Bad Form

A distinguished former colleague of mine—all my former colleagues are distinguished, ex officio so to speak—received an e-mail from someone in the administration who called herself Trudy, though, never having been introduced to her, he had no idea who Trudy was, informing him that he had completed an annual form a week late, and admonishing him because of it.

The form, of course, partook of the essential quality of most forms, that is to say of being pro forma, which in turn is to say that the purpose of the form was to be filled rather than to provide anyone with information that might be useful to him or her. It was, again like most forms, immediately filed without first having been read, a bit like those immigration forms to the United States that asked you whether you had ever committed genocide (after the downfall of the Soviet Union, genocide replaced communism as the object of moral inquiry).

Trudy wrote:

Dear Professor,

According to our records your form was not completed on time and resulted in escalation of your overdue form.

Please note as you have previously been in the escalation process if your form is not completed on time you will automatically be asked to meet with your Director to discuss.

Kind regards,

Directorate Manager to the Director’s Office

One can only hope that Buffon was wrong when he said that the style is the man himself, or in this case the woman herself; for what kind of person would the above style suggest?

Trudy writes of “escalation” as if it were something as devoid of human agency as the eruption of Krakatoa. No human hand has touched the “escalation process” and therefore, of course, no human being can be held responsible for it, certainly not Trudy herself. Presumably Trudy feels also that she is no more than a cog in a machine or a step in a process; she thinks of herself in this context as almost inanimate.

And yet, at the same time, no human being can think of himself in this way (unless very psychiatrically disturbed), either consistently or for very long. The sense of agency, that we are capable of acting according to our thoughts, is inherent in human beings. Thus Trudy both claims to be but a cog in a machine but knows herself to be a human being at the same time, a contradiction of which she is almost certainly aware at least intermittently, and which she knows leads her into a chronic state of dishonesty. She knows that she owes her position in the hierarchy, and any hope of ascent in it, to her willingness to assume the role of cog. Not cogito, ergo sum, but cog therefore promoted, is her motto. That is why I think that if I passed Trudy in the corridor she would turn her eyes away from mine and not look me in the face; she knows that she lives in bad faith and she knows that I guess it even if I do not actually know it.

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