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


The yard was entirely quiet. It was not accessible to the common prisoners. The surrounding walls, of amazing thickness, kept off all sounds behind them. The Egyptian character of the masonry weighed upon me with its gloom. But a soft imprisoned turf grew under foot.

The heart of the eternal pyramids, it seemed, wherein, by some strange magic, through the clefts, grass-seed, dropped by birds, had sprung.

—Herman Melville, “Bartleby, the Scrivener”

When the narrator visits Bartleby in prison one last time at the end of the story, as he notices in passing the tall walls surrounding the scene, the two elements that call the lawyer’s attention are the motionless image of Bartleby, who, “lying on his side” on the floor, has contracted himself into a fetus position, as if indicating a new rebirth, and the “imprisoned turf” (152), the emerging grass that by some strange magic had started to grow between the paving stones of the central yard of the Tombs. The magic seeds that challenge the power of the tall walls were planted there, the narrator imagines, by birds, the creatures of the open air. At the story’s end, the new blades of grass, as well as Bartleby’s fetal position, seem to point at the natural cycle of death and rebirth. The final ray of hope in a new beginning and a new life represented by both images is further emphasized by the syntax of the last line, where the sentence moves laboriously along, full of pauses and changes of direction, till it is finally relieved and given new life with the appearance of the verb “had sprung” at the very end. And yet, does Bartleby announce a new beginning as he leaves the story? We may assume that Bartleby’s silent and motionless figure at the base of the prison wall captures the nature of his gesture, insomuch as it has driven the text to its ultimate silence, to becoming a dead letter, and has voided the lines of power inscribed at the workplace. And yet, even if Bartleby interrupts textual and spatial lines as if anticipating a new foundation, the reader is driven to a final void that neither the fetal figure nor the burgeoning grass can successfully replenish. The text of Bartleby is mute; the new social space where he is alive and well is nowhere anticipated.

In the end, Bartleby’s story is an impossible text. It is a text that refuses to be, that refuses the presence of words, refuses its presencing. The reader, like the lawyer in his final visit, can only see Bartleby in his absence, in his silence. To listen to Bartleby means precisely not to really listen to him, since his story does not come in the form of words. His “I would prefer not to” comes as a replica of the eternal copy he refuses to perpetuate. Let us recall that the text of Melville’s “Bartleby” was written by the narrator, who at the beginning of the story reflects on the impossibility of giving presence to Bartleby, since “Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable” (115). The narrator confesses, “while of other law-copyists, I might write the complete life, of Bartleby nothing of the sort can be done.” Later on, close to the end of the story, the narrator says again, “Ere parting with the reader, let me say, that if this little narrative has sufficiently interested him, to awaken curiosity as to who Bartleby was, and what manner of life he led prior to the present narrator’s making his acquaintance, I can only reply, that in such curiosity I fully share, but am wholly unable to gratify it” (153). So the story we finally get is not a real text of Bartleby, only a presence that testifies to his textual absence. Bartleby commences to exist at the very moment he refuses to write, and at that very moment Bartleby also begins to escape us. As he ceases to write, he begins to be, only not for us. As absence takes up the space left by writing, his presence is lost for us. The narrator’s sorry attempt to fill up that presence (an attempt that lurks behind myriads of literary commentators) ends up in the recognition of impossibility.

If Bartleby’s text is never given to us—he remains the necessary ghost, the other of his own text—his new space is equally void and remains outside the map. He has managed to blur and delete the lines of subordination inscribed in the lawyer’s office, the lines of power have been canceled, the verticality of space flattened out. He has also, at least temporarily, managed to stop the striation of the land within and without the office through his undermining of the businesses of the lawyer and of the later tenants of the office. The pattern of land accumulation and inscription—through mortgages and deeds—is arrested, at least temporarily. Even the ultimate paradigm of dominated space, the most heavily striated of all places, represented by the prison, is somehow turned meaningless, void. The Bartleby that we see in prison metaphorically escapes the prison walls; he is not contained by them, any more than he is contained by the textual lines of the narrative. We could even propose that Bartleby is not even contained within his own body at the end of the story but has created a different spatiality of his own. He has moved to a space of stubborn indeterminacy, an exilic space. Bartleby fits Zygmunt Bauman’s definition of the nature of exile. “The distinguishing mark of all exile,” says Bauman, “is the refusal to be integrated—the determination to stand out from the physical space, to conjure up a place of one’s own” (2000, 208). And this alternative space of Bartleby’s own—the world that the newly growing turf in the prison yard seems to anticipate—is unmapped, not yet located and charted. Though physically amid prison walls, Bartleby metaphorically relocates to the “floating territory” opened by the seed-dropping birds, up in the air.19 Bartleby’s new spatial configuration, as lines drawn in the air, eludes us. Insomuch as Bartleby’s act of negation remains the only foundation of his new world, his conditions of possibility—the world where he would be alive and well—are based on his own impossibility. There is no world of Bartlebys with Bartleby in it; there is no world of “becoming” that can accommodate Bartleby’s immobility. And it is our inescapable desire and radical impossibility to map or even intuit Bartleby’s world that constitutes the “cleft” through which the seeds of the new can take root.

It is this particular element of spatial and textual indefiniteness that accounts for Bartleby’s haunting presence in some modern political movements. His minimalist gestures—of moving without moving, as well as saying without saying—are the all but silent and motionless conditions of possibility of contemporary mobilizations. The Occupy Wall Street movement is in this regard not far from other movements across the globe, from the 15-M movement in Madrid, to the Egyptian mobilization in Tahrir square, to the 2013 demonstrations in Taksim Square in Istanbul and other similar movements in the so-called Arab Spring and elsewhere. In a globalized world of flows, the political spaces of dissensus—as proposed by Ranciere—repeatedly emerge through gestures of spatial occupation and disobedience. As with Bartleby, the elusive or unstated political message contrasts with the firm localization of the protest. The recent protests simply removed themselves from the sovereign spaces regulated by the state by surprisingly occupying those spaces and refusing to leave. Under the pseudonym “Comrades from Cairo,” the occupiers of Tahrir Square placed the demands for new spatial practices at the core of their movement: “We are reclaiming those same spaces of public practice that have been commodified, privatised and locked into the hands of faceless bureaucracy, real estate portfolios and police ‘protection.’ Hold on to these spaces, nurture them and let the boundaries of your occupations grow. After all, who built these parks, these plazas, these buildings?” (Comrades from Cairo 2011). But perhaps even more significantly, we could trace the Bartleby echoes further back to the events in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. In June 1989, global media networks distributed the mesmerizing image of a young, slim Chinese man who, armed with shopping bags in both hands, stationed himself before a column of tanks on their way towards Tiananmen Square. The improvised occupier of the road refused to move, igniting a widespread uprising against the Chinese autocracy. As with Bartleby, the occupation ended fatally, as the young Chinese was removed to prison and later executed. Significantly, the stillness of the young Chinese initiated a collapse of the spatial boundaries, and, like Bartleby, he occupied the interstices between the public and the private, using his body as originator of a new space.

At the same time, the ultimate inscrutability of Bartleby’s dissensus is variously refracted in the refusal of modern mobilizations to sketch out their definite proposals and bring them within the space of political dialogue. In Means without Ends, Agamben addressed the events around Tiananmen Square in 1989 to claim that “what was most striking about the demonstrations of the Chinese May was the relative absence of determinate contents in their demands” (2000, 88). Despite the numerous attempts at characterizing the protest as a popular cry for democracy, the protestors did not demand any concrete goals, did not express firm positive preferences. The recent occupiers of Tahrir Square in Cairo similarly declared, among other things, “it is not just the ideas that are important, these spaces are fundamental to the possibility of a new world” (Comrades from Cairo 2011). Along the same lines, the occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York resounded with a “violent silence” in place of clearly identifiable demands. In The Atlantic, J. Greenberg remarked that “the blank Bartlebyan inscrutability of Occupy Wall Street came to constitute its greatest power” (2012). What pervaded many of these movements was the refusal to engage in a critical dialogue with power; instead, they attempted to voice their dissensus by opening up, in Zizek’s terms, “a new space outside the hegemonic position and its negation” (2006, 381-82; italics in the original). This desire to un-participate in state structures leaves power facing its own void, its own suspension, as in the case of the lawyer in Melville’s story. If, as Agamben claims, the prerequisite for real political change is the Law’s “deactivation and inactivity [inoperosita]” (2005, 64), the Bartlebyan gesture at the heart of these political movements translates spatial occupation into the deactivation of the Law. A deactivation that the authoritative backlash strives to cancel but effectively underlines.

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