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Marten Weise (Frankfurt/Main)

Impeded Speech. Narration and Passivity in Bartleby, the Scrivener

Impeded Speech. Narration and Passivity in Bartleby, the Scrivener
Bartleby is not about Bartleby. The predominant fascination with the character, his philosophical potential as a powerful figure of not-doing or non-doing have obstructed the access to formal and stylistic aspects of the short novel. The perspectival shift I present in this reading consists of a closer look at the lawyer/narrator and his relationship with the scrivener. I will first provide an analysis of his quasi-ideological claims (his 'doctrine of assumptions') and elaborate it as his ambition towards a closed narrative universe. This emphasis will allow an understanding of the 'rub' that Bartleby causes in the narrator's language. Tracing the discourse of the offices ('queer', 'strange') in reaction to the copyist's appearance, I focus on the effects on the narrator's language. The development of the relationship between the narrator and the scrivener will prove to be constantly interrupted by what I call 'impeded speech'. 'Astonishment' and an insufficient closure provide the context to elaborate on the way the story presents a language that is incapable of being in control of the subject of its narration. I argue that by dealing with 'being about something' rather than being concerned with Bartleby, it introduces passive narration.

1 Towards a de-mobilized Bartleby

Bartleby is not going to work. The declaration "I would prefer not to,"1 (Melville 1923: 29) announces his refusal to work for the lawyer in the offices and later to make any improvements to his current situation. This constellation has triggered an unrivalled fascination with the character of Bartleby and his philosophical potential as a powerful figure of not-doing or non-doing. Innumerable commentaries have conceived of him as an archetype of non-dialectical resistance and as a metaphor of refusal in a discussion revolving around social, political and linguistic formations.

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As the paradigm of gaining greater power by passivization Bartleby is transformed into a theoretical activist in the field of the philosophical—a theory hero.2 He is mobilized by an excessive activation of the inactive. But, what if Bartleby's famous and pivotal sentence were to be taken as a comment on such readings avant la lettre? Under these circumstances Bartleby's "negativity" (Berkman 2011: 54, 106)3 has to be more suitably circumscribed as a "negativité sans emploi" (Berkman 2011: 39).4 It cannot be integrated into the economy of an interpretation, and is therefore unemployed as well as strictly unemployable. Bartleby does not only discontinue engaging in any further work for his employer and fades into death having indefinitely deferred all initiative; this disposition also marks a refusal to serve for the sake of a philosophical argument. Bartleby is not going to work for the reader.

However, more importantly, the emphasis on the protagonist and the content has obstructed the insight that Bartleby is not going to work for the narrator5. What has been a marginal finding at most6 is the initial point for the perspectival shift presented in this reading. Since all understanding about Bartleby originates in and from the voice of the narrator, it takes a closer look at his language and its relationship with the subject of narration. If Bartleby can be considered the story's main concern, the scrivener yields an outcome in the narrator's language and may therefore be understood as the source of a set of effects. This reading is the process of tracing these effects rather than a study of Bartleby as an iconic figure. It does so by means of a passive reading, that mostly derives its conceptual and theoretical vocabulary from the narrator's language itself. It thereby engages in an analysis of how the relationship is unfolded, culminating in the transformation of the narrator into a consternated, stuttering and disoriented figure.

It would not be a sufficient approach to only read this as a breakdown or a failure in narration. Although failure plays a decisive role, what will be elaborated on is the double movement of the narrator's ambition to establish a closed narrative world and the way in which he deals with astonishment and perplexity from the very beginning. Moreover, he is not part of a hierarchical distribution of knowledge, which is why it would be unsuitable to describe him as unreliable.7 This kind of understanding indicates a deficient or deceptive use of narration and would therefore still situate an (idealized) ability within the narrator. Melville's story, however, suggests something very different: the narrator's power to account for the events stems from the narrated itself which is as such utterly unavailable. Narratability is grounded in the very inability to fulfill the task of narration at all and after all. This is why, rather than identifying Bartleby with his depiction as a character distinguished by possessing, enacting, or even performing "passive resistance" (Melville 1923: 33/34), it will be taken into consideration that these are the narrator's words.

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Passive resistance is an experience he has when talking about the scrivener, surfacing in various symptoms throughout the text. He who is unspecifically specified as being "more a man of preferences than of assumptions" (Melville 1923: 49), will be pointed out to be the narrator's impediment and in fact, to effect an impediment in the narrator's speech. This understanding is established against the backdrop of a reading of the narrator's strong self-conceptualization. This procedure facilitates tracing the symptoms of his speech's passivity. They are the most distinct in the appearance and reception of Bartleby's negative preference in the space of the offices and the reactions to what will be called his insistence of non-insistence. They will amount to a narrator depicting himself as "unmanned" and "disarmed" (Melville 1923: 32), unable to judge or to think of anything else than Bartleby, who simultaneously slips from his speech. Having traced the development within the story will accentuate the importance of the fact that the narrator introduces himself as having "astonished eyes." (Melville 1923: 19) He rules out the possibility of being part of a discourse that is able to take control of its subject when establishing the scene of literature in the very first place and makes some far-reaching claims about writing. Accordingly, the deficient conclusion of the story which the narrator draws from the vague report he provides in the epilogue of the text supports the hypothesis that speaking about Bartleby renders the narrator's narrative conquest a passive narration.

2 The "Doctrine of Assumptions"

Before turning to an analysis of the crumbling narrative authority of the unnamed lawyer and narrator it is necessary to give an outline of his claims and postulations. A close look at how he positions himself towards his surroundings allows an understanding of how he establishes and repeatedly refers to a framework that can be regarded his implicit theory. This implicit theory represents a stabilized and narrated world aiming at closure—it represents a narrative conquest. Tracing this undertaking of his is essential in order to further elaborate on the narrator's relationship with Bartleby. Only by means of a comprehension of his efforts and ambition towards a closed representation will it be possible to delineate how exactly Bartleby interrupts the narrator's speech and becomes its obstacle.

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In the very beginning the narrator stresses that it is indispensable for an understanding of the protagonist as well as the events of the story to make a few remarks about himself, the offices, his employees, his occupation, the premises as well as the circumstances. (Melville 1923: 19) He introduces himself as a scrutinizing observer of his own convictions and attitudes, of third party observations concerning himself and eventually even of observation as such. This procedure of a self-introduction in the beginning of Bartleby has been called "self-examination" (McCall 1989: 126). The vigilant and thoughtful self-exposition that ostensibly seems to serve the purpose of providing the reader a perspective and orientation, locating voice and action, unfolds into a larger problem with which the narrator struggles throughout the text. The exposition introduces an 'I' and its world, and by self-analysis aims at self-legitimation. It is an effort towards the establishment of a transparent point of view, and it is directed at the creation of a similarly transparent universe. The narrator's speech works to render his own words trustworthy.

The narrator purports having thought of the simplest way of life as the best from a young age. He considers himself as an "eminently safe man" as well as an "earnest man" and attaches great importance to having such a reputation (Melville 1923: 20). Correspondingly, he attends to the tasks of his work, only pursuing "snug business" from his "snug retreat" (Melville 1923: 20). This does not mean that he avoids entertaining relations with the outside. The outside is dealt and negotiated with on the grounds of the secured territories of his offices. His aim is to restrict and control its emergence following the rules and laws of the inside. He deals with all cases from the safe and enclosed environment of his offices and never goes to court. He is not a shark in the open waters of Wall Street and avoids any sort of turbulence.

These various takes on establishing a legitimate voice coincide with the narrator's professional ambitions. Correspondingly, his mind-set has been described as "legalistic language and logic" (Davis 1995: 41).8 The short novel has furthermore been read as a "legal fiction" that negatively directs the attention to the ideologies in juridical, contractarian and economical reasoning (Thomas 1984). Although these readings can be momentarily accepted, their perspectives need to be extended for this context. His legalistic language and logic are far more than merely part of a professional attitude, which enables a reading of the 'institution of the law' and its relationship with literature. Pervading all areas of life and establishing an all-embracing arrangement of the subjective, the narrator's self-introduction orients itself towards an all-encapsulating vision of its surroundings. His exposition therefore, introduces the endeavour to establish a closed world of representation within narration.

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This vision of the world through narration is projected to guarantee a presumed stability demarcating the space in which a legalistic logic can be instituted and executed. Although the narrator's demeanour is a humble one, his words envision him as a pre-lawyer or a pre-legal entity whose work will allow and guarantee the work of all future lawyers. This vision is later defined as a concept by the narrator himself. He rephrases it as the "doctrine of assumptions" (Melville 1923: 50) referring to Bartleby modo negativo and it can be retrospectively characterized by a set of rules and principles denoted with the terms "common usage", "common sense", "prudence" and "method" (Melville 1923: 20, 31). Following these guidelines implied within the doctrine of assumptions, has blessed him with moderate success and praise by the pre-industrial multi-billionaire John Jacob Astor.

This arrangement of a legitimate framework for the emergence of the world surrounding the narrator, needs to be further elucidated. The operations to detect, find, predict, and establish relationships or causalities between events, generally speaking, the faculty to interlace them, happens in two ways. It is firstly a pre-juridical harmonization between assumptions, presuppositions, predictions, on the one hand, and the outcome of events on the other—enabling judgement. Judgement becomes possible because disparate events, or qualities, etc. can be related to each other. Secondly, this very harmonization in and stabilization of a pre-juridical discourse conceptualized in the narrator's doctrine of assumptions is linked to the ability to "relate". (Melville 1923: 19) The important verb 'to relate' brings the juridical discourse down to the undertaking to account for something or to tell a story. Being a lawyer and being a narrator intertwine. It is the narrator's aspiration to make suitable predictions about future events as well as adequate evaluations of past events and he strives to do so by inferring from the universal to the singular and vice versa. "Relate" marks the attempt to establish a world in which there are no surprises and over which he can claim to have gained a narrative as well as legalistic control in referring to events: "I have known very many of them ['law-copyists, or scriveners'], professionally and privately, and, if I pleased, could relate divers histories, at which good-natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep." (Melville 1923: 19)

Relation as a principle of organisation is not only crucial to the narrator's skills of story-telling, but it is evident in the spatial conception and the location of the offices. The self-conception of his language is a regulatory interference with its surroundings. Its procedure is characterized by the intention to assemble the space and hold it accountable. The narrator seeks to turn the space into something that can be narrated. The view out of the windows offers only the sight of a source of light and a looming brick wall on the other side.

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The walls within and around the offices situated in Wall Street indicate a decisive aspect and may even be described to have a parabolic character (cf. Marx 1953). Accordingly, the narrator praises himself for having managed to bring the offices to "a good natural arrangement, under the circumstances" (Melville 1923: 26). The respective deficiencies of his employees are evenly balanced out and under the narrator's supervision; they each contribute to this self-contained whole that the lawyer considers an organism. In alliance with logic and narration – the logic of narration and a narration in logic – the ideals and convictions held by the lawyer are the cornerstones of a framed view upon the world established from within the offices.

Rephrased for these purposes: the strategy of the narrator is to prevent the impression that there could ever be a situation upon which he stumbled by chance.9 His consistency is arranged and guaranteed within his narrative, i.e. representational framework. In Foucauldian terms, the narrator's speech and its goals can be understood as a discourse in which the subjects are both dealt with and systematically established (cf. Foucault 2002: 54; 1996: 67). His discourse functions in the dispositive or the apparatus of narration—a closed yet absorptive system in which all phenomena appear as an effect of the doctrines governing this sphere. This discourse has paternalist10 traits insofar as it structures its scope from a human-rational referential or organisational centre. The nucleus of narration does not only strive to appropriate a disparate world in an enlightened way, but, the world as such is aimed at being the result of an arrangement or the performance of arranging.

Hence, it is not a coincidence that the text begins with an "I (am a rather elderly man.)." (Melville 1923: 19) Even though this opening sentence allows for speculation about a possible clouding of the senses of the narrator, it more convincingly seems to follow the described self-exposition. This phrase, however, might be its most powerful verbalization. It introduces both age as an indicator for experience and reliability and claims the predominance of the "I". Following this introductory and primal "I" in the very beginning of the text, the lawyer temporally and cognitively sets up and constitutes the world before him as narration.

These representational gestures as and within narration have a striking resemblance with the way that Martin Heidegger describes the modern age (Neuzeit) in his essay "The Age of the World Picture." Within the metaphysical legacy, Descartes' philosophy of subjectivity and its successors mark the threshold of an age that becomes capable of thinking the relationship between human beings and beings in the world as well as world as the acquisition of a picture. He explicates this with regard to science and research for which the validity of beings resides in whether they are calculable in the past or predictable in the future.

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To this mode of cognition all beings appear as inherently at the disposal of the subject and no being exists that is not scientifically quantifiable. Everything that is, is through and for the subject. The implementation of a transcendental reason allows the subject, liberated from its medieval baggage, a possession of the world in its visual scope. This conquest relies on the union of reason and representation and, as should be stressed for the context of the reading of Bartleby, on the narrative and imaginative qualities of language. The proposal-character of the narrator's intended self-legitimation and self-exposition inscribes itself in the double structure that representation has for Heidegger. It is both Darstellung and Vorstellung. The literal sense of the word is of great importance: it is the mode of setting up the world in front of the self.

Along the aforementioned paternalistic attributes, the narrator's narrative discourse is in line with the benevolence of a humanist and moralist tradition, catered to by the philosophical framework of enlightened mastery. Unlike Claggart in Billy Budd, the narrator is not a metaphysical pervert (cf. Deleuze 1997: 79; 1993: 102), but closer to Billy Budd, the stutterer. Nevertheless, the intended structure gives way to a power relation that can be denominated as an effort towards a language of sovereignty. In this ego-logic contention of the world as a product or its appropriation as a product by the self and its narratability, the self can, conversely argued, only recognise what follows from its own epistemological deed and creation (cf. Heidegger 2002: 59-60; 1977: 78). This may be why the narrator has been read as a "hermeneutical monster". (Olsson 2013: 86) The narrator's endeavour to legitimize his own procedures gets caught up in a self-fulfilling prophecy as he performs closure, presenting a circular logic within his doctrine of assumptions. It is legitimate because it is certifiably successful and it is successful because it is legitimate. Reasonable vision sets out to encapsulate a vision of reason that enables repeatable application as it has proven to be empirically successful. This is the prerequisite under which the narrator's discourse and its seemingly all-encapsulating vision is haunted by the impediment Bartleby.

3 Insistence of Non-Insistence

This section will discover the way in which Bartleby's language resists the terms of the doctrine of assumptions. This will be done by mapping out the appearance of Bartleby's words and the way they are received.

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Reading this as a relationship will facilitate the understanding of the irritant that doctrine of preference represents for the doctrine of assumptions when it infiltrates its realm. It will further make plausible why the scrivener's queer logic is to the narrator simultaneously a refusal and a non-refusal, perplexing and stalling his narrative grasp. "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.'" (Melville 1923: 29)

Bartleby suddenly stops working. Or, he begins to prefer not to work. He was a diligent scrivener in the beginning of his appointment at the narrator's offices. Even though his unhappy, industrious, silent and pale, almost mechanical air (cf. Melville 1923: 28) retrospectively strikes the narrator as a sinister portent, he is nonetheless flabbergasted by the scrivener's stringent course of action. This is the beginning of a series of rather comical scenes. The narrator's endeavours to engage in a discussion with the copyist remain without consequence. Every attempt to reason with him eventuates only further utterances of the preference not-to. The narrator furthermore discovers that Bartleby has effectively moved into the offices and his other employees advise him to dismiss Bartleby from his position. In spite of all these incidents or rather due to his indecisiveness, the narrator does not draw any consequences from this and settles temporarily on doing nothing at all. It is only after yet another couple of days that he asks Bartleby to run an errand for him, being in a great hurry himself and the copyist unoccupied. Bartleby declines again and further informs the narrator that he has given up copying entirely. His superior then asks him to quit the offices within six days. After the expiration of this period, he leaves Bartleby his remaining salary and departs. He is content with the quiet and civilized procedure in which he has laid Bartleby off only to wake up to doubts the next morning.

My procedure seemed as sagacious as ever – but only in theory. How it would prove in practice – there was the rub. It was truly a beautiful thought to have assumed Bartleby's departure; but, after all, that assumption was simply my own, and none of Bartleby's. The great point was, not whether I had assumed that he would quit me, but whether he would prefer so to do. He was more a man of preferences than assumptions. (Melville 1923: 48/49)

This leads directly into the core of the problem that the narrator has with Bartleby. The beautiful assumption of the departure of the scrivener, being rid of him quietly and without complications proves to be nothing but an assumption. Bartleby's language and behaviour frustrate his expectations as he seemingly refuses to act in line with the narrator's predictions. Assumptions, which the narrator has depicted as his guiding principle and strategy to arrange his life in the easiest way, prove to be insufficient, because unlike the narrator, Bartleby does not assume at all.

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The applicability of assumptions comes to a complete standstill with Bartleby. Being a man of preferences is strictly inconsistent with the possibility of living according to the doctrine of assumptions. As preferences are strictly non-assumptions—following a different set of rules, if any at all—they are not simply a refusal to the doctrine of assumptions. Instead of being opposed to the lawyer's framework, Bartleby's doctrine of preferences, if it is a doctrine after all, leads to another logic. The withdrawal from assumptions and its unsettling and even devastating effects upon the narrator's language as well as the office and its seemingly organic arrangement needs to be further elaborated, by taking a closer look at how Bartleby's famous sentence is experienced in the offices.

"I would prefer not to," not only occupies an important position in the text. (Melville 1923: 29) It plays a prominent role in the history of the commentary of it and has been taken up in many different readings. Some of these interpretations share the structural similarity of conceiving of Bartleby's speech as bordering the limit of denominating-judgemental language.11 This is an important observation which is of relevance to make out the rub between the doctrine of assumptions and the doctrine of preferences. However, considering the perspectival shift in this reading, it is precisely the way in which Bartleby's words are reacted to within the story that needs to be further explored. This nuance is crucial, because it is not language as such with which Bartleby's words queerly interfere with, but the narrator's vision of a language.

The aforementioned interpretations more or less consciously draw on the suggestion of the clerk Turkey referring to the word "prefer" as "queer" turning it into a generalized statement. (Melville 1923: 45) But, what is happening in the word "queer"? It is related to the German "quer", meaning across or diagonal, and specifies something as oblique, against the grain, crooked or tricky? Turkey's employment of "queer" denounces "prefer" as a spoilsport, ruining the rules of the game. The narration envisions Bartleby as a spoilsport who participates in its rules and quits it both simultaneously and unexpectedly. This figure is neither completely part of it nor a bystander and can neither be entirely grasped from the inside of the game nor from the outside. The spoilsport oddly plays according to two sets of rules, whereas only one of them is defined. It is never clear how the spoilsport will corrupt the game. Therefore, the depiction as "queer" takes on the position of obscurely referring to something that elopes referral, both in the active as well as the passive way.

This becomes all the more articulate, considering Bartleby's special preference, namely that of a preference not-to.

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It knows only one direction and does not offer an alternative. Instead of providing a comparative service, Bartleby's non-preference is possessed by a negative telos, cancelling the relationship with what it refers to and therefore has a resolute and absolute quality. The logic of negative preference does not follow norms of assertions in general and is therefore not compatible with the doctrine of assumptions held by the narrator, in particular. As far as his world picture is concerned, it leads into an undecidability between being readable as a statement and a non-statement. Although it is linguistically still a statement, it causes enormous trouble for the narrator, because according to him, there is no assumption to be found in it. This is later reassured by the scrivener himself: "But I am not particular." (Melville 1923: 59) The queer non-preference is an irritant corrupting and suspending the discursive arrangement of the offices. The copyist's words however, are very far from not doing anything. There is a distinctive willing in Bartleby's replies, which the narrator is aware of, as he asserts that "his decision was irreversible" (Melville 1923: 32). Bartleby's words do not indicate an absence, a "nothing" (Deleuze 1997: 80; 1993: 102) or a "pathology" (Vogl 2007: 60) of the will but may be rather grasped as insistently uninsisting, situating an absence or a nothing within the will.

The insistence of non-insistence, or the queer doctrine of preferences contaminates the offices. It does so by resisting to the doctrine of assumptions but furthermore, it resists active resistance, because it has an oblique relationship with the doctrine of assumptions and anything to which it relates. Its way of relating is unknown and unfathomable to the narrator. Commenting on the contamination and referring to "this word 'prefer'," (Melville 1923: 45) the narrator is making an effort to avoid its direct use when lamenting his own recurrent use of the word. Its invasive qualities are inherently connected with Bartleby whom he increasingly perceives as a threat. In a passage exhibiting striking similarities with the conclusive words of Kafka's Sorge des Hausvaters the narrator expresses the fear that the scrivener might "[…] in the end perhaps outlive me, and claim possession of my office by right of his perpetual occupancy: as all these dark anticipations crowded upon me more and more […]". (Melville 1923: 54)

4 "Unmanned," "Disarmed"

The scrivener will not outlive the narrator. However, these dark anticipations do have a strong impact on him.

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His affections caused by the rub between the doctrine of assumptions and the doctrine of preferences will subsequently be traced along his use of the word strange, his inability to assume and to judge as well as the depictions of his bodily reactions. These self-observations will lead the narrator to speak about a deprivation of his manhood, conflicting with his self-exposition as an earnest man applying the doctrine of assumptions. Emphasizing these developments will show how "passive resistance" (Melville 1923: 33 f.) occurs as the event of a speech impediment in the narrator's language.

I stood gazing at him awhile, as he went on with his own writing, and then reseated myself at my desk. This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do? But my business hurried me. I concluded to forget the matter for the present, reserving it for my future leisure. (Melville 1923: 30)

The narrator's reaction after the scrivener has uttered his infamous sentence for the first time is still detached to some degree, taking this incident as something that can be momentarily forgotten. A few days after this first scene he calls upon his clerk to assist with the examination of a few documents. As opposed to before, he appears to be affected more deeply, undergoing the severe reaction of being "turned into a pillar of salt" (Melville 1923: 31). Simultaneously, Bartleby is referred to as a continuity and as something that appears to resist being pushed out of the lawyer/narrator's memory. The adjective "strange", already used in the quote above, will appear twenty-one times in his account. Only a little while later the lawyer/narrator states: "Now, the utterly unsurmised appearance of Bartleby […] had such a strange effect on me, that incontinently I slunk away from my own door, and did as desired". (Melville 1923: 38)

'Strange' is the narrator's variation of queerness that is attributed to the word prefer, as elaborated above. Both of these terms can be read as indications of a difficulty and an incapability to account, either for Bartleby or at all. The problem resonates in the very words of the narrator: "strange" is the mark of an objection within his model of narration. It indicates an excess that his speech is unable to account for and therefore marks its own relation with its subject in its disjointedness. "Strange" takes the place of a glitch in understanding, or maybe understood as a pseudo-description that refers to what skirts description. As the effort to include the incalculable into the economy of the account, it is precisely this substitution which bears witness to the incalculable and ghostly Bartleby as an effect within the narrator's language. "Strange" marks the trace Bartleby leaves in the narrator's language, which it is unable to shake off. It is a speaking impediment or speech that speaks impediment—a speech impediment.

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This emergence of a gap in the "doctrine of assumptions" hints at an aporia "impossible to be solved by his judgment" (Melville 1923: 34). The narrator is stuck between the possibilities of stating the nomination of the scrivener as a scrivener by giving him assignments or dismissing him, thereby rendering him a non-scrivener. Objections to this kind of understanding may arise if this were to be taken as a mere expression of indecisiveness grounded in the narrator's humanism, which has been referred to earlier. While this might not be entirely wrong, it needs to be stressed that it is precisely the indecisiveness which unsettles the narrator's humanism, hinting at a further relationship between humanism and decision.12 Moreover, even after his eventual resolution to rid himself "of this intolerable incubus" (Melville 1923: 54), he remains unhinged. The impression the copyist makes on the narrator has enduring effects. His business becomes less and less important to the story as well as to him and eventually he is completely engrossed by his thoughts about Bartleby.

As already implied in the aforementioned temporary transformation into a pillar of salt, the narrator is not only intellectually disconcerted, but suffers from somatic symptoms. This will further support the hypothesis of a passivity interfering with the doctrine of assumptions. When contemplating Bartleby he feels a "stinging melancholy" (Melville 1923: 40). He lapses into stammering when he tries to speak out for himself rigorously: "If you do not go away from these premises before night, I shall feel bound—indeed I am bound—to—to quit the premises myself!" (Melville 1923: 59) The words of the earnest man are interrupted, he is confronted with a breakdown of his own language: His speech is impeded and the stuttering opposes the productive development of the account. Even further this may be understood as a flight from language. Trying to evade the inevitable duty to speak for the scrivener, to represent him upon request of the landlord or the subsequent tenant of his former offices, the narrator leaves Bartleby behind in a devastated condition, disorientedly driving around in the upper part of the city in his rockaway for a few days. The narrator becomes "outlandish" and "deterritorialized" (Deleuze 1997: 72, 76; 1993: 93, 98) in his own language and environment.13 When he finally visits him in the prison and feels the urge to touch him, a horror thrills through his whole body: "I felt his hand, when a tingling shiver ran up my arm and down my spine to my feet." (Melville 1923: 64)

Early on, the narrator had developed a consistent patience for him. If any other man were to misconduct himself in a similar way, he would be confronted with outrage and an irredeemable verdict, as the narrator states:

With any other man I should have flown outright into a dreadful passion, scorned all further words, and thrust him ignominiously from my presence. But there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted me. (Melville 1923: 31)

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Bartleby has a different impact on him, due to "[Bartleby's] wonderful mildness chiefly, which not only disarmed me, but unmanned me, as it were." (Melville 1923: 32) These self-observations circumfuse the strangeness, and along with the above quoted "unsurmised appearance" and "incontinently," (Melville 1923: 38) point out that in the face of an instance resisting all anticipation, the narrator's eloquence and readiness to act is interrupted: disarmed and unmanned. His reflections about what to do and how to proceed lead him to question whether there is anything left to assume. Both near and far, the clinging and simultaneously inaccessible nuisance, refuses to be dealt with in an easy way. His self-conception as an earnest and safe man and as the paternal figure fails. The scrivener and his words, being neither compliant nor actively resistant, disable the narrator from making a decision. From this perspective it follows that rather than reading Bartleby's absent presence as advent or event triggering an indecisiveness (cf. McCall 1989: 108; Kamuf 2010: 33ff.)14 it may be more plausible to refer to the speech impediment as an event of passive resistance in the narrator's language. Indecisiveness as event is the passivity in the doctrine of assumption which the narrator is confronted with, encountering Bartleby.

5 An "unheard-of-perplexity"

A close observer of himself, the narrator's language exposes its doctrines and discloses failure within narration, as the account is taking place. The problem of a vexed relationship is presented as a continuum and an accumulation, climaxing in the sensation of the shiver when the narrator touches Bartleby. This seemingly conventional temporal progression representing an aggravating inability of the narrator is one aspect of this relationship's deployment which is already problematized in the very beginning. The inability to account for the events as well as for Bartleby is the initial point of the story and therefore at the foundation of a presumed ability to account for them. The story and its progression is the outline of how this disbanding bond between the narrator and the subject of narration becomes what it has already been in the first place. The story unfolds how Bartleby becomes the narrator's impediment while his speech has all along. This will illuminate the conception of narration and writing, which is at stake in the story.

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After it has come to the attention of the narrator that Bartleby has not left the offices, as he had asked him to do, he is thunderstruck associating this feeling with a scene illustrating an intermediate condition between life and death:

I was thunderstruck. For an instant I stood like the man who, pipe in mouth, was killed one cloudless afternoon long ago in Virginia, by summer lightning; at his own warm open window he was killed, and remained leaning out there upon the dreamy afternoon, till someone touched him, when he fell. (Melville 1923: 50)

He slowly leaves the offices and the house, exits into the street and strolls around the neighbourhood, wondering "what I should do next in this unheard-of-perplexity" (Melville 1923: 50). After all measures to come to terms with Bartleby or to help him have failed, the answer to the problem of an inability to relate to a figure, to relate to its deeds and its retreat from all deeds, will finally be to relate it, strangely enough. Being thunderstruck and being caught in a moment of unheard-of-perplexity will ultimately lead to writing. This nexus is already introduced with the etymologically related astonishment, which leaves the beholder thunderstruck, in the very beginning of the text. It is presented as a determining element of the relationship between Bartleby and the narrator as a narrator. "What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him, except indeed, one vague report, which will appear in the sequel." (Melville 1923: 19)

If the narrator's knowledge is derived exclusively from his own astonished eyes, the only thing he can be sure about, is his astonishment. If concluding that the narrator thence only knows astonishment, seems to overstate the case, what needs to be stressed is the following: there remains an unknown about Bartleby even within what the narrator knows about him and is able to relate, which is as such not simply to be overcome. The astonishment attributed to his sight, is more than a philosophical wonder that is either the effect of contemplation or leads to it. The report, whose problematic status (vague) is indicated at its first mention and which will be dealt with at the end of this essay, will only support this conclusion.

Even though the narrator continuously works on the foundations and substantiations of the legitimacy of his account and its failure unfolds throughout the story, the impossibility of a biography of Bartleby—or a writing of his life—is a premise of the story. Upon entering the offices for the very first time, Bartleby is nothing but his professional skills, in which the narrator trusts almost without verification. But, what is proposed as his inascertainability and, ultimately, his unavailability are not merely empirical or biographical problems. Admittedly, he enters the office as a stranger and his personal history as well as details about his personal life are unknown to his superior.

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The emphasis on Bartleby as a "being[…] of whom nothing is ascertainable" and the smallness of available "original sources," however, hint at much more. (Melville 1923: 19) Lamenting the lack of biographical information and similar materials, the narrator introduces the strange figure Bartleby. Already at this point he questions whether he is a proper character suitable to appear to the scene of literature.

But I waive the biographies of all other scriveners, for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener, the strangest I ever saw, or heard of. While of other law-copyists, I might write the complete life, of Bartleby nothing of that sort can be done. I believe that no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man. It is an irreparable loss to literature. (Melville 1923: 19)

The writing of a complete life of law-copyists relies on either known biographical information to be included in a literary documentation of their lives or a deduction of biographical data from his knowledge about scriveners as such, i.e. the ability to relate, as pointed out above. However, this is not what the narrator is concerned with. He does not execute what he describes as within his powers. As the reader is not presented with the text the narrator avowedly could have written it is compelling to think of these lines as a quasi-systematic argument about writing. More than simply unworthy of writing, what can be written, what recommends itself to literature, might not even be writing at all. It would not need to be written, as it has already written itself, and writing will have virtually already taken place. It is the outset of the narrator's writing that Bartleby's life cannot enter the realm of literature.

Bartleby is the subject of the story while the narrator asserts to curious colleagues that he is nothing to him and he does not know him. (Melville 1923: 57) Bartleby is to the narrator all and nothing at the same time (cf. Jaworski 1986: 303). He is not ordinarily human, but instead almost ghostlike. The story of the scrivener cannot be told as a whole, a copy of the copyist is impossible because neither conclusions from the singular to the universal nor vice versa are available or possible. The narrator singles Bartleby out, and declares him a special or even an exceptional case as opposed to any other scrivener. His resistance to be transformed into literature, or his exceptionality cannot be grounded in a difference that could be labelled and therefore further specified and referred to as a certain kind of difference. It is exceptional even to the logic of exception—and is to the narrator's language the exception of all exceptions. The literary genre of the biography is abandoned in favour of "a few passages in the life of Bartleby." (Melville 1923: 19) The narrator writes about that from which no literature can result.

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Precisely because Bartleby's biography is an irretrievable subject to literature, a subject with which nothing of the aforementioned can be done, he is a paradigmatic case for writing: he needs to be written.

Between the loss and the question of what literature is, it is precisely the irretrievability of a whole, the impossibility of a literary production, which sets the narrator's writing into motion. Narration is the result of the unheard-of-perplexity and the tale of Bartleby can account for him only as an unheard-of whose astonishing and bewildering properties do not cease to interrupt the narration. That which astonishes is continuously exhibited as a withdrawal from relation in the narrator's language, method and prudence of the narrator, leading to the emergence of narrative stutters. Haunting his language in several different disguises, the speech impediments are the remnants of an astonishment that cannot be forgotten: the words queer and strange, his difficulties in grappling with the insistence of non-insistence, his stuttering, his flight from language, the shiver. The contestation of a presupposed ability to relate and to narrate does not follow an already established doctrine of assumptions. The "rub" between the doctrine of assumptions and its application (cf. Melville 1923: 48), the indissoluble friction in his language unfolds from the very first moment on. There is a double movement of the establishment of a language of sovereignty in the "doctrine of assumptions" and the radical undercutting of this in the way that the narrator establishes the scene of the literary. Thus, the evolution of narration is the de-limitation of relatability as narration in face of the unheard-of-perplexity. What the narrator relates is an inability to relate (to) unheard-of-perplexity: he is relating unrelatability.

6 Passivity and Narration

In hindsight and referring to the vague report, the narrator gives a dim psychological explanation for Bartleby's course of action, creating a somewhat unexpected whole of Bartleby and his conduct. A former position at the Dead Letter Office in Washington is conjured to having had an enduring influence on him as he is supposed to be a man "prone to a pallid hopelessness." (Melville 1923: 65) The narrator seems to introduce an explanation for the inexplicable strangeness, proffering the restitution of a cause15, hoping to retrieve his status as an earnest man. This epilogue has been read as a "weak specification" (McCall 1989: 130) which is a somewhat disturbing objection, because it seems to present a quality valuation.

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It is conceived to be an inadequate supplement and the result of a defective dramaturgy of the text. It is alleged not to fit into the narrative and its structure, remaining outside. What happens in this final turn of the text?

Not only is the degree of truth of this rumour altogether unclear, as the narrator outright concedes, but it introduces an allegorical level to the story offering only evocative ramifications. What precisely is the connection of the dead letters with Bartleby's behaviour? The "strange suggestive interest" (Melville 1923: 65) the narrator finds in it is the basis for the most unsteady of assumptions. That which is cautiously offered to explain Bartleby's strangeness is subject to strangeness itself. Ending in the irreconcilable interjections: "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!" (Melville 1923: 65) the text humorously and slightly ironically comments on its own closure. A weakness of the provided specification is precisely what is exhibited in the epilogue's unsatisfactory explication. It is not a deficient explanation marked by a 'not-enough' that could be somehow resolved, but rather a supplement, which is in its inadequacy part of the realm of the literary. It stresses a categorical inability to narrate and to provide closure with respect to the subject of narration. Although the narrator thereby reaches out towards claiming Bartleby for the story and provides a quasi-reason for Bartleby's behaviour, what remains is a passivity within his speech. The narrator has not overcome astonishment. What ultimately fails in this conclusive paragraph of the text is the attempt of the narrator to undo his undone language, writing about the scrivener.

The lawyer being the horizon of Bartleby as well as Bartleby the lawyer's horizon, the following conclusive remarks can be drawn. Bartleby, the Scrivener is not merely the story of a certain period in the life of its protagonist. The story does not reiterate a variation of great-man history writing – not even in that it were to deal with a persona in opposition to how a great man in western history and tradition is imagined. It is not simply objecting to the staging of men distinguished by their achievements and accomplishments by introducing a figure that gives up all initiative. Rather than challenging greatness by dealing with littleness (i.e. changing the view from the preferred to the neglected, leaving the view as such unchallenged), the text, via the impeded speech of the narrator, presents a problem in the creation of a literary text's subject and dismantles a presupposed ability to write.

Bartleby problematizes being about something qua being about something. The text hints at the way in which literary language is radically opposed to a language that aspires to be in control of its subject or, what may be called a language of sovereignty.

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It does so by inscribing an interruption into narration, i.e. the very gesture of relating and accounting for something, unfolding the vexed relationship that the narrator entertains with his employee, the scrivener. Meanwhile, astonishment, perplexity and, from the very beginning, utter unaccountability are the grounds for the narrator's written speech. What is at stake in the story is a disarmed or an impeded language in the light of Bartleby. It surfaces in its own stalling and stuttering, disclosing a passivity in narration, writing, literature and maybe even language as such. In spite of its ambitions of claiming and its claims towards being able to claim, the narrator's impeded language keeps relapsing into a passivity that it is unable to leave behind. Exposing the inability to overcome this passivity it makes a strong case for thinking that literary language and in fact, no language, is ever simply about what it is about. It is always shy of fully taking possession of its subject. If it were about anything it is the process of dealing with the resistance of something becoming literature or language after all, the quarrel with being about something, and speaking for itself, vis-à-vis what it deems the exceptional.

Works cited

Agamben, Giorgio (1999): "Bartleby, Or on Contingency", in: Heller-Roazen, Daniel (ed. and trans.): Potentialities. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 243-271.

Bataille, Georges (1973): "(Lettre à X., chargé d'un cours sur Hegel…)", in: Bataille: Œuvres Completes V. La Somme Athéologique. Paris: Gallimard, 369-371.

Bataille, Georges (1997): "Letter to X, Lecturer on Hegel", trans. Betsy Wing, in: Botting, Fred; Wilson, Scott (ed.): The Bataille Reader. Malden: Blackwell, 296-300.

Bergmann, Johannes Dietrich (1975): "»Bartleby« and the Lawyer's Story", in: American Literature Vol. 47 No. 3, 432-436.

Berkman, Gisèle (2011): L'effet Bartleby. Philosophes lecteurs. Paris: Hermann.

Blanchot, Maurice (1980): L'Écriture du Désastre. Paris: Gallimard.

Blanchot, Maurice (1986): The Writing of the Disaster. Trans. Ann Smuck. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

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Booth, Wayne C. (1983): The Rhetoric of Fiction. Second Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Davis, Clark (1995): After the whale. Melville in the wake of Moby-Dick. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Deleuze, Gilles (1993): „Bartleby, ou la formule", in: Deleuze: Critique et clinique,. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 89-114.

Deleuze, Gilles (1997): "Bartleby; or, The Formula", in Essays critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 68-90.

Derrida, Jacques (1995): The Gift of Death. Trans. David Wills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques (1999): Donner la mort. Paris: Galilée.

Derrida, Jacques (2007): "A certain impossible possibility to say the event", trans. Gila Walker, in: Critical Inquiry Vol. 33 No. 2, 441-461.

Foucault, Michel (1996): L'Archéologie du Savoir. Paris: Gallimard.

Foucault, Michel (2002): The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. London/New York: Routledge Classics.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1977): Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V. Miller with Analysis of the Text and Foreword by J.N. Findlay. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1986): Phänomenologie des Geistes. Ed. Eva Moldenhauer, Karl Markus Michel. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Heidegger, Martin (1976): "Brief über den Humanismus", in: von Herrmann, Friedrich-Wilhelm (ed.): Wegmarken. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 313-364.

Heidegger, Martin (1977): "Die Zeit des Weltbildes", in: von Herrmann, Friedrich-Wilhelm (ed.): Holzwege, 75-113. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1977.

Heidegger, Martin (1991): The Principle of Reason. Trans. Reginald Lilly. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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Heidegger, Martin (1997): Der Satz vom Grund. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann.

Heidegger, Martin (1998): "Letter on Humanism", trans. Frank A. Capuzzi, in: McNeill, William (ed.): Pathmarks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 239-276.

Heidegger, Martin (2002): "The Age of the World Picture", in: Young, Julian; Haynes, Kenneth (trans. and ed.): Off the Beaten Track. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 57-85.

Jaworski, Philippe (1986): Melville. Le désert et l'empire. Paris: Presses de l'École normale supérieure.

Kamuf, Peggy (2010): To follow: The Wake of Jacques Derrida. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Marx, Leo (1953): „Melville's Parable of the Walls", in: The Sewanee Review Vol. 61 No. 4, 602-627.

McCall, Dan (1989): The Silence of Bartleby. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Melville, Herman (1923): "Bartleby", in The Piazza Tales. Standard Edition Volume X. The Works of Herman Melville. London/Bombay/Sydney: Constable and Company, 19-65.

Nünning, Ansgar F. (2005): "Reconceptualizing Unreliable Narration: Synthesizing Cognitive and Rhetorical Approaches", in: Phelan, James; Rabinowitz; Peter J. (ed.): A Companion to Narrative Theory. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 89-107.

Olsson, Ulf (2013): Silence and subject in modern literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Rancière, Jacques (1998): „Deleuze, Bartleby et la formule littéraire", in: Rancière: La chair des mots. Politiques de l'écriture. Paris: Galilée, 179-203.

Rancière, Jacques (2004): "Deleuze, Bartleby, and the Literary Formula", in: Rancière: The Flesh of Words. The Politics of Writing, trans. Charlotte Mandell, Stanford: SUP, 146-165.

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Thomas, Brook (1984): "The Legal Fictions of Herman Melville and Lemuel Shaw", in: Critical Inquiry Vol. 11 No.1, 24-51.

Vogl, Joseph (2007): Über das Zaudern. Zürich: Diaphanes.


1 The short story was first anonymously published in the November and December issues of Putnam's Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art in 1853. Bartleby, the Scrivener. A Story of Wall-Street, accessed Nov 22, 2017,

2 For a similar and more detailed commentary on this problem cf. Berkman. (2011: 106) The scrivener appears to be very fashionable in post-Hegelian thinking. The ubiquitous accentuations of a pure and unsullied Bartleby cater to the dream of a force that is impossible, omitted or disavowed in Hegel. Saying that non-action or non-doing is innocent like only the being of a stone, not even that of a child, Hegel slams the door on a reconciled ethical innocence for man. (Hegel 1977: 282; 1986: 346.) From this perspective Bartleby seems to represent the hope to perform the work of introducing a non-work into Hegel's thinking that radically questions its systemic functionality.

3 In Agamben's reading of the text, negativity has the implications of potentiality: Bartleby for him is a "messenger without a message", a "pure announcement of appearance" and imagining "being without any predicate". (Agamben 1999: 257)

4 She refers to a term coined by Georges Bataille in a letter to Alexandre Kojève about his course on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. (cf. Bataille 1997: 296-300; 1973: 369-371) Gisèle Berkmann has further pointed out that many of Bartleby's readers run the risk of aiming at a complete translation and translatability between literature and philosophy. (Cf. Berkman 2011: 136) It needs to be added that the philosophical prevails: regarding literary language as a secondary site of its reflection, the text is reduced to a mere illustration of what the philosophical has pointed out all along.

5 The unnamed lawyer/narrator will be referred to as 'the narrator' for the sake of an easier legibility.

6 Brook Thomas points out that the lawyer seeks to account for Bartleby on the grounds of a contractarian logic that rose to the status of an ideology in nineteenth century law. According to Thomas, Melville objects to a presupposed equality between employer and employee, shows how Bartleby undermines contractarian ideology and therefore engages in an implicit discussion about individual freedom in a free-market capitalist society with contemporary Henry David Thoreau. (Thomas 1984) Gilles Deleuze's emphasis is on the analysis of a power structure, namely paternal authority, which is subverted by the stakes raised in Bartleby's minority and agrammaticality.

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According to Deleuze, Melville expresses the urge towards imagining a society without fathers. (cf. Deleuze 1997: 68-90; 1993: 89-114) Jacques Rancière's reading takes its point of departure with Deleuze's essay. He characterizes Deleuze to have a "performative conception of literature" that falls back into symbolism by a surprising return to the poetics of the story and a depiction of its main character as a hero. He asserts that furthermore, Deleuze does not take the antifraternal equality into account. Suggesting the term of a shared fabulation ("fabulation partagée") he reads a politics of metaphysics of literature in Bartleby that reveals an equality of human beings on a molecular and ontological level. (Rancière 2004: 154-5, 158-9; 1998: 193-4, 199)

7 For a detailed analysis of the concept of unreliable narration cf. Booth (1983: 339ff.) and Nünning (2005: 89-107) Ansgar Nünning points out that unreliability is often equated to a discordance with the implied norms for and of an author. Although he is critical of this understanding, it stresses that the concept of the "unreliable narrator" focuses on problems of knowledge and deception, which is not relevant in Bartleby.

8 He draws on McCall who exemplifies this language: „I waive"; „it is fit to make some mention"; „an adequate understanding of the chief character about to be presented"; „I must be permitted to be rash here"; „I should have stated before"; „here it must be said"; „arguing the probabilities pro and con"; „Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation"; „It is common usage"; „Shall I acknowledge it?" (McCall 1989: 119)

9 As opposed to Melville, who was inspired to write Bartleby by articles in the New York Times and the New York Tribune. (cf. Bergmann 1975)

10 According to Deleuze, the "attorney" has "has the power to see" and is the "representative of secondary nature and its law. He is therefore the figure that "bears the paternal image." (Deleuze 1997: 80; 1993: 103.)

11 Alongside the aforementioned readings of Agamben and Deleuze, Jacques Derrida compares Bartleby to Abraham. (Derrida 1995: 77ff.; Derrida 1999: 105ff.) Blanchot (1986: 17, 141, 145; 1980: 29, 213, 219) who is mostly interested in passivity and neutrality in thinking about writing after the Holocaust, has been called the „le grand, le secret initiateur" of the French debate around Bartleby. (cf. Berkman 2011: 26)

12 According to Heidegger there is a strong emphasis on realization (Verwirklichung) in the humanist conception of existence. Everything that is, is the effect of an action. (cf. Martin Heidegger 1998: 239-276; Heidegger 1976: 313-364.) If humanist thinking is inherently linked to action and does not know letting (which Heidegger attributes to thinking), it is equally reliant on decision-making, and therefore not compatible with indecision. To say the least: It is uneasy with indecision.

13 Deleuze attributes three terms to Bartleby in his commentary: "outlandish", "deterritorialized" and the "vagabond". (Deleuze 1997: 72, 76; 1993: 93, 98.) According to Deleuze, these are circumscriptions of a foreign language that Melville invents for Bartleby, a "language of the Whale." He associates vagabondry not only with Bartleby, but also with the "attorney". With the present shift in reading the story and what can be considered an exile, an erring or a flight from language in the narrator's language, it may be more suitable to think of the narrator as "deterritorialized" and "outlandish".

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14 Peggy Kamuf explicitly links this interpretation to Derrida's thinking of the event. (Derrida 2007: 441-461)

15 With Heidegger, this can be read as an execution of the principle of sufficient reason. Referring to Leibniz's principium reddendae rationis sufficientis Heidegger explicates how in his metaphysical construction the objectness of any individual object relies on being grounded by a reason. Nothing can never be the reason for something, something can never result from nothing. Everything is attached to something that precedes it, which is however, only recognized with a latency. This is why the reason has to be "given back" ("der Grundsatz vom zurückgegebenen Grund") to the object. The object in a secured position ("zum-Stehen-Bringen der Gegenstände") is therefore seized ("sichergestellt") by the subject that provided it with its reason. (cf. Heidegger 1991: 32-33, 120; 1997: 49-50, 174-175)