Pure potential being as a new American subject in Herman Melville's "Bartleby" and Pierre
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Bartleby, the Scrivener (1853) and Pierre or the Ambiguities (1852) prove Herman Melville's agony and effort in creating a new subject who can be a twisted and deviated hero, opposite to the traditional hero. Based on the "potential not to do" in Giorgio Agamben's theory, I argue that Bartleby and Pierre represent a potential being that can blur the distinctions between things that are antithetical, and form an independent relationship with society. In other words, they exist as new American potential subjects. Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher, who proposes a new formulation of a radical potentiality, discusses two potentialities: one is the "potential to do," which is an ideal of American manhood that encourages a man to compete with others, to produce something worthwhile and to be a man of virtue. The other is the "potential not to do," in which the subject is able to control his/her potential. The potential being can disclose a contingent event in refined history and create an opening to the future as well as to the present, in order to complete the incomplete event. Thus, he/she acts to do in realization, and simultaneously, does not act to do. Based on the differences between these two potentialities, I study the relationship between the "potential to do" and American manhood, and between the "potential not to do" and Bartleby and Pierre. In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin elaborates the principles of American manhood, such as a close relationship between father and son, morality and the "potential to do," in order to be a particular American man. In contrast, Bartleby possesses the "potential not to do," and the power to control his own potential. Between a Franklin and a Bartleby, the subject has difficulty choosing which potentiality is good for him/her. When encountering Bartleby, the reader responds with consternation, curiosity, rejection, and then acceptance. In Bartleby, the narrator stops his journey just before accepting Bartleby, because he is afraid of losing his own achievements in society and realizing his weakness. On the contrary, acquiring the potential not to do, Pierre suspends every activity and stands still. Although he was raised by the strict principles of domesticity, and trained as an American gentleman, he gives up being a safe and reputable American gentleman in society and becomes a pure potential being in that he even destroys his own creation in order not to exist as another principle to control others' minds and this decision transforms him into an ambiguous being. In conclusion, Pierre represents a potential being, who has the capacity to be free from the principles of American manhood and possesses the power to control his/her own potential.