Bullshit Jobs, the Double Bind and Schizophrenia

Buried deep on p84 of David Graeber’s “Bullshit Jobs: the rise of pointless work and what we can do about it” are these phrases:

“As early as 1901, the German psychologist Karl Groos discovered that infants express extraordinary happiness when they first figure out they can cause predictable effects in the world…. [he] coined the phrase ‘the pleasure of being the cause’ suggesting that it is the basis for play, which he saw as the exercise of powers simply for the sake of exercising them.”

Richard Sennett, in his book, “Craftsmanship” uses a similar notion in his definition of craftsmanship, “doing a job well for its own sake”. Craftsmanship can then be seen as an adult version of play, exercising our powers to do a job well simply for the sake of exercising them. “Pride in a job well done” might describe this situation and it is a worthy goal.

But let’s explore a little how this can go wrong.

You are working in an office and have been given responsibility to perform certain tasks which you do to both your satisfaction and that of your colleagues. You experience directly “the pleasure of being the cause” coupled with “doing a job well for its own sake”.

For reasons not known to yourself, that ability is now taken away from you.

From Graeber, “…experiments have also shown that if one first allows a child to discover and experience the delight in being being able to cause a certain effect, and then suddenly denies it to them, the results are dramatic: first rage, refusal to engage, and then a kind of catatonic folding in on oneself and withdrawing from the world entirely.

“Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Francis Broucek called this the “trauma of failed influence” and suspected that such traumatic experiences might lie behind many mental health issues later in life.”

The trauma of failed influence is experienced by many middle-aged, mid-level managers. They are at the peak of their ability to influence, based on age and experience but that ability is somehow denied them. How or why matters not for the purposes of this article. What does matter is that the manager no longer feels useful.

Blenkinsopp, “The Ties that Double Bind Us: Career, Emotion and Narrative Coping in Difficult Working Relationships” (2007) takes Bateson’s work from 1956 and applies it to a career influencing role.

At its simplest, a double-bind situation is similar to Hellers’ “Catch-22”, a no-win situation from which there is no escape.

From Bateson the ingredients of a double-bind situation are:

  • Two or more persons, one of which is the “victim”
  • Repeated experience, the double bind becomes an habitual expectation
  • A primary negative injunction, can come in either of two forms: (a) ‘Do not do so and so, or I will punish you’; or (b) ‘If you do not do so and so, I will punish you’
  • A secondary injunction… often communicated non-verbally and contradicting the first
  • A tertiary negative injunction prohibiting the victim from escaping the field

Blenkinsopp’s example was thus:

  • Primary: You will deliver on the organisation’s HR agenda, flawlessly and comprehensively, or you will lose your job.
  • Secondary: You will behave as if the primary injunction is reasonable and you will not require any support from me, because none of this ought to be especially difficult for someone in your position to cope with.
  • Tertiary: You cannot leave, except at considerable cost to your career.

Now, these injunctions would never be this explicit. Instead they would be drip-fed over time through nuances and side comments but you would be left under no illusion about the situation in which you find yourself.

A critical element of the double bind is that you are unable to comment on the contradictions. What matters is that the organisational structure prevents you from pointing out the obvious, you are left to reconcile them on your own.

Thus far, we have someone who has experienced the “pleasure of being the cause” followed by the “trauma of failed influence” who now finds themselves in a situation “inundated by paradoxical communications, coupled with taboos against ‘metacommunicating’ about these paradoxes”, from Kafka, “Ambiguity for individuation—Critique and reformation of double bind theory”, 1971.

Graeber continues,

“… (this) begins to give us a sense of why being trapped in a job where one is treated as if one were usefully employed, and has to play along with the pretence that one is usefully employed, but at the same time, is keenly aware one is not usefully employed, would have devastating effects.”

Bateson’s work on the double bind was based on investigations into schizophrenia, the definition of which is worth noting

“a long-term mental disorder of a type involving a breakdown in the relation between thought, emotion, and behaviour, leading to faulty perception, inappropriate actions and feelings, withdrawal from reality and personal relationships into fantasy and delusion, and a sense of mental fragmentation.”

Dostoyevsky developed a theory that the worst torture one could possibly devise would be to force someone to endlessly perform an obviously pointless task.

Graeber’s definition of a bullshit job closely matches this,

“… a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.

Small wonder then that mental health issues in middle management are increasing and the suicide rate for those 45+ is the fastest growing across all age groups.

“A human being unable to have meaningful impact on the world ceases to exist.”

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