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The unmanaged organization: stories, fantasies and subjectivity.


This paper argues that within every organization there is a terrain which is not and cannot be managed, in which people, both individually and in groups, can engage in unsupervised, spontaneous activity. This is referred to as the unmanaged organization, a kind of organizational dreamworld in which desires, anxieties and emotions find expressions in highly irrational constructions. The chief force in this terrain is fantasy and its landmarks include stories, myths, jokes, gossip, nicknames, graffiti and cartoons. In the organizational dreamworld, emotions prevail over rationality and pleasure over reality. The paper argues that fantasy offers a third possibility to organizational members, which amounts to neither conformity nor rebellion, but to a grudging material acceptance accompanied by a symbolic refashioning of events and official stories. Far from being a marginal terrain, it is suggested that the unmanaged organisation is rich, multidimensional and the natural habitat of subjectivity. Four different modes of subjectivity are identified and discussed in connection with different types of organizational narratives: (1) the subject as hero; (2) the subject as heroic survivor; (3) the subject as victim; (4) the subject as object of love.

Descriptors: control, dreams, management, myths, narrative, organizations, psychoanalysis, resistance, storytelling, symbolism


The concept of control lies at the core of numerous discourses on organizations. It has featured prominently in managerial literature since Taylor and Fayol and has been a central pillar of organizational theory since Max Weber's work on bureaucracy. Standing for order, predictability and reliability, control has become virtually co-extensive of what we understand by `organization'. More recently, control has been at the crossroads of two vigorous academic debates which are now taking notice of each other, the debates on labour process and organizational culture.

Much of the discussion sparked off by Harry Braverman's work (Braverman 1974) has addressed the issue of control over the labour process -- alternative `strategies' of control available to management as well as different forms of worker resistance. Control may not be such a prominent feature of arguments surrounding organizational culture, which have been dominated by concepts like meanings, values, symbols, archetypes and myths. Nevertheless, as several contributors in this debate (e.g. Turner 1986; Rosen 1985; Sievers 1986; Smircich 1983; Willmott 1993) have noted, control is rarely far beneath the surface. Exemplified in attempts to import Japanese management techniques into Western companies, such strategies aim at ideologically dominating the workers (Willmott 1990; Willmott 1993). Control, according to this view, is achieved through the use of language, for example, by attaching labels such as `professional', `academic' or `ancillary' to specific occupations or grades (Habermas 1977: 359); the use of symbols, such as massive corporate headquarters, expensive logos, etc. (Gagliardi 1990); the use of rituals, such as corporate ceremonies (Rosen 1985) and of officially sponsored myths (Gabriel 1991b). In an interesting re-enactment of the labour-process debate, the organizational-culture debate has emerged with its own version of the control-resistance dialectic. The workers, it is argued, may submit to management's cultural assaults but they also resist them, by developing their own sub-cultures and counter-cultures. These may challenge or ridicule the organization's shibboleths, expressing cynicism and detachment at managerial attempts to whip up commitment and enthusiasm.

In this paper, I will argue that both debates have tended to adopt an over-managed and over-policed image of organizations, an image in which both politically and symbolically the individual is over-controlled and over-socialized, his or her options being essentially to submit or to rebel. It is not surprising that both of these debates have lately been pursuing the issue of subjectivity, which has almost been obliterated. Following the work of Michel Foucault (Foucault 1976), several authors (Knights 1990; Willmott 1990; Collinson 1992) have sought to rediscover or more precisely to reconstitute the human subject, `not as a pre-given entity which is seized on by the exercise of power' (Cousins and Hussain 1984: 251), but as the product of organizational practices and resistances to such practices. These practices are essentially classifying, dividing and naming practices seen by Foucault as constantly engendering relations of power (Foucault 1976: 93).

This paper argues that subjectivity at the workplace must also be examined outside participation in, or rejection of, control practices in a different set of constructions. I will propose that within every organization there is an uncolonized terrain, a terrain which is not and cannot be managed, in which people, both individually and in groups, can engage in all kinds of unsupervised, spontaneous activity. These activities occasionally engage with the practices of power, principally through the medium of fantasy. I will refer to this terrain as the unmanaged organization, a kind of organizational dreamworld in which desires, anxieties and emotions find expressions in highly irrational constructions. This organizational terrain has not received the attention it merits, since the managed, controlling and resisted organization (in part due to the very practices Foucault has identified) is consistently privileged within organizational discourses at the expense of the unmanaged, the uncontrolled and the unmanageable.

The chief force in the unmanaged organization is fantasy and its landmarks include jokes, gossip, nicknames, graffiti, cartoons, and, above all, stories. All too often, fantasy in organizations is seen as either a form of escapism reinforcing conformity or as a primal form of opposition leading to full-scale resistance. Both of these interpretations steer fantasy and its products back to the control-resistance dialectic and the privileged domain of the managed organization. Instead, I wish to explore the view that fantasy can offer a third way to the individual, which amounts to neither conformity nor rebellion, but to a symbolic refashioning of official organizationalpractices in the interest of pleasure, allowing a temporary supremacy of emotion over rationality and of uncontrol over control.

A similar range of arguments is currently being explored in the area of consumerism and consumption. In contrast to critics, from Marcuse to Baudrillard, who saw consumers dominated by capitalism, mass media and systems of signs, more recent approaches by de Certeau (1984), Fiske (1989) and Featherstone (1991) have highlighted the consumers' ability, in their every-day practices, to dodge, subvert or evade the controlling strategies of manufacturers, planners and advertisers. De Certeau has likened the behaviour of consumers to the responses of native Americans to Spanish colonization; while appearing to capitulate to the colonizers' rule and acquiesce to their religious and political practices, indigenous peoples `subverted them not by rejecting or altering them, but by using them with respect to ends and references foreign to the system they had no choice but to accept' (1984: xiii). In a similar way, consumers are often seen using products and places in unorthodox ways, replacing the stories of script-writers and advertisers with their own stories, re-asserting that even in the area of consumption, management and control are problematic.

The arguments which I will be putting forward here aim at exploring those areas of organizations, where control and management may have less sway than they appear to have. While the unmanaged organization is a marginal terrain which is never out of bounds of attempts to control and rule it, I will argue that it is not unimportant. Just as consumers may derive their sense of identity from the twisted and perverse uses they may find for objects and the wayward meanings which they may attribute to them, the unmanaged organization can be linked to the ways the subject is constructed within organizations. On the basis of field research into organizational stories, four specific modes of subjectivity will be explored, the hero, the survivor, the victim and the love-object. My argument neither contradicts the Foucauldian view on the subject nor does it try to restore the subject as a sovereign and pre-given entity, since what will emerge from my discussion is a vulnerable, precarious and fragmented one. Instead, it seeks to locate it in certain practices and discourses which have not received sufficient attention.

Organizational Stories and Subjectivity

Over the past four years, I have been carrying out research into organizational stories, recording, comparing and analyzing them. Over 400 such stories were collected in five organizations using tape-recorded unstructured conversations with 126 employees. In addition, over 250 stories were supplied in written form, over a three-year period, by undergraduate students returning from six-month industrial placements. Each story has been stored in a computerized database and a number of salient features of each story have been entered in distinct fields. The dominant theme (e.g. accidents, practical jokes, sex, deaths, crises, etc.) and main characters of each story have been identified, as well as its underlying emotional qualities (e.g. pride, sadness, anxiety, mirth, etc.). A morphological analysis has identified some of the dominant narrative forms of these stories (e.g. tragic, comic, suspense, epic, romance, etc.) and a few of these stories have been interpreted in considerable detail using a psychoanalytic approach (see Gabriel 1991a,c). The value of stories as material to open windows into both organizational culture and individual experiences which are inaccessible by more conventional research means is now beginning to be tapped. The focus, however, of this paper is neither morphology (see, e.g. Martin et al. 1983; Reason and Hawkins 1988; Gabriel 1992; Hansen and Kahnweiler 1993) nor interpretation (Mahler 1988; Wilkins 1984; Martin 1990; Gabriel 1991c). Instead, the paper concentrates on what has not been adequately explored before, namely the way the subject emerges from these narratives and the way such narratives evolve in the unmanaged spaces of organizations.

Many of the stories which I collected are highly charged narratives, not merely recounting `events', but enriching them, enhancing them and infusing them with meaning. In certain cases, different accounts of the same story were juxtaposed, revealing wide variations. Omissions, exaggerations, shifts in emphasis and a licence to ride roughshod over `the facts' are central qualities of some of them. Events as diverse as the suicide of an employee, a manager's tie getting caught in the shredder, the breakdown of a lift or an accident in which a worker loses part of his finger in a pie-making machine can spark off fireworks of organizational lore, which become embellished and enriched with every telling and re-telling.

Far from being an obstacle to further study, such `distortions' can be approached as attempts to re-create reality poetically. As Walter Benjamin (1968) argued in a visionary article of the work of Nicolai Leskov, the storyteller is not concerned with `facts-as-information' but with `facts-as-experience'. The response invited by a story is then not to challenge `the facts', but to engage with its meaning (see Reason and Hawkins 1988). This neither denies the factual basis of stories, nor does it reduce the stories to elaborations of facts. Instead, it disengages the narrative from the fact, in a similar way that a psychoanalytic approach to dreams disengages the text of a dream from the `day's residues' or the bodily stimuli which provide its raw materials.

Faced with such narratives, researchers have certain choices. They can dismiss them as trifles of organizational life, which do not affect the basic organizational realities of management, control, resistance, etc. Alternatively, they can treat stories as clues or signs leading to the `truth' about the organization. They may then seek to elucidate `the facts' of each case by asking questions such as `Did the incident "really" take place? When? Where? How?' reasserting the dominance of the managed organization, control and resistance. Alternatively, the researcher may become a fellow-traveller on a fantasy, sharing its emotional tone, seeking to expand it, enrich it, and ultimately sustaining its disengaged, wish-fulfilling qualities. This is the approach of one eager to appreciate a good story and willing to free-associate around it; it is the approach which I adopted. In this manner, stories are explored as products of experiences which, while they can be communicated and shared, are uniquely personal. Within the technical and political practices of organizations, individuals may rarely have the freedom of exclaiming `I did it my way'; in recounting a story, however, they can and often do `tell it their way', embellishing it and enriching it in unpredictable and idiosyncratic ways, suffusing the narrative with a personal and highly subjective symbolism. In doing so, they can and do constitute themselves as subjects.

Different Accounts of the Same Incident

Consider, for instance, an incident involving the explosion of a pressurised fire extinguisher at a research and publishing organization. The brass nozzle of the extinguisher flew through a glass partition, scattering glass everywhere; it narrowly missed a computer, operator, and caused substantial damage, but no injuries. The incident was recounted to me without prompting by four different witnesses, for whom the incident had been an important event of their working lives. Their accounts varied factually; more significantly, as I shall try to show presently, they varied poetically, symbolically and in the way the subject was constituted within them.

The first account of the incident, offered by Raymond, a manager, was a detached description emphasizing the material damage (the fact that the room was flooded by the sprinklers and that the e-mail was out of commission for some time) but did not invest the events with any emotion or symbolic significance. For him, the incident was `just an accident', an event without intentionality or agency, whose implications were essentially `bureaucratic', ensuring that such an accident could not happen in future. His engagement with the incident occurred at the level of the controlling and controlled organization; the accident was a rupture to the organization's order.

Organizations seek to eliminate or reduce the number of ruptures and to minimize their impact. This is part of a discourse incorporating planning, precautions, insurance claims, etc.; it lies at the heart of the `managed' organization. There is little doubt that all organizational members are routinely engaged in this discourse. This, however, is not the only discourse in which they are engaged; nor is it the only discourse surrounding accidents. Accidents often invite symbolic constructions; as Aristotle remarked in Poetics, even the accidental collapse of a statue is seen as an incident `not devoid of meaning'. Thus, instead of approaching an accident as the mechanical outcome of a chance concatenation of circumstances, an accident may be seen as a `sign', a warning, a promise, a punishment and so on, setting off a fantasy.

This is precisely what the remaining three accounts did. Maureen, the computer operator who had the narrow escape presented the incident in a half-serious, half-amusing tone not only as a sign of management's neglect of the organization, its employees and the fire system but also as a personal attack on her:

Maureen: `I suppose they tried to kill me; I was sitting at my desk and the gas cylinder exploded which meant that the cylinder was directed at my desk and the nozzle hadn't been properly fixed, . . ., and it exploded and the projectile hit the window above my desk and caused an almighty explosion and shattered glass everywhere. They failed on that attempt to kill me!' Interviewer: `Who?' Maureen: `The management'.

In this account, the incident is not presented as a chance event, but as a personal attack on the subject who directly enters the narrative. Not only is Maureen casting management in the role of the villain, but she also casts herself in the roles of target and survivor seeking to apportion blame and responsibility. Her account illustrates some of the choices facing the researcher. By saying `They didn't really try to kill you, did they?', one can direct the discourse back to the main of facts-as-information, the discourse of the managed, rational organization. Alternatively, by asking `Have there been any other such attempts?' one can join in the fantasy, stimulate it further, penetrating deeper into its meaning and exploring its umnanaged qualities.

Maureen's was not the only account of the accident which sought to bring the subject directly into the narrative. Chris, another eye-witness recounted the incident in a light-hearted manner:

`I heard this huge bang and this rattling sound because the windows were double-glazed and one window was banging against the other. And then Jim was crawling around on all fours trying to get out. Then I realized that everyone was trying to get out of the room, so I thought "I better go then".'

Chris's account both denied the real danger presented by the explosion and cast himself in contrast to the others, in the role of a person who is not easily rattled or panic-stricken. Unlike Maureen, Chris did not seek to apportion blame, but rather constructed the event as a test of character, meant to distinguish between those who get easily rattled and those who do not. Maureen's and Chris's narratives happily coexisted within the unmanaged organization, as did the third account of the incident. Peter's account, like Chris's, was light-hearted, but very differently constructed. Peter explained how the service engineer had not fixed the nozzle properly on the fire extinguisher, placing the blame squarely on him in a way that an independent inspector might have done; yet he concluded his narrative in a most unexpected manner:

Peter: `This is the sort of thing that people have been referring to jokingly, like "Next time Maureen will aim better".' Interviewer: `What should she aim for?' Peter: `Upstairs, of course!'

In this account the near victim is transformed into an active agent, indeed an agent of retribution. It is not Maureen being threatened, but rather Maureen who threatens to cause damage; only Maureen should do the job properly next time and aim at management. This fantasy reverses the relations between prosecutor and prosecuted in a manner common, for example, among children's fantasies of ritually killing a hated teacher. This symbolic reversal and the turning of passivity into activity can be ascribed to a type of psychological work, similar to what Freud called `dream-work', which can be described as `story-work' (Freud 1990a). Story-work can then be seen as the process whereby a symbolically charged fantasy is constructed out of the engagement of unconscious desires with organizational life.

Each of the four narratives above constructs the event differently, but only the last three entail story-work. If Raymond's account, with its emphasis on precision and unambiguity, is one of `facts-as-information', the other three, with their emphasis on meaning, represent `facts-as-experience'. In each case, story-work leads to a different fantasy regarding the incident, Maureen's as dereliction of duty and personal attack, Chris's as test of character and Peter's as opportunity for retribution. Each reveals a different way of constituting the subject, whether as hero, as heroic survivor or as victim. Each narrative highlights the plasticity of turning every-day experience into meaningful stories. In doing so, the storytellers neither accept nor reject `reality'. Instead, they seek to mould it, shape it and infuse it with meaning, each in a distinct and individual way. Through this activity, the subject emerges in the world of work organizations as the product of fantasy and desire.

Not all fantasies, individual or shared, are part of the unmanaged organization -- such a view would fly in the fate of the massive resources devoted to the creation and propagation of corporate fantasies for both internal and external consumption. Disneyland, the culture and heritage industries, public relations and advertising firms, a substantial part of the mass media, as well as companies' own PR departments and consultants, all those individuals and agencies which Sievers labels `merchandisers of meaning' (1986: 347) are busily engaged at devising fantasies for consumption by customers or members of organizations. These find expressions which range from official stories and myths about exploits of brave employees or victories against business competitors, to escapist television programmes and advertising slogans as well as whole arrays of cultural artifacts.

While many of these fantasies belong firmly to the realm of the managed organization, being major tools in the management of culture and meaning, they too can be subverted, altered or embroidered in ways that radically alter their meanings and significance. Fiske (1989) and Willis (1990), for example, argue that even when people appear most passive, for example when watching television, they are actively engaged with the texts with which they are presented, trying out different ideas in their own minds and finding highly idiosyncratic resonances in these texts. Similarly, when confronted with official texts, members of organizations frequently discover unexpected meanings or invite into the text what was intendedly unrelated or excluded. In this way, they may alter or undermine official texts, dislodging them from the managed organization into the unmanaged domain.

These arguments are not romantic attempts to restore a `sovereign subject' or a free transcendental self, like that critiqued by Foucault and others. Nor do they deny that subjectivity is crucially moulded by participation in official practices and espousal of official texts, in other words, by the managed organization. It may be argued that the most committed organizational participants (Schwartz 1987) or uncritical acolytes (Hopfl 1992) are indeed defined wholly in this way. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to see the managed organization with its practices of power, its strategies and tactics and its mass-produced fantasies, as the exclusive source of the sets of meanings, perceptions and identities of people, whether as members of organizations or as consumers of their output. Instead, these meanings, perceptions and identities are challenged, dislocated and fractured by narratives evolving in an unmanaged way. In the rest of this paper I shall explore the major modes in which the subject is constituted as a tangled web of truths, half-truths and wishful fantasies in the different stories which I collected.

Cock-up Stories: The Subject as Hero

`Cock-ups' are ways of looking at accidents, malfunctions, errors or breakdowns in a generally light-hearted way. Many cock-up stories relish the failure of expensive systems or machinery or the humbling of deserving victims. Some of them append a twist, the undoing of the cock-up through ingenuity, good luck, or further unexpected turns of event. The following is a story reported by the librarian of a large manufacturing firm; the library had been extensively computerized in the previous few years at great cost, rendering many traditional librarianship skills obsolete.

`One of the directors asked for an article about the company in The Times. No problem, I mean, it's the sort of thing we could get to his desk in five minutes. Fair enough. Then, what happens? We can't find it; the computer knows nothing about it. On this particular occasion, we [library staff] did actually remember the piece, we all remembered it which is even more frustrating. In the end I rang The Times newspaper and said "We know that it exists but the computer can't find it, explain!" and then they came back. That particular article had been written by a freelance writer and he had the copyright and he wouldn't sanction it to be put on the electronic database.'

This is an almost archetypical story in which the perceived failure of sophisticated machinery necessitates a fallback on traditional skills, or common sense. The subject emerges as the hero, prevailing over mechanical adversities. I have collected several similar stories in many organizations; for instance, a student returning from a placement in a prestigious accounting firm which had invested in the last word of information technology, reported how the staff had lost faith in the bug-ridden system and relied for the manual retrieval of files on `a little fellow buried in the basement stacked to the ceiling with files'; he alone knew where every document in the organization was kept. Such stories (and the mere mention of mechanical break-down is often enough to elicit them) seem to celebrate the failure of expensive -- hyper-controlling -- systems, and the re-emergence of human shrewdness, art, savvy or plain common sense. In this way, such stories reverse the classic scenario of the deus ex machina. Instead of the god from the machine coming to solve the problems of the erring humans, an ordinary person with wits comes to the rescue of expensive, arrogant and disagreeable hardware.

Just as the arrival of a pompous, expensively dressed individual in slapstick comedy signals the imminent flight of a pie or a fatal encounter with a banana skin, the installation of fancy hardware in an organization, poetically at least, may cry out for a cock-up, a breakdown, a failure. Stories, based on such incidents, provide a symbolic way out of the `iron age of bureaucracy' (Davies 1988) and in some cases, when accompanied by an uncontrollable eruption of laughter, they mark a temporary prevalence of the unmanaged organization over the managed one. As Mary Douglas has argued:

`Whatever the joke, however remote the subject, the telling of it is potentially subversive, since its form consists of a victorious tilting of uncontrol against control, it is an image of the levelling of hierarchy, the triumph of intimacy over formality, of unofficial values over fixed ones.' (1975: 98)

Cock-ups, breakdowns and systems failures are chinks in the armour of the controlling organization which, when turned into stories, promote an image of the organization as an absurd farce. You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps' is a favourite, if hackneyed, piece of Xerox lore in many organizations.

A devious, guileful subjectivity is frequently revealed by such narratives, the hero often appearing as a resourceful, imaginative trickster (Gabriel 1991b,c). Such figures are common in organizational narratives, seemingly able to retrieve the most unlikely situations, outsmarting the blind and corrupt forces which oppose them and injecting wit and spirit in everyday life. Like figures from military satire, who refuse to submit to brutal force even while pretending to do so, tricksters become part of an idealized fantasy, an image which we can appropriate in an idealized part of our `selves', what psychoanalysis calls the ego-ideal (Chasseguet-Smirgel 1976; Schwartz 1987; Gabriel 1991c).

Humorous Stories: The Subject as Heroic Survivor

In contrast to the mock-epic quality of the `little man in the basement' story, some of the stories spawned by organizational life display the characteristic defiance of gallows humour. Here, the legitimacy or rationality of the system is not undermined by its malfunction or breakdown. In a baked-bean processing plant, women liked to recount the story of how management had, with the help of some psychologists, trained pigeons to do the extraordinarily tedious job of identifying the defective beans and picking them out of a continuously moving conveyor. However, the RSPCA was alerted to this fact and ruled that it amounted to cruelty to the animals, whereupon the job was assigned once again to the women. The bitter-sweet irony of this story refuses to seek solace in the system's mechanical failures, but instead, invites any bona fide listener to witness and attest the system's moral failure.

Such stories, like the cock-up stories, offer consolation by promoting an image of the official organization as an absurd caricature, whose claims to rationality are phoney. The teller of such stories rejects self-pity, escapism or scapegoating, and displays the characteristic attitude of `grace in adversity', symbolically making light of the hardships, and turning victimhood into victory. Freud has noted that the self-mocking aspect of this type of story gives it a higher and finer quality (1927d: 205). Stories of this genre reveal a proud and defiant subjectivity, which, while stopping short of rebellion or confrontation, refuses to capitulate to the big mechanical forces of bureaucracy and technology and which survives and even thrives against the odds.

Gripes and Tragic Stories: The Subject as Victim

Self-pity and scapegoating are features of a related type of story, which Coser (1959) termed the jocular gripe; the classic one is the patient's complaint that the nurse woke them up to give them their sleeping pill. While highlighting the absurdity of the system and subverting the authority of those in power, such stories emphasize victimhood rather than agency, seeking to elicit sympathy. In many of similar stories which I collected, the comic quality was virtually non-existent, the gripe quite unadulterated by humour.

Clerks in an office of a privatized utility which had recently undergone massive computerization routinely griped about the system's inflexibility which led to a proliferation of errors. Here are two simple examples; their plot lines are so indistinct, their characters so emaciated, that they hardly qualify as stories.

`The more they are computerizing things -- for someone coming into the industry they don't really know the old systems, they get shown the new system, but they need to know part of that old system so they make mistakes because all they have been shown is the new system, and then they make mistakes. In my department we are always at the end of the line, so all the mistakes always come back to us. So it does get annoying at times. They only give us 20 characters to write the report [of the engineer's house visit], and we put a very short version of the report. The supervisor obviously wants to go and look and know exactly what we did, which rarely is the same as what is written in the system. So we have to go through all the work we've done, get all the job vouchers out and it could be a job which has gone on 6 times. The supervisor wants all that back. He wants to know the truth, not what we put in ... They told us we wouldn't have to do that with the introduction of computers, but it happens quite regularly.'

In spite of their narrative poverty, these texts make a strong symbolic point; the subject emerges as a victim. Victimhood is even more pronounced in numerous tragic stories which I collected, many of which deal with unfair dismissals or discipline, humiliations, sexual or racial harassment, rejections and censures. Such stories proliferate in certain organizations in which participants feel profoundly wronged, unappreciated or exploited. Gripes and tragic stories are attempts to overcome pain and suffering symbolically, and to turn material defeat into moral victory. This is illustrated by the following story, narrated by a supervisor of a privatized utility: `One of our engineers goes out to Regional Headquarters where he thought there was an emergency call. The area is murder to park, he couldn't park anywhere and as far as he knew, it's an emergency job, he has got to go; he goes round the back of the building and there is the company's own car park so he sees a vacant place and puts his van there. He goes into the main building, it wasn't an emergency job; they just wanted priority treatment, if you like, run of the mill job, he comes back out again and one of the senior managers had blocked him in with his car. And he wouldn't let him out ... and that was one of the top cats in personnel dept and he virtually refused to come down and shift his car. That's senior management! "You you peasant, how dare you park there?"

An even more extreme case was the story of a cook's suicide in a hospital's catering department, recounted separately by five of his colleagues. They were all in various states of emotional distress and sorrow and recounting the event initially seemed to generate all but consolation or comfort. Yet, on closer analysis, this story turned out to be the crown of an elaborate daemonology; symbolically, the suicide stood for murder, its meaning being `The managers in this organization will stop at nothing, not even murder'. As final proof of the management's malevolence, the story of the cook's suicide was no less a part of the workers' symbolic heritage than the stories which celebrated their victories or their defiance (Gabriel 1991a). In this vicarious way, it enabled them to mould reality in a way which offered the moral superiority of the persecuted as compensation. While aware of the criticisms levelled at theories involving compensatory dimension of shopfloor or office life (Knights 1990), I find the wish-fulfilling quality present in most stories, as well as in other fantastic constructions. At its most basic, the hungry man dreams or day-dreams of food, the brutalized army-recruit dreams of love, peace and contentment, and the alienated factory worker dreams of leisure.

Stories centred on victimhood, like stories highlighting agency (the subject as hero or trickster), act as consolations and compensations, in the realm of fantasy. Some authors (for instance, Lasch 1984; Schwartz 1993) have claimed that victimhood, rather than heroism, defines the dominant form of subjectivity in contemporary America. Groups and individuals, it is argued, construct their identities not on the basis of their achievements and triumphs but on the basis of the injustices done to them. Ethnic groups vie to define themselves as oppressed by others, women by men, homosexuals by gay-bashers and even white males by their mothers and fathers. In a similar way, organizational participants whose experience is profoundly shaped by powerlessness or, to use Schwartz's term, `under-appreciation', may derive their sense of selfhood and fashion their identity neither through conformity with the oppressing organization, nor through rejection and rebellion, but through the respect accorded to those who suffer, i.e. the victims.

It is not my contention that narratives centring on suffering always remain within the unmanaged organization. They may permeate the managed organization by assuming different forms, ranging from accommodation to confrontation. Racial discrimination or sexual harassment, for example, may and often do spill into the official narratives of the controlling organization (see Collinson 1993). To the claims of a persecuted minority, the official narrative may then retort: Discriminated against? The company has implemented Equal Opportunity Programmes, etc. etc. to ensure that no such "abuses" take place. We have appointed x number of women and y number of disabled people in the last z months' and so on. These facts' may silence the complaints, they may restrict them or they may, in contrast, feed further victimologies, such as claims of tokenism or deception. Boundaries between managed and unmanaged organization are rarely rigid.

Romantic Stories: The Subject as Love Object

Victimhood is not the dominant mode of subjectivity in the unmanaged organization, but it is almost as pronounced as heroism and survival. The fourth and final mode of subjectivity suggested by my research material is less common than the other three, featuring in fewer than 10 percent of the taped workplace stories and almost none of the stories supplied by students. It does, however, provide an interesting contrast to the previous three. These stories usually have a tender or romantic quality; if the emotional tone of the other three types of story ranges from pride to amusement and from resignation to bitterness and anger, the emotional tone of romantic stories is set by gratitude, appreciation and love. The two main themes of such stories are gifts or other expressions of recognition as well as fantasies of being in love. These stories are sometimes linked to a nostalgic theme, being recounted as evidence of better times in the past (see Gabriel 1993). Not surprisingly perhaps, most of the romantic narratives were collected in a hospital where staff talked of grateful patients bringing them cards, chocolates or other presents after successful treatment. These narratives tended to be somewhat sketchy, lacking those features of plot, character and unexpectedness which characterize `good' stories. Nevertheless, they reveal a construction of the subject which combines affectionate feeling for a fellow human being with the reciprocation of this feeling. The following example was recounted by a hospital receptionist:

`Recently a lady brought this great big box of chocolates to me. Actually a member of staff had come to see me about her mother and asked me if there was anything we could do about this, and I said "Leave it to me" and I sorted something out; the lady was seen without having to wait long for an appointment, and I had a box of chocolates bought for me. I said " I don't want this, it is my job", but she insisted: "Take it please".' This text presents the `good turn' done by the receptionist not as a heroic deed, but as a show of compassion for a colleague, as an act of love rather than an act of duty or courage. The gift then serves to construct the subject as an object of affection within the narrative.

Another romantic story was told by a female secretary working for a privatized utility. It concerned the one day per year when office staff accompanied engineers on house calls, aimed at promoting greater understanding between the two groups of employees.

`We had a day out with the lads (engineers) and we had a really good time, we saw how they did their job and, later, they came into the office to see how we did our job. Well, Roy and I went to check an appliance to this dear old couple, who had a beautiful house in Chipping Camden, it was lovely this house, and he said "my dear you could have a glass of sherry but I drank it all". He then went down and got some and I said to Roy "I've never been offered sherry in my life". The old girl was lovely; she couldn't make coffee, she said, as they came from France. All these houses we went to were great.'

The `day out with the lads' also inspired a different type of romantic narrative in the office, not involving gifts but straight love fantasies. This was partly due to the fact that one of the secretaries eventually married `her engineer', whom she had met on a joint visit. Love fantasies, like gift stories, also constitute the subject as an object of love, though not for `what they have done' but for who they are' (see Schwartz 1993), as in the following example, recounted by a secretary:

`It's mainly me really they tease, about the postboy. Because he's so sweet, you know, I say he is my toyboy, and the others ask me "Have you seen your toyboy today?" . . . Or the gentleman across the corridor, I notice him because he's always working, he's such a nice gentleman, such a nice character, and I always say [to my colleagues] "I just met him on the first floor, I think he's madly in love with me".'

Office romances featured in two main types of narratives. On the one hand, they fed malicious gossip, the central characters being constructed as `fools'. Alternatively, however, office romances fed romantic narratives, in which individuals clearly identified with one of the lovers, constructing the subject as an object of love and affection.

To recapitulate: The workplace may not be as fecund a source of stories as the family, the school or the legal system. It is not, nevertheless, a story-free area as is sometimes implied. Stories are spawned by numerous organizational experiences including accidents, bold deeds, oppression, victimization, love and appreciation. Stories, I have argued, are attempts to construct and communicate the fantasy (some would say `fiction') of the subject as hero, survivor, victim or object of love. They arise from daily experiences and re-assert subjectivity in an organizational terrain which cannot be submitted fully to rationalized impersonal control, the unmanaged organization. The managed and the unmanaged organizations are not sealed territories; their boundary is both imprecise and permeable. While management may seek to expand its rule into ever new areas of the employee's existence, seeking to define not only his/her actions but also his/her values, thoughts and feelings (Hochschild 1983), new unmanaged territories constantly emerge, even if ephemerally, in the stories and narratives that people (including managers themselves) create. Whether constituting the subject as hero, survivor, victim or as object of love, such stories treat organizational realities, not as parcels of information, but as poetic material, infused with meaning. Events are moulded according to wishes and desires, evading organizational controls, giving vent to fantasies in which the pleasure principle prevails over the requirements of veracity and accuracy (or what psychoanalysts may call `the reality principle').

Three Dreams: Alternative Constructions of the Subject

Stories, however, are not the only fantasies spawned by organizational life. I referred earlier to the similarities between story-work and dreamwork. Stories, like dreams, are products of psychological work, texts which emerge out of the engagement of unconscious desires with organizational life. It strikes me then that studying people's dreams can offer valuable insights into subjectivity at the workplace, and by this I mean `dreams', literally, rather than day-dreams such as escapist fantasies which have attracted some attention (Willis 1979; Pollert 1981; Gabriel 1988; Cohen and Taylor 1992). In this section, I shall discuss three dreams which illustrate some similarities and differences from the stories explored thus far.

The distance between dream and story is not as great as may at first seem. In the first place, they are both fantasies (in the psychoanalytic sense), subject to different degrees of displacement, condensation and plastic elaboration. In this sense, they are both features of the unmanaged organization. Furthermore, the dreams which I shall presently discuss had themselves been turned into stories recounted to me by the respondents. Why then examine dreams separately from stories, it may be asked? I would like to suggest that dreams reveal certain features of subjectivity which are not evident in other stories. In particular, I will show that by recounting a dream, individuals can construct a waking subject in contrast to its dreaming double. The strength of this approach has been vividly demonstrated by Jermier (1985), who juxtaposes the dream and the nightmare versions of a typical day in the life of skilled operator. The dream is one of escapist alienation, the subject colluding in his own impression. By contrast, the nightmare reveals what Jermier calls `reflective militancy', the subject as cynically aloof and fully capable of reflection and criticism. My own interest in work dreams was kindled by a particular story recounted by a computer analyst in the research organization. The story was as follows:

`I know one story that someone [at my previous place of employment] told me. He and I were doing a lot of very intensive programing in an assembly language and we got very deeply into it and we had long conversations between us. He came in one morning and said he'd had the most horrific nightmare and he had woken up and he'd realized he couldn't move his arm, and then he realized he had to write a program to move his arm, so he started to construct a program in assembly language to move his arm, this was his dream. Then there were all sorts of problems and bugs and it turned into a real nightmare and then he woke up and was very relieved.' [Dream 1]

This story made a strong impression on me and my fellow researcher, so we asked subsequent interviewees if they dreamed about work. Initial responses were not encouraging; most people denied that they ever dreamed about work. Yet, on closer questioning, some interesting dreams surfaced. Here are two examples. The first was recounted by a man who described his ideal job as being left alone with a huge word-processing pile at the beginning of the day and not interrupted at all.

`I don't get [such dreams] any more, in fact I hardly ever dream about my work now, but when I first started, whenever I started a new job or used a new system, which was quite often, I repeated the day's work at night, when I was asleep. I just went on typing all night, as well as all day. A bit much really. I would do search and replaces, and other WP functions as well.'

Interviewer: Did you experience frustration in your dream?'

`No, there was no frustration, but a sense of never-endingness, it was a sort of unattainable quest, an unattainable WP task towards which you were striving all night. That was a fairly regular dream I had. When you are learning a new package, you have to put yourself in a learning over-drive mode and then it's hard to get out of that at night.' [Dream 2]

The next dream was related by the deputy editor of a prestigious consumer magazine. In his dream, computerization leads to the closure of his magazine. He is made redundant.

`In my dream, my boss, Sarah, the editor, took us all into a meeting room and said "Well look, we've decided that the magazine is a thing of the past now, because we've got these terminals in the shops, computers can do all this kind of stuff". So, she was saying, this is the way ahead ... we'll do it all in bind kits, we'll close the magazine. You are out of jobs, basically. This was all in the dream. This is what it was precisely about. The computer actually making all the things in the magazine easier and then taking it to the final extreme of making me redundant.'

Interviewer: How did you feel in the dream?'

`Really awful. Completely horrified and helpless. I mean it was just the feeling, I just lost a job before I came here before, I got the sack from a job, and I felt quite awful then, it was real kind of, I got beaten much that sort of feeling, I woke up and felt "Oh God, I don't know if I want to get up today!" I felt powerless, I could see the logic of what was going on and even though I didn't like it I felt that I couldn't argue with it. In real life I would never have stood for it, but in the dream I completely agreed with it.' [Dream 3]

Overlooking for a moment the fact that, unlike the last two, the first appears to be a dream-turned-story, a second-hand account by someone other than the dreamer, certain lines of interpretation can be offered. All three dreams draw their primary material from the world of work, and computers play a certain part in them. Moreover, they are all anxiety dreams, texts with fewer redemptive qualities than the earlier stories, offering little in the way of wish-fulfilment. In the first dream, the image of the mal-programed programmer, his body contorted out of control as a result of the bugs in the program, evoke a parallel with the feeding machine in Chaplin's Modern Times. It is funny in the same way as stories in which one loses control of one's own body; in which one's body is experienced as a recalcitrant object. Yet, looking closer at the text, it is clear that, unlike Chaplin, in the dream, the subject has brought his predicament upon himself. `If you are so clever, try this one!' Following the expert's pact with the devil, the devil (i.e. the machine) demands its pound of flesh from the expert. The machine, which the expert safely assumed was under his control, turns out to be the master; and the expert has turned into a failing mechanical object. The second dream brings to mind the predicament of Sisyphus as well as the quest for the Holy Grail, the never-endingness of the task, the peace never to be found. In it, the computer may appear to hold the promise of redemption as the tool through which the mission will be accomplished. It disappoints and disillusions. In fact, it turns out to be the terrain on which the never-to-be-accomplished mission unfolds. In the third dream, the computer features unambiguously as the instrument of perdition, destroying those very jobs which it seemed to make easier. It embodies the logic of unanswerable power, shattering valued legacies (i.e. the journal). It permits neither negotiation nor discussion. The dreamer experiences the utter powerlessness of someone who has not only lost his job, his legacy, his livelihood, but cannot argue with the forces that dominate him. His subjectivity is crushed. He is an object, and a redundant one at that. He is beaten, both materially and morally. In his dream, he has encountered the unanswerable logic of control. All three dreams are figures of powerlessness, a powerlessness which is as profound as it is solipsistic, in ways which only exist in dreams. The subject is utterly isolated, friendless and helpless. Yet, the dreams define the dreamer as confronted by technical and organizational realities familiar to everyone. It is as if these realities, notably the threats of mechanization and computers, have lodged into the dreamer's unconscious, from whence they reach consciousness only during sleep. The subject emerges in a stark, almost Kafkaesque, light reduced to utter impotence.

Dreams as Stories

Yet, it is important to note that all three dreams have undergone further elaboration from the state in which dream-work left them. They are texts within texts, fantasies on top of fantasies, having all been turned into stories, meaningful to the teller and intelligible to the listener. It is possible then to superimpose a second level of interpretations, exploring their meanings as stories. For example, it can be argued that all three storytellers are communicating images of computers as dangerous devices threatening one's physical or psychological survival and images of those engaged in computer work as brave pioneers risking their personal safety, as survivors or as rebels and fighters. From such interpretations, a new subject is revealed in juxtaposition and even in opposition to the dreaming subject. For example, the sentence 'In real life I would never have stood for it', in Dream 3, enables the storyteller to construct a defiant and rebellious subject-awake in contrast to the passivity of its dreaming double. While the text-as-dream is traumatic, the text-as-story approaches the epic. While the dreaming subject is clearly a victim, the subject-awake accords with the subject-as-hero mode discussed earlier.

Storytelling as a Social Process

In contrast to the solipsistic qualities of the dream, the story (even a story based on dreams) represents a loud social process. The language of the story is a public one, unlike that of the dream which is highly private. Even if a story based on a dream, the teller engages in a social relationship, whether with a friend, a psychoanalyst, a fortune-teller or a researcher. The way dreams are recounted, whether, for example dreams are `had' (as in English) or `seen' (as in many other cultures), the reading of any prophetic or divine meaning in them, the turning of visual images into narrative statements, all these processes are mediated by `dream discourses' which vary widely across cultures (see, e.g. Dodds 1950). Turning dreams into stories at the workplace is not common. Example 1 above was the only unsolicited dream-story I collected; it is not accidental that it is a story based on someone else's dream, and therefore a dream from which the teller could more easily detach himself, enjoying its comic qualities. Why is it that, unlike folklore or traditional mythology which make extensive use of dreams and dream material, workplace folklore seems to eschew them? This is an interesting question, which can only partly be answered here. Lawrence (1991) has suggested that `in this century it has been the specialized discipline of psychoanalysis which has shaped our approach to understanding dreams and, in the process, we have lost the accumulated wisdom of so-called primitive peoples to use dreams as part of our everyday life' (p. 289). Dream talk in our culture is part of a rather restricted psychoanalytic discourse or, at least, what Philip Rieff (1959) calls the intimate discourse of the psychological man'; it is certainly not suited to the large public arenas of organizations. Most people in our cultures would be inhibited about discussing their dreams at the workplace, and indeed may feel inhibited about discussing their dreams at all. Equally, most people would be perplexed or unable to make sense of someone else's dream. Hence the silence.

Crossing the Boundary Between Managed and Unmanaged

In telling a story (whether based on dreams or not), one is busily making assumptions about what can properly be discussed under the circumstances, the audiences' likes and dislikes, their interests, the meanings they are likely to read into different images, their tastes, their sense of humour, etc. While in analyzing stories, one concentrates on the text (as recorded by a machine and then transcribed by someone trying to make sense of the sounds), stories rarely pop out of people's heads already fully shaped and armoured. The telling of stories requires minuscule judgements depending on how the narrative is being received and what interaction there is in the form of questions, suggestions and hints from listeners (as in the cases above when the interviewees were being prompted by the interviewer). The story is sometimes aborted altogether, killed when hardly born, when one of the listeners or even the teller him/herself quickly steers the narrative back to verifiable facts and the world of the managed organization. At times, the mere presence of a certain person or a particular look may be enough to put an end to a venture into the unmanaged terrain. Alternatively, a story started by one individual may be finished by another, or different variants may be discussed and compared. Stories in the unmanaged organization are far more plastic than those embedded in official mythologies, and have a strong tendency to mutate into other stories and merge with them. Displacement and condensation, both trademarks of unconscious processes which are so common in dreams, are equally common in workplace fantasies where characters, events, places and times become almost as easily transposable as in dreams. The unmanaged organization can thus be seen as a kind of organizational dreamworld, where fantasy gains a precarious advantage over fact. Some stories are virtually multi-authored, emerging accidentally during conversations from what I call `proto-stories', simple pieces of information which carry the seed of a narrative. Several people may respond by offering significant clues or relating the material to another story. Different participants to the conversation may then offer further elements, trading interpretations (Boje 1991). Some of these elements are discarded, others are incorporated or elaborated. The story emerges as a collage as a result of this complex intersubjective process. Even then, different participants retain different elements of the text and each text may then travel, undergoing further elaborations with each recital. These processes are not immediately evident in research material where stories feature as solid text. Occasionally, however, one witnesses at first hand the birth of a story, as in the following example I witnessed in one of the organizations visited. Reported from memory, the story is as follows: A number of managers were deriding their department for its extravagant brochures and stationery, at a time when many other departments were carrying out cuts in expenditure. Such gripes must have been daily occurrences in the department in question, but what turned them into a story, and a `good story' at that, was when someone revealed that the head of the department was having an illicit liaison with the graphic artist responsible for the material. Whether true or not, this was the missing piece necessary to turn the earlier gripes (proto-stories) into a proper story, which could then be embellished further into different variants. Soon, the story fused with other narratives regarding the head of department's sexual behaviour and his financial mismanagement. From this example, it can be seen that stories do not stand as obelisks or pyramids in a barren landscape. Instead, their texts constantly evolve, compete, merge, often disappear, and at times even re-appear out of nowhere. Many stories often co-exist in different versions, rarely coming into direct conflict or competition, pursuing errant careers within the unmanaged spaces of organizations, like furtive thoughts in the unconscious. Some narratives, as seen earlier, cross the boundary between unmanaged and managed organization in different guises. The story about the man inventing adhesive tape in his spare time, or the loyal employee who discharges his/her mission against all odds may be adopted as parts of official organizational discourse. These may crystallize into organizational myths, which may then generate pride, cynical derision or indifference among different groups of people. These, in turn, may reappear in the unmanaged organization with a new twist, such as that the erstwhile hero was subsequently fired or fell foul of management. Other narratives may cross the boundary in a different manner, not as potential supports for organizational practices but as open, visible challenges to such practices. Victimized employees who dispute management decisions (see Collinson 1993), morally outraged individuals who become whistle-blowers and criticize their organization in public (see Jackall 1988), or individuals who have the fortitude to confront their superiors directly (Gabriel 1991a) intervene in the control-resistance domain of their organization and risk bringing its organized power upon themselves. Their narratives are no longer treated as stories; instead they become claims, allegations, `lies' and `facts'.


In all their vicissitudes, stories never lose their foundation in lived (and therefore subjective) experience. They highlight the local, the parochial, and the specific, engendering subjectivity in its different modes. Stories present incidents as signs and symbols, rather than as information. Information, with its fixation on verifiability, objectivity and control, is the declared enemy of the story. It disregards context, it scorns meaning, it celebrates quantity at the expense of quality and it transforms texts into linear sequences. The computer printout, the perfect series of `ones' and `zeros', is the extreme opposite of the story. Some theorists (Benjamin 1968) have argued that modernity would deal the death blow to storytelling, subjectivity being squeezed into an ever narrowing margin. It has been argued, for instance, that our organizations have become `seas of information', most of which has virtually no meaning for us, nor is it of any use to us (Postman 1985: 68-69). Information, argues Baudrillard (1983 and 1988), destroys meaning and signification, distinctions between media and reality collapse, and, in a society saturated by media messages, meaning implodes into meaningless noise. By contrast, my research into organizational storytelling suggests that even within data-dominated environments, we continue to read meanings into the events of our daily lives and to essay interpretations on those who broadly share our experiences. In this respect, my arguments are closer to those cultural critics such as de Certeau, Fiske and Kellner, who have sought to reclaim some space for human creativity and agency by examining the ways people actually use mass-produced texts and products. These critics have argued that in `consuming' objects or texts, ranging from television programmes to blue jeans, individuals are engaged in creative bricolage through which they combine standardized cultural components into highly individual repertoires of performances and stories. Thus, de Certeau argues:

`In reality, a rationalized, expansionist, centralist, spectacular and clamorous production is confronted by an entirely different kind of production, called "consumption" and characterized by its ruses, its fragmentation ... its poaching, its clandestine nature, its tireless but quiet activity, in short its quasi-invisibility.' (1984: 31)

De Certeau's arguments point towards unmanaged terrains, which he refers to as spaces', similar to those examined in this paper. Stories are identified by de Certeau as the instrument through which `places' organized, planned and policed by `clamorous production' are reclaimed, at least temporarily, and converted into `spaces'. Places, argues de Certeau, are determined by objects and laws which are simply there. Spaces, on the other hand, are specified by the actions of historical subjects which are temporal, ephemeral, full of meaning, emotions and ambiguity (1984: 117-118; see also Fiske 1989 and Hetherington 1992). In this paper, I have argued that storytelling is no mere diversion or escapism; instead, it serves as a vehicle through which the subject is constructed in four principal modes, as hero, as survivor, as victim and as object of love. This does not invalidate the Foucauldian link between control and subjectivity (Clegg 1989; Willmott 1990; Knights 1990; Knights and Morgan 1991) nor does it imply a sovereign subjectivity which can take off on its Quixotic adventures with no regard for the power practices of organizations. It does, however, highlight how fantasy and dreaming can supplement fictions of self created by management and control. The modes of subjectivity encountered in this paper may be in opposition to those which emerge from the power practices of the organizations themselves, but they are every bit as important. By obstinately transforming events into stories, we do not abolish the claims of rationality and the reality principle, but we do re-assert the rights of desire and fantasy. We may not dismantle organizational controls, but we certainly learn how to evade them. In doing so, we restore subjectivity, to a terrain where it can be observed (constituting and re-constituting itself, of course) in its enduring pursuit of double and triple meanings, discovering, twisting and distorting them, forever re-asserting their unpredictability and plurality.


(*) Some material presented in this article was collected with the help of grant No. R000232627 from the Economic and Social Research Council. I would like to thank my colleagues Dr Steve Fineman and Dr Paul Bate for their help in writing this paper.


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Date:Jun 22, 1995
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