Work Lingo and Writing

The current issue of Harper’s has some great stuff in it, including an excerpt from Mark Kingwell’s introduction to The Wage Slave’s Glossary by Joshua Glenn, out next month from Biblioasis. Kingwell’s intro codifies certain things I believe about the world in general, particularly the idea of “collective delusions” that we almost all buy into, perhaps so the world won’t seem so scary or perhaps because it’s necessary to have a functioning society. Money clearly is becoming ever more of a collective delusion, especially in a dysfunctional U.S. system. There are also delusions that come over us temporarily like viruses, infected the majority and leaving the minority out in the cold: believe or you suck, basically. Luckily, these tend to be temporary or contained to certain subcultures or communities.

Kingwell talks about a number of delusions we buy into with regard to the workplace, chief among them the sanctity of work itself. A short excerpt:

The routine collection of credentials, promotions, and employee-of-the-month honors in exchange for company loyalty masks a deeper existential conundrum–which is precisely what it is meant to do. Consider: It is an axium of status anxiety that the competition for position has no end—save, temporarily, when a scapegoat is found. The scapegoat reaffirms everyone’s status, however uneven, because he is beneath all. Hence many work narratives are miniature blame-quests. We come together as a company to fix guilt on one of our number, who is then publicly shamed and expelled. Jones filed a report filled with errors! Smith placed an absurdly large order and the company is taking a bath! This makes us all feel better and enhances our sense of mission, even if it produces nothing other than its own spectacle.

Sounds like a few places I worked at before I became a full-time writer, one of which I wrote about in my novelette “The Situation,” which you can read here. (What’s the collective delusion of writers, you might ask? That this crazy career is sustainable indefinitely and that the right words matter…and sometimes buying into those delusions is enough.)

Interestingly he also name-checks three office novels: Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, and Ed Park’s Personal Days. Kingwell calls all three hilarious, but believes their humor is a sign of doom, not liberation. “Indeed, the laughs render the facts more palatable by mixing diversion into the scene of domination—a willing capitulation, consumed under the false sign of resistance.” That’s a pretty sick reading of the uses of satire, but point taken. Perhaps it takes a horror writer with the sensibilities of Kafka to make satire a tertiary purpose, since I find Thomas Ligotti’s office stories not a capitulation but a clear embodiment of doom in which humor occurs almost as part of a natural process, like steam off of the head of a just-benched football player in winter.

References to philosopher Harry Frankfurt and his use of the term “bullshit” satisfy on a very gleeful level. In the workplace, bullshit can be defined as “Jargon, slogans, euphemisms, and terms of art” used as weapons. Bullshit is an evasion of normativity that “produces a kind of ordure, a dissemination of garbage, the scattering of shit. This is why, Frankfurt argue, bullshit is far more threatening, and politically evil, than lying.” The bullshitter doesn’t oppose truth–s/he ignores it entirely. (Cue: footage of certain political candidates, bloggers on the internet, etc.)

The victory of work bullshit is that, in addition to having no regard for the truth, it passes itself off as innocuous or even beneficial. Especially in clever hands, the controlling elements of work are repackaged as liberatory, counter-cultural, subversive: you’re a skatepunk rebel because you work seventy hours a week beta-testing videogames. This, we might say, is meta-bullshit.

In writing, bullshit, meta and otherwise, manifests as cliches in its most basic form, but complex forms of writing-related bullshit manifest as precepts that wound a story before it is finished, an inability to closely observe and report on the details of the world, and, well, too many other ways to list here.

You could read Kingwell’s introduction as a discourse on corrupted narrative—like a story with no center that is nonetheless told in a clever or convincing way, the equivalent of the worst type of escapist fiction. If everything human-made around us, including our stories, once existed as an idea or thought from someone’s imagination, then Kingwell’s saying we need to be better storytellers, better dreamers, at both the micro and the macro level. Waking up like the guy in the first Matrix movie to find you’re just a pod dangling among a million other generic pods can be depressing, but at least it’s real…maybe. Or it might just be superior CGI. Perhaps bullshit has no hidden core. Perhaps collective delusions are the point.


  1. DiversHands says

    Your last line nails the point I have taken as an article of faith for almost two decades. It also emphasizes a reason I write. If ideal and narrative have become essentially indistinguishable from reality (and modern media outlets takes this as an universal assumption), than why not just hijack the narrative?

    Charles Dickens seems the best classical example of this to me. Dickens hijacked the clearly false Edwardian/Victorian ideal of moral uprightness and hard work (with a touch of luck and a heavy hand of deus ex machina) and attached it to characters of low standing in often dire situations. While the Romantic plots remained unchanged, Dickens presented his audience (mostly “educated” upper middle class trust fund lack wits) with a vivid, if often satirized, vision of their fellow man’s plight. While admittedly not terribly successful (read Oliver Twist, and then follow it up with Our Mutual Friend to see just how much more blunt and angry he became upon the subject as his life went by) Dickens’ attention to such details did aid many movements bent on alleviating the greatest excesses of the Victorian class system.

    I feel many writers forget the impact they are capable of. Even bad writers have reshaped the cultural gestalt (*cough*lovecraft), and we have such a far wider array of tools and venues at our disposal today – television programming, movies, youTube sketches, comics, blogs, twitter and as always the short story and the novel.

    When we live in a society where two middle aged men can perpetrate widely accepted disguises as lesbians and foreigners, we should not be cursing our collective gullibility. Instead, we should be rejoicing at our ability to compose such acceptable narratives. And then we should go out and perpetrate a better one.