The 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest movement adopted what on first blush appears to be a peculiar literary mascot: Bartleby the scrivener, one of the two protagonists of the Story of Wall Street penned by Herman Melville in the middle of the nineteenth-century. But this empathic identity of interests between twenty-first-century street protesters pushing back against the dominance of the .01% and a pathetic, melancholic, cadaverous, anorexic, apparently suicidal, and fictional mid-nineteenth-century legal scrivener is decidedly odd.
In this paper, I ask and try to answer this question: what did the OWS protesters recognize in Bartleby that sparked their empathic identification? More broadly, what is it, in Bartleby and in his recalcitrance, that is recognizably and deeply human? Ultimately, I argue that Bartleby the man can be understood to suffer from an extreme case of what I call “consensual dysphoria,” a disorienting and disabling consciousness of a radical disjuncture between one’s felt subjective pleasures and pains, and the transactions and states of the world to which one gives one’s free or voluntary consent. Consensual dysphoria, as I will describe it, is an affliction felt by individuals, but it is not a psychological malady. It is, rather, a political malady felt by individuals in liberal states, and brought on by the powers of political rhetoric and influence. I claim that consensual dysphoria has been an acutely felt part of the consciousness of both the classical legal thought of the mid-nineteenth-century and the liberal legalist thought of our own time. Melville’s Bartleby had that condition in extremis, and the twenty-first-century protesters suffer from it as well. That commonality, I suggest, lays the groundwork for the otherwise inexplicable empathic bond between them.
The first part of this paper discusses some of the scholarly literature on Bartleby, with an eye toward elucidating why it is that so few scholars have felt the need to understand Bartleby’s political malady – or more generally, to understand his humanity. The second part discusses the jurisprudential background and content of the story, expanding where need be on Brook Thomas’s similarly motivated account from the 1980s. The third and fourth parts introduce the idea of “consensual dysphoria” as an individualized, psychic manifestation of some of the discomforts attendant to liberal and neoliberal markets and state organization, and makes the case that this is the essence of Bartleby’s affliction. I conclude with some observations about the OWS movement informed by some aspects of this analysis.
Scholarly Commons Citation
West, Robin, "Bartleby’s Consensual Dysphoria" (2016). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 1995.