Daniel Bell died this week. He was 91. He wrote (amongst other books) The coming of post-industrial society: a venture in social forecasting [1] (1973), where he foresaw a change to the social structure of the US, and comparable societies. Industrial production will matter less than service and knowledge industries; manufacturing and production work will decline and service occupations will grow; that is, semi-skilled operatives will not be able to find work and white collar service workers will be in demand. Theoretical knowledge will become the source of innovation, gathered by a professional and technocratic class. This will matter more than empirical knowledge of how things have been done, how things work. Bell’s vision is hopeful: a post-industrial society is a better society.

Bell is often quoted as describing the service work that characterises post-industrial society as ‘a game between persons’, unlike industrial society which he characterises as ‘a game against fabricated nature’, centred on the relationship between man and machine (1999 [1973]: 17). Interactive service work can readily be imagined as a game between persons: between customer and waiter, there is hierarchy, deference and a complex negotiation over power (see Paules (1996) for interesting discussion of how waiters resist customers’ attempts to denigrate them).

“Michel Roux’s Service” is currently showing on BBC. Here we see another instance of reality TV showing us how to be better workers by training us in the ludic art of personality (I’d rather we learned how to be better customers). Eight unemployed young people are being trained to control body and feeling; to perform authentically;  and to empathise with the demanding customer by denying their own distance from how the customers live. They are to treat customers as their friends, though they are not the customer’s friends. Much is made of how bad the British are at giving service; we’re too uppity and resistant to subservience. So these workers learn how not to notice that they have feelings.

Fred Sirieix trains the recruits in the raw art of talking to customers, carrying plates and so on. (And you shouldn’t laugh at this unless you know how to carry three hot plates across a crowded room without disturbing the arrangement of the food: denying that service work requires skill is a form of symbolic violence). He doesn’t seem to offer much guidance in the many tiny decisions about organising your work that any waiter needs to constantly do in order to keep on top of service (see Gatta, (2002) for a nice description of the complexity of waitressing). He’s keen to point out that the challenge and pleasure of interactive service work makes it noble.

But the interpretation of Bell’s game between persons made by Sirieix is disturbing. In episode 1 he defines the good waiter as a ghost. This ghost is always looking at you – the customer – just in case you need something. It’s sensing you, anticipating you. It’s not a person (anymore), just “a felt presence – an anima, geist, or genius – that possesses and gives a sense of social aliveness to a place” (Michael Bell, emphasis in original, cited in Wynn, 2007). The ghost has no personhood, really; it places plates FROM THE RIGHT and clears plates FROM THE LEFT as though any deviation will materialise evil. All the attention the waiter must pay to his smile, his clothes, his body odour, work to produce him as an absent presence. Having good character here means not really existing. The game is not between persons. It’s between a person and a ghost. Bell’s characterisation of industrial society has more purchase here: the game is to fabricate a human as nature, which means turning person into a machine.

References

  1. Bell, D. (1999 [1973]) The coming of post-industrial society: a venture in social forecasting. New York, Basic Books.
  2. Gatta, M. (2002) Juggling Food and Feelings: Emotional Balance in the Workplace. Lanham MD: Lexington Books.
  3. Paules, G. (1996). Resisting the symbolism of service. In C. Macdonald & C. Sirianni (Eds.), Working in the service society (pp. 264-290). Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
  4. Wynn, J. R. (2007) ‘Haunting Orpheus: problems of space and time in the desert.’ In Clough, P. T (ed.) The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Duke University Press.

[1] A pleasurably cautious subtitle; academic training discourages futurology. Those who took up Bell’s work were not so restrained – see Alvin Toffler (1981) The Third Wave . New York: Bantam Books.