Monday, March 26, 2012

Endless Work: Office Space Novels

This is part two of my essay "The Work of Literature in the Age of the Office." (See part 1, below.)

Part 2: Endless work, and the Work that can be Finished

If Mad Men
is really about the contemporary moment and collusions of obligatory office work and personal screens, the contemporary office novel is really about a certain need for literature within what Joshua Clover, in his book on The Matrix, calls “the blunt quotidian of work; a nightmare as discomfiting for its ennui as its ensnarements.”

In the novels Then We Came to the End
and Personal Days, what we read are two versions of the same story: each novel takes up the contemporary office space as a setting that spurs extra narrative material. However, this is not a simple matter of clever postmodern meta-fiction, but seems to have more to do with the purely productive ambiance of the office work at hand. In other words, even when these novels tell stories of boredom, banter, and wasted time—not working per se—the novels as novels maintain the necessity of (and a staunch belief in) both the finished literary Work and also the endless office work depicted therein. The literary Work and office work function as a double-jointed articulation, but one that reverses roles constantly, as I shall show below.

In The Work & the Gift
, Scott Shershow argues convincingly for this irreducible bind between work and the Work:

On the one side, the daily exertions that are always done and never done, the labors by which one lives or, as it is said, makes a living. On the other side, the project or the poem, the opus, the oeuvre, of the Book: those achieved or imagined totalities… There will never be an absolute distinction between the two sides of the opposition, for to consider work in any sense is to of course also rebegin the Work of theorizing work: the unfinished labor of thinking its value, its necessity, its purpose, or its end(s).
Shershow’s schema provides a useful frame in which to consider contemporary Works about office work. Literature about office work takes “making a living” as a subject, and then rewraps this quotidian labor in the very aura of the Work (i.e., the novel). Writing about office labor becomes a reflexive project, also about how a subject becomes book-worthy: work becomes a topic for the Work. Thus the novels do not only sample the seeming endless stream of office work; they also rely on a totality at hand, the Work of the novel. Each novel is complicated at (and by) this junction of endless work and the Work that is (or at least in theory can be) finished.

Ferris’s Then We Came to the End
chronicles the downsizing of an ad agency at the turn of the 21st-century. A middle portion of the novel (pages 196–230) is devoted to the fragment of a novel-within-the-novel; it turns out that a peripheral character in the novel has been writing his own (internal, fragmentary, fictional) novel about the characters in the (actual) novel. This narrative layering underscores a problematical literary inability to capture the endlessness of work in the office: this work can never be completed—it never comes to an end (this is part of what makes it a comic or an absurd topic), and thus it is necessarily impossible encompass by the Work.

A novel about office work must therefore be about more
than simply working in the office—for that is a boundless subject, a never-ending tunnel of tedium. (Thus, Mad Men wanders out into the domestic exterior of the “Sterling Cooper” ad agency: the office, in its endless work, is paradoxically insufficient for a TV drama—the Work of the show needs more than its endlessly working subject.) In Ferris’s novel, office work is not enough: there needs to be a character inside who has already deemed the office novelistic. The internal novel of is about a sort of transcendent literariness that exceeds office work, but also allows the office to be taken on as a subject. The fictive office worker, like the reader, must already know what is in one’s hands: the contents of a novel. The effect of this internal novel that takes up a middle portion of the book is that it elides the subject of workspace for the subject of novel-writing—there is a strange layer between the businessmen and the reader, and it is called a book. Can the endless work of office laborers be seen in literature, or is what we see always already mediated by the Work that appears idyllic, finished?

The setting of Ferris’s novel—the office space—is insufficient as a subject in and of itself: endless office work is replaced by the Work of the novel. In Then We Came to the End
, the minor character Hank Neary is discovered toward the (apt) end of the novel to have written what can only retrospectively be understood as the inter-novel. The fictional office, therefore, contains a character who is already writing an inter-novel about the fictional workspace. The inter-novel forces a guise of coherence and completion—and posits narrative meaningfulness—to what for 380 pages has seemed to be little more than the dramatized minutiae of endless workaday office life. By placing a novel-within-the-novel, Ferris tethers endless work to the Work that is finished—and throughout, these oppositional forces are continually repelling one another.
For example, as if caught in the centrifugal force of narrative tangents, the second half of the book indulges in additional storylines. One of these storylines concerns the character Tom Mota, who is introduced as a borderline sociopath, or at the very least an oddball. Early in the novel, Tom begins wearing increasingly multiple company-pride polo shirts at once, layered ridiculously, and when he is confronted about this strange clothing choice, he states with unsubtle irony:
“You don’t know what’s in my heart,” said Tom, pounding his fist against the corporate logo three times. “Company Pride.”
Tom becomes unhinged in the office, and is rapidly fired (this happens within the first 25 pages of the novel). In the second half of the novel, though, Tom Mota returns with a vengeance, in a clown suit and toting a gun. The office space here is lampooned as a place for over-determined dramatic action. On the one hand, we might be tempted to call this narrative move an act of bad faith on the part of the novelist, as if Ferris is admitting that office work does not make an interesting enough story on its own—you need a man in a clown suit with a gun. On the other hand, we might understand this over-determined dramatic action as interesting in its own right as narrative excess: as a sort of reverse “job spill” wherein outlying stories obscure the setting (and the work) at hand. We might even go as far as to suspect that the Tom Mota subplot functions as a narrative tangent, a distracting vector that moves away from the endless work of the office in favor of a story with a tidy ending. Thus the laid off and disgruntled worker who returned to the office and went on a shooting spree is provided an absurdly poetically-just conclusion: we learn in the last pages of the novel that Tom Mota, after recovering from his rampage, joined the Army—and was “killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.” This poetic justice might have been hinted at in Tom Mota’s near palindrome name, a signal for symmetry that, once again, obscures the office work that, because it is endless, can never be reflected in a finished Work which must venture outward, beyond the businessman, in order to end.

I do not mean to isolate the Tom Mota subplot of Then We Came to the End
as an inherently poignant aspect of the novel. What the Tom Mota subplot demonstrates, rather, is a reflexive necessity for the office narrative to escape the gravitational force of its more immediate atmosphere: the workspace. The novel ends in this way, notably beyond the office: what Ferris provides is a phenomenally unspectacular (if also mildly utopian) conclusion of the cast of office characters attending a literary reading on the University of Chicago campus, where the peripheral character Hank Neary is giving a reading of the story-within-the-story. Again, I want to insist that this is not (or not merely) postmodern meta-fiction; instead, this is an embedded Work of literature that takes the reader (and the author) away from the alleged subject of work. It is curious that when the main characters of the story—who are represented by a first person plural narrator (“We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise….”)—find out that Hank Neary has “published a book,” they remember him as “a failed novelist.” This is an aporia that the novel cannot reconcile: the actual literary character of the novel is twice disavowed, once in words (Hank as a simultaneously “published” and “failed novelist”) and again in the rejected setting (the novel ends not in the office, but at a University bookstore). Then We Came to the End represents a paradox: literature is seen to be that thing with an end made possible by endless work—literature becomes the Work apart, utterly incongruous with the day-to-day grind of the office.

Ed Park’s Personal Days
is in many ways remarkably like Then We Came to the End. Park’s novel tells the familiar story of an office space under siege by abstract economic shifts and corporate buyouts, and the narrative employs a similar first person plural narrator in the first section of the novel: “Our company was once its own thing, founded long ago by men with mustaches.” By turns, Personal Days achieves a different formal approach than Then We Came to the End, but the novel becomes caught up in a similar paradoxical situation in relation to its own novelistic conceit. While moving at a faster clip than Ferris’s novel, Park’s narrative sags under an excess of sign systems that are ubiquitous in office environments: e-mail riffs, Microsoft Word jargon, HTML code—even an actual picture of a Post-It note dropped somewhat arbitrarily into the prose. The figure of the Post-It note is particularly curious, arbitrary not for what it says, but rather in its isolation as a secondary media form. We might rightly ask why Park does not carry this tactic to the extreme and include pictures of all the other office detritus common to this space: screen savers, stapler logos, dot-matrix printer page perforations, office chair tracks in carpet—the list of items is in principle endless, and arguably aesthetically interesting. Yet, if the office space is a sort of ready-made art object, what makes the novel a necessary or useful form of representation? Indeed, one vexing question about Personal Days is why it needs to take the form of a novel at all; its format as evinced by the contents reveals that it is perhaps most interested in the computer programs that shape everyday life in the office:

I. Can’t Undo 1
Replace All 85
Revert to Saved 191
One cannot help but wonder if a more immersive aesthetic production could have been achieved in an installation involving the computer commands, not unlike David Byrne’s “Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information,” stylized PowerPoint presentations that utilize all of the preprogrammed styles and formatting to show how medium and message are inescapably intertwined in the ubiquitous software. As it is, the three parts of Personal Days each take a quite different form. Part one involves short sections under pithy, workspace allusive headings such as “The cc game” and “Multiple-desk syndrome.” Part two unravels in the style of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, an elaborated (if at times enigmatic) outline that accumulates to continue the story of the office. Part three is comprised of one very long email with no paragraph breaks and constant reflections on the email itself as a communicative medium. Within each of these narrative forms, sub-forms appear. One of the more curious sub-forms is aggressively yet ambiguously literary.

As in Ferris’s novel, Personal Days
contains a text-within-the-text. In this case, in the middle section—“II(E)”—of Personal Days, one of the office workers discovers a cryptic notebook in a recently fired employee’s desk. The laid off co-worker was named Jill; the notebook left behind therefore carries the intertextual title “The Jilliad.” The notebook contains pages and pages of corporate aphorisms and maxims for the office worker, for example:

Don’t be the one who says, I told you so. Tell them so to begin with. Tell them often.
Office Politics 101
, by Randall Slurry

Think of the office as an ocean liner. Are you the captain? A passenger? Or the person who plays xylophone for the lido deck band?
Climbing the Seven-Rung Ladder: The Business of Business
, by Chad Ravioli and Khâder Adipose

Confusion is inevitable. Ride the Wave.
The Manager’s Bible: The New Memory System for Daily Insights
, by Wayne V. Hammer with Juliette Earp

“The Jilliad” functions as an internal manuscript that does not so much comment on the forces or relations of production in the office as it justifies an ostensibly pure literariness of the work at hand (as well as the Work in hand). The fictional object of literature—an epic/pastiche of “ghostwritten CEO memoirs, Machiavellian road maps, and PowerPoint-friendly wealth manuals”—exists as a sort of internal referent, proof, as it were, that office work is literary, and that what the reader is holding is also literary. The office workers in Personal Days come to understand The Jilliad as “a sort of modern cautionary tale, or myth, or something”—meanwhile, the novel itself has somewhat lost focus. The characters are not at work; rather, they are fixated on a Work, on a fictitious act of literature that necessarily exceeds the narrative at hand. Real labor relations and forces of production are obfuscated in exchange for a quasi-mystery plot surrounding a text whose “author was a ghost” and whose “manuscript was unstable.”

The office is an endless setting for Personal Days
; the office only gains its novelistic adequacy through external (and structurally unavailable) textual material. The Work lies outside of actual office work—yet the Work must be discovered or located inside the workplace, in order to make the subject literary. We arrive again at the bind between work as an endless subject, and the Work as an object, discrete and able to be finished. When the office novel becomes extra literary, the specter of the finished Work distracts from the real endlessness of work.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Swamp Things (or, Common Curriculum Matters)

One of my students who works for the campus newspaper recently asked me if I "had any opinions about anything"—and if so, if I'd write a short column for the paper. My university has these things that are called "common curriculum" courses, required across (most) programs for graduation—basically, the common curriculum makes up the core of our idea of a liberal arts education. These courses are sometimes viewed as hindrances to getting through college, but I wanted to suggest some ways to think differently about them. So I wrote the following piece, which is at the Loyola Maroon website, but without all the Nietzschean italics I sometimes resort to; here's the original:


As registration for the Fall semester nears, I find myself having spirited conversations with my advisees about what classes to take, how their majors are shaping up, and so on.

A common anxiety that many students voice has to do with what they should be studying: what they should be majoring in, minoring in, and otherwise focusing on. And then, there are all those irksome common curriculum credits to get out of the way!

Such anxieties seem to stem from ambient concerns (often uttered by parents who are either writing tuition checks or co-signing loan papers) about the “investment” or “value” that is a college education, and whether or not it will “pay off” in the long run.

These financial ways of understanding college have always baffled me. Certainly, college costs money. Most things do. But your college education is not something that will ever pay off: you can’t sell it in one grand “buy out” deal, and it doesn’t gain interest over time. Or rather, the interest that you gain from your college education is precisely your life. Its rate of return is entirely up to you.

And this is why the common curriculum matters: it’s your life we’re talking about. College is about helping you become interesting—hopefully for the rest of your life. One idea that motivates the common curriculum is that it is helping you expand your mind and become a versatile thinker. It’s not just about checking off boxes on the way to a single, focused degree that will jettison you into a fabulously lucrative life.

If the common curriculum sometimes feels like it is slowing you down, that’s exactly what it’s meant to do. College is, to a certain extent, about getting bogged down in the mud and muck that is intellectual development. And it needs time to take place.

The common curriculum is perhaps the soupiest part of this boggy terrain, an uncertain expanse you have to plod though. But it’s also where you can learn to make surprising and imaginative connections between subjects. It’s where you might stumble upon things that you never knew could make your brain pop in such a way. (This is why, in many stories, wetlands are where the imagination takes flight; it’s also one reason why we should care about them.)

Rather than think about the common curriculum as an annoying obstacle or a morass, try to embrace it as precisely one of the reasons why you are fortunate to be at a liberal arts university.

And if you don’t have a major yet, or feel like you’re flailing around trying to get a grip—it’s okay! You have four years to perambulate around this spongy landscape, and to home in on a particular field of study. Your advisors are here to help. And as you go along, don’t stress out about how your courses are going to “add up” or “pay off” after you graduate. Instead, try to appreciate how your coursework is simply congealing.

When you have a difficult time explaining to your parents or friends at home how all your classes fit neatly together, take some comfort in knowing that your college education is doing just what it’s designed to do: be messy along the way.

I’m not saying that majors, degrees, or disciplinary knowledges are a farce; they provide wonderful structures and focusing mechanisms for analytic thought. As you get close to graduating, you’ll appreciate the composition, complexity, and integrity of whatever you end up majoring in.

Here, though, I have just wanted to take a few hundred words to speak up for the more abstract aspects of the common curriculum, and to turn some complaints, irritations, and gripes on their heads. Celebrate the common curriculum—and all the other ambiguous parts of your college education—as exactly why you are here.

You’re here to take courses that will bend your brain in new and strange ways. You’re here to be sometimes disoriented, and to get confused. You’re here to slow down.

These things are of inestimable value; or really, they go beyond value altogether. College isn’t about investing, accruing, or cashing out. It’s about sinking in.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Work of Literature in the Age of the Office

Inspired by a post on the Continuum Literary Studies blog today, I thought I'd share here part of an essay I wrote a couple years ago for a book called Merchants, Sellers, Barons, and Suits: The Changing Images of the Businessman Through Literature. My chapter in the book is called "The Work of Literature in the Age of the Office."


Part 1: The Literary Reflexes and Imperatives of Mad Men

If we are to believe Mad Men, advertising agencies in the late 1950s and early 1960s expose people at their worst. These workspaces reveal a rarified soul of the mid-century (mostly male) American who is self-made, cutthroat, libertarian to the core, and often fleeing a nasty or otherwise murky past. Mad Men explicitly refutes Raymond Williams’s 1970s theory of “real advertising” as an ordinary form of public notice—as if there could be a form of marketing existing in a pure relationship to honest, everyday life. Rather, what one sees in Mad Men is an advertising office environment that seeps into and subsumes the quotidian: there is no life outside of advertising work. The work makes life worth living.

But what if the real context of Mad Men is not the late 1950s and early 1960s at all, but in fact is the turn of the 21st-century office space, where actual lives play out in fantastically un-dramatic and banal scenarios every day? Mad Men is called a “period drama”—but the show more accurately reflects contemporary conditions. In this way of understanding the show, Mad Men would be a subtle form of job spill, that sociological phenomenon wherein instruments of labor leak into so-called “personal technologies”—mobile phones, PDAs, email, Bluetooth devices, laptops—such that one is able to continue working at any point in the “off hours” while under the impression that one is not “at work.”

Increasingly, job spill runs both ways: leisure time becomes seamlessly enmeshed in work-time (through instant messaging, chatting, email, YouTube, eBay, and the other new media forms), and work-time becomes the perverse object of enjoyment for leisure time: one can repose at the end of a long day at the office and watch Mad Men. In other words, watching a TV show about work can counter-intuitively make one better at work in the office—indeed, one becomes ready to work in the office at any moment.

What I am proposing here is an inversion of Joshua Clover’s shrewd argument that the futuristic sci-fi film The Matrix can in fact be read as an allegory of the 1990s U.S. tech-boom and all the humdrum office work predicated thereon. According to Clover, The Matrix was not about a speculative future; rather, it was about the contemporaneous moment that was just as pervasive as (if more boring than) a land of hovercrafts, superhero leaps, and robots. In Clover’s words, the office spaces of the 90s tech boom functioned as “a mass of systems, agreements, leverages and interlocked interests of a complexity no individual can encompass, codified by documents no one sees. It’s not a place, really, just a set of codes….”

A similar sense of endless work is very much the looming sense of Mad Men: through a stream of stories centered around the advertising office, a set of seemingly universal “codes” sinks in about the constancy of work. If The Matrix’s future is really about workers in the contemporaneous late-90s, I am suggesting that Mad Men’s past is actually about what it is like to work at the end of first decade of the 21st-century. By reinforcing the endlessness of work, the show cumulatively replaces what Jacques Lacan called the “spatial identification” of the “mirror stage” with a glimmering TV screen that reflects more clearly, and is far more alluring: these shows about the “leverages and interlocked interests” of the ad office assure audiences of a narrative meaningfulness in work (even in its most vicious möbius arrangement: work and leisure, never quite separable). If watching TV is the antidote for a long day at the office, then watching a show about office work soothes doubly, for it diminishes the difference between labor and leisure that much more: working reminds one of what one can see on TV.

Likewise, TV reminds one of what happens “at work,” as Lev Manovich describes labor in the information age: “All kinds of work are reduced to manipulating data on one’s computer screen, that is, to the processing of information.” Sitting in front of a TV processing a series is not all that unlike sitting in front of a computer screen entering data. (Thus older deep TV sets and computer monitors evolve into flat-screens that can toggle alternately between entertainment and work displays, with the mere tap of a button.) In this practical/ideal scenario, then, job spill so thoroughly infiltrates leisure time to the point where even seemingly relaxing in front of the TV trains one to be a better worker, at the most basic level by reinforcing the body/screen arrangement synonymous with so much contemporary office work.

Within the series, Mad Men contains another feature of narrative reflexivity: the persistent imperative for the characters to become literary. The main characters of Mad Men are in one sense “writers”—they write copy and author marketing campaigns. However, there is a persistent undercurrent wherein certain characters desire to be literary writers. In an early episode in the series, the account executive Ken Cosgrove (played by Aaron Staton) has a short story published in The Atlantic, and the copywriters in the office are either proud of him or extremely jealous; in reference to this event, the boss Roger Sterling (John Slattery) quips that in every ad man there is an aspiring novelist. Another account executive, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), is very envious of Cosgrove, and therefore has his wife pull strings with an ex-boyfriend who is an editor in order to get his story published; but instead of being published in The New Yorker, Campbell’s story ends up in Boys’ Life, and he is furious. At another point in the show, the copywriter Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) steals a typewriter from the office so he can work on his plays at home. Consistently and throughout, the senior boss Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) makes references in a worshipful tone to the writings of Ayn Rand. To mention only one more instance, in the first episode of the second season, the main character of the show, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), notices a youngish hipster in a bar reading Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency. The episode ends with Draper reading O’Hara’s poems to himself, ruminating on literature—we hear Draper reading in a voiceover, his furrowed brow the sign of profound literary contemplation. (So much like the fringes in Julius Caesar that, according to Roland Barthes, are "quite simply the label of Roman-ness.")

This literary landscape within Mad Men is not just fictive terrain: after the Mad Men allusion to O’Hara’s collection of poems, the book became a “Hot Trend” on Google and was promptly out of stock at Amazon. Mad Men not only trains us how to work, but also how to consume—both, of course, looping around into one another, like sitting before a TV show and one’s work in front of a computer screen. If indeed Mad Men reflects the seamlessness of office work in contemporary life, the literary dimension becomes a latent urge, an unconscious desire for legitimization.

And if there seems to be a dynamic of complicity between literature and office work in Mad Men, this dynamic is further evinced in three recent literary works: Joshua Ferris’s 2007 novel Then We Came to the End, Ed Park’s 2008 novel Personal Days, and David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King (posthumously published in 2011). These three examples are interesting not only as literary representations of office spaces; these novels also exhibit critical tensions within and around the literariness of office work in general...


(The essay goes on to discuss those three novels; I'll post the other parts of the essay soon.)

Friday, March 2, 2012

Brad Pitt at the Airport

So Brad Pitt didn't win an Oscar. It's really not that surprising, after all. As my friend Robert Bennett has speculated, Pitt is considered at turns too popular or too artsy to be viable Oscar material. Which is really a shame, because he should have won easily for Best Actor; in his big roles this year, in The Tree of Life and in Moneyball, he gave brilliant and nuanced performances.

And, for my own particular interests, both of these films involved key scenes of Brad Pitt at the airport. In the shot above, for instance, the reason Pitt is holding his hand to his ear while talking on the phone is because he's in an airfield office, and there's a deafening airplane idling on the tarmac right outside. If airports often stand for human progress, Pitt's defeated character struggling to communicate at the airfield is one of the most pointed and powerfully suggested critiques of human hubris in the film.

For more on Brad Pitt at the airport, you can read my guest author post on the Bloomsbury Literary Studies blog, which was posted today.

This spring I'm starting to research Brad Pitt's interests in architecture and sustainable design, particularly as these interests have been integrated into the Make It Right foundation homes in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. And so here's what I propose: if we can't award Brad Pitt an Oscar, perhaps we can dedicate part of a new terminal at Louis Armstrong airport after him. Something with a nice ring to it, like the Brad Pitt Pavilion.*

*And then, if we want to follow a dark flight of fancy: at some point in the future, after humans have successfully served their time on Earth (or 'served the Earth', à la Rick Santorum), when wild alligators are crawling around the ruins of our airport as it slowly sinks into the gulf, and as the words Brad Pitt Pavilion etched in stone are obscured by competing cat's claw and morning glory vines, history will then uncannily recall those scenes in Twelve Monkeys after Pitt's ingenious madman Jeffrey Goines frees all the animals from zoos, and they re-inhabit the urban wilderness...