Professionalism and Alienation

I recently heard (or perhaps instigated) someone at work talking about how proper attire promotes professionalism. My faithful readers will recall that I, as a fashion anarchist, have commented on Jeffrey Tucker’s suggestion that people should dress properly at work (Bourbon for Breakfast, Chapter 37).

Now to tackle the tangent idea that a dress code promotes professionalism. First, if professionalism is meant in the narrow sense of an individual’s competence to complete the tasks at hand with rigor, efficiency, and integrity, the fashion anarchist wins this one easily. Obviously, my engineering or accounting or design skills are not affected every time I change clothes.

If professionalism is meant in the general sense – the sense that it is generally easier to maintain professional relations where people are dressed professionally – this is a little trickier. On this level, I say good riddance to professionalism, which has been a scourge on human contact for some 300 hundred years.

The Age of Bourgeois Capitalism, which began in roughly the 18th century, could also be called the Age of Professionalism.  In the previous age, the frame of reference for human relations was the landed hierarchy of commoners, gentry, aristocracy and various subsets. Doctors and lawyers and such were generally commoners, subject to much mirth and ridicule in the literatures of the day. Even where respected, their professions (or one might call them “occupations” in that pre-professional age) conferred no class status. As bourgeois capitalism replaced landed hierarchies as the defining scaffold of power, the “professions” came to confer the kind of class status we see today, with grandmas encouraging grandkids to grow up to be doctors or lawyers (and not, on good authority of Waylon and Willie, cowboys, those residual personae of the land). The old frame of reference for human relations in the landed order – things like de facto respect for those above you in the hierarchy and generosity towards those below you in the hierarchy – was replaced by the public sphere paradigm to “behave professionally.”

“Professional behavior” presupposes human connections that are less vertical and more horizontal/democratic, and that may well be a step forward toward the ideal of a human community of mutual fulfillment, but it comes at a cost. The cost is alienation. Human relations becomes the “business of human relations.” When Karl Marx says that under capitalism “human relations take on the fantastic form of relations between things” (Capital, Vol. 1), this can be applied on the social as well as the economic level.  Human relations become a little bit icier. The other person is objectified, which enables us to treat him or her as an object in some market-driven game and not as a concrete human being. One scene in The Godfather (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, screenplay Coppola and Mario Puzo) nicely encapsulates human relations in the Age of Professionalism. Tessio has betrayed Michael and now realizes that Michael has discovered the deed and set him up to be killed. Tessio, knowing the end is near, tells Tom: “Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him.” Tom replies with some pathos, “He understands that,” and then goes forward with the hit. Lift the veil on professionalism’s polite exterior, and this is the model of human relations you have underneath. It brings everyone one step closer to the version of human identity manifested in the “officials” of Kafka’s novels, who epitomize ad absurdum the sloughing off of all human responsibility in the execution of the office.

The alienation that takes place in the Age of Professionalism indeed gives us another reason to look to the Luddite/technophobe point of view. In particular, the technophobe distrust of mechanization may raise valid points about the impact of technology not just on labor markets but on human relations generally. If professionalism takes a subjective toll on the fullness of human relations, new technologies, without moral steerage, can give a kind of exoskeleton to the process of alienation, abstracting us from the human warmth and human consequences of our actions. The person who pushes a button in Nevada to launch a drone strike on a Pakistani village and then stops by Walmart on the way home probably does not see his actions the same way as one who had to stand toe to toe and push the steel blade into his opponent’s belly.

Now for the optimistic conclusion: In our collective reach for higher ideals, professionalism has served its purpose, weaning us away from hierarchies that were antithetical to the fullest form of human relations and giving us a basis for something more democratic and fully reciprocal. But we have paid a cost in terms of the objectification of, and alienation from, our fellows. It’s time take the next turn, put professionalism to bed, and reinvest full humanness into our relationships, even into our relationships in the workplace and with remote clients and customers. And one way to start that slow tectonic shift is to gently undermine the professionalism paradigm by bringing, so far as we can manage it, a little fashion anarchy into the workplace.  It might look funny, but it beats becoming characters in a Kafka novel.

Von Trier’s Melancholia

A friend with whom I’ve had long and beautiful talks about romantic versus classical ideals led me into a discussion recently of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, which reminded me of a third pole that in my mind is equidistant from the other two: the existentialist pole. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is clearly not classical in sensibility, as there is nothing rational or tranquil about her relationship to the world. But nor does she represent a romantic world view. Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, for example, represents a romantic world view. Dracula has an all-devouring passion that transgresses all limits – religious, rational, moral – all boundaries shatter before his excessive passion. This is romanticism in its Byronic/Blakean form but with additional attention to the moral dangers that Byron and especially Blake downplayed. The existentialist is in a way the opposite. The world seems drained of meaning, of passion, of emotion, of any kind of authentic sentimental connection to others. Justine’s existentialist mindset (not that she chose this mindset but she expresses it) would find Coppola’s Dracula a bit ridiculous for putting so much frenzied importance on an emotional bond to a woman. Dracula’s attitude implies that there can be enormous meaning in the world, that enormous passion is justified. Justine’s problem is the opposite.

Justine’s foil in Von Trier’s film, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), shows that even our new tripolar model – classical, romantic, existentialist – falls short. Claire indeed represents a value system that stands in primary conflict to Justine’s, but Claire’s world view is neither classical, romantic, nor existentialist; it is a fourth pole, best labeled as the “sentimental world view” – where all human values hover back to the sensible, sentimental, domestic forms of bonding that hold families together.

So Justine and Claire force me into this final sweep on the broad strokes of Western cultural history. If we generally think of the classical ideal as symmetrical, rational, stoical, poised, and the romantic ideal as passionate, excessive, overwrought, suprarational, one can hypothesize a pendulum swing through periods of European cultural history, from classical Greece and Rome to the romantic tendencies of the Medieval era, to the classical Renaissance, romantic Baroque, then neo-classical/Enlightenment, then Romanticism-proper in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With 19th-century realism, something changes. The ideal that centers the symbolic economy of great Victorian novels by Dickens and others is neither classical nor romantic but sentimental, and it traces back to an underrepresented moment in cultural history, the “Cult of Sensibility” that emerged in 1760s England and Scotland. The Cult of Sensibility sprouted up alongside Romanticism as a reaction against the rational symmetries of the neoclassical aesthetic. But whereas Romanticism-proper favored excessive passion and a power of imagination that stretched beyond all rational boundaries, the Cult of Sensibility favored the tender emotions that could bond people together in the domesticated bliss of their own little gardens. So although Romantics and Sensibility writers shared a rejection of stoical reason as a touchstone of human values, they produced quite different kinds of heroes. Romanticism would produce powerfully ambiguous heroes from Byron’s own Manfred and Childe Harold to Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights and Coppola’s Dracula (and one might even reclaim Milton’s Satan as Romantic hero, as Blake and Percy Shelley did quite explicitly). Sensibility would produce the tender domestic heroes of 18th-century writers like Sarah Fielding and Henry Mackenzie, who were laying the groundwork for the sentimental novels of Dickens and others.

With those four poles, we at least have a more complete heuristic model for cultural analysis. E.g., in Coppola’s Dracula, Mina struggles between romantic (Dracula) and sentimental (Jonathan) options. The symbolic economy of Von Trier’s Melancholia is energized by the conflict between existentialist (Justine) and sentimental (Claire) world views. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein shakes the model in its own way, with Victor Frankenstein representing a compound of romantic and classical, evincing not only the excess passion and overwrought idealism of the romantic but also a more classical trust in reason and science as his methodology; Elizabeth in that novel, on the other hand, represents the sentimental ideal of tender domestic emotions (and the arc of the plot would seem to validate Elizabeth’s point of view).

But I believe I’ve exceeded the reasonable limits of the blog entry format, so I’ll end with a simple solicitation. If anyone has read this far without becoming overly resentful, please remind me to write a sequel on the following topic: Romantic and Existentialist — Two Forms of Melancholia and Two Forms of Darkness. (Sequel is here.)

Coppola’s Dracula

Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) demonstrates nicely why film directors should never stay “true to the book.” Film and literature are different media, each with its own characteristic strengths and limitations, and directors ignore that at their peril. A film cannot compete with a novel on the novel’s own terms and vice versa.

Coppola’s Dracula is at its weakest when it tries to stay too close to the book. For example, Coppola retains all five protagonists. Other film versions of Dracula trim this configuration down to achieve the greater unity and focus that is required for basically a two-hour experience in the theater. Coppola would have done well to do the same.

On the other hand, Coppola’s film succeeds spectacularly when he takes the greatest liberties with the story. The first ten minutes of the film is all Coppola’s invention, and it sets up a uniquely interesting Dracula (Gary Oldman). Don’t get me wrong. Each director, wittingly or not, plays on particular facets of the character. E.g. we saw in the Bela Lugosi character (dir. Tod Browning) a kind of metaphysical threat commensurate with the black-and-white medium, we saw in the Jack Palance character of the 1970s (dir. Dan Curtis) more of a flesh-and-blood cruel masculinity, and we see in Gary Oldman’s character a perfect conflation of romantic hero and gothic villain. Despite the title of Coppola’s film, Oldman’s romantic count, who courts the women he loves and is capable of sacrificing his eternal interest for them, is a far cry from Stoker’s character. And this is what makes Coppola’s film great. When Coppola’s Dracula provides a foil for Jonathan (Keanu Reeves), Mina (Winona Ryder) faces a choice much richer and more dramatic than the one faced by the novel’s Mina. Dracula offers the romantic figure, passionate beyond measure but morally dangerous – so dangerous in fact that he is perfectly willing to destroy and violate any number of innocent bystanders in the reckless pursuit of his passion. Jonathan offers the sentimental Victorian figure, morally safe, genuinely kind and trustworthy, but utterly lacking in passion.

This also allows Coppola to put more pressure on female choice in the film, whereas the novel removes choice from women in an exaggerated manner, as Dracula’s power turns women into helpless somnambulists over whose bodies good men struggle against bad. And this unique element of Coppola’s film lends much power to the entirely invented final scene, with Dracula and Mina/Elisabeta in the chapel, where Mina’s power is real power and not just the traditional female power of passive goodness that we see in so many Victorian novels like Dracula.

Now I’d love to go into some of the quirkier visions of Stoker’s brooding count, who exercised such power over the 20th-century imagination – e.g., Andy Warhol’s Dracula (dir. Paul Morrissey), which has the best opening credits ever set to Dracula, but then, after its 15 minutes of fame, becomes either the worst or the most interesting Dracula ever made (or both). Certainly Warhol’s conception of the character is unlike any other. But this is beyond the scope of my own present title, so I’ll save that for another day.

(For further thought, see my comparison of Coppola’s Dracula to Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.)