Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Hallowe'en Countdown 2015: The Banality of Evil

Nazi Adolf Eichmann misused Kant's categorical imperative to defend himself at his 1961-1962 trial, stating that his atrocities were for his country's greater good, as legally defined by Hitler. Image Source: Wiki.

Welcome back after a blog break. At present, I am completing several projects, including a work of fiction. I want to thank readers of this blog who generously sent donations to support my attendance at the Bread Loaf Sicily writers' conference in September, as well as regular readers who support my writing here. Bread Loaf confirmed to me the value of the arts in times of transformation; when values change, traditions are overturned, and old political schools collapse, the arts find a new baseline in the chaos. The Italian Renaissance proved that an economy can expanded through renewed cultural vision; and thus the jump from prosperity to even greater prosperity depends upon perspectives enhanced by the arts. Critics have dismissed the arts and humanities as worthless luxuries in the past few years, but practitioners in these fields defeat misery, strife and exploitation by constantly seeking truths in the unknown.

Today, HoTTC starts another Countdown to Hallowe'en, the annual online event in which hundreds of blogs join together to count down the days of the harvest season in the northern hemisphere to mark the spooky end of October. In this fifth year that Histories of Things to Come joins the blogathon, the blog's ghosts and vampires will not always be present in their familiar forms. A ghost today might be a war zone freedom fighter, a political refugee, or a super soldier programme drop-out. A vampire could be a glamorous celebrity. A werewolf might manifest as an ISIS executioner. Most of my 2015 posts as Cryptkeeper - every third day this month - will examine darker sides of the commonplace. These are areas where the mundane drops away into uncertainty and fear. To start, here are some stories about the banality of evil from yesterday and today.

Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, one of the most poignant pieces of artistic work ever created to soothe a broken heart. Performed by the Chimei Symphony Orchestra in Taipei, Taiwan in 2005; conducted by Naoki Tokuoka. Video Source: Youtube.

In 1723, when the composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was hired at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, he was informed, "We tried to get Telemann but he was unavailable, so we had to settle for the lesser man." Bach's music was so undervalued that out of five years of weekly cantatas (that is, small oratorios to be performed in church services) only two years' worth remain. After Bach's death, his cantatas were piled in a corner, and three years' worth - around 120 compositions - were used as rough paper to wrap the lunches of the choirboys.

The story may be apocryphal, but the cantatas were certainly lost, and when one considers that Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring came from the cantatas that survive, imagine what was lost. Bach wasted years quarreling with Leipzig's stuffy bourgeois town council. It is sobering to consider what he could have written in the time squandered writing angry letters to the town administrators. For decades, Bach was undervalued and ignored by general music audiences. He was remembered only as a great church organist. Today, we hear his brilliance and see him as a master, but that is only because he was revived in the 19th century by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). (Thanks to -D.)

Nor was this successful move to change the course of history, to shift dumb, blind inertia created by wrong judgement, an easy thing to do. It took a nearly superhuman effort on Mendelssohn's part to address the error committed one century before. And when he did it, it was as if something forgotten or missing, something deeply needed, finally fell into place. The public rushed to recognize Bach and understand the immense value of his work, which had been sitting in plain sight, neglected and overlooked. Christianity.com:
[Mendelssohn] arranged to have Bach's St. Matthew Passion played on ... March 11, 1829, almost exactly a century from the date of its first, long-forgotten performance. Mendelssohn himself conducted. "Never," wrote one participant, "have I known any performance so consecrated by one united sympathy." More than 1,000 people were unable to get tickets. Two further concerts had to be scheduled at once. So great was the sensation that composer Hector Berlioz marveled, "There is but one god--Bach and Mendelssohn, his prophet." Today many consider Bach the greatest composer who ever lived. Mendelssohn's oratorios Elijah and Paul are his own monuments to faith. Mendelssohn died at thirty six, worn out with overwork.
Today, it is still difficult to process the crimes against humanity which occurred in the 20th century. The bloody thumbprint left by the past century on the soul of humanity is so indelible that we automatically think of the destruction of culture in apocalyptic racist terms, starting with Nazi book burnings. At the same time, it is difficult to face the evils of the 20th century; popular culture is full of cartoon monsters or caricatured mass murderers in slasher films. These entertainment vehicles make the monsters safe and easy to understand.

Bach's story is a lesson on how a lie can travel half way around the world before the truth even gets its boots on. We see (or most of us do) the explosive horror of the Nazis two hundred years after Bach's time, but we understand much less the evil impact - as in the case of the Leipzig choirboys' lunch wrappers - of an unimaginative conformity of taste. Collective judgements of high cultural expressions depend upon a herd mentality.

Images Source: pinterest via Daily Mail.

In other words, evil is not just a malevolent force that can take monstrous forms. Nor does it always wear an easily recognized swastika on its arm. It does not have to show up with a mask, black cape and helmet. It need not be a 50s' conservative Stepford Wife. It is not a gnome, inducing nightmares from the end of your bed. Evil can manifest through the destruction of good due to laziness, carelessness, arrogance, or mimetic conformity. Moving with a curve can appear to be the safest option, but it can be the most dangerous move of all. This was the origin of Hannah Arendt's 1963 warning against the "banality of evil."

Image Source: Anti-Film School.

Today, you might expect evil to show up as an ISIS executioner. What you don't expect is for evil to show up in a place like Amazon, one of those success stories of Millennial culture. What could be wrong with a global bookstore? The problem is that banal evil might show up as a corporate hipster, a cross-pollination between two 21st century horrors.

In 2013 and 2014, The Guardian and HuffPo reported that Amazon treats its warehouse and delivery workers abysmally. Then there was a 15 August 2015 exposé from the New York Times on Amazon's maltreatment of its corporate professionals: "The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions." NYT argued that Amazon's smiley public image conceals Darwinian work conditions:
On Monday mornings, fresh recruits line up for an orientation intended to catapult them into Amazon’s singular way of working. They are told to forget the “poor habits” they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they “hit the wall” from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: “Climb the wall,” others reported. To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, “I’m Peculiar” — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)
Amazon's leadership principles are typical 21st century workplace mantras. You see them everywhere, exhorting the employee to strive toward excellence, while failure or rest is not an option. Critics argue that these mantras are excuses for running along a track in a pre-set system. These ideas do not encourage innovation, because real innovation and achievement of excellence require time and space for trial and error, and thought and practice prior to performance.

There is a debate now in management theory about permitting space for risk and failureAn essential characteristic of cultures that win is allowing failure as a foundation for future success. Only those who have fallen can see both sides of the mirror. Only those who have taken risks know the measure, extent and value of those risks in relation to final, successful outcomes. Other critics argue that workplace mantras are exploitative of their subjects and targets. The mantras are part of what one commenter on Twitter calls "inspiration porn," a label at the heart of an argument about marketing which uses images of 'disabled people' accomplishing incredible things to inspire 'normals' to get off their asses and achieve what an employer now regards as the bare minimum.

Somewhere, Amazon's mantras went wrong. The NYT claimed that the company's friendly messages demand that staff work beyond human limits, a code for psychological abuse. Eric Moore, the chief technical officer of cloud and automation at Hewlett-Packard Software Americas, commented: "Amazon was the most toxic work environment I have ever seen." If true, Amazon is not alone in this. Many workplaces now create an oppressive collective psychology to drive employees to mirror their 21st century machine tools, while preserving inhumane mentalities from the 20th century. Work makes us free, yes? NYT:
[Amazon] is conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable. The company, founded and still run by Jeff Bezos, rejects many of the popular management bromides that other corporations at least pay lip service to and has instead designed what many workers call an intricate machine propelling them to achieve Mr. Bezos’ ever-expanding ambitions.

“This is a company that strives to do really big, innovative, groundbreaking things, and those things aren’t easy,” said Susan Harker, Amazon’s top recruiter. “When you’re shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging. For some people it doesn’t work.”

Bo Olson was one of them. He lasted less than two years in a book marketing role and said that his enduring image was watching people weep in the office, a sight other workers described as well. “You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face,” he said. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.” ...

Amazon is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving. “Organizations are turning up the dial, pushing their teams to do more for less money, either to keep up with the competition or just stay ahead of the executioner’s blade,” said Clay Parker Jones, a consultant who helps old-line businesses become more responsive to change. ...

[One former employee, Dina Vaccari, remarks:] “I was so addicted to wanting to be successful there. For those of us who went to work there, it was like a drug that we could get self-worth from.” ... Even many Amazonians who have worked on Wall Street and at start-ups say the workloads at the new South Lake Union campus can be extreme: marathon conference calls on Easter Sunday and Thanksgiving, criticism from bosses for spotty Internet access on vacation, and hours spent working at home most nights or weekends.

“One time I didn’t sleep for four days straight,” said ... Vaccari, who joined in 2008 to sell Amazon gift cards to other companies and once used her own money, without asking for approval, to pay a freelancer in India to enter data so she could get more done. “These businesses were my babies, and I did whatever I could to make them successful.” [Another ex-worker, Liz Pearce, claims:] “I would see people practically combust.” ...

Elizabeth Willet, a former Army captain who served in Iraq ... [faced] co-workers [at Amazon who] strafed her through the Anytime Feedback Tool, the widget in the company directory that allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to management. (While bosses know who sends the comments, their identities are not typically shared with the subjects of the remarks.) Because team members are ranked, and those at the bottom eliminated every year, it is in everyone’s interest to outperform everyone else.

Craig Berman, an Amazon spokesman, said the tool was just another way to provide feedback, like sending an email or walking into a manager’s office. Most comments, he said, are positive.

However, many workers called it a river of intrigue and scheming. They described making quiet pacts with colleagues to bury the same person at once, or to praise one another lavishly. Many others, along with Ms. Willet, described feeling sabotaged by negative comments from unidentified colleagues with whom they could not argue. In some cases, the criticism was copied directly into their performance reviews — a move that Amy Michaels, the former Kindle manager, said that colleagues called “the full paste.”
In response, Bezos defended his company: "I don't recognize this Amazon [described by the New York Times]." Is this Bezos really the same guy who may have bought the last book from the last library, who used his wealth to preserve one of the most important codex palimpsests we have? Because if it is the same guy, and the NYT report is true, then something has indeed gone very wrong, and Bezos's business of culture has become a seat of banal evil. One need only apply Kant's categorical imperative.

We have to grasp how serious this is: if the whole world operated in the way Amazon reportedly does, we would be living in a totalitarian dictatorship. Amazon's defenders have refuted the report (here, here, here, here and here, the discussion on Twitter is here) and others have agreed with the report (herehere, here, here and here). The NYT loved the attention its article got. The concern the newspaper raised holds true for non-democratically-organized businesses everywhere. What does it matter if we live in nominally liberal democracies, governmentally speaking, if our waking hours at work are anti-democratic; and so-called meritocracies are founded on corrupted virtues?

The NYT's ex-Amazon interviewees made it clear that this desperate path to excellence and productivity is not actually a path to excellence and productivity. Nor is it sustainable in human terms. Companies are already factoring in burnout and replacing workers sooner and sooner with younger workers who will work longer for less. But the younger workers burn out too. Since this path is unsustainable, these managerial tactics will inevitably be reevaluated and dismissed as a failed experiment. What Bach cantata of today lies abused and ignored in a corner, sidelined by corporate mindthink? And what Mendelssohn will we need in 2115 to correct this path of so-called culture and innovation?

Image Source: HuffPo.

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