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Appel n° 1 – Fragmented time, urgency and loss of meaning

Appel initialement paru dans le carnet de la NRT : https://nrt.hypotheses.org/44

The work world is increasingly subject to the dictatorship of the present. The key phrases that predominate in managerial governance – flexibility, mobility, adaptability, just-in-time – have created a climate (and even a culture) of urgency. Nowadays people are constantly being forced to act in the present, leading in turn to a permanent form of « acting out ». This process is illustrated by an expression that is regularly heard in companies and public organisations: « Keep your eyes on the road and hands upon the wheel. And keep your foot to the pedal, even if you know you’re going to crash ». All of which creates an impression of permanent agitation, which is also a way of avoiding nagging questions about the meaning of action.

Psychoanalysts would say, for instance, that when people engage in an act, what they are actually doing is creating a defence mechanism that will help them to overcome their fear of emptiness. Many managers will defend the ensuing atmosphere of permanent stimulation. At the same time, a number of questions can be raised at this level, such as how action contexts of this sort impact on the world of work; the material and symbolic impact when people are forced to work with a sense of urgency; how such urgency affects the conditions in which work occurs and the meaning thereof; and the concrete consequences for work and workers when working rhythms accelerate.

If this focus on the present leads, for instance, to a loss in collective memories of the past and of the lessons of history, it will have an effect on the organisation of the tasks that employees are given. The same thinking or “reworked solutions” will be depicted as new and innovative proposals even when they do little more than repeat the same old ways of doing things or replicate projects that have been more or less abandoned. Managerial newspeak – full of oxymorons – has entered the workplace and further undermines people’s sense of historicity, meaning the process that elucidates present issues through greater understanding of the past with a view towards the construction of a different future. Mistrust in routines and contempt for the benefits of experience skew everything in favour of change at any price even as they kill off the idea of authentic progress. Change for change’s sake, action for action’s sake, a permanent acceleration in “reforms”, the dictatorship of « real-time” and the instantaneousness imposed by some professionals’ use of information and communications technologies have also combined to undermine people’s memory and sense of history. These trends shape how employees work and are anything but neutral in nature. It would be also useful to understand how this affects different employee categories: managers and non-managers; young and old; men and women. Moreover, if the meaning of work is being affected, there is a question as to how such change manifests concretely in different categories. The exclusion of the elderly, viewed as individuals whose time has come and gone, might reinforce this process. People who can attest to the way that things were done in the past are increasingly being considered useless and even harmful.

When temporality on a “human scale” is no longer possible, randomness, meaninglessness and depression tend to spread. The questions at this level are which potential or manifest conflicts characterise the different timings associated with work in both public and private sector companies; on what basis the relationships between short-term imperatives and long-term necessities are being structured; and which disconnects are likely to appear under such circumstances (plus how various constituencies can be expected to react to them).

A further angle is to ask whether this dictatorship of short-termist urgency – with its denial of the thickness of time and history – has the same effect on “traditional” companies as on their more hi-tech counterparts, or indeed on large firms vs. small and medium-sized (and even micro) enterprises. Similarly, consideration might be given to how certain employee categories react to urgency management (or simple “stress”) and what effects managerial policies of this kind have on communities and individuals. Also, beyond observation and analysis of these kinds of situations, have any forces been observed pushing back against t his deep trend, i.e. how feasible is it to resist this movement? Lastly, how do employees react to urgency and to the discourses used to justify it – and have any communities or professional groups come up with responses capable of keeping these trends at bay while reconnecting to the primacy of time?

For its first issue, La Nouvelle Revue du Travail calls for articles focused on these topics, whether theoretical reflections or empirical research findings.

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