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Limits is a bad standard – presumes an objective way to organize evolving, intersubjective meaning – ambiguity is better



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Limits is a bad standard – presumes an objective way to organize evolving, intersubjective meaning – ambiguity is better

De Cock 1 (Christian De Cock, Professor of Organizational behaviour, change management, creative problem solving, 2001, “Of Philip K. Dick, reflexivity and shifting realities Organizing (writing) in our post-industrial society” in the book “Science Fiction and Organization”)

If SF becomes annexed to the academic world it will buy into its own death . . . Professor Warrick’s pound-and-a-half book with its expensive binding, paper, and dust jacket staggers you with its physical impression, but it has no soul and it will take our soul in what really seems to me to be brutal greed. Let us alone, Dr. Warrick; let us read our paperback novels with their peeled eyeball covers. Don’t dignify us. Our power to stimulate human imagination and to delight is intrinsic to us already. Quite frankly, we were doing fine before you came along. (Dick, 1980/1995, pp. 97–8) So why write this article? A healthy (?) obsession with Dick’s oeuvre I suppose, coupled with the comforting realization that Dick contradicted himself so many times in his lifetime. But to truly answer this question I have to tell the brief story of Philip K. Dick, organization studies and me. My introduction to the world of Philip K. Dick began in 1985 when I was given two Dick books – Ubik and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said – as a birthday present. The girl in question was from Metz, a very Dickean connection as I found out later,2 the books were written in French and published in flashy golden covers (as far as you can get from the peeled eyeball covers as possible). I remember reading them (my French was a lot better then than it is now), being pretty impressed with Ubik especially, and then filing the books away in my SF collection. Fast forward to 1992. This is the year I started my Ph.D. studies. I came across the Rethinking Organization book by Reed and Hughes, and to my surprise two of my favourite chapters briefly referenced this SF author I vaguely remembered reading a few years earlier (Burrell, 1992, p. 177; Turner, 1992, p. 56). I then bought one of Dick’s short story collections (perhaps in the hope of using it for my Ph.D. studies – I wisely didn’t). And suddenly I was addicted. The next couple of years I tried to collect as many Dick books as possible, including the English editions of my birthday books. A moment I recall with particular fondness is finding a perfect copy of Now Wait for Last Year in a car boot sale for 10p. This sudden obsession was not uncommon as I discovered later: In my role as editor of the Philip K. Dick Society Newsletter, I frequently get letters from people who just a few months ago discovered Dick’s work and have now read fifteen books and must obtain all the others. He tends to be read as he wrote: in large doses. (Williams, 1986, p. 142) Then came the call for papers, first for the special SF issue of Organization in 1997, later for this book. This got me reading Dick’s collected philosophical writings and his Exegesis, as well as some literary criticism of Dick’s work. So, you see, the link between organization studies and Philip K. Dick is self-evident to me. Of course, this still does not provide an answer to the question: ‘How to write something meaningful?’ An academic book presupposes a particular style that does not necessarily do justice to the work of Dick (although Dick himself has written some pretty highbrow stuff). After some pondering I decided upon the following strategy. After introducing the problematic from the perspective of organization studies – the growing awareness of the tenuous nature of organizational reality and the difficulty we have in constructing texts that deal with this tenuous reality in a reflexive way – I explore the key characteristics of Dick’s novels and the essence of his writing techniques. This is followed by a discussion of Ubik to give the reader a flavour of a typical Dickean novel. I conclude with the logical, but rather too predictable, discussion of the importance of Dick for the field of organization studies. Of course, it would be nonsensical to suggest that we can ‘apply’ Dick in the way it has happened with Foucault, Derrida or Elias, but to name a few. Yet there is something curiously attractive about an author who used the most trashy tropes of a genre (SF) to create a body of work that both transcends and invigorates that genre. Could this point to an analogue in organization theory that might enable us to frame new possibilities of writing or reading organizational narratives? Perhaps. Modes of organizing, modes of theorizing and this thing called realityAs Marx might have said more generally, ‘all that is built or all that is “natural” melts into image’ in the contemporary global economies of signs and space’ (Lash and Urry, 1994, p. 326). The opinion seems to be broadly shared among both academics and practitioners that traditional conceptions of effective organizing and decision-making are no longer viable because we live in a time of irredeemable turbulence and ambiguity (Gergen, 1995). The emerging digital or ‘new’ economy seems to be a technologically driven vision of new forms of organizing, relying heavily on notions of flexibility as a response this turbulence. Corporate dinosaurs must be replaced with smart networks that add value. Words such as ‘cyberspace’3 and ‘cyborganization’ drip easily from tongues (e.g. Parker and Cooper, 1998) and ‘the organization’ becomes more difficult to conceptualize as it ‘dissipates into cyberspace’ and ‘permeates its own boundaries’ (Hardy and Clegg 1997: S6). Organizations are losing important elements of permanence as two central features of the modern organization, namely the assumption of self-contained units and its structural solidity, are undermined (March, 1995). Even the concept of place becomes increasingly phantasmagoric as locales get thoroughly penetrated by social influences quite distant from them (Giddens, 1990). In this new organizational world ‘reality’ seems to have become only a contract, the fabrication of a consensus that can be modified or can break down at any time (Kallinikos, 1997) and the witnessing point – the natural datum or physical reference point – seems to be in danger of being scrapped (Brown, 1997). This notion that reality is dissolving from the inside cannot but be related with feelings of disorientation and anxiety. Casey (1995, pp. 70–1), for example, provides a vivid description of the position of ‘the self ’ within these new organizational realities. This is a world where everyone has lost a sense of everyday competence and is dependent upon experts, where people become dependent on corporate bureaucracy and mass culture to know what to do. The solidity (or absence of it) of reality has of course been debated at great length in the fields of philosophy and social theory, but it remains an interesting fact that organizational scholars have become preoccupied with this issue in recent years. Hassard and Holliday (1998), for example, talk about the theoretical imperative to explore the linkages between fact/fiction and illusion/reality. It is as if some fundamental metaphysical questions have finally descended into the metaphorical organizational street. Over the past decade or so, many academics who label themselves critical management theorists and/or postmodernists (for once, let’s not name any names) have taken issue with traditional modes of organizing (and ways of theorizing about this organizing) by highlighting many irrationalities and hidden power issues. These academics have taken on board the idea that language has a role in the constitution of reality and their work is marked by a questioning of the nature of reality, of our conception of knowledge, cognition, perception and observation (e.g. Chia, 1996a; Cooper and Law, 1995; Czarniawska, 1997). Notwithstanding the importance of their contributions, these authors face the problem that in order to condemn a mode of organizing or theorizing they need to occupy an elevated position, a sort of God’s eye view of the world; a position which they persuasively challenge when they deconstruct the claims of orthodox/modern organizational analyses (Parker, 2000; Weiskopf and Willmott, 1997). Chia, for example, writes about the radically untidy, ill-adjusted character of the fields of actual experience – ‘It is only by . . . giving ourselves over to the powers of “chaos”, ambiguity, and confusion that new and deeper insights and understanding can be attained’ (Chia, 1996b, p. 423) – using arguments which could not be more tidy, analytical and precise. This of course raises the issue of reflexivity: if reality can never be stabilized and the research/theorizing process ‘is always necessarily precarious, incomplete and fragmented’ (Chia, 1996a, p. 54), then Chia’s writing clearly sits rather uncomfortably with his ontological and epistemological beliefs. In this he is, of course, not alone (see, e.g., Gephart et al.., 1996; Cooper and Law, 1995). This schizophrenia is evidence of rather peculiar discursive rules where certain ontological and epistemological statements are allowed and even encouraged, but the reciprocate communicational practices are disallowed. Even the people who are most adventurous in their ideas or statements (such as Chia) are still caught within rather confined communicational practices. To use Vickers’ (1995) terminology: there is a disjunction between the ways in which organization theorists are ready to see and value the organizational world (their appreciative setting) and the ways in which they are ready to respond to it (their instrumental system). When Reflexivity and shifting realities 163 we write about reflexivity, paradox and postmodernism in organizational analysis, it is expected that we do this unambiguously.4 And yet, the notion that ‘if not consistency, then chaos’ is not admitted even by all logicians, and is rejected by many at the frontiers of natural science research – ‘a contradiction causes only some hell to break loose’ (McCloskey, 1994, p. 166).


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