On not-doing … — a triptych


The Hermit Saints Triptych, Hieronymus Bosch, 1493-99

by Jeremy Fernando


I would prefer not to 

A response — Bartleby’s response — foregrounding the fact that it is the “I” that “prefers not to”: not that ‘I cannot’ nor ‘I will not’ but that this is a preference. That it is not based on anything other than a decision by the “I”: when asked “why do you refuse” by Mr B, his boss, Bartleby’s response is simply, “I would prefer not to.” [1] Thus, to read this response, Bartleby’s response, as an absolute refusal would be untrue: just because he “prefers not to” does not mean that he will not. But just because it is not a complete rejection of the request also does not mean that it is a delayed compliance: Mr B comes to realise, rather quickly, that “his decision was irreversible.”

So, even as it an inclination — and like all preferences, one that might well be unjustifiable — its effects, in relation with every situation, every moment in which there is a response, are lasting.

Quite a few thinkers — Giorgio Agamben and Slavoj Žižek amongst them — have attempted to read Bartleby’s response as a form of passive resistance. Their claim is that his response, that is always also a non-response, short-circuits the system. If he had out-rightly rejected Mr B there would have been an immediate expulsion, firing: “had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been anything ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises.” The trouble was, as Mr B continues, “there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner, touched and disconcerted me.” And here, Mr B makes what one might call a fatal error: “I began to reason with him.”

Whilst most readings, readers, focus on Bartleby, perhaps we should momentarily turn out attention to the other interlocutors, those that are attempting to elicit not just a response but a particular act, action, from him. I — allowing all echoes of the unjustifiability of my choice — would like to propose that they were unable to move him, influence his actions, have power over him if you prefer, as they structured their statements as requests. Not only did they open the possibility of non-compliance, it was a far more fundamental mistake: requests function on the logic that both parties involved are operating under the same rules, form, customs, reason — in other words, the exchange is one that involves pre-set options, and not actual choices. That in a situation, to echo Mr B, “a slight hint would suffice — in short, an assumption.” The assumption being that the one receiving the address would know what, even the right thing, to do.

Perhaps then, what is truly subversive about Bartleby’s response is that it takes Mr B’s questions seriously; takes it as a question which offers the potential for a true response. And by doing so, Bartleby challenges authority to reveal itself — to not hide behind the illusion that it is offering a choice. That even as Mr B thinks otherwise, authority is no more than “vulgar bullying.”

In other words, what Bartleby does is to challenge daddy to show himself.



And here, one should try not to forget that to be languid is to be faint, to be listless (languidus), to be weak (languere). Keeping in mind that weakness is not necessarily the antonym of strength, but quite possibly its compendium; or even, a challenge, to strength, to power, itself.

As Jean Baudrillard teaches us, “the great stars or seductresses never dazzle because of their talent or intelligence, but because of their absence.” Where it is precisely their emptiness that gives one the space — lures one — to fill them with meaning; to imbue them with importance; to fall for them, as it were …

… in the very moment that they whisper,
that one hears them whisper,
in which one thinks one hears them whisper,
I can be anything you want me to be.

Open, wide (laxus) — thus, quite possibly, always already in potentiality.

Or — and this is for my dear friends Catelijne Coopmans and Céline Coderey [2] — as Michel Foucault might say: “as in judo, the best answer to an adversary manoeuvre is not to retreat, but to go along with it, turning it to one’s own advantage, as a resting point for the next phase.”



Art is everything
that you don’t have to do

— Brian Eno

For, if a matter of necessity, there is no longer volition: and more precisely, what would be missing is the subjective act of transformation in — that is — art. Which is not to say that art is of the subject, is made solely by the subject — far from it. After all, as Plato has taught us — through Socrates, through another — the movement from craft to art, the elevation from tekhnē to a higher form, requires the whisper of the daimon, needs an intervention from beyond. And, even at that point, all one can, at best, know are gestures of the possibility of art — nothing is said of the artist.

Thus, a subjective act where the subject herself might well be absent. Where the subject has to be open to possibilities of art; where the subject has to be lax, open, to the potentiality of the daimon, and be quite possibly whatever it wants you to be.

Which does not mean that one does nothing.

For, to be open always already entails — at the very least — an approach, a position, a positing: perhaps even a leap.

And which suggests that one might well be opening oneself — with all the risks it entails — to something that is not only to come, might never come, or even might always already have been there, but just unknown to one.

Perhaps then, what one is opening oneself to is nothing other than time itself.

Keeping in mind that it is only after the fact, retrospectively, when one is looking back, that one has the possibility of judging whether something is good or bad, whether something is possibly art. Thus, the term art history is tautological: art can only reside after, in the past, in history.

Where time — the past, perhaps even an imagined, imaginary, future, writing itself in the present — is precisely what jolts one, maybe even wounds one, punctures one even, into realising the existence (if one can even call it that) of a work of art, to an experience of art; to the fact it might well have long been staring one in the face. [3]

Here, we should bear in mind that a puncture, point — punctum — is a breaking, but always also an opening: a moment in, perhaps always also outside of, time; where there are possibilities, when all we have are possibilities. Which also means that there is a possibility that absolutely nothing might happen: in fact, one never quite knows if anything even happens: one might only experience the potentiality of art, have an intuitive experience with art — through and with the work. Even if one realises the encounter — has a cognitive response about the encounter — it can only happen after: which means that one recalls, remembers it. And since one has no control over forgetting, over what one forgets, there is no reason to believe that each act of memory might not have forgetting written into it. However, without forgetting, there is no need to remember in the first place. Thus, forgetting is both the condition and limit of memory. And hence, one might never be able to distinguish if one is remembering or rewriting the encounter, along with its effects. Moreover, since forgetting both comes before and is potentially a part of all memory, the encounter itself might be an affect of writing: thus, one might never even know if anything even happened in the first place.

Which suggests that, in order for art to become there has to be a rupture, a pause, a break in time itself. Which opens the question of the relationship between art and time: for, when one speaks of art, the echo of timelessness is never far from it; at the same time, no work can exist outside of time, outside of its time. Which implies, as both Agamben and Alain Badiou posit, at the point where a work becomes art, at the moment when a work is recognised as art, it is both in and outside of time — or perhaps even with its own time. Which might be why for something to be considered a work of art it has to stand the test of time: it has to be contemporary; even if it is always from before the time it is seen, and also seen too soon, is ahead of the time in which it is seen, is ahead of its time. For, a work of art always already draws from what comes before; echoes memories of works past, works inscribed in, onto, into, it; harkens to, resounds with a line, genealogy, of works it is a part of — and at the same time, breaks from these works, strikes out on its own; stands apart from its lineage, is unfamiliar to the ones before, is perhaps even unrecognisable, sui generis, a stranger, or even just strange. Thus, in the encounter between one and a work of art, what one is seeing is the time of the work itself — the time of the work being nothing other than art. Which is not to say that it is a separate time: of course not. Nor a mystical, divine, time: at least not necessarily so. But that it is the same time that is not the same.

Where, the encounter with art is the encounter with the time that is same same but different: different only in its encounter.

Where the difference is precisely what remains.

Where the encounter perhaps remains unknown, at least with any certainty; where all one can say is what it is not. Or, perhaps even: where the moment of the encounter is in the not, and — since one still has to remain, one has to be, open for this encounter to even take place — where the moment of art might well lie in the preference not to.


[1] All quotes from Bartleby are from Herman Melville. Bartleby the Scrivener: a story of Wall Street. New Jersey: Melville Publishing House, 2008.

[2] A version of this piece was delivered as part of Catelijne Coopmans & Céline Coderey’s seminar, entitled ‘Time and Life’. I would like to thank them both for the kind invitation to speak, and think, with their wonderful students.

[3] This observation — and indeed, piece — owes a deep debt to Chantal Akerman; who taught us the importance of the small, the everyday, the often invisible. And that art, perhaps even the art of living, often lay in the moments, spaces, where we had always, were always, looking, but just never quite seeing.

And for this, I would like to thank her.

A secret dedication: to not-doing, in memory of her …

About the Author:


Jeremy Fernando is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at The European Graduate School. He works in the intersections of literature, philosophy, and the media; and is the author of Reflections on (T)errorThe Suicide Bomber; and her gift of deathReading Blindly and Writing Death. Exploring other media has led him to film, music, and art; and his work has been exhibited in Seoul, Vienna, Hong Kong and Singapore. He is the general editor of both Delere Press, and the thematic magazine One Imperative; and a Fellow of Tembusu College at the National University of Singapore.