Wet and Dry
‘The office’ – less a place, more a condition. For the great majority of urban workers it is their world – their culture. Across the globe office-world grows exponentially, huge buildings sprouting skywards in every major city. It is the site of post-industrial capitalist culture. Cleaner than a hospital, it’s smooth surfaces free of clutter, warm, quiet except for the rattle of copiers and keyboards and the shrill of phones – an entirely insulated, artificial, dry environment. Outside it may be raining and cold. In the office, you wouldn’t know. In most offices, windows, if they exist, seem merely another screen. The smell of fresh rain, the feel of a cool breeze, replaced by the refrigerated, odourless air-conditioning.
Apart from a few brief uncomfortable transitional spaces between home and work, the urban office worker has little experience of cold, wetness, or discomfort. Home, bus, train, car, shopping-mall, office – all are digitally controlled, dominated by the screen. As the psychological space of contemporary culture becomes increasingly indistinguishable from virtual space, when do we encounter real stuff?
We live in a squeamish culture. Manifestations of liquid – indeed anything perceived as ‘mess’ is greeted with alarm. Leaks of any kind – coffee stains, photocopier toner spilt on hands, provoke reactions of horror, as if to dirt. Food is sanitised and dessicated – dry sandwiches, micro-waved meals, powdered coffee and ‘whitener’. In the increasingly dry office world workers search for traces of water, gathering pathetically around the plastic water-cooler like animals at an almost dry water-hole.
The great capitalist edifices tower above the chaos, poverty and dirt of the slums, the favelas and the barrios. Above, in their offices, workers feel that this sterility is a natural condition, that dirt and disease have been eradicated and this state of cleanliness and order is an expression of modernity – of control over the environment. It seems not to occur to them that for the past 20,000 years – and for much of the world now – the human condition was, and is, dirty and smelly.
The cleaning of society has been a gradual process. Until the 19th century every person ponged, families were identified by their collective odour - a combination of sweat, shit, smoke and cooking smells, streets stank of rotting vegetation and horse dung, sawn wood, stagnant water, spices and tea being unloaded at the docks. Indeed in living memory baths were taken weekly – and often reluctantly, and torn pieces of newspaper on a nail was used as toilet paper. It may be that cleanliness is next to godliness, and that it was necessary to eradicate sources of infection and disease, but our immune systems are weakened by lack of exposure to germs, and perhaps our senses too are blunted. The cleaning of the world, the removal of risk, carries with it a greater risk – the loss of the sensory nature of experience – it’s feel, it’s smell and texture. This safe, clean world is a world of banality and blandness, where the corporeal becomes the corporate.
Love is wet; death is dry. We start at the breast. Our earliest experience is of ingesting and expelling. Our everyday experience is of a continuous process of eating, drinking, pissing, shitting, bleeding, ejaculating, salivating, sweating, weeping. We are by no means dry creatures. Nature is wet. And it smells - we smell. It is the smell of life.
What has happened to us? In our search for cleanliness, order and efficiency, have we obliterated and repressed our humanity? Is the dryness and aridity of the office world simply a product of the new digital technologies, and the clean, dry and odourless machines that now dominate our lives? Or is the perfectionism of the office merely about the appearance of efficiency?
Or is it symptomatic of a neurotic, anally retentive culture with an obsessive need to conceal all evidence of humanity? Does it in fact express a repressed and alienated condition? The workers are disciplined, stoical, submissive, maintaining a confident front, but secretly insecure and fearful for their jobs. As their brains become fried by all the hours/days/years they have spent staring at the screen are they losing touch with reality, able to express themselves only when drunk, or screaming at the ref? Do they fantasise about the rock-star life? - or the dirty unkempt bohemian who sleeps in his clothes and eats and fucks on the floor and never washes, fuelled by drink and drugs, cynical and foul-mouthed –lurching through those immaculate spaces, drawing on the walls, dropping paint on the carpeted floors, farting, scratching, drinking, insulting the bosses…….?
The operators of drones flying over the mountains of Afghanistan, have that morning kissed their wives and children goodbye and driven to the office, checked in through security and sat down at their consoles. Targets are allocated, co-ordinates set, and at the click of a mouse, people eight thousand miles away are blown to pieces. Is this process of dehumanisation infectious? Have we eradicated disease and replaced all those sources of infection with one great toxic plague on all humanity? Are the occupants of offices in Bishopsgate or Wall Street, protected from cold and wind, from chaos and dirt, from the mess, the unpredictability, the danger of life, lulled into a sense of tranquillity and safety, oblivious of the effect that one little click of a key, one small movement of the mouse, may have?
Technology is not sensual. The haptic, the bodily, the tactile, is reduced to text. Speech, action, gesture, physicality – material processes, writing, paper, all are dispensed with as all forms are filtered through digital technology - reduced to binary code – digitised. Management finds ever smaller units of measurement and assessment in a process of atomisation directed towards achieving absolute control and eradicating human error – in fact all that is eradicated is humanity.
All material: water, oil, wood, metal, grass, glass, cloth, carries with it a whole metaphoric world of association and sensation. Language is essentially metaphoric, and all metaphor ultimately derives from bodily, sensory experience. We feel that to understand our experience (of being-in-the-world) we must know what a thing is –and to do this we must name it. But first we must fix it – but experience is fluid, fugitive – it slips through our grasp. Text seems to fix life – it is comforting to reduce human interaction – and indeed all forms of intercourse, to little signs on a screen, or ultimately, to binary code. But it does not tell us what a thing is, what the world is, or our experience of it. We cannot articulate what Heideggar called our ‘astonishment that a thing is’.
Our inarticulacy and impotence in the face of the cultural transformation brought about by digital technology in tandem with mega-corporate capitalism is almost complete. Increasingly sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll seem attractive. The mythology of contemporary shamans – the Rock stars and what might be called the contemporary Bohemians – appear to offer defiant gestures in the face of the reductivist control and perfectionism of contemporary culture. We want them to expose the weirdness and alienation of this normality – to help us see the strangeness of the world that global, corporate capitalism has given rise to. (and then die of alcohol or drugs overdoses, so that they might be our sacrificial victims).
The rehydration of the dessicated culture of the office may only come about through the creation a more permeable and fluid relation between material, object and process. To do this the notion of the office as a singular hierarchical space whose function is centred almost exclusively on management and administration, needs to be broken down. There are other models which embrace contingency, complexity and uncertainty. These models may be slippery and fluid both literally and metaphorically….
Why, in this culture, is liquid so often seen as dirt? Yet the sea - a great, deep Freudian metaphor (- Eros and Thanatos: necessary for life, yet antithetical to it) - washes away the ills of man, and purges our sins. It is a source of pleasure, but also fear. We know it yet know that it is unknowable. A great flat, infinite plane; calm, concealing great forces and innumerable creatures; immensely pleasurable, immensely dangerous, implacable. After we have drowned, the waves will continue to break on the beach. We are 80% water – we move and ovulate with the tides, but when we die we become dry, dessicated, still.
The office, as a space, signifies forms of control. These forms are evident in its every aspect – division and demarcation of space, height of screens, chair backs and arm rests, size of desk or office. But control of the total environment is signified above all by order. The computer has made it possible to create the illusion of order by concealing all transactions. Indeed secrecy is a major characteristic of the modern office – no information can be accessed without a password. The clear paperless desk is a sign of absolute control and anything that disturbs this perfection- coffee stains, crumbs, stray paper-clips, even a piece of A4 copy paper, would be a sign of disorder. But this apparent order is not necessarily a sign of organisation (interestingly a word often used to describe a company). The surface calm and efficiency of the corporate office may conceal many forms of disorganisation and disturbance. Hidden deep in those hard-drives may be innumerable instances of malpractice, incompetence, abuse, psychological disorder – another rich Freudian metaphor?
Office/corporate culture’s perception of mess is confused. It is associated with both ‘dirt’ and ‘disorder’. But these two categories of threat arise from two distinct anxieties: The fear of what is perceived as dirt may be symptomatic of a need to conceal or bury manifestations of humanity: smells, bodily fluids –
evidence of vulnerability and mortality. Whilst clearly discarded pieces of paper or extraneous bits of material or spilt coffee are not in fact ‘dirty’ they are associated with dirt and disorder - with loss of control and incipient chaos. Computers are magical boxes within which immense amounts of ‘stuff’ may be hidden, thereby creating an appearance of order – a very comforting illusion.
The fear of all manifestations of chaos and dirt (never mind the actuality) that characterises the modern office is also an expression of anxiety about status. Dirt is associated with manual work and low status. The thinker – the administrator - is clean. This is clearly a product of history - of successive modes of production and of their economic and social consequences - but it does seem surprising that after three thousand years this distinction still exists. But the class basis to this distinction remains and this sense of the connection between status and occupation remains deeply buried in the collective psyche. It is the distinction between the peasant and the town dweller, between the hand and the brain; between the worker down in his workshop and the manager above, in his office.
Far below, deep beneath the great edifices of corporate capitalism, lies the huge, echoing, subterranean world of the loading bays: a cheerful, dirty, smelly, creative chaos of roaring engines and smoke, bleeping signals, shouts, wisecracks and dirty jokes – of old crates and boxes, battered trolleys, bent chairs, puddles of water and patches of oil dropped by vehicles. In a cold shabby office a young girl and a cheerful old man process the paperwork for the drivers……
Far up in the sky, above the void, in their great corporate headquarters, with it’s imposing atrium, polished marble floors and great columns, in hierarchical layers, the office-workers: Security, Estates, Human Resources, Public Relations, Office Managers, Accountants, Personal assistants, Senior Executives, Chief executive officers, Partners; immaculate, courteous; insulated, alienated; in their quiet, clean, odourless, dry, air-conditioned offices; confident that the immensely expensive and complex engineering and electronic technologies of the building will protect them from the cold, and the wind and rain.