Law and Critique

, 20:309 | Cite as

‘I Would Prefer Not To’: Giorgio Agamben, Bartleby and the Potentiality of the Law

  • Jessica WhyteEmail author


In Homo Sacer, Giorgio Agamben suggests that Herman’s Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ offers the ‘strongest objection against the principle of sovereignty’. Bartleby, a legal scribe who does not write, is best known for the formula with which he responds to all his employer’s requests, ‘I would prefer not to.’ This paper examines this formula, asking what it would mean to ‘prefer not to’ when the law is in question. By reading Melville’s story alongside Aristotle’s theory of potentiality and Walter Benjamin’s theses on history, it suggests that Bartleby’s interest, for Agamben, lies in his challenge to dominant conceptions of the relation between potentiality and actuality, which, he believes, are rendered indistinct in sovereignty. By reflecting critically on Agamben’s depiction of Bartleby as a ‘new Messiah’, this paper examines Agamben’s understanding of what it would mean to fulfil the law, and what form of political task this would entail.


Agamben Bartleby Benjamin Law Messianism Sovereignty 



My thanks go to Daniel McLoughlin, for reading an earlier draft of this paper and providing insightful comments. I would like to dedicate this essay to the memory of Paul Fletcher, with whom I had the enormous pleasure and privilege of discussing many of the ideas contained therein.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural StudiesMonash UniversityVictoriaAustralia

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