Taxi!

We step off the pavement, one hand waving uncertainly. We want attention – the attention of the taxi driver – but, as we are modest, we fear the attention of the pedestrians, cyclists and drivers around us. For our hesitant hand sends a signal. A gesture that semiotically conveys  – or so we believe – our privilege, wealth and exclusivity. Here is someone who rejects more demotic forms of transport. Not for us the perilous thrill of the railway carriage. We require (we demand!) a private space. And so we oscillate painfully between shame and desire; wanting and not wanting; resolution and denial. That one gesture reveals our emotional ambiguity. We hold our liminality within us.

hansom-cab-1600Our signalling is successful. A black London cab executes a perfect U-turn – a masterclass in precision and confidence – that attracts notice and does little to sate our desire for anonymity. We state our destination, open the door and step inside.

And now the stories can begin. For this small, thoughtfully designed and comfortable cabin coaxes and nurtures stories. Maybe, as in the railway carriage, we are beguiled by movement from one locale to another while remaining in one unchanging place. But here this movement is not determined. With a train, the path is fixed, the rails demand one trajectory and one trajectory alone. In a taxi, although our destination is known, our route is not wholly ours to decide. We follow the mercurial whims of our driver. She or he is our flâneur who ‘can progress at their own pace and change their route at their own whim’ (Dale and Burrell, p.72). Of course this freedom is not unconstrained. Choices of speed, route and style of driving are controlled by road conditions, the Highway Code and the desires of passengers. But free of these contingencies, the ‘spatial order organizes an ensemble of possibilities’ (De Certeau, p.98). And maybe memory, the unrecognised preference for one street over another can ‘orient the magnetic field of trajectories just as they can haunt dreams’ (De Certeau, p.104). We are at the mercy of our driver’s dream-play. The shops, thoroughfares, offices and wharves unreel outside our window like as stop-start movie offering suggestions, possibilities, connections.

Our taxi experience is also liminal in other ways. Maybe we are travelling to a meeting. The space around us is infused with business concerns and demands. Yet it carries other resonances. For this is a space we experience on our way to the playhouse, the cinema or, who knows, an illicit assignation (for like the railway carriage, these are spaces of transgression). The meanings fog and coalesce – this is Lefebvre’s ‘lived space’ where ‘phenomenologically experienced space’ is ‘overlaid with ‘imaginary spaces’ whereby the material and the cultural are fused’ (Dale and Burrell, p.10). Like the business dinners analysed by Sturdy, the taxi is a place where the boundaries between ‘work time and leisure time, friendliness and professionalism are blurred further’ (Sturdy, p.929).

And maybe it is this enfolded liminality that encourages stories. For there are many of them. Travelling with colleagues, I have heard stories of clients, past leaders, rival firms and, indeed, our world outside work. Each story seems to begat another. And as we listen we learn: knowledge that is rarely encoded elsewhere is embodied and exchanged.

That such a space – this enclosed taxi cabin – engenders a willingness to narrate and, consequently, to reveal should perhaps not be so surprising. Look around you – as we sit on our compact seats, we are divided by a screen from a silent other. The other hears our stories while their face remains concealed. Maybe this explains our compulsion to tell our stories. For alone with a confessor, what else can we do?

So maybe we should satisfy our desire and banish our shame. For a taxi journey is not an extravagance. It is a liminal opportunity that helps us know our fellow travellers and the world around them better. Rather than view taxis as ephemeral non-places that underpin the ‘fixed instability involved in sticky mobile lives’ (Costas, p.1480), let us celebrate their potential. For without them, our stories, revelations and confessions would be far fewer –  and far poorer.

Costas, J. (2013) ‘Problematizing Mobility: A Metaphor of Stickiness, Non-Places and the Kinetic Elite’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1467–1485.

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2008), The Spaces of Organisation & the Organisation of Space: Palsgrave Macmillan.

De Certeau, M. (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life: University of California Press.

Sturdy, A. (2006) ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner? Structures and uses of liminality in strategic management consultancy’, Human Relations, 59(7), pp. 929–960.

Illustrations

Forestier, A. (1890) ‘A hansom cab drove to the offices of the very respectable firm of solicitors’. Available at: https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/hansom-cab/

Ghost

Our organisations are haunted places. They swarm with ghosts. Maybe not ghosts in a conventional sense; but ghosts nevertheless. If you wait long enough, you may discern the ‘sense of a presence of those who are not physically there’. In offices, factories, call-centres, shops and salons,  we ‘constitute a place in large measure by the ghosts we sense inhabit and possess it’ (Bell, p.813).

GhostAnd, as we have intimated before, these ghosts are creatures of the liminal. For Derrida, they are this ‘non-object, this non-present present, this being-there of an absent or departed one’ (Orr, p.1055). Immaterial themselves, their power is to make the space around them immaterial too; their liminality infects.  They can ‘elide the distance between the actual and the imagined’ so that ‘frail and cherished distinctions collapse’ (Beer, quoted by Jackson, p.69).

Think of an upmarket City meeting room. Let’s call it room 148. For your guest, experiencing this space for the first time, it is like any other meeting room: neutral in its ubiquity.  Subdued colours, art work on the wall, maybe coffee and pastries arranged on the table. For you, however, the experience is different. It is enhanced, tinted (or maybe tainted?) by all the other meetings you have attended there. The spectral voices and faces of those you previously met haunt the room. These presences are many. The room is a palimpsest of recalled conversations, arguments, emotions and the tone of those meetings (productive, boring, confrontational) now begins to affect your mood.  You too are haunted.  The room, familiar, comfortable, known, is infiltrated by the uncanny – das Unheimlich – infusing it, albeit momentarily, with the unfamiliar, the strange, the alien.  You sense a ‘feeling of estrangement, of being not ‘at home’ in the world’ (Jackson, p.65).

Ghosts appear in other guises. At a business school I know, the portraits of past deans frequent a corridor. They are sombre, besuited, the ties and haircuts indicative of past decades.  I wonder to what extent this ‘picture book of the dead’ (Orr, p.1047) troubles the current dean. Do these ghosts – for that is what they are – act as vengeful revenants forever comparing the shortcomings of the present to the glories of the past; or are they more comforting spirits offering inspiration, wisdom and succour.

TivetshallSuch ghosts possess other objects too. A long time ago, I asked a colleague to identify an artefact that encapsulated our then organisation. After a pause, he spoke fondly of the chair that his former boss had left behind on retirement. Each time he saw it, he took strength from the memory of his mentor, guide and protector.  It had what Weber called the ‘charisma’ of the object’ and Walter Benjamin, ‘the aura of the original’ (Bell, p.817).  That chair was not just any chair; it contained a ‘kind of life’.

We also talk to our organisational dead. Think of the role models, those presences from the past that you turn to in times of uncertainty.  You ask what they would have done; how they would have reacted; what guidance from beyond can they proffer? In short, we are accustomed to communing with our role model spirits.

And where there are ghosts, there are ghost stories. I have heard many such narratives in every organisation I have known. Tales of role models, heroic (and tragic) leaders, tricksters and fools. This cast of ghosts is conjured again each time the story is told. They are never exorcised. And with each raising of the dead, we re-assess our current actions. We think and sense anew.  These ‘inheritances of the past haunt the relations and struggles of the present’ (Orr, p.1041).

In one of the most famous ghost stories, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the ‘ghosts’ are only perceived within the liminal – the ‘tops of towers, the roof of houses, the outside of windows, the further edge of pools’ (Klapcsik, p.5). So look again at your organisation. Those corridors, meeting rooms, staircases and lifts – are they really what they seem? For if you look carefully enough, you might – beyond the posters, filing cabinets and workstations –  glimpse the symbolic equivalent of shorelines, the gibbet on the cross-roads, and the decaying mansion on the hill.

Bell, M. M. (1997) ‘The Ghosts of Place’, Theory and Society, 26, pp. 813–836.

Jackson, J. (1981). Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. Methuen.

Klapcsik, S. (2012). Liminality in Fantastic Fiction: A Poststructuralist Approach. McFarland & Company.

Orr, K. (2014) ‘Local Government Chief Executives ’ Everyday Hauntings : Towards a Theory of Organizational Ghosts’, Organization Studies, 35(7), pp. 1041–1061.

Illustrations

Cruikshank, G. (1842) ‘The Dead Drummer’.  Available at: https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/dead-drummer/

Rodwell, I. (2016) St Mary’s Church, Tivetshall St Mary, Norfolk

Railway

The railway carriage is a liminal place. It represents both spatial and temporal transition. Within its utilitarian or luxurious confines (for it is a place that also likes to classify us), we are moved from one locale to another while remaining in one unchanging space.  This in itself is problematic – as De Certeau observes there is both immobility inside and outside of the carriage. The fields, villages and towns have only ‘trompe-l’oeil movements…vision alone continually undoes and remakes the relationships between these fixed points.’ (De Certeau, p.112).

CarriageWe also progress in time, a movement governed by – or more accurately suggested by – timetables and schedules. Before 1840, such definitions of time were also inherently fluid. A journey was not just through time but between time with different towns deploying local systems of time. For the Victorians however, the modern railway carriage was, as John Bailey intriguingly explores, liminal in many other ways. If we peek through the smoke-smudged windows, we might discern a place of adventure, blurred identities, erotic escapade and transgression.

From one perspective, the carriage was a place of anxiety, discomfort and potential danger. There were no toilets, washrooms nor, in early carriages lacking corridors, an easy means of escape. Cardsharps, confidence men and tricksters (for where else does the phrase ‘taken for a ride come’?) were a recognised hazard. As Bailey observes, there was also a ‘persistent unease at confinement in the close presence of unknown others’ (p.6).  However, this close proximity might also dissolve reserve while mutual anonymity encouraged confidential disclosure and the relaxation of normal protocols.  The roles, identities and behaviours of everyday life could, for the duration of the journey, be altered or even abandoned.  This ambiguity is characterised by De Certeau as a ‘incarceration-vacation’ (De Certeau, p.114).

For Georges Simmel, modernity created the opportunity for ‘adventure’, an episode of heightened experience, informed by both risk and excitement and ‘torn-off’ from everyday life. But the railway carriage was not just a place of adventure, but also, as Bailey suggests, misadventure: in a society where gender relaxations were strictly governed, such an ‘enclosed space carried its own built-in erotic charge’ (Bailey, p.7).

Contemporary press reports revealed how first class carriages were much in demand by courting couples; popular song told of ‘tunnels so dusky’ where you can ‘kiss fondle and kiss with a double encore’; while musical halls echoed to Marie Lloyd’s rather less than innocent ‘She’d Never Had Her Ticket Punched Before’ (Bailey, p.9). Elsewhere, Ian Carter observes that ‘some ladies of the street had found that the seven-minute run [between Cannon Street and Charing Cross], provided ideal conditions for their activities at a rental that represented only a minute proportion of their income.’ (Carter, p.52).

Such transgression – albeit temporary – of the accepted social order is recognised by Turner who sees the liminal phase in tribal society as one where members of the community can ‘for a brief while have a whale of a good time being chaotic, in some saturnalian or lupercalian revelry…or institutionalised orgy’ (Turner, p.41).

And railway carriages generate other narratives of transgression. Narratives where morality and rationality are subverted. Carter identifies ‘the many hundred British crime novels and short stories’ with railway settings (Carter, p.46).  They also invite in that ultimate liminal character: the ghost.  A.M. Barrage’s The Green Bungalow, Steve Duffy’s Running Dogs and M.R. James’ A Warning to the Curious are just a few of the narratives that see the railway carriage as a haunted space – home to the dead but not dead; the there but not there.

And organisations too generate their own narratives of transgression. They rarely feature railway carriages but rather other liminal spaces: the Christmas party, the awayday or offsite, the business trip.  Here the physical space might be the office, a pub or hotel (identified by Pritchard and Morgan as a ‘place for transgressive behaviours’). We all, I suspect, have such stories.  In some, the mode is comic. Many years ago at the organisation I then worked for, the turgid annual address by the CEO at the Christmas Party was repeatedly and wittily heckled sotto voce by the office electrician  – in the character of trickster. In others, the mode is tragic.  I overheard such a story two days ago, ironically when returning from a conference on organisational storytelling.  The story was co-constructed by two, unseen travellers in the seats behind me and the plot a depressingly familiar one.  An office party, too much drink, unwanted sexual advances and a dismissal the following day. The characters too were familiar – the non-deserving victim, the villain, the supporter (the HR director perhaps?) (Gabriel, pp. 84-85).  Such stories suggest that while transgression brings creativity, release and the frisson of Simmel’s ‘adventure’, it also carries a darkling side of danger, anxiety and humiliation.

There is a final irony. For, as you have no doubt guessed, the place where I overheard this story was a railway carriage: the liminal space that is simultaneously narrative source, scene and progenitor.

Bailey, P. (2004), ‘Adventures in Space: Victorian Railway Erotics, or Taking Alienation For a Ride’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 9(1), pp. 1-21.

Carter, I. (2002), ‘The Lady in the Trunk’, The Journal of Transport History, 23(1), pp. 46–59.

De Certeau, M. (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life: University of California Press.

Gabriel, G. (2000), Storytelling in Organisations: Facts, Fictions, and Fantasies: Oxford University Press.

Pritchard, A. and Morgan, N. (2006), ‘Hotel Babylon? Exploring hotels as liminal sites of transition and transgression’, Tourism Management, 27(5), pp. 762–772.

Turner, V. (1982), From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play: PAJ Publications.

 

 

 

Maze

“Trying to get anything done here – it’s like a maze”. It’s a comment I have heard regularly over many years working in organisations. I suspect you have heard similar.  We experience tangled networks of procedures, structures and processes that belie the clear circuitry of organisational charts and hierarchies. The Circumlocution Office of  FullSizeRender 3Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend or Kafka’s The Castle offer distorted premonitions of the modern labyrinthine organisation. Both Arthur Clennam and K become enmeshed in unknowable bureaucracies where clarity is vigorously suppressed. As the shocked Junior Barnacle – interrupted in his eating of mashed potatoes and gravy – remonstrates: ‘…you mustn’t come into the place saying you want to know, you know’.  Knowledge is the ultimate taboo.

The maze is a reviled place. A quick search through the Business books section on Amazon shows the metaphor deployed in not wholly positive ways: Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, The Maze of Banking: History, Theory, Crisis; Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders. They suggest difficulty, challenge, prohibition.  As Kociatkiewicz and Kostera observe ‘the labyrinth stands for all that is absurd, unnecessary, undesired in contemporary organizations’ (Kociatkiewicz and Kostera, p.66).

But the maze is more subtle, more liminal than that.  At heart, it represents a paradox.  Think a moment of the maze designer.  With pen poised over parchment, his world is that of symmetry, elegance, order, aesthetics, cohesion and logic.  For the protagonist or navigator however, these experiences are alchemised into confusion, uncertainty and despair.  The calculating draughtsman shapeshifts into a trembling Theseus, Harry Potter or a pursued Danny Torrance in The Shining.

But the maze is liminal in other ways. In their excellent The Neo-Generalist, Mikkelsen and Martin suggest the ‘individual at labyrinth’s centre is emblematic of personal journeys, personal narratives’ (Mikkelsen and Martin p.61).  The maze is a site of transformation.  Attali describes how, for pilgrims breaking their journey to Compostela at Chartres cathedral, the circular stonework labyrinth on the floor of the nave represented the winding, arduous journey from sin to salvation: ‘the perilous path of the mortal on the way to Paradise’ (p. xiv). In contrast to K’s Castle or the Circumlocution office where knowledge is either censored or feared, here the prize is self-awareness and understanding.

And for Attali, such successful navigation relies on the skills of the ancient maze explorers: ‘perseverance, unhurriedness, curiosity, playfulness, trickery, flexibility, improvisation and self-mastery’ (Attali, p.75).  Mazes slow us down (Kociatkiewicz and Kostera, p.67), they enable us to wander, to get lost, to become a nomad (Attali, p. 76). And as nomads or pilgrims, we create the time and opportunity to make sense of what is around us; to play with alternative possibilities; to resist the lure of premature solutions or the easy to find exit.

So maybe this is the narrative we should propagate in our organisations.  The maze as a metaphor of hope and celebration.  And, if we redeem its story, then perhaps redemption may be our own well-deserved reward.

Attali, J. (1999). The Labyrinth in Culture and Society. North Atlantic Books.

Kociatkiewicz, J. and Kostera, M. (2015) ‘Into the Labyrinth: Tales of Organisational Nomadism’, Organization Studies. 36(1), pp. 55-71

Mikkelsen, K. and Martin, R. (2016). The Neo-Generalist. LID Publishing Ltd.

Window

Window

In her introduction to the excellent anthology of essays – Thinking on thresholds: the poetics of transitive spaces – Subha Mukerji refers to the ‘mesmeric quality of the threshold’ (Mukerji, p. xxi) and the ‘elusive but crucial experiences at a variety of boundaries’ (p. xix).  Later in the book  the theme is developed by Gillian Beer in her thoughtful analysis of windows and their uses and meanings in literature.  They are a ‘liminal connection between inner and outer’ (Beer, p.3). Windows link and separate; provide access yet exclude; are both medium and barrier.  Incidentally, they are also places of concealment and Beer evokes the image of a spy mounting surveillance on the world beyond.  Or a voyeur perhaps – which suggests our flaneur, peering through the shop windows in a Parisian arcade: detached and distant, the spy without.

It made me think how office buildings often reflect rather than reveal.  They are more looking glass than window.  What you see is where you are rather than where you want to be. The organisation within is secluded and the story it might tell literally a closed book.

But more disturbing than the window as looking glass is the room deprived of windows.  In reference to new office buildings, Beer notes how windows are often ‘done away with’ and how ‘rooms entirely without windows have been traditionally understood as sinister or subjected…the presence of windows brings the light of the outside world to bear on what is happening in the room’ (p.6).  How many meetings have you sat through and how many training sessions endured in cell like chambers?  How can ideas, imagination, creativity flourish if the light of the outside world (or rather, enlightenment) is denied.  If we see the threshold as ‘mesmeric’, a place of liminal connection and transformation, then it is surely perverse to plasterboard it over.  How ironic that in exhorting our colleagues to – and it’s a ghastly phrase I know – ‘think outside the box’, we encourage this by placing them in the very box their imaginations are required to escape from.

But office windows can be creative in other ways too.  As you wander the corridors – an organisational flaneur perhaps? – you may peek through the windows of the offices you pass.  The door is closed; figures gather around a table and a phone; their looks may tell of frustration, excitement, anxiety.  What’s going on?  If the combination of figures is puzzling – so why are x and y meeting up? – then our irresistible urge to spin a narrative takes hold once more.  We formulate a plot, a causal and temporal chain of connection that explains these vexing stimuli.  We are excluded yet involved and perhaps it is this ambiguous, liminal state that stimulates our imaginations.

In her analysis of Yeats’s poem ‘Ego Domimus Tuus’, Beer deconstructs the image of the poet Keats ‘with face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window’.  But it is this ‘gap between nose and the sweets, the cold glass between’ that stimulates ‘Luxuriant song’ (p. 8).  It is the threshold that excites poetry.

And so too in our offices.  We may view our windows as organisational prose – boring, formulaic, transparent (in more ways than one) – but are they also not coated with a thin film of poetry? Not just windows but Keats’s very own ‘Charm’d magic casements’ that open on our ‘faery lands forlorn’ (Gittings, p.126)?

Beer, G. (2011) ‘Windows: Looking In, Looking Out, Breaking Through’, in Mukerji, S. (ed.)  Thinking on Thresholds: the Poetics of Transitive Spaces.  Anthem Press.

Gittings, R. (ed.) (1966) Selected Poems and Letters of John Keats. Heinemann.

Mukerji, S. (2011) ‘Introduction: Thinking on Thresholds’, in Mukerji, S. (ed.)  Thinking on Thresholds: the Poetics of Transitive Spaces.  Anthem Press.

Airport

Airport2

In an endlessly fascinating essay – Non-places: an introduction to super modernity –  Marc Augé contrasts anthropological place (any space bearing the inscriptions of the social bond or collective history, such as churches, market places and town halls) with non-places.  Described as spaces of circulation, consumption and communication, they are the places we inhabit when we “are driving down the motorway, wandering through the supermarket or siting in an airport waiting for the next flight to London or Marseille” (Augé, p.77).

As a reasonably regular traveller, the airport as non-place strikes a distinct and suitably muzak tinged chord.  For Augé, one of the characteristic features of non-places is their ability to dislocate identity.   So let’s consider our arrival at Heathrow departures.  It is not our intelligence, our wit, our skill to strip a motor engine, paint a watercolour or craft a 50 metre cross-field pass that ensures our safe transit via the various contractual crossing points that confront us: check-in desk, security, passport control, final airline  check before boarding the plane.

Such negotiation is only ensured by reducing our identity to its essence.  A passport (bearing a photo, a number, a code) that then secures us a secondary identity: the boarding pass.  Picking up Augé’s argument, the traveller is “relieved of his usual determinants” (Augé, p.83).  He assumes a temporary identity yet one that echoes those of other travellers.  We respond to the “same code as others…the same messages…the same entreaties” –  proceed to gate 4, rows 5-8 boarding now.  It is a state of both “solitude and similitude”.

This reduction in identity relates to Victor Turner’s analysis of the liminal stage in rites of passage.  The neophytes undergoing this transition are reduced to nothing – they are stripped of their property, insignia, rank and kinship position.  There is “nothing to demarcate them structurally from their fellows” (Turner, pp. 98-99).  So, maybe a non-place is also a liminal place.  Or, as Kociatkiewicz and Kostera note, a “transitional space” –  the space “waiting for liminality to happen” (Kociatkiewicz and Kostera, p.7).

This highlights a further feature of non-places.  Augé observes that the relative anonymity afforded by the temporary identity assumed in non-places can be felt as a liberation.  For Augé, this is a negative liberation consisting merely of the power to refrain from making decisions, to submit to order and control.  Yet maybe there is genuine liberation here.  The liminality described by Turner is not only a condition of ambiguity and paradox; but also one of growth and transformation.  For there are some – myself included – who experience the anonymity of the airport as conducive to thought, reflection, insight.  I find them stimulating places to work – freed from the the everyday, the burden of multiple identities and responsibility.  The mind relaxes and opens itself to possibilities. So, perhaps heretically, non-places are not merely spaces of circulation, communication and consumption but refuge also to another ‘C’; that of creativity.

Augé, M. (2008), Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Verso.

Kociatkiewicz, J., Kostera, K, (2011) ‘Transitional Space’, Tamara Journal for Critical Organisation Inquiry, 9(3-4), pp. 7-9.

Turner, V. (1967), The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Cornell University Press.

Corridor

img_2552

The meeting ends.  Papers are collected, laptops closed, pens gathered and briefcases refilled.  You push back the chairs, retrieve coats and scarves and, trading true english courtesy, invite each to go through the door first.

Then something happens.

More often than not, the conversation – previously focussed on objectives, next steps and deadlines – then abruptly shifts gear.  You and your fellow conferees begin to talk about the journey home (“and where do you come in from?”), plans for the weekend or coming holidays.  It’s also the place where the stories emerge.  Such is the transformational magic of the corridor.

I remember once where, having immersed ourselves in serious topics for an hour, the three of us stepped out of our meeting room and the client immediately began a story about…and conscious about betraying confidences…a somewhat explosive end to a corporate dress-down day shortly before Christmas.  In that short story, I learnt more about the organisation – its culture, values, political niceties – than I could from any press search or annual report.

So why the corridor?  Maybe it’s the sudden opening of the physical environment after the confines of an enclosed room.  Such subconscious and metaphoric liberation might similarly loosen the chains on what we feel we can and should talk about.  Maybe, it’s the long vista that stretches into the distance and invites us out of our current state to somewhere else.

In this sense, the corridor is a liminal space.  A locale for transit, for movement and progression.  It leads from one place to another and not just in a physical sense but in a symbolic way too.  From the formal, serious room of discussion and commercial imperatives to the exit and a world of the normal, the day to day, the social.  And maybe, it’s this shapeshifting quality – still part of the business environment but one whose clarity is slightly blurred and out of focus –  that encourages different conversations and elicits our stories and tempts them out into the open.