- Taylored Lives: Narrative Productions in the Age of Taylor, Veblen, and Ford
Martha Banta’s book, Taylored Lives, offers an elaborate meditation on the age-old problem of Freedom and Necessity as it is articulated around issues of “scientific management” in the [End Page 264] first quarter of the twentieth century. Taking her inspiration from Emerson, William James, “members of the Frankfurt School on their off days, [and] those who speak out of the Birmingham School...on all their days” (33), Banta presents a thoughtful brief against Taylorism’s faith in “the one best way” (ix)—its imposition of system on individual lives. In doing so, she follows the totalizing logic of scientific management as it moves “far beyond the factory floor to encompass every aspect of cultural existence” (4): from narratives of the Spanish-American War to the exemplary life of Booker T. Washington, from treatises on the organization of the domestic sphere to advertisements for prefabricated houses in the Sears’ Catalogue. And she is alive to the nuances and complexities in which scientific management was imposed, legitimated, explained, contested and, on occasion, undermined by a variety of competing narratives and counter narratives. The scope and ambition of Banta’s study, the subtlety of its argument, is such that any attempt to quarrel with it is foolhardy.
Nevertheless, there are certain aspects of Taylored Lives that deserve further scrutiny. For the most part, Banta avoids the inclination, as she puts it, to “lay out...one crushing narrative after another” in which “the sufferings of powerless victims” are arrayed before the “triumphs of a ‘control society’” (5). But the precursor text for Taylored Lives—the text that is never fully exorcised from her argument, despite her appeals to pragmatism and the Birmingham School—is Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. This presents certain difficulties that are not adequately resolved. To begin with, in casting Taylor as the genie of modernity, Banta seems to accept Foucault’s premise that the “true objective of the reform movement” was to establish “a new ‘economy’ of power [and] assure its better distribution...so that it could be distributed in homogeneous circuits capable of operating everywhere, in a continuous way, down to the finest grain of the social body.” 1 Similarly, Banta assumes that the suzerainty of the expert always and everywhere means a loss of autonomy for the individual. In some respects this is undeniably true. But as Anthony Giddens has persuasively argued, the absorption of local experience into specialized domains of expertise (a process he describes as “disembedding”) need not result in fragmentation, alienation, or loss. Rather, this disembedding of experience can function to liberate the individual from an oppressive, traditional world view in which “the one best way” was literally an article of faith. By multiplying the sources of authority and making them “reflexive,” Giddens argues that modernity actually increases the choices available to the individual rather than limits them. If Banta wishes to avoid a line of argument that delivers “one crushing narrative after another” (5) she would do well to forget Foucault and explore the possibilities opened up by Giddens’s construction of modernity. 2
My other quarrel with Banta concerns the amount of time she “wastes” on Dreiser and Faulkner (a sin that is not easy to overlook in a book on the cult of efficiency). Although Banta presents Dreiser and Faulkner as keen critics of Taylorism, they finally offer little in the way of insight. The naturalism of both seems poorly calibrated to take full measure of this complicated phenomenon. When Nature is not marshalled to affirm the power of the machine (as it is in Dreiser), it is set in grandiloquent opposition to it (as it is in Faulkner)—notwithstanding Banta’s claims to complicate that opposition. Indeed, Dreiser’s reliance on a specious construction of Darwinian biology and Faulkner’s indebtedness to the myths of agrarianism are just as likely to devolve into an antimodern fascism (as was the case for many who shared their point of view). It...