Open Source podcast takes on Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener
“I would prefer not to” is Bartleby’s slogan—as familiar on Herman Melville T-shirts as the words that open Melville’s Moby-Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” But how different is the short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” from the great American novel—except that they’re both perfect Melville, in his 200th-birthday season. Bartleby appeared two years after Moby-Dick, in 1853, from Melville, who was still young at 34. It’s 30 pages instead of 600, far removed from the high seas, and more nearly manageable in one radio hour. Bartleby is a cadaverous and solitary young copyist (pre-Xerox machines) in a claustrophobic Wall Street law office. He’s the white-collar drone who opts out, refusing orders. Meaning what? Do we take him as a victim of class oppression, or a figure of extreme and individual depression? We’re open to the argument this hour that Bartleby stands for black America in the nineteenth century, and also he’s modeling a way out of social media and the commercial capture of our attention, and also that he spoke for Melville himself, a prophetic artist facing the futility of his writing vocation which would bring him almost nothing in the way of money, praise, or readership in his lifetime.
Great discussion at Open Source
That “feeling tone” is the thread of this radio hour as much as the late Studs himself. He was the voice of Chicago between Carl Sandburg a century ago – “hog butcher to the world,” and all that – and Chance the Rapper today. Studs Terkel compiled a best-selling vernacular oral history of city life — Division Street America — then classic social histories of the Depression and World War 2. Home base for more than 50 years was his daily radio hour on a privately owned fine-arts station in Chicago, WFMT. The news of Studs Terkel that we’re happy to share is that 5000 hours of that radio archive are open anew, being digitized and transcribed – an audio event on a par with the opening of King Tut’s tomb.
It’s Labor Day week 2018, and “The American Worker” doesn’t fit any single poster shot. Is it the Uber driver – working flex time in the ‘gig’ economy, for a magic dispatcher of taxis around the world? Is it the brainiac Google engineers insisting to their CEO that “we need to know what we’re building?” In a gilded, globalized, unequal economy of work today, the old industrial unions are almost gone. But suddenly non-union professionals feeling dealt out of pay and power are shouting, we’re workers, too, and forming unions: graduate students at great universities, magazine writers at the ritzy New Yorker. Prisoners, too, and sex workers, coming out of the shadows to claim rights, and respect, as workers, with skills, thank you. Plus hospital nurses and public school teachers coast to coast.
The midterm measure of the American mood in Trump-time may well turn out to be not – or not just – the off-year House and Senate election scorecard, but the work-place turbulence all over the map this year. Workers who never organized before – in grad schools, in media, in sex work, in prisons – are talking solidarity. And notice the word “strike” is back in circulation, inspired maybe by the furious telemarketers in the seriously funny fantasy film, Sorry to Bother You. In the movie they shout “Phones down!” In real Boston, this week, housekeepers in three Marriott-owned hotels downtown could soon be shouting “Mops down!” in their fight for a new contract.
We’re in the work-place, not the political arena, this hour, though of course they’re connected as soon as workers say it’s all about the power of the corporate class, a fight about places at the table and restoring an idea of people-power democracy.