Madame Bovary and Me (and you too)

At the large and profitable university where I pass my days as a cleaner, yet another wave of “assessment” has crashed ashore. For this iteration, we will be leaving comment cards in each office we clean, asking the inhabitant to rate our performance, with a mailing address to send the card back to management, carrier pigeons not being within our budget apparently. It is also unclear whether the information will be used, come the next contract negotiations, to justify firing us in the eyes of the union or to justify keeping us to the university.

This is only the latest effort to assess our work. Supervisors are still sent on regular inspections, but they find it impossible to visit every one of the hundreds of offices, lobbies, meeting rooms, and other cosmoses we clean. They tried to supplement this by giving us regular reports, issued randomly, on how we did on a specific day with notes for improvement. Then, they set up a complaint line so bored office workers can monitor our work. They finally tried to tabulate every complaint call they received over the year in terms of who complained and how many minutes it took us to respond. Nothing they did gave them enough information. The dream of total panoptic surveillance lingers.

This issue is not, you see, that poor work is being done, although paradoxically, when you keep a space perfectly clean, the smallest mote of dust appears enormous and looming. Rather, all of this is in line with the corporate vision of an assessment regime to regulate all aspects of work. Emboldened by new technologies, companies such as ours are creating a sort of Taylorism 2.0 in which every task performed by every worker can be monitored and assessed to know who is underperforming or outperforming their coworkers, and thus achieve greater efficiency and control. Professors grade their students, students assess their professors, professors assess their cleaners, secretaries assess one other, and an army of number-crunchers issue constant reports. The goal is transparency, rationality, and order; a post-Enlightenment world of clean, straight lines. German orderliness and Japanese management techniques. The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.

In other words, the complete antithesis of how most people in academia do anything. Particularly in the humanities, academics are notoriously far more Romantic than Enlightened. Even grading, that first assessment regime in life, seems as much a nightmare for most academics as it is for students. If universities didn’t mandate grading, most instructors would likely have nothing to do with it. One suspects that grading now serves primarily to prepare students for the regular assessment they will face in the working world. Unless, one presumes, they become assessors themselves, which is clearly a boom industry. But who will assess the assessors?

All of this, of course, is insufferably authoritarian, although nobody really wants to say so. Many of us will tolerate measures of control and surveillance at work that parallel and overlap with those of state authorities, while far surpassing them, and not utter a peep of protest. Instead, what we do is loaf, call in sick, disconnect mentally, and aim to collectively underperform. We become what used to be known in totalitarian states as “internal exiles”.

And, yes, some find more laissez faire work places. Actually, as my city gentrifies- a blanket term given to the process of generating wealth by displacing the poor- there are fewer and fewer places left to work and be surveiled and still make the steadily increasing rent. But, before this sounds cynical, let me point out that I see the administrative drean as being just as unachievable as every authoritarian aspiration. Human beings cannot be programmed or perfected or watched at all moments. Eccentricity, irrationality, playfulness, lust, and irresponsibility are too typical.

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By some delightful coincidence (that I generally keep to myself at work), I happen to be reading Gustave Flaubert’s Oriental voyage journals while all of this is happening. Flaubert went to the Levant with his friend Maxime Du Camp in 1850, right as he was questioning whether he would ever become a writer and a few years before writing Madame Bovary. His works before, such as Novembre, had been somewhat embarrassing attempts at Romanticism, and his most recent attempt, (the first) Temptation of Saint Anthony, was a relative disaster. When he read it for his closest friends, they strongly encouraged him to burn it! So, Flaubert was at a crossroads and, in a sense, the voyage cured him of his Romanticism and gave birth to Realism.

Maxime Du Camp and Gustave Flaubert

Certainly, traveling in the Ottoman Levant had been a French Romantic rite of passage since Chateaubriand’s 1806 pilgrimage. Almost every important French author in the first half of the nineteenth century went on some sort of voyage and wrote a book about it, and these books were extremely popular with the public. There is very little comparable in any other country at that time, but the books helped to fuel an explosion of European pleasure travel to the Mediterranean. They were the bridge between the Grand Tour and the beginning of tourism.

It was already happening, in fact. Particularly in Egypt, Flaubert found the “Orient” to be all-too-European. The great travel hotels were being built, the large-scale engineering projects were being undertaken, and an army of European experts were being imported to essentially “transfuse European culture into the Orient” as Du Camp put it. Du Camp, who was considerably more positivist (and frankly racist) than Flaubert thought these projects were failing because the Arab culture and that of the “Aryans” were essentially incompatible; transfusions across blood types.

Flaubert, however, was cynical about the entire notion of progress and social engineering. He was particularly unimpressed with the Saint-Simonians, utopian socialists who basically tried to make social engineering into a pseudo-religion. When Du Camp met the Saint-Simonian director of education in Cairo, Lambert-Bey, he described him as “the most intelligent man I have ever met”. Flaubert, meanwhile, argued with the man, defending the doctrine of “l’Art pour l’Art” against the “utilitarian” notion that art was a tool of social persuasion and engineering.

In fact, Flaubert was appalled at most of the men like Lambert in Egypt. In a wonderful letter written after their discussion of art, Flaubert rants: “It is nearly certain to me that (society) will at some time in the future be ruled like a boarding school. We’ll all be pawns. Everyone in uniform. Humanity will no longer produce barbarism in its own insipid way, but what a fucked-up style! What a lack of wit, rhythm, and vitality! O you glorifiers of the future, where is your enthusiasm?!”

Which remains the question. The fantasy of running society like a boarding school has flickered in the icy hearts of bureaucrats and rationalists ever since, without ever being fully realized. What fascinated Flaubert more than rationalism was bêtise, or stupidity. When Flaubert struck up a friendship with a particularly foolish French physician in Cairo, Du Camp misunderstood this as his friend’s interest in the comic and tragic, a fairly shallow reading. Instead, Flaubert was keenly aware of mankind’s limited ability to make sense of the world, especially at a moment when he was questioning his own ability to do so in fiction. As such, he was fascinated by those who felt assured, incorrectly, that they had done so. I think the physician was fascinating to Flaubert because the man had no doubts about his own beliefs, however wrong they were. Whereas Flaubert really had nothing but doubts, other men (like Du Camp) had complete epistemological self-confidence. What critics sometimes miss about Flaubert’s writing is that never writes about bêtise from a privileged vantage point. We never get the sense of an omniscient narrator.

In his next novel, the most famous one that established his career, Flaubert as one critic put it, “succeeded in communicating his failure, our failure, the failure of language, and paradoxically even the failure of the author himself to communicate.” Emma Bovary is, in many ways, a foolish character. Yet, we can’t find fault in her foolishness, as we only see just slightly beyond her provincial view of life, but not far enough to see another, better view of the world. We’re all lost in this together. At least, Madame Bovary’s romantic longing is a deeply human impulse. Even as we know our own fantasies and yearnings are doomed to fail in a pragmatic world, the majority of us yearn just as long as we inhale. The great Flaubert theme is not precisely disillusionment, although there is plenty of that, but the persistence of illusions afterwards.

It’s questionable that Flaubert ever really said the apocryphal “La Bovary, c’est moi.” Yet, who would rather live out their life as Charles Bovary, the cold rationalist surgeon who looks into his wife’s dead body on the autopsy table and sees nothing? Or really who would want to be any of the other bourgeois, gimlet-eyed characters in the novel? Emma Bovary, the foolish, irresponsible, provincial wife dreaming of some sort of greatness, passion, and enthusiasm that will never come to her is considerably more attractive than the cold-eyed realist dreaming of a world where everything is visible, measurable, and evaluated.

So, la Bovary c’est nous: she’s all of us barbarians and fools who cannot be regulated, or assessed, or made rational or improved. In other words, the overwhelming majority. The assessors have their work cut out for them.

-Rufus F. 2017.


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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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14 thoughts on “Madame Bovary and Me (and you too)

  1. I recently had a conversation with a soon to depart VP/GM of our company, in context of his clearance and future employment. (He was prohibited from sending his resume via certain channels without prior authorization from the clearing agency) wherein we discussed the company’s monitoring of employee pc/internet/email. EVERYTHING done on a company computer or attached to the network is monitored.

    And Rufus, I have to account for each 5 minute increment of my time each day. :)

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    • I have to account for each 5 minute increment of my time each day

      This is why I don’t work insurance defense anymore. Plaintiff’s side has many things going for it. No billable hours is high on the list.

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  2. Rufus, I love this piece. I hope you never stop posting here. Don’t take any point of disagreement below as rejection.

    This piece is a reminder of how different things are in the STEM branch of the academy. Grading was annoying, a job that does not particularly enrich one. Still, I would never call it a “nightmare”. In STEM, there are right and wrong answers, and the right ones are marked right, the wrong ones are wrong, and sometimes there is partial credit, which is a little squishy for us, but manageable. We have the comfort of not having to engage with any question greater than whether P equals NP.

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    I have an interesting reaction to “the cold rationalist surgeon who looks into his wife’s dead body on the autopsy table and sees nothing”.

    There is a self-rating scale of the autism spectrum, running from 1 to about 40. The average for people is 19. I score a 21. Friends of mine have given themselves 40s. High functioning, to be sure. Being a creature of Silicon Valley, I have many friends who are spectrum, some merely aspie, but a few who are well past that.

    All of them experience emotion. Every last one. The neurosurgeon who removed my wife’s brain tumor also has feelings, that’s clear from our conversations. Now it’s true that for many of them emotions seem an inconvenience or a burden, something to be conquered. I have one friend that we like to describe as “he wants to be a robot”.

    The writer’s job is emotion. I’ve heard the process described as “fishing in the subconscious and dragging out bits to play with”. So it is odd, perhaps alienating, to be around people who’s ability to do work is impaired by emotion. Writing is enhanced by it, but programming is not. Neither is brain surgery.

    Three years ago, my wife had a brain tumor removed from her right frontal lobe. The operation and subsequent radio and chemo therapy were successful in putting the cancer (a form of astrocytoma) into remission. She is still with us and functioning quite well, with only a few, very minor impairments.

    Human beings run on emotion and the programmer and the neurosurgeon are no exception. I only like being rational because it feels good to me to do so. In my youth, I had a somewhat volcanic temper, prone to tantrums and crying. This did not sit well with everyone else. Mostly I conquered that, and sought a way of life that would avoid such complications. As a much younger man, I once described my emotions as “wild horses”. As much as I loved books and reading, math and computers seemed to offer a more cerebral existence, one that avoided both the unpleasantness I experienced internally, and the social sanction that followed it.

    On the day of my wife’s brain surgery, I was not in a state where I would have been able to program. I am very glad that the neurosurgeon was not in that same mental state. I doubt that he would have been able to operate on his own spouse.

    It is by doing math, by measuring, by charting, that we conquered cholera. I went to my job and programmed every day, even days where I otherwise might not feel like it, because I loved my family and feared the consequences if I did not go. When there, I entered an emotional state of “low hum”, or I did it as best I could.

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    I have no idea why all these various tools of measurement have descended on you. At one level, yes, it seems kind of silly. I think it’s likely that you feel a sense of responsibility to the people who use the places you clean more keenly than you feel any sense of obligation to an administrator that you’ve barely know and never see.

    Perhaps it’s exactly that alienation that that administrator feels and is acting upon, though perhaps not in the most efficacious manner.

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  3. Powerful writing Rufus. Great job.

    I suspect some portion of your over supervision is from the bloated administrative body of your university nervously trying to justify their own existence.

    And while measuring and empirics can be easily overused to inanity or insanity I’d like to join Doctor Jay in pleading that, in moderation, they are vital and it would be very hard to justify doing away with them entirely.

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  4. Part 1: It is abundantly clear to me that someone told the administration that they have to objectively quantify everyone’s job performance, and no one in the administration has a clue how to to so for the custodian positions. So they will gather data that is unlikely to reflect useful information, and therefore which is all but doomed to be either neglected or misused. Query as to whether distributing lottery tickets would have yielded similar results.

    Part 2: Absolutely loved it after reading part 1. I’m not familiar with Bovary, much less the author’s adventures, but the parallels you draw are clear and powerful.

    You can write stuff like this all you want whenever you want.

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  5. I want to echo Burt and Dr. Jay in saying I really liked this piece and hope you keep writing them.

    However, I do read Flaubert’s presentation of Charles Bovary, differently from how you do. (Disclosure: I read the novel only once, and that was on 1993, so I’m not as present with the work as you probably are.) I don’t see “Charbovari!” as “the cold rationalist surgeon who looks into his wife’s dead body on the autopsy table and sees nothing.” I see him as a simple minded person who learned to jump through hoops (I believe Flaubert put it as, “memorized the exam questions [to become a surgeon] in advance”…..a paraphrase of course) and is more.

    I also differ with your statement that “[w]e never get the sense of an omniscient narrator.” In Mme Bovary, that’s pretty much exactly what we see, or at least what I see. We see the internal thoughts of that guy who seduces here (down to his wondering, before he’s accomplished the seduction, how he’ll dump her), we see Emma’s internal conflicts, and we see even a little of Charles’s education (going to brothels, etc.). I’ll grant, however, that Flaubert sometimes becomes more of a “reporter,” as with his account of the bourgeois guy (I forget his name, but he eventually wins the legion d’honneur) who sets up Charles’s surgery to “fix” Hyppolite’s [if I recall the name correctly] leg.

    And your broader point, I think I see that differently, too:

    she’s all of us barbarians and fools who cannot be regulated, or assessed, or made rational or improved. In other words, the overwhelming majority.

    That’s how it is until it isn’t. The “collective underperformance” you refer to is in a sense a form of regulation, one that’s informed, although probably informally, by a community assessment of what work is good enough and what is so bad that it’ll get one fired (or what is so good that it’ll get one branded a Stakhonovite). It’s a rational (if, again, informal) decision.

    Emma Bovary is just as capable of being one of the assessors and bureaucrats as the rest of us. She’s differently situated, so she’s not going to surrender to “bourgeois” norms so easily. I’ll concede a point. maybe in some way she–and others–is constitutionally predestined to resist, like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Even so, I believe we all are, to some extent, so disposed, to greater or lesser degrees, under the right (or wrong?) circumstances.

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  6. Please write more posts.

    On the down side, stuff subject to Moore’s Law is getting so inexpensive that it will soon be dirt cheap to “observe” whatever management thinks needs observing. Processing, memory, imaging and other sensors, wireless data… the administrators will find some reason to put a monitoring package everywhere. IIRC, it has become very, very difficult to go out in a public space in a city of any size in England and not be in range of some networked camera. In my US suburb, I see cameras in more and more public places. Facial and other individual recognition gets better and better. I’m waiting for the first Supreme Court case where the individual robbing the liquor store in a full mask is convicted on the basis of computer comparison of body movements.

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  7. But who will assess the assessors?

    The outside managment consultants hired on a juicy contract.

    Great post, as usual.

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  8. 360 anonymous feedback is something of a fad these days, though the inherent difficulties of internal measurement are well-known. Some people like to complain, and this gives them a platform, unleashes the beast. Some people have an axe to grind with One Certain So-and-so, and this effectively sanctions such conduct.
    From a management standpoint, the primary functional impairment is that of task ambiguity. In all cases, task ambiguity is the result of massive and egregious failure of management, in one of two forms. In this case, it is overlapping roles. My own university is suffering from this right now, though they teach differently in the business & management program.
    As you can probably guess, the quality of feedback tends to degenerate over time with the 360 anonymous feedback method. That’s why they teach to use it sparingly, and always in conjunction with other, less subjective, data.

    Which is kind of funny, if you think about it. They probably teach the same thing at the college of business & management at your own university.
    Quite literally– The classroom instructions entails methods of overcoming massive and egregious failure of management at the university, among other places.
    The bad part is there is nothing that can really be done about such silliness except to ride it out and wait for management to come to their senses, or get someone new directing things.
    In the meantime, the overlapping roles will evolve to become highly individualized, to the point of distraction, performance will suffer, goals will not be clearly defined or obtainable, and employee morale will suffer. (Vroom’s expectancy theory)

    A deplorable situation.

    Excellent writing though.
    Well-done.

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  9. There is very little comparable in any other country at that time

    Though in the second half of the 19th, Mark Twain made travel books an industry. They’re not much read these days, but The Innocents Abroad, A Tramp Abroad [1], and Following the Equator were among his most popular and profitable works.

    1. Whence The Damed German Language, which is still read and enjoyed.

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  10. Wonderful post. I echo everyone else who says “Write more!”.

    I’m sure Burt’s right that this is about quantifying performance evaluation, probably with the recursive feature that your higher-ups are being evaluated by some quantitative measure of how well they’ve done that. And there’s no telling what uses this data will be put to. It might be as evil as justifying staffing cuts because the place is cleaner than it strictly needs to be.

    Also, I presume you’re familiar with this.

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