The Man Without References


“Will you tell me, Bartleby, where you were born?”
“I would prefer not to.”
“Will you tell me any thing about yourself?”
“I would prefer not to.”

What is it to be without references? Unemployable? Dangerous? Perhaps no reference is better than a bad one? In Herman Melville’s short story, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853), the reader is introduced to a man with neither references nor any desire for relation but who, nevertheless, has a powerful effect on those around him. He appears without warning: ‘a motionless young man one morning, stood upon my office threshold’. He is ‘pallidly neat, pitiably respectable’. Bartleby’s appearance without context instantly unhinges normal procedures: he is employed without references. Time does not alter this lack of provenance. He works well, but with a disquieting reserve that throws into contrast the flurry of the office. It seems he hardly moves at all:

‘I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed that he never went anywhere. As yet I had never of my personal knowledge known him to be outside of my office. He was a perpetual sentry in the corner.’

This immobility, however unsettling to the normal flux of the offices, takes on an oddly comforting, if two-dimensional, aspect:

‘As days passed on, I became considerably reconciled to Bartleby. His steadiness, his freedom from all dissipation, his incessant industry…his great stillness, his unalterableness of demeanor under all circumstances, made him a valuable acquisition. One prime thing was this,—he was always there;—first in the morning, continually through the day, and the last at night.’

Nevertheless, this stasis gradually becomes a disturbance. Bartleby comes to be experienced as more of a fixture than a man. He is hinged somewhere between architectural fitting, object and image. He is certainly present, it is his presence after all that causes the disturbance, but just as certainly not present in the way that others are. His job is to make accurate copies of legal documents. Initially this is what he does, but it is in the verifying of the copy that problems ensue. The verification process, which is ‘an indispensable part of a scrivener’s business’, entails two or more scriveners assisting each other: ‘one reading from the copy, the other holding the original.’ When asked to perform this duty, Bartleby replies that he ‘would prefer not to.’ This response is neither an agreement nor an outright refusal. It deflates such structures. The bewildered lawyer simply does not know how to respond. The other scriveners threaten violence. In keeping with the original disturbance of the norm, the employment of a man without references, the lawyer allows him not to perform this duty. He defers taking action upon Bartleby’s preference not to participate. Besides, his copying work is always perfect. Time passes around the unchanging fixedness of Bartleby. Then one day he delivers the next catastrophic blow to order:


What is it to be a copyist who does not copy? Unlike the broken tool, Bartleby is neither working nor broken. Unlike the broken object which becomes available to aesthetic discourse, he is the potential to work which does not produce. It is through withholding action that the fullness of his potential becomes manifest. It is here that the fixture that he has become, more unsettling even than a desk -because he animates those around him to fury- and, worse still, to passivity, turns cadaverous. He is no longer ordinarily present and yet, since we have no other frame of reference within which to place him, he remains awfully rooted to his spot.

After preferring once again not to tell ‘who he was, or whence he came, or whether he had any relatives in the world’ the lawyer demands that he either resumes work or leaves. Bartleby elects neither. His power once again deflated, the lawyer solves the problem of Bartleby’s preference not to choose either option by moving himself to new offices. Bartleby remains and, when ejected physically from the office by the new tenants, ‘persists in haunting the (communal areas of the) building generally.’ Eventually the police are summoned and he is ‘removed to the Tombs as a vagrant.’ Since the lawyer has become the only visible point of reference to Bartleby as far as the law (and the story – it is his story) is concerned, he is asked to appear at the Tombs, the Halls of Justice, to ‘make a suitable statement of the facts.’ How then to represent Bartleby? His resistance to reference, his lack of substance means that he is indefensible. He cannot be given a good reference.

Melville wrote Bartleby at a time when industrialization and mechanization were transforming the arts. There were many new magazines for which one could write to earn a living, but for which compromises were expected to be made. Melville was resistant to the demands of a kind of writing which used coercive formulas to seduce mass audiences. For a writer to find his own voice, he must, of course, navigate the influence of other writers. Guides are sought, but must not simply be imitated. This complex process of attempting not to copy manifests itself sceptically in Bartleby, wherein the act of writing is reduced to copying. The only meaningful, if failed, attempts at communication in the story are relegated to dead letters. If the only option for the author in the new age is to mechanically copy, what would happen, Melville asks, if one were to refuse, if one were to stop copying? This question may also be asked of the photographer. Melville writes a story for a magazine in which he asks the reader to remain vigilant of copy.

The division of substance from form was of profound concern to Melville. For him, as he shows in Bartleby, the removal of desire to experience the world (through travel, for example) by the seeming availability of the world through reproduction was not an opening up of communication, but an early form of the transmission of information as food without substance. Hence Bartleby’s general lack of appetite (he seemed to live only on ginger-nuts!) and later his refusal of all food in the prison leading to his starvation and death.

Melville’s scepticism about the effects of mass reproduction on the art and, indeed, on artists themselves as producers, should be understood here not as a reactionary response to new technologies, but to what he saw as an emptying out of participation in life, a removal of relation, of reference, of experience, of the distances between things. The flattening out of distance that the photograph offers may resemble life, but it is not life. It is a desirous yet in-appetitive relation to the real which, if critiqued through the figure of Bartleby, nevertheless pulsates with the potential to destroy order, habit and jargon. I have been alluding to the opportunities Bartleby offers as metaphor for photography. Bartleby is neither broken (dead) nor working (living as producing); he is all surface, an image which suddenly appears unhinged from its references. Such indeed is the general history of technology: each new medium of modernity presented to us as if the perfect answer to the moment, with no trace of historical relation, and no sense of its future obsolescence. Bartleby’s story is death-bound from the start. He appears without characteristics through which to understand him other than liminally. Refusing to participate, he soon figures heavily in space in a leaden, cadaverous way as furniture -rooted to his spot- or as a corner of sorts. Refusing to work, he becomes ethereal, formlessly haunting of the whole building. The man who refuses to move from his spot is accused of vagrancy. He is incarcerated for haunting the building to which he does not belong.

The story proper ends and is immediately followed with the only piece of secondary evidence on Bartleby, ‘a vague report…one little item of rumour.’ The lawyer seems at odds with offering this second-hand snippet, but feels, despite his reservations, that it ought to be written, if in a hushed voice and only after the story is over. It concerns Bartleby’s past:

‘The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring: -the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity: -he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.’

This single piece of unqualified information is offered only as hearsay, hence the narrator’s reservations – he is a man of facts after all. This information after the fact is an undoing of the story, an “Oh, I get it”, for the reader. It is a devastating compromise to the story’s qualities. It seems that Bartleby can only be revealed in some comprehensible way to the reader after death. What it reveals is a desire for the kind of end that Bartleby, as photographic figure, cannot provide. He is the undoing of this kind of unity. The heart-rending futilities indicated in the list of lost contacts, gifts offered and unknowingly not received, are almost too much for the sentimentalities of the man of law to comprehend. They can be redeemed not by having once passed through Bartleby’s hands, but through having been written by the narrator. It is the lawyer’s story after all, his attempt to write the impossible, to produce for posterity a man without references.

I am not suggesting that to experiment fully with photography one must ultimately cease photographing in order to live – quite the contrary, without this we would not be offered the critical modes and potentials for resistance as suggested by the figure of Bartleby. It is, simply, that one must attend to the photograph critically, sceptically even, for it not to simply become food without substance, the redeeming picture of the abandoned corpse rather than the wilder, more critical possibilities of the subject as abandonment itself.

  • About

    Becky Beasley is an artist based in Antwerp, Belgium. She is represented by Laura Bartlett Gallery, London and Office Baroque, Antwerp. In 2008 she participated in exhibitions at Kunsthalle Basel and Galleria Civica Modena. Her first monograph, American Letter, was published by Laura Bartlett Gallery in 2007.

    Her entry and artist's pages 'The Man Without References' appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 2/ Human & Divine, available here for purchase.