Bartleby in the University of California: The Social Life of Disobedience

(a slightly enriched version of a talk I gave at this lovely symposium, put on by the lovely people at the BABEL working group and at UC Irvine)

I’m interested in thinking about “critique” as disobedience—or disobedience as “critique”—and what that would mean. Disobedience is an interesting concept, because it’s different than opposition or defiance. It can be passive. It can be apathy. It’s not necessarily even an action: the simple absence of obedience has a power all its own, disobedience as inaction or disinterest.

"Without a doubt, the formula is ravaging, devastating, and leaves nothing standing in its wake. Its contagious character is immediately evident: Bartleby “ties the tongues" of others. The queer words, I would prefer, steal their way into the language of the clerks and of the attorney himself..." Gilles Deleuze, “Bartleby; or, The Formula.”
Let me start with an iconic example. In Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Bartleby is not a revolutionary, nor a striking worker. What he does is not even action, because it’s legible only as negation: he disobeys in the sense that he does not obey, registering his negative preference (his preference not to) and declining to comply with a variety of very reasonable suggestions. If he “preferred toexpressing a positive preference—he could be dealt with, reasoned with, even represented, because he would have made himself legible, giving the narrator access to his subjectivity.
"I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.” –MLK, "Letter from Birmingham Jail"
In this sense, what Bartleby does is also not civil disobedience, which, as Martin Luther King put it, actually displays “the very highest respect for the law,” seeking and even requiring arrest as its realization. Bartleby is not civil: if the civil disobedient subject can be reconciled with and even celebrated by the state and its agents—because, by seeking arrest, they become legible—the narrator is totally flummoxed by Bartleby’s total illegibility. If he could understand why Bartleby does what he does—if he knew what his preferences were, instead of what they were not—he could relate to him, socialize him, and ultimately be rid of him.

Bartleby’s effect is that he cannot be absorbed into civil discourse; the statement “I would prefer not to” refuses to be made socially legible. In fact, as a disorientingly strange and illegible eruption into normal discourse, it eventually infects even the narrator himself, as well as the other employees; the narrator reports that

“Somehow, of late I had got into the way of involuntarily using this word "prefer" upon all sorts of not exactly suitable occasions. And I trembled to think that my contact with the scrivener had already and seriously affected me in a mental way. And what further and deeper aberration might it not yet produce?”

What I want to draw from Melville’s story is the peculiar communicative efficacy of negative affect, the way disobedience not only comes to pervade the story itself, but in a way, also produces the story. The narrator, after all, is not a writer, but a kind of copyist among copyists; a safe and unambitious corporate lawyer, living on patronage, and who lacks personality as a function of his office. He strives to copy documents perfectly, without altering them by any affect of personality. He is very good at removing personality, in fact.

When he is presented with Bartleby, however—that obstinately present absence of affect—he can no longer be a copyist, because there is nothing to copy. He has no choice but to become a writer: he has to invent stories about a character whose apparent subjective core is an absence of subjectivity. Faced with Bartleby—a kind of subjective zero point—the narrator not only finds his own humanity cast into sharp relief, but he discovers that he must improvise, act, invent, and in so doing, becomes a person who, for the first time, also prefers.

Now, I’m not offering Bartleby himself as a model for critical practice, and not only because he starves to death in prison (preferring even not to eat).

"Critique is always a critique of some instituted practice, discourse, episteme, institution, and it loses its character the moment in which it is abstracted from its operation and made to stand alone as a purely generalizable.” –Judith Butler, “What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue”
But “critique” is often not very good at breaking away from its object; critique is dependent on its objects, and its objects will define the meaning and possibilities of critique. Foucault’s persistent critique of power, for example, helps to produce Foucault as a kind of theory of power, and it’s therefore not wholly a misreading of him to see power as omnipresent, all-encompassing, totalizing. In critiquing how power works, he can seem incapable of saying anything other than “this is how power works.”

Closer to home, I find that in trying to critique the corporate university—and the University of California in particular—anti-privatization efforts compulsively adopt the very language of the corporate university itself, arguing that we better serve the customers of the university if we don’t charge them such high tuition, for example, or by arguing that faculty—rather than administrators—better know how to maintain excellence. It’s actually very hard to argue the value-proposition of higher education without, in doing so, conceding the point that education is essentially reducible to its value.

* * *

I started thinking about this because of what happened in November 2011, when Occupy Cal protesters disobeyed an order to disperse and were beaten by campus police at UC Berkeley. Putting up tents where they did, and when they did—during the day—was not actually illegal, nor was it in violation of any campus regulations; sleeping there overnight would have been, though there’s plenty of precedent for that too. Yet when they started to put up tents, they were immediately told that the grassy space they’d chosen was “closed.” Even though it was the middle of the afternoon—and the entire area was thronged with students—they were told that the university was “private property,” and thus, could be opened and closed at the will of the regents.

The specter of the outside agitator was also invoked—particularly by reference to the racialized subject of “Occupy Oakland”—and so the police acted, ostensibly, to protect the infantilized student population from dangerous outsiders. But the perversity of police beating students to protect them is only part of it: the distinction between insiders and outsiders flows out of the fact that the regents’ ownership of the university was being expressed as a property right. Instead of a public university, built for and maintained for the benefit of California, as a whole, the campus was being treated like a gated community, defined by the function to exclude, and to be exclusive.

”In order to preserve this sort of learning “in perpetuity” for the citizens of California, the legislature treated the university as a waterway or public highway and elevated the University of California to the status of a public trust… to specify a set of protections not guaranteed for public lands: autonomy from political interests and private profit, a university space responsive to and responsible for the cultivation of public good, and a re-structuring of the temporality of the university’s mandate, ensuring that immediate gains would be weighed in terms of long-term public benefit. In short, the framers of the constitution were uncompromising in their vision of a public education system which nurtured the citizens of today and endured for the students of tomorrow.” –Gina Patnaik, “Breaking Trust”
This may not seem strange or unusual, but in terms of the University’s constituted relationship to the California public, it is. The UC was legally established as a public trust, which is a very particular kind of public property, a property which is not preserved as land, per se, but as the space necessary to realize the enterprises conducted on it. English common law established the principle that the sovereign held waterways “as trustee of a public trust for the benefit of the people,” but only for the purpose of keeping it open to commerce, navigation and fishing. The UC was constituted with the same sense of purpose, on the model of public waterways: the regents of the university—the public’s trustees—are given near absolute authority over the university, but only to keep it open to Californians.

The regents’ ownership of the campus was never a secret, of course. There are signs on campus declaring “Property of the Regents of the University of California; Permission to Enter or Pass Over is Revocable At Any Time.” But Occupy Cal revealed the extent to which that was practically true. Areas of the campus could be declared off limits to certain kinds of people, without deliberation, rationale, or even warning; it was sufficient, simply, to invoke the proprietary right of the Regents (and those who act in their name) to do what they wanted with their property.

I’m not sure whether this counts as “critique,” but if it does, it’s a very particular kind of critique. “Critique” is often synonymous with “speaking truth to power”: the critical attitude of the public sphere—the fourth estate—is meant to check state authority, aid the weak and afflict the powerful, and draw the attention of the public to dysfunction or injustice. Modern “criticism” is understood to begin as a response to the absolutist state; Foucault’s “What is Critique?” sees a developing art of governance in the 16th century on the one hand, and a developing art of, what he names, “how not to be governed” on the other. This understanding of critique is very specifically about using to truth to call power to account; political power must be accountable to law, spiritual authority must be accountable to biblical texts, natural laws must be accountable to scientific method, and so forth. It’s the power of the individual to determine her own truth—to “dare to know” as Kant has it—that makes “the enlightenment” the scene in which “modern” European criticism emerges.

However, “dare to know” very specifically does not imply “dare to disobey.” Critique attempts to temper power, police it, and school it, but this doesn’t makes critique a defiance of power; it can as easily be the effort to counsel and improve it. Critique is “both partner and adversary to the arts of governing”; the art of being governed differently, the art of governing government, is not separate from governance, but a relation of privilege within it.

Critique, in this sense, is less about opposing power with truth—and certainly not about negating it—but, rather, a socio-political relation between established authority and the privileged individual, in which power is defined and augmented by truth, which thereby imbues truth with power.

In this genealogy, then, the idea that speaking “truth to power” is resistance becomes less and less clear. Critique is not only a part of governance—and vice versa—but both are unthinkable without the other. Critique is actually dependent on power; as power over power, it can only alter the terms through which power is exercised. Instead of “how not to be governed like that”—which might be expressive of a desire for the absence of governance—critique describes “how to be governed, BUT how not to be governed not like that.”

After all, Kant ends his “What is Enlightenment?” by approvingly quoting Frederick II’s edict “Argue all you want, but obey.” This is the part of this text that flummoxed me when I read it, as an undergrad; shouldn’t speaking truth to power also imply acting truth to power? But argument, as mental freedom, does not imply or compel freedom to disobey. It might compel the reverse, to counsel power on how to govern better at the cost of acquiescing to being governed. To critique can be to obey: by applying only where obedience is not required, this kind of free speech is just the flip side of power, a kind of supplementary and enabling excess.

* * *

Now, I rehearse this critical genealogy because it presumes a governing authority which actually uses truth to legitimize itself. Critique presumes that an authority uses its power to define truth, and truth to legitimize its power, that its authority is premised on that relationship. To speak truth to such a power is therefore to contest the grounds on which it legitimizes itself, to argue that the truth points towards a different use of power. Truth becomes power, only in that particular sense. Obedience therefore makes sense, in a context where law actually does govern power.

But how does one speak truth to a power that is not dependent on truth?

Last year, I became a connoisseur of a very dull and depressing genre of writing, the various post-mortem documents that UC Berkeley commissioned and produced to investigate how and why police beat students. What’s striking about this genre of writing is that no one ever knows why the police behaved in the ways they did. It’s a thing that happened, obviously, but no one is ever sure who gave the order, nor does anyone defend it. These reports—which are the closest thing we have to the official truth of what happened—focus on student actions and police re-actions, to make it as clear as possible that while the students were excluded from the area on the authority of the regents, no order was ever given to remove them.

This is not only bureaucratic obfuscation, however. In such a situation, we find ourselves confronted by a power that does not justify itself by recourse to truth, does not attempt rationalize its actions. The reverse, in fact, is the case: authority constantly and compulsively disavows its power, refusing to admit or acknowledge that it has acted. It therefore has no reason to justify itself.

The perverse result is that because no actions were taken, no accountability is possible. Chancellors will acknowledge that “mistakes were made,” but by enshrouding the decision-making process in a kind of fog of war—in which everyone is acting on imperfect information in response a time-sensitive crisis—it can be possible, even praiseworthy, for actions to take place without any agency in doing so.

Instead, the governing authority is—both effectively and also quite literally—the force of crisis. The police acted, on that day, because there was a crisis; the chancellor sent the police out there, because there was a crisis; and so on. The only truth we can find is the truth of crisis.

This problem, however, is broadly symptomatic across the system as a whole. No one would deny that the University of California is in a state of crisis; as a baseline assumption about the status quo, and how to think about it, “crisis” is such an uncontroversial proposition that every discussion starts there. It’s also where the discussion effectively end. If you argue against raising tuition, “crisis” is the reason why tuition has to rise. If you argue against closing degree programs, or raising class sizes, or laying off staff, or eliminating benefits, or freezing hiring, or any other seasonal austerity measure, “crisis” is the only truth that austerity hawks need. This is why the president of the UC will say things like “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste”; as he said in an interview:

 [M]y view is that some things we probably should have done 10 years, five years, 20 years ago may get done when you have a crisis." (sfgate, May 2008)

For an administrator with an agenda, a crisis is useful because it not only empowers executive authority to act (especially if one can call on emergency powers), but because it changes the nature of authority. It suspends process and compromise, the possibility of alternatives recede, and the only truth becomes the terms of the crisis itself: in this case, the economic framework by which you can only look at the UC and see a fiscal problem to be eliminated, or the policing framework by which a protest is a disorder to be removed.

“For the Greeks the term "crisis" had relatively clearly demarcated meanings in the spheres of law, medicine, and theology. The concept imposed choices between stark alternatives—right or wrong, salvation or damnation, life or death. Until the early modern period the medical meaning, which continued to be used technically, remained dominant virtually without interruption. From the seventeenth century on, the term, used as a metaphor, expanded into politics, economics, history, psychology…Applied to history, "crisis," since 1780, has become an expression of a new sense of time which both indicated and intensified the end of an epoch.” –Reinhart Kosellek, “Crisis”
In the misty, etymological past, “critique” and “crisis” originate in the same Greek word, describing a state in which nothing is determined but in which it soon will be, a state of immanent change where the possible and the actual bump together. A moment of crisis is a moment where many different outcomes are possible, and which therefore make it possible to think about alternative possibilities. In its most optimistic form, then, critique is an address to reality which brings it into crisis, not only expressing the possibility that things could be different, but making those latent possibilities manifest and apparent.

The modern sense of crisis, however, is rather different. To invoke “crisis” is to declare an emergency situation, yet one in which nothing actually emerges: the threat is that something might change, to which the response must be a reiteration of the status quo. Instead of a moment of immanent critique—in which alternatives become manifest and change is unavoidable—“crisis” makes criticism “untimely,” as Wendy Brown puts it, unnecessary, unwanted, and impossible. Critique is not possible until the crisis has passed.

I want to close with two observations, then, about November 8th. The first is that while the initial disobedience of erecting tents was rather small—only several hundred people, at most—the tents were eventually put up, after a very long and painful day, because Sproul plaza just kept filling with students, many, many thousands, by any measure. They also preferred not to disperse. But these weren’t activists; I suspect that most of them identified less with the occupy protest, as such, than were appalled and enraged at the suddenly revealed truth of the university, that they could be trespassers on their own campus, and subject to sudden, senseless violence. To say that disobedience was communicative is an understatement.

Even Chancellor Birgeneau was forced to change his language: his initial reaction had been to condemn the students and faculty protesters for being “not nonviolent,” an absurdism that only a bureaucratic mind could love, and which he retracted days later. But it wasn’t being satirized on the Colbert Report that forced him to change his stance, I would suggest, or the outcry expressed in editorials and letters to the editor. It was, ultimately, the social life of disobedience, made manifest when thousands of UC students, faculty, and staff preferred not to respond to the crisis, but to be it.