The potentiality of study: Giorgio Agamben on the politics of educational exceptionality.
In this sense, an analysis of study and of the studier gives further specificity to a theoretical and political question first asked by Steven DeCaroli in his essay "Boundary Stones: Giorgio Agamben and the Field of Sovereignty." In this work, DeCaroli pinpoints a peculiar oversight in Agamben's theory of sovereignty. "Despite the depth of analysis and a careful explanation of the structural parallels between the exile and the sovereign," writes DeCaroli, "comparatively few pages [in Agamben's work] are devoted to the actual transgressions of these banished individuals" (2007, 46). In other words, what is it in the actions of the abandoned individual, the homo sacer or sacred individual who can be killed without impunity, that call for such abandonment in the first place? Why does the sovereign demand exile (an existential death which separates natural life from civil life in the polis) or death? For DeCaroli, the answer lies in the suspension of the very ground of sovereignty itself: obedience. DeCaroli summarizes as follows: "... the exclusionary relation (in so far as it is a literal exception, ex-capere, a "taking outside"), has been applied, in the most ancient of political settings, not to actions that break the law, the merely illicit, but to those activities that threaten the relation between the law and its ground [obedience]" (2007, 55). It is my contention that the studier is one such destabilizing figure. To study is to suspend the functioning of obedience through "preferring not" to act as such and such a subject within the allotted order of things. Instead, studying gives access to the experience of potentiality freed from obedience to any sovereign command. With this suspension the studier does not obey or break the law but rather profanes it, opening up the law to new potential uses. Agamben makes the connection between study and politics explicit when he notes, "It [profanation] is the sort of use that Benjamin must have had in mind when he wrote of Kafka's The New Attorney that the law that is no longer applied but only studied is the gate to justice" (2007b, 76). Commenting further on Benjamin's reflections on Kafka's short story (where the lawyer, Dr. Bucephalus, studies rather than practices the law), Agamben continues,
In the Kafka essay, the enigmatic image of a law that is studied but no longer practiced corresponds, as a sort of remnant, to the unmasking of mythico-juridical violence effected by pure violence. There is, therefore, still a possible figure of law after its nexus with violence and power has been deposed, but it is a law that no longer has force or application, like the one in which the 'new attorney,' leafing through 'our old books,' buries himself in study, or like the one that Foucault may have had in mind when he spoke of a 'new law' that has been freed from all discipline and all relation to sovereignty. (2005a, 63)
Profaned, the law that is studied is deactivated, no longer in force, and thus open to studious play. In what follows, I will outline an anatomy of study in order to reveal how study directly calls into question the foundation of the law, and in so doing opens the studier to the risk of abandonment--a risk that exposes the studier to a kind of mythical violence against the individual body but also to the potentialities for collective refusal in the form of public study.
Potentiality of Study
To begin, I will offer a brief overview of Agamben's theory of potentiality. This initial introduction will provide the necessary backdrop for understanding the ontology of study. From De Anima, Giorgio Agamben argues that Aristotle enables us to think two kinds of potential: generic and effective. A generic conceptualization of potentiality explains how a child is able to grow up to be a particular type of person with a particular role in society (a statesman for example). Through education, the child suffers an "alteration (a becoming other) through learning" (Agamben 1999,179) where "the passage from the act implies an exhaustion and destruction of potential" (Agamben 2005,136). It is precisely this model of potentiality that currently informs discourses of what has been called the learning society (Masschelein and Simons 2008)--a social apparatus that emphasizes investment into potentiality in order to fully actualize this potential in the form of performance outcomes and human capital development. Here the ontology of the child is structured according to the strict logic of "not yet": not yet an adult, not yet a citizen, not yet a productive member of society. Thus the child must suffer an alteration through learning that destroys the "not yet" in order to fully actualize a latent potentiality for adulthood, citizenship, or productivity (i.e., transform the "not yet" into the necessity of the "must be" of the professional, employable adult). To fully actualize potentiality is to destroy it, transforming a contingency into a necessity. In this schema, potentiality becomes subordinate to actuality--it is in some senses what makes the actual possible but also what must be eliminated in order for the passage to the act to be complete and for the child to rightfully take his or her place within allotted order of things (either in relation to the economic, the political, or the social). To fulfill potentiality is to destroy it in the name of efficiency and effectiveness, commanding and controlling the possibilities offered by potentiality. The contingencies of potentiality are what must be sacrificed in order for the child to learn x skills for x purposes predetermined in advance by the social norms, traditions, and values which inform educational practices. The result is a notion of the human as capable of only a select few behaviors, skills, and actions easily assignable to a specific function within the overall division of labor. In other words, the logic of education as socialization is anchored in an ontology of generic potentiality as a "not yet" that "must be" made manifest in measurably determinate, socially useful, and economically manageable skillsets. Education, in this sense, concerns deadlines--or lines that end with the death of potentiality. Tests are therefore grave markers--not markers of what has passed out of actuality but rather of what has passed into actuality. Indeed, potentiality in this framework is more or less reduced to a series of possibilities that can either be actualized or not actualized. The logic in such cases operates through the function of the "or" which separates and divides potentiality into a series of discrete, functionally oriented, and exclusive possibilities ("you will either go to vocational school or college").
Opposed to the reductive notion of generic potentiality underlying learning, Agamben argues that there is a second notion of potentiality in Aristotle's work that can be referred to as "effective potentiality" in that it represents a "conservation of potential in the act and something like the giving of potentiality to itself" (2005, 136). This is the type of potentiality that interests Agamben the most. Those who have knowledge are in potential, meaning that they equally have the capability to bring knowledge into actuality and not bring knowledge into actuality. Agamben then gives the example of an architect who "is in potential insofar as he has the potential to not-build, the poet the potential to not-write poems" (1999, 179). By conserving itself, potential remains impotential (impotenza). Im-potentiality (which indicates the symbiotic relation between potential and impotential) is not simply impotence, but is an active capability for not-doing or not-being. Agamben summarizes: im-potentiality is the "capability of the act in not realizing it" (1998, 45) and thus "permits human beings to accumulate and freely master their own capacities, to transform them into 'faculties'" (2011b, 44). Rather than a stumbling block that must be continually denied, repressed, or overcome, Joanne Faulkner argues that Agamben's theory of im-potential "refers not simply to incapacity but rather to a being-able that abstains from doing" (2010, 205) that permits a new relation to one's own impotency. Rather than a simple lack or deficit, im-potentiality is a privation in the sense that im-potentiality means one has potential but prefers not to actualize it in any specific form. Thus, all theories of potentiality must also and equally be theories of the impotential, for it is im-potential that enables freedom to flourish--not the freedom of "I will" as a power of self-production according to economic imperatives or socially predetermined norms so much as an ontological openness to new possibilities.
In fact, it is the giving of potentiality to itself that is the experience of freedom. Agamben writes, "Here it is possible to see how the root of freedom is to be found in the abyss of potentiality.... To be free is, in the sense we have seen, to be capable of one's own impotentiality ..." (1999, 183). What makes us human, according to Agamben, is precisely the capability to not be, to remain im-potential. It is this paradoxical existence that opens history to contingency--to the potential to act otherwise or to be otherwise. Evil in this sense is derivative of a flight from an indetermining im-potentiality into the logic of pure or complete actualization for a predetermined end (transforming a contingency into a necessity). It is a denial of the constitutive link between growth and impotence. Citing Agamben, "Evil is only our inadequate reaction when faced with this demonic element [our impotential], our fearful retreat from it in order to exercise--founding ourselves in this flight some power of being" (1993, 31-32). Thus to enable students to experience their potential means that they must be given the chance to experience their impotence, their capability not to be. Education as mere socialization through learning measures what someone can do in order to fulfill a particular role within the economy, yet for Agamben, this obsession with assessment and verification of actualization in the learning society is itself a form of evil that destroys our freedom to be rather than precisely because it denies our ontological indeterminacy. His theory of im-potentiality enables us to think potentiality against the logic of educational socialization, which reduces potentiality to a "not yet" that actualizes itself in a "must be." Indeed, im-potentiality does not simply separate potentiality from impotentiality (thus sacrificing contingency for necessity, possibility for impossibility), rather it recognizes that the subject emerges precisely in the gap that separates and binds together opposite forces in the atopic space existing between desubjectification (an unnamed subject position) and subjectification (recognizable within the order of things and the partitioning of the sensible). Instead of separating potentiality into a series of mutually exclusive possibilities (to be or not to be), potentiality holds possibilities together, returning them to a more primordially indeterminate state (to be and not to be simultaneously).
While Agamben draws our attention to the centrality of im-potentiality within politics, ontology, and literary theory, he only makes a passing gesture toward the theme of education. Yet this does not mean that education is unimportant for Agamben. Indeed, we could think of education as the unthought potentiality of his own thinking. The unthought briefly manifests itself in the aphorism "On Study" from the book The Idea of Prose. Briefly summarized, studying is an "interminable" and "rhythmic" activity that not only loses a sense of its own end but, more importantly, "does not even desire one" (Agamben 1995, 64). The studier seems suspended in a state of oscillation between sadness and inspiration, of moving forward and withdrawing from certain aims, subjectification and desubjectification. Studying emerges as a kind of im-potential state of educational being that interrupts any notion of educational "growth" or educational "realization" of latent potentialities. Indeed, Agamben points out that studying and stupefying are closely connected. Stupidity here is not simply a lack of knowledge but rather the experience of bewilderment in the face of the interminable or indeterminate manifestation of im-potentiality as such. If we think of education as oriented towards the measurability of determinate, reliable skillsets, studying suddenly appears to be a "useless" activity, devoid of quantifiable significance in the life of the student. To use Heideggerian language, study suspends any one "in-in-order-to" or "for-the-purpose-of" which orient Dasein toward practical coping. Studying is a paradoxical state between education for subjectification and for desubjectification, between possibility and impossibility, between contingency and necessity. To study is to undergo a certain inoperativity where we are, to appropriate a phrase from Thomas Carl Wall's insightful study of Agamben, "exposed to all its[thought's] possibilities (all its predicates)" and yet are "undestined to any one or any set of them" (1999,152). Without a destiny or destination, the studier is a precarious, risky, and indeterminate kind of life.
Although Agamben only provides passing comments on study, I would like to formalize certain features of this exceptional educational experience. This is not so much a definition of study as it is the anatomy of study.
Drawing on the work of Giorgio Agamben, I want to define three dimensions of studying that separate it from learning as mere socialization.
1) The studier "prefers not to." Stupified, lost in the archive, wandering amongst references that spread out before one, the studier is presented with all possibilities for producing x, y, or z without being destined to any one of them. The phenomenology of study--especially for those who have ever written a dissertation--provides intuitive, first person support for this observation. When deep in study and someone asks "so what have you found out?" or "so what is your stance on x?" the studier prefers not to say thus withholding conclusions. In other words, the studier prefers not to finish, present definitive findings, or expose the act of study to any kind of test or evaluation. When one prefers not to, the underlying "in-order-to" and "for-the-sake-of" which place certain normative pressures on the studier to project into certain possibilities (and not others) in relation to certain ends (and not others) are deferred, delayed, and perhaps forgotten.
2) To study is to dwell in the space and time of "no longer, not yet." When one studies one is no longer a novice and not yet an expert. For Agamben, one must have learned something (in potentiality) in order to withdraw from any actualization (into an im-potential state). Thus the studier lives in a kind of indeterminate realm that pushes forward toward completion while simultaneously withdrawing from completion. Oddly enough, the studier is the one who learns to be impotent.
3) Study is the embodiment of the "as not." Often in education as mere socialization, education is structured around "as if." The injunction seems to be "act as if you could become something, and you will be able to." Education becomes a kind of dress rehearsal for filling certain subject positions in the future. Studying is different. Instead of the negation of what is limiting, it suspends in order to open up new uses within the present. Here is a rather banal example. In shop class, a studier may want to take apart a car engine just to see what a car engine in made of, how it functions. This activity might be formally identical in every way to an actual mechanic who also takes apart a car engine but this time with a specific purpose in mind: to fix the engine. With this goal firmly set, the mechanic is guided by a mental representation of a particular set of success conditions which inform his or her actions toward a specifically desirable outcome: a working motor. The present limit condition must be overcome in order to reach a more functional state wherein the car works as intended. The key difference here between the studier and the mechanic is not that their behaviors, tools, or skills. Rather it is that the studier releases the activity from its specific end. To study is to be a mechanic as not a mechanic. The instrumentality of the mechanic and the success conditions determining proper versus improper outcomes are suspended indefinitely while maintaining the form of the mechanic. This is a freeing up of the mechanic to tinker with the motor to discover new, unintended uses. The "as not" frees the mechanic from being a mechanic without destroying or negating the subject position of the mechanic. It is, in other words, the desubjectification of the mechanic from within the subjectifying role of the mechanic.
Together, preferring not to, no longer, not yet, and as not form the anatomy of study and the experience of the studier as he or she comes into contact with im-potentiality. In the next section, I will provide an extended analysis of literature's rather shocking example of study mentioned in passing by Agamben. While seemingly counterintuitive, Agamben refers to Bartleby the Scrivener as the "most exemplary embodiment of study in our culture" (1995, 65). Bartleby not only demonstrates the paradoxical if not imperceptible "work" of study but also shows the risk that the studier takes when he or she chooses to dwell in the zone of indetermination that is studying. This zone is a real educational state of exception that is issued from below (rather than from above), and as such is a challenge to any form of sovereign decision over and against life. The offence here is not one of making overt demands on or against the sovereign but rather is one of studying the law (which, in the end, renders it inoperative and therefore potentially open to free use). In short, studying is a weak political gesture that does not directly confront the power of the sovereign so much as gestures beyond the law of learning by ceasing to obey its logic.
The Precarious Life of Study
The short story "Bartleby the Scrivener" by Herman Melville concerns a scrivener who one day "would prefer not" to actualize his potentiality for being a copyist yet nevertheless refuses to leave his desk. Every day, Bartleby does less and less work around the Wall Street office, and when the narrator attempts to dialogue with him about his actions, Bartleby refuses to explain himself. Finally, Bartleby stops working all together yet remains within the office, dwelling in the space as a kind of inoperative remainder, frustrating his former boss and fellow employees. In this sense, he no longer conforms to the notion of a capable or learned subject--halting the productive capabilities of willful action, ceasing to be self-assertive, rejecting the logic of "reliability." Often mentioned as the embodiment of Agamben's theory of im-potentiality, it would be a mistake to assume that Bartleby, for all his melancholy, is simply passive, inert, and inactive. Indeed, Agamben argues that Bartleby is not simply bare life but rather the embodiment of the educational life of the studier--a life that is no longer a subject and not yet bare life either. This is the indeterminate subject position of one who has suspended his or her identifying social, political, or economic role, and this suspension opens up the possibility of studying without end.
Importantly the first example offered in the story of Bartleby's "preferring not" is his refusal to check the accuracy of his work. Melville describes the scene as follows:
It is, of course, an indispensable part of a scrivener's business to verify the accuracy of his copy, word by word. Where there are two or more scriveners in an office, they assist each other in this examination, one reading from the copy, the other holding the original. It is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair. I can readily imagine that to some sanguine temperaments it would be altogether intolerable. For example, I cannot credit that the mettlesome poet Byron would have contentedly sat down with Bartleby to examine a law document of, say five hundred pages, closely written in a crimpy hand. ... In my haste and natural expectancy of instant compliance, I sat with my head bent over the original on my desk, and my right hand sideways, and somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that immediately upon emerging from his retreat, Bartleby might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay. In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do --namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, "I would prefer not to." (2002,10)
In this shocking turn of events, the narrator is left dumbfounded by Bartleby's "I would prefer not to." What is important to note is that Bartleby's refusal is an interruption of testing and examination. Up to this point in the narrative, he continues to work--indeed he is the most productive of employees, the most reliable--yet he prefers not to be compliant with a system of evaluation. If such work must be submitted to external review by a jury of expert scriveners, then Bartleby excuses himself from any notion of self-evaluation. He will not test or be tested, he will simply work. He has the capabilities to perform his assigned work, and, thus far, can be relied upon to actualize these capabilities. But, importantly, these capabilities for Bartleby must become a pure means (un mezzo puro) and thus never be submitted to any test or measure.
"To prefer not to" becomes a kind of mantra that Bartleby repeats throughout the story. Here is but one example of the strange function that this formulation plays:
"Bartleby," said I, "Ginger Nut is away; just step round to the Post Office, won't you? (it was but a three minute walk) and see if there is any thing for me."
"I would prefer not to."
"You will not?"
"I prefer not." (Melville 2002,14-15)
Instead of completing the assigned task, Bartleby, once again, prefers not to. As the story progresses, Bartleby prefers not to work, to run errands, to leave the office, and even to eat. Thus there is a slow and steady withdrawal from not only the logic of examination but also the logic of actualization. If, at first, Bartleby is an employee who had cultivated the necessary capabilities to be successful and could be counted on to actualize these capabilities, here there is a full suspension of the logic of actualization, leaving only the nude appearance of im-potentiality as a kind of zero-degree of Bartleby's existence. No longer can he be relied upon to be this or that kind of subject with these or those kinds of capabilities. Instead what is left is a remnant that is radically inoperative. At the moment of maximum exertion, suddenly Bartleby withholds his capabilities, keeping them to himself.
Crucially, "I prefer not to" is distinct from "I will not." Colby Dickinson aptly summarizes this distinction as follows, "Rather than 'I will not' being the declarative phrase of resistance uttered to his boss, Bartleby's 'I prefer not to' is an emphatic distancing of himself from the entire machinery of actuality and its formulation of a decisive will, which is to be seen here as little more than a slightly veiled attempt to obtain power" (2011, 43). Agamben argues as much when he states, "Bartleby calls into question precisely this supremacy of the will over potentiality" (1999, 254). To will is always an attempt to gain power over something, to impose one's internal force onto the other. By withdrawing from the will, his resistance remains obscure, eliciting empathy rather than violence from his boss. Stated differently "to prefer not to" is a resistantless form of resistance, a powerless power. Because preferring not to is affectless, devoid of anger, passion, or spite, it catches the employer completely off guard, defenseless before the polite, seemingly impotent conditional. "To prefer not to" is radically passive, so passive that it manages to interrupt the law without offending the law. As Julian Patrick rightly points out, Bartleby "does not insist on his resistance, merely persists in it" (2002, 731). While insistence produces a violent battle between two wills, persistence avoids such violence and yet remains absolutely militant. Indeed, "preferring not to" quickly reorients criticism away from Bartleby back toward the employer himself who becomes increasingly self-reflective over the nature of his own power. In fact, the inaction that is the ultimate action of in-decision (preferring not) results in a withdrawing of the power of the employer. Ironically, it is the sovereignty of the boss that in the end is rendered impotent for the only recourse before Bartleby's militant "preferring not to" is to pack up and move the business elsewhere! Exacerbated, the employer concludes: "Since he will not quit me, I must quit him. I will change my offices; I will move elsewhere; and give him fair notice, that if I find him on my new premises I will then proceed against him as a common trespasser" (Melville 2002, 28). The most threatening gesture to the power of the law is that which is most polite, most inconspicuous, most inoffensive. Without a will to battle against, sovereignty quietly retreats from the scene, ashamed of its own powers. In this sense, Bartleby can stand before the law of the employer's command with indifference and impunity without incurring the violence of what Agamben elsewhere refers to as the sovereign's ban, or the sovereign's unmitigated violence over and against bare life. Bartleby stands before the law, suspending it through the act of refusal to be complacent with its commands. In this sense, he remains in proximity to the law in order to study exactly what happens when it is left idle.
According to Gilies Deleuze's reading of the story, "I would prefer not to" has an "agrammaticality" (1997, 69) to it that both suspends the normal laws of grammar while, at the same time, suspending the operative social and economic laws of preference. Agrammaticality, in other words, produces an "indeterminate formula" (Ibid) that stands at the absolute limit of linguistic, social, and economic recognizability. Without abandoning these grammars, the agrammatical formula holds them in suspension. Indeed, "I would prefer not to" is a kind of agrammatical combinatorial in its own right, containing it itself contingencies that would otherwise be separated, compartmentalized, and excluded. But even more important is Deleuze's observation that as this combinatorial becomes more and more expansive (by the 6th iteration of the formula, Bartleby has completely stopped copying), Bartleby becomes more and more lost in a stupor. Deleuze summarizes his condition as follows, "And there is silence, as if he said everything and exhausted language at the same time" (1997, 70). Not an affirmation or a negation, "I would prefer not to" is most properly understood as an exhaustion, rendering inoperable disjunctions such as preferable and non-preferable. The exhaustion of language and the exhaustion of Bartleby go hand in hand. Bartleby has no property, no purpose, no project, and no words with which to positively explain away his condition, give a confession, offer as an explanation, or make his actions intelligible. He is a "man without reference" (1997, 74) who, I might add, previously worked at the office of dead letters in Washington D.C. But unlike Deleuze who sees in Bartleby nothing but a state of bare, exhausted existence--survival--Agamben reminds us that he is, in the moment of exhaustion, the quintessential studier.
To "prefer not to" opens up a new notion of studious living that (a) stands before the law of production, utility, and examination yet (b) suspends the efficacy of this law in order to (c) study what remains. This is an educational life of ease without any desire for mastery, without any desire to reach an end beyond ease itself. To live a life of ease, writes Agamben, is a life "which contemplates its (own) power to act" while rendering "itself inoperative in all its operations, and lives only (its) livability" (2011a, 251). By rendering inoperative the specific work and labor of a life, life itself begins to experience a potentiality untethered by predetermined, economic ends. This is precisely what is so mysterious about Bartleby to his employer. After experiencing the impotent force of "I prefer not to," the employer reflects: "But there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted me" (Melville 2002,12). This strange mystery--this enigmatic wonder--that resides in Bartleby's behavior is precisely the ease at which he prefers not to--an ease that indicates a life beyond learning imperatives, a life of pure potentiality that shines forth in the most im-potential of gestures. What is disconcerting is the im-potential withdrawal of productivity upon which Wall Street functions, leaving only a sense of "wonderful" ease wherein humanity can appear as it is: nude in its pure livability, vulnerable, silent, and at the same time powerfully disarming. The only preference that seems to interrupt the continual flow of goods and services defining the economy is in the end the preference not to prefer.
In this state of ease, the law is suspended but also the work of producing and maintaining a subject before the law. The indifference to subjectivity is captured by Melville in the following dialogue between an impassioned employer desperately trying to understand who Bartleby is, and a semi-indifferent Bartleby.
Will you tell me, Bartleby, where you were born?"
"I would prefer not to."
"Will you tell me any thing about yourself?"
"I would prefer not to."
"But what reasonable objection can you have to speak to me? I feel friendly towards you."
He did not look at me while I spoke, but kept his glance fixed upon my bust of Cicero, which as I then sat, was directly behind me, some six inches above my head.
"What is your answer, Bartleby?" said I, after waiting a considerable time for a reply, during which his countenance remained immovable, only there was the faintest conceivable tremor of the white attenuated mouth.
"At present I prefer to give no answer," he said, and retired into his hermitage. (2002,19-20)
Bartleby is indeed no one. He has no past and no future. Only his present actions are known. When studying before the suspended law, the subject undergoes a suspension: a no-body who does not seem to have a definitive destination or occupation. Indeed to study is to undergo a kind of loosening of the grip that ends have over means--hence Bartleby's first act of refusal is precisely to prefer not to examine his work. Although disagreeing with Eric Santner's overall reading of Bartleby, I would like to highlight his description of the protagonist as a kind of "unmistakably singular yet also utterly generic" (2011, 251) character. In other words, Bartleby is, along with various characters in Beckett's plays, "strangely abstract; they no longer belong to a recognizable world or form of life. And yet they never cease to be utterly, even excessively concrete; everything has been brought irremediably down to earth" (2011, 251). Stated differently, Bartleby withdraws from any recognizable social role or form of life that would be admissible as a bios. The studious life that Bartleby leads does not culminate in actualizing his potentiality in determinate forms. Rather he maintains a relationship to his indistinguishing im-potentiality. It is this relationship to im-potentiality that renders him absolutely singular (no one can take his place) yet generic at the same time (he lacks any of the individuating characteristics that define a person as this person). While the evaluative systems of the learning apparatus distinguish individuals in terms of the concrete manifestations of willful capabilities to perform as expected, the studious life advocated by Agamben indistinguishes life. When Bartleby prefers not to work as a scrivener, he lives the life of a scrivener as not a scrivener, thus introducing a surplus into the order of things. The result is the impossibility of describing the radically generic and seemingly empty life of Bartleby while also managing to convey its radical singularity and its uniqueness. This is a singularity beyond any notion of the capable subject and beyond the willful pursuits of a constituting will to learn. What Santner has missed in his analysis is that Bartleby's existence as a generic singularity is not simply the result of his preferring not to but rather because this preferring not to is the negative inscription of study: for only when one prefers not to engage with the trials and tribulations of everyday coping and dealing can one then open a space of ease where one can study.
Generic singularity--no longer an interpellated subject and not yet merely desubjectified bare life--is depicted in another brief exchange between employer and "employee," this time a dialogue concerning Bartleby's "preferences." At wit's end, the desperate boss attempts to peak Bartleby's interest in alternative forms of work:
"There is too much confinement about that. No, I would not like a clerkship; but I am not particular."
"Too much confinement," I cried, "why you keep yourself confined all the time!"
"I would prefer not to take a clerkship," he rejoined, as if to settle that little item at once.
"How would a bar-tender's business suit you? There is no trying of the eyesight in that."
"I would not like it at all; though, as I said before, I am not particular." (Melville 2002, 30)
Although preferring not to be this or that, Bartleby nevertheless insists that he is "not particular." He has no preferences, no particularity, no desires to become x, y, or z. At the same time he equally prefers not to become a clerk or a bartender. The logic here seems paradoxical but becomes clear when we realize that to be open to all professions without reserve is equally to prefer not to partake in any one profession. Thus Bartleby's semi-indifference to all the suggestions given to him does not indicate a simple laziness or lassitude or lack of aptitude but rather a manifestation of his im-potential freedom from all determinations. He holds the potentiality for all these various occupations inside himself in a kind of suspended animation in the precise moment when he withdraws from actualizing his capabilities for any particular one of them. The result is a life that studies (an occupation that is not an occupation) without conclusions, without ends, and thus open to a world that no longer submits the subject to any normative call or commanding pressure to perform and be evaluated. At this point it is important to remember that for Agamben, the ethical experience of freedom is precisely "the experience of being (one's own) potentiality, of being (one's own) possibility--exposing, that is, in every form of one's own amorphousness and in every act one's own inactuality" (1993, 44). The more singular Bartleby becomes, the more he (as a particular subject with reliable skills and dispositions) seems to disappear; his actions enact his amorphous inactuality, exposing the nudity of his im-potentiality.
Bartleby's inaction is a kind of action that interrupts the flow of signs and the exchange of things in order to expose the underlying backdrop--the incessant paradigm of productive work, testing, evaluation, and willful pursuit--upon which meaningful relations draw their efficacy. In this sense, Bartleby could not work and could not leave, not because he was doing nothing but because he was studying and, in the moment of study, he lost his occupation and his identity as this or that kind of person with this or that set of capabilities, desires, or interests. He had nothing to say for himself, no clear project that he could possibly articulate beyond "preferring not to." Crucially, only after having acquired the skills and dispositions to be a scrivener is he able to study. Thus, it is not simply that he is incapable of performing the required tasks assigned to him, but rather that he is in-capable, withholding his capabilities from actualizing themselves according to the commands imposed upon him or even his desire to "live up to expectations." In this sense, the studier is always a profanity, a blight on the efficiency and necessity of the way things are and the way people are supposed to act. Indeed, the studier appears to be radically un-educated, or, perhaps even worse, radically un-educable--recalcitrant to any call to assert anything beyond his or her preference not to do, not to say, and thus postpone evaluation of his or her "success" and "failure." Yet for Agamben, it is only in such a state of suspension that im-potentiality can be studied, that a modicum of freedom can suddenly appear in a society that has become obsessed with maximizing capabilities to do, to be, to will.
As Deleuze once wrote, "The problem is no longer getting people to express themselves but providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don't stop people from expressing themselves, but rather, force them to express themselves. What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and even rarer, the thing that might be worth saying" (1997,129). Repression for Deleuze is a kind of imperative or sovereign command to produce evidence of one's potentiality through the form of the examination, the test, or the evaluation. To submit one's potentiality to measure is to engage in a form of servitude that separates the human from his or her im-potentiality. Deleuzian freedom asserts itself by withdrawing from the actualization of latent potentiality and remaining in the darkness of silence and solitude. In my reading, Bartleby can be seen as an expression of such freedom, which inappropriately interrupts the law, its force, and its destination opening up a kind of ease that is unique to the studious life.
Indeed, one could argue that the conflict between the employer and employee in the story is a conflict between two modes of education: learning and studying. The boss is constantly trying to learn who Bartleby is, what will motivate him to resume his duties in the office, and how to solve the problem at hand. He is concerned with outcomes, performance quotas, and evaluations. It is precisely his willful attempts to command Bartleby's "not-yet" into a "must-be" that fill him with a kind of testing anxiety. Because Bartleby interrupts the operative logic of learning, he becomes an infernal irritant to his employer. He prefers not to abide by the rules and normative pressures of the learning society to evaluate outputs in order to maximize performance. This ambiguous gesture is not a willful act of resistance so much as a persistence lacking the potency of willful confrontation. Thus what emerges as most troubling to the boss is precisely the lack of will to produce and in turn improve. He is no longer an employee and not yet something else either, entering a kind of no-man's-land for which there is no name in the order of things. This is a subject position that lacks a destination and a destiny within the learning society. He treats his job as not a job, opening up a space and time for the potentiality of tinkering with the very space of the office and the tools of the trade. The im-potentiality of Bartleby's study is like a profanation of the logic of learning that underlies not only the organization of the office but also the employer's attempts to understand and modify Bartleby's behaviors through command.
In sum, to study is to move beyond any pragmatic notion of learning oriented toward particular projects with definitive success conditions as an educational ideal. It is to return a set of possibilities back to the luminous spiral of im-potentiality as an indeterminate ground. Like Bartleby, the one who studies seems to be inactive, lazy, or simply apathetic. Yet this apparent inactivity of "preferring not to" is, in the end, an im-potential rejoinder to the power of command. In the face of the imperative to work, to learn, to be relied upon, to maximize one's outputs so as to be judged, tested, and evaluated, the studier simply "prefers not to" and in turn retains a little bit of freedom before the man of the law. Agamben can argue that Bartleby "neither accepts nor refuses, stepping forward and stepping backward at the same time" (1999, 255). The hesitation of study is not simply active or passive, potentiality or impotentiality, but rather their rhythmic sway that culminates in a kind of indistinction or indetermination between the vibrating poles. Agamben describes studying as a kind of dialectic at a standstill between "bewilderment and lucidity, discovery and loss, between agent and patient" (1995, 64). It is a rhythm that moves from withdrawing to pursuing and back again untill the two poles become indistinct. For Bartleby (as the paradigm that exhausts this educational dialectic), to study is to dwell in the inoperative zone of hesitation which is neither a pure potentiality divorced from actualization nor is it a pure actuality that kills off the potentiality that remains. In short hesitation is a state of exception that renders inoperative dichotomies, opening up a liminal zone of contact between doing and not doing, being and not being, melancholia and inspiration.
In this sense, to characterize Bartleby as apathetic or nihilistic is a diffraction of his "preferring not to" through the lens of the learning society. The uniqueness of Agamben's recasting of Bartleby as the figure that exhausts study is that it enables us to see Bartleby's gesture as more than a mere prolonged, unidirectional slide into lethargic nothingness, totally detached from all that exists around him, and unresponsive to the world. What I think Agamben desires to stress here is that Bartleby lets shine forth im-potentiality as a state of being that both is and is not detached and responsive to the world. In other words, im-potentiality is precisely the Heideggerian "no-thing" that lies below and enables all expressions of interest, fascination, and receptivity to meaning to be possible.
So what do we gain from studying Bartleby, a scribe who prefers not to write? Bartleby does not teach us what to write, or how to write, but rather that we can/cannot write. And this is perhaps the most difficult thing to study precisely because it cannot be submitted to evaluation. We can only bear witness to its peculiar and perplexing appearance. Yet the appearance of a pure "I can/can't write" is, in the end, what is most frustrating to the employer as a man of the law, or better yet, the man of learning. While staving off overt violence against his body, preferring not to results in Bartleby's ultimate imprisonment and death from starvation. There is something socially shameful about the appearance of im-potentiality, and thus of prolonged study. It destabilizes the order of things, the smooth functioning of social, political, and economic machinery. To study is to waste time on unproductive activities which may or may not "pay off" in the long term. Thus im-potentiality must be either (a) submitted to the test drive of contemporary learning society or (b) hidden away in the prison. The life of the studier must be made productive or else abandoned, left to wither away in obscurity, behind closed doors. The studious life is an obscenity, a profanity, a blight on the order of things that quietly prefers not to submit to any educational orthopedics to improve, perfect, and so on.
But it would seem that to end on this bleak if not dystopian vision of the studious life behind bars is not good enough. In this vein, Ewa Plonowska Ziarek's critique of Agamben as failing to explain how "powerlessness can be transformed into possibility" (2010, n.p.)--especially for marginalized or oppressed groups who are suffering from real and immediate forms of oppression--rings true. If studious life in its singularity "prefers not to," and thus exposes itself to the risk of abandonment by a sovereign decision over and against life. At this point I would like to suggest that the ultimate horizon of study is not found in individual examples but in collective, public enactments of "We prefer not to." It is through a coming community of study that powerlessness can, perhaps, be transformed into a new possibility and singular freedom be wedded to a new kind of struggle. In a special issue of the journal Polygraph dedicated to the question of the fate of the university and of the student in contemporary society, editors Luka Arsenjuk and Michelle Koerner argue against the categorization of the student as a depoliticized educational consumer and/or indentured servant who is submitted to a host of administrative and managerial discourses and practices. If the protests of May 1968 or more recently the Maple Spring have taught us a political lesson it is that the figure of the student is not simply a sociological category to be managed, but the name of a collective political dissensus that prefers not to obey the logic of learning. Drawing on a host of contemporary theorists concerned with the "student crisis," Arsenjuk and Koerner ponder the emergence of a new form of educational logic that they also refer to as study. They write,
Study ... would not be reducible to the accumulation of information, to the current organization of knowledge, or to the logic of professionalization that governs so many of our activities in the University. Study would instead name those 'unprofessional activities' of thought and experimentation that leave one intoxicated, those moments of encountering in a text or conversation that blow one's mind, driven by curiosities that are closer to pleasure, to play, to wandering, to leaving work. From here it becomes possible to further disengage the figure of the student from the docile consumer or the inert product of the University and provide an additional definition of a 'student': a student is not only an exploited and invisible worker, a person in debt, but also someone who struggles to study. Or even, as our favorite dictionary definition of the student has it: a student as someone 'addicted to study' ... [and] study [is] an activity of sabotage and refusal of ... the dominant form of capitalist production today: governance. (2009, 8-9)
To struggle to study is to struggle to regain the freedom of im-potentiality as a capability to be and not to be any one kind of subject, suspending the dictates of the learning society and its sovereign command to actualize collective potentiality in the name of efficiency and productivity. In other words, "We prefer not to" militantly insists upon separating "not yet" from "must be," returning social and economic life back to its im-potential to be rather than what it has become. What is viewed as communal lethargy from within the instrumental logic of educational socialization is, for those struggling to study, an exhaustive engagement to maintain a studious life beyond measure. While this "sabotage" remains simply impotent on an individual level, when collectivized and made public, study becomes a great refusal, an im-political gesture (no longer simply study and not yet a political movement either). As an im-political gesture, "We prefer not to" does not make instrumental demands or appeals for reforms, thus frustrating any attempt on the part of the learning apparatus to negotiate. Indeed, its struggle is an immanent embodiment of a freedom to come which is not found in any system of reform. Returning to DeCaroli's question concerning the nature of transgression, I would like to conclude with the thesis that if contemporary society is indeed infested with the law of learning, then collective study destabilizes its fundamental injunction: either be productive or be abandoned. In this sense, Agamben's coming community is actually a community of study.
UNIVERSITY OF NORTH TEXAS
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|Title Annotation:||general articles|
|Author:||Lewis, Tyson E.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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