Doctor Octopus: A Reading of Deleuze’s “Bartleby; or, The Formula” (1993)

This is the edited transcript of a short presentation I gave at the University of Warwick on the 14th November 2016, as part of a series of seminars called “Topics in Philosophy and the Arts”. I gave what I thought to be a highly subjective yet spirited analysis of “Bartleby; or, The Formula”, a chapter of Gilles Deleuze’s Essays Critical and Clinical (1993); itself drawing heavily on Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), as well as the remaining body of Melville’s fiction.

I should preface by saying that I do not intend to cover everything in Deleuze’s essay, not only due to time constraints, but also because there are many passages that are best read in the wider context of Deleuze’s philosophy. So instead I wish to hone in on the points most relevant to our discussion on philosophy and the arts, and construct a particular reading of an essay which is itself a particular reading of a short story.

“Literature is a health.”[1] This is Deleuze’s claim in the Preface to Essays Critical and Clinical, not irrelevantly one of the final works within his oeuvre to be published before his death in 1995, and of which “Bartleby; or, The Formula” is a chapter of. This statement might lead one to begin to engage with what Deleuze has to say here in terms of his own biopolitics. However Daniel W. Smith, one of the translators of the volume (however not of the particular essay we will be looking at) instead interprets this statement in terms of a specific relation between literature and life;[2] one which finds its precedence in earlier works of Deleuze, specifically his study of sadomasochism in Coldness and Cruelty, as well as in select quotations in the Guattari-assisted What Is Philosophy?:

Through having seen Life in the living or the Living in the lived, the novelist or painter returns breathless and with bloodshot eyes. […] In this respect artists are like philosophers. What little health they possess[3] is often too fragile, not because of their illnesses or neuroses but because they have seen something in life that is too much for anyone, too much for themselves, and that has put on them the quiet mark of death.”[4]

There are obvious parallels with this interpretation of literature as healthcare and the function of the character Bartleby in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, which we will now turn our attentions to.

The thrust of Deleuze’s reading of Melville’s short story hinges, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the eponymous character’s now infamous turn of phrase, the statement “I would prefer not to.” Deleuze reads this sentence as the key to the text’s understanding. He begins:

“Bartleby” is neither a metaphor for the writer nor the symbol of anything whatsoever. It is a violently comical text, and the comical is always literal. It is like the novels of Kleist, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, or Beckett, with which it forms a subterranean and prestigious lineage. It means only what it says, literally. And what it says and repeats is I would prefer not to. This is the formula of its glory, which every loving reader repeats in turn.[5]

Now, before we proceed with Deleuze’s essay, we need to decide what he means by this word, formula. What immediately came to mind for me was a mathematical formula: an equation that could be used by us as readers as a means to translate the literary architecture of the story, its space, and the characters who inhabit that space. And I still don’t entirely wish to discourage that reading, because I think it still can be a fruitful one. However, I wish to nuance this definition of formula slightly further, and suggest that we instead treat Bartleby’s formula as an incantation or magic spell, a specific set of syllables that transform the rationalities of the attorney narrator, and effect real change on us readers’ textual interpretation.

I think what Deleuze is reaching for with the word formule is a kind of medieval sorcery of words, of which Bartleby, by appointment of Melville, is the witch doctor tasked with healing us of our narratological neuroses. But it is not a soothing treatment. The Formula is “ravaging, devastating, and leaves nothing standing in its wake”; it “eliminates the preferable just as mercilessly as any nonpreferred.”[6] Perhaps most significantly of all, the Formula is responsible for “hollow[ing] out a zone of indiscernibility”.[7]

What does Deleuze mean by this phrase, which he repeats in a variety of guises: zone of indiscernibility, zone of indetermination, zone of indistinction? A clue may be offered by another quick hop over to What Is Philosophy? and a reading of one of Deleuze and Guattari’s many ruminations on what they term the “concept of concept”:

What is distinctive about the concept is that it renders components inseparable within itself. [Each concept] has a zone of neighborhood [zone de voisinage], or a threshold of indiscernibility, with another one. […] Components remain distinct, but something passes from one to the other, something that is undecidable between them. There is an area ab that belongs to both a and b, where a and b “become” indiscernible.[8]

Melville and Deleuze both understand literature, and perhaps we would like to extend this reading to all art, as a necessary complication of the act of interpretation itself. Perhaps not intentionally, but certainly, this is one of its intrinsic functions. Bartleby hexes the attorney and the aesthetician alike with his Formula, and renders the literary work derationalized and uncategorizable: an approximation of the Universe’s boundless chaos staged as absurdist comedy routine. Undercut by a deterritoralized American language, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is surgically lacerated by the Formula, creating vacuous zones on its surface that invite deeper inspection. It is no longer a question of subject or object, author or character, art or nonart; dialecticism is now ineffective and unwanted. Subject and image, in their encounters, cause friction, this friction causes slippage, and they are no longer bound to one another. Their “unnatural alliance” establishes “a “hyperborean”, “arctic” zone”,[9] as smooth as the “arctic sublimities” of Duchamp’s Fountain, if we recall Arthur Danto’s parody of George Dickie’s challenging of the artworld’s narrow criteria.[10] The alien Bartleby exhales ambiguity, barricading the story from the rigorous, institutionalized analytic practices and techniques of Euclidian, earthly minds[11] with an inhuman cloud of unknowing, that perhaps cannot ever be fully penetrated.

From Deleuze’s point of view, the Formula is a transformative utterance. Its purpose is to render the literary environment in which it is heard so weird as to escape from the sovereignty of the interpreters, the literary and aesthetic theorists, and thus evade all attempts of rational codification. In this respect, this essay is no different from Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari’s polemic against the domestication of the paradigm of desire, encompassed in the figure of the psychoanalyst. Deleuze champions Melville and a handful of other “great novelists” as cultivators of

a new logic, definitely a logic, but one that grasps the innermost depths of life and death without leading us back to reason. The novelist has the eye of a prophet, not the gaze of a psychologist. […] Once it has reached that sought-after Zone, the hyperborean zone, far from the temperate regions, the novel, like life, needs no justification.[12]

Likewise, our own enjoyment of literature ultimately transcends all notions of art theory, and remains fascinating to us. So perhaps too, there can be no art without our failure to know why it is art, or why we are drawn to it or revere it. Our hermeneutics must account for the human limitations we impose on the artwork when we try to interpret its possible meanings. This is not to say that there is no intellectual worth, or indeed no intellectual pleasure in trying to identify the specific features or phenomena which account for the aesthetic experience; however, in doing so, we can only gain truths about Life as we perceive it. The radiant sights which leave Melville and the great writers short of breath and with bloodshot eyes attest to something less anthropocentric, and many times more complex, and overall healthier: nonhuman things, living within a nonhuman conception of Life. Bartleby’s Formula – I would prefer not to – thus can be read as an essential rejection of all prescribed methods of aesthetic interpretation, and a liberation of the artwork from symbolic or metaphoric necessity. Our future art and future philosophy ought to equip us with a greater vocabulary to describe what we may only be able to envisage now as the “irrational”.


[1] Deleuze, G. (1997) “Preface to the French Edition”, in Essays Critical and Clinical [Critique et Clinique], trans. Smith, D.W. & Greco, M.A., Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press: lv.

[2] Smith, ““A Life of Pure Immanence”: Deleuze’s “Critique et Clinique” Project”, in Essays Critical and Clinical: xv.

[3] Smith refers here to the likes of Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Deleuze himself, who suffered from respiratory ailments throughout his life.

[4] Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1994) What Is Philosophy? [Qu’est ce que la philosophie?], trans. Burchell, G. & Tomlinson, H., London/New York, Verso: 172.

[5] Deleuze “Bartleby; or, The Formula”, in Essays Critical and Clinical: 68.

[6] Ibid: 70, 71.

[7] Ibid: 71.

[8] Deleuze & Guattari, What Is Philosophy?:19-20.

[9] Deleuze, “Bartleby; or, The Formula”: 78.

[10] Danto, A. (2005) “The Appreciation and Interpretation of Works of Art”, in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, New York, Columbia University Press: 35.

[11] These are Ivan’s words in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. When discussing his scepticism of God with Alyosha, Ivan concludes that if God were truly to exist, he would surely have to exist outside of three-dimensional space, “where two parallel lines meet”; a concept he admits is entirely beyond the comprehension of his “Euclidian earthly mind”.

[12] Deleuze, “Bartleby; or, The Formula”: 82. Emphasis added.


Five Advantages of Brexit, From a Remainer’s Perspective

On 23rd June 2016 the British public voted for the UK to leave the European Union by a comfortable margin of 51.9%, a decision that is set to transform a 43-year old political and economic relationship. It is not yet known when Article 50, the two-year contingency plan built into the Lisbon Treaty which facilitates withdrawal from the EU will be implemented, however the global impact of this forthcoming decision is still being calculated, and the future consequences are by all measures going to be profound.

As can probably be expected of someone of my age and level of education, I ultimately voted for Remain yesterday. But this was not a foregone conclusion: my pangs of conscience wanted seriously to seek out credible and convincing arguments for both sides. Like all of us I had family members and friends who were gearing up to vote Leave, and whichever way the result was to fall I wanted to be able to see the positives of the decision our country made as a whole. The referendum itself is only the beginning: it is vital that the people in influential positions seize the wild bull unleashed this week and steer it in the least damaging way possible; secure jobs, the pound, the market, and most importantly, do so in a way that complies with the decision of the British public.

I am not an optimist by nature, and I am still gravely concerned about the current version of events, and the turns they are likely to take. Regardless, here are a few benefits of the departure of the UK from the EU.

1. We are closer to the truth

The result of this referendum, that the UK would prefer to leave the EU rather than remain, was unexpected by nearly everyone, on both sides of the debate. Although polls were sketchy and few, with no equivalent previous data for comparison, psephologists and bookmakers alike expected Remain to be ahead by a significant margin at the moment of polling station closure (10pm on the 23rd). Even prominent campaigners such as UKIP leader Nigel Farage were conceding defeat at this time; but of course this forecast was inevitably proven misjudged by the early hours of the following morning.

The message was direct. The deindustrialized North and (my backyard) the Midlands were more strongly in favour of Leave than was expected, as was overall EU beneficiaries Wales, leaving the majority of Remain support centred around inner-city London and SNP Scotland. Some of us may not like what this division is telling us about working class attitudes to immigration, or the willingness of our electorate to use their vote as an anti-Westminster protest in spite of the risks, but any government that recognises this will be stronger than if it were to underestimate or ignore these warnings altogether. This referendum has been fought on both sides using misinformation. This may be inevitable in post-facts politics, but as a Remainer I would much rather have won a debate without the use of deliberate lying and spurious allegations.[1] Now the truth has arrived it should be analysed and used for constructive future debates concerning our collective future.

2. Fringe politics has won

Despite supporting Remain I was always sceptical about the argument that positive and significant improvements to the EU would be possible if the UK had voted to stay (it’s not even certain what changes the country would ask for). But knowing now that the opposite has occurred I find it much more likely that our country’s voice will be heard, at least initially. It is a widely-held view that Prime Minister David Cameron did not want this referendum to go ahead, that it was a General Election manifesto pledge designed to unify a divided (in some cases dissenting) Conservative party. The biggest influencing factor was the rise of the populist, single-issue UK Independence Party (UKIP), who with a mixture of grassroots organisation and media sensationalism made Euroscepticism a mainstream political subject. While the UKIP-affiliated was not the official Leave campaign, Nigel Farage’s party must be given credit for scooping up large numbers of voters from parts of the UK that neither the Tory Leavers of Vote Leave (Johnson, Gove, et al) or the Labour party could reach.

This is the first time in decades that fringe, grassroots politics has affected the political structure of the UK. UKIP sensed an appetite for anti-EU legislation amongst the British public, and seized upon it. The Left, both Labour and the smaller parties, would do well to study their example.

3. Neoliberalism has lost

By which I mean, one neoliberal alliance has lost ground in the UK, while another, more manageable one has gained it, while a third has been torn in two. The impact of Brexit on the EU is likely to cause an ontological crisis in Brussels in the near future, if not an existential one, and the rest of Europe will be seriously considering whether the rise of the Right in their country reflect a similar alienation of their people with the forty-year-old project. It is unbecoming of the Left to apologise for the EU, and ignoring its exploitation of the global South and its handling of the migrant crisis. Better that they work towards a common goal: to devolve its power and influence in terms of economic might, and improve its standing as a humanitarian political force. The EU isn’t finished, and perhaps the referendum has taught us that it shouldn’t be, but today has been a defeat for neoliberalism. Whether this equates to a victory for freedom is yet to be determined.

4. The balance of power has shifted

The prime minister will be stepping down in October. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has assured Scotland that their overwhelming support to remain in the EU constitutes a mandate for another Scottish referendum. And the EU are not currently trying to apply the brakes to Article 50. All of these represent a shift in the balance of power in the UK. It will take a considerable amount of time to renegotiate old trade deals, but with the volatility of global markets it would be surprising if their terms would be immediately worse off for Britain. A shrinking EU is a less powerful one, which means good things for the countries most affected by their rampant market deregulation and exploitative Economic Partnership Agreements.[2] Sometimes the best thing to do is to rip up old negotiations and start again. We shall see.

5. An opening has appeared for the Left

It’s no secret that across Europe the political Left have lost considerable ground. After a lacklustre show of Remain support from the historically Eurosceptical Jeremy Corbyn, there have been suggestions that his position as Labour leader hangs in the balance. It will be either him or his successor the Left will look to take advantage of an even more vulnerable Conservative government, presumably led by Boris Johnson. And it will be a more radical Left than we have seen in recent years. Ultimately this is the wrong time for a Left exit (Lexit), I think. If the socioeconomic infrastructure was there to absorb job losses and wage reductions, such as Universal Basic Income (UBI) and worker automated technologies to replace the unskilled labour currently being done by EU migrants, there would be a more reasonable case to be made, but these changes would take several decades to effectively implement.[3] This may be a tad optimistic (the future of the left is far from certain right now, and is notable by its global absence), but perhaps these measures now have a greater chance of being proposed and reaching a stage where they can be trialled. The decision to leave or remain in the EU was one that dismissed party political lines and affiliations, even if both sides were led by Conservatives. As Elliot Murphy argued earlier this month, the “‘choice’ of austerity in Britain is no such thing in the EU, being part of its treaty.”[4] If Labour and the general Left can recover more quickly from Brexit than the Tories, they have a considerable upper hand to reshape British politics for the better, one they would be foolish not to take.


[1] To take just one example, my Facebook wall has for weeks covered with pro-Remain propaganda revealing the most derogatory, patronising attitudes towards Leavers; that they are xenophobic, Trump supporters or even Putin sympathisers. Leavers were able to easily dismiss the Remainers as credible or rational, whereas if the strong arguments for staying in the EU were allowed to breathe for themselves I am certain more people would have voted Remain.

[2] Adabunu, K. (2016) “Why African-Caribbeans should vote for a Left Exit from the EU”, Counterfire, published online at

[3] Carswell, J. (2016) “Review: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams”, orbistertius, available online at

[4] Murphy, E. (2016) “Another Tamriel is Possible: Brexit Proposals vs Solutions”, CounterPunch, published online at