Aug 17, 2012

The religious history of the cubicle

The spiritual history of cubicles

Kathryn Lofton, American religion professor at Yale, author of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, and curator/executive editor of Freq.uenci.es, "a collaborative genealogy of spirituality," talks about the religious history of the "spiritless space" of the office cubicle.

"The cubicle," Lofton said, at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies last night, "is a shuttered spiritless trap. The cubicle is a spirited invitation to rise."

Lofton argues that the history of work and work spaces is also a history of the struggle of questions of body and mind. Thinking about cubicles is invitation to consider this. The cubicle is a decision that has been made about what would be a "best life." Which means, in market terms, the most productive, but also something having more to do with an individual's asserted individuality and self, and thus, a matter of spirituality.

And in both those cases, the religious and the economic, it has to do with how consciousness is formed. For Lofton, this is a key connection of the relationship between religion and the marketplace today.

Behind Lofton is Herman Miller, of the Zeeland, Mich. company he named after himself. His company was the one to develop the cubicle, as well as to pioneer in the mass production of modernist furniture. He was a committed Dutch Reformed Neo-Calvinist, Lofton said, and his company's philosophy was deeply Neo-Calvinist.

As was the cubicle.

The modern version we know, according to Lofton and according to those involved in developing the idea, is a horrible betrayal of the original concept. At the first, it wasn't supposed to be a "spiritless trap" or contain and oppress people into efficiency, but to be a creative space within the workspace where the "human performer" and human creativity was central. Efficiency and business success were still paramount, but the idea was that the market gods didn't reward worker alienation and oppression.

The goal was to recognize and make a first priority out of the variability of people and the variability of work. To end fatigue. Enhance creativity.

There's at least one Neo-Calvinist today who would argue that that religious potential is still present in the cubicle.

Thinking about cubicles as religious, as spiritual, as spaces where the human spirit is nurtured and enabled and enhanced can strain credulity.

As Lofton said, though, even that skepticism is an opportunity to engage the question, again, of religion and work: "What would it mean to see products' production without cynicism and as a matter of human fullness?"