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The Politics of ‘Primary Rejection’ in Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby’ and Hito Steyerl’s How Not To Be Seen: Racism, (Il)Legibility, Surveillance, and Determinate Negation

Ring, A; (2021) The Politics of ‘Primary Rejection’ in Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby’ and Hito Steyerl’s How Not To Be Seen: Racism, (Il)Legibility, Surveillance, and Determinate Negation. German Life and Letters , 74 (1) pp. 67-89. 10.1111/glal.12292. Green open access

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Abstract

In this article I analyse the primary rejections depicted in Herman Melville's Urtext on the withdrawal of complicity, Bartleby (1853), and Hito Steyerl's video installation How Not to be Seen (2013), which experiments with a Bartleby‐like withdrawal from surveillance through becoming illegible to machine vision. My focus is on the potential of primary rejection to reveal the disavowed content of racist violence foundational to the regimes (financial, sociotechnical) rejected in these texts. Adopting a hermeneutic of hauntology, my reading of Bartleby emphasises its publication context amid the slow struggles over the abolition of slavery in the US, to explore the connections between Bartleby's strike and the history of racist violence lingering in Melville's depiction of an oddly vacant Wall Street. Turning to Steyerl's video installation, I evaluate the techniques it proposes for becoming Bartlebys of the digital age, emphasising the complexity of Steyerl's mobilisation of mixed‐footage montage to explore the dangers of legibility and invisibility in a racist internet era. Throughout, I set these two works in dialogue with leading interpretations of Bartleby, with Adorno and Horkheimer's interpretation of Hegel's ‘determinate negation’, hauntological analyses of German and other texts, and current theories of race and surveillance to pose the question: for whom is primary rejection affordable and who, like Bartleby, will perish if they try to exit dominant schemes of legibility?

Type: Article
Title: The Politics of ‘Primary Rejection’ in Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby’ and Hito Steyerl’s How Not To Be Seen: Racism, (Il)Legibility, Surveillance, and Determinate Negation
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1111/glal.12292
Publisher version: https://doi.org/10.1111/glal.12292
Language: English
Additional information: This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐NoDerivs License (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0), which permits use and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non‐commercial and no modifications or adaptations are made.
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of Arts and Humanities
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of Arts and Humanities > SELCS
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10110369
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