Monday, April 6, 2009
Marx in Scranton
“People will never go out of business.”
Melville was probably the first great writer to use the workplace as the focal point of his stories. It is easy to forget that the Pequod, the ship in Moby Dick, was essentially a workplace, conducting a very risky business, funded by what we call today venture capital, with workers who received dividends based on future profits. Melville had little trouble saturating his novel about this floating workplace, headed by an insane boss, on a mission to hunt the great white whale, with many hair-raising tales (as well as endless hairsplitting details). But he probably had much more difficult time when he attempted to achieve the same level of dramatic effect in a much shorter story, which also revolves around a workplace: the office of a Wall Street lawyer. With no cannibals, harpoons, and the great expanse of the ocean, Melville had to conceive a different narrative scheme to animate his novelette. His solution was to make his hero, Bartleby, a competent scrivener who joins the office in the beginning of the story, utterly inoperative. Whatever his (rather congenial) boss asked him to do, Bartleby replied, “I prefer not to.” The tumult in the workplace sparked by this seemingly innocuous catchphrase and its stoic utterer was more than enough to make from “Bartleby, the Scrivener” a belated classic.
This is not to say, however, that Melville, a native of Manhattan, the great capital of capitalism, was simply trying to glorify the workplace for the enjoyment of the bourgeoisie. The workplace at stake in both Moby Dick and Bartleby is actually a battlefield between capitalist forces and their antagonists. In the former example, Captain Ahab is not interested at all in the enterprise of systematic whale hunting, which aims to reduce these magnificent animals into barrels of blubber. His monomania was to catch Moby Dick, a singular whale (which thus becomes the indisputable hero of this novel, without uttering a single sentence) not for the sake of profit, but for the sake of revenge. This is what leads this capitalist venture, and the workplace at its center, to its final demise at the story’s end. In the example of Bartleby, the refusal to work (or, more precisely, the preference not to work, which was also a preference not to go home after work, and then not to leave after he was let go) was not as devastating. Nevertheless, it was disturbing enough to lead the business to relocated to a new office, merely to get rid of the unsightly sight of a workless worker.
The relationship between American culture and the capitalist machine is much more subversive than what one may expect. American culture rarely deals with the end of the capitalist world as we know it, its complete annihilation for the sake of some communist utopia, since it simply knows better. Instead, it looks for various ways to subvert the machine, depict its blunders, and show its utter irrelevance to the true life of human beings. A paradigmatic example is, of course, Chaplin’s Modern Times. But I would like to speak now of a very interesting contemporary example which is full with beautiful insights about the current condition of late capitalism: The American television comedy, The Office.
What could ever happen in the Scranton branch of a corporate paper company? Nothing much, if you ask the Marxist critics who like to talk about the alienation of labor. Just a bunch of disaffected workers sitting in a nondescript workplace reaping some profit for the faceless capitalist pig sitting in his Manhattan headquarter. Besides, it is just a cookie-cutter American TV series, for heaven’s sake, produced in order to entertain the mass consumers to death. But if you look closer, you will discover a very curious strategy for action against (or through, or by means of) capitalism, in the direct tradition of Melville and Chaplin.
Michael Scott, the office’s boss, bears various similarities to Ahab, Bartleby, and the factory worker in Modern Times: either intentionally or unintentionally, they don’t come to the workplace in order to be the good, diligent, and industrious workers-machines that the capitalist hopes to find there, but to somehow undermine this workplace as we think that we know it. Though Scott loves his workplace (it is his whole life), he does not like to work, and so he involves his mystified underlings (who, besides one eccentric exception, seem to have very little respect for him) with various activities that have absolutely nothing to do with productivity. To the surprise of all, the Scranton branch is actually declared as the most profitable branch of them all. This is the reason why the latest episodes, where a new, efficient, and no-nonsense boss is introduced into the plot-line is so unnerving to watch, because it jeopardizes all that the office managed to achieved over the years. In a nutshell, The Office shows us how to transform the grey workplace into the many colors of the tree of life; how to divert the alienation of labor in such a way that it can draw humanity a little bit closer; and how to insist that people are not reduced to the hours that they can work, since they are first and foremost reflected through the relationships they can have with each other.