“Dilbert” and Dissent in the Workplace
Jill Lepore’s brief history of office life, appearing in last week’s The New Yorker on the occasion of Nikil Saval’s new book Cubed, takes the reader on a textual tour of “The Office Through the Ages.”
Her tour begins with a mid-nineteenth-century wooden Bob Cratchit desk, goes past steel desks and time clocks and goose-neck lamps, past high-heeled switchboard-operators and secretaries, and lands at the dreaded cubicle. Open office plans, coworking spaces, and telecommuting have changed daily office life since then, but the cubicle remains one of the most potent symbols of corporate drudgery.
But office drones weren’t alone within their three-and-a-half fuzzy gray walls; they had Dilbert. Lepore writes:
Throughout the nineteen-seventies and eighties, especially during periods of recession, employees were moved from offices to cubicles. “Dilbert,” written by Scott Adams, who worked in a cubicle for seventeen years, began appearing in 1989. “Most business books are written by consultants and professors who haven’t spent much time in a cubicle,” Adams wrote. “That’s like writing a first-hand account of the experience of the Donner party based on the fact that you’ve eaten beef jerky. Me, I’ve gnawed an ankle or two.”
With Dilbert, readers could nod knowingly at the title character’s confusing exchanges with his clueless boss, and could pass the cartoon around to colleagues for a bit of comic relief. Harmless, right? This all reminded us of a piece from the Baffler archives that explained another role that our upturned-tie-wearing friend may have played in the lives of office employees.
In Issue 9, published in the spring of 1997, Tom Vanderbilt reflected on his days at an unnamed media conglomerate. The company he worked for was profitable, and fast expanding (oh the nineties!), and yet firings and layoffs always seemed to come out of nowhere. He and his coworkers were always kept on edge; they never knew whose would be the next head to roll.
“So what was the talk around the water cooler?” Vanderbilt wrote. “Plans to organize? Formal protests over the company’s shoddy personnel practices?” Nope. They talked about Dilbert.
Hardly a day passed in which we made no reference to that great subverter of corporate hierarchy, in which I didn’t see Dilbert’s winsome visage flickering on a neighboring screen saver or peering out from a mug in the employee kitchen. In the face of real threats from a ruthless and all-too-knowing management, we turned to a fantasy office world in which managers were obvious incompetents, in which new motivational schemes were self-evidently ridiculous, and in which anonymous cubicled office drones held the real power. Even downsizing seemed innocuous in Dilbert, a practical joke that was always happening to someone else.
What seems remarkable about all this now is the curious relationship between Dilbert and all the absurd management fads and mission statements that it mocks. Its refusal to do anything more than gripe helped more to naturalize the managerial culture than to subvert it. As corporate America tears up the social contract, it should come as no surprise that Dilbert books have become a popular gift from managers to employees, or that executives have begun to ask the comic’s author to lecture at their conferences, or that Dilbert books have become a “business bestseller” (an entirely new category indicative of the proliferation of corporate culture commodities), or even that Hallmark should issue Dilbert mugs for “Boss Day” (the holiday invented by a Kansas woman in 1954 who says she wanted to honor her father). Symbolic acts of everyday resistance, it turns out, are healthy. They are exactly what the boss wants to see on your cubicle wall.
Well, regarding that last point, it seems like that actually depends on the boss. Kathleen Geier recently wrote for the Baffler blog about all of the acts of anti-management defiance that have lately gotten people fired, and posting a Dilbert cartoon on a break room bulletin board was one of them.
Happy Friday, office workers of the world! In any case, before you head off to T.G.I. Fridays, now would be a great time to revisit Tom Vanderbilt’s piece, “The Gaudy and Damned, No. 2,” here.