Working Title. Representations of Identity and Postmodern Work in Mike Judge's "Office Space"

Thesis (M.A.) 2013 53 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography



1 Introduction

2 Theoretical Framework
2.1 Postmodern Insecurity and Identity-Work
2.2 Flexibilization and Bureaucracy
2.3 Drift and the Social Triangle
2.4 Individualization and Social Disembedding

3 “Commute from Hell” or “A Case of the Mondays”

4 People at Work – “What Do You Think You Do Here?”
4.1 Peter's Daily Odyssey
4.2 “Call me Mike”: Michael and Samir
4.3 The Ratio of People to Cake – Milton Waddams
4.4 Planning To Plan: Consulting the Inefficiency Experts
4.5 Male Spaces - The Women in Office Space

5 Office Inventory
5.1 The Trouble with the Stapler
5.2 Paper-jammed Printers and Fax Machines

6 Deconstructing Spaces
6.1 The Cubicle
6.2 Fighting Fire with Fire - The Office Building

7 Peter, the Postmodern Working Man?

8 Conclusion

9 Works Cited
9.1 Bibliography
9.2 Internet Resources
9.3 Film


Peter Gibbons erlebt jeden Tag von neuem „den schlimmsten Tag seines Lebens”; seine Freundin betrügt ihn mit einem anderen Mann und seinen Job verachtet er mit Leib und Seele. Am liebsten würde er überhaupt nichts mehr tun und sich von allen verhassten Verpflichtungen lossagen.

Peter, der Protagonist des 1999 entstandenen Films Office Space von Mike Judge, repräsentiert das postmoderne Individuum samt seiner Schwierigkeiten, mit denen es im Privaten und, vor allem, im Bereich der Arbeit konfrontiert ist. Individualisierung und Flexibilisierung verändern die Arbeitswelt immer rapider, sodass sich das Subjekt kaum noch darin zurechtfinden kann. In zunehmendem Maße greifen diese Prozesse in die Identitätsarbeit, also in die Fähigkeit der Selbstnarration ein, die aufgrund mangelnder Kohärenz zusätzlich erschwert wird.

Die allgemeine Verunsicherung der Postmoderne breitet sich auf die Arbeit aus. Arbeitsverhältnisse werden brüchiger, Arbeitsstätten und -zeiten gestalten sich flexibler, was zu einer erhöhten Belastung des Individuums führt. Das Resultat ist, dass die Grenzen zwischen Arbeit und Freizeit endgültig verschwimmen. Dies führt zwangsläufig dazu, dass sich soziale Beziehungen – insbesondere auch jene zwischen Kollegen - stark verändern.

In seiner Satire porträtiert Judge die bürokratische Seite der Arbeitswelt auf minutiöse Weise und stellt unterschiedliche „Arbeitstypen“ vor. Diese Arbeit soll die Frage klären, wie sich das postmoderne Individuum in seiner Arbeitsstätte positioniert und welche Auswirkungen dies mit sich bringt. Wie kommuniziert das Subjekt seine Probleme und welche Strategien helfen ihm dabei, nicht in den Mühlen von Bürokratie und Leistungsdruck zermahlen zu werden?

1 Introduction

Office Space recently gained cult status for its parody of the realities of postmodern work combined with a fundamental critique of late twentieth century forms of corporate management. Although it was filmed in 1999, and work conditions have since changed, paid occupational labor is more relevant for individual identity projects than ever. Office Space effectively presents the pressure created by contemporary forms of management and reveals the challenges companies and employees face in defining and finding a purpose for what exactly it is that “they do there”.

The ability to narrate one's own life proves to be of great significance in an age of growing automation and heightened fears of unemployment, particularly regarding the concepts of (work-) time and space. Mike Judge’s satire depicts the shortcomings[1] of a system subject to multiple radical changes such as individualization and the flexibilization of labor. These changes have a direct effect on the postmodern individual: They cause disorientation and drift, social disembedding, and altering human relationships in general.

This thesis is based on sociological framework such as Zygmunt Bauman's theories on Postmodernism, Ulrich Beck's “Risk Society”, Richard Sennet's ideas on “drift” and “flexibilization” of labor markets and, in particular, Heiner Keupp's concepts of individual identity formation.

Providing a general theoretical framework, the thesis is divided into four subchapters: Postmodern Insecurity and Identity-Work, Flexibilization and Bureaucracy, Drift and the Social Triangle, and Individualization and Social Disembedding.

The subsequent chapter analyses the daily struggle of commuting of the main characters caught in a traffic-jam as a metaphor for a collapsing transportation system and unbridled individualization. After that, we take a closer look at the main characters and their respective challenges for their own identity construction. How does each protagonist handle his or her crises? Which strategies do they use? Then, we will examine office inventory as well as the workplaces in regard to their relevance to the concept of emancipation or “imprisonment” of the individual.

Finally, the film raises the question of how individuals can cope with postmodern working conditions, for example, the growing need for flexibilization. Which role does the social network play to provide stability for a “disembedded” self by creating alternative narratives independent of occupational histories?

2 Theoretical Framework

2.1 Postmodern Insecurity and Identity-Work

Postmodernism calls into question the fundamental perspective of a stable identity as it was understood in Modernism. As a result, self-narration turns into a key issue for individual identity formation. Postmodernism, however, is not defined as a homogenous concept. For the purpose of this paper, the term will be defined as a time following Modernism, attempting to deconstruct widely accepted truths. In other words, postmodernism is understood in critical opposition to the grand narratives in the sense of the philosopher and literary theorist Jean-François Lyotards. According to him, it is postmodern to view narratives from the perspective of someone who is actively creating meaning.[2]

Sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman describes postmodernism as a time of uncertainty and insecurity: “The individual life-projects find no stable ground in which to lodge an anchor, and individual identity-building efforts cannot rectify the consequences of 'disembedding' and arrest the floating and drifting self.”[3] This type of insecurity is not a temporary and short-lived disturbance, says Bauman. Instead, insecurity and instability constitute a permanent condition in the postmodern world.[4]

In the industrial era, work and family constituted the corner stones shaping the life of the individual, claims sociologist Ulrich Beck.[5] In a post-industrial globalized information age, individuals face a fundamental problem - unstable employment: On the one hand, gainful occupation has become a scarce good. On the other hand, work has suffered the loss of its protective function. Today, employment runs short due to ongoing automation and globalization processes. Nonetheless, its importance for the subject has only increased, claims sociologist Heiner Keupp.[6] This development leads to a dilemma.

Keupp explains that prior to postmodern days, work served as a basis for embedding processes. It was positioned within a stable cultural framework of allegedly reliable traditions, which conveyed security, clarity, and a high degree of social control. According to Keupp, gainful occupation becomes a more and more fragile foundation for identity-work. Therefore, it no longer serves as a basis for individual endowment, nor does it offer a chance for the individual to be embedded in a social context. Keupp fears, a lack of work leads to extensive psychological problems. The reason for his concern is the fact that in our society work defines the individual's reputation, securing a future and personal identity.[7] Hence, if work is subject to fundamental changes, so is identity formation.

The life of an individual is primarily affected by the absence of employment, because it is the essential attribute for the social positioning of the subject. Instead of relocating one's focus when employment is absent, unemployed individuals fixate their attention on the loss. Individuals do not shift their identity strategy to a different sphere, such as the family or leisure. On the contrary, they revolve around the absence itself. Therefore, the subject is psychologically stressed. On the one hand, the individual withdraws from society in order to keep away from being branded as a failure, on the other hand, it suffers from this self-induced isolation.[8]

Gainful employment is pivotal for the subject in order to gain recognition[9], and it constitutes a necessity for self-fulfillment. It enables the individual to become an agent, a producer, a creator of value, and a cooperation partner. Through employment, the subject can experience to be part of a social and economic network.[10] To be included or embedded in a professional network is essential for identity-work, and there are no alternatives for it.[11]

Evidently, occupation serves as a primary pattern for identity. Beyond that, it is often equated with the person, particularly in everyday situations. As a foundation for meaning, a person's occupation allows others to draw inferences about income, reputation, social contacts, interests, lifestyle, and taste.[12] Keupp argues, however, the professional biography of an individual should not be viewed separately. Professional projects are closely linked to family life and leisure. These areas depend on each other and can only be reconciled through balance processes. Keupp concludes, work has to be put in relation to other aspects of life.[13] As a matter of fact, it will be indispensable to do so. As mentioned before, work becomes a more and more scarce good. Hence, individuals are forced to find new domains in order to create meaning. According to this, society has to accept new forms of identity-work as equally important.

2.2 Flexibilization and Bureaucracy

One characteristic trait of present-day employment is rooted in the essence of postmodernism as described by Bauman:

In our postmodern times, […] the boundaries which tend to be simultaneously most strongly desired and most acutely missed are those of a rightful and secure position in society, of a space unquestionably one's own, where one can plan one's life with the minimum of interference, play one's role in the game in which the rules do not change over night and without notice, act reasonably and hope for the better. As we have seen, it is the widespread characteristic of contemporary men and women in our type of society that they live perpetually with the 'identity problem' unsolved. They suffer, one might say, from a chronic absence of resources with which they could build a truly solid and lasting identity, anchor it and stop it from drifting.[14]

Bauman explains, uncertainty is not a temporary phenomenon but a permanent and insurmountable condition which the individual has to accept. The wish for a secure position cannot be granted.

This kind of uncertainty can be assigned to the work sphere. The employment system of the twentieth century is a result of grave social and political conflicts. The system is based on a high degree of standardization in terms of work contracts, workplaces, and work schedules. Beck argues, the standardized system of full employment is now watered down by the flexibilization of the above mentioned areas. Thus, the boundaries between work and leisure are blurred. This development leads to a new system of flexible, plural, and risky forms of underemployment.[15]

Most large corporations in the twentieth century have organized their workforces into what have been termed “internal labor markets.”[16] In internal labor markets, jobs were arranged into hierarchical ladders. Employers hired at the entry level, and used promotion to fill the higher positions. Their goal was to hire employees, who stayed with the company for a long time. Therefore, they gave an implicit promise of long-term employment and predictable patterns of promotion.[17]

Recently, employers have dismantled the internal labor market and everything that went along with it. They now create new types of employment relationships which neither encourage, nor depend on longevity. This allows for quick adjustments in production methods, as companies have to face increasingly competitive global markets. As a result, work has become contingent in the sense that it is formally defined as short-term or episodic. This form of “recasualization” leads to a loosened attachment between the company and all types of workers, blue-collar workers and high-end professionals alike.[18]

Flexibilization, it is argued, is without any alternative. Even though the corner stones of (relative) stability - work contracts, work schedules, and workplaces - are liquidated, the new system of plural, decentralized, and flexible underemployment claims to be more productive and ultimately 'superior'.[19] Sociologist Richard Sennett recognizes flexibility as a basic prerequisite for postmodern employment:

Rigid forms of bureaucracy are under attack, as are the devils of blind routine. Workers are asked to behave nimbly, to be open to change on short notice, to take risks continually, to become ever less dependent on regulations and formal procedures.[20]

This statement on the effects of work flexibilization corresponds to Beck's assertion of the fusion of formal and informal work as well as employment and unemployment – concepts that used to be in opposition to each other. This development infers a whole new meaning of work, Sennett believes:

'Career,' for instance, in its English origins meant a road for carriages, and as eventually applied to labor meant a lifelong channel for one's economic pursuits. Flexible capitalism has blocked the straight roadway of career, diverting employees suddenly from one kind of work into another. The word “job” in English of the fourteenth century meant a lump or piece of something which could be carted around. Flexibility today brings back this arcane sense of the job, as people do lumps of labor, pieces of work, over the course of a lifetime.[21]

Sennett's description illustrates the loss of the bureaucratic structure which Max Weber calls an iron cage. According to Weber, this cage rationalizes the use of time, adding another dimension to the problem.[22] Hence, postmodern individuals are no longer provided with a framework allowing them to create a meaningful and linear narrative of life. The ability to narrate one's life, however, is crucial for successful identity formation. Self-narration serves the purpose of organizing and re-organizing the individual's experiences. Moreover, it establishes a person's uniqueness.[23]

2.3 Drift and the Social Triangle

Without Weber's iron cage, identity work becomes increasingly complicated. Sennett believes, postmodern individuals suffer from drift. The term comprises the fear of losing control over one's life, as employment is filled with a built-in anxiety.[24] Another aspect points out the loss of long-term commitments:

The most tangible sign of that change might be the motto 'No long term.' In work, the traditional career progressing step by step through the corridors of one or two institutions is withering; so is the deployment of a single set of skills through the course of a working life. Today, a young American with at least two years of college can expect to change jobs at least eleven times in the course of working, and change his or her skill base at least three times during those forty years of labor.[25]

“No long term” as a postmodern maxim affects social relationships[26]: It corrodes trust, loyalty, and mutual commitment. The results are nonbinding relations at work, as Sennett points out:

Superficial social relations are one product of short-term time; when people do not stay long in an institution, both their knowledge of and commitment to the organization weakens. Superficial relations and short institutional bonds together reinforce the silo-effect [sic]: people keep to themselves, do not get involved in problems which are none of their immediate business, particularly with those in the institution who do something different.[27]

The emergence of the silo effect, meaning a lack of communication and cross-departmental support, undermines Sennett's concept of an informal social triangle, a social means that is able to create civility in a workplace. According to him , the social triangle occurs everywhere, for example in hospitals, schools, religious groups, the military, factories, or offices. The three sides are: Firstly, workers respect decent bosses, and bosses respect reliable employees in return. Secondly, employees exchange personal views and problems, such as divorce, and support each other. Thirdly, co-workers pitch in, do extra hours or help out, when something goes wrong. In other words, the social triangle consists of earned authority, mutual respect and cooperation during a crisis.[28]

Any organization would want to encourage such internal bonds between employees, in order to create a work atmosphere that helps to increase productivity. However, the social triangle demands institutions to be stable in time.[29] As mentioned before, flexibilization affects work contracts, workplaces, and work schedules equally. In times when work is treated as a project, the social triangle becomes more informal and less binding. In the course of the financial crisis of 2008, Sennett exemplifies how social relations at work can deteriorate:

Employees in the financial industry hold only weak bonds of the social triangle. Significant communication in bureaucracies occurs informally; when informal channels of communication wither, people keep to themselves ideas about how the organization is really doing, or guard their own territories. More, weak informal social ties erode loyalty, which businesses need in good as well as bad times. Many have come to feel embittered by the thin, superficial quality of these ties in places where they spend most of their waking hours.[30]

Sennett describes how social relations at work can become embittered. Yet, those allegedly informal ties prove to be important. Dialogic skills, such as “listening well, behaving tactfully, finding points of agreement and managing disagreement”[31] serve the function of avoiding frustration in difficult situations. Superficiality evokes stress among colleagues, leading to dissatisfaction and, consequently, to high staff turnover.

Sennett identifies another negative consequence of short-term labor: de - skilling. In the social realm of work “people are losing the skills to deal with intractable differences as material inequality isolates them, short term labor makes their social contacts more superficial and activates anxiety about the Other.”[32] To put it differently: Due to the ongoing silo effect, the postmodern employee loses the skills of cooperation needed to make complex society work.[33]

Ironically, organizations seek highly skilled and cooperative employees. In practice, however, the structures of modern organizations, and particularly the silo effect, achieve the exact opposite. Individuals who are isolated in different departments share little, or even withhold information valuable to others.[34]

2.4 Individualization and Social Disembedding

The assessment that modern life is increasingly shaped by individualization is not a fundamentally new phenomenon. Alexis de Tocqueville, French visitor to the United States, has identified individualism as an outgrowth of American democracy more than 150 years ago.[35] In his attempt to describe the American national character, he sees individualism as a potentially dangerous development, which could isolate citizens from their fellows and shut them up “in their own heart“[36]. The individualization thesis gains new meaning through the linkages to the rise of a market economy and the idea that modern societies evolves from “traditional, group-based, kinship-dominated communities into systems characterized by private ownership, profit motives, industrial production, mobility, large urban centers, and bureaucratic professionalism“.[37]

In a similar way, sociologist Anthony Giddens considers the above mentioned changes[38] to be emblematic for the age of modernism and calls them disembedding mechanisms. He sees these mechanisms responsible for an “extraction of social relationships” from their original coherences and believes, they are eventually re-embedded in a different sphere. [39] It can be argued that, although identity-work through one's profession is in decline, it may reappear in a different social sphere, or at a different time. Anthropologist and historian Alan MacFarlane supports this individualization thesis. He confirms that developments, which have occurred in modernism, eroded the feeling of embedding or belonging of individuals in traditional, modern communities“.[40]

Ideas revolving around the role of technology and science have played a crucial role in discussions on “embeddedness,” states Knorr Cetina. They tend to “construe the impact of knowledge on social relations in a negative way.”[41] Sociologist Peter Berger sums up much of this discussion in associating individualization with the “abstractness” of technological production, which carries over into daily life.[42] He claims:

Everyday life in just about every one of its sectors is ongoingly bombarded...not only with material objects and processes derived from technological production but with clusters of consciousness originating within the latter.[43]

Transferred into the social realm, this form of consciousness leads to a divided “componential” identity and anonymous social relations, which Berger identifies as a form of alienation; Berger et al. see alienation as the “price” that has to be paid for individualization.[44] Social mobility and pluralistic structures of contemporary societies confront the individual with a variability of truth and believe systems. These factors make it harder for the individual to create a coherent narrative, in other words, identity. A feeling of rootlessness remains.[45]

Similar to Sennett's notion of a corroding character, Berger examines how our economic and technological civilization erodes civility. As a consequence, individuals are disembedded and dis-encumbered.[46] They are “thrown back on their own resources to construct a coherent life course, identity, and forms of togetherness.”[47] Therefore, the system produces two opposing selves: the disoriented self and the narcissistic self.[48]

In his Culture of Narcissism, historian and social critic Christopher Lasch analyzes the narcissistic self. He links it to those psychological syndromes that elevate individualization in personal relations.[49] Berger still portrays private life as a shelter, whereas Lasch considers the private sphere “collapsed”, reflecting the anarchic social order from which it is supposed to provide refuge. He identifies “warlike conditions,” not only in society, but also at home.

At the heart of these conditions lies the narcissistic personality of our time – to which Lasch restores its psychological and clinical meaning, thus wresting the concept away from its popular use as simply the antithesis of humanism or socialism. The argument rests on the growing significance of diffuse character disorders in which narcissism is an important element.[50]

The narcissistic syndrome comprises features, such as a child's inability to tolerate ambivalence or anxiety and its reacting to love with intense rage. These shortcomings are compensated for through an overly grandiose image of the self or conceptions of the self being either “all bad” or “all good”.[51] In summary, the narcissistic self can be understood as suffering from postmodern identity-work in a similar way as the depressed or insecure self. The postmodern individual is ultimately left alone, ill-equipped to cope with choices, contingency, and the consequences of eroding forms of community and traditions.[52]

3 “Commute from Hell” or “A Case of the Mondays”

Set in the cubical sphere of a generic firm called Initech, the film Office Space satirically portrays the journey of computer programmer Peter Gibbons as he is “worn down” by the daily grind of bureaucracy in the late 1990s. Disenchanted by the rigors of endless morning commutes, paper-jammed printers and fax machines as well as routine harassment from several micromanaging bosses, Peter spends his days modifying software in order to make it compliant in the year 2000. He is subject to multiple, redundant critiques about his use of old cover letters for the company's “TPS reports.”[53] He is surrounded by the nuisances of cubicle-neighbors such as the mumbling Milton, who - besides talking to himself - is constantly worried the boss will take his stapler away from him. Unsurprisingly, Peter is desperate to flee the trappings of a meaningless occupation and seeks to escape the shackles of bureaucracy by shunning his bureaucratic responsibilities.

The first scene of Office Space presents the main characters on their way to work on a typical Monday morning: Peter Gibbons, Michael Bolton, Samir Nagheenanajar and their boss, Bill Lumbergh, travel to work by car. Their co-worker Milton Waddams is obliged to take the bus.

While the camera captures a high-angle shot of a freeway traffic jam, the scene is accompanied by uplifting music in the background.[54] The cars are hardly moving. When the perspective changes, the congestion is shown from different angles, showing the magnitude of this veritable “bumper-to-bumper” traffic jam. In the next sequence, the camera shows a close-up[55] of Peter. He looks stressed and frustrated. Trumpets shrill as he hits the gas and abruptly breaks again. In time to the music, the camera switches back and forth between him and his “opponent,” the rear end of the car in front of him.

On the side of the street Peter notices an old man with a walker who is moving faster than the cars on the freeway. Firmly convinced that the left lane moves faster, he changes lanes to gain a slight advantage. Having switched to the left, he realizes the center lane starts to speed up again. Peter looks demoralized. Finally, he returns to the center lane. Whatever he tries to do, it seems as if all the other cars are moving forward while he is the one trapped in the slow lane. For him, traffic comes to a virtual standstill. Meanwhile, he notices the old man again who is now far ahead of him. Peter is exhausted before he even arrives at the office.

In the next sequence, Michael is introduced. Peter's colleague is trapped in the same traffic congestion. Nevertheless, his reaction to the situation is different. Michael listens to rap music and sings along to it. He does not appear to be stressed by the slow moving traffic. When he notices an African-American flower seller approaching, Michael immediately locks the car, turns down the music and stops singing. Cautiously, he watches the man until he can no longer be seen in the side view mirror. Just at that moment, Michael turns the radio back up and continues to sing along to the music.

Samir is the third employee who has to cope with rush hour traffic. He is rather upset about the situation. He curses loudly, punching the steering wheel over and over again. He does not finish his words and screams with an Indian accent: “Mother...shitting...son of a...ass! Ooh! I just...!”.

Milton represents the most peculiar co-worker, introduced at the beginning of the movie. Compared to the other characters, he appears to be slightly older. In contrast to the others, he does not commute by car. Instead, we see him waiting at a bus stop, surrounded by two craftsmen and a woman. As the bus is running late, Milton attempts to talk to other travelers about the situation. Holding a thermos and a lunch box, Milton seems upset to be late for work: “Have you seen the... I was told if I was late again, I would be summarily dismissed.” He turns to the people around him, trying to establish contact, but no one listens to him or shows any kind of interest. Similar to the traffic-jam-situation, there is no communication between the parties, everyone is waiting on his or her own.

On the one hand, the beginning of Office Space illustrates the characters' respective social status. On the other hand, it conveys meaning as a metaphor for individualization and postmodern life. Differences in the hierarchical level as well as class differences become immediately apparent: Milton does not own a car and has to rely on public transportation. Accordingly, he finds himself on the bottom level under Peter, Michael, and Samir. The fact that he rides the bus and takes his food to work offers a hint at his financial situation. He has to economize and cannot afford, or does not want to have lunch at a café or restaurant.

Considering the importance of having a car in the United States in order to be flexible, to have a social life[56] (and to be affiliated with the middle class), it seems odd that Milton can go without it. If the car symbolizes the ability to stay flexible, evidently, Milton lacks the means to keep up with flexibilization. This is underlined by the fact that buses have fixed routes, whereas cars enable the driver to go wherever he wants to, representing fewer restrictions and more personal freedom. Beyond that, Milton jeopardizes his job at Initech (“I will be summarily dismissed”) by relying on public transportation, as this is not his first time to run late.

The bus is a symbol for the collective effort to reach a common goal. However, it is “stuck” in traffic just like the individuals in their cars. It comes as no surprise that the congestion is merely a symptom of the underlying problem. To take the metaphor of the traffic-jam further, the collective – or society as a whole - suffers from the consequences of an unbridled individualism.

Peter, Mike, and Samir drive compact cars typical for middle class Americans. They sit in their own space, limited by the doors and windows of their cars. Hundreds of other drivers in parallel lines are heading in the same direction but do not progress. Nevertheless, all of them are in a hurry to reach their destination.

The traffic jam can be read as a postmodern metaphor in multiple respects. The fast lane is no longer faster in postmodernism. The obstruction on the freeway represents the “blocked straight roadway of career,” as mentioned in chapter 2.2.[57] Each driver constitutes his own entity, his own space. These 'entities' exist in parallel and are not cooperating with each other. Although they share a similar destination, interaction is reduced to the aim of cutting the line of the person in front of them and taking their right of way. Everyone is trying to win “the race”, and yet, no-one is “getting anywhere” - quite literally. Orientation is limited to the contenders in close proximity, usually to whoever is situated ahead of them. Individuals are confined to their seemingly inviolable private spheres, in which there is little communication between parties. Therefore, the postmodern individuals can be seen as silos - free-floating - but nevertheless silos.[58]

The subsequent scene begins with a long shot[59] of the Initech office building. Divison Vice President Bill Lumbergh enjoys the privilege of private parking, while Peter's parking spot is situated at a distance, demonstrating his lower hierarchical position. Slowly approaching the company building, he looks more and more demotivated. At this moment, the distance from his car to the company entrance seems endless. Thus, Peter takes a short cut and walks across the lawn. His clothes look wrinkled before he even arrives at his workplace.

Lumbergh arrives at the company in a sports wagon. He parks his car directly in front of the main entrance. The license plate says: “MY PRSHE”. Bill gets out of the car, turns around in order to take a final glance at his Porsche, locks it and turns on the alarm to protect the vehicle. Before entering the building, he stops and makes sure that he has been seen with his car. This type of behavior is a prime example for a phenomenon economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen satirically calls conspicuous consumption, a term coined in the Theory of the Leisure Class:

The consumption of luxuries, in the true sense, is a consumption directed to the comfort of the consumer himself, and is, therefore, a mark of the master. […] Since the consumption of these more excellent goods is an evidence of wealth, it becomes honorific; and conversely, the failure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark of inferiority and demerit.[60]

Bill's Porsche does not reduce the time he requires for his daily commute, assuming he is caught in the same traffic-jam as everyone else. For this reason, the sports-car represents a Veblen good. Veblen goods are commodities for which people's preference for buying them increases as a direct function of their price. It is claimed that some types of high-status goods, such as diamonds or luxury cars, are Veblen goods, in that decreasing their prices would decrease demand for them because they are no longer perceived as exclusive or high status products.[61]

For Veblen, if the use-value of a commodity is largely disproportionate to its purchase price, he considers it a “conspicuously wasteful honorific expenditure”[62] . Due to the fact that Bill is privileged to park his car near the company entrance, he is able to demonstrate his ability to pay to every employee who enters the company. The purpose of this type of behavior, says Veblen, is to allude to archaic character traits in humans related to honor and potency: “Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure.”[63] While Bill bears little resemblance to Veblen's nineteenth century idea of a gentleman, it can be argued that – apart from lecturing employees on company regulations – he never seems to be actually working in the course of the movie. Instead, Bill is wandering from cubicle to cubicle with a coffee cup in his hands as if he had no other function.

The assessment that modern life is increasingly shaped by individualization is not a fundamentally new phenomenon. Alexis de Tocqueville identifies individualism as an outgrowth of American democracy already in 1840.[64] In his attempt to describe the American national character, he sees individualism as a potentially dangerous development, which can isolate citizens from their fellows and shut them up “in their own heart“ - or in this case, their own car.

Automobiles have become deeply intertwined symbols of progress. They represent personal freedom, flexibility and mobility. At the same time, similar to other forms of technology, people can become too dependent on them. In traffic-jams, cars become traps, making it impossible for the passengers to just “get out” and find alternatives to reach their destination. Moreover, instead of working together, people in traffic-jams form merely a group of disconnected fragments. Trapped in their own spaces, they do not support each other physically or morally. On the contrary, they hinder one another from moving on and reaching their goals. Everyone's view is limited to the car in front of them. The person ahead of them is “seen as the problem” and sometimes antagonized. As a result, aggressive situations - comparable to street duels - may arise in an otherwise civilized realm.[65] Veblen recognizes this type of behavior as archaic traits conserved from an age of prowess and predatory life:

Under the régime of emulation the members of a modern industrial community are rivals, each of whom will best attain his individual and immediate advantage if, through an exceptional exemption from scruple, he is able serenely to overreach and injure his fellows when the chance offers.[66]

Here, Veblen exposes modern age behavior as a concealed continuation of human character traits, which he sees rooted in a pre-modern age of open rivalry.[67]

As these paragraphs try to demonstrate, the metaphor of the traffic-jam symbolizes the rivalry in contemporary business life: People are competitors in a race the majority is unable to win. Only a selected few are moving forward and win, the rest is left standing in traffic, fighting for their survival. In the case of Office Space, Peter is about to lose this race, which is illustrated by the old man passing him by.


[1] See Matthew Hodgart. Satire: Origins and Principles. (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2009), 7.

[2] See Jean-François Lyotard. Das postmoderne Wissen. (Wien: Passagen-Verlag, 2009), 14.

[3] Zygmunt Bauman. Postmodernity and its Discontents. (New York: New York UP, 1997), 21.

[4] See Bauman, 21.

[5] See Ulrich Beck. Risikogesellschaft. Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986), 220.

[6] See Heiner Keupp, et al. Identitätskonstruktionen. Das Patchwork der Identitäten in der Spätmoderne. (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 2006), 48.

[7] See Keupp, 47.

[8] See Keupp, 129.

[9] See Winfried Fluck (ed.) Tocqueville's Legacy: Towards a Cultural History of Recognition in American Studies. In: Amerikastudien / American Studies (Amst) Vol.57, No.4, 2012, 525.

[10] See Keupp, 136.

[11] See Eickelpasch, Rolf; Rademacher, Claudia. Identität. (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2004), 36.

[12] See Eickelpasch & Rademacher, 30.

[13] See Keupp, 127.

[14] Bauman, 26.

[15] See Beck, 224-225.

[16] See Katherine V.W. Stone, From Widgets to Digits: Employment Regulation for the Changing Workplace (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 13.

[17] See Katherine V.W. Stone, “Flexibilization, Globalization, and Privatization: Three challenges to labour rights in our time,” Osgoode Hall Law Journal, Vol.44, No.1 (2006), 79.

[18] See Stone, “Flexibilization,” 80.

[19] See Beck, 235.

[20] Richard Sennett. The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. (New York/London: Norton, 1998), 9.

[21] Sennett, Corrosion, 9.

[22] See Sennett, Corrosion, 16.

[23] See Keupp, 58.

[24] See Sennett, Corrosion, 19.

[25] Sennett, Corrosion, 24.

[26] “Modern labour is increasingly short-term, in character, as short-term or temporary part-time jobs replace long-term careers within a single institution. By one estimate, a young person entering the workforce in 2000 will change employers twelve to fifteen times in the course of his or her working life.” Richard Sennett. Together. The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. (London: Penguin Group, 2013), 7.

[27] Sennett, Together, 8.

[28] Sennett, Together, 148.

[29] See Sennett, Together, 156.

[30] Sennett, Together, 148.

[31] Sennett, Together, 6.

[32] Sennett, Together, 8.

[33] See Sennett, Together, 9.

[34] Sennett, Together, 7.

[35] See Karin Knorr Cetina. “Sociality with Objects. Social Relations in Postsocial Knowledge Societies,“ in Theory, Culture and Society Vol. 14 (1997), No.4, 3.

[36] Alexis de Tocqueville. (1840) „Of Individualism in Democracies“, in: J.P. Mayer (ed.), Democracy in America, Vol. 2, trans. George Lawrence, New York: Doubleday, Anchor Books, 1969, 506, 508.

[37] Knorr Cetina, 3.

[38] See Anthony Giddens. Modernity and self-identity. Self and society in the late modern age. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 14-15. According to Giddens, modernism can be described by four inter-dependent dimensions, namely 'industrialism', ‚capitalism’, 'institutions of surveillance’ and 'industrialisation of war’.

[39] See Giddens, 16.

[40] Alan MacFarlane. The Origins of English Individualism. The Family, Property and Social Transition. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

[41] Knorr Cetina, 4.

[42] See Knorr Cetina, “Sozialität mit Objekten,” in Werner Rammert (Ed.) Technik und Sozialtheorie. (Frankfurt am Main/New York: Campus, 1998), 85.

[43] Peter Berger, B. Berger and H. Kellner. The Homeless Mind. Modernization and Consciousness. (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 24.

[44] See Berger et al., 196.

[45] See Knorr Cetina, “Sozialität,” 85, Berger et al., 184-185.

[46] See Knorr Cetina, “Sozialität,” 86.

[47] Knorr Cetina, “Sociality,” 5.

[48] See Knorr Cetina, “Sociality,” 4-5.

[49] See Christopher Lasch. The Culture of Narcissism. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978).

[50] Knorr Cetina, “Sociality,” 5.

[51] See Knorr Cetina, “Sociality,”5: “These features and the resulting personality traits- which include fear of emotional dependence and an exploitative approach to personal relations, yet at the same time a hunger for emotional experiences with which to fill an inner void- can be traced in the deterioration of marriage and parent-child relationships, in the flight from feeling in relations between the sexes and the recent intensification of sexual combat, in the dread of old age, in the degradation and commodification of education and so on.”

[52] See Zygmunt Bauman, “Morality in the Age of Contingency” in P. Heelas, S. Lash and P. Morris (eds.) Detraditionalization. Critical Reflections on Authority and Identity. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 50f.

[53] A TPS report (Testing Procedure Specification) is a document used in software engineering, in particular by a Software Quality Assurance group or individual, that describes the testing procedures and the testing process. Peter's boss, Bill Lumbergh, is particularly obsessed with his employees filing them on time.

[54] The title played in the background is the 1955 song “Mambo No. 8,“ written and performed by Dámaso Pérez Prado.

[55] A close-up in filmmaking is a type of shot, which tightly frames a person or an object. Close-ups are one of the standard shots used regularly with medium shots and long shots. They display the most detail, but do not include the broader scene.

[56] When asked about car culture and its importance for the rural United States, as portrayed in George Lucas' “American Graffiti”, Marty Reiss states that „If you didn't have a car back then, basically you didn't exist”. See John Baxter. Mythmaker: The Life and Work of George Lucas. (New York: Avon Books, 1999), 30.

[57] Sennett, Corrosion, 9.

[58] The silo effect, as mentioned in chapter 2.3, describes a lack of communication between employees and departments.

[59] A long shot (also known as a full shot or a wide shot) depicts the entire object or human figure and is usually intended to place it in some relation to its surroundings.

[60] Thorstein Veblen. (1899) The Theory of the Leisure Class. (New York: Dover Publications, 2004), 45-46.

[61] John C. Wood. Thorstein Veblen: Critical Assessments. (London/New York: Routledge, 1993), 3.

[62] Veblen, 63.

[63] Veblen, 47.

[64] See Knorr Cetina, 3.

[65] “Apart from warlike activity proper, the institution of the duel is also an expression of the same superior readiness for combat; […] The duel is in substance a more or less deliberate resort to a fight as a final settlement of a difference of opinion. […] This institution of the duel as a mode of finally settling disputes and serious questions of precedence shades off into the obligatory, unprovoked private fight, as a social obligation due to one's good repute.” See Veblen, 153.

[66] Veblen, 140.

[67] “In the more civilized communities, or rather in the communities which have reached an advanced industrial development, the spirit of warlike aggression may be said to be obsolescent among the common people. […] But except for such reasons of temporary exaltation, and except for those individuals who are endowed with an archaic temperament of the predatory type, together with the similarly endowed body of individuals among the higher and the lowest classes, the inertness of the mass of any modern civilized community in this respect is probably so great as would make war impracticable, except against actual invasion. The habits and aptitudes of the common run of men make for an unfolding of activity in other, less picturesque directions than that of war.” See Veblen, 152.


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Humboldt-University of Berlin – Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
Office Space Flexibilization Identity Formation Richard Sennet Movie Film Mike Judge Identity Postmodern Heiner Keupp Zygmunt Baumann Postmodernity Work Risk-Society Cubicles Ulrich Beck Drift Social Triangle Insecurity Automation work environments working conditions the future of work Disembedding Individualization identity-work bureaucracy



Title: Working Title. Representations of Identity and Postmodern Work in Mike Judge's "Office Space"