Sunday, September 13, 2009

Existentialism in Office Space.

The fact that freedom and choice do not maximize advantages (like we said) and choosing to be irrational makes us human reminded me of the movie Office Space. The beginning of the movie starts with Peter Gibbons following orders within his office and relationships. He is prey to his bosses’ orders, requests, and demands. He seems almost numbed by his mundane life, yet doesn’t know how to break free of the cycle. He goes to a hypnotist at his girlfriend’s request, and the hypnotist suddenly dies, coincidentally, before he can break Peter of the hypnosis. Peter continues life in this relaxed-state hypnosis, and breaks himself of the life that he hates by choosing to do what he wants, when he wants.
While the hypnosis is definitely cinematic serendipity, I think it’s applicable to existentialism and our discussion on Thursday. The average American goes around appearing to “live the American dream,” which is a checklist of a job, a girlfriend, a suburban house, and money; but, the American dream does not factor in happiness. It appears most disgruntled Americans are happy complaining about their desk jobs, while not really realizing the fact that there is more to life than the checklist. Peter, via hypnosis, realizes his unhappiness and makes amends- and chaos- while doing so. He chooses to be a single individual within the universal entity his unhappiness stems from, the company Initech. Peter and his two co-workers, Samir and Michael, completely destroy a fax machine, which they were previously enslaved to- the machine never worked, they constantly complained about it but did not have the power to do anything to fix it, save telling their bosses, who didn’t care enough to do anything about it.
Peter somewhat gains the mentality of the underground man. He wants to prove that he’s an individual. He doesn’t want to go with the company’s grain and grind anymore. While this is disadvantageous to fulfilling the “American dream,” it appears that Peter has already tasted the dream and found it unsatisfying. In the beginning of the movie, he follows all the rules, and is unhappy, bored, and looking for something more. By the end, he chooses to do nothing, and has never been happier. The problem with the underground man is that while he knows that going with the grain gets him closer to truth, happiness, and self-respect, he halts before he finds what path will make him happiest; he is content with living in squalor and pointing out what is wrong with humanity. It seems as if Peter continues along the path; at the end of the movie he is working with a construction crew and still friendly. It would seem a difference between Peter and the underground man is companionship. The underground man alienates everyone he comes across; Peter has friends of like mind who are supportive of his disgruntlement and helped him through his “crisis.”


  1. I haven't seen this movie, so I might be totally off on this comment; correct me if I am wrong.

    In the US Declaration of Independence, all Americans are given the right to "life, love, and the pursuit of happiness". It's really interesting that we are all given that right, which I see as entirely individual. However, the checklist and the fact that everyone has that freedom makes it more universal.

    In the movie, does he think he is happy before the hypnosis, or was it just afterward that he realized that he was so unhappy?

  2. In fact, the Declaration of Independence does not grant Americans the right to love, but rather liberty. Also, how have you not seen Office Space?? Get on it. And in the movie Peter is unhappy at the beginning but does not have the existential insight to change his situation.

    How disadvantageous are Peter's actions? While they seem irrational, he ends up benefitting in more ways then just exercising his free will. If I'm not mistaken, he is offered a promotion and ends up with Jennifer Aniston.

    Thus, while the movie does indeed contain themes of existentialism, it is not as the underground man presents because for him one's actions must necessarily be disadvantageous, and Peter's actions seem more disinterested (at least thats how I remember).

  3. First off, props for tying Office Space into Existentialism. 10 cool points for you.

    However, although I agree with the reasoning your argument follows, I'm skeptical about the basis upon which it all rests: since Peter lives his new life under hypnosis, can we really say that he is now truly "free"? After all, hypnosis is simply a manipulation of the mind, a release of thoughts and emotions previously barred from ever seeing the light of day. If that's the case, then what's to differentiate hypnosis from drunkeness, or insanity, or a drug-induced stupor? We would rarely characterize someone as mentally "free" when they're under the influence of alcohol (actually, we probably would say that person is free..... as in, free to throw up all over their bed, or to call their ex and profess their undying love...), so why not say the same of hypnosis? What I'm trying to say is that it cannot be said with certainty that this new and improved Peter is truly aspiring to become an individual -- atleast not in the existentialist sense. For all we know, he may be operating on a foreign notion that the hypnotist simply placed inside his head.

  4. This is definitely an interesting insight and office space almost fits seamlessly into your logic. Two questions:
    Can the American dream include both happiness and originality?
    What was it that really made Peter happier in his new state?

  5. I really enjoyed reading this post, because Peter does give us a character in a crisis and a search to find what makes him happy. Something I thought was interesting was the fact it was the hypnotist that brought him into this state of realization. At what point do you think Peter would have decided to change his ways or would he have realized a change needed to be made?

    I feel that people can be so caught up in the moment and this ideal "American dream" that they forget to even question how they are actually feeling. They presume that because they are doing everything "right" or with the grain that they should be happy, which is not alway the case.

  6. Even if you had just searched "American Dream" on wikipedia, you would find that it not only includes happiness, but in fact is dedicated to it. "In the American Dream, first expressed by James Truslow Adams in 1931, citizens of every rank feel that they can achieve a "better, richer, and happier life." I would think that someone working in Peter's position at a "desk job" who had grown up accustomed to food stamps certainly fulfills every definition of the American Dream and would be quite satisfied as such. So I would say that Peter's general anomie is that which causes his misery rather than a need to be "free."


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