prefer not to
La Casa Encendida Madrid
“Bartleby, the Scrivener” is a story of Wall Street. That story describes a dark, hostile atmosphere, a world with inhuman workloads whose inhabitants are excessive characters, all somehow sick, reduced to animal laborans. But in it, Bartleby rises up as someone “who obstinately refuses to go on doing the sort of writing demanded of him", standing out in that oppressive environment with his “I would prefer not to” and declining all possible activity, to the bewilderment of his boss and colleagues.
The power of such a simple act of “not-doing” stems precisely from his way of contradicting the society around him: the work society. He offers an alternative, separating himself from that constrictive society while inseparably revealing the restrictive conditions in which they are all living. But, most importantly, he personifies the spirit of pure potentiality: he enacts the power of a tabula rasa where it is still possible to write a new story, where there is still a chance of change and renovation.
The exhibition title borrows his famous reply “I would prefer not to” to represent different positions that respond to the mass vulnerability in our society, looking into the potentiality of nothingness as a political gesture—a way to rethink, question and challenge. The current neoliberal society presents itself as an achievement-oriented world characterised by an abundance of positivity that is expressed in ubiquitous over-production, over-performance and over-communication. In order to disrupt and re-examine this mindset, the exhibition explores the potential of “not-doing” as a political action, since “not-doing” threatens the existing relationships of power and domination by crossing the limits of the tolerable. As Melville asserts, “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.”
The stifling state depicted by Melville is not all that different from the current situation. However, there is certainly a new form of coercion, now based on an insecurity derived from the erosion of workers’ rights, the restructuring of social, health and educational systems, and even the self-responsible prevention of illness and the loss of wages and pensions. Consequently, a neoliberal individualised self-government and self-responsibility is partly confronted with existential precariousness in a new way: social life is also altered, as production and sociality become one. Since neither is limited to places and times of wage labour anymore, Post-Fordist workers have become self-entrepreneurial agents because they must perform their exploitable self in multiple social relations before the eyes of others. The presence of the other has become both an instrument and an object of labour and, consequently, both labour and social life are now highly precarious.
As Isabell Lorey points out, “The many precarious are dispersed both in relations of production and through diverse modes of production, which absorb and engender subjectivities, extend their economic exploitation and multiply identities and work places. It is not only work that is precious and dispersed, but life itself.”1
In a similar vein, the Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han explains in his book The Burnout Society that external coercion, exploitation by others, disappears with neoliberalism. Work means personal fulfilment or personal optimisation. People think they are at liberty. There are no external forms of control; we are self-governed and self-employed. We have the constant feeling that we need to accomplish something, that we are governing ourselves. Therefore, what occurs is not alienation but exhaustion. One exploits oneself to the point of collapse. Instead of alienation, voluntary self-exploitation appears.
Furthermore, today’s exhaustion is indicative of status. We commonly hear people proclaim “I’m exhausted” when making small talk, as a way of hinting that they are important, in demand and successful. The implication is obvious: exhaustion follows from busyness. The Post-Fordist working ethos, in combination with the post-digital condition, has affected our work patterns, generating a messy and paradoxical situation where, even when resting, we are always online: feeding the digital machinery, consuming, producing and participating in the never-ending feed of images and data. Daydreaming, laziness and lack of focus are ingrained in this attitude, but in such a way that distraction becomes a form of production. It pushes people to do many things at once, always nourishing their online and offline personas. Exhaustion becomes normalised and almost desired, thus generating a constant stress to fulfil the inherent feeling of accomplishment. Perplexingly, in extreme cases, the resulting exhaustion together with the desire for prestige crystallises in the form of burnout—the more prestigious, acceptable cousin of depression.
On the top of all this, isolation and individualisation have become more frequent. However, they also hold out the opportunity to invent new and appropriate forms of political agency. As Paolo Virno asserts, “It is typical of the Post-Fordist multitude to foment the collapse of political representation: not as an anarchic gesture, but as a means of calmly and realistically searching for new political forms.”3 So how can we find new organisational practices that break away from these forms of individualisation today?
In order to defy the neo-liberal machinery, the first step is to disobey the norms of control and impositions, refuse to continue as usual. A simple gesture such as “not-doing” opens up a space for communicating with others about how one wants to live, and what one aims to achieve. The disruptive potential of “not-doing” lies in that it cannot be regulated or controlled, rendering it ungovernable. It challenges the normal order of the results-oriented society, opening up new possible ways of looking and acting in the world. Like Bartleby, it activates the potentiality of the tabula rasa. In this way, the refusal-to-continue-doing rephrases the limits and constrictions of the neoliberal economy and its endless growth paradigm.
Contrary to what it might seem, the act of “not-doing” is, in fact, an extremely active procedure. It represents a harder and more thorough way of controlling the self. It is the opposite of restricting, and it implies having dominion over the self. Nietzsche, in his On theGenealogy of Morals attempts to demonstrate how the desire to refuse the world is not a mere withdrawal but a subtle manifestation of man’s will to power and, by extension, a necessary precondition for political power over others. Thus, it is not a reduction of human potential but the true source of man’s will to power. For this reason, the act of “not-doing” cannot be understood in terms of laziness or nihilism, since its main purpose is to achieve a form of reciprocity between subjects freed from the social contract imposed by established forms of power.
Like Bartleby and his “I would prefer not to” as a refusal to participate in the society that is oppressing him, the exhibition explores the gesture of “not-doing’” as an emancipative event. This latent stage encapsulates the infinite possibilities of the moment of hesitation, a way of overcoming the current paradoxical freedom where the boss has become a slave to his/her own work. In this work society, we have become both prisoners and jailers, victims and executioners. However, the exhibition reflects on the idea of potentiality as explained by Franco “Bifo” Berardi: “The person who is not doing anything isn’t committed to any activity, so she has the potential for anything.”
In this way, the exhibition is able to question our hyper-accelerated society and reflect on the potential of “not-doing”. The different proposals from the artists invite spectators to examine the power of refusal as another possible strategy for thwarting the further erosion of labour conditions and challenging the current paradigm based on endless progress. The exhibition aims to embody the tenacity of human activity and gives art the permanent, autonomous power to rethink the borders imposed by the work society, and thus challenge them and open up a space for renewal.