Take everything ever written, thought or felt about the relationship between work and personal identity. Condense it into a page. That page is Section 18.
‘And Desk Names are back…. Instead of your name. There’s a plate on your desk with your Desk Name. Your Name de Gear as they say…. If you’re smart, you’ll use it as a tool. We rotate; seniority chooses the plate.’
Of course, Wallace’s IRS agents aren’t the only people who adopt different names on the job: just ask Francois-Marie Arouet, Norma Jean Baker, Curtis Jackson, your friendly global-neighborhood customer service call center employee or the Waldorf-Astoria waiter who says he was forced to wear name tags that proclaimed him to be John or Edgar instead of Mohamed because bosses didn’t “want to scare our guests.” His Name de Fear, as they say.
(Never mind this fellow’s situation — I, for one, could happily dispense with name tags for anyone over 7. None of those gummy peel-the-back buggers that left a chalk-body outline on a certain suede jacket. Nor the conventioneer’s pinned-on plastic sheath, with its cheap glint and oddly sharp edges. No more lanyards with a laminated plaque the size of a birthday card doing a do-si-do with your shirt buttons. And I realize the New Jersey Department of Transportation might disagree with me, but being vaguely invited to read a grown person’s name off her chest actually doesn’t improve the customer experience, for me.) (#it’snothingimpersonal)
But in describing a “Service” that replaces its employees’ names and even their Social Security numbers (p. 66) — for Americans, virtually the DNA of official identity — Wallace is showing us work that literally becomes its employees’ identity.
Here’s where a well-documented and learned analysis of the development of the post-industrial blur that is professional-as-personal identity clearly should go. And by all means, if you’ve got one handy. (#notasociologist) But it can’t hurt to mention The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, right, or this 2009 Wall Street Journal column about “the unmitigated identification of self with occupation, accomplishment and professional status,” and how the loss of a job can amount to a loss of a sense of self. Or this personal-meets-professional medical journal article by a British physician, who reflects on his own retirement while tracing the evolution of the western world’s fascination with work and discussing the pros and cons of linking what you do with who you are. For many people, he notes, work isn’t just about money but “may be the principal source of personal identity, mediating the sense of being a valued person necessary for self-esteem.”
But I get a feeling The Pale King might ultimately be pointing to the opposite of what it might seem on the surface to be saying about work and identity. The IRS of The Pale King might take names and treat you like a (reissued) number. It might bore and confine you to the point of paracatatonic fugues and “unexplained bleeding.” (p. 87-88) But this bureaucracy — so far — isn’t the cynical ONAN of Infinite Jest. The Service is portrayed as a place full of Leonard Stecyks and Lane Deans, an agency someone can describe as as full of “institutional heroes … trying to stitch or bandage the holes that all the more selfish, glitzy, uncaring, ‘Me-First’ people are always making in the community….” (p. 127). There’s a purposeful and honorable quality to it, a world of people who pay attention to details and see a bigger picture in them, the way taxes reveal societal and personal priorities. A wiggler? Not an identity that anyone might want, but one that might not be so bad to have.
Tags: David Foster Wallace, fiction, metafiction, Pale King