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Modernism and the Culture of Efficiency: Ideology and Fiction

Evelyn Cobley

(University of Toronto Press; US: Aug 2009)

It seems to make little sense to criticize efficiency. Eradicating waste, measuring effort and output, collecting accurate statistical data—this all seems eminently sensible. No one wants modern societies to stop conserving energy or producing enough food and necessary goods to extend prosperity to more people.


What’s worrisome is the ideology of efficiency, a painfully self-conscious approach to living that makes a god out of convenience and a morality out of the calculating ethos of cost-benefit analysis. Its totalizing impulse is to reduce all lived experience to countable things, recognizing as real only that which is in the midst of being optimized.


This quantification accelerates our subjective experience—the world seems to move faster as our ability to process experience outstrips the time it takes to unfold. Thus time saved through efficiency registers psychologically as a sense of time slipping away from us, of a need for added haste. Our instant access to entertainment, for instance, means we begin to cram consumption into every instant, until we collapse from exhaustion.


Our streamlined professional and personal lives—made possible by modern advances in engineering, industrialization, and the emergence of the capitalist order—have made us so productive that an ever-increasing portion of what we produce must be disposable, subject to scheduled obsolescence. And we must be trained to be suitable consumers in such a society, methodically devouring what is produced while remaining forever unsated.


As literature professor Evelyn Cobley explains in Modernism and the Culture of Efficiency, a study of how the pursuit of optimization has shaped Western culture since the late 19th century, efficiency is “predicated on both the elimination of waste in the production process and the encouragement of waste at the consumer end.” We make more, we throw more away, and economic growth continues apace.


Once it gets rolling, this quantification serves a standardization that corrodes our tastes. Cobley quotes Orwell, who wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier about how “mechanization leads to the decay of taste, the decay of taste leads to the demand for machine-made articles and hence to more mechanization, and so a vicious circle is established.” (Michael Pollan has made much of this line of argument recently with regard to food.)


Nevertheless, we find it hard to resist the seemingly self-recommending logic of efficiency: using less energy to secure more output easily becomes an end in itself, even if it beleaguers those meant to enjoy that output, even if each time-saving innovation engenders an even more desperate search for more savings. We begin to orient ourselves toward efficiency without being able to recognize its detrimental effects.


The problems with the ideology of efficiency extend beyond its effects on individuals; it propels entire societies toward a dystopian nightmare: It’s not hard to extrapolate from microwave meals and sinks that turn themselves on and off to a world in which all our decisions are made in advance for us and nothing is left for us to do but to fulfill our preordained function in a totally administered society. By providing us with more goods and more leisure, efficiency is supposed to bring more freedom; yet the requirements of efficiency curtail freedom, inhibiting spontaneity, inculcating surveillance, and removing the pleasure of craft knowledge from production processes. It proposes a rigid construction of rationality—what sociologist Max Weber termed “the iron cage”—and implants it at the heart of modern subjectivity, so that our identity emerges from a series of careful calculations, not from kinship ties or tradition. It makes a morality out of avoiding “waste”, which from another perspective might be seen as the liberating gratuitousness of gifts or the exuberance of excess.


Thanks to passivity and narcissism, we soon all become servants of efficiency for its own unforgiving sake and embrace the excuses it gives for our uncompromising self-centeredness. The ideology of efficiency, as Cobley details it, can basically be summed up in the phrase Hannah Arendt used to describe Nazi functionaries: “the banality of evil”. Organizational and bureaucratic systems allow individuals to disavow responsibility for what such systems produce, and the Satanic metaphysical evil once widely understood to be necessary for malevolent deeds is replaced by the humdrum willingness to follow orders and feel sorry for oneself over the tedious tasks one must perform.


Those displaced by technological change, consolidation, and globalization come to be seen as at best unfortunate; otherwise they are regarded as contemptibly lazy, inferior. As Cobley points out, “Those who refuse to be efficient are dismissed as either romantic dreamers or social outcasts.” Humans become obstacles to the plan rather than the reason for them; eventually they become expendable.


The apotheosis of this sort of remorselessness, Cobley contends in the core chapter of the Modernism and the Culture of Efficiency,, is Auschwitz, in which a variety of social-engineering strategies were deployed to optimize the elimination of people deemed unnecessary “human waste” by Hitler’s regime. Systems and routines familiar from industrialization were implemented to rationalize, even normalize, the Nazis’ criminality. “The sham legal underpinnings and the bureaucratic procedures” at Auschwitz “allowed individual SS officers to terrorize prisoners without having to accept personal responsibility for their actions.” For Cobley, this epitomizes the ideological effects of efficiency, which serves to preempt individual objections to the smooth functioning of impersonal systems.


As a flexible excuse for centralizing power, efficiency tends to shift societies in the direction of totalitarianism. Would-be benevolent planners are inevitably seduced by the benefits they anticipate if only their ideas could be forcibly implemented. Plans soon cease to be benevolent and instead become totalizing attempts to establish omnipotent state sovereignty, eradicating individual freedoms in order to facilitate easier management of “docile bodies”.


It took several generations of ideological investment, however, before the ideology of efficiency would yield death camps. It had to be nurtured as an ideal, serve as a promising means to long-held dreams before degenerating into an autonomous end in itself. In Modernism‘s first section, Cobley traces efficiency from the machine worship of London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, which urged the link between mass production and mass prosperity, through to the human engineering of Fredrick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management schemes and the Ford Motor Co.’s assembly lines, whose workers, Cobley argues, were complicit in their own deskilling and dehumanization by accepting (“selling their souls” she calls it) Ford’s then-generous $5-a-day wage.


More provocatively, Cobley promises to extend the analysis of efficiency from Auschwitz to the modern suburban town. By explicitly placing the two on the same continuum (“A commitment to efficiency manifested itself in various forms, ranging from the extreme case of the concentration camp in Nazi Germany to the apparently innocuous pleasures afforded by the consumer society”, “Both Auschwitz and suburbia constitute social-engineering projects driven by the utopian dream of creating the most perfectly efficient society”), she certainly risks accusations of hyperbole or trivialization, linking the systematic murder of millions with the alienation of modern affluence. But instead of a look at how, say, Connecticut exemplifies the carceral, Cobley offers a tame account of Max Weber’s analysis of bureaucracy and its relation to fear-of-conformity tomes such as Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt and Fortune editor William Whyte’s The Organization Man. Conformity, Cobley demonstrates, may present itself as a form of social efficiency.


The second half of the book, which consists of readings of novels by Conrad, Lawrence, Forster, Ford Madox Ford, and Aldous Huxley, is less illuminating, provided you are not professionally invested in countenancing audacious claims for the relevance of literature to social change. Cobley announces her intent to focus on canonical novels that “are primarily interested in dramatizing the detrimental effects of the internalization of the efficiency calculus on the consciousness of individuals,” but she admits that “the selection is neither carelessly arbitrary nor entirely motivated.” Hmm. Later, she notes that the novels she has chosen to analyze “exemplify in more oblique terms” the consequences of efficiency’s cultural uptake. It’s not clear how something oblique can also be exemplary, nor how a decision can be less than “entirely motivated,” but these semantic muddles merely suggest the larger problems with using novels to chart cultural change.


Cobley wants “to suggest the extent to which efficiency infiltrates the social fabric treated in the novels, the various ways in which it surfaced in different novels, and the conflicting perspectives it generated”—a suitably speculative aim for a book so wary of quantitative positivism. But we must take it on faith that these novels deserve close attention, that their perspectives on the question are the ones worth studying among all the possible alternatives: Perhaps it’s because these novels have stood the test of time, or maybe it’s because they were popular in their day, or that the authors are well-reputed enough for their opinions to be intrinsically interesting. Perhaps it is all of that or none of it. Studies of literature frequently leave such questions unresolved.


The readings themselves are highly detailed and enriched with occasional allusions to Marx, Lacan, Althusser, Adorno, Negri and the like as well as to other literature scholars drawing from similar materials. The readings establish without a doubt that efficiency was a salient issue to these early 20th century novelists, but few would have disputed from the outset. They explore the effects efficiency seemed to have on the way novelists conceived of character and conflict, but they tend to take for granted the irresistible clarity of efficiency’s logic, though this too required social construction and support.


The equation of the rational with the efficient is not simply given; that elision becomes necessary to support the dogmatism of perfect markets, which demand a calculating human subject immune to the vagaries of emotions, recast as irrational, distorting forces rather than natural emanations of human personality. Disappointingly, Cobley’s book does not explore that subject but takes efficiency as capitalism would have it, imagining few alternatives, content to leave us to a world in which has entrenched itself thoroughly and irrevocably.

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Robert Horning has developed a substantial body of work in PopMatters' music reviews, concerts, film, and TV sections. His writing has also appeared in Time Out New York and Skyscraper. In his PopMatters column, "Marginal Utility", Rob bridges the abstract and concrete aspects of consumerism. His writing is as grounded and approachable as an everyday trip to the grocery store. Rob has a BA and MA in English Literature; his interests in social theory, economics, and sociology generates his solid background knowledge for "Marginal Utility" and informs his music reviews. For more Rob Horning, be sure to read the Marginal Utility blog.


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