Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Mar 31 06:27:37 MST 2001

Michael Perelman, "Transcending the Economy: On the Potential of Passionate
Labor and the Waste of the Market", (St. Martins, 2000):

People do not like taking orders. When employment conditions become more
favorable to labor, workers become emboldened. At such times— especially
when workplace authorities do not treat workers with respect, workers
sometimes confront management in a more direct form, often going to great
lengths to exercise some control over the labor process. Workers may resist
authority, even when they have no expectation of wringing any concessions
from management. The idea of exercising control, even when that control is
nothing more than the disruption of the labor process, can be a source of
delight to workers who have little other discretion over their job. . .

Even if managers succeed in giving clear and unambiguous orders, and the
workers understand what is expected of them, management must still find a
means to make workers carry out their tasks in a satisfactory manner. In
the face of the complexity of the labor process, employers cannot be sure
that workers are acting in the best interest of the firm, even when they
are trying to observe them carefully. Moreover, attempts to collect in-
formation on the workers’ performance are costly. The ability to collect
in- formation is made even more difficult because workers often attempt to
distort the flow of information within the firm to gain a strategic advantage.


Herman Melville, "Bartleby the Scrivener":

Now and then, in the haste of business, it had been my habit to assist in
comparing some brief document myself, calling Turkey or Nippers for this
purpose. One object I had in placing Bartleby so handy to me behind the
screen, was to avail myself of his services on such trivial occasions. It
was on the third day, I think, of his being with me, and before any
necessity had arisen for having his own writing examined, that, being much
hurried to complete a small affair I had in hand, I abruptly called to
Bartleby. 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."

I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately
it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely
misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I
could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, "I would
prefer not to."

"Prefer not to," echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the room
with a stride. "What do you mean? Are you moon-struck? I want you to help
me compare this sheet here—take it," and I thrust it towards him.

"I would prefer not to," said he.


NY Times, March 23, 2001


'Bartleby': So You're a Nowhere Man in a Nowhere World, Now Get Back to Work


When Herman Melville finished "Moby-Dick" in 1841, he was a literary
celebrity. When he died half a century later, he was completely forgotten,
and the works we have come to think of as his greatest ("Billy Budd," "The
Confidence Man," "The Piazza Tales" and "Moby-Dick" itself) languished in
oblivion. It seems likely that Melville was ignored in his own time because
he was so far ahead of it.

The film's narrator, identified only as the Boss and played by the deadpan,
baggy-eyed David Paymer, occupies a shabby ground floor office in one of
these anonymous buildings. His firm handles municipal public records, and
he hires Bartleby, a former employee in the postal service's dead-letter
office, to help with the filing, verification of claims and whatever else
it is the company does. Bartleby's co-workers are the flashy-dressing
wiseguy wannabe Rocky (Joe Piscopo), the slovenly Ernie (Maury Chaykin) and
the sex- kittenish, alliteration-prone office manager, Vivian (Glenne
Headly). . .

Mr. Parker has brilliantly updated his source and grasped its essence,
composing a sorrowful and hilarious tone poem about alienated labor, or an
absurdist workplace sitcom, as if a team of French surrealists had been put
in charge of "The Drew Carey Show." The filmmakers have sprinkled some
saving morsels of farce amid the literary gloom, like Vivian's attempted
seduction of the city manager (Seymour Cassel) and Ernie's unfortunate
encounter with a toner cartridge. And the cast, which also includes Carrie
Snodgress and the television comedy legend Dick Martin (of "Laugh-In"
fame), gives even the film's downbeat moments an undercurrent of loose
humor. . .

His refusal — first to work, then to be fired, then to do anything but
stand looking at a dusty air-conditioner vent — is at once suicidal and
heroic, completely irrational and perfectly understandable. Who of us,
confronted with the daily absurdity of work, has not felt the urge to say
no, to do nothing at all rather than submit to the senseless regime of
petty somethings the world demands of us? (What's that, boss? Oh no, I was
just speaking hypothetically. Yes, right away, sir.)

Full review:

Louis Proyect
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