Why Occupy was Bartleby in the 21st Century
September 17, 2011 marked a critical moment in the history of protest movements in the United States. Unity, passion, and voices refusing to be silenced came together in Zuccotti Park to oppose the face of inequality. “We are the 99%” has come be to recognized as a statement of refusal, an unwillingness to settle for confined spaces of power, and an unprecedented challenge to a series of decisions that created socioeconomic and wealth distribution inequality.
The movement itself, propelled by a mounting desire for social justice, perhaps finds its humble origins in the pages of Herman Melville’s 1853 piece Bartleby the Scrivener. Embodying the role of the passive resister, Melville’s protagonist exemplifies an individual’s ability to occupy space. “I am occupied” resonates throughout Melville’s short story, reminding the reader that Bartleby is a symbolic character—providing the impetus more than a century later for a peaceful political uprising.
BARTLEBY AND OWS
We are regularly reminded of the poignancy inherent in language. It is our gateway to comprehension and connection. Melville’s select word choices and precise use of language enables us to better understand Bartleby’s ultimate purpose and connection to Wall Street.
The story itself at first glance begs answers to unexplained question of what, after all, are Bartleby’s desires or demands if any? As Jonathan Greenberg suggests in his piece for The Atlantic, by choosing to remain reticent, and refusing to articulate specific demands, Bartleby “defies the very terms on which Wall Street does business.” Melville, Greenberg argues, provides a prescient articulation of the tour de force that was the Occupy movement.
Occupy Wall Street’s work has not yet been finished. It remains a work in progress, despite its lack of physical presence, or occupation, in Zuccotti Park.
Unlike the Machiavellian concept that states, “The end justifies the means,” for Occupiers and Bartleby alike, the means justifies the ends. The way in which we go about achieving our end goals will ultimately shape our mark on society, our contributions, and our place in history. The very notion that an organized group of individuals has the ability amongst themselves to unite and create a call to action, invoking literature as a pioneer enabler, speaks to Melville’s merit. Bartleby was not willing to indulge his ‘superior,’ but instead chose to pacify his employer with his eventual departure from the law office.
UNIVERSALITY IN LITERATURE
It is crucial that we remember to hold onto our own vestiges of how the world functions, being erudite when we absorb information while also remaining open to discussion and debate. The Occupy movement succeeded on the back of Melville’s work 150 years later. Despite its tragic ending with the death of Bartleby, Melville’s work enables us to recognize that complacency is seldom justified, and sticking to a routine is not always to be applauded.
Occupy Wall Street, a movement that will continue to be analyzed, and surely serve as the groundwork for future social movements, provided Bartleby with a voice perhaps larger than Melville intended. We are better suited to understand through literature the ways in which hierarchies of power function, the societal conditions that are no longer acceptable—and never really were—and the modes in which we can challenge the direction of our nation and its future.