dialogues at greenwich: On Deleuze's essay 'Bartleby: or, The Formula"

dialogues at greenwich

discussion and reports from the Volcanic Lines research group at Greenwich University

30 January 2007

On Deleuze's essay 'Bartleby: or, The Formula"

The text for today’s workshop was Deleuze’s ‘Bartleby; or, The Formula’ from Essays Critical and Clinical whose subject is Herman Melville’s short story ‘Bartleby The Scrivener.’ The workshop began with a presentation by Neil Chapman of Reading University which really opened up the exciting and deeply challenging themes of the essay. This very late essay was related to another late work: ‘Immanence: A Life.’ The concern here is with encounter with life itself rather than with a particular life. This was related very productively to Giorgio Agamben’s work ‘Means Without Ends’ where naked life is an abstraction from complex forms of life. Naked life involves the dominant power’s way of understanding people as containers or blanks. For Agamben the proletariat must be imposed on a pure life. Forms of life in Agamben were related to Wittgenstein’s language games. The development of political and ethical themes opened up what is most profound and difficult to grasp in the essay ‘Bartleby; or The Formula.’

The presentation developed Agamben’s notion ‘bare life’. Also explored was the move Deleuze makes in relating Melville’s story to Robert Musil’s ‘Man Without Qualities’. Deleuze’s concern with the Proletariat suggests that here we have the man without qualities versus the sovereign state and in the American Immigrant we have the man without qualities developed in terms of a notion of ‘brotherhood.’ The American Immigrant here was explained in terms of idea that the immigrant can start from nothing (from bare life) and achieve the American dream.

The ‘foreign language produced within language’ was introduced in terms of leading up to the moment proper to ethics. This was related again to ‘bare life’ as the idea of life abstracted from particularities in Agamben which is therefore a vessel that can receive content. Deleuze’s reading of Bartleby seems to put forward an ethical program via a concept of ‘bare life’ because we have a formula – ‘I would prefer not to’ – that also blind to difference. We need then to be at a level prior to the emancipatory iteration of ‘we are the people.’ Does Deleuze suggest this?

The reference at page 72 to ‘the schizophrenic vocation of American literature’ was analysed. Does the notion of ‘vocation’ lay out how literature produces an ethical program? Given that things can happen in language, how do we move to the idea that these things should happen?

Reference was made to Baudelaire’s project of finding the epic in the everyday – like Deleuze he rejects the particular as the mediocre. Bartleby is an ‘original’ according to Deleuze. Jacques Ranciere argues that this original should be linked to the eccentric – there is no mimesis, he does not imitate and cannot be imitated. Bartleby is inexplicable, he is from no where. [This echoes Deleuze appropriation of Samuel Butler’s ‘Erehwon’ as ‘a disguised no-where [and] a rearranged now-here’, Difference and Repetition, p. 356 n. 7]

Stuttering is a difference we can’t understand and yet this is to be productive. At page 85 Bartleby offers a new humanity and this throws light on things around him. This leads to the federation of brothers found in the American Revolution. At page 84 alliance and blood pact are affirmed.

The discussion began by noting that in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ the filial is valued over alliance. This was linked to Deleuze’s critique of the familial in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ where the family is code. Philosophy arises because familial kingship structures break down. It was suggested that a concern with blood pact and brotherhood could refer to Deleuze biological account of individuation, suggesting the doubling of the production of particulars through their embryonic and more open relations (reference us back to ‘Difference and Repetition’, chapter 5). However, this reading didn’t seem to us to work given that the relevance of biological is not established by the text.

The appearance of a really existentialist movement, referencing Kierkegaard and his account of Abraham in ‘Fear and Trembling’, was suggested. Yet the nothingness of the will and nothingness of particulars and generals invoked by Deleuze seems to affirm the fullness of the virtual or ‘the whole of chance’ (as he terms it in the conclusion of ‘Difference and Repetition.’)

The references made to Musil’s ‘Man Without Qualities’ were also discussed. The novel seems to offer a nihilistic, boredom ridden milieu with no real answers. Does this relate to the productive and affirmative milieu we find in Deleuze?

A more positive account of the nothingness Deleuze invokes was sought in the pairing of Bartley’s immobility and silence (the original) with the Attorney’s line of flight (the prophet – but not the prophet of doom). This event seems to be a global event and so in a work of art it is difficult to have two of them. This is then a very productive just as a point of freezing in a physical system where everything is involved and changes. It was suggested that Bartleby inverts Sartre because he chooses not to choose. There is then an anarchy but not a human one. Reference was made to the wasp becoming orchid which in Deleuze models occurs through random choices. Yet it seems that in the human choice structure ‘the original’ (Bartleby’s formula) can randomly cut things up.

The nature of the production which is grasped prior to anything particular was also discussed. At the start of the essay Deleuze writes that ‘Bartleby The Scrivener’ is a literal text. The novel is then on the same level as life itself – it literally activates or presents an operation that is at work in how experience is productive. This was related to Deleuze’s invocation of a primary nature and of the line of flight. The latter is ideal like the ‘white light’ also mentioned (p. 83), traversing particulars but also being found in itself prior to all particulars. The prophet character as a line of flight occurs alongside the primary nature character in Melville who is either demon (Captain Ahab in ‘Moby Dick’) or Angel (Bartleby). This is developed by Deleuze at page 84 where he argues that demons and angels recognise one another – they need to break the law of the Father to do this, returning us to the notion of brotherhood, a community of celibates: avoiding both Father and sex so as to continue Deleuze’s critique of psychoanalysis. We sense that this is not at all a particular community produced ready made by the formula – as if celibacy were to be practiced and families broken up – but rather a concern with how particulars are produced. There is nothing particular about the formula of what occurs in its vicinity – this is rather ‘a zone of indetermination’. Psychoanalysis involves the Father and sex symbolically and so, for Deleuze, projects the products into the production as structural conditions or archetypes. He argues that production must not resemble its production so that celibacy and loss of father are virtual or productive conditions instead of being particulars of some actual polis.

A further point raised was Deleuze’s use of the American Revolution rather than the French revolution. If revolution produces community (through Ideas that do not resemble any particulars) and necessarily involves violence (the demon – Ahab) and refusal ( the angel – Bartleby) why not use the French Revolution? Could not Danton and Robespierre be the angel and demon characters? Is it because Napoleon imposed himself as the father figure on the liberated ‘bare life’? The universalism invoked by the American Revolution seems to appeal to Deleuze insofar as rather than respecting or letting difference be this politics values what difference does. In ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ the war machine is positive and creative. At page 87 taking to the road, being open to all and never trying to save other souls is affirmed. This notion, reminding us of Jack Kerouac, was related to Lyotard’s libidinal economy. Marxists have for a long time been arguing about the need for capitalism first before you can have communism. There is one interconnected whole which make capitalism and communism inextricable. Negri argues that the conditions are right for creating a bifurcation point. Kerouac’s ideal life involved simply moving on if the police Hassle you. This communal living is an alternative to familial structures. Is this permanently just a route out producing communities that are too flexible to solidify themselves?

The notion of a patchwork was explored as involving no pattern but with a formula for the size of the patchwork and how patches are joined. Likewise dry stone walls interest Deleuze because while it is easy to take down and move them they have a certain, necessary structure. This was related to Warhol’s painting where there is variability around a mundane concept because the variation is really around its Idea. Could we say that although the American Revolution failed it is interesting because it is a patchwork. It was suggested that philosophy must fail and so not build a new community but be like Bartleby. It is useful in the end for a philosopher to say that I’d prefer not to say.

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At 2/05/2007 , Anonymous Nick M said...

Ed, a mistake in the paragraph beginning: "The discussion began by noting that in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ the filial is valued over alliance".
This should read "alliance is valued over the filial" (see eg. ATP p.238 "Becoming is always of a different order than filiation. It concerns alliance")

At 2/07/2007 , Blogger edward said...

Dear Nick - whoops! Good point. Unfortunate muddle. I've added above a report on the wokrshop discussion on 5th February. I note your point about production as distinct from causation when it comes to second critique and anti-oedipus. I hadn't grasped this before and have found it really useful as I have since been thinking about it. Best wishes, Edward


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