PRINT November 1998


business lit

THE PRESS KIT THAT CAME WITH my copy of Gordon MacKenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace (Viking, 1998) describes the book as “originally self-published and already a business cult-classic.” That such a thing exists should surprise no one: so far has business writing evolved in the last thirty years, so many subgenres has it spun off, that the notion of a cult classic is today but one of the many ways in which this former publishing industry niche now constitutes a fairly complete parallel literary universe. There are management prayer books, management murder mysteries, management literary criticism, management mysticism, and a vast outpouring of management social theory in which this or that bit of stale, fifty-year-old thought is retrofitted with the logic and language of the cubicle and offered up as the latest in power thinking.

What fuels the explosion in management literature is a single set of ideas, cropping up everywhere from the works of Tom Peters to July’s issue of Fortune, with its cover story on “cool companies, extreme investing.” Yes, American business has discovered the nineteenth-century critique of middle-class values; it has realized the validity of all those dead aesthetes’ complaints about the stifling ways of the bourgeoisie and the horror of routine; it is living giddily through a ’60s of its own in which talk of “revolution” has acquired a cachet it hasn’t had for several decades.

Orbiting the Giant Hairball proceeds from an observation its author shares with virtually every other management writer of the past decade: the problem with business is rigid, entrenched ways, inflexible regulations, formulaic organization, and number-mad bean counters. And, like nearly every one of its predecessors, it finds salvation in some pursuit that is antirational and really really visionary. Its message could easily fit on a postcard: creativity is often stifled by order. The language with which MacKenzie runs through this routine is also pretty familiar, culled as it is from the last half-century of pop psychology, pop sociology, and advertising. We hear much about the “grey sameness of the bowels of the institution,” the “teachers and trainers who work so hard to instill a professionalism that prizes correctness over authenticity and originality,” and the comparative wonders of “rules-breaking, nonconformity, experimentation, and innovation.” The author rails against standard modern bugbears like genetically engineered fruit and overproduced music and uses standard metaphors for corporate life, like paint-by-numbers and mask-wearing. Even the book’s desperately bizarre, Sean Landers-ish layout—the text, often handwritten, wanders through carefully naive drawings and across pages that still show the pink margin lines—is lifted from familiar ’60s relics like Do It, The Medium Is the Massage, and Up the Organization.

What astonishes about Orbiting the Giant Hairball is the culture in which this forty-year-old social critique is being recapitulated. Today we hear about the dreaded conformity of middle-class life not from some hated hippie but from a lifelong employee of Hallmark Cards, Inc., the Kansas City-based purveyor of inoffensive sentiment to the millions. Nor is MacKenzie some CEO sharing the secrets of strategic bloodletting. He’s even a member of upper management.

Its social position makes Hairball a curious artifact: revolution for the ranch-house set, a critique of the anonymity of business life written not for activists but for corporate man himself. The title’s conceit is explicated throughout the book: corporations are like “giant hairballs,” knots of “Corporate Normalcy” intolerant of “original thinking.” While you don’t want to become part of the hairball, neither do you want to go “flying out into the overwhelming nothingness of deep space” (aka society). So you achieve a delicate “orbit”: “invest enough individuality to counteract the pull of Corporate Gravity, but not so much that you escape that pull altogether.” Life may be unpleasant inside the corporation, but beyond its fatherly confines is an airless vacuum. The alternative? To become “original” rather than destructive. In MacKenzie’s words, “I was able to spend most of my career drawing and writing funny, anti-establishment greeting cards, venting my rage against society’s restrictions in a way that filled me with mischievous exhilaration, made a profit for the company and thus, brought me material security.”

It’s a fairly easy thing to deride, this spectacle of the épater gesture translated smoothly into self-help literature. But compare Hairball to the self-conscious art-world production its design most resembles, Sean Landers’s aptly titled [sic] (Riverhead, 1993). Like MacKenzie, Landers identifies, tongue-in-cheek or no, the great pitfall of life as the horrors of middle-classdom, and structures his book as a self-help guide for those intent on avoiding that fate: “The true risk is me giving up returning to the middle class life I left so torchured from, just like you did. Even if you left just while in college, you know what I’m talking about.” Of course we do, but college has nothing to do with it: today we are taught of the “torchures” of “middle class life” as capably by Oldsmobile commercials as by Baudelaire.

The differences between the two writers are also instructive. Landers is, of course, an epigone of archness, incapable of leaving his carefully crafted sad-sack persona even for an instant, and he announces that those who can’t strike the “artist” pose might as well be sentenced to earnestness hell, might as well become “a 3-D teacher in the mid-west.” MacKenzie, who relates in Hairball the joy he derives from giving art lectures to elementary school students in Kansas City, seems really to care about his readers, and this faintly dopey attitude is the main thing standing between his work and the tail-chasing ruminations of [sic]. It is a slight difference, to be sure, a matter of nuance and little winks, but one senses that it is sufficient to have drawn MacKenzie a life sentence at Hallmark while yielding up to Landers opening after glamorous opening.

Thomas Frank contributes this column regularly to Artforum.