural community. Everyone is assigned to a particular place, with a particular function, and even a particular temporal slot to ensure what the lawyer calls the “natural expectancy of instant compliance.” Though populated by copyists prone to turbulence and nervousness, the perfect integration of cycles and interactions at work allows the lawyer to speak of a certain “stillness of my chambers,” reinforcing the idea of stability and closure. Stillness reverberates for the lawyer as the foundational axis of his particular topography of power, a topography that Bartleby’s stubborn stillness will come to unbalance. The lawyer’s view of stillness—which for him translates as harmony—is premised on the intrinsic legitimacy of capitalist social relations.17 He structures the spaces and routines in the office according to that prescriptive premise. The law office figures as a striated space, a “locus of prohibition” (Lefebvre 1976, 201), a governmentalized terrain that serves the purpose of control and surveillance; it is also a sort of microscopic Panopticon, produced by and productive of power. The office conveys the vertical distribution of power—“verticality symbolizes power,” argues Lefebvre (ibid., 88)—not only through hierarchical and economic verticality, but also through the symmetrical verticality of its walls. The lawyer has the power to open and close doors and screens to ensure control of the clerks, even without allowing himself to be seen. “I procured a high green folding screen,” the narrator explains, “which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice” (122-23). Social interactions within the office collude with its spatial distribution, to produce the “good natural arrangement”—which Foucault would call “disciplinary monotony” ([1975] 1977, 141)—that ensures the operational stillness in the office. The routinized, familiar, repetitive daily practices convey a sense of the solidity and durability of power that pervades the spatial realm. The lawyer erects walls, barriers, and screens between himself and his employees, as he proudly explains: “Ground glass folding-doors divided my premises into two parts, one of which was occupied by my scriveners, the other by myself.” At the same time, both the office and the building itself enforce blindness, insomuch as their walls block the perspective that might allow the employees to read what de Certeau terms “the gigantic rhetoric of excess” (1984, 91) created by corporate capitalism. The blank walls inside the office inhibit observation and contemplation, enforcing absorption into work. Conversely, outside the office, the narrow verticality of Wall Street encourages motion and commerce. Even the history of the street itself bespeaks boundaries and screens. From its earliest origins, Wall

Street was premised on separation and exclusion, on appropriating space and forcing people out. Wall Street was named, Charles Geisst informs us, for a “barricade built by Peter Stuyvesant in 1653 to protect the early Dutch settlers from the local Indians” (1997, 10). This “economic geography,” both inside and outside the office, allows little space for the body; instead it bears and transmits the marks of the spatialized categories of ownership, private property, and exclusion. Significantly, the lawyer invokes these same categories to displace Bartleby from the premises: “What earthly right have you to stay here? Do you pay any rent? Do you pay my taxes? Or is this property yours?” (141), asks the lawyer, trying to make Bartleby rationalize his actions. Later on, the lawyer will try to impose those categories again: “The time has come; you must quit this place; I am sorry for you; here is money; but you must go” (140).

The inscription of boundaries and property rights over the land is one of the relevant subtexts of the story. It figures, significantly, as the main occupation of the lawyer, who would do “a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds” (116). Along the same lines, the lawyer praises his mentor and most revered businessman, John Jacob Astor, “a name which, I admit, I love to repeat” (116), the lawyer says. John Jacob Astor was celebrated for his massive appropriation of land in the New York area in the first half of the nineteenth century. And a good part of the places that the lawyer mentions in the narrative are associated with Astor’s possessions, acquired in part in the massive mortgage foreclosures in the later period of his life, in a pattern that resonates with troubling contemporary echoes: “Cash rich, Astor was also in a position to offer mortgages to speculators who lacked the necessary capital to finance the building of properties on Astor’s land and any failure on the part of such speculators to meet mortgage payments as they fell due would inevitably result in Astor foreclosing on the property” (Derbyshire 2008, 21). Whether it is Wall Street, or the lawyer’s business, or even the lawyer’s revered hero, Astor, Bartleby seems to be surrounded by the omnipresent idea of land accumulation. By obstructing the lawyer’s business, Bartleby is also obstructing the capitalistic domination and commodification of the land. Bartleby’s stubborn disruption of the process inevitably triggers the final intervention of state power, in the form of the police, who will seek a reimposition of spatial domination by taking Bartleby down in the vertical line, to the Tombs, the ultimate Panopticon. At the same time, Bartleby is being reduced to the ultimate “body-in-space” as he is confined to prison, where by definition the body must adapt to the contours of the carceral space.

However, before dying in prison, Bartleby’s gesture has managed to interrupt the regular allocation of roles and places inside the office. And if the lawyer is able to rationalize Bartleby’s refusal to copy—“of course he did wisely in abstaining from writing for a while” (137), he ponders—Bar- tleby’s occupation of the office makes the lawyer fear for his authority and professional reputation: “The idea came upon me of his possibly turning out a long-lived man, and keep occupying my chambers, and denying my authority” (144). The Bartleby act opens a gap in the immobile and immobilizing grids of the office. The highly chartered, well-mapped area of Wall Street, replicated inside the office, sees its lines of power blurred. Bartle- by’s intervention reclaims his little cubicle inside the office as an undefined space, a blank space to be written anew by the individual. “Making space from place—reinstilling the undefined” (Upstone 2009, 4), the narrative seems to propose, is the prerequisite not only for the recorporealization of the workplace, but also for the refoundation of the social order. The un-definition that Bartleby inserts into his space refracts upon the nature of the character himself. Deleuze claims that Bartleby is “too smooth for anyone to be able to hang any particularity on him” (1998, 74). Significantly, Deleuze describes Bartleby as being “smooth,” using the same term he applies elsewhere to unstriated space, to fluid space, not yet fixed and limited. It takes a smooth character to unstriate the heavily regimented space of the law offices on Wall Street.

If Bartleby manages to drive the authoritative logos to its ultimate moment of silence, the physical premises of the Law are equally transformed into a blank slate. Under the Bartleby intervention, the heavily striated space of the lawyer’s office is disinscribed and flattened out, turned into a void. The office is finally a “naked” space, as the narrator comments. The firmly dominated space of the Law, with its optical verticality, loses its lines of power, as it becomes imbued with Bartleby’s blankness and flatness. It is Bartleby who, inverting the lines of power, first orders the lawyer “away from his own premises,” and Bartleby who, “standing immovable in the middle of the room,” comes to dominate the office by his mere presence, driving all others away. Bartleby undoes the premises of social/economic subordination inscribed within the very verticality of the physical premises of the Law, not by directly opposing them, but by voiding them of effect and not assuming their legitimacy. Bartleby’s formula, Ranciere claims, undoes the well-structured, rigidly organized patterns of work in the office by shattering “not just the hierarchies of a world but also what supports them” (2004, 146). At one point in the story, the lawyer laments his loss of authority in that “he tranquilly permits his clerk to dictate to him.” Since Bartleby’s existence was based on his status as a subordinate, as the lowest rank in the chain of subordination, once he places himself beyond the sedimented structures of subordination, beyond the “abstract space,” his identity escapes the rigid grid. Zizek claims, following Ranciere and Badiou, that a truly liberatory politics requires the intervention of those “with no firmly determined place in the hierarchical social edifice” (2004, 166). Bartleby is no longer placeable within the vertical hierarchy but has managed to stand outside of it, canceling out the vertical vectors of power in the office.

Bartleby’s actions open up the unidirectionality of power and space and allow for multidirectional vectors that escape the lawyer’s control. When, on a Sunday morning, the lawyer returns to his office having “assumed the ground” that Bartleby should have vacated the premises, he anxiously discovers his assumptions to be wrong. As he tries to open the door, unsuccessfully, he is surprised by the voice of Bartleby, who responds from inside the office, refusing to admit the lawyer: “Not yet,” says Bartleby, “I am occupied” (140). The office, locked from the inside and denying entrance to the lawyer, is but an external replica of the character of Bartleby himself, who for the rest of the story remains impenetrable, metaphorically locked from the inside, “occupied.” Bartleby’s words convey the multidirectional links between self and space, or between what Lefebvre terms the “space of the body” and the “body-in-space.” As Bartleby moves from occupying the office to being himself “occupied,” physical space refracts on the space of the body. But this time, the body is emancipated from spatial dictatorship. As Lefebvre points out, it is only the physicality of bodies, “with their opacity and solidity, their warmth, their life and their death” ([1974] 1991, 97), that can rescue the individual from the cold, translucent space produced by the modern corporate world. One of the preconditions of the material production of space, Lefebvre argues, is that each living body not only has its space, to which it adapts, but is also space; that is, the body, as the primary originator of space, produces itself in space at the same time that it produces the space of which it is, itself, a product (ibid., 195). The body is both point of departure and destination, constantly at war with the forces that strive to reduce it, as Lefebvre theorizes:

The body will not allow itself to be dismembered without a protest, nor to be divided into fragments, deprived of its rhythms . . . The body, at the very heart of space and of the discourse of Power, is irreducible and subversive. It rejects the reproduction of relations which deprive it and crush it. . . . It is the body which is the point of return, the redress—not the Logos, nor the “human.” (1976, 89)

And it will be his opaque and mostly “motionless” body, as the sole instrument of spatial occupation, that will ensure Bartleby’s subversion of the mechanisms of power. Bartleby’s body, even if silent and motionless, becomes the ground zero of spatiality, the ultimate subversive space where horizontal and vertical lines of power fail to penetrate. Bartleby’s gesture inside the office gradually manages to transform the chambers of the Law from a deadening, abstract space to a space that responds to the body. At the beginning of his narrative, the lawyer confirms that the working environment was “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life’” (116). Not only does the office represent this initial relinquishing of the body to the power of mechanical signs and repetition, but so does the street itself. Wall Street represents the ultimate destruction of the old living quarters in lower Manhattan and their replacement by tall, erect buildings. Both in 1852 when the story was written and now, Wall Street is a synecdochic image of finances, markets, stocks, and bonds, a decorporealized world that constantly refracts power. Bartleby represents the reversibility of the process, inasmuch as his docile, emptied out body carries the force to, if only temporarily, destabilize the system. It will be Bartleby’s physical body that will start to undo the rigid linearity of the office and will make the office bend to his corporeal needs. To the lawyer’s surprise upon inspecting the empty office one Sunday morning, the old sofa in the corner bears “the faint impress of a lean, reclining form” (132). He also perceives the office’s metaphorical adaptation to Bartleby’s bodily contours and rhythms in the “tin basin, with soap and a ragged towel”; in the “blacking box and brush” under the empty grate; and in the blanket “rolled away under his desk.” “Yes,” concludes the lawyer, “it is evident enough that Bartleby has been making his home here” (132). Later on, once the lawyer has finally quit his own premises and moved out, he refers to his previous office as “my old haunt,” an abode now inhabited by Bartleby, who, as the lawyer underlines again, “persists in haunting the building generally” (147). Significantly, the use of this term, “haunt,” reveals the undoing of the office as workspace, and its reclamation by the body. “Haunt” is related to the Proto-Germanic word haimaz, itself related to home, the place of the self.18 Through his own immobility, Bartleby undoes the disciplined space of the office, turns it into a home for the self, and sets immobile space into motion.

The bodily occupation of the premises paradoxically results in a renewed spatial mobility, as the clients are seen “leaving the offices,” and, more significantly, as the lawyer himself indulges in unappeased mobility. One morning, upon trying to enter his office to discover Bartleby locked inside, the lawyer decides, “Perhaps I had better walk round the block two or three times” (131). Such renewed mobility is close to turning the lawyer, ironically, into an improvised flaneur. After his last attempt to evict Bartleby from his former premises, the narrator refuses to go to his new chambers and spends days on the move: “For a few days,” the narrator says, “I drove about the upper part of the town and through the suburbs, in my rock- away; crossed over to Jersey City and Hoboken, and paid fugitive visits to Manhattanville and Astoria. In fact I almost lived in my rockaway for the time” (149).

Bartleby’s resistance is based on the character’s “gesture of subtraction” (Zizek 2006, 381-82), a self-exemption of sorts that withdraws him from all preestablished social practices. In disinscribing himself from the system, he cannot be allocated within the social or economic edifice. He is not only the scribe who does not write, but also, as the narrator says, “a vagrant” who “will not be a vagrant.” He becomes the spectral figure, situated at “the threshold between Being and Non-Being” (Agamben 1999, 257; italics in the original). When he is finally taken to prison, the prison walls, though blank and tall, fail to fully contain his body, and he is allowed “freely to wander about the prison” (150). Completely unaffected by the outside, both before and after his death, nothing enters or leaves his inert body. “His dim eyes were open,” says the narrator, but he could not see, and he lives “without dining” (152), as in a further reminder of his spectral nature. In emptying out the social space, Bartleby is reduced to floating in undefined space, secluded in his own body contours as an opaque signifier, a dead letter. Only the silent physicality of his own body remains. The zero space of the self, the body, appears as an opaque receptacle. He has finally become the “spirit hidden . . . in silence” that, following de Certeau, haunts the place and “inverts the schema of the Panopticon” (1984, 108).

In the end, though stubbornly stationary, Bartleby is a nomad who escapes rigid spatial patterns. While posing as the ultimate sedentary citizen, the sedentary that has renounced all movement, that chooses to remain within safe walls and boundaries, whose identity relies on properties and possessions, Bartleby is always not there, always in a place other than where he is. As a nomad who stays in place, Bartleby makes of the absence—and absencing—of a defined place his particular space. He never territorializes himself, never makes himself in the shape of his reductive milieu, but prefers to resist what Zygmunt Bauman calls “the overwhelming pressure of the place” (2000, 209). He drives the spatial lines of power to their own cancellation. Bartleby is the agent of creative displacement and deterritori- alization, a “nonsocialized,” “nonintegrated” nomad who creates a void in the heart of Wall Street.

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