April 13, 2014


It's a Living : A surprisingly sprightly history of the glum designs behind the world of modern work : a review of Cubed by Nikil Saval (JERRY STAHL, April/May 2014, Bookforum)

On one level, Cubed can be seen as a study of how authority maintains authority--and of how the subjugated stay subjugated, in ways spoken and unspoken. Saval goes to great lengths to show how oppressive structure exists not just as a matter of corporate policy but in the very architecture of the workplace--the physical boundaries within which the business of business is carried out. As Saval notes, the actual walls--or lack thereof--of the office space dictate the terms of the occupants' status. Cubed takes us on the happy journey from cozy countinghouse rooms at the turn of the last century to open-plan offices in the wide-open '60s and '70s to the heinous hell-boxes born out of the mass layoffs of the '80s. In the wake of this latter shakeout, Saval writes, "corporations responded by giving a privileged elite the few remaining offices while cramming everyone else into partitioned spaces."

This was the era famously captured by Douglas Coupland's Generation X, in which he birthed the phrase "veal-fattening pen" as a painfully accurate description of the office cubicle. These holding facilities, Coupland memorably observed, were "small, cramped office workstations built of fabric-covered disassemblable wall portions and inhabited by junior staff members. Named after the small pre-slaughter cubicles used in the cattle industry." A grim stop, in other words, where the life-hating, managerially disrespected masses can kill time until they're led to their own metaphorical killing floor to be laid off.

All this talk of design and repression brings to mind the resemblance Black Panthers first pointed out between slave-ship design and the layouts of supermax prisons. Saval gives us statistics on the dimensions of a standard worker-bee workstation circa 2006, "when the average cubicle was seventy-five square feet." According to the latest information, the average Solitary Housing Unit at Pelican Bay supermax averages about eleven and a half by seven and a half feet. So in this case, if in few others, convicts serving time in solitary come out ahead of salaried cubicle dwellers. It's true that prisoners are also confined in their windowless environment twenty-three hours of every day. On the other hand, SHU residents have an hour to exercise, which may be more than the average cubicle drone can squeeze in in the course of trying to stay alive on temp pay. 

Posted by at April 13, 2014 5:13 AM

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