“I would prefer not to” is to be taken literally:

Excerpted from The Parallax View by Slavoj Žižek:

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 in finite 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 para-sitizes 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.


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? The difference is double. 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 “deter-minate 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.

We should draw the same conclusions at the most general level of ontological difference itself: it brings to an extreme the traditional philosophical difference between the physical level and the metaphysical level, between the empirical and the transcendental, by reducing it to the “minimal” difference between what is, something, and—not another, “higher,” reality, but—nothing. Overcoming metaphysics does not mean reducing the metaphysical dimension to ordinary physical reality (or, in a more “Marxist” way, showing how all metaphysical specters arise from the antagonisms of real life), but reducing the difference between material reality and another, “higher” reality to the immanent difference, gap, between this reality and its own void; that is, to discern the void that separates material reality from itself, that makes it “non-all.” And the same goes for the ultimate parallax of political economy, the gap between the reality of everyday material social life (people interacting among themselves and with nature, suffering, consuming, and so on) and the Real of the speculative dance of Capital, its self-propelling movement which seems to be disconnected from ordinary reality. We can experience this gap very tangibly when we visit a country where life is obviously in a shambles, we see a lot of ecological decay and human misery; the econ- omist’s report we read afterward however, informs us that the country’s economic situation is “financially sane.”. . . Marx’s point here is not primarily to reduce the second dimension to the fi rst (to demonstrate how the supranatural mad dance of commodities arises out of the antagonisms of “real life”); his point is, rather, that we cannot properly grasp the first (the social reality of material production and social interaction) without the second: it is the self-propelling metaphysical dance of Capital that runs the show, that provides the key to real-life developments and catastrophes.


Second (and more important, perhaps), 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.”

― Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View






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