Friday, April 13, 2012

Interview with Tony Osborne, Author of 'Greed is Good’ and Other Fables: Office Life in Popular Culture

The book is a reaction to what I term the “Great Heist of 2008”—i.e., the so-called Wall Street bailouts. This blatant looting of the U.S. Treasury represents the crowning achievement of business culture:  deregulation, which is essentially lawlessness and the co-optation of “the people’s” government by narrow interests. 

Q: What "message" do you want to communicate?

First, the “greed-is-good” ethos has become the dominant ideology of our day—indeed, it dictates official U.S. government policy—but it did not suddenly erupt in the 1980s and poison the body politic to the extent that our economy is currently driven by usury and fraud, which we politely term the “finance industry.”  Rather, this virulent ideological strain was merely one of the many competing narratives that have comprised business culture since at least the Civil War.  For most of our history, this type of buccaneering was tamped down or checked by laws and by ethical and moral constraints, namely that our large corporations and business leaders were the stewards of our nation—not its pillagers.

And second, business is not inherently bad or pernicious. Office life does not need to be the gray, dull purgatory or the weird hierarchical head-trip that many experience it to be.  There are many alternatives to the way things are today, roads not taken.  And these alternative paths are preserved in that vast heterogeneous body of images and stories we call popular culture.    

Q: What was the highlight of your research?

Quite honestly, the highlights of my research comprise my book.  Which is to say, I tried to fashion a story from the most interesting and vivid fragments of popular culture—from Dickens onward—that I could find.  However, one of my most salient discoveries was of an obscure genre called the “orphan” or “sponsored” or “industrial” film.  Two of these stand out: a silent corporate training film from 1928 called Success in Business; and a gripping anti-union film that Jam Handy (the greatest industrial filmmaker) made for GM in 1945 entitled  The Open Door:  The Story of Foreman Jim Baxter His Family and His Job, which rivals Hollywood features in drama and production values.

Q: In the course of your research, what discovery surprised you the most?

There was so much practical advice and wisdom contained in stories about office life.  For example, in mining William H. Whyte’s 1956 best-seller, The Organization Man, which is a polemic about conformity and corporate climbing, I came across an anecdote that initially repelled me.  Yet, the more I lived with it, the more I came to appreciate its utility.  Disapprovingly, Whyte cites the widespread critical approval of the surprise ending of The Caine Mutiny (Herman Wouk’s 1951 novel about World War II)  as evidence of the public’s blindness to the malaise of conformity.  One of Wouk’s characters concludes that bucking the system is wrong, saying, “I see we were in the wrong [to court martial the unstable and inept Captain Queeg].  . . . once you get an incompetent ass of a skipper—and it’s a chance of war—there’s nothing to do but serve him as though he were the wisest and the best, cover his mistakes, keep the ship going, and bear up.”  Given that pervasive incompetence is the rule in all spheres, I believe there is wisdom in these words.     

Q: What surprises readers/others the most about your research?

Stories about office life are so relevant and interesting.  Some have commented that offices are psychic battlefields—the modern version of the western frontier of old—fields of unrecognized heroism.  Indeed, the office rivals the bedroom as a dramatic setting.

Q: How did your research change your outlook on office life and popular culture?

I learned that “office life” transcends physical setting; it is more of a mindset than a place.  Office culture is a cluster of ideas, a conquering philosophy that has dictated social norms and the way we have organized society and structured our lives.  Think, for example, of such normative concepts as the weekend, 9-to-5, happy hour, business attire, business writing, and business etiquette.  Like it or not—and personally, I don’t like it at all—many universities today are modeled after corporations, and what they teach is influenced by what administrators and professors believe businesses want in potential hires.

Q: How have people reacted to your book and/or the ideas you set forth? Is it what you hoped for, or is there more work to be done?

The chapter on typologies—the types of personalities one encounters in organizations—seemed to resonate with people, and some have commented, “I know that type, I had a boss just like that.”  Others have said they have a new appreciation for what they had regarded as mere popular entertainment because they see my point that commercial appeal doesn’t preclude artistic or philosophical seriousness.  For example, the Kate Hepburn/Spencer Tracy romantic comedy from 1957, Desk Set, articulates Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus manifesto about using machines to liberate the worker.

I’m pleased that people are starting to recognize the power of popular culture and its witty and trenchant critical bite.  I believe that the demarcation between popular and “serious” culture is largely artificial and snobbish.  How would you categorize Tolstoy, for instance, particularly after Oprah turned Anna Karenina into a “new” best-seller through her TV book club?  In my opinion, high and low cultures are largely marketing designations.
Q: What's next for you?

I want to do an extended essay or a book on the genealogy of a musical riff or phrase, which I view as analogous to the deep structure of linguistic syntax.  The style of the phrase—how it is accented and used or “meant”—may change over the decades, but these are merely surface manifestations of the same deep structure.  I have in mind a phrase played by Blind Lemon Jefferson in the 1920s, which I believe occurs in transmuted form in the playing of Charlie Christian (late 30s, early 40s), Chuck Berry (1950s), and Jimi Hendrix (1960s).

My aim is to use this phrase as a microcosm of larger cultural changes throughout the decades and to show that style is itself a type of content, a bearer of meaning.

1 comment:

  1. I'm currently reading Mr. Osborne's book. Quite fascinating. This book is proof that Santayana was right: he who fails to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. Seems like the same stuff comes around because people allow greed and hubris to make them forget what they should be remembering such as living life by the Golden Rule, and I don't mean the "he who has the gold makes the rules" nonsense either. I think what I appreciate most about this book is how he goes into the world of literature and shows how art truly does reflect life, even life in the business world. I hadn't thought of Bartleby the Scrivener in near 20 years since I went to college. Reading the book inspired me to re-visit that story, and look up some of the others mentioned. So I will definitely recommend this book to anyone trying to make sense of out business ethics and attitudes.