Office Space: Capitalism, Morality, and White-Collar Work

Peter: “When you come in on Monday and you’re  not feeling real well, does anyone say to you ‘sounds like someone’s got a case of the Mondays?'”

Lawrence: “Nah. Nah, man. Shit, nah man. I believe you’d get your ass kicked saying something like that, man.”

 

Though it’s impact may have been understated during it’s initial release, Mike Judge’s 1999 workplace comedy Office Space has struck a chord with audiences in recent years, solidifying itself as a cult-classic. The film centers around Peter Gibbons, a white-collar employee who finds himself simultaneously underwhelmed with his work and inundated with the bureaucratic drudgery of his office. Taking place in 1999, Peter spends his days adding 2 digits to the beginning of lines and lines of banking information in preparation for the coming of the new millennium, while simultaneously being barraged with requests from his multiple middle managers about memos, report cover sheets, and weekend shifts.

It is only after Peter undergoes hypnotherapy, during which his therapist experiences a heart attack and dies, that he overcomes the fugue state of his dead end job and decides he’s not going to allow his office job to ruin his life. Freed of his commitment to his workplace, Peter convinces two of his fellow employees to rebel against their boss and launder money from the company. What ensues is a jab at the white-collar workplace, with all of its corporate messiness and odd rituals that its denizens adopt to subdue the maddening nature of what they do.

As a critique of Capitalism, Office Space shows us, perhaps a bit hyperbolically, the attitude of the worker who is alienated from their work. This is evidenced first through Peter’s relationship with his next door neighbor Lawrence, a construction worker, who Peter seems to admire for his profession. Peter lauds, and almost fetishizes, Lawrence’s physical job because he thinks the job offers a sense of fulfillment, a “job well done”,  that his current work is lacking. As Peter describes it later in the film, “I probably do about 15 minutes of real work a day… it’s not that I’m lazy, I just don’t care.” This notion of the worker being productive when their work is fulfilling and they feel a sense of connection to their job hearkens back to Marx’s notion of workplace alienation and the species being.

Office Space also touches on C Wright Mills’ notion of the “personality market“, the idea that under capitalism it is not enough for us to give up our labor or skills to our jobs, but we must also surrender or regulate our attitudes, emotions, and personalities in the market. This is most prevalently evidenced in the case of Jennifer Aniston’s character, Joanna, who works as a waitress at a chain family restaurant called Chotchkies. Joanna is constantly berated by her boss for not having enough “flair”, small buttons or pins placed on her work uniform, and is constantly criticized for doing “the bare minimum”. This criticism is usually accompanied  by the question “don’t you want to express yourself?”, as if to imply the expression allowed by the workplace could be genuine or fulfilling to any degree.

Overall, Office Space is a quick-witted film that is uncomfortably poignant for anyone who has had to endure a Casual Friday or seems to have come down with a chronic case of “The Mondays”.

 

Joey Tribbiani, Exchange Theorist

Phoebe: I just found a selfless good deed; I went to the park and let a bee sting me.

Joey: How is that a good deed?

Phoebe: Because now the bee gets to look tough in front of his bee friends. The bee is happy and I am not.

Joey: Now you know the bee probably died when he stung you?

Phoebe: Dammit!

What does it mean to be truly selfless? To offer one’s self up entirely without any expectation of compensation or recompense? In the above clip from the seminal NBC sitcom Friends, protagonists Phoebe and Joey engage in a heated social-philosophical debate about the morality of doing good deeds. Joey, having accepted a job co-hosting a PBS telethon and acknowledging that doing so is good for his career, purports that there is no truly selfless good deed, and that through even our most altruistic endeavors,  we stand to “gain” something in the form of feeling good about ourselves.

This cost/benefit analysis of social interactions hearkens back to the late 1950’s when sociologist George Homans published “Social Behavior as Exchange”. In this piece Homans outlined a theory of social interactions heavily influenced by behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning. In the same vein as Skinner, Homans believed all human interactions were a matter of seeking rewards; the more rewarding an action seem, the more likely we are to perform that action. Similarly, the more often an action results in a reward, the more likely we are to repeat that action. In this episode of Friends, the bolstering of Joey’s acting career by taking the gig at PBS would be the reward for his actions that would drive him to work a long shift doing work he otherwise would not do.

Rewards do not come without a cost, however. In “Social Behavior as Exchange” Homans also outlined a concept he called “distributive justice” to describe how we mediate these costs. To Homans, each party to an exchange must feel as though they are not paying too high a cost relative to the reward they hope to gain. In this sense, when we perform a good deed, Homans would say that we will only perform that deed insofar as whatever we offer up does not outweigh the feelings of altruism we get in return. In Joey’s case, would he have still hosted the telethon if he was not being paid to do so in addition to the promise that it would make his acting career more successful? Would he still take the job if he was asked to make a $50,000 contribution in addition to hosting?

Even with Homan’s rationalized model of social interaction in mind, how do we account for actions where the costs to the individual may seem so absurdly out of proportion to their perceived gains? Take for example the late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata who halved his salary after revenues dipped by 8.1 percent back in 2013; as some of the commenters on this article have noted, he could just as easily cut hours or sacked employees to make up for the loss at a much lower cost to himself. Was staying in high regard among his employees and investors truly enough of a “reward” to keep him from taking other actions?

Modern science has evidenced that a mere cost/benefit analysis may not be able to describe all social interactions. Some studies suggest that variations in geneology that affect our dopamine receptors can make us more or less altruistic. Others show that prosocial spending, both personal and federal, results in greater feelings of happiness and wellbeing.

Holmans himself acknowledged that his model could not account for “non-rational” exchanges with little perceivable gains; among them he listed pride, greed, and altruism. To quote Homans, “all we impute to [individuals] in the way of rationality is that they know enough to come in our of the rain unless they enjoy getting wet” (Appelrouth and Edles, 2008). Perhaps Joey’s pursuit of fame and fortune at any means necessary has obfuscated his ability to perceive the non-rational selflessness that Phoebe purports, but that’s a story for another time.

 

The Utility of “Hip” Consumerism and the Simmelian Fashionability of Netflix and Chill

“From the fact that fashion as such can never be generally in vogue, the individual derives the satisfaction of knowing that as adopted by him it still represents something special and striking, while at the same time he feels inwardly supported by a set of persons who are striving for the same thing, not as in the case of other social satisfactions, by a set actually doing the same thing.” – Georg Simmel, Fashion, 1904


Have you ever seen a sponsored post on Facebook misusing a meme so badly that it made your eyes roll so far back into your head that you could see your brain cells dying? Or have you ever basked in the musty irony of walking by a Hot Topic in the mall and seeing a re-print of a vintage Bad Brains t-shirt selling for thirty dollars? The ham-fisted execution of counter or sub cultural artifacts by big wig corporate marketing experts may seem hilariously misguided to some of us, but despite how #woke we think we may be, hip advertising is much more prolific than we give it credit for.

All of you #hip #teens should tweet us your #onfleek #emojis

All of you #hip #teens should tweet us your #onfleek #emojis

Decoding the consumer habits of young people is a timeless question that is again rearing its ugly head as marketing strategists try to wrap their head around “the millenials.” The Millenials, or Gen Y, is officially defined as the number of people born between 1983 and 1992, and currently stands at about 77 million strong. Though concrete numbers are hard to come by, this generation is perceived to have a buying power that surmounts even that of the baby boomers, so getting ahead of the curve in regard to finding out how millennials spend  their money and where is becoming a lucrative endeavor.

Appealing to “the young folk” is certainly  not a new concept by any means. Usually marked by the 1960’s and the rise of strong, counter cultural social movements, advertising towards the latter half of the 20th century have focused their attention on marketing products as new and mold-breaking, rather than sterile or conservative. Though some historical accounts of the decade imply that advertisers were leeching off of the hedonistic vagabond mentality to push products, an implied directionality that author Abe Peck calls the move “from counterculture to over-the-counter culture,” others argue that a desire for more youthful, relatable advertising had been festering since the 1950’s [1]. In his 1997 publication The Conquest of Cool, author Thomas Frank says that most Americans, even before the 1960’s, felt frustratingly unrepresented by advertisements encouraging the white picket fences and white collar life that companies were selling them. “Never has advertising been so unwilling to acknowledge the myriad petty frustrations, the anger, the fear that make up so much of daily existence , consuming and otherwise,” says Frank. “Never has it insisted so dogmatically on such an abstractly glowing vision of American life. And never has it been so vulnerable to mockery”[2].

Nowadays it may be hard not to think of CBS or Columbia Records as "The Man", but circa 1967, they weren't your dads old record company (or so they wanted you to think).

Nowadays it may be hard not to think of CBS or Columbia Records as “The Man”, but circa 1967, they weren’t your dads old record company (or so they wanted you to think).

Even during the latter half of the 19th century, almost 100 years before the percieved congregation of what is hip and what is marketable, philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Fredrich Nietszche were postulating the role of “the aesthetic” and fashion as a tool of social unification.  Aesthetic philosopher Georg Simmel, drawing from the works of Kant, understood the utility of the fashionable and trendy, not only as a method of personal expression, but as a method of unity. For Simmel, there was a duality to fashion in that it allows us to express something deviant and personal while at the same time allowing us to feel a sense of community or belonging with those that share our fashion sense. That is, as we differentiate ourselves, we have a more obvious, visual way to identify others like us. In this context, a Simmelian explanation of fashion as something that is satisfying for how unique it is means advertising that emphasizes how individual and unique you’ll be for consuming a mass produced product not only makes sense to producers, but is something that is desired by consumers. You’re still awarded a sense of individuality and edginess, but without running the risk of negative backlash. In a Simmelian context, mass media, advertising, and the presence of branding on social media gives us instantaneous access to a breadth of new, fashionable concepts to draw inspiration from; even better, it imposes on us a bevy of objects and services to buy through which we can broadcast our new found individuality with others that are individuals just like us.

Whereas before advertisements appealed to consumers’ individuality by encouraging them to join the pepsi generation or fight the corporate machine by buying a Subaru Impreza, marketing teams can forego all of the grunt work of finding the next  big thing to capitalize because millennials have found it for them; memes. Instigated without much reason or notice, memes are usually thrust forth from the dregs of the internet like 4chan, Reddit, or Twitter and into the public sphere. What was once perceived as something unique to a small group becomes poked, prodded, and rationalized until it eventually gets formulaically explained on KnowYourMeme, or even better, gets its own write up on Business Insider. Much like Simmel’s notion of fashion, memes are dragged forth from the isolated few that are meant to enjoy it and splayed so widely across the internet that you can’t help but know what a lolcat is or wonder who was lying to this guy.

20 Minutes into The Commodification of Youth Culture for the Purpose of Generating Surplus Capital and they give you this look

20 Minutes into The Commodification of Youth Culture for the Purpose of Generating Surplus Capital and Chill and they give you this look

The idea of brands staking their profits and the livelihood of their employees on transient, viral social media phenomenon may sound crazy, but it’s not nearly as crazy as the fact that it’s working. According to a group of 1300 millennials surveyed by Elite Daily, best known as the premiere slimy click bait watering hole for millennials, 62% of those surveyed said they were more likely to purchase a product from a brand with a strong social media presence. 33% said they rely on social media sources for information about products compared to 3% who trusted TV or Print media advertisements. Perhaps more interestingly, 43% said they valued authenticity when consuming news or company information. Could the perception be that a “hip”, social media-centric advertisement gambit is being perceived as authentic?

Memes encapsulate the duality of Simmelian fashion and aesthetic; they’re the congregation of the nuance and insularity of an inside joke and the exponential proliferation of that which is in vogue to create a beast that is both personal and communal. They are an inside joke that can only be

They've become self-aware.

They’ve become self-aware.

understood if you know the formula — and everyone knows the formula.

And just as Simmel posited in Fashion, the popularization of what is fashionable is ultimately its undoing. As Simmel states in Fashion, “the very character of fashion demands that it should be exercised only by a portion of the given group… as fashion spreads, it gradually goes to its doom.”  Just as fashion trends emerge, rise, and then nosedive into obscurity like the candle that burns twice as bright, so too memes have a dismal shelf life, as evidenced by this research investigating the temporal dynamics of 150 different memes. But fret not, because for every meme that gains a bit of traction, there is sure to be a marketing intern somewhere out there ready to run it into the ground.

 

[1]Abe Peck, Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press (New York: Pantheon, 1985), pp. 164-165.

[2]Thomas Frank. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 48

 
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