ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance
"The Bartleby Industry and Bartleby's Idleness"
Though Melville's Bartleby is deservedly one of the most widely beloved of nineteenth-century idlers, he is certainly not alone among his contemporaries. When we juxtapose Melville's tale with an heretofore undiscovered source text—Robert Grant White's short story, “Law and Laziness; or Students at Law of Leisure”—the implications of Melville's obsession with unproductivity emerge ever more clearly. In relation to this and other discourses on modern idleness, Bartleby's famous recalcitrance—his refusal, in the face of his boss's demands, to do virtually anything—is recast as not merely an eccentric's idiosyncratic protest, but rather as a figure for the crisis of an entire culture unsteady in its supposed devotion to productivity and rationality.
The essay argues that the inability of that culture to comprehend the meaning of unproductivity is embodied in the story's narrator, who, finding himself unexpectedly stranded at the dangerous intersection where law and laziness coincide, struggles to come to terms with an unproductivity that is revealed as profoundly his own. Armed with his faith in the individuality and rationality of the modern subject, his understanding encounters the same limits that have afflicted both critical interpretations of “Bartleby” and economic analyses of productivity. Deploying the insights of materialist theory, from Marx to Althusser to Hardt and Negri, this essay transcends these shortcomings, and seeks to discover, behind the individualized enigma of Bartleby, the persistent yearning for a leisure that is fundamentally collective.