"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 24 February 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Office Despot


[good things-]

It's practically a law of media

physics that every pop-culture

fad generates an equal and

opposite reaction - both because

some pundits are just too cool

for any given party and simply

because they want to levy a

cover charge on admission to

their own. Thus, Star Wars begat

death-of-the-auteur film

criticism; Singles begat

Swingers; and the networked

world begat the faux-naturalism

of Range Rovers and corporate

retreats. However monopolistic

the culture industry can

sometimes seem, even those too

late to jump on a given

bandwagon can still make a nice

living sticking up said

stagecoaches. What else could

explain Clifford Stoll's

personal appearance schedule?


Though the Dilbert gravy train

left the station several years

back - even Newsweek was aboard

by late 1996 - cultural

theory-obsessed semioticians

have continued to give chase, on

the grounds that the beleaguered

cartoon character is, in fact,

an evil agent of the very

oppressors he appears to parody.

Apparently, Dilbert takes the

wind out of the sails of social

reform by giving workers a way

to laugh at their plight. What's

more, by pimping his creation

out as a pitchtoon for companies

like Office Depot, Dilbert

creator Scott Adams undercuts

his ability to address the

problems that keep knowledge

workers in chains (well,

cubicles) in the first place.


[scotts gym massage]

As with most nonsensically

contrarian ideas popular among

the sort of people who argue

that Madonna's "Like a Prayer"

is the lens through which to

view race and gender relations

in America, the


running-dog meme took root in

San Francisco and the outer

fringe of academia -

specifically the San Francisco

Bay Guardian. After Tom Tomorrow

penned a cartoon exposing that

Dilbert wasn't quite the

catalyst for the radical

restructuring of America that

his This Modern World is, he

wrote an editorial in the

Guardian discussing why Adams'

decision to license his

characters for use in a Xerox

employee empowerment manual

represented a betrayal to Big

Brother instead of merely a

prank for which he picked up the

check. Not to be outdone, the

Comics Journal ran a Bill

Griffith editorial holding

Dilbert up as a sign of the

decline of Western Civilization,

or at least the small niche of

it that is cartooning. With the

kind of synergy you'd think only

right-wingers could grok, media

critic Norman Soloman turned

these arguments and others into

a full book aimed at exposing

why Dilbert is actually worse

for the health of our polity

than even Beavis and Butt-head.


Unfortunately, an argument

that's stretched in an editorial

runs mighty thin in even a short

book, and those who can't quite

grasp the relationship between

cartoon-page semiotics and

paycheck real life - read:

almost anyone whose daily work

life is more about cubicles than

faculty lounges - might dismiss

The Trouble with Dilbert as

simply the work of a guy who

spends too much time reading the

funny pages. Sure, Adams never

presents a broad critique of

capitalism, but Peanuts never

really developed its critique of

Freud much past mocking Lucy's

penchant for curbside

counseling. One can only assume

Soloman's already hard at work

on The Trouble with Blondie, in

which he'll blast that strip's

creators for going soft on Mr.

Dithers and accuse them of

oversimplifying the class

mobility issues involved in

Blondie's transition from

oppressed housewife to catering

business capitalist.


[the clash-london calling

One can also assume that Soloman

and Tomorrow - who contributed

the Forward to The Trouble - are

unfamiliar with the history of

American humor, in which the

robber barons and the lunch-pail

set often get tarred with the

same brush. Adams has never been

as interested in sending up

either side of the class

struggle - we'll assume, for a

moment, that an appetizing

option package hasn't muddied

Marxism more in this particular

case - as he is in lampooning

the managerial excess and

employee inefficiency that

prevents any actual work from

getting done. In the strip, as

in life, consultants aren't on

anyone's side except their own.

And, in any case, capitalism is

hardly the only economic system

that dehumanizes workers in the

name of systemic efficiency. Or

hasn't Comrade Tomorrow heard

anything about the latest grain



In the tradition of harping

purists, the Dilbert meme team

obsesses over Adams' business

activities. It's a given that

the master's staple remover will

never dismantle the master's

cubicles, but Office Depot's

willingness to spend US$30

million to align its products

with the least

accomplishment-oriented imagery

imaginable is insidious evidence

of Adams' idea that nothing in

the American office ever happens

for the right reasons. His

decision to let Xerox use the

Dilbert crew in a training

manual certainly seems like

co-optation, but it could also be

seen as further proof that

corporate communications is an

oxymoron and that propaganda has

finally become more important

than profits to the American

corporation. Granted, making a

point about a corporation's

infantilization of its employees

by selling them one's cartoon

characters to use in training

exercises is a bit more complex

than most of the gags in Andy

Capp, but one would think

Tomorrow would get the joke.


[chuckwagons french toast logs]

Unless, of course, the real joke

is The Trouble with Dilbert.

Sick of mocking

employee-empowerment manuals and

management handbooks, perhaps

Adams himself started the Dump

Dilbert movement in order to

take shots at the sacred texts

of liberalism - too-thin op-eds

and too-thick cultural studies

treatises. It would be quite a

switch for him to hit one to the

left, but after wading knee-deep

in the jargon of modern

management, what else is left

but the semiotic swamp of the

academy? Only this would explain

the politically erect standards

to which Soloman holds Dilbert.

Among the issues he faults the

strip for ignoring are

union-busting, corporate

welfare, and pension-fund fraud.

For that matter, why must the

child-care workers who care for

the Peanuts gang be blocked out

of history?


If those who criticize Dilbert

are earnest, they would do well

to remember that engineers are

hardly assembly-line workers and

that Dilbert mostly speaks to

knowledge workers who don't have

it so bad anyway. Sure, techie

types are subjected to an

endless stream of management

doublespeak, but the risk they

run of being bored to death sure

beats a metal press accident.

Then again, it's a lot easier to

analyze the comics page than it

is to man the barricades.

courtesy of Dr. Dreidel