by Christopher Winks
Still, there was more than money and phony security to be gained from
going back to the nine-to-five boogaloo. Two months away from the routine
had given me ample time to divest myself of the habits and rhythms this
routine imposes on even the most rebellious individual. If I had to go back
to work whether I felt like it or not, at least it would be with a fresh
outlook. Since what is familiar is not known simply because it is
familiar--since the pressures and constraints of daily life make it difficult
for most of us to perceive their social-historical roots--distancing ourselves
from the totalitarian immediacy of work can help us understand it better,
and hence subvert it. Why else do so many people fuck off on the job, if
not to attain that distance?
The office in which I was to be working for the next few weeks was a
franchising operation that contracted out secretarial services to clients,
among other things. But I only found that out a few hours after I had begun
work; immediately after I walked in, introduced myself to the supervisor,
and found an empty desk, I was put to work transcribing a tedious legal
document, dictated by a disembodied individual who sounded as if he made
a habit to speak with pebbles in his mouth.
What struck me about this was that my supervisor had tacitly assumed that what counted in this job--as, no doubt, with hers-- was the what and not the why. You had a job to do and you did it. And since that unwritten rule obtained in every other corporation, regardless of whether this firm did management consulting, real estate speculation, or constructing nuclear power plants--what difference did it make if the purpose of it all was known? It came down to the same thing no matter where you worked. This attitude of passive cynicism has always seemed to me to be the most pervasive feeling in offices.
The uniformity of the work process has another consequence that hit home to me as I struggled to keep up with the unending flow of legal babble: no matter what job you do, you can learn everything there is to know about it in a matter of minutes. After that, there are only details--sometimes perverse, sometimes complicated, but always insignificant in comparison to the basic structure of the tasks performed. About an hour after I had walked in, I felt that I had been working there for months, and I still didn't know what the company did in the first place!
Eventually, I was given some "in-house'' work that allowed me to
find out all I needed to know about the company's operations, which wasn't
much. Management took great pride in being an exponent of the ""Office
of the Future'' concept, which was touted as effecting a radical transformation
of conventional office relations and designs. Since it is said that change
begins at home, I looked around the offices. It consisted of a series of
cubicles with tall dividers; in order to speak to anybody, I had to stand
up and peer over the partition. Each cubicle was unbelievably cramped; there
were no windows; the ceilings were claustrophobically low; and fans spread
the stale air around equitably and democratically. The supervisor's fan
was at floor level, a detail I discovered after almost shredding my pants
leg in the blades. Most workers didn't even have a phone at their desks--no
doubt, such a ""privilege'' would have been ""abused''
to the detriment of the productivity level. To plug in office equipment,
I had to crawl under the desk and be careful not to bang the small of my
back on the edge of the desk as I got up.
The message? Offices of the Future = More of the Same.
After a few minutes of Dictaphone transcription, I gazed at the crabbed,
stilted words that seemed to be flowing from my fingers even though they
had nothing to do with me, and was uncertain whether I felt contempt, amusement,
or utter amazement at what I saw. Perhaps one of the most powerful indictments
that can be leveled against the business world is its bureaucratization
of language. When we enter the office, we inherit a language that bears
only a fleeting resemblance to the language we use in our lives. There is
a certain irony in knowing that even as the written word is debased to an
instrumental level, it is emphasized more and more as a tool of (pseudo-)communication.
Discussions between people in an office don't become ""real''
unless they are ""in writing.'' Such reified forms of interchange
are enforced by the nature of the work itself; to judge by the majority
of memos, reports, etc. that are ""generated'' (a suitably mechanical
phrase) in offices, one would swear that the only matters that motivated
the authors to write anything were the firm's image, prospects, and profits.
The word becomes an accessory to concealment instead of expression. The
extensive use of the passive voice in office-ese is an eloquent testimony
to the domination of an impersonal bureaucratic code over ostensibly active
human beings. Pascal's dictum "The self if hateful'' could be emblazoned
in stone tablets in every office.
"There is one thing I insist on here, and that's to get here on time.
I had to fire my last typist because he was always coming in late, sometimes
90 minutes to 2 hours late. So keep that in mind.'' My supervisor was not an
authoritarian person by nature; later on that day she spoke to me of her experiences
in lesbian communes in a way that demonstrated her acute sensitivity to how
people can dominate each other. She dressed in a most un- businesslike style.
She was blessed with a crazy sense of humor and enough cynicism about her job
to make it easy for me to be honest with her about how I felt.
And yet this same woman, with whom I would ordinarily feel some affinity, was able to assert what small-time authority she had been granted and dismiss somebody from a position. Of course, she had her reasons for doing it, the most convincing being that she couldn't be expected to do his work and her work at the same time, and she feared repercussions from her bosses. She was duly remorseful about what she had done, but claimed she had no choice. The sad thing is that she probably didn't, at that.
Hierarchy poisons every work situation in capitalist society; and in the office, which is founded on interlocking, mutually dependent divisions, departments, etc. (each imprisoned by its own chains of command), everybody is caught up in several simultaneous variations on the loathsome power-subordination theme. In a grotesque, democratized parody of the master/slave dialectic, there is always somebody taking orders from somebody else. Not surprisingly, people betray themselves in hundreds of different ways as they act out their prescribed roles. ""Human relations'' degenerate into a series of pre-fabricated scenarios with predictable outcomes. Even the most fair-minded and generous individual is not spared the corrupting effect of power, be her share in it ever so petty. As the day wore on, I felt recurrent pains in my lower back; the typed material in front of me would become blurred from time to time as my eyes had to strain more and more under the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights. My head pounded. I craved a stiff drink, or perhaps two or three. I thought I would weep for sheer frustration and rage at having to sit down in a tiny cubbyhole and transcribe bullshit, useless, pointless bullshit. The split between mind and body that even ""easy'' work demands--and which I was diligently reinforcing despite my better instincts (which in any case wee all locked in a little compartment of my brain lest they interfere with the pace)--was breaking down. The inhumanity of wage-labor can only really be experienced when its effects permeate your entire being. At last, it was time to go home. Stumbling out the door onto the dark streets, shivering in the chill of the approaching night, I looked up at the small patch of sky that the high-rises had not been able to block out. It had to be a quick glance lest I collide with a passerby. Suddenly, as I saw the skyscrapers with their hundreds of tiny windows behind which thousands of people spent a good portion of their waking hours, I was overwhelmed with a feeling that everything confronting me was permanent and unchangeable. Even assuming that office workers would one day challenge en masse the social rationale for this mess, how could freedom as I conceived it flourish in such an evidently hierarchical environment, where it was so difficult to make one's voice heard over the roar of the traffic and the clatter of the office equipment? Real life, as always, was elsewhere.
On the other hand, the ""elsewhere'' remained to be created, and where better place to start than within the institutions that were designed to suppress even the merest talk of radical alternatives? Granted, many battles remained to be fought, and many more people had to fight them. I myself had to admit that over the next few weeks, I would do little more than cope and attempt to preserve a minimum of self-respect. In that sense, I was no different from many other working people who did what they could to get by, without in any way falling for the bill of goods that the system incessantly tried to sell them. From the many acts of resistance, however insignificant, that we would engage in to prevent ourselves from succumbing to resignation and boredom, a new spirit could very well emerge. And how funny it would be if that new spirit were eventually to break loose onto the world, to the consternation of all those who though they had shut it up for good!