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Negating Structures of Repression: Sisyphus and Bartleby

The power of negation here involves the individual’s fight against the odds, a personal context of defiance in the face of unjust systems encased within seemingly insurmountable walls, even especially when the sources of constraint and dehumanization are not readily identifiable. The struggle is nonetheless made, as though a testimony to the valuing of human freedom. I have selected two reasonably well-known examples, one from mythology, the other, literature, to make my point. Namely, resistance to repressive systems is a categorical moral imperative, if conscience be our guide to life and the foundations of exploitation be attacked; and although consistency of application of principle requires that one oppose all totalitarian settings and regimes, my concern now is its relevance to capitalism and, more particularly, to America. For we live in a corporatist/authoritarian framework of governance, economy, and ideology which inculcates a habituation to wealth accorded to the presumptively deserving few, supported if necessary through a skewed legal order and the use of force, the remainder of society judged inferior and rightly deferential to their supposed betters, when possible a self-castration of the middle and lower classes through their own internalization of prevailing societal norms that are set from above.

Consumerism makes the accommodation painless, except when itself objectified as an appetite which can never be fully satisfied, or when the industrial-financial class dynamics prove to be exploitative as well as depression-prone, in which case consumerism is temporarily dethroned by the harshness of poverty, disease, apathy. For most, even then, it remains the aspirational trump card of capitalism, the seedbed of false consciousness germinated by the epistemology of capitalism’s commodity structure. Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 is still our best guide to the societal formation of ALIENATION, the mind-numbing, dehumanizing historical process within which we find ourselves, and key to the commodity fetishism which tyrannizes over us and helps explain the lack of resistance to the institutions of repression.

If we abstract deceit as a salient element from the familiar mythopoeic characterization of Sisyphus (ascribed to him not only because of his treating in human affairs but also because of his challenge to the Greek gods), we have, in his ceaseless labor of rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, only to see it roll back of its own power to the bottom, an example of DEFIANCE and, I might add, courage in the face of adversity. Sisyphus is a fighter, a quester after, perhaps not knowledge, but rather identity and fulfillment. It is the act of struggle (as in Titian’s painting), and the thoughts running through his head as the rock returns to the base, that is ennobling. Camus emphasizes the absurdity, the repetitive act of pushing the rock upward, only for it to fall back, as, even then, a salutary life-experience because what is absurd has been converted into a purposeful existence. Somewhere between Homer and Camus we discover the heroic dimensions of Sisyphus.

And so, if I insert capitalism into the picture, for many, ceaseless labor, and the cultural assault on reason to bludgeon the critical sensibility capable of penetrating institutions of repression as a necessary condition of its security and stability, we find a societal context in which prototypic Sisyphean resistance, however difficult to be achieved, must be continued–the alternative being a perpetual state of alienation combined with authoritarian rule. This, I submit, is the direction America has taken and already progressed quite far. Therefore, by necessity, we are all Sisyphus, accepting struggle as the path to freedom, pushing forward until the mountain top has been reached and backward societal motion ceases. (I am suddenly reminded of Dr. King’s words about having seen the Mountain, and I believe that like him the Promised Land is not to be equated with contemporary capitalism.)

Struggle, as with Sisyphus, unleashes mental energies otherwise lying dormant, a consciousness of societal transformation and individual conviction/commitment only possible under today’s conditions of manipulation, surveillance, and a settled war-psychology, when Negation, both as the ability and willingness to say No to the existing structure of power and system of values, is resolutely maintained, in defeat, bloodied, yet rising up again and again, against the organized forces of wealth, power, militarism, together, at bottom, a compost of decaying Empire and its spirit of nihilism. At some point, democratic structure and practice will win out, if one accepts the Sisyphean paradigm of embarking on the quest in the first place and refusing legitimation to the mere affirmation of what exists. One must leap beyond Camus, activating the meaning of the absurd into a militant defiance wherein every meaningless, inhumane request and burden placed on the individual by society is met by a simple yet persistent and resounding NO!

Here Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” comes into view, its subtitle especially—Wall Street, not Main Street, or Elm Street, or the street Dick and Jane lived on, in my third grade reader—reveals the author’s intent, the new archetypal figure of American capitalism surrounded by walls, hemmed in by walls, staring out of his nakedly bare room onto a blank wall, thrown back upon his own resources, tightly-coiled, ready to spring, also, like Sisyphus, storing up the energy to say No to the repression holding him back. We find in Bartleby that No=Defiance=Sought-for Liberation, in a societal context intended to mutilate the individual, destroy his/her will, reduced to a powerless cipher destined to remain in the cubicle which defines the life of alienation. Yet, Bartleby fights back, still in the only way he knows how, “I would prefer not to,” in response to every dehumanizing request and/or order made to him: total non-complicity with the SYSTEM, in sum, a silence which is deafening, this deafening Silence, negation at its shrillest, capable of knocking down structures dependent on passive consent—acquiescence in the consumerist rite, even when long out of reach to those mired in poverty.

Those who doubt Melville did battle with alienation (Bartleby’s story) or false consciousness in Moby Dick (the struggle of Ahab to assert his personhood) have not come to terms with his critical spirit and inceptive radicalism, Pierre, the novel, falling between Bartleby and Moby Dick from the standpoint of the vital and necessary search for transcendence in an awakening but increasingly false, confining, undemocratic America. Like Sisyphus, the failure of transcendence dooms the individual to the bottom of the mountain, crushed under the rock of capitalism, or perhaps worse, not crushed in body so much as spirit, yielding to the paralysis of will, opposite to the declaration of negation directed against all things repressive. By that I do not mean the repression-free polymorphous sexuality of Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, a vision of liberation having little socioeconomic meaning and content, but Melville’s vision of the disciplined pursuit of freedom, transcendence, the epistemological break with a purportedly American Innocence.

Sisyphus and Bartleby, alike, bode ill for the homogenization of American repression; they are rebels where rebellion is not wanted, is in fact a cardinal sin. In our own time, following them, we must say No to war, No to intervention, No to climate change, No to a fiercely unjust system of wealth distribution, No to racism, xenophobia, ethnocentrism, No, therefore, to an American exceptionalism which itself contains the positivism of hegemony, exploitation, repression, and other presumed truths of the human condition. Negation, on behalf of freedom, positivism, on behalf of status-quo repression, Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” an emphatic affirmation of life through the negation of its unjust, inhumane consequences. His statement, in contrast to the narrator’s (his employer’s complacence), is not contrariness for its own sake, and instead, a principled opposition to the forces of alienation, hence, a manifesto of wholeness to be realized beyond the walls of Wall Street. Bartleby finds no salvation, only imprisonment, starvation, and death within the prison walls, an ending that perhaps awaits us all. But Bartleby, if I may, kept the faith, neither compromising his will nor conceding to the standards of conventional wisdom a moral legitimation which buttresses capitalism against alternative formations and dissenting opinions. Even our narrator glimpses tragedy, when he exclaims at the end, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”

The fight must continue.

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Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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