In Wilfrid Sheed’s novel Office Politics, a wife asks, “There are real issues, aren’t there, between Mr. Fine and Mr. Tyler?” Her husband answers that the issues are trivial; “the jockeying of ego is the real story.” Eugene Emerson Jennings’s study of management, which celebrates the demise of the organization man and the advent of the new “era of mobility,” insists that corporate “mobility is more than mere job performance.” What counts is “style . . . panache . . . the ability to say and do almost anything without antagonizing others.” The upwardly mobile executive, according to Jennings, knows how to handle the people around him—the “shelf-sitter” who suffers from “arrested mobility” and envies success; the “fast learner”; the “mobile superior.” The “mobility-bright executive” has learned to “read” the power relations in his office and “to see the less visible and less audible side of his superiors, chiefly their standing with their peers and superiors.” He “can infer from a minimum of cues who are the centers of power, and he seeks to have high visibility and exposure with them. He will assiduously cultivate his standing and opportunities with them and seize every opportunity to learn from them. He will utilize his opportunities in the social world to size up the men who are centers of sponsorship in the corporate world.”
Constantly comparing the “executive success game” to an athletic contest or a game of chess, Jennings treats the substance of executive life as if it were just as arbitrary and irrelevant to success as the task of kicking a ball through a net or of moving pieces over a chessboard. He never mentions the social and economic repercussions of managerial decisions or the power that managers exercise over society as a whole. For the corporate manager on the make, power consists not of money and influence but of “momentum,” a “winning image,” a reputation as a winner. Power lies in the eye of the beholder and thus has no objective reference at all.*
* Indeed it has no reference to anything outside the self. The new ideal of success has no content. “Performance means to arrive,” says Jennings. Success equals success. Note the convergence between success in business and celebrity in politics or the world of entertainment, which also depends on “visibility” and “charisma” and can only be denned as itself. The only important attribute of celebrity is that it is celebrated; no one can say why.
The manager’s view of the world, as described by Jennings, Maccoby, and by the managers themselves, is that of the narcissist, who sees the world as a mirror of himself and has no interest in external events except as they throw back a reflection of his own image. The dense interpersonal environment of modern bureaucracy, in which work assumes an abstract quality almost wholly divorced from performance, by its very nature elicits and often rewards a narcissistic response. Bureaucracy, however, is only one of a number of social influences that are bringing a narcissistic type of personality organization into greater and greater prominence. Another such influence is the mechanical reproduction of culture, the proliferation of visual and audial images in the “society of the spectacle.” We live in a swirl of images and echoes that arrest experience and play it back in slow motion. Cameras and recording machines not only transcribe experience but alter its quality, giving to much of modern life the character of an enormous echo chamber, a hall of mirrors. Life presents itself as a succession of images or electronic signals, of impressions recorded and reproduced by means of photography, motion pictures, television, and sophisticated recording devices. Modern life is so thoroughly mediated by electronic images that we cannot help responding to others as if their actions—and our own—were being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience or stored up for close scrutiny at some later time. “Smile, you’re on candid camera!” The intrusion into everyday life of this all-seeing eye no longer takes us by surprise or catches us with our defenses down. We need no reminder to smile. A smile is permanently graven on our features, and we already know from which of several angles it photographs to best advantage.