February 11, 2020

KROLL | Stop Watching ‘The Office’

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I spent my freshman summer trapped in a big, grey office building. My mornings consisted of sweaty rides in a dented Prius and coffee that tasted of travel mug plastic. Days of hunching over filing cabinets and flirting with disinterested baristas came and went. The real excitement came in the evenings, when I got to leave.

For an odd couple of weeks, when all my friends mysteriously went quiet, I spent my nights binge watching The Office in my basement. It’s a comfortable show, if nothing else. You never risk boredom with it, so long as you don’t watch past the seventh season.

After the second week of this habit, though, I realized something disconcerting. For 15 days, my imagination had never really left the workplace. During the day, my mind was occupied with the office in which I was compelled to make small talk and copies. By night, it was occupied by the sleepy, irreverent one in Scranton, Pa. Even as my mind wandered, it was set against the backdrop of taupe carpeting and faux wood paneled desks. Still, I kept watching.

What made the workplace comedy so attractive to me? Sure, the benign familiarity of office aesthetics is comforting. But isn’t that familiarity borne out of the necessity of labor to our survival? Maybe the nearly Pavlovian association of the workplace and contentment doesn’t have that much to do with aesthetics at all. Maybe it has more to do with our ideas about worth. Maybe the comfort I feel watching The Office or VEEP has just as much to do with plotline or setting as it does with the subtle backdrop of productivity.

In our culture, what else occupies as monolithic a position of legitimacy as productivity? At Cornell especially, so much of our lives are devoted to improvement and production. Of course, some of that work feels undesirable, like finishing a problem set in Uris at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday. But some of it feels good, or at least fulfilling. It’s certainly not inconceivable that we, in our leisure, would passively seek out the same feelings of legitimacy or fulfillment that we chase during the daytime.

But how far are we willing to let that rationality run? We ostensibly stand to benefit from a disciplined work ethic in our professional lives, but in our free time it serves no purpose. From a stranger’s view, some of our habits might even look spooky. We spend days in offices wishing we were elsewhere, and then retreat to living rooms to reproduce the same environment in our heads.

In 1963, Siegfried Kracauer published an essay called “The Mass Ornament.” To spare you the details, the piece draws on Kracauer’s observations on a then-famous, but now long-forgotten, group of line dancers called The Tiller Girls. Kracauer remarked at how every dancer’s body was starkly functionalized, serving a specific purpose within a constructed whole (e.g. a kickline). The formation, he wrote, bore many similarities to the assembly line.

He concluded that our culture had come to reproduce the values and procedures borne of our industry. This relationship, Kracauer emphasized, is not benign. If our work is reproduced in our entertainment, doesn’t it get harder to escape it?

I think The Office might be doing the same thing as The Tiller Girls. Just like the line dancers reproduced the production processes of their day, The Office reproduces the production processes of ours. It’s just a little bit less subtle. Of course, that doesn’t make it inherently bad. But it’s important to escape work sometimes, both physically and mentally. We don’t have to devote our entire lives to the production that we engage with — be it cultural, industrial or social.

Through our socialization, we learn a system of right and wrong that is irrevocably tied to the market economy. Productivity is good. Laziness is bad. Our culture absorbs these value judgements, and spits them back at us didactically. It’s beside the point that the sitcom’s characters are often incompetent or insubordinate. The point is that we believe with such conviction that discipline is good, work is admirable and productivity is legitimate that we imagine offices during leisure time for comfort.

Our culture-industry is structured such that content is tailored to suit viewers’ tastes and preferences. The workplace comedy’s popularity didn’t come about spontaneously. We voted with our streams, clicks and imaginations to precipitate it.

 

Julian Kroll is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at jkroll@cornellsun.com. Losing My Edge runs every other Wednesday this semester.