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The Art of Mastery (and Drift): Managerialism and American Literary Naturalism

James Dorson, FU Berlin

While management thought today has turned against the industrial rationality that underlay its late nineteenth-century emergence, it is nevertheless increasingly characterized by the “instrumentalization of human beings in their most specifically human dimensions”.[1] The critique of instrumental reason and scientific rationality has generated new modes of instrumentality and control that do not appear as such because they operate along the lines of what Ulrich Beck has called the “counter-industrial rationalization process”.[2] Managerial discourse since the 1970s has been legitimated by the critique of bureaucratic authority that has also shaped the development of dominant methodologies in literary and cultural studies. New forms of management thus pose a unique problem for understanding the dynamics of management as well as for developing new ways for critically engaging with it.

One part of my project aims to historicize managerial thought by examining how American literary naturalism was shaped by and in turn helped shape discourses that played a part in the rise and transformation of management. I examine how a naturalist aesthetic was informed by scientific debates in fields such as genetics, criminology, and statistics. Zola’s account of the “experimental novel” provides a key link between naturalist formal strategies and the introduction of experimental methods to the workplace beginning with scientific management. The repetition of scenes and verbal clusters in naturalist texts functioned both to establish character typologies and to train readers in pattern recognition, shifting the narrative focus from qualities to quantities, and reader competencies from empathy and moral evaluation to data-based analysis.

But naturalist texts went beyond popularizing a scientific view that helped reorientate the public toward the managerial outlook that came to define the Progressive Era. If one of the effects of naturalist fiction was to empty characters of the moral self-determination that had characterized Victorian subjectivity, thereby making them more manageable, at the same time it filled them with instincts and desires so unruly and inexhaustible that they provided endless grounds for exploration and analysis. Naturalism thus simultaneously contributed to the growing interest in psychology and the emergence of a therapeutic style which was to transform management, from industrial psychology and the human relations movement to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Drawing on Walter Lippmann’s oppositional terms of Drift and Mastery (1914), I argue that American literary naturalism did not only display an aesthetics of mastery, but also one of drift, where the impulse toward control through scientific knowledge yields to a fascination with the forces of nature and a corresponding sense that they can be neither understood nor controlled. Taken together, the aesthetics of mastery and drift in naturalism suggest a dialectical view of management that may help us better grasp the paradoxes in managerial rationality today.



[1] Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (1999; trans. Gregory Elliott. London and New York: Verso, 2007), p. 98.

[2] Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (1986; trans. Mark Ritter. London: SAGE, 1993), p. 140.