Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Horrors of Employment

Fans of horror, science fiction and fantasy entertainment must know at some level that this material provides an escape—a distraction at least—from terrors that are all too real in everyday life.  Few will be thinking about unpaid bills, a chronic illness, neighborhood crime, global climate change, or the 2016 election while reading the following:

•“It was hairless, and slug-like in shape and in texture.  As it advanced, its forepart reared itself from the ground, like a snake about to strike, and it fastened on him…” (Negotium Perambulans, by E.G. Benson)

•“Another interval, and then, without warning, I witnessed the awful and unexplainable disintegration of the shadow, which seemed to break gently and easily into many different shadows ere it faded from view.  I hesitate to describe the manner, or specify the places, in which this singular disruption, this manifold cleavage, occurred.” (The Return of the Sorcerer, by Clark Ashton Smith)

•“I told you that it had padded mechanically toward me out of the narrow passage and had stood sentry –like at the entrance…It had been made a sentry for punishment, and it was quite dead—besides lacking head, arms, lower legs , and other customary parts of a human being.” (The Mound, by Zealia Bishop with H.P. Lovecraft)

Readers can certainly think of many other examples from novels, short stories and movies.  Perhaps these images are in fact not so much an escape or distraction as a displacement of our fears into the realm of metaphor—a process similar to the creation of dreams.  Some have proposed—your humble blogger among them—that weird fiction, (especially horror fiction) is an artful documentation of cultural nightmares at a given point in history.

One particular nightmare that seems especially prevalent in America right now is the corporate takeover or downsizing of our workplaces.  Perhaps you have seen the 2009 movie Up In The Air, with George Clooney, or Ben Stiller’s more recent film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013).  Both contain fairly realistic and disturbing scenes of the impact of corporate acquisitions on individual employees.   (In Clooney’s film, some of these scenes are almost too painful to watch.)  Technological changes and economic forces that seem beyond our control drive many of these wrenching changes. 

But I strongly suspect at least one of the Seven Deadly Sins is at play, namely greed.  As in all else, “the devil is in the details.”  Another of the Seven Deadly Sins that may be implicated is wrath, but more about this later.

We read about these depressing events in the news, or hear about them from friends and family who have been hurt by layoffs, firings, and “increased efficiency.”  Entire communities are affected.  Closer to home, my state has been devastated over the years by the decline of the automobile industry.   Our general response, if our jobs are still secure, is probably some version of “There but for the grace of God, go I.”  This keeps us calm—“Keep Calm and Carry On”—until the corporation arrives at your office. 

Which in my case, it has.  

About two weeks ago, the tiny company where I have worked for over a decade was acquired by a much, much larger corporation.  This has not been a hostile or unfriendly takeover—our new colleagues have been sensitive, respectful and knowledgeable.  By and large, the corporation’s representatives are people drawn from the same occupational field and share with us many similar experiences and perspectives.  For our younger staff, there are now opportunities and resources that were not available to them in a small company.   So far, our integration with the larger organization has been more or less peaceful, friendly—and relentless.

It is impossible to resist the temptation to quote the Borg, those robotic agglomerations of man and machine in Star Trek: The Next Generation—“Resistance is futile.  Prepare to be assimilated.”  But we have not lost any people yet—in most cases, folks we have known and worked with for many years—and the primary adaptation has been to learn new bureaucratic procedures that will probably help us become more honest, timely and focused in the long run.  Admittedly, there has been a longstanding need for reform and upgrading of the way we do things in our office.  But we are being re-made, which for some of us is a terrifying experience.

The Borg are a perfect example of collective fears being displaced into a horror metaphor.  Why are they so often quoted in this context?  There has to be a connection between the increasing acquisition, consolidation and downsizing of American companies and the appearance of the malevolent cyborgs in the Star Trek franchise.

The Marxist in me says:  “Things like this can happen because workers do not own the means of production.”  In fact, in my company, the means of production have been sold right out from underneath us to people we did not know or ever meet.  (Headquarters is hundreds of miles from here, in another state.)  So there is considerable anxiety among our staff because of this sense of powerlessness and lack of control over recent events.

However, in addition to the Marxist in me is another evil entity, jostling with the Marxist for control of my collective soul.  And here is where the aforementioned Seven Deadly Sins come in again.  Now we are talking about wrath.  I confess that the opportunities that have come to me from the corporate takeover appeal to my inner totalitarian.  The acquisition allowed me a promotion and some degree of increased authority, more than I ever had previously.  And so now I am tempted to impose extreme order, discipline, and unquestioning obedience to my will—identical I hope with the corporate will—in the service of a grand project:  the extermination of all trace of the original company’s culture and ways of doing things.  (Plus, I have some old scores to settle.)

To succeed in such a compassionate field as the human services requires tremendous cunning and ruthlessness—and the devil is in the details of all of this.  Mercifully, the company to which we now belong appears to have effective checks and balances to stifle any of my inclinations towards tyranny and grandiosity.

In the 1950s, following the advent of the “Golden Age of Science Fiction”, popular horror and science fiction entertainments in America reflected fears of nuclear war and communist invasion.  Metaphors included dozens of marauding atomically mutated monsters and clandestine attack by strange creatures from other planets.  In H.P. Lovecraft’s day, anxiety about immigrants from foreign lands and the internal migration of African-Americans into northern cities helped generate visions of cultural subversion and resuscitation of pagan gods and religions.  How will 21st Century American fearfulness about rapid technological and economic change be depicted in its contemporary weird fiction?  What will our workplace nightmares look like?

In America at least, corporations are considered people in a legal sense.  And they have feelings, just as each of us does.  (I for one would like to avoid upsetting corporate feelings.)  Considerable research suggests that people, collectively and individually, need three basic elements to feel reasonably happy as employees:  a sense of autonomy, meaningful work, and most importantly, to be among people who like and support them.  Nothing I have seen so far—except in my own depraved human heart—suggests that our new colleagues feel any differently.  Autonomy, meaningfulness, companionship—these are what keep "working stiffs” like us, well—flexible.  And alive.    

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