Foucault's Creed in Bartleby: The Scrivner


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An exploration of panopticism and popular ideas of disciplinary control in one of my favorite stories, Bartleby: The Scrivner. Bartleby is the disobedient copywriter whose mysterious apathetic repose both confuses and intrigues his boss, the narrator. In applying both Foucault’s panopticism to the spatial organization of the room, and his notions of inequality found in The History of Sexuality, it becomes apparent that Bartleby’s disobedience serves two functions: (1) to enforce the disciplinary structure of the workplace; and (2) to act as a source of pleasure for his persecutor, the narrator.

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Foucault's Creed in Bartleby: The Scrivner

  1. 1. (SAMPLE ONLY)Gilian OrtillanENGL 3300-S50Romy KozakDecember 14, 2007 Foucault’s Creed in Bartleby: The Scrivener Philosopher Michel Foucault famously analogizes his beliefs about the nature ofpower and subordination with a description of the Panopticon. Rather than taking theconventional approach of examining how power is acted upon people, Foucault uses thearchitecture of the Panopticon to disseminate how power is internalized, naturalized andeven enjoyed by those who are regulated by it. The characters in Bartleby, The Scrivenerperfectly demonstrate how this occurs. In this narrative, a naive, unassertive lawyersomehow maintains his position as the boss of three scriveners, all of whom exhibitpeculiar behavioral patterns. The narrator becomes preoccupied in his observations ofone scrivener in particular: Bartleby, who coolly resists all of his commands. AlthoughBartleby commits numerous offences that would normally result in termination of one’sjob, his boss continues to employ him and tries to unravel the enigmatic Bartleby. Inapplying both Foucault’s panopticism to the spatial organization of the room, and hisnotions of inequality found in “The History of Sexuality,” it becomes apparent thatBartleby’s disobedience serves two functions: (1) to enforce the disciplinary structure ofthe workplace; and (2) to act as a source of pleasure for his persecutor, the narrator. Panopticism is a system of discipline and social control in which the subjects notonly internalize control, but also gain pleasure from their roles in subordinate positions.The Panopticon was a prison design by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham thatallowed for prisoners to be monitored with little manpower and little effort. The structureconsists of rings of individual prison cells encompassing a central tower, which serves as
  2. 2. an observatory. Because of the distance of the central tower from the cells, the watchmenact as an omniscient, invisible force that observes the inmates. The cells are also dividedlaterally, so that the inhabitants are dissociated and cannot conspire with one another.The inhabitants are always aware that they are being observed, which assures the“automatic functioning of power” (Foucault, 554). In this prison design, architecture isimperative to gaining immediate, automatic control. However, in Bartleby’s narrator’slayout of his office, he unwittingly sabotages some of the vital architectural features ofthe Panopticon which allows Bartleby to deter from the workplace’s Panoptical system ofsocial control. Firstly, Turkey and Nippers, the other two scriveners, share a workspace withoutBartleby. According to principles of the Panopticon design, the separation of individualsthrough cells, disciplinary partitioning, implies a lateral invisibility that ensures orderand prevents conspiracy (Foucault, 554). Thus, because Turkey and Nippers are notseparated, they are able to peacefully coexist, and even form a dichotic relationship.Despite their union, they are still subordinated by the workplace’s mechanism of socialcontrol: they are viewable through folding glass doors, have invested in the power thecentral authority and perform agreeably. As for Bartleby, a screen shields him from theview of the authority, and a glass door isolates him from the other scriveners. Bartlebyallocates an undefined space: he is neither observed by the authority nor associated withthe other scriveners, so he is virtually invisible among everyone else. His space isisolated and does not fit in the mechanical structure of the office; therefore he is ananomaly in the workplace and behaves so. 2
  3. 3. Foucault also states that “perfection of power should tend to render its actions of exerciseunnecessary” (Foucault, 554). In other words, the presence of the central authority (thenarrator) is irrelevant in the Panoptical system of social control. Because the disciplinehas been internalized, the physical presence of the power becomes irrelevant. InBartleby, the narrator does not exercise forceful control over Turkey and Nippers, andthey do not resist his commands. For instance, when Turkey addresses his boss, hefrequently begins with the phrase “with submission” (Melville, 21), openly expressing hisassent to being inferior. Bartleby, in contrast, continuously refuses the requests of hisboss with the phrase, “I would prefer not to.” Another example of how Turkey andNippers differ from Bartleby is when the narrator is given a large amount of documentsto review. He requires the help of all of his employees for this task, and when he callsupon his scriveners to be seated in a row at a table, and they peacefully comply (26). Theprotocol that is used mirrors one described by Foucault. When the plague struck in the17th century, strict procedures were implemented to regulate the town and ensure that thedisease did not spread. A syndic would call upon all of the citizens to the windows to besure that not only are they accounted for, but that they are healthy, productive peoples(Foucault, 551). Likewise in Bartleby, when the narrator calls upon all the scriveners tobe seated in a row to examine documents together, Turkey and Nippers, who internalizedinto their own bodies the power over them, make themselves accounted for. (557)“General principle…discipline.”(sample only) 3
  4. 4. Works CitedFoucault, Michel. “Discipline and Punish.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 549-565.Foucault, Michel. “The History of Sexuality.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 892-899.Melville, Herman. Bartleby, The Scrivener. Malden, MA: Kessinger, 2004. 4