Today is a guest essay from Timothy Dees. The following is the October 25th installment of his excellent Fact of the Day. Enjoy - insightful cultural analysis to follow. Tim, your last lines are some of what makes the biblical values of Jacob's Well so important to me...see you in Jersey soon.
Yours for truth, family, passion, hope and dependence on the one who instituted work, sets the solitude in families, gives us hope each day...even today - when I need it.
KARL MARX, THE OFFICE, ET AL
‘My work is an alienation of life, for I work in order to live, in order to obtain for myself the means of life. My work is not my life.’
This statement is a common sentiment today, but when a young Karl Marx wrote it down in 1844, it was novel expression of an idea that had been percolating since the Industrial Revolution. Marx’s idea became known as the theory of alienation. A fundamental gap had appeared between life and work. In a pre-industrial world, one grew food. If one did not rise daily to milk the cows and till the soil, that farmer would have nothing to eat. The farmer wanted to live, and he needed food for nourishment, so he grew potatoes, carrots, and beets. If the farmer wanted shoes, he made shoes, or perhaps he traded some beets to the cobbler for shoes. There was no division between the products of his work and the necessities of his life.
After the Industrial Revolution, however, mankind started spending twelve-hour days making shoes, or pressing buttons, or turning screws, and suddenly production was cut off from one’s needs. The worker had little personal interest in making hundreds of shoes, or pressing hundreds of buttons, or turning hundreds of screws, but the worker did it anyway, because that was the lot given to him by his society. The daily act of work became separated from survival.
Lately, the situation has become complicated further by the breakdown of traditional families. People are staying single well into their 30s, and the divorce rate teeters around 50%. Without a family to support, aimless individuals are further alienated from their work. People work in jobs they don’t care about, to make things that don’t matter, so they can buy things that they’re only half-convinced they need. Worst of all, they’re doing it alone.
Which brings us to the Scranton office of Dunder-Mifflin, a paper company, and its cast of employees. I mention this place because it’s the setting of the American incarnation of the television show The Office. While there is no appropriate term for it in English, Swedish has a term, kulturbaerer, which is used when something encapsulates the culture of its time. The Office is a kulturbaerer, and it is important in a way that television has only been a few times.
The American Office has a British predecessor, but the shows diverged quickly. The British Office centered around Ricky Gervais as David Brent, a numb-skull boss who always wanted to be funny. He wasn’t funny, however; he was grossly inappropriate, and much of the enjoyment of the show centered around watching the grimaces of the employees as they suffered their boss’s intolerable stupidity. The boss, however, is the protagonist. As such, it is a traditional dark comedy, finding humor in schadenfreude.
The show was innovative, using a documentary style, and it seemed a refreshing change from the cleaned-up simulacra of Friends or Seinfeld. Watching those shows, one couldn’t help but notice that they were divorced from reality (How do these people afford cavernous apartments in Manhattan? What do they do? Why are they so attractive?). In contrast, the British Office was filled with mildly unattractive people, going about their day-to-day work.
The American Office began by going in the same direction. Steve Carrell replaced Gervais as the boss (his name changed to Michael Scott), but the archetypes were the same. The first season had many grimace-inducing moments reminiscent of the British Office (including one particularly off-putting racist rant by Michael), and the rest of the ensemble existed mainly as set-up for Michael Scott’s unthinking viciousness.
But in the first episode of the second season, something fundamental changed, and the show went from being a second-rate retread of the British series to something culturally significant. It was in that episode that the protagonist ceased to be the boss and became Pam and Jim (played brilliantly by John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer). The episode centered around the annual Dundies awards, an awards show that Michael Scott puts on for his employees. Corporate refuses to allow open bar at the local Chili’s, so the mood is glum, and Michael’s inept comedy routine and third-rate karaoke leave the employees bored. At one point, Michael’s rendition of “Tiny Dancer” wharbles, and people begin to pelt him with food. He hangs his head and cancels the rest of the show.
But then Pam, in a drunken haze, begins cheering for him to come back. She claps and the office joins her, and Michael is eventually brought back. The party comes alive, the Dundees are awarded, and for a night at least, everything is wonderful.
At this point, the show is no longer about a stupid, inconsiderate boss and the decent people who put up with him. It’s about a group of decent people, who are forced into an insane, and at times unbearable situation, and the way they get through their day. Pam and Jim get through their days with pranks and stolen glances, Michael just wants friends, Stanley wants to send his kids to college, Meredith drinks too much, Ryan dreams of something better, and Dwight lives in delusions. Somehow, they all cope and find meaning and purpose in a job that is the essence of meaninglessness.
But this show is about more than just getting by in an alienated, meaningless workplace. It is also a romance. The Pam-and-Jim power-couple is the most credible post-feminist love story on television, and it represents a new iteration in male-female relations. From the Jane Austen days to the 1960s, love stories were about a dashing man pursuing a coy woman who was eventually won over by his irresistable perfection (it didn’t hurt that he tended to be rich and excessively handsome). With the sexual revolution, women took the driver’s seat, dictating the pace of the relationship and dominating the stammering, infantile man (Woody Allen and Adam Sandler are the patron saints of these sorts of stories).
With Pam and Jim, however, we have something new. It’s not a fiery love affair, it’s a de-sexed partnership. There is almost no talk of physical attraction between them, and the sort of erotic love that is never left to the imagination in mainstream movies would be unthinkable in this case. The sexual revolution came and went, and we’re left with these two: a receptionist and an affable salesman.
But the show isn’t just post-feminist, it’s post-everything. As Fitzgerald once said, “We were a generation who woke to find all wars fought, all gods dead,” and the generation of Pam and Jim has much in common with Fitzgerald’s Lost Generation. Pam and Jim, like myself, missed the turbulence of feminism, the Vietnam War, civil rights, and the sexual revolution, and now we’re left without anything but the vestigial structures of jobs, friends, and decreasingly) family. Cultural institutions have been deconstructed, and we have little left but a few sidelong glances between friends, and a meandering hope for something better.