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In 1924, a salesman named Bruce Barton published The Man Nobody Knows. During the post-World War I period, advertising and commerce were exploding as America returned to the business of business, and the white-collar-male working sector was looking for ways to refine its methods and make a non-war-based profit. But Barton’s text was more than advice; it was inspiration. The man referred to in the title is Jesus (“A Discovery of the Real Jesus” is the book’s subtitle) and the quotation that opens the text—”Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” (italics Barton’s)—indicates the characteristically self-serving interpretation of Christ’s pronouncements that make up the bulk of this very odd book.

Written in a patient, fatherly, firm-chinned style, with uneasy twinklings of mad fanaticism, The Man Nobody Knows is a queasy admixture of a sort you don’t see every day. (No one saw much of it then, either, until Barton released his subsequent tome, The Book Nobody Knows—no points for figuring out which book.) The overarching conceit is this convenient interpretative torque, by which Barton indulges in a vast cultural solipsism so that Jesus’ story and utterances, heretofore understood to be clear—or at least specific—in their meaning and intentions, serve the questings of the little gray drudge and no other seeker. But the strong tang of evangelism takes strange shapes when it’s touting not the business of religion but the religion of business.

This unlikely mishmash of tedium and hokum would seem to be a target perfect for parody, but, interestingly, no one has latched on to the possibilities of the Bartonesque drive of the American drone except for that perfect parodist Charles Portis, whose funniest but not greatest novel Dog of the South features the rumors, papers, and well-thumbed text of fictitious legendary salesman John Selmer Dix. Dix fanatics mutter darkly about “a hasty funeral in Abilene,” “his famous slippers,” and a trunk that holds the key to his regional-managerial genius, all of which is meat to the conspiracist—another glorious American character—and meaningless to the apathetic nonbeliever.

Portis sees Barton and his ilk rightly as purely American inventions, men with the fortitude and spunk to set themselves apart from the faceless working horde solely by their attitude toward their place in the horde, since they haven’t the means to extract themselves from its useful embrace. In a world rich with Dixiana, it is the rogue, the individualist, and the cowboy who lack deep, secret knowledge, while the men with the sample cases and bright ideas are strutting earthbound gods.

What the Japanese call with perhaps more resignation than pride the “salaryman” has no exact Western equivalent. Europeans don’t need one, but Americans don’t want one. “Businessman” is inapt—it covers everyone from Fortune 500 CEOs to exurban credit-union toilers, trend-spotting entrepreneurs, and housewives setting up desktop-publishing businesses in their basements. Then again, to admit such a term into our language would mean accepting its implications, most of which run counter to cherished American values. Faceless and hierarchical, routine, regimented, and tedious, the world of the office nobody is anti-individualistic, anti-democratic, suspicious of originality, hostile to flexibility, and incapable of fostering anything in the way of personal amusement.

But the business world has always been an inspiration for Americans trying to make such a sizable chunk of their existence meaningful within the realm of commerce. If Barton can so skew his estimation of the salesman’s crucial role in the modern world as to cast it as the very purpose of the sacred realm, then it’s a trifle to see the man in the gray flannel suit—if necessary to the psychological well-being of that man—as a predator, a spiritual eminence, a mental cut above, or a grit-and-gumption-fueled Zen original.

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Stripping the notion of its unfashionable religious thrust, we now call what it takes to make such a man not inspiration but “motivation.” Americans don’t like the idea that working—especially in the blank, generic business environment—isn’t voluntary. A society that cherishes individualism must preserve the illusion of free will in all arenas, including the economic. The goal of the motivationist is to make working—and more importantly working well—look like something one does for personal reward, as a means of self-improvement or as an expression of power. Since nothing is ripe for parody anymore—as this culture folds mockery in on itself until it’s all one pale cocoa-colored batter—there’s a deadly serious entrepreneurial swell in the business of selling workplace serenity, drive, and dat ol’ debbil self-esteem.

A chain of mall stores (it also has a catalog) featuring posters, mousepads, screen savers, pens, mugs, daybooks, calendars, and other office tchotchkes that sport motivational slogans and quotations is the most naked of such enterprises; it calls itself, in a combination of propulsion and cuteness, Successories. (Franklin Covey, itself a merger of Franklin Quest office supplies and Covey Leadership Center, is another, although it sells actual useful things like binders, address books, and briefcases.)

Successories is the purest example of the motivational supply store, selling vaguely titled “accessories,” “employee gifts,” “team-building tools”—all of which are actually useless office decor emblazoned with hectoring and/or uplifting slogans. There are no genuine tools, or even proper gifts (given in the spirit of generosity, without expected recompense), to speak of.

The chain specializes in fancy photographs above stately quotations, many nipped from inoffensive interdisciplinary greats—Margaret Mead, Henry David Thoreau, Vince Lombardi, “Anonymous Native American”—but all the sayings are in quotes whether attributed or not. This gives the receiver of the tastefully framed eagle poster (there’s a whole Successories subset of eagle items, called the “Gallery of High Flyers”) the comforting sense that someone is whispering, “Accept the challenges so that you may feel the exhilaration of victory” into his ear—or at least that someone other than the sloganeering elves at Successories came up with it first.

If you noticed that “Accept the challenges” rings thuddingly in the ear, you are one step ahead of the chief elf, chairman and founder Mac Anderson, whose steely meringue hair is reassuring even if his proofreading is not. The slogans are rife with poor logic, vagueness, false analogies, and mere illiteracy: “Diversity is the one true thing we all have in common…Celebrate it every day” (brown and pink toddlers’ hands clasped, psychedelic rainbow background) is not enough information. “Innovation” (lightning crackles above a distant road) claims that “the best way to predict the future…is to create it,” although chances are good it’ll show up anyway. Another eagle stares out boldly over the claim that pride is an “attitude.” Not quite, but what’s the difference?

Successories, hopelessly smitten with pseudo-dramatic ellipses, tosses around the dignified buzzwords as if they are meaningless, rendering them so in the process. If pride is an attitude, why isn’t integrity a priority, teamwork a vision, and focus an effort for risk? In fact, on the sports-themed mousepads, these words are imprinted almost subliminally, at random in the gray foam: “power,” “determination,” “perseverance.”

The posters are meticulously laid out, balancing image and text with great care. They all have the same look of swank macho posturing, like office versions of those ’80s posters equating the silhouettes of a bottle of wine, a Ferrari, and a broad. Some actually boast the same bloodyminded boys-club hyperbole, like the charming “You’re either part of the steamroller or part of the pavement.”

But remember that these have a collegial purpose. Some of that glossy vigor hides shadowy threats. “Momentum,” a photograph of a huge orange boulder balanced atop a rocky landscape, cries out for one wrong move from you, this scene’s hapless Wile E. Coyote: “A little push in the right direction can make a big difference,” the text hisses. The “Attitude” series is particularly insidious. A picture of a pouncing cheetah reads, “Attack every problem with enthusiasm…as if your survival depended upon it.” Can you spell “downsize,” kemosabe? Another has precedence, alarmingly, in the Red Scare workplace notices of the ’50s: A flaming match about to ignite its vulnerable neighbors is accompanied by the warning, “Attitudes are contagious…Is yours worth catching?

Even the mushy stuff is bristling with subtext. The inevitable golf series doesn’t just celebrate your love for the sport, it implies that you play golf because you have a soul, or at least appreciate nature. Many of Successories’ most reprinted images mix fuzzy spiritual uplift into their hard advice. The “Teamwork” aphorisms play on your guilt for letting down your co-workers—actually a very Japanese idea—and the “Priorities” text is priceless: “A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove…but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.” The image comes in either boy or girl versions, so the guilty working mom can stay at the office until 9 p.m. with a tasteful simulacrum of her own progeny on a mousepad telling her she’s doing the right thing.

What’s oddest about Successories is that it exists at all. Why do employees need—or why do their superiors need to cajole them with—such smarmy encouragement? The place seems to be doing land-office business; its products are everywhere, even though the only local store is in Tysons Corner now that the Georgetown Park outlet has gone under. But the very fact that a business that offers various ways to motivate workers every single day from every angle of their working environment exists means that people must hate their jobs a whole lot.

This motivation, though it takes very few forms, appears to encourage various behaviors: to work harder, to endure boredom, to enjoy the work, to compete heartily, to cooperate willingly. But it isn’t possible that the business world is populated entirely by chuckleheads who aren’t aware that those things are natural components of their professions. Successories points out not the working world’s realities but its fantasies; it provides not armor but balm. The overarching feeling emitted by the motivational industry is that the rest of the business world, just not the segment represented by your office, is full of thrusting, eager workers who feel this stuff, who live it, who perhaps even thought of it first. Like The Man Nobody Knows, Successories is less interested in really motivating workers to do all these things than it is in helping them feel that they’re finally insiders. Life in this clique is better, stronger, more beautiful, more spiritual, more vigorous, and more full of truth than the one they’re missing as they beaver away inside the cubicle.—Arion Berger