Cubiclism, Part I

The most important lesson I learned in graduate school came from reading a slim little book written in Weimar Germany in 1930 by Sigfried Kracauer, The Salaried Masses: Duty and Distraction in Weimar Germany. Kracauer achieved distinction with his journalistic musings on popular culture. “Little Shopgirls Go to the Movies” and “The Mass Ornament” are some of his more well known essays. He also wrote a great book on Offenbach and a less great book on silent film, called From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Film. His thoughts on photography are the original source of many of Walter Benjamin’s insights in the famous On Photography essay. He was also young T.A. Adorno’s Saturday afternoon Kant tutor. I hope he charged that asshole an hourly fortune.

In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus picked out the most passionately held theses of the Frankfurt School (upon which Kracauer had great, but largely unremarked, influence):

[The Frankfurt School] liked to speak of the paradox of the proletarianization of the world. They meant that when political economy dominates life, it turns everyone, the worker who has been made into a consumer, the bourgeois who was already one, into a sort of proletarian, a mute object in the face of the talking thing: the humanism of the commodity means that the commodity becomes human as the human being becomes a commodity.

For Kracauer, the new proletariat consisted of office workers — the salariat — whose demographic was progressively increasing in size while their distinction as non-manual laborers kept them from identifying with the interests of factory workers. This was due to changes in industrial life that had brought the large office into greater prominence in corporate life, and he attributed the increasingly female population of office workers to “a surplus of women.” Independently of Kracauer, Alfred Sohn-Rethel has argued that capitalism truly began when the management office was first built off away from the shop-room floor — this moment gave birth to the architect, the academic, the journalist, etc, and was the foundational split between intellectual and manual labor.

Kracauer had a fascination with office culture as a byproduct of employers trying to “determine our domestic political life and thought.” Everything cherished by office workers, from beauty care to the relatively new concept of the “weekend,” to parks and team sports, are all derived from the corporation’s management of the psychic life of employees. His basic point — my most important lesson learned in graduate school, which should have been instinctively obvious (but thank you, nonetheless, grad school) — is that a “cultural commodity” is a contradiction in terms.

Kracauer also attributes the invention of the “personality” to upper management: it is only when one has passed a certain corporate threshold that personality is accepted. Much as the Victorians invented the “Eccentric,” corporate personality is cultivated and praised: “foresight in contriving to be replaceable at all times is recognized.” Office work also creates its own feminine class whose “morally pink complexion” is the inner revelation of perfectly teased hair and manicured nails.

In analyzing the office life of the salariat, Kracauer argues that he’s transcending the limitations of traditional political analysis.

We must rid ourselves of the delusion that it is major events which most determine a person. He is more deeply and lastingly influenced by the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up, and his fate is certainly linked predominantly to the sequence of these miniature occurrences.

The greatest instance of product placement I’ve ever seen was for Starbucks in the Fight Club movie when the narrator mentions his boss’s daily “grande latte enema.” This is a perfect example of one of the ritual tiny catastrophes that run through an office worker’s daily routine. I’ve read a lot of books on this subject — in fact, that was the subject of my first post on this blog, and once taught a course on this subject — so I think I’ll wonder out loud about the history of “management” literature in the next series of posts. The most recent (fantastic) novel I read on this subject was Ed Park’s Personal Days, and am reading Chip Kidd’s The Learners. But I’ll also take a look at Defoe’s The Complete English Tradesmen and possibly some Frank Norris.

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2 Responses to “Cubiclism, Part I”

  1. Zed Says:

    You ever read The Baffler? There was some good writing in there about “business literature.”

  2. darknessatnoon Says:

    I am a very occasional reader. Recommend a piece to me once you unpack from your move!

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