Subtraction from Supply and Demand: Challenges to Economic Theory, Representational Power, and Systems of Reference in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”

Abstract: Herman Melville’s “Story of Wall Street” (1853), in which a lawyer gives an account of the life of the scrivener Bartleby, has been extensively commented on by scholars from a variety of disciplines. Many have found his enigmatic formula “I would prefer not to” to be the embodiment of a long sought-after remedy for seemingly fruitless revolts against oppressive capitalist mechanisms. In order to examine the potential of Bartleby’s challenge to power, I will read it against the representational authority of economic theory, and, more specifically, the supply and demand model. The close reading of Melville’s short story reveals that Bartleby’s resistance to productivity and consumption indeed “opens up a new space outside the hegemonic position and its negation” (Žižek 393). In addition, I will provide a reading regarding representational power in relation to the narrator and the (de)stabilization of systems of meaning production, in which I will draw mostly on works by Agamben and Deleuze. Bringing together these three readings, however, renders doubtful the potential of such challenges to power. In fact, Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” might end up reaffirming already existing power structures.

The difficulty we are faced with,” Joseph Vogl writes in the preface to his vastly successful The Specter of Capital, “is that the science of economics has spent the last three hundred years creating the very economic facts it is now struggling to decipher” (x). Despite the fact that Vogl’s polemic statement might exaggerate the degree of influence the field of economics has established for itself, the representational authority of economic theory not only has an enormous impact through its political implementation but also as a source of cultural knowledge. Economic theory thus stands alongside the hegemonic politico-economic sphere which so many scholars in the humanities and social sciences like to criticize. A figure that critics turn to in large numbers is Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853). The legal scribe who stops working and gives as an explanation nothing more than his famous “I would prefer not to” has drawn the attention of thinkers like Deleuze, Žižek, and Hardt and Negri. In their accounts, Bartleby becomes the model for a new form of resistance, and a figure that leads the way to the “beginning of a liberatory politics” (Hardt and Negri 204). While I agree that he succeeds in creating what I call a space of nonrepresentation and consequently a momentary destabilization of hegemonic power, I suggest that the challenge he represents ultimately not only remains unsuccessful but also affirms existing power structures.

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