Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

A new study conducted by Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban with yet more confirmation of the problems with open plan office space is currently attracting wide attention in the media and on the web. Of course, the study does no more than confirm what has already been argued at length elsewhere and what workers know from experience and common sense, but the study is novel in that it has used high tech tracking methods. The authors also deploy extensive referencing and scientific method to support their findings. As we know, organisations will only listen to information that runs contrary to their commercial interests if studies ramp up the scientific overkill. Well done to the authors for their contribution on this front.

Libby Sander has also reported on the study in The Conversation and The Sydney Morning Herald with the optimistic title (perhaps added by the editors rather than the author) A new study should be the final nail for open-plan offices. Of course, if a building has already been purpose built according to what can only be described as the ideology of open plan, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to retrofit it.

Cal Newport who has commented at some length on his blog in the past on open plan refers to the article as well.

The Financial Review has also reported on the study

For quick reference, the abstract to Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban’s article, “The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration” which is available via open access on The Royal Society website can be found below.

Abstract
Organizations’ pursuit of increased workplace collaboration has led managers to transform traditional office spaces into ‘open’, transparency-enhancing architectures with fewer walls, doors and other spatial boundaries, yet there is scant direct empirical research on how human interaction patterns change as a result of these architectural changes. In two intervention-based field studies of corporate headquarters transitioning to more open office spaces, we empirically examined—using digital data from advanced wearable devices and from electronic communication servers—the effect of open office architectures on employees’ face-to-face, email and instant messaging (IM) interaction patterns. Contrary to common belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70%) in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction. In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM. This is the first study to empirically measure both face-to-face and electronic interaction before and after the adoption of open office architecture. The results inform our understanding of the impact on human behaviour of workspaces that trend towards fewer spatial boundaries.

This article is part of the theme issue ‘Interdisciplinary approaches for uncovering the impacts of architecture on collective behaviour’.

Also reported on on The Mandarin website and on the Science Alert website amongst many others.

It is often argued that Foucault adopts a relativist view of history. This couldn’t be further from the truth (no pun intended). It is much more complex than that. Most often it means in coded form ‘Foucault’s view and interpretation of history and events is at odds with my own view’.

If we have different views on the past, it is because we are enlarging and looking at quite specific concrete events and finding new angles, new layers and new understandings of those events,new ways of relating these events to a wider network including the events which happened subsequently to those things which happened. There is no way of exhausting our understanding of historical events and their significance for our present as more events accumulate. The past is still connected in this way to our present. Events are not fixed in the past, they are part of a network.

Foucault notes in “The Order of Discourse” that history, far from

“[turning away] from events: on the contrary […] is constantly enlarging their field, discovering new layers of them, shallower or deeper. It is constantly isolating new sets of them, in which they are sometimes numerous, dense and interchangeable, sometimes rare and decisive.”
Michel Foucault. “The Order of Discourse.” In Untying the Text: A Poststructuralist Reader, ed. R. Young, trans. Ian McLeod. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981, p.68

One might argue that this is a quantum view of history, ‘facts’ can operate either as waves or particles. The web that facts and events are woven into is so complex that we can emphasise one set of relations and then another or another and never reach the end of it. This is not relativism or anything goes – it requires a rigorous understanding of the details of those networks and a talent and relentless erudition in making these connections intelligible.

If we understand history and science as a network, not a discrete linearity of hermetic sealed items that follow in a narrow file one after another we have a quantum view of history: simultaneously a particle and a wave of energy. Perhaps this is one reason for the current popularity of Foucault’s work – his understanding melds perfectly with our situation in the so-called ‘networked society’.

Svend Brinkmann, Stand Firm. Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, Trans. Tam McTurk, Cambridge: Polity, 2017

Another book I will be reading through on this blog. This short and entertaining anti self-help book is an absolute gem. I will admit I am a bit of a self-help junkie, but prefer works that offer practical (and not too hyped) techniques rather than ones that put the emphasis on self-discovery. Brinkmann is Professor of Psychology at Aalborg University in Denmark and this book was a best seller in its orginal language and made the author a celebrity. Brinkmann’s departmental affiliation is misleading perhaps as this book is located squarely within the philosophical arena rather than the psychological one, with the author advocating an updated form of Stoicism for today. In this he would no doubt concur with Foucault’s remark in relation to Ancient Greek philosophy:

Among the cultural inventions of mankind there is a treasury of devices, techniques, ideas, procedures, and so on, that cannot exactly be reactivated, but at least constitute, or help to constitute, a certain point of view which can be very useful as a tool for analyzing what’s going on now-and to change it.
Michel Foucault, On the Genealogy of Ethics : An Overview of Work in Progress, in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 349-50

In many ways Brinkmann’s project is quite foucauldian, and he does in fact refer to Foucault’s work, noting:

It may appear as if Foucault’s technologies of the self are equivalent to the the concept of self-development. And in one sense this is true. However, the significant difference is that while the self-developers of today typically posit the existence of an inner self to be discovered and realised, Foucault thought of the self as an illusion, something that is created, like an artist painting a portrait. It does not exist prior to its creation, and it does not come about by itself. Another difference is that the concept of self-technology is closely associated with an understanding of ethics. The concept of ethics plays an important role in Foucault’s later work, as it represents the ongoing relation to the self to itself. (p. 94)

Brinkmann in a gentle lampooning of Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and the industry it spawned, proposes a seven-step series of techniques for resisting the cult of the self. He provides a nice short paragraph summary of each of these techniques in this article in Psychology Today. His proposed techniques are summarised in the entertaining chapter titles:

  1. Cut out the navel-gazing
  2. Focus on the negative in your life
  3. Put on the No hat
  4. Suppress your feelings
  5. Sack your coach
  6. Read a novel – not a self-help book or biography
  7. Dwell on the past

This fantastic book is now available in English at a prohibitive price unfortunately. This deserved cheap paperback status so that many could buy it. See the review I translated back in 2013. Publication blurb and details below.

Pascal Chabot, Global Burnout, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018

Available for the first time in English and freshly adapted as the acclaimed documentary Burning Out, Pascal Chabot’s polemic treatise – Global Burnout – takes the phenomenon we call burnout as not just an individual problem that affects a few exhausted people, but rather ‘a disease of civilization’, connected to concepts of progress, technology, and desire, which are the hallmarks of this era of experimentation.

First analysing the archaeology of the concept, Chabot distinguishes three main types of burnout: the first, specific to professions who help others, appears to be the exhaustion of their humanism; the second, a trouble of adaptation and perfectionism; and the third, which is a consequence of the struggle for recognition. The philosophical implications of each of these three states is identified, allowing Chabot to buck the trend towards a negative, nearly fatalistic outlook, something not surprising considering the intrinsic gravity of the subject matter. An excellent story teller as well as an adequate elaborater of complex theories, Chabot’s Global Burnout presents an introduction to the topic and therapy for the modern reader.

Table of contents

Introduction
Something is happening

Part I: Beyond fatigue
Freudenberger and the free clinic?
Tired souls
In a Congolese leper colony

Part II: The burnout?machine
Abandoning perfection
The useful and the subtle
Recognition and disregard
Women’s burnout

Part III: Postmodern malaise
Theory of the a mirror disorder?
Under the sign of fire
The tightrope-walker’s manifesto

Postface to the English edition
Burnout and energy
The invisibility of energy
The causes of repression
Dialectic of energy and desire
Post-burnout transition

Reviews

“Burnout, stress, and depression have become worldwide epidemics. Calling burnout ‘civilization’s disease,’ Belgian philosopher Pascal Chabot has given us a fascinating and accessible history and theoretical framework of this modern crisis. He not only shows us how we got here, but also how we can use that knowledge to redefine success and truly thrive.” –  Arianna Huffington, HuffPost Founder and Founder & CEO of Thrive Global

“Fire and work are the forces at stake in our suicidally consumption-driven civilization, examined with penetrating depth by Pascal Chabot – whose contemplative approach stands out in an era where efficiency reigns and purpose is negated, struck down by a disruption that leads to madness, in the final phase of the phenomenon that Nietzsche called nihilism.” –  Bernard Stiegler, head of the Institut de recherche et d’innovation, Centre Georges-Pompidou, France

“It’s urgently relevant and superbly well-written and translated. It’s readable and compelling….I love this book and the translation is beautiful.” –  Graeme Kirkpatrick, Head of Sociology, University of Manchester, UK

More reflections prompted by:

Clare Cooper Marcus, House as a mirror of self. Exploring the deeper meaning of home, Lake Worth, Nicolas Hays, 2006 [1995].

To add to my miscellany of definitions of home, Cooper Marcus (pp. 105-6) refers to a 1979 work by David Seamon with a strong Heideggerian theme, A geography of the lifeworld. Movement, rest and encounter. ‘David Seamon, who has written on the phenomenology of the home, suggests that a feeling of at-homeness for most of us seems to combine the qualities of rootedness, security, a sense of “ownership”, restoration, feeling at ease, and warmth’.

My initial enthusiasm for Cooper Marcus’s book has waned a little. My response, to quote Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan from the original Star Wars, is: ‘these are not the droids you are looking for’. The book was originally published in 1995 and uses field research collected over a period of twenty years in California from the mid 1970s. It also refers to the author’s own childhood and some of her adult experiences. Cooper Marcus grew up in Britain and her account of her childhood, evacuated to the countryside away from the blitz in London during World War II, shares the same sometimes bitter sweet utopian flavour of early and mid-century twentieth English children’s fiction, notably the novels of Edith Nesbit and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories. The examples of other people’s relation to their built living spaces are redolent of a Californian culture of consciousness raising and alternative self culture, now faded into memory and whose remnants exist only in the margins of sub-culture. Much of her literary research refers to work published in the 1970s and 80s and earlier.

Foucault’s assessment of Californian cultures of the self very much applies here.

In the Californian cult of the self, one is supposed to discover one’s true self, to separate it from that which might obscure or alienate it, to decipher its truth thanks to psychological or psychoanalytic science, which is supposed to be able to tell you what your true self is. Therefore, not only do I not identify this ancient culture of the self with what you might call the Californian cult of the self, I think they are diametrically opposed.
Michel Foucault, On the Genealogy of Ethics : An Overview of Work in Progress, in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 362

Reading the various stories of people and their relation to their houses, one is left curiously hanging, the psychological ‘truth’ of their relationship to their living space is exposed, but one wonders – what then? What detailed techniques can be used to go from there?

In the end, Cooper Marcus’s book is a great starting point for reflection but bound by a particular time, place and discipline (Jungian psychology) that I find all a little remote. The book serves to emphasise how much has changed since the mid 1990s and the exponential speed of that change. Next on my reading list for this topic is Alain de Botton’s more philosophical, contemporary and European focused book, The Architecture of Happiness.

To extend on the theme of my earlier post on The Secret of Kells a little.

The increasing digitisation of library collections and rare books has drawn attention to the power of the art work in medieval illuminated manuscripts. Often this artwork appears as marginalia, sometimes bearing little relation to the written text. This artwork is variously lively, colourful and beautiful but also gruesome, bawdy and grotesque. Here’s a small collection of some of my favourite animal illustrations. The first of these is a musical Pangur Bán perhaps…

Cat with hurdy-gurdy, Book of hours, France, ca. 1485-1490. NY, Morgan, MS M.26, fol. 88r. Online source: Discarding images

Rats rowing (Ste-Geneviève, MS 143, 14th c.) Online source: It’s about time

Bartholomeus Anglicus, ‘Livre des propriétés des choses’ (‘De proprietatibus rerum’, French translation of Jean Corbechon), Paris 1447. Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 399, fol. 141vº. Online source: Bestiaire

Image from Faraḥ nāmah / Abū Bakr al-Muṭahhar ibn Abī al-Qāsim ibn Abī Saʻīd al-Jamālī maʻrūf bih Yazdī. Yazdī, al-Muṭahhar ibn Muḥammad, fl. 1184. [S.l : s.n., 16–?]. This is a natural history treatise that is illuminated with detailed multicolored illustrations of animals, birds, plants, stones and humans. Yale-SOAS Islamic Manuscript Gallery

revBestiary, England 13th century (Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 764, fol. 51r)

mouse

Image from from Faraḥ nāmah / Abū Bakr al-Muṭahhar ibn Abī al-Qāsim ibn Abī Saʻīd al-Jamālī maʻrūf bih Yazdī. Yazdī, al-Muṭahhar ibn Muḥammad, fl. 1184. [S.l : s.n., 16–?]. This is a natural history treatise that is illuminated with detailed multicolored illustrations of animals, birds, plants, stones and humans. Yale-SOAS Islamic Manuscript Gallery

Categories: Art

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