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.

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Wordsworth and Kafka

Another path from classical to romantic to existential…

The classical ideal, epitomized say in Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, offers a closed system of perfect beauty, gives that calm rational pleasure that comes with the compound of beauty and completeness. The impact of a romantic piece like Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat major, on the other hand, comes specifically from a lack of closure. It is full of longing, and longing is by definition longing for something out of reach; the beauty is not the perfect beauty of a closed system but the melancholic beauty that comes with a conspicuous lack of closure, a sense that the system is incomplete, that what we desire is forever out of its scope.

Compare this to Wordsworth and Kafka, icons of Romanticism and existentialism, respectively. Both break from the classical ideal of a closed system of perfect beauty, but they break differently. For the Romantic poet, the world holds enormous meaning, warrants enormous feelings beyond the reach of the classical’s neat rational boundaries. But that locus of meaning, of feeling, is at a depth that we can sense but never quite reach. When Wordsworth speaks of the “meanest flower” that “can give / thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” (“Intimations Ode”), the melancholic tone comes from an incomplete desire. The poem is not a closed system of perfect beauty, but a locus of longing, ever pointing to something outside of itself. But if “too deep” locates the object of desire ever at a distance, there is no doubt in Wordsworth as to its substantive presence:

…And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
(“Tintern Abbey”)

Kafka and the existentialists create narratives that seem more romantic than classical in that they too rely on a conspicuous lack of closure. The meaning sought is forever beyond the scope of the system they are trapped within. But whereas Wordsworth reaches out from the system to grasp a meaning whose “presence” is too large or too deep for him to get his hands around, Kafka’s K (The Castle) and Joseph K (The Trial) reach out from the system for a meaning that is not present at all but absent. That locus of meaning, that presence that validates the depth of human feeling, was for Wordsworth too big (Kant’s mathematical sublime) or too powerful (Kant’s dynamical sublime) to be contained in classical symmetries but for Kafka it is infinitesimally small. It is an empty vanishing point and nothing more.

If I could draw diagrams in WordPress, or set up toolbar icons on my own computer program, I’d say picture a pearl that fits perfectly in someone’s hand as our classical icon. Click it to play Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Now picture a second icon in which the pearl has become a sphere the size of a planet under the person’s feet, far too large to grasp or hold or even imagine in its entirety, however one might long to do so. That is our Romantic icon. Click to open Wordsworth. Now the sphere disappears and the person is floating in empty space. Click for Kafka.

The Clown and the Tiger

“That’s water-turned-wine,” said Jane, archly but without a trace of impatience.  “Your turn.”

I pulled two cards from the top of the deck and studied them.  Far away, goats’ bells ding, and still further out, glimpsed between the gnarled crosses of olive trees tumbling down the rugged hillside, lies the expansive, dark blue Mediterranean.  Two white chickens, boisterous, nearer to the scene, patrol Spiro’s patio.  Unripe grapes hang, lemony waxen bath beads, above our heads.  Time passes.  Giovanni deals the cards, suffers a poor draw.

One must not forget: the sun is to be worshipped here.  We fill an empty bottle with local wine, swim, and prostrate ourselves before said deity, naked like stones in the sand. A hoary old Greek raises a piece of driftwood shaped like the arm of Achilles and heaves it with great show of violence into the sea; he stares straight at me with a look of wild relief, laughs, spits, and disappears down the east beach.

I jump when awakened.  It is one of my traits.  This time, I am awakened at Lake Travis, Austin.  Years seem to have passed.  Jane is naked, shorter than average but perfect in form, waist deep in water. The tips of her hair, long, brown, silky, dip the water. Her solid brown eyes, soft but alert to every modulation in the visual universe, observe, assess, and disregard two kids wading toward her. I lay back and close my eyes at the sun, as Jeff sits up and says something about chili rellenos.  I hear the kids shriek and plunge.  A stout woman screams something in Spanish.  I open my eyes. The beach is deserted save for them and us.

On the way home I know Jeff is about to speak by the way he rubs the swarthy stubble on his jowls, making the pint-sized popeye tattoo on his upper arm seem to rise from the dead and then die again with each stroke.  He pats his paunch thoughtfully, the face tensing slightly under the massive crown of black locks until it achieves an expression that might have become Humpty Dumpty just before the fall.  “Katie is in trouble,” he says. “She needs to move in with us.”

We find Katie and Alissa, her four year old, in the front yard studying a caterpillar. Alissa has Katie’s narrow chin and high cheekbones. One can already see her life unfolding through the features. The caterpillar reminds Jeff of a story.  Once he had waited for months for a cocoon to open. He had pictured the fuzzball breaking open like a pomegranate.  But eventually he forgot about it.  Then one day he was playing in the yard and heard a little scratching sound.  He turned and saw the cocoon just beginning to tear.  And do you know what came out of that cocoon?

“What?”

“A TIGER.  RAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.”

“No,” said Alissa.  “A butterfly.”

We load Katie’s boxes and take her mattress to the dump. We do not notice the city’s mysteries along the way because Jane and Katie and I are together, and are absorbed in each other’s radiance, so to speak.  In a way, I suppose, we are all in love.  The dump is a mess with its own incalculable aesthetic.  Dump trucks fly past, magical beasts from an unwritten landfill fairy tale.  We wave.  We are high at the dump.  Jesus.

Now we have five residents in our household.  Jeff is the most observant.  Jane is the most beautiful.  Katie is the most fun (but tragically not so on the day of our story).  Alissa is the youngest.  And they say, perhaps jokingly, that I am the philosopher.

Perhaps we are not all in love.  Perhaps I am oversimplifying.  I say this because of what I saw at Bartholomew Park.  The joggers, thin, fashionable, or flabby, loped past.  At the center of the park is a playground.  There is one child in the playground.  She pops a yellow, curly-topped head out from under a slide, pokes a stick in the sand.  One of the joggers, a woman, perhaps in her late 20s, has stopped near a trash barrel.  Her gym shorts sport a High School logo no longer legible and an animal face about the size of a walnut.  Several Coke cans and the meat of a fruit lay around the barrel.  The jogger near the barrel is Jane.  She is breathing heavily.  No, she is weeping.  The child is studying something dark that she holds in her hands.  It begins to rain. I will not see Jane again.

Year after year we play cards.  Once, long ago it seems, Jeff and Katie and Jane were playing, and Alissa and I were arranging her toys into a line from the refrigerator across the kitchen threshold and out to the front left leg of her mom’s chair.  “Your turn,” I heard Jane say, her impatience light as a feather.  It reminded me of something, one of those faint patterns that ruffle the edges of our sensible spectra, lending coherence by sheer resistance.  A smell of violet, a certain hair texture, a voice, a symbol.  “Should I put in the clown next?”

“No,” said Alissa, “the tiger.”

(Gary Gautier)