The Ideology of Reading “Bartleby”

Over on Imaginary Relations, I’ve posted an essay I wrote some time ago about the famous Melville story. I hope you’ll give it a look—it is a bit long, a bit too academic perhaps, but I think it is sufficiently outside the academic discourse on Literature to be worth consideration.

Over a period of about three years, I sent this to eight different academic journals. Most (with two exceptions) responded positively, but declined to publish it. They acknowledged that the “reading” was convincing, was original, and was worth publishing—just not in their journal! The standard Literature journals mostly suggested that because I discuss the purpose of teaching this story, it was better suited to an journal focused on pedagogy. Of course, the more pedagogical journals passed either because it is too “theoretical” or because it contains no “empirical data,” which is apparently now a requirement for publishing essays on the teaching of Literature.

This is part of the purpose of Imaginary Relations: to produce a knowledge that is excluded from the standard academic discourse. In this case, my concern is to consider the ideology the story produces, both in its original time of publication, but also in its use as a text in the English classroom. What kind of ideological project are we engaged in when we require students to read this text in the way that we do? It would seem this self-reflective consideration is just not an acceptable part of academic discourse in the humanities anymore.

If you have time, and if you’ve ever read, or been assigned to read, “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, I hope you’ll take a look. At the very least, I would hope that future readers of this story will be a bit more aware of what is clearly the central concern for Melville’s narrator: the enormous implications of an apparently small matter—the shift in our concept of what it means to “prefer” something!

And if you are like me, someone interested in the ideologies we produce, and so unable to get your work considered in the usual academic or popular journals, I hope you’ll consider submitting something to Imaginary Relations. I suspect there are more people out there frustrated by the limitations on thought enforced by the existing discourses.

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