[PEN-L:9861] Bartleby

Michael Perelman michael at SPAMecst.csuchico.edu
Sat Mar 31 10:14:57 MST 2001

Thank yu very much for reminding me of how much I enjoyed Bartleby.  The two works
of fiction that have best summed up the strangeness of the worker/boss
relationship for me are this one and The Good Solder Schweik.

Louis Proyect wrote:

> 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.
> http://www.bartleby.com/129/
> ===
> NY Times, March 23, 2001
> 'Bartleby': So You're a Nowhere Man in a Nowhere World, Now Get Back to Work
> By A. O. SCOTT
> 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: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/23/arts/23BART.html
> Louis Proyect
> Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org/


Michael Perelman
Economics Department
California State University
Chico, CA 95929

Tel. 530-898-5321
E-Mail michael at ecst.csuchico.edu

More information about the Marxism mailing list