Let me preface this by claiming that beauty forms the moral imagination. Aesthetics shape our ethics, in ways both problematic and promising. How does this relate to Michael Scott? Because few of my coworkers have been transformed by encounters with something like the Isenheim Altarpiece. Instead, they’ve rewatched NBC’s 2005 sitcom masterpiece The Office a dozen times, just as I have. They can quote with nuance and abandon lines from “Dinner Party,” and I’m fairly confident every tenth meme in our resident text thread features Dwight Schrute.
The Office was the most streamed Netflix show of 2020 and apparently the most watched show on Netflix of all time. Close watching of an artwork which has enjoyed that much attention for so long (15 years) is not trivial fan service. It can be deeply generative — even morally consequential. I think of the boys in Stranger Things making intertextual moral imperatives through analogies to The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Their imaginations have been so shaped by Tolkien and Lucas that their actions, in a very tangible sense, are determined by what Bilbo or Lando Calrissian might do. As James K. A. Smith writes in Imagining the Kingdom, “it is stories that train and prime our emotions, which in turn condition our perception and hence our action.” Close readings of one of our generation’s most beloved television shows are formative. Fiction and fantasy still do moral work, even if set in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
And it is to the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin that I want to again return. As such, this essay assumes a deep love of The Office and a good familiarity with it. If the title pitch of Alex Danco’s essay wasn’t enough to make you read it (please do), here is a brief summary:
A Tripartite Paper Company
Drawing on Venkatesh Rao’s “Gervais Principle,” Holly Whyte’s The Organization Man, and the work of Michael Church, Danco suggests that The Office has embedded within it a three-tiered schema of social class which maps onto our real world. Plato had producers, warriors, and rulers. MacIntyre aesthetes, managers, and therapists. But Danco sees losers, elites, and idiots:
The everyday economic losers: the bottom layer of The Office and our organizations alike, a group concerned primarily with getting through their work and getting to the weekend. A crucial key here is that this group are “losers” only in the sense that “their leverage is capped.” They’ll enjoy a normal, comfortable life, but they’ll never rise to the elite. Thus they are cynical about their work (see the real-world phenomenon of bullshit jobs). They see the world as it is and do their best to live within it. This is Stanley, Darryl, Pam, and Jim.
The elite corporate sociopaths: the top layer, concerned primarily with power and, like the economic losers, also able to see the world rationally — albeit ruthlessly and in such a way as to gain more power or money. This is Jan, David Wallace, Robert California, and Ryan the temp.
The clueless educated gentry: the middle layer of managers and Cornell grads. Those concerned primarily with performance, becoming elite, and being liked. They are unable to see the world clearly as a result. They don’t know what they don’t know. Sometimes they begin sentences without knowing how they will end them. This is Andy, Dwight, and Michael Scott himself.
What is particularly fun to read is how Danco organizes the use of language between these three groups. The internal language of the economic losers is “Gametalk” (the inside jokes and pranks to get through the day, such as we see early on in “Office Olympics” and throughout Jim and Pam’s flirtation).
The internal language of the elite is “Powertalk” (ruthless information gathering and planning, especially on display in Robert California).
And finally the internal language of the clueless: “Posturetalk” (meaningless, performative babbling. This is Andy as an insecure yes man, Dwight as a delusional authoritarian, and Michael as the paradigmatic fool).
Danco also describes external languages — how each class speaks to the other two classes. One mark of the clueless class is that they can only speak in Posturetalk. Both their internal and external language is posturing nonsense painfully vying for attention from the losers and the elite alike (think Michael and Dwight in “The Coup”).
The losers and the elite, on the other hand, have distinct external languages: “Babytalk,” in which they placate and humor the clueless (Oscar walking Michael Scott through the surplus) and “Straighttalk” in which losers and elites speak candidly with each other with “zero encoding” (David Wallace interviewing Jim).
On Your Way to Becoming Michael Scott
And here is where Danco’s social theory makes its central claim: the higher you work your way up the organizational ladder from the economic losers toward the educated gentry, the more detached from reality you become, increasingly posturing, performing, and approximating the clueless social asymptote that is Michael Scott. Membership in the corporate elite is realistically impossible, but that doesn’t stop your attempt to squeeze in. The more you rise in this schema, the more you take on the trappings of the elite and powerful while tragically devoid of either (see again, “Dinner Party”).
In our world, Danco puts in this group the “serious triathletes,” PhD students, anyone with an opinion on “the right amount of hops” or more than 10,000 followers on Twitter, Urbanites, Farmer’s Marketeers, and definitely anyone who has written (or could feasibly submit) an opinion piece for NYT. The role of language in this social trajectory is crucial: “as more of the language surrounding you becomes Posturetalk and Babytalk, the more conclusively you will double down on being ‘serious’ about whatever you’re pursuing, as both a defence mechanism and in pursuit of real praise.”
As someone who loves hops, “serious” things, and may well have submitted a few op-eds to NYT (rejected, obviously), I naturally resist this. The worlds of medicine and ethics seem to require a certain level of posturing: name dropping or “performing” an idea or argument I am working through in order to locate myself on a strange sort of social chessboard of ideas and truths, signaling to my interlocutor, “hey man I care about this stuff, too, and to some extent know what I’m talking about, so let’s jump in.”
And here I concede that this entire exercise — in which I take dead serious an obscure article proposing a social theory of The Office while offering an additional critique — no doubt confirms me in the very clueless, “educated gentry” class I don’t want to be in but know that I am in. The only way to rise out of this fate is by pontificating myself out of the obscure op-ed group through, obviously, writing an obscure op-ed. So let me just say here that I don’t need to be liked. I enjoy being liked. I have to be liked. But it’s not like this compulsive need to be liked like my need to be praised.
The Fourth Class
There is something missing from Danco’s three-tiered scheme, namely a fourth class of what I will call the creative truthtalkers.
Danco draws on David Brooks (ironically a master of the NYT elite), and specifically his book Bobos in Paradise, which traces the rise of the mash-up class between the bourgeoise and Bohemian — a generation “mortified to show off a $10,000 watch but excited to tell you about their single-origin Japanese knives.” This is the class that perfectly embodies Charles Taylor’s ethics of authenticity, Allan’s Bloom’s closing of the American mind, and Alasdair MacIntyre’s ethics in the conflicts of modernity (Posturetalk achieved) — the emergence of a pseudo-elite class that includes hipsters, influencers, protestors, new academics, dilettantes, and autodidacts who seek a life of authenticity, personal taste, and well-being above all else. The highly educated who understand everything but are moved by nothing. The clueless educated.
Brooks carries this analysis forward in his most recent The Second Mountain: The Quest for the Moral Life. The book is something of a confession of faith, concluding with a “Relationalist Manifesto” for rebuilding thick communities amidst our crumbling individualistic moral ecology. For Brooks, such a manifesto hinges on exploding the hyperindividualistic life and declaring a declaration of interdependence that wrestles seriously with the idea of the good life, the good society, and the process of becoming a person.
To do this, Brooks sketches the path of what he calls the first mountain — the standard path which produces “insecure overachievers” (elite corporate sociopaths), hyperindividualistic Instagram aesthetes (educated clueless gentry), and “the lonely rest of us” (everyday economic losers). This first mountain is the embodiment of American meritocracy: the path of performance, identity establishment, talent cultivation, and ego building. “People climbing that first mountain spend a lot of time thinking about reputation management.”
Brooks then turns to the path of “the second mountain.” After getting to the top of the first mountain and wondering “is this all there is?” (or, more likely, falling into the valley of suffering or bewilderment), you find yourself at the foot of a different mountain — the slope of practical wisdom: the calling to vocation, marriage, faith, and community. Whereas you conquer the first mountain, the second mountain conquers you. Brooks argues it is a path marked by “a motivational shift,” “a walkout experience,” “bright sadness,” and a “deep, relentless, intimate relationality.”
Brooks in effect is imagining a fourth class of what he calls “weavers” or second mountaineers (Second Life having already been claimed by Dwight.) This is the fourth class missing from Danco’s schema, embodied by Jim, Pam, and Holly Flax. (Danco bundles Jim and Pam into the economic losers, but I think this is forced.) This fourth class are those in The Office who help to reform the posturing of the clueless, the ruthlessness of the elite, and the cynicism of the economic with simple acts of beauty and truth-telling.
The first way the fourth class does this is through truth-telling. Everyone in The Office has moments of what Danco identifies as “Straighttalk”— the candid, direct language which marks many of the serious moments in the series.
What sets Jim, Pam, and Holly apart is their ability to speak the truth, even amidst this straight talk. Jim is perhaps the archetype of this, as his direct eye contact with the viewer and fourth wall breaks are a token aspect of The Office, asking you to pay attention to both what is really happening and the emotions of others: do you see what I’m seeing?
Moreover, Jim increasingly speaks with wisdom, giving advice to Michael and essentially everyone else. That may be rom-com sentimental flair, but is certainly not mere Gametalk or Straighttalk. It’s something approximating what is fitting and good and even beautiful — truth. As such, the fourth class participates within but also actively resists posturetalk, powertalk, and straighttalk with something more like truthtalk.
The second work of the fourth class is creativity. In Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life, Makoto Fujimura offers yet another vision for this, taken from a curious word in Beowulf: mearcstapas, literally meaning “marsh-stepper” or “muddy-border walker.” These are people (often creatives) who walk the borders of multiple worlds and social classes, transiting them, offering testimony between them and from them, and eventually transforming them.
Mearcstapas don’t merely speak between worlds but actually cross them and re-create them. Consider how Jim is the first character to jump worlds, quickly ascending the loser class ladder to entertain an interview with elite corporate. This only pushes him back to his second mountain, Pam, to create a life with her. A characteristic of this weaving, border-walking class is that they often taste parts of all three classes (most importantly the elite sociopaths) and come back changed or chastened (“the walkout experience”). This is Jim’s arc throughout the show, crossing between his sales job, an ill-fated stint as co-manager, and then truly wrestling with the temptation of the elite sociopathic life in his dream job of sports marketing with Athlead.
Holly Flax deserves special attention here. She likewise comes from corporate, sharing worlds with both Toby (Michael’s mortal HR enemy) and Jan (Michael’s sociopathic paramour). She moves states— crossing borders — and eventually reunites with Michael, calling him toward a life that literally takes Michael Scott out of the show, symbolizing that they have, in a sense, broken the three-class structure. There was a “motivational shift” manifesting in “a walkout experience” marked by “deep, relentless, intimate relationality.” Michael and Holly don’t need to posture, power-play, game-talk, or straight-talk because they have found, as cheesy as it is, the speech of love and created a new way to live. The fact that Michael takes off his microphone as he leaves the show is fitting. He no longer has to babble, posture, or perform.
What I’m arguing here is that Holly, Jim, and Pam each participate in the redemption of the clueless educated, and they do so through creativity, forbearance, and friendship. Jim transforms Michael’s attitude toward leadership. Holly transforms Michael’s attitude toward companionship. Pam transforms Michael’s attitude toward friendship. Michael Scott is still a clueless idiot “hoping to get an upgrade as an awards member” in his final scene, but he is also now a beloved friend, transformed by this fourth class of creative truthtalkers and second mountaineers and called into a new life with Holly Flax, returning home to Colorado to care for her aging parents (a “bright sadness”). Michael’s proposal to Holly ends with the office sprinkler system going off and manifesting a sort of pseudo-baptism, marking his exit from the gentry and entry into a new life.
Truth Against Posture and Power
2020 was bewildering at nearly every level of human existence: bodily integrity with COVID-19, civil discourse with BLM and the gender revolution, political life with Trump and Biden. (Perhaps this has something to do with how frequently The Office was streamed last year). The first month of 2021 has no doubt extended the Powertalk and Posturetalk of 2020.
Much has been offered about what we are to do as Christians: the Rod Dreher dyad of The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies. Jake Meador’s In Search of the Common Good. Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. The diagnostics of decline are sobering: we are the loneliest, most burnt-out generation in American history. Our ethical and moral language, as MacIntyre predicted, is increasingly fickle, uprooted, and irreconcilable. At least in America, participation in the life of the church and affiliation with Christianity are both plummeting. The public is now dominated by the private (literally, the “idiotic,” from the Greek idios for private). The place of formation in our lives, that which transforms and reforms, has been replaced by what merely performs.
Brooks offers a take on this as well, what he called the “walls” to Christian witness in 2019:
- The Siege Mentality: in which we either retreat into the purity of enclave or do whatever is needed to defend the tribe. This is Powertalk.
- Bad Listening: in which we unfurl theological maxims and one-liners without really attending to what our neighbor is saying. This is Posturetalk.
- Invasive Care: in which we use the banner of faith as a way to force ourselves into other people’s lives unfaithfully. This is also Posturetalk.
- Intellectual Mediocrity: in which we pedal affirmations and “soften discussion” in such a way that “the jewel of truth is not hardened.” This is the lack of creative Truthtalk.
As my dear friend, obscure PhD student, and missionary Thomas Sieberhagen points out, it is interesting how much Jesus is aware of posturetalk in Matthew 6:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, … when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. … when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.”
All this leads up to the Lord’s Prayer itself — perhaps the quintessential Truthtalk, a prayer between the Trinity itself —flipping the narrative of performance and calling us back to repentance and the hidden life where formation can actually be received.
I wonder if, when my neighbor asks me my thoughts on Trump or Biden or COVID-19 or BLM or CRT or whatever, if I might flip the expected narrative on its head and first listen deeply. Care not with invasion but with invitation. Ask what they streamed on Netflix last year, when was the last time they watched The Office. We can get to BLM and Christian nationalism (we must, no doubt), but let’s first break bread at the table of the beautiful and true.
At the same time, I’m skeptical. Perhaps this idea is simply wishful babbling. At least when it comes to name-dropping and bread-crumbing and posturing in academia or church life, we need better habits of friendships from the fourth class. Indeed, isn’t it self-evident that the most faithful and rich conversations — those jostling between gametalk, straighttalk, and truthtalk— are those held amongst friends who already trust each other with humor, candor, and truth, who can share what they think or what they’ve created without fear of derision or pandering? Back to my friend Thomas:
“[Trust] enables a conversation that might sound like posturetalk to outsiders but is actually truthtalk. However if we ‘perform’ the exact same conversation in front of non-academics, it becomes posturing. We need friends who can smell posturing a mile away and are quick to point out the bullshit.”
Pam Beesly and the Point of Beauty
I’ll close where I began, with art forming action. With that in mind I want to focus on the unassuming Pam Beesly, who is the touchstone of the fourth class missing from Danco’s scheme and a prime example of the creative truthtalker who transforms the community she touches.
As we know, Pam is the last person in the office to hug Michael Scott before he boards his plane for Colorado (excluding his brief cameo in the last season). Dwight claims her as his best friend in the series finale. Pam has touched and transformed these clueless gentry.
What is particularly interesting to me is that Pam is presumably the only visual artist in The Office. Her elementary (but endearing) watercolor of the eponymous office is framed and hung next to Michael’s office and the entrance to the general office space, acting as a sort of symbol for the sincerity of the show and a focal point for the finale. Recall also that it is only Michael Scott, the bastion of the clueless, who visits Pam’s art show from the office. Even if Michael is doing this purely for selfish, posturing reasons, his presence and pride over Pam (“I am really proud of you”) and purchase of her artwork shows his capacity, even early on, for seeing things as they are, foreshadowing perhaps his future redemption and entry into fatherhood.
It is Pam’s creativity in her painting that enjoys the final shot of the series, and the truth in Pam’s voice that earns her the last line: “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?” The original table reading of the finale renders this line a bit differently—“You can find truth and beauty in the most ordinary settings. Isn’t that kind of the point?”
Indeed. Perhaps that is a place we Christians can start in 2021, listening long to friends who call out bullshit, eliminating the talk of posturing and power in favor of the tongues of truth and beauty — even if we like talking about hops, especially if we like submitting op-eds.