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Not now. Not yet.
A man comes up to another and says: ‘Well, you play pretty badly’. The other answers, “I know, I am playing badly but I don’t want to play any better.” Then the first man replies “ah, then that’s all right”.
This exchange is meant to take place before an impromptu audience, and performed either in a bar in front of the cashier or on a crowded bus, in an office or a dentist’s waiting room. It can be staged anywhere, provided that it is in the presence of a neutral third party.
It is not easy to perform, it has a fast pace and has a rhythm that must flow as smoothly as a melody. Everything is normal, there is no emphasis; it is a simple instance of everyday life, the unspeakable contingency: two people exchange these few words and it ends there.
Not now. Not yet.(1)
Bartleby is suffered. The encounter with this minute, polite, quiet scrivener is a passion, a fatal encounter the consequences of which are not foreseeable in any way. By way of a bet, every time I go back to Bartleby’s impossible experiment I always warn my students that they are about to receive the gift of an intense love affair. That’s the way it is, one falls in love with Bartleby at first sight: it happens to everybody. It is as if the magic expression I would prefer not to with all its pregnant inconsistency touched a raw nerve in the reader, just as it affects, in Melville’s story(2), the lawyer and the other clerks working in the law firm when they unexpectedly find themselves uttering Bartleby’s strange proposition. It is a virus, one that is indifferent to the body that receives it, indifferent even to the person who first coined it; it affects Bartleby himself when at some point, seemingly as a logical consequence, he becomes aware of the regressive power of this utterance and refuses to continue copying the letters: ‘Do you not see the reason for yourself ?’ Bartleby replies to the lawyer asking him why he has decided to stop copying. This step marks a point of no return for the clerk, where categories such as duty or will, to which the good-natured lawyer appeals, do not mean anything anymore. Once the ford is crossed, it is only a matter of potential, or rather the potential not to do for the scrivener: when he drops the conditional (‘I prefer not’) it is because it bears a residual reference to willingness. He stops copying. In order to find interesting clues on Bartleby’s parable we need to get to grips with two important essays. One by Deleuze, Bartleby: or The Formula, focusses on the linguistic analysis of the apparent ‘agrammaticality’ of Bartleby’s utterance and its destabilizing force upon the referentiality of language, in that it says and names that which it denies at the same time: it expresses a possibility (I would prefer) which is immediately withdrawn (not) and embodies it in the character of the scrivener, who becomes the man without references, the man without qualities, the man without preferences (‘I am not particular’)(3). The other essay, Bartleby or on Contingency by Agamben takes as a starting point the page left blank by the scrivener – a device to represent the potentiality of thought to think its own impotentiality– and guides us through that process of de-creation which leads Bartleby to the experiment of inhabiting pure potentiality. To be potential – we ought to point out here that potentiality and capability are synonyms just as are things like memory or labor force – means to have an anesthetized capability, a mature capability caught in a state of impotentiality. If I say: I cannot walk, I am stating that something prevents me from doing it, such as a broken leg for instance; however if I say I am able to not walk it means that I have the capacity to walk or to not-walk. The formula of potentiality is I can not-do or be. It is impotentiality. The most perspicacious expression of potentiality is impotentiality. And this is what Bartleby represents. In order to understand the level reached by the scribe we ought to compare him to another champion of that powerful regression, namely Beckett. There is a difference of degree between Beckett and Bartleby. Beckett stops at the penultimate(4), exhausting everything, exhausting space, words and the voices, exhausting the subject in an unrelenting process of deconstruction of all significant language with the objective to take us back to a pre-linguistic, even pre-human condition, to that cosmic dimension where everything is indistinct and becomes possible again. However, also in Film (possibly his most radical work testifying, almost by way of a poetic/political manifesto, this process of fragmentation of being and the separation of language from all reference) Beckett exhausts everything but does not reach the end. In fact, he must stop just before it, on the threshold separating the penultimate from the ultimate, reaching that special place from which it is possible to gain an unobstructed view of the misery of the human condition; but again he does not get to the end. The old Buster Keaton does not give up, he pursues his project of desubjectivation with determination. In his supreme struggle to eliminate all mirror image of himself, all image/affection leading back to a residue of subjectivity we can decipher his willingness to achieve his own annihilation. However it is a process still driven by will which follows a plan. Bartleby is different. If at first he takes the odd formula to the letter, as if it were a precept, in the end he embodies it; thus, bypassing will he crosses the unspeakable border that was closed to Beckett, and the ultimate is his reign. There is no determination, no willpower in the scrivener, he is caught up in the powerful regression he himself has triggered and shows no visible interest in getting out of it: he feels safe whatever happens. Bartleby makes such a daring move simply because he doesn’t want to. To elucidate this point, Agamben draws the brilliant distinction between Bartleby’s ‘absolute potential’(5), with his capacity without will, and the ‘ordered potential’ of God who is all-powerful but cannot have willed evil. Bartleby is not bored. Boredom is another interesting analogy to lay down the copyist’s potential in the absence of will. Boredom is a passion, and passions cannot be bridled. As Heidegger tells us – stressing the impersonal ‘one’ – one lapses into boredom because boredom is the prerogative of the human animal: it is not me who lapses into boredom, it is the human species who is naturally subjected to this mood. Willpower might seems uninfluential when boredom simply comes upon us. However boredom is interesting insofar as it reveals a potentiality without which no thought would be possible, and which the German philosopher defined as ‘super- power’. It is an instance of super-power insofar as in the state of enchantment and enchainment, from frozen time and entities that no longer respond to us, we reach the point of convergence where maximum refusal of the world coincides with the infinite openness of possibility. At the limit of refusal, where the moment of decision to act lies, we can experience a potentiality that is about to pass over into actuality. Here lies the difference from Bartleby. Potential boredom should give way to a “that’s enough now” without which, in the absence of potential, one would lapse into madness. This does not happen to Bartleby the scrivener: there is no limit, no instant in which to decide to act, not even psychological suffering. We are plunged into profound boredom until the will expressed by “that’s enough” intervenes, but the contrary applies to the scrivener: potentiality remains the potentiality-not-to-act. Therefore, we can approach Bartleby and hear his reasons (feel them) but we could never match him. I have attempted to do so several time, with my works Boredom, Exodus, the Exhausted, Concert for flatus vocis and Declaration of Bankrupcy among others, but these are no more than paraphrases in comparison to the disarticulating potentiality of I would prefer not. Working on analogies is the only way. We can grasp some of them, extend them as much as possible and then accept the different outcome. The brief act I am proposing for this event – which contemplates possible failure – is based on what I consider a very amusing language game by Wittgenstein, a passage in a Lecture on Ethics involving a tennis player which I have reworked in a slightly different version substituting him with a musician:
A man comes up and says to another, ‘Well, you play pretty badly’ the other answers, ‘I know, I am playing badly but I don’t want to play any better.’ Then the first man replies ‘Ah, then that’s all right’(6).
The analogies that can be grasped in Bartleby’s litany are different: I would prefer not to has an elusive, hazy, indefinite nature, and although it does not appear at all contradictory, it makes no logical sense. As we have said, it expresses two conflicting facts at once, i.e. it says and names what it denies at the same time. There is no before nor an after, everything is consumed at once leaving no time to organize a dialectic between the preferable and the non-preferred. One would be inclined to say that it resembles a tautology, so that in the absence of contradiction it always tells the truth. ‘I am wondering at the sky being whatever it is’ or ‘I wonder at the existence of the world’(7) are nonsensical in Wittgenstein’s analytical logic, and a tautology is a form of language that goes on holiday which, on the other hand, by always telling the truth keeps it cemented to the a-logic linguistic practice where the law is the law, God is God and order is order. At these levels there is no use for crystal-clear language, as we are in the field of experience, of ethics and aesthetics, of religion, and even of the general ability to accept and execute an order. We are in the realm of ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’, that is to say, where logical language cannot reach and needs to withdraw and leave room to other forms of language. Besides, as the Austrian philosopher points out, all the propositions of logic are tautologies, as well as all the logical steps that describe the totality of facts constituting the world. I would prefer not is language [that] goes on vacation, it is a language game that does not belong to the true/false polarity but completely eludes it; it does not express the truth or the good to be preferred, it creates an area of undiscerning that is not the midpoint but the a-signifying essence of the proposition itself. It is always true because it is not refutable. It generates a kind of suspension similar in some ways to the suspension of judgment of the ancient skeptics, who preferred epochè to the uncertainty of value judgment. Neither they refused nor they accepted, just as Bartleby does in response to the demands of the lawyer. Once the debate between the musician and the obnoxious interlocutor is dismissed with a withering quip, a similar condition to the suspension of value judgments that always tell the truth is created. There are three truths in the exchange between the musician and the man: the first, that he is a musician, the second, that he plays really badly, and the third, that the music produced is really how it should be played. There is no contradiction since the truth is always told, and the result is the disconcerting suspension of sense-making. It is the same suspension of which we speak, in other words, with reference to the potentiality-not-to as a silent capacity that has deferred the possibility of passing over into actuality. Perhaps the musician’s litany is not really a tautology, from which, by the way, we grabbed the image of the suspension and the connection with language games in terms of practice. Perhaps it is a syllogism or perhaps a fallacy, but that does not matter much as both are among the most commonly used techniques to create a witticism, one of countless language games that can serve to form a different understanding of the relationship between the musician’s composed fallacy and Bartleby’s uncontrolled one. Moreover, from a different perspective and in a different context I would prefer not to could also be interpreted as a witticism. Departing from Freud’s psychisms and viewing it in terms of public practice, and following Wittgenstein on the incommensurability between the norm and rules of use, Paolo Virno describes witticism, in his book on the subject(8), as an effective language device capable of bringing innovation, and underscores its power to subvert the order of discourse in its ability to play on the ambivalence of rules that inform and regulate forms of life. The language game of the musician who wants to play badly and of the nosy interlocutor is a witticism: it is a public act in that it requires the presence of a neutral third party; it is a unique public action that captures the moment offered by contingency and changes its relations, similar in this to Austin’s speech acts; it is an innovative action that uses the wit of the speaker to show, within a fraction of a second, how it could be if it were not as it is. The playful wit in a witticism undermines old standards and asserts new ones through contradiction and absurdity, through the assembly of distant images and logics, the multiple shifts of meaning that reveal alternatives to the narrative conventions of the doxa. Wit exposes the distance between meaning and signs in a peculiar way, first because the metalinguistic content contributes to carry out a public action: here the “second level of enunciation” gains an immediate performative value; and second, because it is a meaningful discourse on the crisis of significance, as it boldly underscores the independence of implementation from the norm(9). Virno’s lead on the gap between norm and its implementation is interesting insofar as it bears a connection with Bartleby’s formula, in the sense that the norm is one of those institutions subject to regression which, along with the ability to interrupt it, characterize verbal language and our natural history in its entirety: the impossible meeting between the rule and its implementation involves making a decision to break off the infinite regression to which is condemned any attempt to ground on a further rule the application of any contingent rule(10). Triggered by the language game Bartleby has himself coined, his regression has bypassed the moment of decision, as has been said, since the veridiction of the experiment to inhabit a pure potentiality strictly excludes any voluntary act. In the state of exception in which a witticism operates we retrace those recursive practices that constitute the behavior common to all men until the moment of decision stops the fall. There, at the moment when regression meets the move to action, lies the innovative gesture that applies its rule to the norm. A witticism lies in the gap that separates the rule from its realization, and reveals the multiple ways of implementing the rule itself (11). A witticism hits the wrong target, is fallacious, it plays on its own failure. Through wit, it establishes a double level of significance that reveals, in a flash of time, how it is and how it could be at one and the same time. It is not a lapsus but the potentiality of a rash, happily creative gesture that sometimes helps us cope with the troubles stirred by contingency. Finally, a witticism is a form of exodus that makes use of joyous wit to come out of a state of crisis – in the musician’s case – or of potential wit to go beyond the state of exception to where space, time and the subject simply cease to be – and that is Bartleby’s case. It is perhaps worth adding a final remark about Melville’s story, written in 1853. Its setting in a lawyer’s office in Wall Street perhaps adds to the famous proposition ‘I would prefer not to’ a sense of foreboding and at the same time of exodus from what, in modern times, appears as the coaction of moods and general capabilities denoting the human species towards a reductionist automatism which enables us to produce capital. So to make a long story short, after much talk on some similarities we have drawn upon in broaching tautology, language games, failure, exhaustion, witticisms and last of all, exodus, we can’t but accept that no significant contribution has been made towards a better understanding of Bartleby’s soul. Nor is it possible to match, with other words, the explosive potentiality of the rule that the scrivener adopts – unwittingly – to upset the order of facts. So was all this chattering about Bartleby’s outlandish utterance of no use whatsoever? I wouldn’t say so: we have advanced hypothesis, we have found words that failed us before and abandoned others, we have traced paths of meaning and imagined a language to tell a different story, and ‘to imagine a language is to imagine a new form of life”(12).
(1) Testo scritto in occasione della performance Non ora. Non ancora, per il seminario ‘We’ve got time’, a cura di S. Humbert e S. Noach, presso la Schloss Ringenberg, Hamminkeln (D) nel 2014. Al convegno si faceva riferimento alla celebre frase I whould prefer not di Bartleby.
(2) Herman Melville, Bartleby lo scrivano. Oscar Mondadori 1992
(3) G. Deleuze, Bartleby o la formula, in Bartleby la formula della creazione, Quodlibet, 1993. p. 18: “Bartleby è l’uomo senza referenze, senza possessi, senza proprietà, senza qualità, senza particolarità: è troppo liscio perché una qualsiasi proprietà possa farvi presa. Senza passate né futuro, è istantaneo. I prefer not to è la formula chimica o algebrica di Bartleby, ma si può leggere, rovesciandola, I am non particular, non ho esigenze particolari, come il suo indispensabile complemento”.
(4) Gilles Deleuze, Abecedario alla voce Alcolismo, Derive Approdi 2005
(5) Giorgio Agamben, Bartleby o della contingenza, in Bartleby la formula della creazione, Quodlibet, 1993 pag. 61: “I teologi medievali distinguevano in Dio una potentia absoluta, secondo la quale egli può fare qualunque cosa (anche il male), e una potentia ordinata, secondo la quale egli può fare soltanto quello che si accorda con la sua volontà. (…) Così, se è vero che Dio avrebbe potuto mentire, spergiurare, incarnarsi in una donna o in un animale invece che nel figlio, tuttavia egli non ha potuto farlo, né poteva volerlo, e una potenza senza volontà è del tutto ineffettuale, non può mai passare all’atto. Bartleby revoca in questione precisamente questa supremazia della volontà sulla potenza. Se Dio (almeno de potentia ordinata) può veramente solo ciò che vuole, Bartleby può soltanto senza volere, può solo de potentia absoluta. Ma la sua potenza non è per questo, ineffettuale, non resta inattuata per un difetto di volontà: al contrario essa eccede da ogni parte la volontà (la propria come quella degli altri)”.
(6) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Conferenza sull’etica, in Lezioni e conversazioni. A cura di M. Ranchetti, Adelphi 2005, p. 8: “supponiamo che io giochi a tennis e che uno di voi mi veda giocare, e dica – in realtà lei gioca abbastanza male -. Supponiamo che io replichi – lo so gioco male ma non voglio giocare meglio -; quell’uno di voi potrebbe allora soltanto dire – Ah, se è così va tutto bene -”. Ho preferito usare la figura del musicista a cui lo stesso Wittgenstein aveva pensato e scritto tra i primi appunti di preparazione alla conferenza, da cui si evince che il play è inteso come suonare e non come giocare.
(7) Ivi, p. 12 : per dire cosa intende per valore assoluto o valore etico, Wittgenstein richiama alla mente una sua esperienza, la sua per eccellenza: “Credo che il miglior modo di descriverla sia dire che, quando io ho questa esperienza, mi meraviglio per l’esistenza del mondo”. E p. 14: “mi sto meravigliando del cielo comunque esso sia. Si potrebbe essere tentati di dire che mi sto meravigliando di una tautologia, e cioè del cielo azzurro o non azzurro che sia, ma allora non ha senso dire di meravigliarsi di una tautologia.”
(8) Paolo Virno, Motto di spirito e azione innovativa, Bollati Boringhieri, 2005
(9) Ivi, p. 42
(10) Ivi, p. 43
(11) Ivi, p. 53 : “Il motto di spirito dimora nella terra di nessuno che separa una norma dalla sua realizzazione in un caso particolare. Il punto d’onore dell’arguzia sta nel mostrare in quanti modi dissimili si possa applicare la stessa regola. Se si preferisce: nel mostrare che nessuna applicazione concorda con la regola, né del resto la contraddice, dato che tra l’una e l’altra sussiste un divario incolmabile.”
(12) L. Wittgenstein, Ricerche filosofiche, Einaudi, 1995, p.17 § 19 : “E’ facile immaginare un linguaggio che consista soltanto di informazioni e di ordini dati in combattimento. – o un linguaggio che consista soltanto di domande e di un’espressione per dire si’ e no. E innumerevoli altri. – E immaginare un linguaggio significa immaginare una forma di vita”.
A man comes up to another and says: ‘Well, you play pretty badly’. The other answers, “I know, I am playing badly but I don’t want to play any better.” Then the first man replies “ah, then that’s all right”.