A Tour of the Palace of Calculation: Some Laboratory Notes on ‘45 Days in the Company of Robert Walser’

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‘45 Days in the Company of Robert Walser’ summons the Austrian nascent Modernist novelist as well as Herman Melville as guides to what 21st-century Higher Educational labour feels like. The accompanying essay delves into some of its provocations.


Five Poems from ‘45 Days in the Company of Robert Walser’


under the gaze
of numbered days
I imagine my vice

to be secretly pleased
and observe myself
being slightly robbed.

I received no tour
of the Palace of Calculations
humming transactions

but sat, Robert,
in the darkening classroom
observing the fates

busy in the sticky corner
knitting and crocheting columns
of excel mesh

digital honeycomb
power grids
my prepared cells


Last night there were tables,
forms in my dreams, though none
Plato would recognise essences.
Robert, let us talk

of the quiet insurrection
found in glances
when the words climb
back down the throat

when the humming room
sweats with the unsaid
and tilts so we walk the ceiling
no centre of gravity remaining;

we orbit our uniforms,
observe them stumble
through arithmetical dumbshows
performing subtraction.

I yearn for a new emoji:
part gesture part
figure without a face


Robert, there is talk
this investigation
is conducted by entities
known as the Precorporation
that fund the Institute

beings that geometry and measurement
fail; who grope
with slimy appendages
amidst our marrow

prod at the fatty goods
with wires
to assemble a battery.

I feel the tug
of some dark web
trembles at my step.

rush faster
than calculation
and I awake

from uneasy dreams
squeezed into a column,
a cross-shaped cursor
targeting my forehead


They let me out today,
Robert; to walk the grounds
trudge the dust-poured paths
and explore my kinship with stones

those abandoned Great Works
fermenting in time’s broth
unlaboured soup
scumming the serving bowl.

Strangest of all
was that peal, that pulse;
a triangular carmine pebble
lodged in my wet middle:
a swimming crust


Robert, now
we have become so close
it is only fair I disclose
certain secrets
underpinning the new ways
of working;

how to wear
these internal masks
to protect shapes
a face might make
under audit;

and after, I shall share
my hard labour at a new paper
exposing Alchemical Management Techniques

expressing sympathy
with the struggles
of other substances
in their perfected passage
towards stone



A Tour of the Palace of Calculation: Some Laboratory Notes on ’45 Days in the Company of Robert Walser’

‘we live in a contradiction, a brutal state of affairs, profoundly inegalitarian — where all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone — is presented to us as ideal.’

Pierre Bourdieu, www.lacan.com/badiou-on-evil.htm

‘In alchemy, the Latin word labour is used to describe the procedures, methods, and techniques — the daily struggle with materials. Also, in Latin, ora means prayer, and the alchemists never tired of pointing out that labour and ora spell laboratory.’

James Elkins, What Painting Is. London/New York: Routledge, 1999, p.37 

Living Labour

As Robert Sheppard’s Micro Event Space has it, seemingly in specific reference to UK poetry, ‘there is very little / poetry about work’. And I wanted to explore what 21st-century educational labour feels like.

In a thrilling reclamation of the ‘literariness’ of Marx, Keston Sutherland takes issue with the dominant reception of him as simply a theorist. Instead, Sutherland ingeniously restores Marx as the ‘author of an immensely daring and complicated satire on social existence under capital’ (2011, p.36). Central to his argument is a commitment to understanding ‘the force of Marx’s language as distinct from his theoretical propositions’ (2011, p.31). It enables him to examine how ‘solicitude for concepts’(2011, p.38) from translators and influential theorists keen to transmit the theoretical purity of Marx’s ideas have prompted them to eliminate ‘the problem of style from their interpretations’ (2011, p.36). Sutherland reserves particular attention to how such devotion to content over ‘style’ has resulted in revelatory mistranslations of key areas — particularly around human labour. Translations by Moore and Aveling, and Fowkes, and literary theorists such as Althusser share in a process of misunderstanding:

Ideas not merely expressed by Marx, but pressed by him inextricably into the thick of a
Complex satire intended for a complex and divided audience, are rescued from that
pressure and paraphrased into a form fit for ‘use’ in Marxist cultural criticism (2011, p.38).

Sutherland’s very specific example concerns the influential account of abstract human labour in Das Kapital Part 1 of Volume 1 – that he restores as ‘the fetish-character of commodities and its secret’ (from the ‘influentially mistranslated … “fetishism of commodities” and its secret’ 2011, p.34). The contested area is the (mis)translation ‘human labour in the abstract’ rendered by Moore and Aveling and Fowkes as ‘a mere congelation of homogeneous human labour’ (2011, p.39). From this translation, Sutherland explains, has arisen a focus upon ‘congelation’ (a combination of the Latin verb congelare ‘to freeze together’, and gelum, Latin noun ‘frost’) that suggests human labour is ‘frozen in commodities’ (2011, p.39). It is this sense that ‘human labour is abstract when it is frozen: lifeless, cold, immobilised’ that Sutherland wants to challenge through a return to Marx’s actual words, and their very specific meanings and contexts.

In contradistinction to this focus upon labour as frozen abstraction, he attends to two carefully chosen words in Marx’s original German: flüssig and Gallerte. Flüssig, ‘flowing’ is the very opposite to conceptions of human labour as frozen. Instead, Sutherland translates it as ‘human labour-power in motion’ or ‘human labour power in its fluid state’ (2011, p.40). More striking still, is Sutherland’s return to Gallerte. Marx’s German word is much more than abstract notions of ‘congelation’ and ‘congealed’ capture. And it is very far from upholding the frozen imagery we are familiar with as the legacy of Marxist ideas — in fact, it is far from being an abstract noun. Such imagery problematically preserves a sense of natural process, relating to an ice that holds out the prospect of being returned to its original state through human warmth.

Far from providing such natural, humane comfort, Sutherland explains that Gallerte is actually a disgusting, specific commodity: ‘a “semi-solid, tremulous,” comestible mass, inconvertible back into the “meat, bone [and] connective tissue” of the various animals used indifferently to produce it’ (2011, p.41). And disgust is an essential part of Marx’s satirical writing style — something he wants us to be forced to taste. Sutherland points to a popular 1880s encyclopaedia that mentions Gallerte in the context of jellied dishes, and compounds Marx’s gruesomely literal satire on consumption. We couldn’t be further from the standard reception of Marxist notions of human labour as ‘homogeneous’ — Sutherland explains:

This ‘mere Gallerte’ is the product not of reversible freezing but of irreversible boiling followed  by cooling. Abstract human labour is, in Marx’s words, undifferentiated and  not homogenous because it has a multitude of material origins …[that] cannot be separately distinguished in  the commodity which is the product of their combined activity. All that is meat melts into  bone, and vice versa; and no effort of scrutiny, will, or heated imagination, however powerfully analytic or moral is capable of reversing the industrial process of that deliquescence (2011, p. 42).

The wage labourer is the animal product Gallerte; their ‘living hands, brains, muscles, and nerves’ (2011, p.43) — served for the devouring capitalist. And Gallerte is the ‘paradigmatic commodity’ as the tremulous edible product of industrial reduction and processing’ (2011, p. 46).

Sutherland reclaims a Marx who was never just delivering a ‘theory’, but describing ‘the lived experience of labour that is not present in the canonical Marxist idea of “abstract human labour ”’ (2011, p.40).

On Being Tremulous

On two occasions, early in my career and much later, I have clutched for Robert Walser’s novel Institute Benjamenta, as for a surrogate vital organ. It has been my guide, Baedeker of my expendability, through a pair of Higher Education redundancy periods (45 days being the stipulated time frame for such ‘consultancy’ measures to take place in when an organisation wants to make more than 100 people redundant).

My sequence ‘45 Days in the Company of Robert Walser’ turns to Herman Melville and Walser for guides to the inner workings of workplaces and the lived experience of them. I find renewed relevance in both within the context of Mark Fisher’s account of the effects ‘Capitalist Realism’ has had upon work, culture and education. Fisher uses that phrase to examine the extent to which capitalism ‘seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable’ (2009, p.8) as ‘a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action’ (2009, p.16). He also maintains that Further Education colleges in England ‘have been … a kind of lab in which neoliberal “reforms” of education have been trialed, and as such they are the perfect place to begin an analysis of the effects of capitalist realism’ (2009, p.20).

Anyone working in Higher Education in the UK can testify to this climate where ‘work and life become inseparable’ and recognise that  ‘As production and redistribution are restructured, so are nervous systems’ (2009, p. 34). He names a ‘battery of bureaucratic procedures’ shared by universities and public services (such as the NHS) that constitute the dominant business ontology of outcomes, mission statements, objectives and audits — and their psychological consequences: ‘To function effectively as a component of just-in-time production you must develop a capacity to respond to unforeseen events, you must learn to live in conditions of total instability, or “precarity”, as the ugly neologism has it’ (2009, p.34). Under five years later, across the Atlantic, Jennifer Ashton observes that ‘at institutions like my own (the University of Illinois at Chicago), professors in the humanities are asked to perform increasingly like a cross between business managers and clerks rather than literary critics and historians’ (2013, p.218).

Robert Walser’s 1909 novel Jakob von Gunten is set in the Institute Benjamenta, a school for the training of servants; and I inhabit it as an apt allegory for working in neo-liberal Higher Education, characterised by what Fisher diagnoses as its rampant business ontology, managerialism and audit culture. Walser’s novel subverts the traditional narrative of the German tradition of the Bildung, committed to documenting the process of self-realisation through education. Christopher Middleton asserts  that Jakob ‘is the one book by Walser which we know Kafka to have read and admired’ (Bolshevism p.105). He maintains that it is the ‘direct vision of the absurdity of fact’ which attracted him; and yet also evokes astronomical notions of ‘averted vision’ — an indirect vision of peripheral glimpse –  to embody the Swiss novelist’s ‘technique of isolating and scrutinising such detail.’

Walser is the laureate of unkempt corners, the patron saint of underdogs. Middleton titles his essay upon him using Shakespeare’s phrase from The Tempest ‘the picture of nobody’; and Susan Bernofsky’s 2021 biography is titled (after a phrase of W.G. Sebald), Clairvoyant of the Small. Taking the temperature of his ‘climate of the absurd’, Middleton suggests it is akin to ‘Kafka’s double vision of wonder and despair, but without Kakfa’s inscrutable logic of doubt’ (1978, p. 107). Fisher argues that ‘The supreme genius of Kafka was to have explored the negative atheology proper to Capital: the centre is missing, but we cannot stop searching for it or positing it. It is not that there is nothing there — it is that what is there is not capable of exercising responsibility ’ (2009, p.65). Kafka certainly learnt this from Walser. Jakob yearns early to penetrate the “inner chambers” of the Institute for what he might discover there, only to end the novel having vacated the personal pronoun ‘I’ for an empty receptacle:

… there’s nothing left to be iffing and woulding about … the pupils, my friends, are scattered in all kinds of jobs. And if I am smashed to pieces and go to ruin, what is being smashed and ruined? A zero. The individual in me is only a zero (1995, p.136).

Walser understood the Palace of Calculation as the shrine of business ontology.

Bartleby and Living Work

Melville lurks below deck in these poems: that scrutineer of compressed workplace camaraderie — the ship, the legal office. Melville understood we are blubber, flammable oils consumed by the economy. Charles Olson points out that whaling was ‘already a sweated industry’ when Melville encountered it in the 1840s: ‘the pacific as sweatshop … the Whaleship as factory, the whaleboat the precision instrument’ (1967, pp. 26-27). And Kuebrich notes that Melville’s refusenik classic ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’, ‘a stunningly original analysis of employer-employee relations’ was written in full knowledge of  ‘the dramatic labour agitation of 1850’ in New York (1966, p. 384).

The novelist read Skidmore’s The Rights of Man to Property with its emphasis upon ‘the servile dependency of the wage-labourer’ and their imprisonment. Melville emerges for us as the mental cartographer of the space of the ‘office’ whether at sea or on Wall Street — and thereby a sound guide to the 21st-century myth of the work-life balance. Bartleby is labour’s spectral consequence, endlessly referred to by his boss as pale, ghostly, cadaverous. He is constantly accompanied by that most uncanny adjective, ‘strange.’ As the story unfolds, its contemporary prescience accumulates: initially, he continues his copying work but prefers not to audit it; soon, his refusals extend to all forms of work — though he cannot vacate the office space, and it transpires he lives there. The unnamed narrator notes, ‘he made my office his constant abiding place and home’ (pp.78-79), and several times refers to him as ‘a fixture in my chamber’ (p.83). At the moment the Lawyer makes his first failed attempt to have Bartleby leave (by leaving himself), the clerk is inseparable from his surrounding space: ‘like the last column of some ruined temple, he remained standing mute and solitary in the middle of the otherwise deserted room’ (p.84). Melville’s ‘a Story of Wall Street’ is haunted by the then new psycho-physical space of the office, constantly referred to as Bartleby’s ‘hermitage.’ Melville’s tale meditates upon the new administrative centre that removed work from the home — and instituted the gaze of work as a panoptical Foucauldian apparatus. Thompson certainly thinks that Foucault’s concerns need extending from a consideration of factories and workshops, to that of the office. As he suggests, quoting from Discipline and Punish,

[Foucault’s] analysis of the “imaginary geo-politics” of the carceral city with its “multiple networks of diverse elements – walls, space, institution, rules, discourse,” allows the office to be considered as in many ways the home of those new disciplines characterizing capitalist disciplinary society: supervision, assessment, visibility, the distributions of bodies in space, normalization, hierarchies of power (2000, p.398).

Thompson reminds us how carefully Melville dwells on the methods of surveillance coded into the narrator’s use of his office. How the office is walled in, how the space is divided by folding, ground-glass doors, and how Bartleby’s arrival collapses the boundaries between these spaces. In one of the strangest parts of the story, Melville has the narrator couple an account of murder with a discourse upon office space. The reference is to the 1842 case of John Colt, who murdered Samuel Adams; and who was himself found dead in his cell a half-hour before his execution — with a knife in his chest. A verdict of suicide was recorded, yet suspicion was also cast on the bride he married that very day, with whom he’d been allowed to spend his last moments. The discourse is prompted by an element of showdown; the narrator at wit’s end, reason flummoxed: ‘will you do anything at all, to give a coloring to your refusal to depart the premises?’ (p.87). It is Bartleby’s silent return to the hermitage he has become, but is not his, that prompts the parallel between murder and the inhumanity of the office that might nurture it:

It was the circumstance of being alone in a solitary office, up stairs, of a building entirely   unhallowed by humanising domestic associations — an uncarpeted office, doubtless of a dusty, haggard sort of appearance — this it must have been, which greatly helped to enhance the irritable desperation of the hapless Colt (pp.87-88).

The narrator’s reasoning summons religion and charity to stave the ‘old Adam of resentment’ that overcomes him. Such charity is figured as ‘a vastly wise and prudent principle.’ Keubrich finds elements of Melville’s critique writ large here. He points to the novelist’s likely knowledge of Horace Greeley’s Hints towards Reforms, a gathering of his journalism and addresses on labour. Greeley overtly discusses the use of the concept of Charity as a legitimating force, emphasising the compatibility between Christianity and capitalism. For Keubrich, the lawyer’s ‘confused moral sense’ is an ‘unconscious pairing of traditional ethical language and the vocabulary of economic exchange and sensual satisfaction’ (p.394). Keubrich heads one of the sub-sections of his article, ‘emotion has no place in the workplace’; and yet he doesn’t note where Melville touches Walser in a mutual interest in the zero of human capital. We can taste the bitter irony in the American novelist as he places this culminating argument in the mouth of his lawyer’s summons of a benevolent account of Bartleby’s insubordination: ‘Poor fellow, poor fellow! thought I, he don’t mean anything’ (p.88)’. Widmer notes Melville’s ‘crafty mockery’ in injecting ‘prudence’ into the lawyer’s discourse as a ‘cheap insurance policy’, adding that ‘Goodness as “mere self-interest” reveals the obtuseness of such rationality and the brutality of such decency’ (1969, p.455).

Melville enjoys exposing the failed self-satisfaction as the unnamed lawyer manages (every pun intended) his smug plans. He tells us ‘I could not but plume myself on my masterful management in getting rid of Bartleby’ (1984, p.84 ). The scene that culminates in this failed management is a marvellous exchange in which the exasperated boss fails to provide any model of labour that Bartleby would actually prefer to do. Melville plays the encounter for its rhythm. Against the ‘haste of business’, Bartley is an interruption. A block. Melville gives his anti-hero a delicious pun: ‘I like to be stationary.’ He is both a halt to the rhythm of capital, and office material. The narrator puzzles, ‘But there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but, in a wonderful manner, touched and disconcerted me’ (1984, pp.70-71). Bartleby is impervious to reason, won’t comply with requests made through ‘common usage and common sense’; is, in another fine Melville pun, ‘unaccountable.’

‘It must be acknowledged … that our labourer comes out of the process of production other than he entered’ (Marx)

As Fisher has it,

The most Gothic description of Capital is also the most accurate. Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie-maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labour is ours,  and the zombies it makes are us. There is a sense in which it simply is the case that the political  elite are our servants; the miserable service they provide from us is to launder our libidos, to  obligingly re-present for us our disavowed desires as if they have nothing to do with us (2009, p.15).

Fisher even figures the voracious appetites and mutations of capitalism outlined by Deleuze and Guattari as akin to John Carpenter’s movie The Thing: ‘a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolising and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact’ (2009, p.6). Fisher’s book might touch upon issues of complicity and disavowal, but Keston Sutherland’s trenchant prose makes us feel them. Sutherland’s return to Marx emphasises that his satirical style is chosen because this is more than theory, it is written at the expense of ourselves as bourgeois readers. In a consciously developed preoccupation with Gallerte as the cannibalism of consumption, he goes beyond William Burroughs’s frozen moment where we see simply see the naked lunch on the end of our forks. We are on the prongs, and cannot but eat. Quoting Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, he remarks:

What ought to be the fluid labour of living human beings is instead a disgusting, paradigmatically unnatural food product for the bourgeois consumer, the ‘vampire which sucks out [the proletariat’s] blood and brains and throws them into the alchemist’s vessel of capital’ (2011, p.47).

Even here, Sutherland is keen to assert that ‘Gallerte is not, on the terms of Marx’s satire, an abuse of wage labour by the coven of leading unreconstructed vampires but the fundamental law of all wage labour’ (2011, p.48).

And what about Bartleby? Can we see his actions as genuine resistance? The word Melville uses to describe the effect of his ‘prefer not to’ mantra, on three occasions, is the singular verb ‘revolve’: ‘he carefully revolved every statement I made’ (1984, p.70). This act of revolution can’t be fully recuperated as subversive of capital or unproblematic critique. If anything, it is closer to the bipolar energies of capital that Deleuze and Guattari defined as its voracious, all-consuming cycle of deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation.

Just as Bartleby’s ‘I prefer’ contaminates the thoughts and speech of the narrator and his staff, so does his ‘revolving’ passive scrutiny. The narrator admits, ‘Revolving all these things, and coupling them with the recently discovered fact, that he made my office his constant abiding place and home, and not forgetful of his morbid moodiness; revolving all these things, a prudential feeling began to steal over me’ (1984, pp.78-79). But the lawyer’s summary is confused. His ‘prudential feeling’ is certainly a theft: he attempts to martial reason to steal a stable meaning for his scrivener, reducing his disruption to a narrative of him as ‘the victim of innate and incurable disorder’ (1984, p.79). But underneath his prudence, he seethes through an emotional cycle of ‘melancholy’ that merges ‘into fear’ and on from ‘pity into repulsion.’ Melville bristles at the politics of this self-aggrandising pity, documents the uncanny emotions that are his real concern.

Inside the Alchemical Alembic of Capital

But there are other aspects to educational labour and the mental tussles to completing one’s Great Work within it. Jung’s psychological interpretation of Alchemy sees it as less a bogus science, and more a quest for individuation and union with the Unconscious. As he explains: ‘while working at his chemical experiment the operator had certain psychic experiences which appeared to him as the particular behaviour of the chemical process’ (19742, p.245). He draws connections between Alchemy’s Hermetic philosophy of the transformative ‘suffering’ of metals in their journey to a higher state, and Christ’s passion. My sequence ironically plays the parallels with contemporary workplace rhetorics of self-development and transformation whereby human labour undergoes its sacrificial trials for capital; and the shadow-self mirrors Fisher’s uncanny sense that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine an alternative to capitalism.

And yet my sequence is also haunted by Walser and Melville’s interest in refusenik figures cultivating idiosyncratic survival tactics and the degree to which they can constitute resistance – Bartleby the Scrivener’s ‘I prefer not to’, and Jakob Von Gunten’s admission that  ‘One laughs with one’s ears, if one isn’t allowed to laugh with one’s mouth’ (1995, p.86). Walser’s quiet incredulity takes on subversive relevance: ‘what we pupils do, we do because we have to, but why we have to, nobody quite knows’(1995, p.29). Middleton defines this tone as one of ‘wistful insubordinancy’, and his miniaturistic approach as a skill in ‘truing language to matter, in making things speak for themselves’ (1978, p.101). Or, to my purpose, making ourselves speak as the things working life has cast us as. Stationary in the Palace of Calculation.

Melville and Walser prefigure the ‘precarity’ of our age. Walser’s father’s business collapsed when he was 7, plunging the family into financial uncertainty. When Melville was 11, his father began a losing battle with bankruptcy, fleeing New York city by steamboat for Albany, ushering in a harrowing period of his decline, delirium and death. Both writers worked as clerks, and used the experience in their fiction. Bernofsky suggests, ‘Walser invoked the figure of the commis, again and again, a fruitful object of study for his explorations of the hidden power of the subservient’ (2021, p.33). Both writers embody the precarity of literary ambition, their compulsion to live by writing as a profession within their grasp with feted early works — then faced down by lack of commercial success. For Trilling, Melville was one of those ‘repositories of the dialectics of their times’ containing ‘both the yes and no of their culture’ (2005, p.16). In a justly famous letter of 1850, Melville wrote to Hawthorne ‘Dollars damn me. . . . My dear Sir, a presentiment is on me, – I shall at last be worn out and perish. . . . What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, – it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot’ (1950, p.602). Bernofsky notes that Walser ‘knew he was a great writer. He knew he was a failure. These two thoughts would coexist’ (2021, p.250).

These notes would be incomplete without foregrounding how Bartleby’s symbiosis with office-space has a much more contemporary relevance. Fisher writes that under capitalist realism ‘work and life become inseparable’ (2009, p. 34) — and he was writing pre-Covid, an era before that most startling of digital transformations: the way we were forced less to work from home than live at work. Surely the consequences of this transformation are only beginning to be understood. Fisher makes much of how ‘the current ruling [business] ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness’, adding ‘The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its depoliticisation,’ and maintains how essential its repoliticization is. How much more so in the post-Covid terrain where the work/home binary has become so porous. Bartleby is the genius loci of this new realm. His boss actually vacates his own office, perversely hiring removal labour to rid himself of his occupant. But even then:

Throughout, the scrivener remained standing behind the screen, which I directed to be removed the last thing. It was withdrawn and, being folded up like a huge folio, left him the motionless occupant of a naked room (1985, p.91).

Most ambiguous of all is the narrator’s last re-crossing of the threshold back into office space to say goodbye. Melville gives us the simultaneous ‘with my hand in my pocket — and — and my heart in my mouth.’ Choreographing this stuttered combination of money and emotional intensity, the boss falters, ‘“God some way bless you; and take that,” slipping something in his hand’ (1985, p.91). The ‘something’ is unnamed and slips both from what can be said and from Bartleby’s grasp: ‘But it dropped upon the floor, and then — strange to say — I tore myself from him whom I had so longed to be rid of’ (1985, pp.92-93). Implicitly, ‘it’ is money, but Melville is more interested in the emotional consequences of the transaction.

Walser’s Jakob somehow manages to ‘revolve’ his circumstances, separating the beams of light as he turns the prism of labour, musing that ‘for some time past, the world has been revolving around money, not around history’ (1995, p.48). And he also shares with Bartleby an interrogative obduracy masked as subservience: ‘Seriously: people obeying usually look just like the people giving orders. A servant can’t help putting on the masks and allures of his master, in order to faithfully propagate them, as it were,’(1995, p.46). I let Walser’s Jakob have the last diagnostic words on contemporary educational labour, channelling business ontology from the bowels of the Institute Benjamenta:

Certainly, one must think; one must even think a great deal. But to comply, that is much more refined, much more than thinking. If one thinks, one resists, and that is always so ugly and ruinous to things. Thinkers, if only they knew what harm they do. Anyone who industriously does not think, does something, he certainly does, and that is more necessary. There are ten thousand superfluous heads at work in the world (1995, pp.74-75).

The whole sequence, ‘45 Days in the Company of Robert Walser’, appears in my new book Two Duets with Occasion.

Simon Perril – Two Duets With Occasion (shearsman.com)




Jennifer Ashton, ‘Labour and the Lyric: the Politics of Self-Expression in Contemporary American Poetry’ American Literary History, Vol 25, no.1, 2014, pp. 217-230.

Susan Bernofsky, Clairvoyant of the Small: the Life of Robert Walser. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2021.

Andrew Delbanco, Melville: His World & Work. London: Picador, 2005.

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Alresford: Zero Books, 2008.

Carl Jung, Alchemy and Psychology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.

David Kuebrich, ‘Melville’s Doctrine of Assumptions: the Hidden Ideology of Capitalist Production in “Bartleby”’ The New England Quarterly Vol 69, no.3, 1966, pp.381-405.

Leo Marx, ‘Melville’s Parody of the Walls’ The Sewanee Review, Vol 61, no.4, 1953, pp. 602-627.

Herman Melville, ‘Bartleby’ in Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories. London: Penguin, 1984

Christopher Middleton, ‘The Picture of Nobody: Some Remarks on Robert Walser (With a Note on Robert Walser)’ In Bolshevism in Art and Other Expository Writings. Manchester, Carcanet New Press, 1978.

Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael. London: Jonathan Cape, 1967.

Simon Perril, Two Duets with Occasion. Shearsman, 2024

Robert Sheppard, Micro Event Space. New Mills: The Red Ceilings Press, 2019.

Keston Sutherland, Stupefaction: a Radical Anatomy of Phantoms. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2011.

Graham Thompson, ‘ “Dead Letters!… Dead Men?”: The Rhetoric of the Office in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”’ Journal of American Studies, Vol.34, no.3, Part 1: Living in America: Recent and Contemporary Perspectives (Dec., 2000), pp.395-411).

Robert Walser, Institute Benjamenta trans. Christopher Middleton. London and New York: Serpent’s Tale, 1995.

Kingsley Widmer, ‘Melville’s Radical Resistance: the Method and Meaning of “Bartleby”’ Studies in the Novel, Vol.1, No.4, 1969, pp.444-456.

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