Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville recounts the tale of a humble copyist employed by the story's narrator. Could Bartleby's perfectly crafted refrain be the appropriate response to a world where every choice and configuration has been designed?" /> Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville recounts the tale of a humble copyist employed by the story's narrator. Could Bartleby's perfectly crafted refrain be the appropriate response to a world where every choice and configuration has been designed?" />

Dmitri Siegel | Essays


In his classic story of Wall Street, Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville recounts the tale of a humble copyist employed by the story's narrator, a lawyer whose name we never learn. Initially, Bartleby performs remarkably, "working day and if long famished for something to copy." But his productivity stops suddenly. He does not refuse to work, he does not leave, he simply and without malice responds to every one of the lawyer's requests, "I prefer not to." The lawyer contemplates all sorts of responses to Bartleby's intransigence: compelling Bartleby to work, berating him, forcing him to leave. But the scrivener's language and his demeanor deter the lawyer. He is captivated by Bartleby's "steadiness, his freedom from all dissipation...his great stillness, his unalterableness of demeanor under all circumstances." Ultimately, the lawyer moves his entire office rather than contradict Bartleby's preference not to.

What can we learn about design from a man who preferred not to?

In a seminar at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena this fall, Bruce Hainley and I posed precisely this question to our students. Could Bartleby's perfectly crafted refrain be the appropriate response to a world where every choice and configuration has been designed? Would Bartleby's steadfast evasion of work even be possible today, when all of our leisure activities have been replaced by their functional equivalents, from home improvement to working-out?

In this seamless flow of functionality even not working has become work. Every step of the way design is transforming choice into a network of sub-menus, converting free time into boredom. Instead of reinforcing this functionality, how could Design act as a Bartleby to the lawyers of the world? How would one design Bartleby™?

In The Substance of Style, cultural critic Virginia Postrel enthuses about mass customization and the proliferation of options that design provides. Bartleby's is a provocative stance against this kind of prescribed circumscribed "choice," where T-shirts are made in every shade of irony, and jeans are mass-"personalized" in every bouquet of distress. The proliferation of options crowds out the fundamental kind of choice that Bartleby represents. In Potentialities the philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes, "As a scribe who has stopped writing, Bartleby is the extreme figure of the Nothing from which all creation derives; and at the same time, he constitutes the most implacable vindication of this Nothing as pure, absolute potentiality." Agamben invokes Liebniz's idea of contingency, saying that Bartleby embodies, "the contingent, which can be or not be and which coincides with the domain of human freedom in its opposition to necessity." This is precisely the freedom that is being compromised by the avalanche of superficial "choices" and "options" that surface design creates. When the purpose of design is formulated as a way to create difference through style, choice itself becomes a necessity and potentiality is replaced by finite potential (select from this list of background colors). Contingency is replaced by customization.

It is no coincidence that Melville finds his enthusiastically reluctant hero on Wall Street — the capital of capital. Bartleby's contingency had to emerge in direct opposition to the dominant organizing principle of modern life: work. But thanks in large part to design, this kind of separation from work has become very difficult to achieve. In his essay "Free Time," philosopher Theodor Adorno explains how our time away from work has gradually been filled with economically productive activities masquerading as leisure. He further explains how we become habituated to this functionalization, so that when we have free time we don't feel relaxed, but instead feel an anxiety to function, commonly known as boredom. Consider how much time we spend navigating menus on well-designed hand-held devices, or immersing ourselves in shopping environments designed to feel like "experiences," or mastering gourmet cooking techniques in our restaurant-style kitchens. Design does not create values or culture, but it is the primary means through which these values are integrated into daily life. In an ironic twist, design has itself become a leisure activity. People come home after working an eight-hour day and program their website or learn how to apply an aged-crackle finish to their bathroom walls. These used to be jobs (and rather unpleasant ones at that) but they have been repackaged as hobbies.

Bartleby's act of inaction neutralizes this totalization of work and in so doing he calls out to a common humanity in his boss. In American Fictions, her examination of the literary history of Manhattan, Elizabeth Hardwick says, "Melville's structure is magical because the lawyer creates Bartleby by allowing him to be, a decision of nicely unprofessional impracticality." Unprofessionality is exactly the point. The lawyer too, has to compromise his work to engage with Bartleby. He walks home "suffering much from perplexity and distress of mind." He tolerates; he mulls, but he does nothing. In fact, he says that each refused request, "only tended to lessen the probability of my repeating the inadvertence." At one point Bartleby responds to a request from the lawyer by suggesting that he walk around the block two or three times; and the lawyer does so, despite "sundry twinges of impotent rebellion against the mild effrontery of this unaccountable scrivener." Through his own unworking, Bartleby manages to unwork the lawyer as well.

The relationship between Bartleby and the lawyer is a striking metaphor for the relationship between consumer and product. In the current economy of individuality and perpetual "choice" (have you calibrated your preferences on MySpace today?) what would Bartleby the product look like? Bartleby™ would be absolutely definite but not particular. Bartleby™ would not work — and it would unwork its consumer as well. You could spend hours mulling over what to do with Bartleby™; but ultimately you wouldn't do anything. Bartleby™ would be a source of potential; it would require no choices and it wouldn't provide any, either. Most of all, Bartleby™ would produce urgent procrastination in its consumer. I believe design is capable of engendering this kind of complex emotional attachment and that, by striving to, design may give people access to the void outside of choice and work that has been slowly drained from our everyday lives.

Dmitri Siegel is a designer and writer whose writing has appeared in Dot Dot Dot, Emigre, Design Issues and Adbusters; he also publishes Ante Magazine, a journal of visual culture and is creative director of Anathema, a magazine dedicated to the pursuit of unacceptable ideas. He is currently an art director for the Sundance Channel and teaches in the criticism and theory graduate program at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media, Theory + Criticism

Comments [19]


Thanks, Mr. Siegel. The design world could use more discussions about Melville.
matt kirkland

I am not sure that the relationship and tension between Bartleby and the lawyer serves as a metaphor between the consumer and the product (even in the everyday consumers generally like their products and their choices). Perhaps it is more powerful to think of this relationship as an analog for the perfectly designed project, a project that allows one to live life, rather than manage contemporary "experiences". Of course one wonders how one could design anything at all if one started off with the stance of "I prefer not to". Who knows, maybe it is possible. Think of the classic battles between parent and child over homework or cleaning up the room or learning to think independently that end in the parent's short-term frustrations but the child's long term maturation - hopefully. Of course, design projects usually don't have the luxury of fifteen to twenty years of formulation before solution. Thank goodness we are not designed, yet.

What about that annoying "TM"? How can one trade mark and bottle resistance? The cuteness of this idea seems fashionably sloppy (Rem already did it and it was sloppy here too) - even though I admire Siegal's prospect of design within everyday ambitions and the mental gymnastics of exercising the prospect of the everyday within the culture of design.
Bernard Pez

What a refreshing idea.
Leisure. I like it.
Nathan Philpot

Thanks for this wonderful essay. I have long been interested in Bartelby the copyist as a metaphor for the breakdown of representation; in other words, the flow of representation or the circulation of the sign stops here. "I prefer not to." It strikes me that Bartelby's "perfectly crafted refrain," as you put it, is a value-laden action or non-action, as it were. That this non-action appears within the context of the law seems apropos of your thought experiment. Thus, I'm curious about what you mean by, "Design does not create values or culture, but it is the primary means through which these values are integrated into daily life." How is it that design doesn't create values or culture if design is an informed action or non-action?
Michael J. Golec

Great essay! It strikes me that Bartelby does the same thing that great art does, it makes you stop readdress and realign
your reality. A good measure for the lasting value of a piece of work.

Bartleby's "non-action" is really a very forceful action. That of NOT doing whatever is asked. It seems one cannot productize this response to the "functionalization" of our spare time because the product would have to be, by definition, NOT a product. A non-product would be non-marketable, non-popular, and a destructive waste of time (to negate "functionalization"). If this became popular or was marketed, it would end up being another product. If you were to ask Bartleby if you could turn him into a product, I'm sure he would "prefer not to."

I also think that the "functionalization" of our spare time is merely a drive to get better at what we do, both professionally and with our hobbies. For me this drive is about self-improvement and learning. I don't see this as a negative.
David Woodward

Thanks for reminding me of this mysterious and provocative short story. Barleby's statement may also be considered an early counterpart of the option to "just say no" about anything. Choice and responsibility are always present.
Nathan Garland

I'd like to pick up on a couple of the excellent points raised so far:

I like how you have imagined Bartelby becoming a successful and ubiquitous product instead of a niche one, but I disagree that this would defeat the purpose. If we take your premise to the extreme and imagine Bartebly being an oppressive commerical presence like, say McDonald's, this would transfrom "prefering to" into a transgressive and thoughtful act.

Your question, "How is it that design doesn't create values or culture if design is an informed action or non-action?" is quite provocative. It touches on the point where the designer and critic in me part ways. Like most designers I want to believe that my work is powerful, but as a critic I take the stance that culture is driven by consumers not producers. Design is an instrument of power, but in and of itself it has none, even when it is done well.
Dmitri Siegel

I take your point. The analogy of the lawyer and his firm's relocation, rather than having to contend with B's refusal, informs your view of the designer's role in culture. The outcome is that the firm is now free to employ a copyist who will go along with the program, just as the firm is free to employ designers to do their bidding. I'm less certain, however, that design is an "instrument of power," as you say. For example, one might observe that designers are consumers as much as they are producers, or that they are consumers first and producers second. If culture is consumption driven, then designers as consumers certainly figure more prominently in the power structure. But, this isn't exactly what you mean. From the "culture industry" perspective, designers might be viewed as mere cultural workers who confront, consciously or otherwise, limits of possibility—as limits are defined by the strategies of advertising and marketing—and not levels of potential. Another view, one more informed by American culture as such, is that of C.W. Mills, who observes, "The American designer is at once a central figure in [...] the cultural apparatus and an important adjunct of a very peculiar kind of economy." For Mills, culture is driven by capitalism. Understanding the economic context of cultural production is, as Mills says, "the major key to understanding both the quality of everyday life and the situation of culture in America today." Under this description, the salesperson rather than the designer is a cultural force in his or her response to economic concerns, such as maximizing profit. Some critics might claim that Mills responds to an overly reduced concept of culture as a unified field of expression. Mills and Adorno and Horkheimer overdetermine the homogenization of culture within a market context, although the market does have a tendency to homogenize culture or to create the illusion of heterogeneity. A more thorough account of the power relations might acknowledge that what constitutes cultural participation can be parsed into various degrees of action, while also submitting to the structuring restraints exercised on culture by the market. Perhaps B's inaction constitutes an action that forces a reconfiguration of power relations, no matter how subtle the shift might be.

Michael J. Golec

Very interesting metaphor. However, perhaps i'm confused, but i really dont see, the relationship though.

I also find the insight that consumers end up "designing" in their free time enlightning, but are you saying that design can bring back this true "free time"? Is that something the consumer wants?

But what if the consumer demands some kind of self-actualisation ritual as a means to spend free time? Is it not the newer products today designed for self expression? Is it not the whole concept of free time doing something that one enjoys? So i interact with say my Hi-Fi system because i enjoy tweaking all its nuances?

Consumer are complex and if an experience is not good, than what use is the product? So at the end of the day why should we design "Bartelby" products that do nothing, when we all know consumers crave authentic experiences?

I like this idea of various degrees of action that Michael mentions. I also like to think of how it relates to design by way of the Vilém Flusser essay -- Design: Obstacle for/to the Removal of Obstacles. In the most simple summation from my sketchy memory I remember the essay being about how so much time is spent designing solutions to smooth over failed design solutions. I'm sure on closer reading the essay says much more than this, but still it may be an eloquent argument for a certain damned if you do/don't approach to designing culture. A marching, sign-carrying parade in support of inaction. Inact now!

But... not really, of course. Not practically. In practice, I think a honest decision to do nothing is more like what Bartleby's employer/protector realizes in his epiphany that "Either you must do something, or something must be done to you." I think I agree that in light of this, I also choose to see Bartleby's inaction as a form of action in the end. Maybe hopefully or optimistically, or to justify my constant busyness (which might be better written as business). And as a believer in leisure I see the leisure in B's in/action as ultimately producing something of value in the same way that something like a grand canyon can be both a beautiful absence and an inarguable presence.

And the relationship between all this and the product world? Don't know really. I think that with a long abiding interest in staring at walls, I see no better Bartleby than a nice, empty, non-crackle finished, uninterrupted, un-applied surface. Motionless and primed for staring.

The designer is
the greatest consumer yet
do not kid yourself.

Making things is man
I prefer not to be one
because I'm tired.

So many words here
It's late, can't you see the clock?
Draw my self to sleep.

Nothing to add here
Except not adding pictures.
Design wants me dead.
Sinclair Smith

As Matt kikland said above: "The design world could use more discussions about Melville."

A while ago, I wrote an essay called "Bartleby, the Designer." It is written in Portuguese, but here is a partial translation:

"[...] What interests me here is not so much the plot itself, but Bartleby's job description. He is a scrivener, someone who copies office documents by hand, caring about their visual appearance and their reproduction when there weren't any laser printers, inkjet printers or even typewriters and carbon copies. And that is pretty much what many designers do nowadays: taking care of the visual appearance of corporate documents, internal and external. The labour reorganization caused by personal computers gave birth to the Scrivener-Designer - the most common designer today. [...] He designs everything, from the letterhead to the annual report and the sign announcing that the coffee-machine is broken. [...] Although graphic designers like to believe they descend solely from typographers, admen, and the vanguards from the early twentieth century, the truth is that our ancestry changes over time and, today, the great-grandfather of most designers is the humble scrivener."

I think Bartleby the designed product did exist in That, uh, service has "improved" into a standard search engine, but it used to be a hilariously recalcitrant automated answering device which was famous for getting incredibly off-topic and twisted answers to even the simplest of questions. Jeeves, of course, did not act on preference but it certainly did seem willfully obtuse.

In that sense we are surrounded by Bartleby designs, especially in software. But it's not until all systems break down or "prefer not to," that we will bemusedly say, "All right then," and recapture our leisure time. So it would seem that if Bartleby actually manifests as a product, that product will be a massive virus of some kind. and you know what they say: "The revolution will not be televised."
marian bantjes

A Bartelby Christmas

Giorgio Agamben's reading of Bartelby has a theological, or, better, "psychotheological" lining. In The Psychotheology of Everyday Life, Eric Santner, following Agamben, invites us to view holidays as exits from the relentless programming of the work-shop-drop world of the mass-mediated landscape by making contact with the truths of our condition, including birth, death, sex, and the labor of other people. Your posting makes me wonder what role design might play in recovering holidays in their "potentiality." Christmas with Bartleby means: "preferring not to" when the holiday does not relate to your spiritual interests and commitments; searching for genuine designs in the holiday's layered and conflicted history; fighting holiday sprawl by starting late and ending early; reorganizing routines in order to break the rhythm of the play-is-work-by-other-means approach to living.

Julia Lupton

But it's not until all systems break down or "prefer not to," that we will bemusedly say, "All right then," and recapture our leisure time.

I like the picture that popped into my head when Marian said this.

Imagine that the post-apocalyptic future begins not in the moment when, T2 , AI or whatever other ghosts and monsters in the machine "take over," but the moment when they "prefer not to."

That sounds like the Post-Contemporary Catharsis that Bartelby™ has already found. Then we'll will be on permanent holiday. Will we have to reinvent work, like we're trying to reinvent leisure now?
N. Silas Munro

I think more people than ever did now consider themselves "design savvy"--it's become a sort of universal good, like wanting to travel. And while I wholeheartedly throw myself in with that gang, the idea that mass customization is empowering is something I belive companies would like us to believe, but I think it's a smokescreen. It used to be that GM, or GE, or P&G made something, and you bought it because it fit the description of what you were looking for (more or less). There was something a little more direct in that sort of a relationship (i.e. "We the corporation make the thing, you buy the thing because it works and is priced appropriately. Now please leave us alone to go maximize our profits.") Now, the relationship is clouded with softer language that I don't buy. "We the corporation are working with you to make something that you're going to love. We're in this together. Let's be a great team and do something amazing." I liked the slightly more adversarial relationship--I knew where I stood.
Sam Grobart

But it's not until all systems break down or "prefer not to," that we will bemusedly say, "All right then," and recapture our leisure time.

In modern western society now, most of us don't need to work for our "needs." Life is easier (than say 100 years ago, or in 3rd World countries) and most of us are working for our "wants." At some point, when we're emotionally drained and stressed out, we step back and say - "what am I doing?" It may make more sense, from a holistic, humanistic, socio-technical viewpoint, to work less and enjoy our leisure. Some of us, not me of course, get caught up in this competitive, capitalism, consumerism, and we buy into this culture whereby we work tremendously hard to maintain our status, keep up with the Jones's, and of course, supply our kids with material goods, education and other "necessities" so that they too can enjoy this hectic, stressed out culture some day. Never mind that the material goods spoil them, and upon observing their stressed out parents, realizing that they really don't need to work at our level of insanity, opt out for a more moderate work/leisure trade-off, no - a much more one-sided leisure lifestyle, and become electronic gadget, materialistic, un-productive slackers.

Ok, this merely describes a small subset of our society. But, it may be something to think about and something to be wary of. As for the earlier comments upon mass-customization - corporate America is trying to find some ways to turn "wants" into "needs" and to keep their machines running.
Ed Garrity

A contribution by way of an extended quotation.

"Of course, architecture will save its particular nature, but only wherever it questions itself, whenever it denies or disrupts the form that conservative society expects of it. For if architecture is useless, and radically so, this very uselessness will signify strength in a world where cost/benefit justifications are required by social activists and corporate bankers alike. Once again, if there has lately been some reason to doubt the necessity of architecture, then the necessity of architecture may well be its non-necessity. As opposed to building, making architecture is not unlike burning matches without a purpose. This produces an intense pleasure that cannot be bought or sold. Such totally gratuitous consumption of architecture is ironically political in that it disturbs established structures." Bernard Tschumi, "The Pleasure of Architecture," Questions of Space, 1995.

Graphic design is ultimately pleasurable too, when it refuses to participate in the systems that drive its mechanics. "Pleasure" is too often--too easily--forgotten among deadlines, clients demands, bottom lines, job searches, insurance payments... But pleasure is a sign of our humanity.

As I am currently reading the entrance essays of new applicants to the school where I teach, I am struck by how many of these kids write that they want to be designers because they "like to do design." But among my current students, upon being asked what associations came to mind when the term "graphic design" was written on the chalkboard, they produced a list that included "communication, aesthetics, minimalism, service, client, visual, image, typography" et al. But "pleasure" was never a consideration. How is it possible that after four years of education, two classes of students no longer associate pleasure with their chosen craft? They may believe in "service, communication and client values," but how is this now a benefit to society?

I don't believe that my situation is an isolated one.
David Cabianca

Jobs | June 24