I Would Prefer Not To: The Bartlebess Series

Bartleby the Scribe’s Formula: I Would Prefer Not To…(Design Creativity as a Mode of Resistance)

…when a body “encounters” another body, or an idea another idea, it happens that the two relations sometimes combine to form a more powerful whole, and sometimes one decomposes the other, destroying the cohesion of its parts.

Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (19).

Once upon a time, prior to the development of mechanical and then electronic copying devices and their ubiquitous colonisation of the corporate world, the figure of the scrivener or copyist would have been a regular fixture in the office. The great American writer Herman Melville tells the story of such a scrivener, a law copyist called Bartleby who perplexes his employer, an attorney, with a singular phrase of resistance: I would prefer not to. Bartleby responds to an advertisement for the position of scrivener and arrives one day in the open doorway of the attorney’s offices, “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!” The attorney explains that his chambers at that time were located up the stairs of what is presumably an office block at an undisclosed address on Wall Street, New York. He describes the outlook of his rooms as follows: “At one end, they looked upon the white wall of the interior of a spacious sky-light shaft…from the other end of my chambers…my windows commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade.” The premises are further divided into two halves, one for the employees, and one for the attorney, separated by ground glass folding doors, which the attorney opens and closes depending on his temper. Bartleby will be further cordoned off behind a high green folding screen that not only separates him out from the three other employees, but places him in the closest proximity to his employer, specifically on the attorney’s side of the office. Melville, as can be seen, composes the spatial arrangement of the office and its outlook with specific care. It is within this circumscribed space that Bartleby’s phrase, I would prefer not to, will come to infect the collective enunciation of the employees as well as the attorney himself. Each will unwittingly find themselves using variations of Bartleby’s phrase. This is a phrase that is taken up as an object of study by a number of philosophers, including Gilles Deleuze, Isabelle Stengers, and Giorgio Agamben. What interests all of these thinkers is how the figure of Bartleby troubles the outline of what constitutes a collective voice of enunciation or expression and the cohesive identity of some community of shared practices and beliefs. The passive resistance of Bartleby’s phrase, which Deleuze names a formula, offers a protest that cannot be explicitly named, and at the same time it calls upon a potential creativity the realisation of which may be indefinitely forestalled.

“Bartleby the Scribe’s Formula: I Would Prefer Not To…(Design Creativity as a Mode of Resistance)”, -writing, convened by Prof. Jane Rendell, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, UK (9 July, 2010).

A further iteration of the Bartlebess series was presented at Public Works: “Bartlebess and Creative Resistance” in The Relational in ArchitecturePublic Works: Friday Sessions, London, 17 July 2011. http://www.publicworksgroup.net/fridaysessions/ Public Lecture.

I Would Prefer Not To: How Bartleby’s Formula Troubles Collective Design Practices

Herman Melville writes a curious and highly spatialised story of a scrivener, or law-copyist, called Bartleby, who troubles the limits of collective expression through the deployment of a singular phrase. The story of Bartleby and his infamous formula of passive resistance has been commented upon at length by such philosophers as Gilles Deleuze, Giorgio Agamben, and the philosopher of science, Isabelle Stengers. Each of these thinkers reflect upon the passive power of Bartleby’s formula given as: I would prefer not to. This paper will draw on their remarks and what relation Bartleby’s passivity has to the formation and limits of collective and creative modes of enunciation. To augment and illuminate this discussion the paper will treat two creative research experiments, one an installation, the other a short story, that developed in response to a ‘site writing’ workshop led by Jane Rendell, which was part of a symposium convened by Linda Marie Walker and John Barbour, called Expanded Spatial Practice, at the University of South Australia in 2009. These design practice experiments explored zones of indistinction that can be located between the murmur of the ‘idiotic’ subject and the formation of the collective, or the obscure terrain where the gestures and pronouncements of a singular body begins to infect and transform a collective body. The paper will discuss how collectivity was formed in the workshop through a relay of gestures of resistance as well as material force, exclusion and inclusion, violence and creativity, as well as the implicit negotiation of interior territories that provisionally resolved themselves by the conclusion of the workshop into a brief exhibition of critical design projects. What a figure such as Bartleby and his formula, I would prefer not to, demands is that we slow down the act of creation and interrupt some of the rules of the social games we play in order to locate a place for the voice of resistance or even indifference.

“I Would Prefer Not To: How Bartleby’s Formula Troubles Collective Design Practices” in Alternative Practices in Design: The Collective – Past, Present & Future, convened by Harriet Edquist and Laurene Vaughan, Geoplaced Knowledges, DRI, RMIT University (9 July, 2010). Peer Reviewed Conference Proceedings. Invited to develop paper as a book chapter.

In the above paper I cite this workshop installation creative project test: “I Would Prefer Not To” installation, group workshop exhibition in response to Prof. Jane Rendell’s Site-Writing Workshop, Expanded Spatial Practice, convened by Dr Linda Marie Walker and John Barbour, Art, Architecture and Design, University of South Australia, Liverpool Gallery (10–12 September, 2009). Creative Project Work.