Tag: The Office

The Office, part three: A Preference for Temporary Labor

(This is a long deferred part three on The Office; part one was Does Jim Prefer? And Why Pam Does Not and part two was Teaching Jim to Prefer)

The thing about “late capitalism” or “neo-liberalism,” or whatever the kids are calling it these days, is that “productivity” becomes much less important, to the extent that it ever was. Something changes about capitalist production when structural reasons make it less important to extract as much surplus value as possible out of the laboring population; the weaker the market becomes to force competition (or, the more power Capital is able to exert over that market), the less necessary it becomes for Capital to actually work at producing value. Instead, Capital works at producing consumers; if you can monopolize what it is possible for them to buy, it’s enough that they buy something.

This doesn’t contradict anything about other styles of capitalism, of course; it’s a mode of activity that integrates nicely into others. But it is distinct, or worth distinguishing, for at least one reason: under “neoliberalism,” the best worker is no longer Taylor’s “intelligent gorilla“; instead, the best worker is the one who can be most easily fired. A worker’s true value-producing capacity, in other words, is not how effectively they can turn capital into use or exchange value (which Taylor correlates to how pliant they are in being molded into value-producing machines), but the ease by which they can be shed from the system when the time comes to cut costs. What gets euphemistically called “flexibility” is more centrally important to the profit making machine.

Michael Scott believes himself to be a certain kind of boss. Since he dimly understands that most bosses (especially those in corporate) are grown-uppy spoil sports who don’t know how to have fun, he finds his identity in bringing a little jouissance into the office. He’s far too stupid to realize the contradictions, of course; his personal hero is the obnoxious Todd Packer, a traveling salesman who lives the life of a perpetual child, while he aspires at the same time to be the world’s greatest boss. The fact that he buys himself a mug with those very words is a wonderful illustration of the sublime perfection with which he papers over the gigantic contradiction that structures his life: he can use his power to create “friends” without realizing that such people are not really friends, and he can force people to laugh at his jokes without realizing that forced laughs are not funny.

When the Stamford boss sacrifices his branch in order to further his career, though, the show reveals something about Michael: while his Michael’s failings as a boss may not hamper his ability to exercise power, his delusions are an index to his ability to stay human. Because he can never understand what an indescribably evil job he has, he manages to avoid being an evil human being. And there’s something revealingly earnest in Jim’s surprised tone of voice when he tells the camera (almost surprised to hear himself saying it) “Say what you will about Michael Scott, he’d never do that.” He (and we) are learning something about Michael Scott that our contempt for him usually masks: Michael’s delusions are produced by his basic decency. After all, in his own way, no one hates the office as much as he does. I suspect this is why he displaces all his hatred onto the innocuous Toby. Just as he needs to imagine that it is Toby who represents all that is evil so he doesn’t realize that it’s himself, his delusionary capacity is a dark closet that expands to contain his own complicity.

But be that as it may, it is the rising fortunes of Ben, the temp, who illustrates what is at stake in striving to rise in the corporate ladder. Unlike Pam, Michael, and Jim, who each live in their own particular world of make-believe, Ryan can afford no illusions about where he stands, nor are any illusions offered to him. When he first arrives at Dunder Mifflin, Ryan is the most degraded and abused person in the hierarchy, the temporary worker. So while Jim lives in the fantasy world of believing he has agency (though he is, always, a secret agent), Ryan learns how power works by serving as its object, just as Frederick Douglass and Hegel needed the idea of the slave to make power legible. And while Jim is slow to understand what he would need to do to rise within the corporate hierarchy (and while Michael and Pam could never let themselves learn), Ryan neither hesitates nor deviates. The temporary worker can have no illusions about his status; Michael Scott can fantasize about their relationship (a fantasy that covers all the ground between sexual and paternal) but Ryan understands quite well that his role in the office is to be fucked.

As early as the “Office Olympics” episode, Ryan begins to show us who he is: he muses that he could have kept the fabricated medal, but for how long? Ultimately, it’s not something he wants. So he throws it away, in front of Pam. Jim would never do this, but part of who Ryan is learning to be is a person who can do this, who can (like the Stamford boss) toss his friends under the bus whenever necessary. In this sense, business school teaches him the theory, but he learns the practice in the office. Observe, for example, the final scenes of the final episode of season three, and the terms on which Jim returns from corporate and the moment when Ryan’s triumph is made apparent: Jim sacrifices his career for Pam, but Ryan dumps Kelly without hesitation. These scenes are paired; while Jim is ultimately unable to do what would be necessary — having never fully understood what that would be — Ryan has always known how low he would need to go. It is the highest virtue of business: if the best worker is one who can be fired, the best Boss is a person who can fire without conscience.

Teaching Jim to Prefer. Pt. 2

( Part one here)

In the pilot episode of The Office, Jim muses on the question of whether he has a future at the company, answering the pseudo-documentary filmmaker as if he’d never thought of it before. “If this was a career,” he deadpans, “I’d have to kill myself.”

This is a joke, but it’s also a fantasy: the idea that there is some alternative to the office. And it’s a fantasy that haunts Jim throughout the first season or so. Jim, you see, isn’t like all those others: his hair is mussed and his clothes hang on his lean frame like he just pulled them out of the hamper. He’s young, boyish enough to remind himself of college, and with the easy good looks of an actor who can play “normal looking” while always playing the romantic lead.

So the first season or so is filled with the boyish joy of pranks and secret agency, and the possibilities that only an unattainable romance can provide. Placing Dwight’s stapler in jello, for example, is broadly representative: while Dwight is frozen in the office, locked in, Jim has every key and can walk through walls. As a character, Dwight is unthinkable outside of Dunder Mifflin, but Jim… Jim, you see, is different. Jim owns Dunder Mifflin. Against the backdrop of Dwight the perma-loser, Jim, we know, will always win. And the unattainable Pam, too, is exactly the kind of light in which a winsome character like him looks his best. The injustice that she prefers her lunkish high school sweetheart, that Roy’s life of jet-skis and brewskis would dampen her happiness, the happiness of Jim’s chosen lady, only makes Jim shine all the brighter. Because you just know that justice will be done and he’ll get the girl. You just know that the loutish Roy’s loutness will pale in comparison to the brilliant light of Jim, the anti-lout. Dwight’s pathetic bootlicking and Roy’s redneck ways are exactly the backdrop Jim needs if he is to triumph at being Jim. To put it another way, Jim’s agency (secret and otherwise) requires the office, is a function of the office.

That’s kind of strange, right? And if I’m correct in saying so, then it’s a measure of his character’s self-realization that he steadily moves towards making the office a career but does not kill himself.

My favorite early episode is the “Office Olympics,” and it’s here, I think, that you start to see the wheels going one way and the truck going another. It’s a triumph for Jim on a certain level: while Dwight and Michael are out of the office, Jim and Pam construct a Calvinball-esque competition for their fellow office mates, handing out medals made from foil yogurt caps. The master stroke, when Dwight and Michael return, would seem to be managing to convince them that the whole thing has been engineered to honor them, and, by playing on their desperate low self-esteem (and stupidity), Jim and Pam manage to hold their award ceremony anyway.

There is a moment, however, a very poignant moment, when Dwight and Michael first return and the illusion is punctured. At the very apex of his triumph, having converted the office into a tree fort playhouse, Jim’s minions abandon him at the sight of their real boss. You can play games in his absence, we learn, but people stop thumbing their nose at authority when the authority looks their way. And so his triumph is mixed, and the limitations of his power are clear: while he gets to have his awards ceremony, it is only at the cost of revealing how contained his rebellion has been. Instead of flouting Michael’s authority, he has confirmed it. He has revealed the stupidity of Michael’s power only by revealing the power of his stupidity, which transforms the rebellion into a ceremony honoring him. Michael may be ignorant of what he has done, but that fact only serves to underscore (chillingly) the extent to which Jim’s rebellion has, far from undermining authority, served only to further establish its power.

Jim, you see, needs to prove that he is smarter than Michael and Dwight, that he is better than them. And he does, over and over again. But, in the end, none of that really matters. The fact that Michael is the boss is ultimately not only the most important truth, it’s the only truth. And while the older drones who buzz listlessly about the hive understand this (and especially the temp, who I‘ll write about next), Jim and Pam are only slowly able to piece this together.

Pam’s self-realization, as I argued in aprt one, is an escape into art that is no escape, a self-deluding and escapist fantasy. But Jim’s alternative to Michael Scott, as it turns out, is nothing so simple as a faith in “art” versus “capitalism” or even the kind of rejection of corporate fascism that his endless battles with Dwight might seem to imply. Instead, in the penultimate scene in season three, Jim applies for a job in corporate, a job that he has both been groomed for (by the boss of the other branch) and seems to have a real shot at getting it. He would be his former boss’ boss.

He deserves it, of course. But, of course, as season one teaches us, “merit” is precisely not the thing that matters. Michael Scott doesn’t deserve his job, and this is precisely the point: The Office is not a meritocracy, and imagining that it is only blinds you to the ways that power actually works. If you think Michael Scott is a failure, you can laugh at him, but then you forget that, as you laugh, you’re doing his bidding. When Jim starts to realize that none of that matters, that his little symbolic rebellions have only tightened the chains around him the more securely, he starts to think about power as a goal in its own right, and he begins to focus in on getting it.

Somewhere along the line, his thinking has shifted. And I think you could pin-point it as the moment when a boss shows up who isn’t totally a figure of farce, when the figure of an alternative to Michael Scott enters the frame. As he grooms Jim, therefore, the branch manager of the Stamford branch serves to illustrate how a boss should be. While Michael’s pathetic attempts to boost morale and team spirit result in comedy, this boss plays his employees like a piano. Michael steals the tires off his employees’ cars, for example, trying to convince them to unite against their common enemy (Vance Refrigeration), but the Stamford branch manager’s use of Call of Duty to build his team’s quasi-military spirit is actually a kind of silent perfection of Jim’s office Olympics. The comparison is instructive: just as Jim’s rebellion let off just enough steam to keep the machine going, so too with the imaginary blood sport the Stamford branch plays on their computers. This time, he can see quite clearly exactly what’s being accomplished, and while he is (for a time) tempted by the devil, he also resists internalizing its corporate fascism. But part of this, I would argue, is simply that he does not yet understand it. For that, he needs one more teacher before his bildung can be complete. He needs the temp.


Final strip courtesy of here.


Does Jim Prefer? And Why Pam Does Not. Pt. 1

You’re supposed to identify with Jim in The Office. You, presumably, are male, since Pam, the only remotely sympathetic female character, is constructed to be as boring, repressed, and boring as possible. The actress who plays her, Jenna Fischer, comes from an improv background but she was instructed to disregard the first rule of improv: instead of responding to questions with a “yes, and…,” her character always says “no,” and then sits quietly, looking scared.

Her relationship with Jim is supposed to be a kind of awakening, and this is played fairly nicely: in season three, she emerges as self-willed in ways the earlier Pam, cowed by her brutish fiancée, could never have been. She pursues, somewhat pathetically, her desire to be an artist, and after rejecting relationships with both Roy and Jim, her character arc builds to a nice seasonal climax in the “Beach games” episode, where she first berates her co-workers for not coming to her art show and then tells Jim that she cancelled her wedding for him, but not just for him, and that most of all, she just misses his friendship. This is well done, because the key is less that she finally declared her love for him than that she asserts herself. That this narrative arc inevitably deposits her in a relationship with Jim should surprise no one, though, and however good the season three climax is, it is a bit disappointing to see an interesting dramatic vein get played out. I’m not optimistic that the show will be able to recover from the loss, but we’ll see.

When I used to watch the office on TV (occasionally, and rarely), it was hilarious, one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Over the long weekend, I nursed a bad cold by getting through the first two seasons of the show, from its glorious beginnings to the cliffhanger season finale, and the subjectivity of that experience is very different: you get much deeper inside the characters, and the humor cuts at a very different angle. This is a show about being trapped in a Kafka-esque prison world, where Michael Scott is not merely a nominal authority but (nightmarishly) actually does have authority. He actually can fire people (and the real horror is that they don‘t want to be fired). So when you, too, start to get sucked into that world, when you, too, keep going back into the prison-world of the office and watch episode after episode on end, the awkwardness becomes harder and harder to laugh at. Michael Scott, quite frankly, becomes unendurable.

But while Pam’s character arc might be a nice narrative of self-realization, the development of the artist story is only heartwarming in direct inverse proportion to how honest it is (and the show is pretty honest). She’s not a good artist, nor (it is absolutely clear) does she have a future outside of being a secretary at this office, which the show is occasionally brutal in portraying as a degrading, futureless, and empty existence. As is the office as a whole, of course, but her narrative of self-realization and salvation through art is ultimately a delusion and shown to be such: one of her pictures (at her pathos drenched art show) is a picture of a stapler and another is a picture of the office itself, which Michael Scott (the only person from the office to even show up) promptly buys and places on the wall in the office itself. That the picture wasn’t originally for sale, that what is meant to be Pam’s escape from the office leads her back to the office, and that none of her coworkers show up–implying that they disapprove of her attempt to escape, like prisoners distancing themselves from a jailbreak–are all very nice touches. But the master stroke is that Michael Scott, the show’s arch-villain, does show up, but fails even to realize that Pam is trying to escape from the office because, in fact, her escape is so doomed from the start. The ignorant, oblivious, idiot is, in this case, absolutely right. And that’s scary.

This is why you’re supposed to identify with Jim rather than with Pam. Her character is the show’s figure for failure (dramatizing the power of the office, and all it signifies, to crush humanity), and while Jim can leave the office — remaining in The Office but in another offices — it seems to me that this privilege could never be extended to Pam without tearing the heart out of the show. As receptionist, she exists as a petty, sordid trophy for Michael Scott’s most casual and most unthinkingly heartless actions; since Michael is the embodiment of the office’s stupid and evil power, the show needs her as the object of that evil. It needs her passivity (even cooperation) to demonstrate his awesome power, just like he needs her, however oblivious he is to that. So she has to hug him when he buys her sad little painting in order to demonstrate how hopeless escape really is, like Smith at the end of 1984. It’s a powerful (and wonderfully dark) vision, but we can only laugh at it to the extent that we don’t identify with Pam, I think, the way Frederick Douglass could only represent subjection along side a curious assertion that he was never truly subject to slavery. The two cannot co-exist. If we identified with her, the show would be far too dark to see.

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