I recently came across a rather awesome analysis on Ribbonfarm that adds some much-needed complexity to the basic dichotomy between vertical and horizontal models of corporate control. These fantastic and well-writ posts (The Gervais Principle I and II) have been hit up on Slashdot and have circulated far & wide for good reason. Like Christian Marazzi’s work that deftly summarizes the significance of language to capital – the way language informs the fluctuations of the stock market and global economy (see Capital and Language) – Venkat analyses the way in which language is ab/used by particular players in corporate organisations. He deploys his deft analysis to unravel bureaucratic power principles as well as propose a theory of microclass. And he accomplishes this all by taking as his primary example the hit TV series The Office — Ricky Gervais’ brilliant satire of water cooler politics and management mediocrity. Venkat’s analysis, informed by his research into theories of corporate management, complements Marazzi’s observation that
In the post-Fordist context, in which language has become in every respect an instrument of the production of commodities and, therefore, the material condition of our very lives, the loss of the ability to speak, of the “language capacity,” means the loss of belonging in the world as such, the loss of what “communifies” the many who constitute the community. (Marazzi, Capital and Language: 131).
In his first post, Venkat complexifies the horizontal/vertical models with a theory of microclass. The Sociopaths (senior mgmt), Clueless (middle mgmt) & Losers (bottomfeeders) are constituted by their ability (or lack thereof) to learn, engage with, and ultimately ab/use corporate language for their own ends. In short, Venkat’s analysis jives with Marazzi, Virno and Berardi’s claims concerning not only the significance of language to contemporary labour conditions – insofar as linguistic affect structures fluctations of the stock market – but its operational effacity, insofar as linguistic competence structures the very field of labour. In short, one’s subjectivity under cognitive labour is structured by one’s ability to process the linguistic matrix of capital (which of course says much about education and class composition, among other things, but also about the linguistic seduction of capital – the great mass of all those who, to rephrase Spinoza, fight to remain slaves).
In Autonomist theory, this centrality of linguistic operations, interlaced and communicated by way of mobile and networked technologies, has been called the general intellect, insofar as the intellectualization of labour via technics constitutes the overall condition of cognitive labour. In this increasing technicization of labour, linguistic competence becomes the measure of labour itself: it is the brain that becomes the machine or engine of (cognitive) labour. As I think I’ll comment on in an upcoming post, mind you, I think the significance of a functioning brain is overrated in cognitive labour and it is a living-dead brain or zombie labour that still constitutes the scenario for the majority of the workforce (one is required to think, but not think too much). I think Venkat captures something of the zombie labour hyperthesis in his breakdown of the Loser class into two subclasses (becoming-Sociopath and Clueless Losers) and by analysing the seemingly lost Clueless as the middle manageriat, i.e., as those who believe the most in the conditions of their own enslavement.
In his second post, Venkat breaks down language into Posturetalk, Powertalk, Babytalk & Gametalk, and details how it is ab/used by each class. Powertalk is the language of control and conquer used by Sociopaths; it works on multiple levels at once, communicating several meanings in discrete semantic utterances. Such communication is a poker game of words, where what is left unsaid determines the value of what is said, where parameters of the language game itself are relayed in the delivery of each utterance, and where ambiguity destabilizes erstwhile assurances. While the Clueless attempt to imitate Powertalk, they only fail to grasp the most superficial level of its meaning, and though they might deploy all the buzzwords, the Clueless can only speak Posturetalk – all copy and no depth, all bark and no bite. For Powertalk is only Powertalk if the speaker has table stakes — some actual informational capital to wager. In a similar way, Gametalk is what Losers like to talk to each other, which is basically showroom-style hot air; but as this is a language for Losers only, it holds no value, unlike the way in which Posturetalk signals that one is dealing with a Clueless class member. And in a truly brilliant move, Venkat outlines how Babytalk is not only what Sociopaths use to communicate with the Clueless – for the Clueless can’t grasp Powertalk – but Babytalk is also the language that Losers use to address their middle management superiors, which is why Losers are the breeding ground of Sociopaths as well as containing an exodus-class of what I will call “Carefrees” who know perfectly well the game but have no real interest in playing it. And in those rare instances where upper management Sociopaths talk directly to Loser minions, a variant form of Powertalk is used called Straight Talk — a direct and one-way command utterance with threatening overtones. Mind you it is also in such instances that a becoming-Sociopath Loser can demonstrate their knowledge of Powertalk and forge a path to senior management.
Like all great fiction, The Office models only what is more real than reality, the world in its representation, in its vicious deployments of language and power. One moment I particular dig in this worthy read (which I cannot do justice to here – do go and devour it) is when Venkat contrasts The Gervais Principle with the Dilbert Principle:
Scott Adams, seeing a different flaw in the Peter Principle, proposed the Dilbert Principle: that companies tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees to middle management to limit the damage they can do. This again is untrue. The Gervais principle predicts the exact opposite: that the most competent ones will be promoted to middle management. Michael Scott was a star salesman before he become a clueless middle manager. The least competent employees (but not all of them — only certain enlightened incompetents) will be promoted not to middle management, but fast-tracked through to senior management. To the sociopath level. (Venkat, Gervais Principle)
Venkat adds a subtle flavour here, though he isn’t quite acknowledging that both principles appear to be operational and correct. The Dilbert Principle applies in general: middle management is composed of the Clueless. That said, the truly incompetent remain as Losers – those forever loyal to the company but who will never achieve middle management as quite simply they do their menial jobs too well (though it’s hard to say who is more incompetent: the Losers who never get anywhere or the Clueless who believe they have gotten somewhere by becoming middle management but are just being played by the Sociopaths as a buffer between the upper management and the lumpenLosers). Indeed, it is the deployment of the Clueless as the buffer between the harsh and vicious world of the Sociopaths and the lumpenLosers that marks Venkat’s insight – for it also opens the door to possible action. Remove middle management, and a classic class antagonism reveals itself in all its possible violence. As Venkat puts it, the Clueless mediate between an otherwise untenable master/slave dialectic.
What I also dig about Venkat is that the Losers aren’t just “losers” in the usual, derogatory sense but are often composed of the completely Careless who couldn’t give a rat’s ass about this powergame – those coasting by who watch it unfold all around them and say to hell with it. The Careless Losers – the carefree, perhaps – have something else going on in their lives and see work for what it is: a distraction from what counts. In this sense, the Losers, as the biggest group that constitutes most of us, are composed of that “silent majority” that upholds a good deal of old fashioned anarchist sensibility: act as if the State/Corp doesn’t exist. In the indication of a blindspot within an organisation’s powergame environment, Venkat’s analysis suggests that other systems of power might lie elsewhere. This elsewhere keeps those with an ear to the outside constantly seeking an alternative means to living without working, and as Virno suggests, means that exodus (or the politics of disappearance) constitutes the general strategy of the (Loser) workforce.
The other strategy is, of course, to try and manipulate the system from the inside. And those with some sense of how to manipulate language (the Sociopaths) forge a path directly from Loserdom to senior management. Becoming-Sociopath Losers aren’t headhunted because they do their menial job well, but because they demonstrate (by subtle language signs) that they know that their job is worthless by the standards of other Sociopaths. By slacking in their work (getting others to do it for them or just plain deferring it) and putting the extra energy into getting ahead (manoeuvring and conniving), and taking advantage of risk-taking scenarios (playing the game), Sociopaths advance directly from Loser status to senior management — which does not necessarily imply that a Sociopath is bad. For if one is playing the powergame for different ends, such strategies are also the purview of the good. For this general assessment of power applies as much to NPOs and artist-run centres as it does to oil corporations and PR firms.
Check out how the way language plays into this sacking story recently sent to me (the author requested anonymity):
The most telling thing, in my 15-year design career, is I’ve never worked anywhere longer than two years. I’ve been made redundant once and been sacked one and a half times.
The first sacking came on a Friday evening completely out of the blue. It was at the end of the month, so it was nice and tidy for them. The boss had been out of the office all afternoon, walked in the office and asked to have a word with me outside the door. He simply said: “we’re going to let you go”— that was it. I walked away there and then. He did my colleague, the same way, 3 minutes later. Needless to say, it was ruthless and illegal. There was no dismissal process followed.
However, at the time, the job market was buoyant and I got a way better job (oxymoron) shortly afterwards. Needless to say, that company has been erased from my CV. It’s a futile act but it feels the most dignified response to how I was treated— walk away, shake the dust from your shoes and take back control.
The ‘point 5’ sacking was more gentle and evolved over the course of a month. It came to a head and can be summarised in one sentence. They said: “I think you need to move on”. I agreed and left at the end of the week.