Work is a Horror, or The Humor/Horror Of Social Interactions: “The Office” and Cannibalistic Wendingo Dinner Parties
For a few very long months, I was a perma-temp for a music licensing company. The horror of doing data entry of usage reports for a commercial music licensing company was this: to behave for hours at a time in a manner contrary to my desired manner of living. I burned out after only a few weeks, fell into a depression, and began using web-based e-mail to send early drafts of a novel back and forth from different web-based e-mail clients, invisible to the corporate overlords at the time, at their level of technology, while spending only an hour or two actually performing the miserable tasks to which I was assigned. I was a cog, which is not who I am. I prefer to solve problems, create new expressions and ideas, and in other respects act in a manner that involves being innovative, not being rote or mechanical. I have never been able to successfully watch more than an episode or two of the popular TV Show, “The Office”, at a time because it is too close to the horror of what I felt at that one point in my career, in an office, where the social constraints of the “Big Other” in that situation dictated a constant string of behaviors that were directly contrary to who I actually was as a person, and as a worker. In this horror, I tell stories of my time there – funny stories! Without this medication of laughter shared, I don’t feel like I can re-appropriate control of that portion of my life I mostly consider lost time and suffering. But, this is not to be a discussion of therapy, rather a discussion of horror and comedy as they relate to some basic teachings of Lacan…
Despite being the embodiment of the “Big Other” as the boss and therefore the central crux of all social interactions in the building, Michael (Steve Carrell), the boss of the US-version of “The Office” for the first seven seasons, was completely immune to the notion of behaving in a manner consistent with his role in the social group. He was supposed to be driven by profit to motivate his employees to succeed as workers. Instead, he was entirely driven by the personal need for everyone to love one another. In this, the true horror of “The Office” is not that the structures of authority demanding behavior contrary to individual group members’ personal identity beneath their veneer of proscribed behaviors. The horror was that their code of symbols and behaviors socially proscribed by years of behavioral training in the workplace was constantly undermined by someone incapable of actually perceiving the appropriate coded behaviors. His acts to “lead” were all just symbolic grasps for interpersonal relationships that he, himself, desired as part of his personal identity as a “cool, approachable, popular” or otherwise happening “guy.” The fact that he behaved in this manner also kept him from experiencing those human connections. He was not operating consistent to the social situation in which he was operating. He cared more about being liked than he did about being an effective business leader. No matter how bumbling his attempts at validating his desire for love, the situation would be more comfortable for everyone around him if his bumbling attempts at validating an ideology were rooted in his accepted social role as a corporate leader instead of a social sponge. We have plenty of cultural symbols and codes developed to deal with churlish bosses that do not care if they are liked, and these are often said to be respected even if they are not liked. We have few social rules and codes to deal with churlish bosses that only care about being liked. That MBA programs seem to care about such social lubrication, inventing whole pseudo-languages to disguise the unpleasant messages they have to deliver, and inspire their workers to operate counter to their best interests through harder work, only serves as a foil by which the audience appreciates the character of Michael, who has been duped by the very books and seminars he has supposedly spent too much time devouring. Michael embraces the mask at the surface this pseudo-language, of people getting along and becoming a team, at the expense of what this language is actually designed to disguise.
In this, then, the horror – and the laughter – comes from the misreading of the relationship between the self, the others in the office, and the Big Other of expected social norms. Play this same relationship without the laughs, then, and achieve a sense of the “Other” that horror writers aspire to achieve. I am thinking, here, about “Wendingo” by Michaela Morissette. In this short story, first published in Weird Tales Magazine, a character falls in with a group of strange gourmands who seem to be preparing their own bodies for the perfect feast at the apex of their bodies’ flavor potential and social station. In this, the social codes and symbols of preparing food for others is taken to an extreme. Ultimately, the host of the dinner party is offering up himself to his guests as a memorable feast. The social codes and symbols of the “Big Other” of expected actions are altered. However, the people who participate in these feasts still obey all the rules and expectations of a “normal” dinner party. They are gracious guests, eager to participate. Like any dinner party, there are the catty gossips that eventually peel away the veneer of love to reveal their sharp teeth. Still, in this case, the horror comes from the excessive misinterpretation of a “Big Other” idea of self-sacrifice for the enjoyment of guests at the expense of what that is actually intended.
Both of these narratives serve as a form of critique of a social structure that is often endured and rarely enjoyed. Dinner parties are social commitments oft-spoofed for their “fakery” by an impersonator of British artist Banksy in the film “Banksy’s Coming to Dinner” featuring a very fake-feeling dinner party that is also, at the same time, believable as a real dinner party because of the fake-feeling nature of everyone’s interactions full of facades and innuendo that are all seemingly power plays, built upon a fake actor portraying one of the art world’s sharpest social critics. If it felt like a “real” dinner party, it would not be believable! Why a dinner party? Senators and politicians and workers who would align their interests closer to their employer meet over dinner all the time to bond and build power relationships that can be exploited for personal gain. In this, upwardly-mobile society is no different, except when they are Wendingoes. In that case, the greatest height one can achieve becomes an almost sexual destruction, where the parts of the host are prepared for the feast, and passed around to the guests. A fake Banksy, like fake crab meat, is handed around for consumption, and praised as if it were the real thing for the social codes demand it. What’s worse than the fact that this whole event is a sham with a fake Banksy is that it is a terrifically dull film. The only interesting piece in the whole thing is the question of whether Banksy is real or not. As soon as the viewer concludes that this is a sham, it becomes moot to wait until the end where no climax worthy of the name awaits them. Please, don’t feel compelled to investigate this film. It’s fake. It’s painful. I shouldn’t even bring it up.
I try to imagine, then, Michael from the Office attending one of these voracious gatherings in Morisette’s story, expecting Joan Collin’s sumptuous country estate and social heights. Michael, ever the bumbling rube, has no idea what he’s eating, which is probably Joan Collins herself, but he is compelled by his comically-impossible pathological need to fit in to any social setting, to try and make the best of the feast of his host’s own flesh, over-praising it and declaring loudly how much he enjoys it even as he is vomiting into the nearest vase and out every open window. By the end of the night, he would be willing to sacrifice his own body to the Wendingos, to satiate his own hunger for love. The Wendingoes, of course, would graciously accept out of their social code, but in private would demarcate who is and who is not really a Wendingo by gossiping about the failure of Michael to understand that he is not really ripe.
In this, I am not far off when I think of the rest of the cast of the Office as flesh-devouring Wendingos. One of the great mysteries of The Office is that the characters seem trapped there, with no other economic options, working until they die, at the peak of their professional development, leaving behind only a memorial brunch. The corporation devours their years, even as they, in turn, devour the money from the company. To what purpose? Are they professionally fulfilled? No. Are they performing some important service to mankind? No. Are they even recycling? Maybe some of their paper is recycled, but I assume such paper comes at a premium and is often not purchased. Do they even like each other? Mostly not. Despite a couple love interests that develop, many of these characters would prefer not to hang out with each other if they met in a social setting. Even the love relationships that develop feel more like prison sex than actual, plausible love. The characters live in their fishbowl, and must find love where it is found, not where it is desired.
Michael’s moment of escape finds the total acceptance of love with a fiancé which “saves” the character of Michael from this continued purgatory where his behavior is primarily marked by his constant quest for love from all around him. In the Morisette story, the narrator is saved by a realization that the love is false, and the ones who would devour her do not love her.
Consumption, of course, is a major theme of the story of the Morisette’s Wendingoes and a major term for corporations selling their goods. In this, I wonder if the creepiness of the Wendingoes is also similar to the creepiness of management’s attempts at altering the language of death into something friendly and palatable. By wrapping inherently painful, harmful, terrifying things in a language designed to be innocuous and bloodless… Well, is that so different from the Wendingoes at their dreadful, sacrificial dinner parties? I think not. The thing that is supposed to be painful and horrible is wrapped in a veneer of social codes that speak of love and joy and peace…
In comedy, in our office water coolers, we are allowed the relief of laughter to medicate the things that make us miserable. Laughter is a social action, mostly, where we share things that make us laugh with others to spread the laughter. Horror is often not treated in such a manner. Generally, gruesome horror is contained alone, in a personal manner. This, too, is encoded in the language of modern employment. “NSFW” means things that acknowledge the reality of the body, in all its scatological, sexual, grotesque glory. Comedic things, however, are passed among office mates as a form of social bonding. In this, laughter medicates what is actually the horrifying boredom, dislocation, and disassociation of the human entering into a situation where their sense of self, their relationship to the other notions of self around them, and their sense of the “Big Other” of the shared situation have fallen into disalignment with each other. This is, perhaps, the source of both comedy and horror. If not all of it, than at least much of it. Perhaps only some of it. Still, it seems to be the essence of it, to me.
Working in my own version of The Office, I woke one day to discover I was nothing but a dung beetle: a chittering, mechanical creature of pure instinct who rolls feces into a ball for food. Is it horrible to say that about working? Perhaps. At another job, in another office, I woke one day to discover that I was nothing but a gargoyle, funneling the rain through my own mouth, ingesting all the poisons, and unable to lick the water clean.
Work is a horror. Why would anyone wish to do anything that didn’t make the world a better place?
At least, for most of us, it is a horror that we can laugh about. The starving orphans of the world, and the enslaved ones, are not even given that peace.
“Lacan started his “return to Freud” with the linguistic reading of the entire psychoanalytic edifice, encapsulated by what is perhaps his single best known formula: “the unconscious is structured as a language.” The predominant perception of the unconscious is that it is the domain of irrational drives, something opposed to the rational conscious self. For Lacan, this notion of the unconscious belongs to the Romantic Lebensphilosophie (philosophy of life) and has nothing to do with Freud. The Freudian unconscious caused such a scandal not because of the claim that the rational self is subordinated to the much vaster domain of blind irrational instincts, but because it demonstrated how the unconscious itself obeys its own grammar and logic – the unconscious talks and thinks. The unconscious is not the reservoir of wild drives that has to be conquered by the ego, but the site where a traumatic truth speaks. Therein resides Lacan’s version of Freud’s motto wo es war, soll ich werden (where it was, I shall become): not “the ego should conquer the id”, the site of the unconscious drives, but “I should dare to approach the site of my truth”. What awaits me “there” is not a deep Truth I have to identify with, but an unbearable truth I have to learn to live with.”