Work Hard and You Shall Be Rewarded: Urban Folklore from the Paperwork Empire

June 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

In their 1978 preface-to-the-preface of their original 1970 manuscript, Alan Dundes and Carl Pagter explain just how difficult it was to get their damn book published. Even after a successful first and second print run (well, “successful,” the term is relative — we’re talking scholarly research here, not Dan Brown Christian fan fiction), no publisher would touch their third edition. Because you guys! Folklore isn’t written it’s oral, making their collection, however interesting, not actually folklore and therefore not suitable for an ostensibly FLR imprint. No frogging way! quoth the duo, who go on in their introduction to explain exactly why and exactly how photocopier art –the subject of their study– is indeed folklore, and traditional folklore at that. Who cares if the data is technically written down, it’s still clearly “folk” (performed/circulated by a group of people who have at least one thing in common) and it’s still clearly “lore” (the thing performed/circulated is able to exist in more than one place at any given time and boasts minor to major variations between versions; in other words, is unofficial and highly malleable). Had this volume been collected and published in this, the year of our lord 2011, only the stodgiest of folklorists’ panties would have ruffled at the prospect of non-oral, non-illeterate peasant lore-o-the-folk. But in the 70s, tradition was tradition, and breaking with tradition was a big deal, making Dundes’ and Pagter’s various apologia folkloric relics unto themselves.

But I digress. Dundes and Pagter, being folklorists, subsequently present a structuralist account of photocopier art forms. There are mock-letters, one of which purports to be the retirement-home ramblings of a pious Christian grandmother who finds herself in a tiff with her roommate (“naturally I told her to go fuck herself”) (36); parodies of songs, including a mock 12 Days of Christmas told from the perspective of the unlucky recipient (“What’s with all these fucking birds??? Seven swans a-swimming. What kind of a God-damned joke is this?”) (47); definitions and taxonomies, for example types of men in the office washroom (“PERSONALITY MAN: Tells dirty jokes while pissing. Has pronounced control over farts. Farts at will”) (65); mock-office memos, typically those which cast the workplace as a three-ring circus (“YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A BRAIN TO BE AN BOSS, JUST AN ASSHOLE”) (101); and dozens and dozens of pictures which, as the authors contend, were far too obscene ever to appear in print (including pictures of penises, pictures of bathroom antics, people with their heads shoved up their asses, butchers who flaunt their junk to female customers, satirical representations of Peanuts cartoons, all of which conclude with the line “goddamn you Charlie Brown,” and so on) (144-195). What’s funny is that it’s just as dirty as anything humans do ever, even though this study was collected in the late 60s/early 70s (though many of the samples were based on tropes dating back to the 50s) and swearing hadn’t been invented yet.

As Dundes and Pagter note, this so-called “paperwork folklore” was the result of workers using the office photocopier to run off jokes and funny pictures for their friends, who would subsequently make copies for their friends, which eventually would hop from office to office, a process greatly accelerated by the introduction of fax machines (xx) and which bears striking resemblance to the creation and transmission of memetic online content. Though regarded as “just” humor (LOL NO SUCH THING) by those who transmitted it, Dundes and Pagter insist that photocopier humor is contingent upon the culture out of which it came, arguing that “[photocopier art] is a veil barely concealing an expression of most of the major problems facing contemporary American society” (xxii). These problems included, but were not limited to, profound racial, sexual and class tensions, as well as the sense of alienation many American workers felt in the face of unprecedented expansion of white collar bureaucracy (and all the attendant bullshit therein) — thus making the study of such works a noble endeavor indeed. Also give us jobs, because what we do is very important.

If feeder question: This book is clearly relevant to my own interests; I’ve used it to help place trolling behaviors in the appropriate cultural context. It could also segue nicely into a conversation about the apparently clear demarcation between “oral” and “written” cultures, since Dundes and Pagter are bumping up against the impulse to treat text as some archivable stable thing-in-the-world which doesn’t and can’t live in the ways that verbal communications can/do/must. Bullshit I say!

If standalone question: Consider the impulse to photocopy some racist or sexist thing; even if the person may be photocopying a racist joke to be like “racism sucks,” he or she is still reiterating the original message (even if his intention is to challenge the message) and therefore could be said to be a link in the chain of continued meaning.


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