Posted on | September 13, 2012 | 2 Comments
After months of reading, I recently finished The Office: A Hardworking History by Gideon Haigh. The title is in many ways performative. At just over 600 pages, the volume’s weight makes it formidable labour. But it is worth it. This is a staggering work of scholarship. With its US release imminent, it should become the foundational reference for cultural studies of the office.
In addition to the chapter-by-chapter details, covering everything from desk design to civic architecture, suit fabrics to filing etiquette, there is a lengthy list of fictional and scholarly works grouped by theme in the appendix. This in itself is a precious resource; I love the way the book includes film and TV portrayals alongside other forms of historical evidence. The relationship between popular representations of work and the longer process of ‘how we became professional’ has been an ongoing interest of mine for years. I’m grateful to have so many new examples to investigate, and seriously impressed that an Australian press commissioned what is an incredible project.
Over a series of posts, I’ll share selections from the book alongside further links and ideas arising from the material. Some of these have been accumulating in the delicious links and tweets on the sidebar over the past few weeks as I gradually type out my notes. But to begin, I wanted to share one of many delightful passages in which Haigh’s voice shines. Here he poses the ultimate question, and a convincing rationale for why this question remains worthy of protracted analysis.
Why can offices be so boring? It goes with the territory. There is a monotony to their conditions, to the restricted space, constant temperature and unchanging light. There are inhibitions on behaviour — restrictions on physicality, sanctions against absolute candour — which sanitise and neuter interaction. Offices involve ongoing processes and precast continuities. Projects may begin and end, but they are preceded and succeeded by further projects. Tasks may be improved, refined or streamlined, but their elimination is hardly to be wished for too devoutly, as this might involve the elimination of oneself. Because they directly generate no tangible output or physical artefact, offices nurture impressions of futility (‘What exactly have I done today?’) and of insecurity (‘Am I justifying my existence?’).
In a way, it is remarkable how well we have assimilated lives so abstracted, so reified and so remote from those we lived a few generations ago.