Tragedy mistaken for management theory

From the Verso blog, a piece by Sarah Brouillette on Kazuo Ishiguro as Nobel laureate and the ‘literary industry’.

The Remains of the Day is one of Jeff Bezos’s favourite books. He claims it is the foundation of his “regret-minimization framework” and helped him to find the courage to start Amazon. If he has noticed that the novel is about how class subordination ruins people’s lives, he hasn’t said so. The heart of the novel is the protagonist’s — and before him, his father’s — dependence on waged work. The story traces the process by which we begin to lose the ability to separate ourselves from our professional roles. It was published in 1989, and its concern with the subsumption of life by work was clearly occasioned in part by the circulation of images of the 1980s corporate crunch, with all those people working so much they forgot how to “really live.” It also denounces the British imperial project’s dependence on classed relationships: how much of the empire’s daily operation depended on people feeling that they didn’t have a right to object to their employers’ imperatives, or better, couldn’t fathom how to find another source of wealth that would allow them to say no?

Bezos wants new Amazon employees to do what Stevens never does: live life to the fullest, seize the day. He means that they should do all this at work, of course. Or, more accurately, he can assume there is no distinction for those he hires: work is life, life is work. Real leisure will just make them better employees, as will the feeling that they are pursuing their passions in all things. Bezos is glad to think that what Ishiguro’s novel fears has come to pass: the person and person-performing-at-work are now one. His use of the novel as a corporate management tool proves how easily a “follow your heart” mantra can be recuperated. Bezos isn’t reading Ishiguro right, of course. The novel concludes with a lament about precisely such recuperation. Stevens has been reading too much into Miss Kenton’s (now Mrs. Benn’s) letter; she won’t come back to Darlington Hall with him, and the love story is over. So, he plans to return to work, the only difference being that he will now practice “bantering,” which his new American employer would enjoy. This bantering for him symbolizes de-sublimation, freedom from constraint — a certain “human warmth,” he calls it, which he now admits he lacks. It is precisely by operationalizing the injunction to “enjoy life” that he will be able to keep working. It’s a tragic ending.

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