How we became professional, part 2 – Managing without women

Posted on | August 26, 2013 | No Comments

(…continued from part 1)

2. The emergence of time management manuals, from the 1970s to the present.

As Boltanski and Chiapello show in the French context, management manuals are a useful archive to understand dominant registers of professional ambition and success. Over the past half-century in the US, popular versions of more formal instruction books shed light on the intersection between business discourse and the self-help industry (although this has a complex history, one that a larger version of this project would certainly address). As instances of voluntary professional training, the books provide guidelines, tips and insights through which motivated individuals might learn to conduct themselves appropriately in office space. They are technologies of the self, in Foucault’s sense, or technologies of composure, as I suggested previously.

Elaborating on the scientific management tenets first tested in the factory, business self-help addresses the middle-class employee arising alongside the corporation, often without the family or class pedigree to equip him for this move. Not everyone gets the chance to go to Harvard; time management manuals document as much as they play on the illusion that anyone can learn to become professional.

I read them not only for the lessons they hold for middle class subjectivity today (the sense of embattled disappointment that attends the death of the career path and the investment of higher education). I also read them to document the formulaic structure of productivity advice. Like any genre, the role of productivity literature is to provide ideological resolutions to the lived contradictions of daily life. Ideologies make us feel better while leaving the status quo in place.

As I argue elsewhere, the time management tips first outlined in the early 1970s are adopted in almost identical form in today’s self-help subcultures of “life-hacking” and “getting things done” (GTD), even if the glamour and ahistoricism of the tech industry makes this lineage difficult to identify. What this proves is that there are longstanding anxieties attached to the experience of white-collar work that predate any one technology or platform. Knowing this is a powerful means of situating oneself in a broader story, to recognize that technology is neither a cause nor an adequate means of coping. A brief history of time management reveals that any individual solution to workplace pressure diverts attention from the structural nature of the specific anxieties we each feel.

That said, my own experience reading these books in the midst of career turbulence has been to find a degree of solace in the tactics they offer. That may only be fitting given the theory I am trying to outline – that these vernacular pedagogies suit those lacking a white-collar habitus. Taking a genre approach, one can certainly appreciate the range in quality within the broader corpus. That’s something I’ll point out in future writing. But I find the language of cultural theory most useful here, specifically Certeau’s distinction which allows us to see how workers forge their own ‘tactics’ in response to the seemingly unaccountable ‘strategies’ of the corporations or organizations that employ them.

The book I wanted to write to bring these two projects together (I even have a title! Counterproductive) would have used alternative philosophies of time to question the notion that time can in fact be managed. Such a move was crucial for feminists pioneering the field of science and technology studies – and can be seen in so much contemporary feminist philosophy devoted to the concept of time. For the feminists of the 1980s, mastery over technology and time was symptomatic of patriarchy in the sense that it implied mastery over nature. It was a fantasy of control that had been men’s exclusive right to exercise over women. We don’t often hear that language today, but by returning to it I wanted to pitch this important legacy of thought against business practices that were established long before women were entering salaried workplaces as managers.


Leave a Reply

  • @melgregg

    RT @CAMEo_UoL We'll be sharing extracts from .@melgregg's issue of #CAMEoCuts throughout the day. Here's the first snippet!…

    About 16 hours ago · reply · retweet · favorite

  • Currently reading

    I Hate the Internet
  • Goodbye Islave