Tuesday, September 29, 2009

You could theorize it, or you could prefer not to

So today in class we began discussing our readings from Marx and Engels, especially the subjugation of the worker and what the meaning of the product created. All of this reminded me of a little story written in 1853 by Herman Melville called "Bartleby, the Scrivener." For those of you who haven't read it, or who have forgotten it, this is how it goes:

The title character, our Bartleby, works in office essentially as a human copy machine. He rewrites important documents so that all his bosses can have copies for meetings, and finds his work less than fulfilling. As the title suggests, Bartleby's occupation identifies him as a person, until he becomes wholly and irrevocably one with his job. He is nothing else except a scrivener. One day he decides he's had enough, but instead of going into work and destroying the office supplies in an empty field (à la Office Space), he simply and civilly refuses to do any work, responding to any order with the words, "I'd prefer not to." Eventually Bartleby loses his job, winds up in prison, and is surrounded by people who think he's insane. At the end of the story, we discover that Bartleby once worked a dead letter office--the place where all lost mail ends up. As readers, we're left wondering if it was Bartleby's redundant, meaningless work that deprived him of his sanity.

Considering this in a Marxist context, we can see the idea of labor product equaling laborer in relation to Bartleby's downfall. Considering that his job would eventually be replaced by technological photocopiers in the distant future, in a modern context, we can see his work as inhumane--it is literally the work that can be done by man-made inventions... Bartleby is dehumanized.

Keep in mind the Marxist passages about how "the worker's activity is not his spontaneous activity...it belongs to another; it is the loss of his self. As a result, therefore, man (the worker) no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions" (767). In the story, it is as if Bartleby was able to look outside of himself and the meaningless work he was doing, and tries to put an end to the mechanical habits of his job, taking control of his own actions. But when he does this, he winds up crazy and dead.

So one could make a case that Bartleby exemplifies what happens when this assumed law according to Marx is contradicted: an overall downfall.

But also following a main point from today's discussion, does this really matter? Does this theory really apply to literature? And even if it does, how can it function beyond these intangible words from a dead communist?

With that in mind, you could try to apply these theories to real life, or you could just prefer not to.


  1. Wonderful point of connection, Marielle! We might put pressure on the end of the story--the part where the narrator (his name escapes me at the moment!) attempts to find Bartleby, before the grumpy scrivener dies. Is there a moment of awakening--of consciousness--for the narrator at the end there? Is the story revealing the dehumanizing, alienating impact of labor on the subject (Bartleby does die alone, after all)? All excellent questions that I could answer. At the end of the day, though, I prefer not to do that. That's my students' collective job ;-)

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  3. I totally forgot about this particular story that I read freshman year in high school (?!?), but it’s totally relevant, which makes me excited! Anyways, when reading this text I do remember relating Bartleby to Marxist theories. I agree that this story attempts to show how capitalism seemingly makes it impossible for the average worker to prosper. With that being said, Bartleby is a symbol of the alienated “working class”, having no purpose and no hope in life. If I remember correctly, the narrator represents the upper classes, who tries to lessen their guilt with money- giving to charity, essentially “buying” a clean conscience, as seen when the narrator attempts to give Bartleby money towards the end (? Maybe more the middle).

    Professor Fisher asks: Is there a moment of awakening--of consciousness--for the narrator at the end there? Is the story revealing the dehumanizing, alienating impact of labor on the subject (Bartleby does die alone, after all)?

    To answer these questions, from a Marxist perspective I believe that this story is dehumanizing, and speaks to the alienating impact of the labor system on its subject. Although as discussed in class- who is analyzing stories through a Marxist lens anyways? Even so, it seems that Bartleby’s job may in fact be quite depressing to the average worker.

    As for the moment of awakening for the narrator at the end of the story, I think it can be looked at in two ways. Either the narrator could be simply giving charity to essentially “buy” a clear conscious, or, as professor Fisher has mentioned, perhaps he has been enlightened…I’m not really sure that I am able to make these claims right now. Maybe after rereading the story I could attempt to analyze the narrator’s character motivation but it has been faaar too long!!

    Hope that helped. Interesting point, Marielle.

  4. Dear God! What happened to the template? Who is in control of this place? What kind of revolution is happening here?

  5. Ok so this is going to be one of those things where I'm probably completely wrong, but I'll just go for it anyway. Sort've linking this story to our previous Derrida reading about deconstruction, I actually saw some interesting parallels.

    In your normal societal view of humanity, which Marx essentially argues is non-existant, you have people and machines (People/Machine). There is supposed to be a distinct differentiation between the two because by definition a machine is supposed to do what a human should not have to do. Why take a fork and mash a mango for 30 minutes when a blender can do it in 30 seconds? In the case of Bartleby, this distinction is deconstructed and Barleby the person and the machine become one in the same, like Marielle said.

    This deconstruction I think leads right into Marx's argument because the question is if there is no differentiation between human and machine then what is the point of humanity? If Bartleby had a xerox machine that could do 50 pages per minute color copying then according to the view of the industrial capitalist society that Marx explains and rails against, what is the point of him being there? Bartleby obviously realizes this at the end of the story because he eventually decides to take his humanity back essentially undoing the deconstruction but that just leads to him losing his job earlier and being outcast in a society that does not accept the differentiation between human and machine. He becomes a actual person but at the same time removes his labor from the product and in turn he ends up dying a lonely and kind've sucky death.

    Thats just what I saw, hopefully its not all completely wrong

  6. No, you do bring up a good point Nick. In Bartelby (thank you for the connection Marielle, one of my favorite short stories) Melville seems to imply that the system holds a sadistic, dehumanizing pleasure of power in forcing the worker to do what a machine could do. The question does remain whether or not Bartelby holds the power in the end; has he risen above the system by escaping in death, or has it defeated him by leading to that death? I believe both conclusions are tenable and therefore deserve further consideration. As Saussure and Derrida might argue, perhaps both could be true. Bartelby dares to question a dehumanizing system, leading to his escape from it, but an escape that he can't enjoy without life left to live. Therein Melville holds that even with bold, progressive action such as Bartelby's, there is still much work to be done before we reach a just society..."and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep..." (Frost, another favorite :D )

  7. I think that's a great point, Nick-- we assume (or at least hope) that, as humans, we are separate from the lifeless machines we use and create, though as Bartleby continues his meaningless work, he himself has turned into something mechanical--doing the mindless work without any sense of meaning or significance. Then, the binary opposition cancels itself, and person/machine become one and the same.

    Like Dr. Fisher and Zac pointed out, the narrator (Turkey, I believe) does seem to come to a conclusion at the end about what caused Bartleby's downfall, realizing it was most likely his job (first at the Dead Letter office) that drove him down to the pit of insanity. It's sad to think that this conclusion came after Bartleby's death, so the narrator's theories couldn't actually make a difference at that point. This makes me think about applying our theoretical readings from class in a real-world context--does it really make a difference?

  8. One point of correction: I'm not so sure that Saussure would even be concerned with these issues, given that his focus was mostly linguistic. So, kbadancer, I'd like to see if you could flesh out that part of your argument. You and Marielle and Nick are right on with Derrida, though, and I think ZR's parisng of Marx is sharp as well. Also, I'm digging the unpredictability of the template schemata. It's like the line between work and play is, um, under erasure or something!