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The Office and Philosophy

on Mon, 03/31/2008 - 00:00

Television has evolved since its inception from storytelling stepchild to arguably the premier dramatic medium of the Twenty First Century. Academia, astonishingly enough, has likewise noticed this transition, as “television studies” courses—both in general and in regards to specific shows—are now being taught in colleges and universities along side the previous, more prestigious “film studies.” Of equal significance, however, is the recent rise of “Television and Philosophy” books, as both Open Court and Blackwell Publishing have released numerous anthologies that tie these two distinct disciplines together.

No doubt this comes as no great surprise to fans of television shows along the likes The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica and 24, as those series display a high level of both writing style and plotlines that continually examine the morals and ethics of our times. The ABC drama Lost goes even further by peppering the show with character names that reflect famous philosophers, including John Locke, David Hume, Edmund Burke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. What may come as a surprise, however, is Blackwell’s The Office and Philosophy: Scenes from the Unexamined Life, which explores both the American and British versions of the successful television sitcom from a philosophical viewpoint. Utilizing philosophers from Plato to Bertrand Russell, Soren Kierkegaard to Jean-Paul Sartre, and encompassing principles ranging from ethics to ignorance, utilitarianism to existentialism, Scenes from an Unexamined Life demonstrates how Dwight Schrute, Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly—as well as their BBC counterparts—relate to the many philosophical discourses from throughout the ages.

In “What Dwight Doesn’t Know Can’t Hurt Him—Or Can It?” for instance, Randall M. Jensen explores the principles of deception and self-deception. “Deception and self-deception are at the heart of many of the most memorable and hilarious Dwight Schrute moments, the ones fans love to talk about around the water cooler at their own versions of Dunder-Mifflin,” he writes. “And since deception and self-deception are very important philosophical notions, too, it’ll be worth our while to spend some time exploring them in the context of The Office.” Stefanie Rocknak also discusses these principles in “Pam and Jim on the Make: The Epistemology of Self-Deception,” demonstrating how, through the course of the first three seasons of The Office, the two would-be lovebirds denied their true feelings not only to each other but themselves as well.

The character that most epitomizes self-denial, however, is the Regional Manager of the Scranton branch of Dunder-Mifflin, Michael Scott. At least three essays in The Office and Philosophy center around him: “Can Michael Ever Learn? Empathy and the Self-Other Gap” (Andrew Terjesen), “Authenticity or Happiness? Michael Scott and the Ethics of Self-Deception” (Jonathan Evans and Peter Murphy) and “Michael Scott is Going to Die” (Meg Lonergan and J. Jeremy Wisnewski). All three focus on the same philosophical principles of self-knowledge and self-awareness—or, rather, the lack thereof.

“Michael’s cluelessness is rooted in his egocentrism,” writes Andrew Terjesen. “For example, even when Michael has some sense of what he’s doing will hurt someone’s feelings—such as when corporate ordered him to fire someone—his sense of the harm seems completely out of whack. He can’t help but see things through his own eyes, even when pretending to be someone else.” Jonathan Evans and Peter Murphy take this observation even further: “He sees himself as a ladies man; the hip, funny, dashing, popular guy who, when he is not off-the-clock, is ‘The World’s Best Boss.’ But he is none of these things. Rather, he is self-deceived. This is a feat (of sorts): to preserve his self-image, Michael has to ignore the overwhelming evidence that he is none of the grand things he thinks he is.” The “Michael Scott is Going to Die” essay, meanwhile, focuses on Michael’s inability to handle death when confronted with the demise of his former boss, Ed Truck, in the season three episode “Grief Counseling,” and explores his inherent self-denial tendencies by comparing them to Kierkegaard’s concept of “living in the world-historical.”

“To live in the world-historical is to live as though the significance of one’s life depended on something external to one’s own individuality,” write Meg Lonergan and J. Jeremy Wisnewski. “One’s life is devoted to something that is not really one’s own. A person’s life takes on significance if that person plays some role, however minor, in the world-historical process: one is an important person by being a volunteer sheriff, or by being a soldier, or by being an admired manager who brought comedy to the lives of his workers. This is why Michael wants hospital wings named after him, why he donates to Oscar’s nephew’s charity, why he does so many of the things that he does—he wants to be remembered.”

Of course, all of the above reflections on the various traits of Michael Scott also define what makes the character such a comedic masterpiece, and in that sense he will never truly “learn,” nor find authenticity or happiness, because comedy is what The Office is ultimately about. Thus the writers quoted above use Michael Scott more as a catalyst to discuss situations that all of us, at one point or another, have faced outside of a sitcom life. Andrew Terjesen, for instance, acknowledges that “Michael may be an extreme example of cluelessness, but we have all had our inconsiderate moments.” Jonathan Evans and Peter Murphy, meanwhile, observe in regards to the question of authenticity and happiness, “Everyone has this problem to some extent. We think that if we could just be honest with ourselves about our relationships and who we are, then we (and others) would be better off—but sometimes this just isn’t so.”

Although merely a television sitcom, fans of the both the American and British version of The Office relate to the show because of its realistic, although exaggerated, depiction of life in a typical blue-collar work environment and by recognizing characters from The Office within their own offices. Scenes from and Unexamined Life, however, makes the case that one can relate to both the show and the characters on an even deeper, philosophical level and use them to assist in examining their own lives. As Meg Lonergan and J. Jeremy Wisnewski observe at the end of their essay, “The Office is not a show that will teach you how to confront your own mortality. No show will. Even this chapter won’t. At most, philosophy (the discipline) and The Office (the show) might force us to rethink some of our assumptions about human existence. The rest is up to us.”

Maybe a little laughter can go a long way after all.

Anthony Letizia (March 31, 2008)