Cubed by Nikil Saval

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The apex of my office-job career came quickly, a few months after I graduated from the University of North Carolina, when I was working at a web-design firm in the Flatiron District. I carried across the street a $500,000 check, payable to the firm, for deposit in a Chase ATM. It was so much money! But I hardly got any of it myself, and soon I was gone from that job and the open-plan office in which it was performed. The office was decorated in typical tech-industry style. You know what I mean: a foosball table and a real live French bulldog (which I despised).

I remember reading Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth in high school, and of Campbell’s distaste for what was then a fact: “when you approach a modern city, the tallest buildings are office buildings, the centers of economic life.” Before the twentieth century, the tallest structures were typically religious buildings, or, occasionally, civic edifices; but, in the twenty-first century, the tallest buildings, like Dubai’s 2,717-foot-tall behemoth Burj Khalifa (whose roof is twice, twice! as high as the 1,368-foot roof of the new One World Trade Center, 408-foot spire be damned) and the oligarchs’ monolithic abodes going up on 58th and 57th streets in New York today, are typically luxury condos or hotels, or a mix of both and corporate suites. What was the office?

Of course, the office, in 2014, is doing quite well for itself. Though the office isn’t any longer at the heart of the skyscraper game, it’s still central to most of our daily lives. Plenty of prestige projects are still under construction. Apple is building a new $5 billion headquarters in Cupertino, California, designed by Norman Foster under the direction of the late Steve Jobs, a building reminiscent of both the Pentagon and the “Doughnut,” home to Britain’s NSA analogue GCHQ. Nikil Saval’s new book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, recounts the story of the development of the office, as a spatial institution, from the nineteenth century to the future. We hear about the ways offices sprung up, and about those who’ve been theorizing their dismantlement for decades. Saval says “anyone who works in an office spends an extraordinary amount of time thinking about the arrangement of offices.” It is true, in my experience. A former office worker himself, Saval tells the tale to his readers—readers very, very likely to be office workers themselves.

Saval begins with a fascinating description of the intimate proto-offices of the nineteenth century, as depicted most famously by Herman Melville in “Bartleby the Scrivener.” “Clerks” like Bartleby were, then, a novelty. Melville tried to explain the emerging class of clerks through the exceptionally strange Bartleby, but Saval identifies other writers like Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe who were more likely to mock the clerks’ sartorial choices, which were becoming predominant in lower Manhattan. Whitman on clerks: “trig and prim in great glow of shiny boots, clean shirts—sometimes, just now, of extraordinary patterns, as if overrun with bugs!” Poe: “they wore the cast-off graces of the gentry; —and this, I believe, involves the best definition of the class.” This class of strivers would become the middle class, always shadowed by accusations of falseness and cheap taste.

Edward Tailer, “the son of a rich lawyer,” was the anti-Bartleby, and I’m glad that Saval read his diary. Saval describes him as a young man composed of “humility masking greed, whininess masking confidence.” Tailer’s work might have been even more tedious than Bartleby’s—Saval cites a diary entry in which “he writes of satisfaction that his day consisted of filing three hundred freight and receipt bills.” Rather than quietly scribbling away (before wasting away) as Bartleby was said to do, Tailer asked for a 300% raise in his first year at Little, Alden & Co., a New York dry goods importer. He was denied the raise, but he was successful as an independent merchant by the age of twenty-five.

The intimate offices that men like Bartleby and Tailer worked in more closely resembled the little offices in modern car-repair shops than the X Y Z buildings that line Sixth Avenue today. “Virtually no space separated clerks from their superiors; between their position and that of the partners of their firms lay only time,” Saval says. Bartleby notwithstanding, the white-collar proletariat of the early twentieth century (or our contemporary “precariat,” for that matter) was far off. “[Clerks] portrayed themselves as baby workers, always on the verge of tears but stunned into passivity at the offer of a symbolic pacifier,” Saval says. They may have, and it’s Melville’s prescience that allowed him to frame Bartleby’s strange protest, his lack of movement, and his subsequent demise in the Tombs as more a refusal of that pacifier than a cry for it. Bartleby died; his descendants live on, employed in what David Graeber chummily called “bullshit jobs” in a viral piece he wrote for Strike! magazine last year. Some of them even ended up jailed in the Tombs themselves during the height of Occupy Wall Street.

Technological advances smoothed the way to the modern office: “by 1860, iron frames permitted the construction of taller buildings; by 1870, elevators assisted the climb,” Saval tells us. More and more workers could be agglomerated; corporations grew, and the profits concentrated in fewer hands. By the late nineteenth century “most workers only knew one thing—be it accounting or filing or billing—and had little incentive or opportunity to learn the entire business,” unlike earlier all-purpose clerks, like Tailer, who would have been expected to inevitably become their bosses’ equals. Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1904 Larkin Building in Buffalo may have been elegant, but its revolutionary air conditioning system was necessitated by the grandiose scale of the Larkin Soap Company. Work became more and more specialized: even, eventually, Taylorized.

Frederick Taylor, the original scientific management theorist, advocated the minute control of factory workers’ movements, as if they were robots, using stopwatches, motion-capture cameras (think Muybridge’s pre-cinematic photos of trotting horses), and scores of white-shirted managers. As the workers were robbed of their agency, the ranks swelled in the offices above. Even Vladimir Lenin was in on Taylor: “The Soviet Republic must at all costs adopt all that is valuable in the achievements of science and technology in this field.” Soon Taylor’s disciples were applying his principles to the tasks in offices themselves: “Pictures of offices from the time show foreman-like workers pacing the floors over sitting clerks with their heads bowed.” No longer was it possible for any reasonable proportion of office workers to “make it” the way their clerking predecessors had.

Women entered the office as it grew spatially and its habitus fractured. At MetLife’s tower on Madison Square Park, “women had separate entrances, hallways, elevators, and stairways.” They typically ended up either in the steno pool with other women or typecast as “office wives”—secretaries whose proximity to power belied their lack of it. Women didn’t even need to physically step into the office in order to be considered under the employ of the midcentury corporation: As Saval recounts, “according to a study by Fortune in 1952, half of all companies screened prospective employees’ wives.” No longer was the office just a place one went to do business; it was the sun around which many Americans’ lives orbited, whether they actually worked there or not. The patriarchy ran (and runs) deep.

Book publishing, which is where I work, is in a lot of ways the prototypical white-collar job: It’s substantially similar, on a day-to-day basis, to any other office job, but the pay is worse. Saval quotes an acerbic dismissal of publishing from New Masses: “like horse breeding, a snob-and-specialty industry.” There’s an idea, in publishing, that workers need to sacrifice to preserve the viability of the ever-rumored-to-be-in-crisis industry. This is the apotheosis of white-collar ideology that C. Wright Mills delineated in White Collar, which Saval cites in his introduction as the inspiration for Cubed. Saval also once worked in publishing, and it would have been helpful to hear more about how he felt in the office where he worked. Yet one the most tantalizing moments in the book is when Saval mentions the successful strike at the now-defunct publisher Macaulay. Le Corbusier, the architect, said that through architecture “revolution can be avoided.” Perhaps. But Jacques Tati, in his masterpiece Playtime, foresaw the “cube farms” that were to come, among other absurdities inadvertently created by modern architecture.

“A flexible office was above all a cheap office,” Saval reminds us.  Against this axiom, the best intentions of Robert Propst, who semi-inadvertently invented the cubicle, Herman Miller’s Action Office amount to little. The Action Office was meant to provide an office worker with more control over her surroundings, in the well-designed Action Office I, but the system only became a blockbuster with its sequel, Action Office II, which was more clearly a cubicle than its predecessor. You can’t design away exploitation if you don’t really want to get rid of exploitation. Cube farms are cheap—it’s why they’re so prevalent. But the pricier, Disneyfied tech offices of today that Saval describes so well are like Montessori schools—which makes sense: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page all attended them. Gifted children make money in all-inclusive environments complete with basketball courts and where “a chairman might be lightly bonked on the head by a Nerf arrow flying through open-plan space.” Jay Chiat, an advertising executive who believed in the non-territorial office, claimed against his detractors who noticed the school-like atmosphere that “we’re trying to structure things more like a university, rather than an elementary school.” Where, though, would adult humans work?

Saval also raises the perennial question of flexibility through a discussion of the film 9 to 5, starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin. Fonda conceived of the film after visiting with Karen Nussbaum, a founder of the feminist organization 9to5, at its Cleveland chapter. In the film, a group of women “take over the workplace and institute then-novel reforms: flexible hours, job sharing, day care at work,” and rearrange things to resemble what to Saval’s eye looks like an old-school Bürolandschaft, or “office landscape”—a German system that was similar to Propst’s original conception of the Action Office. The Bürolandschaft was supposed to be an informal and anti-Taylorist system that allowed workers to improvise the spatial conditions of their quotidian work life. Flexibility is an empty idea, though: someone’s always made to be flexible, but it doesn’t have to be the workers. It could be the bosses. 9to5 and 9 to 5 prompted questions of worker autonomy, the lack of which doomed non-territorial office schemes like Jay Chiat’s. The office isn’t a closed system; it’s only one part of the social fabric. This is why the problems that Saval chronicles in Cubed permeate the culture, inside the office and out, spilling beyond the covers of any one book. If the patriarchal workplace originally only accommodated women on men’s terms, flipping things would be salutary, as a start.

Will Augerot has written for The Morning News and n+1. He lives in New York and edits fiction for the KGB Bar’s website. He tweets at @willy_auge. More from this author →