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.)