Letter to Mr. Bartleby


Part of the project 'No, and other possibilities' and published in the Catalogue from the exhibition Exit 2011.
100 pages
ISBN 87 - 88860 - 88 - 4

Letter to Mr. Bartleby

Letter to Mr. Bartleby: Main character in Herman Melville’s short story ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener. A story of Wall Street’, 1853.

Copenhagen, April 2011

Dear Mr. Bartleby,

It has now been more than one and a half centuries since you were fictionally breathing the air of an office on New York’s Wall Street in the company of lawyers and fellow scriveners. Despite the distance in time, I feel the urge to address this letter to you. Not to your author and inventor Herman Melville, but to you because of your courageous act of standing still on the very spot of an insecure ground of negation. Your manner of tackling the demands of your surroundings awakens great curiosity in me. In your active negation of the world, you seem to balance perfectly between two poles, without taking side or falling into an obvious situation. As you continue to resist, as you stand between being and non-being. Even though this ends up leading to your own dissolution, my questions to you are many and I sincerely hope that this letter will arouse your interest.

You say "you would prefer not to" perform the tasks your employer asks you to carry out. Why? That I am not certain of, but one thing seems clear – precisely that you will not. This will, this act of refusal and the questions it brings with it, is what makes me write to you, Sir. Out of your negation emerges a question of potentiality to me, which is something I will attempt to unfold in this letter.

I stumbled upon you in my research on the conditions of art production in the present and the artist’s possibility to work or not to work. This has led me to the question of potentiality versus actuality, seen from a philosophical point of view. In my search for a poetic angle, I found you. Your action, or denial of it, allows me to dwell upon such an abstract question as whether an object, situation or action only exists in its outlived action or physical realization. Or if something can remain as mere potential, without ever being realized or actualized. Can something remain purely potential even after being actualized? And is what we actually perceive in things, such as in a work of art, its potential to be something else? Perhaps the work of art, like your utterance, is only a brief, momentary proof or sign of the potentiality it draws on – for one short instance we, the viewers or readers, are presented with a glimpse of the vast mass of possibilities, which always already exist. As if the object or utterance simultaneously appear as signs of what (it) is not.

I would like to introduce you to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who has dwelled upon your position. Agamben argues that the way potential welcomes non-being is in the form of fundamental passivity (Potentialities, 1999). But do you not claim your will by actively not preferring to write, move or eat? I think that potentiality is at all times active, though at times not always graspable. Potentiality to do or not to do leads on to a question of whether there are invisible or subterranean layers of potentiality (here I mean the latent and unrealized possibilities) and how these continue to exist, despite of being realized. Can we imagine a third form of being in between being and nothing – occurrence and non-occurrence? I am very interested in knowing whether you would agree to that your negation not simply illustrates defeatism, but rather an intention to be something other than the obviously productive being? Or am I rushing to a too general conclusion here?

Aristotle says the following, which I find essential to include here even though it might not be new to you: "Every potentiality is simultaneously the potentiality of the negation of what it is the potentiality of" (The Metaphysics, 350 BCE). Interesting, right? Right there your non-being or perhaps better described as your non-doing, is justified and converted into the very possibility you have to do something in the first place (write, act, talk, move, eat, etc.). Hmm. What did you do before stopping doing so? You repeatedly say "I would prefer not to" when your employer asks you to carry out tasks, or when you are asked to move or offered something to eat. This intrigues me, because it sheds light on the very fact that we can choose not to do, but by doing so – we cannot avoid doing something else. In other words non-doing is a practical impossibility. By not doing you end up as a vagrant, dissolving into your surroundings and sadly finally breathing out in the courtyard of the Tombs – lost like one of the dead letters from your earlier workplace. But again negation appears to be an action, albeit an unproductive one.

This experience of preferring not to act can in my opinion be compared with that of embracing one’s potential not to be, which Agamben argues as crucial in embracing one’s potential to do or be. But this comes with a great challenge – that of facing one’s own abyss or experiencing one’s non-being. He writes: "Beyond all faculties, this ‘I can’ does not mean anything – yet it marks what is, for each of us, perhaps the hardest and bitterest experience possible: the experience of potentiality" (Potentialities, 1999). He follows by saying that the greatness and abyss of human potentiality is first of all the potential not to act. Your ‘preferring not to’ thus indicates the very possibility you have to do – which opens an ocean of questions and doubts into what might be the source of action and creation in the first place: Who speaks or writes the very first text, which you as a scrivener are to transcribe or copy? Can we here look for some kind of origin of the text, and is your denial to write only the denial to copy what is already written, and not writing as such? Would you, Sir, define your refusal as an act against headless repetition? Then why do you not walk out the door or grab the pen with the intention to scribble your own thoughts down instead of those of another? These questions risk becoming commonplace, but what drives me to them is the need to see the production out in the open. Here I will look to Enrique Vila-Matas, who also has reflected upon your not-writing with great curiosity. He writes: "Vivo como un explorador. Cuanto más me avanzo en la búsqueda del centro del laberinto, más me alejo de él. … Soy como un explorador que avanza hacia el vacío. Eso es todo." ("I live as an explorer. The more I advance in the search for the centre of the labyrinth, the further away from it I get. … I am like an explorer who advances towards emptiness. That is all.") (Bartleby y Compañía, 2000).

With that quote, I will end this letter to you, Sir. I hope to have addressed at least a few lines of thought which might interest you. I will continue my work on this abstraction on subterranean potentiality with you in mind. I hope you will welcome my enthusiasm and I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely