civil disobedience

Notes on resistance

irritated about extreme outrage

sign at the Stewart-Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, 2010 (image source)

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A note by way of foreword, or forewarning. As I write on my “about” page, I am no expert in any of the subjects I blog about here. I write and publish these posts feeling confident in and not even particularly bothered by the probability that someone has written before and much better about the subjects I’m blogging about. Where that proves to be the case I actually do hope you let me know, though I can’t promise I’ll read or follow up (ars longa vita brevis and all that).

I think of this condition of motivated ignorance (more or less) as not accidental but rather essential to my blogging; it’s why I’m interested in writing (blogging) about one topic and not another in the first place. If a subject impels me to serious thought but doesn’t immediately and entirely reveal itself — no matter for these purposes or to me at this stage if my intuition is correct or not — I’m more likely to make a blog post of it. Another way of saying this is that for a topic to eventuate in a blog post it has to hold my attention at a middle distance — neither so short that I get tired of thinking about it after reading a few articles/writing a few sentences, nor so long that I end up mired in mounds of material and with an unwanted book project on my hands. (I’m thinking of an excellent talk I heard Marjorie Levinson give recently at the NASSR 2014 conference in Bethesda, MD, about a middle-distance mode of analysis as essential to understanding a literary genre such as lyric, if not the workings of genre as such.) The sheer volume of excellent “Bartleby” criticism I encountered in thinking about and writing this post threatened to tip it into a much longer project than I anticipated…I feel lucky to have escaped in under 3000 words.

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My aim for this blog post is simple: I want, as briefly as possible, to relocate the concept of resistance from the domain of the will to that of the (predominantly negative) affects. By rethinking the basis of political resistance I want to (re)claim as acts of resistance some mundane responses of irritation, aggravation, or intolerance — negative affects, “ugly feelings” as Sianne Ngai calls them, none of them especially lovable — occurring regularly in daily life and on the same spectrum, I argue, with more easily recognizable forms of political defiance. I hypothesize that resistance — like intolerance, to which it’s related — is not in the first instance a principle or creed or program, or even necessarily a fully formed idea. Rather, resistance is more in the character of an autonomic affective event, a somato-sensory occasion accompanied by at least minimal acknowledgement (perception) of the event. In the political sphere, resistance is not an action, necessarily, but the acknowledgement of a strong negative feeling — which feeling and/or acknowledgement may, but needn’t be, acted on. This acknowledgement almost always begins in rejection, a recoil or radical estrangement from circumstances judged to be intolerable. “Intolerance” is thus fittingly another name for this mechanism of rejection and recoil.

I describe resistance as springing from intolerance, essentially founded on intolerance, and want to explain what I mean in light of the fact that intolerance is not generally recognized as being among virtues the left seeks to cultivate. Indeed insofar as tolerance is among the core values of liberalism (and has been at least since Locke), intolerance is typically charged to the right as the sign of a benighted hostility to difference. Part of this blog post comes from my suspicion (intuition, strong feeling, whatever) that intolerance is a more interesting and politically productive response than that. (I’m obviously inspired here by Sianne Ngai’s effort in Ugly Feelings to “recuperate negative affects for their critical productivity” [3] — and at the same time share her caution against romanticizing these feelings too.)

…Now I’m almost too embarrassed to turn to this text in discussing political resistance, knowing as little as I do about it, the author, the scholarship, etc. But none of these limitations held (or ever holds) Žižek back, so:

Consider what is (in the U.S. at least) the canonical literary case for thinking political resistance, Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) and its hero’s famous phrase, “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby’s action is inaction, or as the narrator labels it, “passive resistance.” Beyond being an obvious and persistent source of trouble to the narrator of the story, Bartleby is troublesome to the principle of narrative as well, at least so far as fictional narratives are typically understood to feature characters who either act or are acted upon. An inert force at the center of the story, Bartleby occupies virtually the entirety of the narrative without becoming any more intelligible (to the Lawyer or to us) than he was from his first appearance in it.

Ironically for a story with such a profoundly arid main character, “Bartleby” has proven extraordinarily fertile for thinking the politics of resistance. The significance of the character and of Melville’s “Story of Wall-Street” to the Occupy movement in NYC and worldwide is well known and was well documented at the time (see for instance here and here). The bizarre career and influence of “Bartleby” has been just as prominently marked in contemporary fields and industries associated with the scrivener’s profession. No other literary work has remained so indelibly attached to the institutions of literary production and consumption. Melville’s title alone has spawned two major companies representing these spheres of literary consumption and production, respectively:, a massive, post-scribal electronic archive of the world’s classic literature, and Scrivener, the word processing program designed for authors.

How we read Bartleby’s peculiarly inert force in Melville’s story, and thus the unique power of his passive resistance, will of course depend to a great extent on how we read the declaration “I would prefer not to.”  Here is how Leo Marx describes Bartleby’s famous phrase in his influential 1953 essay [JSTOR link], by most accounts a watershed for modern readings of Melville’s story:

“‘Prefer’ is the nucleus of Bartleby’s refrain, and it embodies the very essence of his power. It simply means ‘choice,’ but it is backed up…by will.” (621)

Marx reads in Bartleby’s phrase, in his preference “not to,” an exercise of choice backed by the faculty of will — choice and will implied here as granted by nature to autonomous human beings, and to a minimal degree at least protected by law. Standing at the head of a mighty stream of modern criticism on and political appropriations of Melville’s classic tale, Marx unfolds from Melville’s story and from Bartleby’s famous phrase all the nascent terms for understanding political resistance in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. Choice, will, agency, reason, defiance — these are qualities we typically ascribe to acts of political resistance; even today these terms seem to structure our understanding of politically resistant action and personhood.

But though choice and will are undeniably compelling and commendable qualities, they are explicitly not the terms Bartleby offers to describe his act of resistance. That these are not Bartleby’s terms is plain from a brief early exchange with the narrator [for the text of Melville’s story see the version freely available online at]:

“I would prefer not to.”
“You will not?”
“I prefer not.”

Žižek’s 2006 assertion [pdf article link] that Bartleby’s phrase needs to be taken literally is both eminently commonsensical and obviously also a gesture in sympathy with the unsettlingly radical conservatism of Bartleby’s quiet protest — both in general and in this particular case against the Lawyer’s slippage from “preference” to “will.”

In “Bartleby,” the scrivener’s “I would prefer not to” is precisely not an expression of willful action and heroic defiance. Instead, the story invites us to think of resistance as taking origin in some poorly defined and understood though powerfully and clearly felt affective response. Resistance is in this sense something closer perhaps to an instinct or a “gut reaction” than to a considered opinion or belief. Bartleby’s paradoxically negative assertion is founded on a judgment, as civilly expressed as possible, of disaffection, distaste, disgust. Intolerance of this sort is typically understood as a form of protest at the bodily level, a physical aversion to and rejection of certain objects or stimuli, food or noise or light, etc., as in the widely reported condition of lactose intolerance. “Intolerance” and related terms — disgust, revulsion, aversion, resistance — is often applied to forms of jointly physiological and ideological response. These autonomic operations of the limbic system, spasms of amygdalic or epiglottal refusal and recoil, cut across and communicate between these separate domains.

What I want to emphasize here is resistance’s orientation in the regions of the gut, linking the mundane complaint of lactose intolerance (say) to more vividly particularized forms of resistance and recoil such as Cayce Pollard’s aversive physical reaction to certain brand logos and icons in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition. Following Ngai’s lead, Aaron Bady observes the “peculiar communicative efficacy of negative affect” in “Bartleby.” What gives these ugly feelings their peculiar efficacy is that they communicate with perfect clarity and precision without the subject’s ever once appearing compelled to make them intelligible. As with complaints of the body, one may not know the cause of upset but know very well from the fact of upset that something is deeply not right.

Physicians describe digestion as an autochthonous system of the human body, operating synchronously but not isomorphically with the workings of the brain and central nervous system. The gut-mind is capable in other words of “thinking” and delivering with clarity and authority conclusions that the mind-body may not (or not yet) be able to reach. The connection of these kinds of autonomic somatic response to Melville and “Bartleby” is not far-fetched: Ralph Savarese has a 2003 article [article pdf link] illustrating in “Bartleby” and “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo! (another story from 1853) Melville’s extensive engagement with contemporary medical texts that tie the pains of dyspepsia and other digestive complaints to the social ills of modernity. Resistance, like intolerance, is a potent reminder that while some things can be swallowed or stomached, some things simply can’t.

Of course, too much trust in judgments issued from a subjective point of view leaves one open to charges of solipsism based either on ignorance (as in the case of intolerance) or on the unexamined privilege of those who enjoy the liberty to consult, speak for, and act on their own feelings. Charges of snobbery, egotism, or privilege-blindness may be true enough in these circumstances, and are in any event inescapable when judgments are made from a partial (particular, embodied, human) standpoint. The Lawyer early on compares Bartleby’s behavior to that of “the meddlesome poet, Byron” — the implication clearly being that Bartleby’s resistance, his “prefer[ence] not to,” is of a lordly character, aristocratic in temperament and behavior, as if directly patterned after the mad-bad-and-dangerous-to-know poet himself.

But the charge of egotism seems somewhat beside the point here too, in Bartleby’s case as in Byron’s. After all, the stomach may function as the condition of mindedness — as Virginia Woolf famously remarked, one can’t do anything properly if the stomach isn’t satisfied and in good working order — but is not itself “minded” at all. Many of Byron’s protagonists, his Childe Harold and Don Juan and Sardanapalus, are epicurean characters for whom bodily and especially stomach upset is the marker of deep-seated political complaint, even or perhaps especially in circumstances where it is only peripherally perceived in these terms by the complainant. The hero Sardanapalus says, ” I hate all pain, / Given or received.” Whether this position can be made a basis for substantive political action is a question held in suspension and openly debated to the play’s tragic end.

For Byron (as later, in Savarese’s account, for Melville), the monism of body and world is principally inscribed through the digestive organs. Indigestion is Byron’s figure for the body that registers and reacts against social ills and excesses, including those of the individual. In a late canto of Don Juan, indigestion gives the lie to the philosopher George Berkeley’s fantasy of “universal egotism”:

For ever and anon comes Indigestion,
(Not the most ‘dainty Ariel’) and perplexes
Our soarings with another sort of question (11:1-13)

Byron does not disclose *what* question or what sort of question, exactly, proceeds from indigestion; in putting the stomach and mind in a relationship of continued mutual “perplexity”, though, he makes clear that our mental “soarings” remain responsive and ultimately answerable to thought’s material ground.

I’m fascinated by but not especially invested in declaring a side in current philosophical debates about whether powerful emotions such as disgust have a propositional content or depend on prior ideas or beliefs. (For a good summary account of these debates, adjudicating carefully between opposing viewpoints, see Carolyn Korsmeyer, Savoring Disgust, chapter 1.) Like Ngai, I’m interested to think in more pragmatic terms about how everyday responses of disgust, recoil, and intolerance could be more widely reclaimed for political thought and action. To ask how irritation, exasperation, and intolerance might give new energy to political resistance is to revisit more explicitly the agenda of an older generation of critical theorists too. Herbert Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance,” his contribution to the volume A Critique of Pure Tolerance with Robert Paul Wolff and Barrington Moore Jr. (1965), closes with the extraordinary assertion that the left should make available for politics not less intolerance, but more. Where the ideology of tolerance fortifies rather than upsets the status quo, Marcuse reasons, the cultivation of informed and “militant” intolerance is an essential facet of resistance. Marcuse calls in the 1968 postscript to this essay for “minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which toleration destruction and suppression.” Marcuse finds this militant intolerance to be an action of the minority, heroic virtually on that basis alone. It is an exercise of political will, the expression of an irresistable impulse to seek freedom wherever people are unfree.

Affect theorists have in the last decade made considerable progress toward understanding how a range of everyday, mostly involuntary affects including anger, dissatisfaction, and depression might differently ground a politics in theory or practice. The more recent work of Ngai and others enters productively into dialogue with the tradition of left cultural criticism to which Marcuse’s work obviously belongs. (See, in addition to Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint; Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness; Ann Czetkovich’s scholarly-activist work on depression as a public and political feeling; Rei Terada’s work on a condition she calls “phenomenophilia,” the perverse attachment to transient perceptual phenomena, in Looking Away). More in line with this recent work, my notes here don’t make a call to action outside the potentially momentous acknowledgement of many actions already underway — forms of resistance more voluptuary, intolerant, and far more widespread than one might expect. Think of the most everyday revulsions and distastes — the daily irritations, effusions of biliousness, splenetic episodes — that punctuate a normal day: rush hour traffic, terrible drivers, oblivious pedestrians, the press of bodies on the street or public transport; interminable lines; bosses, toadyism, manipulators, assholes generally; some idiocy or other on the internet; frustration at one’s own body and physical appearance (often a submerged complaint against the fashion and beauty industries and the impossible standards they support). Think of all the things one would prefer not to do, and surely wouldn’t do if not doing so didn’t (as it did for Bartleby and many Occupiers) carry the threat of certain punishment and reprisal. The condition of being repelled by the world is not an exception any longer, but the rule — “Shit is Fucked Up and Bullshit.” The consensus generated from this great seething irritable mass may be the unacknowledged (possibly unacknowledgeable) ground for more particular individual acts of resistance and rebellion that are more readily identified as acts of political resistance and disobedience, whether civil or not.


This book comes out in October, and while on social media the title will doubtlessly inspire a lot of cheap jokes at Žižek’s expense, I’m curious to learn whether it has anything to say about the embodied politics of the “recoil” I describe here.

Notes on Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”

Notes on Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”



    Thoreau’s extraordinary essay “Civil Disobedience” was first published in Boston in 1849, in a collection edited by Elizabeth P. Peabody called Aesthetic Papers.  The text is not narrowly but broadly “aesthetic” in the sense of involving the perceptive as well as rational powers of human beings.  As in many aesthetic treatises of the long nineteenth century, from Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters to Wilde’s “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” Thoreau’s essay raises questions of whether and how far the free play of these faculties can be accommodated to the larger mechanisms of State or society, or else furnish a model for new socio-political arrangements altogether.  The ideal government — the government which at the beginning and end of the essay Thoreau declares his willingness (even eagerness) to swear loyalty to (e.g. 240) — is, for Thoreau, one that recognizes the individual as its foundation and necessary condition.  The aesthetic state that Thoreau describes in the soaring final paragraph is thus one that does not merely accommodate and assimilate individuals, but which provides conditions for their flourishing.  

    But as in many or most aesthetic theories of the long nineteenth century, Thoreau’s ideal State is part of a society to come, for which intermittent portents only are visible in the present.  Civil disobedience is the name that Thoreau gives to the assertion of individuality in word or deed, whenever this comes into conflict with the State.  It names a practice (voluntary or involuntary; internal or external) of standing apart from the State.  This practice can be either an action (of refusing to pay city tax, e.g.) or a habit of mind, a perspective that one brings to everyday situations where social and political consensus is not sought and appealed for, but merely and tacitly presumed.

    From the beginning of the essay Thoreau offers plenty of reasons why one would veryrationally be led to call the legitimacy of government into question or reject governments altogether as presenting impediments to the rights of individuals.  The same objections that popularly stand against standing armies count equally, as Thoreau notes, against the notion of “a standing government” (224). The latter has no more legitimacy than the former; its legitimacy has just never yet been put in question.  Government is best, Thoreau observes (and he holds this to be an opinion with near universal assent) when it operates imperceptibly; we hold it to be an anomaly and a glitch in the system when government intrudes on our notice.  Thus we should think of government as no more than a negative presence in our lives, which a properly self-regulating civil society could well do without.  The U.S. government is a notional entity that survives only to the degree that citizens respect (or don’t bother to inquire into) its Trojan horse-like appearance.  “[A] sort of wooden gun to the people themselves,” it is not built strong enough to withstand opposition, or even concerted scrutiny: “if ever they should use it…against each other, it will surely split” (224).

    A text about civil disobedience, Thoreau’s essay is also a masterful performance of it. At the same time, he pointedly differentiates the act of civil disobedience from a more incendiary and markedly less civil series of actions that may arise from contemplation of the more serious limitations of government.  With many good reasons to declare ourselves “no-government men” and work to abolish the State (225), to commit an act of civil disobedience seems rather like an act of great prudence.  Thoreau establishes the normality, necessity and obviousness of civil disobedience in thought or word or deed.  It is entirely acceptable for free-thinking individuals to hold and express treasonous thoughts as they are prompted by conscience.  It is the right — and in certain cases may be the responsibility — of the free-thinking individual to entertain such dangerous thoughts as they arise in the natural course of things.  The individual must permit these thoughts rather than seeking to stifle them; any possible curb on this capacity represents an unacceptable limitation on freedom of thought and expression.   Keats writes in a letter that one should “let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts. Not a select party.” (LJK, 2.213)  The political consequences for the individual of such cast of mind are worked out in Thoreau’s essay.  


    The author of Walden is “not the ‘go a-head’ species, but its opposite pole,” wrote George Eliot in an anonymous review of 1856 (265).  Thoreau describes this same mode of life in “Civil Disobedience” as like that of being “a counter friction to stop the machine” (231).  Its principle of action is troublesome, an obstruction to the illusion of the smooth functioning of social consensus.  “I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually” (239).  The elementary act of civil disobedience act consists of the mere refusal to be absorbed entirely in the State.  Since too thorough an absorption into a government stands as a threat to individuality, one can be too close to the State to see it plain:  “Statesmen and legislators, standing so completely within the institution, never distinctly and nakedly behold it” (241).  Thoreau notes that he spent only a single night in jail for refusal to pay tax. This fact, like that of Thoreau’s continued proximity to his mother during his experiment living in the woods at Walden, is sometimes pointed out as if it called into question the seriousness of Thoreau’s commitments.  Much as the greatest benefit of living in the woods is the perceptual awakening that it affords, however, the more significant act of civil disobedience is the shift of perspective that comes with it.  Prison, Thoreau writes, afforded “a closer view of my native town. I was fairly inside of it”; and “When I came out of prison, I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived” (238).  One sees from inside the walls of the town jail and from outside the law the totality of relations that constitute the law and hold it provisionally in place.

    It is a question for the present whether in insisting on the priority of the individual over the citizen, Thoreau neglects other equally valid (and today more pressing) relations and forms of collective political speech, personhood, and action — or whether indeed the “private man” who acts in accordance to the dictates of his own conscience is an impediment to the achievement of political ends that may be desirable to work towards today.  Behind these questions of course is the further one of whether and how far the individualist of the nineteenth-century America is adequate to the realities of twenty-first century political life.  One problem with importing Thoreau’s model of civil disobedience into contemporary political life is that the stakes for self-assertion may have become unclear in an age when individual voices are tirelessly asserted in various public fora.

    To his great credit Thoreau does not assume the preexistence of a common arena for meaningful political participation.  It is not enough to put a stake down and call any space (physical or virtual) a commons — as if, in an updated version of a Rousseauist fantasy, there were nothing more to a participatory democracy than the spontaneous consent of the governed to participate collectively therein, and to respect the rules of law (or the terms of service) that have been established for that place.  He perceives that a government worth the name must be the site of continual contest from within (if not also from without).  The commons is brought into being through periodic border raids upon it.  These interruptions to State power are motivated by crises of conscience from one among a minority who not only perceive things otherwise, but who speak and write of the things that they perceive.  Civil disobedience is an act that brings to visibility an existing relation of conflict between the interests of the State and those of the individual.  It is necessary to the State and to the formation of individuals for roughly the same reason:  as the integrity of the state is tested but also realized by those who break the laws of the state, the integrity of the individual is tested and ultimately asserted in acts of civil disobedience.  

    The “right healthful caustics” (Sidney) of civil disobedience may as Thoreau notes “convulse the body” of the State in the course of renewing it (232).  Some of the most impressively Shelleyan passages of Thoreau’s essay are dedicated to exploring the idea that civil disobedience introduces a necessary, if dangerous, element of the unpredictable into the (under normal circumstances all too regular) affairs of government and civic life.  One does not necessarily know the direction in which these actions tend; though principled and motivated by conscience, their effects cannot be known or calculated in advance.  “Action from principle, — the perception and the performance of right, — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with any thing which was” (231).  Civil disobedience tends in the direction of aliveness, where the presiding movement towards renewal may be the most important thing that can be said about it.  

May 12, 2013

Dedicated to my mother Georgeanne Jackson, public school teacher in SAD no. 22 in Maine.  


Citations from Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience, ed. Owen Thomas (New York: W.W. Norton, 1966).