The assertion “I would prefer not to” has become the official motto of philosopher Slavoj Žižek. For those of us in critical theory and continental philosophy circles, it has even become a humorous meme. It’s always fun to use it whenever you feel like opposing the most mundane of things. But what exactly does it mean? What does Žižek have in mind here? In what way does it get at the essence of his “politics of subtraction”? He borrows these words from Herman Melville’s brilliant short story ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street’ (it’s well worth the read). In it, the protagonist Bartleby, at first, is a dutiful and productive employee, but soon begins to respond to all of the requests of his boss with “I would prefer not to”. He does less and less work. Instead, he prefers to stare out the window at a brick wall all day. The employer’s attempts to reason with Bartleby prove to be pointless. One day, the employer arrives at the office to discover that Bartleby has moved himself in. Things just keep on getting stranger from there. The takeaway is that Bartleby’s basic disposition of refusal expressed in his “I would prefer not to” throws the workplace into total disarray. Bartleby does nothing but this sort of doing nothing is far more effective than “doing something”. This is why one of Žižek’s refrains goes: “Sometimes doing nothing is the most violent thing to do” (Violence, p. 217).
For Žižek, this story provides us with a strategy for how to go about coping with our current geopolitical and economic deadlock, that is, what Mark Fisher called capitalist realism. This refers to the numbing acceptance that capitalism is here to stay and that there are no viable alternatives to it, since the 20th century disproved once and for all (or so was thought) the credibility of fascism and “socialism”. Nevertheless, even with the disgusting resurgence of fascistic tendencies in Western democracies, even with the left once again focusing attention on the economy and not merely on identity politics, even with the online culture war being waged by the right and the left, even with the immanent threat of climate change, even with the desire of many to shift from paradigmatic neoliberalism back to a postwar-style social democracy or the welfare state, there is still the looming, depressing, “realistic” consensus of capitalism — that there is still no real alternative. Žižek’s work has wrestled with these questions time and time again. He has proposed different ideas throughout his corpus. Never has he claimed to have the final answer(s) to the problems we’re facing. Rather, he offers us various tactics to consider, e.g., the Act, traversing the fantasy, over-identification with official ideology, identification with the sinthome, etc., and Bartleby or “preferring not to” is just one among the responses to global capitalism Žižek formulates, but it’s one we should certainly reflect on.
So, why would it be better for us to do nothing rather than something? That sounds really fucking stupid, right? Don’t we have to wholeheartedly affirm the lyrics of Aldous Snow’s song in Forgetting Sarah Marshall? “We gotta do something.” Žižek would respond to the lead singer and notorious Lothario with an emphatic “I would prefer not to”. But what kinds of nothing and something is he positing? Is there a doing something that actually serves to reinforce that which it opposes? Žižek thinks so, “Better to do nothing than to engage in localised acts whose ultimate function is to make the system run more smoothly (acts like providing space for the multitude of new subjectivities, and so on). The threat today is not passivity but pseudo-activity, the urge to “be active”, to “participate”, to mask the Nothingness of what goes on” (The Parallax View, p. 334).
Foucaultian-style resistance is what Žižek associates with doing “something”. Foucault wrote, “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, p. 95). Power and resistance, thus, form a kind of antagonistic enclosure and therein lies the problem. They are two sides of the same coin. They are a trap. This means that acts of resistance are ultimately affirmations of the very power they “resist”, since they take their cues from it. Worse, people end up becoming libidinally invested in the repetitions of this struggle — they enjoy resisting. Insofar as one is invested in specific types of resistance, one is (unconsciously) invested is the power that makes them possible. For Žižek, Bartleby escapes the very circuit of power and resistance — he occupies the “position of exteriority” that resistance is incapable of arriving at. One could argue that the central problem at the heart of Foucault’s theory of resistance (at least, his later theory of it) is that, for him, all we have to work with is what Lacan called the Symbolic order. Power and resistance are merely different points or positions within the Symbolic. However, Žižek would say, à la Lacan, that Foucault failed to recognize the Real, that is, the gaps within the Symbolic order itself. Foucault forgot about the Real. The Real itself was the Real of Foucault. To stand in the Real is to stand in a “position of exteriority”, which is precisely what Foucault thought to be impossible — but Bartleby hovers in the Real.
Another Žižekian approach to critiquing Foucaultian localized acts is by arguing that they are just forms of ideological disidentification and inherent (built-in) transgression. For Žižek, every ideology, Law, Symbolic order, etc., has three main strata. The first is the explicit rules, laws, prohibitions, standards and regulations of a given society. The second stratum is that of the implicit practices, loopholes and unwritten rules which serve as hidden supplements to the explicit level. The third one has to do with those activities society explicitly condemns or, at least, frowns upon, but secretly allows. Žižek conceptualizes this stratum in terms of ideological disidentification and inherent transgression. This is the Law’s “obscene supplement”. Althusser described how subjects come to identify with certain ideologies, which is something people certainly do. However, Žižek points out that this sort of identification with the explicit and implicit rules of the Law (ideology) necessitates a hidden ideological disidentification. This means that every effective ideology has a certain space of inherent transgression built inside of it that gives subjects a sense of freedom and distance from their ideology. This, of course, is a very subtle trick on the part of ideology and its mechanisms. It simulates a space outside of itself which only serves to keep us locked into the ideology we take ourselves to be at a distance from. For example, American ideology creates all sorts of spaces that seem to be either non-ideological or anti-ideological. These spaces include or have included rock concerts, bars, strip clubs, protests, unruly sporting events, comment sections on the internet, etc. People can go to these establishments and “transgress”, but this is inherent transgression, that is, a form of enjoyment (jouissance) that seems to transgress the rules of Law/ideology, but actually only serves to make us more subservient to it, more invested in it. None of these spaces stand as actual threats to the ideological order. Rather, they reinforce it. They convince us that we are not ideological puppets, but this is just a way to blind us to our strings. This is a brilliant insight on the part of Žižek.
Foucaultian forms of resistance can be viewed as merely instances of ideological disidentification. Localized acts have certainly not brought down the capitalist system. On the contrary, they seem to make it more powerful. Baudrillard alludes to this issue in his discussion of the hippies. “The question would seem rather to be the following: do the hippies and their community represent a real alternative to the processes of growth and consumption? Are they not merely the inverted and complementary image of those processes? Are they an ‘anti-society’, ultimately capable of overturning the whole social order, or are they merely a decadent outgrowth of that order — or even simply one of the many versions of the visionary sects which have always cast themselves out of the world in order imperatively to bring about the earthly paradise?” (The Consumer Society, p. 180). The Baudrillardian implication being that the hippies only simulated challenge, threat, resistance. They never really stood as an actual enemy to capitalism. Hippie culture was always a commodified identity. The hippies were a chain of empty sign-values that carried the connotations of rebellion, otherness, enlightenment, authenticity, but without any meaningful referents. As Baudrillard put it, “The hippies immediately made headlines in the West. With its fondness for primitive societies, the consumer society immediately seized on them as part of its folklore, like a strange, inoffensive flora. Are they not ultimately, from a sociological point of view, merely a luxury product of rich societies? Are not they, with their orientalist spirituality, their gaudy psychedelia, also marginals who merely exacerbate certain traits of their society?” (The Consumer Society, p. 180).
There is a certain Baudrillardian aspect to Žižek’s critique of Foucault’s politics of resistance and its “pseudo-activity”. Localised acts, e.g., what Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams call “folk politics” in Inventing the Future, are often just simulacra (third-order simulations to be exact); they are signs of political resistance without any real, corresponding referents. This is what makes them pseudo-activity. Resistance is the “activity” of simulating various challenges and oppositions that threaten the system, but which, in fact, only serve to make the system all the more durable. This sort of pseudo-act only makes power appear open to challenge. It’s not. It convinces us that we are changing things, that we are doing something, when we are not. Resistance “masks the absence of a profound reality” (Simulacra and Simulation, p. 6), which, in this case, would be the absence of true political actions capable of fundamentally challenging the structure of the system and bringing about a shift to a new Symbolic order. Baudrillard would say Žižek is correct to argue that power and resistance form one overarching network of control. The power of capitalism is that it accommodates all of its various forms of resistance. This doing “something” is dangerous and problematic insofar as it merely simulates resistance, challenge, duel, etc. Better to do nothing than to simulate doing “something”, since the latter only increases the power of the capitalist Symbolic order.
Žižek wants us to break out of the loop of localized acts. We can interpret this in Deleuzian terms. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze makes a distinction between repetitions of the same and repetitions of difference. The latter sounds very counterintuitive, but it makes a lot of sense. Repetition of difference is, for Deleuze, the production of something new. Consider the following example. Glenn Gould, Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, three great classical pianists, all recorded interpretations of the famous first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Each interpretation stands on its own. None of them are reducible to the others. Each one has its own feeling about it. And yet all three pianists played the exact same notes. They repeated Beethoven’s composition but in ways that produced difference, that is, each interpretation produced something novel and original. Beethoven’s composition contained all of these virtual singularities, these larval potentialities, but it was the pianists themselves that actualized them in time and space through the different intensities of the hands, e.g., the pressure their fingers put on the piano keys. On the other hand, there are repetitions of the same wherein some generality is merely repeated in a way that produces nothing new or at least nothing new that’s worth mentioning, e.g., an electronic piano playing a piece of music over and over again in the exact same way. For Žižek, our modes of resistance, our localized acts, are just repetitions of the same masquerading as repetitions of difference. In tricking us into thinking that we are doing something they prevent us from knowing that we are really doing nothing. They simulate repetitions of difference without actually producing anything new, significant, rupturous, divergent or important.
Now that we have a proper context established, let’s turn our attention to Žižek’s main discussion of Bartleby found at the very end of The Parallax View. Bartleby is the “parallax of power and resistance” or is located in the gap between the two that is not reducible to either of them. Bartleby slips the noose of the Symbolic altogether — neither power nor resistance. According to Žižek, the crucial point of “I would prefer not to” is that it affirms a non-predicate (here, he is utilizing Kant’s distinction between negative judgments and infinite judgments). If what I prefer is not to, then I’m preferring a pure negativity. I’m preferring a pure refusal. If Bartleby were to say “I would not prefer to do it” or “I do not want to do it”, then he would be negating a specific demand or a certain nodal point of power within the Symbolic order, that is, he would be negating a determinate predicate. “I would not prefer to do it” is what Foucaultian resistance says when it seeks to challenge power in various localized actions. On the other hand, “I would prefer not to” is a disposition that breaks entirely with the Symbolic order, with the whole game of power and resistance. “I would prefer not to” is indeterminate, whereas “I would not prefer do it” is determinate. Preferring not to is to prefer a pure negativity lacking in particular determinations — an absolute refusal. Preferring not to do it amounts to a rejection of the specific demand in question. In preferring not to, I show that the modes of resistance operative within the capitalist system, e.g., local protests, are merely tricks the system allows in order to present itself as free, open, democratic, concerned with my feedback, and the like. These modes of resistance are complicit with the system itself. The system wants them in order to simulate this and that about itself. In preferring not to engage in them, I reveal that they are part of the system itself. I reveal that doing something (e.g., protesting) is really doing nothing. I realize that resistance is pure ideology. I perceive glowing, green code of the Matrix. I put on the They Live glasses. I think of my first fight with Tyler. I disclose the fundamental powerlessness that characterizes our current political situation.
“And this brings us back to Melville’s Bartleby. His “I would prefer not to” is to be taken literally: it says “I would prefer not to,” not “I don’t prefer (or care) to” — so we are back at Kant’s distinction between negative and infinite judgment. In his refusal of the Master’s order, Bartleby does not negate the predicate; rather, he affirms a non-predicate: he does not say that he doesn’t want to do it; he says that he prefers (wants) not to do it. This is how we pass from the politics of “resistance” or “protestation,” which parasitizes upon what it negates, to a politics which opens up a new space outside the hegemonic position and its negation. We can imagine the varieties of such a gesture in today’s public space: not only the obvious “There are great chances of a new career here! Join us!” — “I would prefer not to”; but also “Discover the depths of your true self, find inner peace!” — “I would prefer not to”; or “Are you aware how our environment is endangered? Do something for ecology!” — “I would prefer not to”; or “What about all the racial and sexual injustices that we witness all around us? Isn’t it time to do more?” — “I would prefer not to.” This is the gesture of subtraction at its purest, the reduction of all qualitative differences to a purely formal minimal difference.”
(The Parallax View, pp. 381–2)
Here’s the main point: the power of preferring not to resides in how it brings the subject into a proper relation to the current state of capitalism. It shatters the simulations of doing something and gets at the Real (the parallax gap) of our situation. It doesn’t give us the answers to our problems but it does position us in such a way as to be able to effectively question and engage with them by revealing how the game (of simulatory resistance) is rigged. It places us at the right subjective distance from our capitalist fuckery (the circular trap that is the play of power and resistance). The power of preferring not to lies in how the subject subtracts its libidinal investment from the game as a whole. “Preferring not to” or simply “Bartleby” means being unwilling to compromise with the system in any way, shape or form. It means the refusal to take a bribe (especially of the liberal sort). It is an absolute negation. It will not argue with the system. It will not argue with it in ways that conform to its own terms. It will not simulate resistance at the cost of real change. In Baudrillardian terms, “I would prefer not to” involves a pure and enduring form of symbolic exchange. The system does not have scripted, readymade strategies for how to cope with this pure negativity precisely because it is indeterminate — Bartleby is the gift that keeps on giving. Bartleby’s actions, his moments of doing nothing, posed a very strong challenge to the power structure.
“ . . . the withdrawal expressed by “I would prefer not to” is not to be reduced to the attitude of “saying no to the Empire” but, first and foremost, to all the wealth of what I have called the rumspringa of resistance, all the forms of resisting which help the system to reproduce itself by ensuring our participation in it — today, “I would prefer not to” is not primarily “I would prefer not to participate in the market economy, in capitalist competition and profiteering,” but — much more problematically for some — “I would prefer not to give to charity to support a Black orphan in Africa, engage in the struggle to prevent oil-drilling in a wildlife swamp, send books to educate our liberal-feminist-spirited women in Afghanistan. . . .” A distance toward the direct hegemonic interpellation — “Involve yourself in market competition, be active and productive!” — is the very mode of operation of today’s ideology: today’s ideal subject says to himself: “I am well aware that the whole business of social competition and material success is just an empty game, that my true Self is elsewhere!” If anything, “I would prefer not to” expresses, rather, a refusal to play the “Western Buddhist” game of “social reality is just an illusory game.”
(The Parallax View, p. 383)
What the hell is the “rumspringa of resistance”? For Žižek, the Amish rite of passage known as rumspringa captures the dynamics of our current political situation. This rite of passage has to do with the time period in which Amish youth are permitted to distance themselves from the Amish faith and engage in all sorts of sinful activities normally forbidden by their religion. The crucial problem with rumspringa involves its simulatory distance and simulatory choice. The space of “transgression” opened up to Amish youth is not really designed to allow them the proper distance necessary to leave the Amish community. It should come as no surprise that 90% of the youth decide to get baptized into the Amish faith after the interval of rumspringa concludes. This space is a total trick. Why? Because the youth are completely sheltered and secluded from the ways of the “English” (non-Amish) up until they are thrown into rumspringa. These kids cannot experience drinking, partying, promiscuous sex, etc., the way “English” kids do. The Amish kids are given a mere formal choice, but not a concrete, real one. They are not free to go the way of the “English”, since their basic orientation is so fully Amish and the “freedom” of rumspringa assails them with great guilt, fear, disorientation and anxiety. Think about, these kids have always existed in a religious community that decided for them and, then, all of a sudden, they are hurled into a space of personal responsibility and individual choice wherein they must make the most important decision of their lives for themselves. They were never prepared for this, so it comes as a shook to them. They, of course, want back inside of the calming familiarity of communal life. The space of “freedom” in the rumspringa is effectively one of inherent transgression, that is, it gives the children a false sense of freedom and distance from the Amish faith while secretly and strategically keeping them trapped inside it. The rumspringa teaches us to be aware of those spaces of “resistance” and “distance” society allows us to have that are really just sneaky instruments of power and manipulation. When we think rumspringa, we should think simulatory resistances, illusory distances and abstract freedoms that effectively serve to make us do precisely what power (e.g., Amish elders) wants us to do while tricking us into believing that we freely made the choice ourselves.
Žižek stresses that leftist intellectuals, e.g., Simon Critchley, have advocated the idea that we should stand at a distance from the state, that we should only engage in local politics, that we should, in effect, have a leftist-academic rumspringa. As expected, Žižek shoots this down. He highlights the fact that this is exactly what the state would love for us to do — totally abandon our attempts to gain positions of power within the system itself and retreat to the rumspringa (the “distance” and “freedom” of localized “resistance”). This type of “resistance”, according to Žižek, is what keeps us locked tight in the system while simulating a distance from it. In fact, this sort of distance can actually function to make people eventually accept and serve the system at a conscious level (just like the Amish kids): “Nothing is more conducive to proper integration into the hegemonic ideologico-political community than a “radical” past in which one lived out one’s wildest dreams. The latest protagonists in this saga are today’s US neocons, a surprising number of whom were Trotskyites in their youth. As we can now claim, retroactively, was not even the glorious Parisian May ’68 such a collective rumspringa which, in the long term, contributed to the reproductive capacity of the system?” (The Parallax View, p. 332). In other words, they got it (resistance) out of their systems just so they could become the system itself (power). A leftist-academic rumspringa? “I would prefer not to.”
Žižek’s politics of preferring not to is not just opposed to Foucault’s resistance and Critchley’s “rumspringa”; it also finds Hardt and Negri’s version of Bartleby as presented in Empire to be problematic as well. H&N reduce the negativity of Bartleby’s refusal to a kind of preparatory moment, a necessary disposition but one that must be transcended. It is the first (destructive) step towards change, but, from there, one must pivot into an affirmative and constructive attitude in order to bring about a new world. For Žižek, however, the negativity is permanent, that is, a new Symbolic order grows out of the very ground of the negative, out of its enduring and violent negation.
“Are we not making the same point here as Hardt and Negri in Empire, who also refer to Bartleby as the figure of resistance, of saying No! to the existing universe of social machinery? . . . First, for HN, Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” is interpreted as merely the first move of, as it were, clearing the table, of acquiring a distance toward the existing social universe; what is then needed is a move toward the painstaking work of constructing a new community — if we remain stuck at the Bartleby stage, we end up in a suicidal marginal position with no consequences. . . . From our point of view, however, this, precisely, is the conclusion to be avoided: in its political mode, Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” is not the starting point of “abstract negation” which should then be overcome in the patient positive work of the “determinate negation” of the existing social universe, but a kind of arche, the underlying principle that sustains the entire movement: far from “overcoming” it, the subsequent work of construction, rather, gives body to it.
This brings us back to the central theme of this book: the parallax shift. Bartleby’s attitude is not merely the first, preparatory, stage for the second, more “constructive,” work of forming a new alternative order; it is the very source and background of this order, its permanent foundation. The difference between Bartleby’s gesture of withdrawal and the formation of a new order is — again, and for the last time — that of parallax: the very frantic and engaged activity of constructing a new order is sustained by an underlying “I would prefer not to” which forever reverberates in it — or, as Hegel might have put it, the new postrevolutionary order does not negate its founding gesture, the explosion of the destructive fury that wipes away the Old; it merely gives body to this negativity. The difficulty of imagining the New is the difficulty of imagining Bartleby in power. Thus the logic of the move from the superego-parallax to the Bartleby-parallax is very precise: it is the move from something to nothing, from the gap between two “somethings” to the gap that separates a something from nothing, from the void of its own place. That is to say: in a “revolutionary situation,” what, exactly, happens to the gap between the public Law and its obscene superego supplement? It is not that, in a kind of metaphysical unity, the gap is simply abolished, that we obtain only a public regulation of social life, deprived of any hidden obscene supplement. The gap remains, but reduced to a structural minimum: to the “pure” difference between the set of social regulations and the void of their absence. In other words, Bartleby’s gesture is what remains of the supplement to the Law when its place it emptied of all its obscene superego content.”
(The Parallax View, p. 382)
The last part of this citation gets a little tricky, so let’s break it down a bit. Žižek is arguing that Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” involves a special type of parallax, but what the fuck is a parallax? The Parallax View is Žižek’s attempt to formulate a quasi-systematic, Lacanian-Hegelian, conceptual framework. The concept of the parallax gap is central in this endeavor. Žižek discusses three main parallaxes in this text: (1) ontological parallax, (2) scientific parallax, (3) political parallax (enter Bartleby). But, again, what the fucking fuck is a parallax? The standard definition goes like this: a parallax is the apparent displacement or relocation of an object caused by a change in the observational position, that is, by a change in the position of the observer. Imagine standing in an open field wherein there is a single tree at the center of it. As you move around the tree, the location of the sun will appear to move. At one location, the sun appears to be to the right of the tree, and, at another, it is to the left of it. Žižek’s concept of the parallax, however, is more complicated than this. The Žižekian parallax is the gap between two positions that cannot be synthesized or bridged. One of his examples, the scientific parallax, comes from neuroscience. We all know that the brain is the locus of subjectivity. We all know that we could not be who we are without our brains. Nevertheless, it is impossible for us to truly identify our first-person, phenomenological, subjective experience with the slimy, chewed-gum looking chunks of matter in our skulls. This is an impossible synthesis, an unachievable reduction. If a doctor (hopefully not Dr. Lecter) were to remove the top of my head and show me my brain in a mirror, I would not be able to fully say, “Wow! There I am! That’s me alright!” There is a gap between my brain (cause) and my subjectivity (effect). I can shift back-and-forth between the two perspectives but I can never totally integrate them into a single view — there is an irremovable gap. This sort of thing is what Žižek means by parallax. It is a highly Lacanian concept insofar as the parallax gap is an instance of the Real.
What’s going on in Žižek’s comments about the superego-parallax and the Bartleby-parallax? The superego-parallax refers to the gap between the Law (explicit and implicit rules) and its obscene supplement (the specific acts of inherent transgression that produce a sense of ideological disidentification). According to Žižek, our drives latch onto various types of inherent transgression, but these sorts of “subversive” activities only function to perpetuate the very system they “resist”. The postmodern superego is constantly telling us to Enjoy!, which, in this case, means that it’s pressuring us to engage in inherent transgression. Therefore, to truly escape the loop of ideological fuckness, we must escape the simulatory resistance and the sexual enjoyment we get from it. The superego-parallax is the gap between two “somethings”, that is, between the two sides of the Law, between its explicit-implicit rules (power) and its obscene supplement (“resistance” i.e, power in disguise). But how do we shift from this parallax to the Bartleby one? What’s the difference? Žižek says of this shift, “it is the move from something to nothing, from the gap between two “somethings” to the gap that separates a something from nothing, from the void of its own place” (The Parallax View, p. 382). The Bartleby-parallax is the gap between something and nothing. To understand the importance of “nothing” in this context, we must say a thing or two about Lacanian drive theory.
For Lacan, there are four drives (eyes, ears, mouth, anus) and every one of them is a death drive. Why? Because drive as such is always the drive towards jouissance, that is, for that which lies beyond the pleasure principle and, by extension, the reality principle. The pleasure-reality principle seeks to maintain a certain homeostasis in our libidinal economy. This principle serves the Symbolic order by keeping human beings in a bodily state that enables to behave in accordance with societal standards and protocols. However, every drive seeks to transgress the limits imposed on it by society. They pursue various sorts of intense excitement and excessive stimulation that destabilize one’s functional subjectivity. Because each drive is a death drive, we can speak of the death drive (singular) and of death drives (plural). Žižek often speaks of the death drive but keep in mind that there is a certain plurality to it. Drive or death drive is primarily of the Real. This is not to say that it has no Symbolic-Imaginary components. Lacan described drives as a surrealist machines cobbled together out of all kinds of disparate objects, parts, features, etc.. Remember the beginning of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure? Think about Pee-wee’s breakfast machine as a drive: it cannot merely function according to Symbolic dictates, i.e., “prepare Pee-wee’s breakfast”, but goes out of control and makes a total mess of the kitchen. Another example is Doc’s dog-feeding machine at the beginning of Back to the Future. So we all have this dangerous dimension about us. There is the Imaginary-Symbolic subject, the person I am through my social identity that conforms to society and Law, but there is also a subject of the drive (death drive). This subject is the violent impulse to transgress the Law, rules, customs and protocols of my Symbolic order. It does not take the well-being of the other (other people) or the Other (Society at large) into account. It is like The Joker in The Dark Knight — a pure force of destabilization and chaos. The subject of the drive(s) is the Real that escapes the Symbolic-Imaginary capture of Law.
This Real dimension of the Other (not the big Other but the radical alterity in other people) is precisely what provokes our fear. Žižek talks about this threatening Otherness, the Otherness of the death drive(s) in the Other, as the “Neighbor”. He gets this from Freud and Lacan, of course. This is why jouissance is a fundamental factor of ideology and politics. Žižek’s Bartleby politics of “I would prefer not to” is not merely a rejection of the explicit-implicit rules of society but also the rejection of the forms of inherent transgression society publicly disavows and secretly permits. It does not affirm true transgression, either. Instead, “I would prefer not to” means to reject the Symbolic-Imaginary dictates and identifications as well as the subject of the drives with its libidinal investments in “resistance” (inherent transgression). A becoming-Bartleby is the enactment of a subjective position of pure negativity. This could be called the subject of the Real but is not the subject of the Real of the death drive. This is the Cartesian cogito or the empty subject or the subject of the void of the Real. Bartleby is the politicization of Descartes. This is a politico-subjective instance of wiping the slate clean. Neither power nor “resistance”! The nothing of the Bartleby-parallax is the “not to” that Bartleby prefers — pure refusal. Whereas the superego-parallax perceives a sharp difference between society’s rules and “transgressive” jouissance, the Bartleby-parallax is the shift in perspective that lets us see the Law and its obscene supplement as aspects of one and the same overarching apparatus of control. Bartleby disregards all of the enjoyment to be had in the inherent transgression offered to us in the Law’s obscene supplement. Bartleby empties the underside of the Law, its “transgressive” and libidinal undercurrent, and turns it into a pure void, a pure not to. This is the subtraction in the politics of subtraction. There is no transgressive jouissance found in the “I would prefer not to” because it has been subtracted. There is none of the enjoyment found in breaking windows, throwing rocks, arguing on the internet, marching, protesting, i.e., “resisting”. Preferring not to is not an orgiastic explosion of violent energy long repressed. No! It is a calm silence. An ominous passivity. Obey the postmodern superego and enjoy resisting the system? Get out there and do something? I would prefer not to.
“The deadlock of “resistance” brings us back to the topic of parallax: all is needed is a slight shift in our perspective, and all the activity of “resistance,” of bombarding those in power with impossible “subversive” (ecological, feminist, antiracist, antiglobalist . . .) demands, looks like an internal process of feeding the machine of power, providing the material to keep it in motion. The logic of this shift should be universalized: the split between the public Law and its obscene superego supplement confronts us with the very core of the politico-ideological parallax: the public Law and its superego supplement are not two different parts of the legal edifice, they are one and the same “content” — with a slight shift in perspective, the dignified and impersonal Law looks like an obscene machine of jouissance. Another slight shift, and the legal regulations prescribing our duties and guaranteeing our rights look like the expression of a ruthless power whose message to us, its subjects, is: “I can do whatever I want with you!” Kafka, of course, was the inimitable master of this parallax shift with regard to the edifice of legal power: “Kafka” is not so much a unique style of writing as a weird innocent new gaze upon the edifice of the Law which practices a parallax shift of perceiving a gigantic machinery of obscene jouissance in what previously looked like a dignified edifice of the legal Order.”
(The Parallax View, pp. 334–5)
Bartleby politics can be used to think of “resistance” in terms of a toxic romance, that is, it also works at the personal level — not just the politico-social one. When couples fight, they often get off on hurting each other. They enjoy getting under each other’s skin. There are always those subjects that are off limit when it comes to arguing, e.g., comparing a woman to her mother. This is the “inherent transgression” within the “Law” of the relationship, within the parameters of what is explicitly and implicitly appropriate to say. So long as each person in the relation gets off on insulting one another, both remain libidinally invested in the relationship. They are still playing the game. However, the moment one of them denies the enjoyment of hurting the other is the moment when the game is finished. This is the moment of preferring not to. To prefer not to in this case is to reject the enjoyment one gets from the toxicity (obscene supplement) that ultimately keeps one invested in the very relationship that drives one mad. To prefer not to is to opt out of the game entirely. It frees one from the relationship altogether. It rejects the modes of “resistance” one enjoys within the relationship. You know you’ve seen this shit before. How much a person will enjoy saying something cruel to the other in the heat of the moment. How that person will giggle his or her ass off by crossing the line of the forbidden. As long as one gets enjoyment from these acts of transgression, one is still invested in the relationship. The key is truly mean it when you say, “I’m so done with this!”
To conclude, do we not find a modern embodiment of I would prefer not to in Office Space? Peter Gibbons is a new version of Bartleby. After being hypnotized, Peter’s subjective default setting becomes that of a pure withdrawal, at least, in relation to his job, his boss, working, paying bills, the soul-crushing monotony of office work that comes with employment at a company like Initech, etc. Is it a coincidence that Peter’s work is similar to Bartleby’s? Whether he’s sleeping in and missing work, or completely ignoring his boss Lumbergh, or cleaning a fish at his desk, or spontaneously altering his cubicle so as to have a view (so he can stare out the window à la Bartleby), Peter never resists — he prefers not to. Peter does nothing. In fact, doing nothing becomes the guiding principle and ideal of his entire life. “I did nothing. I did absolutely nothing and it was everything that I thought it could be.” Also, it’s apparent that Peter has no libidinal investment in resistance. It’s not that he gets some extreme jouissance from his behavior. He simply resides in the empty space of transgression drained of all its particular content, e.g., inherent transgression, drive, and so on. Peter did not establish an entirely new Symbolic order (neither did Bartleby). Of course not! But he was able to drastically change his life. There is a personal revolution in this story. The question is this: what would happen if all of us were to collectively kick into this subjective mode at the same time? What if all of us become Bartleby? What if we all could authentically and simultaneously say with the Geto Boys those epic words? “Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta!”