The Physiology of the Employee


If Honoré de Balzac’s Treatise on Elegant Living addressed one crucial pillar of modernity–the “mode” itself, fashion–his Physiology of the Employee examines another equally potent cornerstone to the modern era: bureaucracy, and all of the cogs and wheels of which it is composed. Long before Franz Kafka described the nightmarish metaphysics of office bureaucracy, Balzac had undertaken his own exploration of the dust-laden, stifling environment of the paper-pusher in all of his roles and guises. “Bureaucracy,” as he defined it: “a gigantic power set in motion by dwarfs.” In this guidebook, published for mass consumption in 1841, Balzac’s classic theme of melodramatic ambition plays itself out within the confined, unbreathable space of the proto-cubicle, filtered through the restricted scale of the pocket handbook. The template for such later novels such as The Bureaucrats, and one of the first significant texts to grapple with the growing role of the bureaucrat, this physiology reads like a birding field guide in its presentation of the various classifications of the office employee, from the Intern to the Clerk (all ten species, from Dapper to Bootlicker to Drudger) to Office Manager, Department Head, Office Boy and Pensioner. The job titles may change over the years, and paper-pushing has perhaps evolved into email-forwarding, but the taxonomy remains the same. In our twenty-first-century crisis of employment, jobs continue to be themselves a form of currency, and the question continues to loom: when will it be quitting time?

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