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when the way is lost: lies, love and corporate culture in the informant

October 17, 2009


Walking out the Cinema Nouveau after seeing Steven Soderbergh’s new movie The Informant!, which tells the true- life story of Mark Whitacre and his role in the investigation into price fixing at ADM, I was suddenly aware of a crawling, itching sensation of dread. All at once, fearful thoughts about the past week at work came crowding in — struggles with financial reports to donors, attempts to develop new funding proposals, my own career plans and decisions —   and it all seemed too much: doomed to fail, puny struggles in the uncaring eyes of the Powers that Be.    In the car on the way home, my father —  usually not someone given to complaint — started telling me about his hassles with his pension company.  The date stamp on his ‘life certificate’, which he has to send them every year to keep the payments coming, had been wrong, and for weeks now he had been on the phone to faceless voices at the call centre, trying to convince the company he was still alive.  I found it an unsettling story,  an unwelcome reminder of how powerless we really are —  we, the supposedly valued consumers at the centre of our present-day culture of money and consumption — when we lose our foothold in the distributed systems of process and information that undergird our lives.

taoteching-1It   reminded me of a few lines from Lao Tsu which have  been pinging around in my head for some time now. We don’t know who ‘Lao Tsu’ was.  The name (Laozi, in the new orthography) apparently means simply ‘the old master’;   ‘he’ may in any case not have been just one person: there might have been a whole line of old men (and women, I am sure).  But the poems collected in the Tao te Ching, obscure and evocative, often seem uncannily resonant of lessons to be  learned today.  When the Way is lost, it  says in  Chapter 38, there is always goodness.  When goodness is lost, there is love or kindness.  When kindness is lost, there’s justice.  And when justice is lost … well, then you’ve got HR and Customer Relations Management.  Well, that’s not the way he put it – the text says ritual  – but you get my  drift:  we’re in trouble. In my current job as manager in a small university-based research unit, I have been much concerned with thinking about the systems and processes that can make working life either rewarding, empowering, enjoyable, or a living hell.  (And those worlds, let me tell you, can be a hair’s breadth apart.)  Systems are important, all right, and so are procedures, and so are policies aimed at addressing gender discrimination, or racialized exclusion, or unfairness.  But the more I do this work, the more I am convinced that it is the integrity of our relationships with one another and ourselves,  the quality of attention that we can bring into the workplace   that really makes the difference.  I am not sure whether a policy research organization operating in today’s divided, disconnected world can ever manifest the Way that ‘Lao Tse spoke about.  Even “Goodness” (real virtue, which does not seek to be recognised as such) seems improbable.  But Kindness seems to me to be a minimum requirement, and you’d be surprised how hard that is.  Well, not really. You are also a subject of present-day neoliberal capitalist bureaucracy — who isn’t? —   so unless you are delusional, you’ve felt it too:  that the rules and systems that regulate our lives in the present day world are not only impersonal and unfeeling, but dangerous  too, and that underneath their rationality there is something deeply disconnected. Ritual and empty form, they rule our lives, and so,  indeed we’re truly lost.

Which is what this film captures so beautifully. When I first thought about the bare bones of this story – a whistle-blower alerts the FBI about price-fixing in his company, but is then revealed to be involved in blatant fraud on his own account, and loses both himself and his FBI handlers in an ever-deepening tangle of lies and delusion — I wondered, what would the point of such a story be?  It is indeed a strange and baffling tale, and Soderbergh’s movie accentuates its bizarreness.  The cast lurch about from frame to frame in expensive suits, like so many earnest penguins, accompanied by chirpy instrumental jazz;  changes of scene are announced in absurd purple day-glo 70s lettering:   you cannot take this seriously.   And the action’s just surreal: the seriousness of the characters themselves is continually undermined by the ludicrousness of  what is happening, as the plot itself descends deeper and deeper into unreason.  Over and over again, the movie repeats what is in essence the same gag: Whitacre, who’s until now assured his handlers that this time he’s really been telling them the whole truth, calmly and without warning reveals a whole new layer of larceny and lies, laying them on the table with naive confidence, like a deluded poker player triumphantly displaying a losing hand. the_informant26.cutAnd what we laugh at is the silent consternation evident in the carefully blank face of his handler, or his lawyer, as he watches his client self-destruct and leave them in the lurch.   This is what the prosecution in the Selebi case must be feeling right now, as their star witness calmly destroys his own testimony. The film plays it for laughs:  they sit slack jawed and  goggle eyed, immobilised by horror as they watch their case fall apart before them. It’s funny, but it’s also not funny: though we laugh, it is with an undertone of discomfort. And no wonder.  It’s a scary thing, getting lost in the layered realities of a pathological liar.

‘What was Mark Whitacre thinking?’ That’s how the movie’s official website frames it, and it’s a good question.  Initially presenting as the unlikely hero in a story of white collar crime —  a slightly geeky guy motivated by the wish to be the hero’ —   he is slowly revealed to be a lunatic, a fabulist: all that is solid melts into air; you do not know what or whom to you believe; and you’re left wondering, with horrified  fascination, what could be driving such spectacular self-destruction.   Most accounts of the film explain it by referencing the facts of the actual story on which the movie is based.  Whitacre was suffering from bipolar mood disorder, they say; and in any case, being an undercover snitch for the FBI  would drive most people bats.  And don’t you think that it is unjust that he got imprisoned for so long for stealing a paltry nine million dollars when AMD stole hundreds of millions?

Well, personally, I don’t think it that is  a very satisfying explanation.   For one thing, the real-world veracity  of a story is actually one of its  less interesting aspects when you consider it as a story.  What matters in a story is how it is told,  how the events cohere.  That  a particular thing actually happened is in a way neither here nor there;   the question is what does it mean, what role does it play?  And in this regard, when you look at what is actually shown on screen, the real-life explanation clearly does not hold. I am no clinician,  but what we see on the screen is not a bipolar individual.  Bipolar people may be grandiose, but they don’t act like this.  This is something far more disconcerting and edgy.  Whitacre’s  steady stream of lies, his apparent lack of morals or shame, his utter disconnection from people around him, and, above all, his ceaseless projection of  a confident, sincere exterior, in the teeth of all the facts and all shared realities: these are symptoms not of a mood disorder, but of a much more severe disturbance.   I may be mistaken here, but I say  unto you: DSM IV. Axis II. Cluster B. Check it out, and be afraid.  And  be  very glad if you have not encountered this in your personal or working life. I am talking psychopathic, narcissistic, or borderline tendencies at the very least.


The Man Without a Self

This is where I think  the casting of Matt Damon is particularly brilliant.  Matt Damon comes to us from the Bourne trilogy, the story par excellence of the Man Without a Self —  the man who does not know who he is, and whose only means of survival is continuous, improvisatory dissembling. But while in the Bourne movies we are invited to identify with the hero — those films are structured so that we continually share his confusion and his burning, single-pointed desire to survive — The Informant! puts you in the shoes of those who have to deal with the mounting chaos of all the ever deepening pile of lies.  If you have been around it, you will know how disorienting, how scary it is to encounter this kind of personality disorder, and how much chaos and confusion  can be sown.  The thing is not only that you are dealing with a disturbed or damaged person; it is that their essential malfunction is often disguised by ahigh degree of apparent competence, a persona of considerable force and conviction.  But this mask is all there is.   When it slips, you will find, not an ordinary vulnerable human being, but another mask, another cover story, an another impenetrable  surface, presented with unflappable conviction.  And it’s scary, because the trick is that we very soon start feeling we are the crazy ones: we find ourselves in a dizzying mirror-world where the  ordinary rules of human behaviour and compassion simply do not apply.

In other words, it’s corporate culture.  This, I think, is the real point of this film. For the most noticeable aspect of the film, other than the frightening comedy of Whitacre’s ever more surreal lies, is its relentless evocation of the banal  surface of corporate life. Every frame is a picture of Guys in Suits, of bland hotel interiors, of boardrooms and golf courses.   Every image is of a world which asks you to conform while never giving you any safety;  a world in which there is no access to anything natural, spontaneous, unconditioned or real; a world in which your future depends on your fooling the system into thinking you are what you think it needs you to be.   In one of the most evocative  moments of the film, the soundtrack plays a long Aspergerish monoloue by Whitacre, a story  in which one company executive notices another’s tie  is the mirror image of his own, and then falls down dead.  The visuals show us a long, still shot of one of the FBI operatives — a representative of one paranoid, conformist, conspiratorial organization sent to spy on representatives of another — crouching over a box of cornflakes, contemplating it like Rodin’s thinker: a shackled man, clutching a box of artificial food.  The image captures an important aspect of the film: though this is a study of corporate power, no-one appears powerful.  The men wear  suits, but they are stripped of dignity; hunched; their bodies tense.   Everyone in the film — cops, executives, secret agents, judges — leads a life  subject  entirely to impersonal,  bureaucratic organisations; but even conformity cannot guarantee survival, for to depend on them is to depend on something  entirely arbitrary, unreasoning, untrustworthy, baleful.

The Informant!

So how else to deal with such an irrational, baleful reality except by turning lying into a way of life?    Marc Whitacre’s most poignant characteristic is his deluded desire to be the good guy, the guy in the white hat. Well who doesn’t want to be that?  But the co-ordinates he has chosen, the values by which he lives, are those of corporate America.  And the point about corporations is not so much that they are soulless or impersonal. We should be so lucky.  Think about it: endlessly grandiose; obsessed with appearances; lacking any sense of  interiority; no capacity for vulnerability;   bereft of compassion;  virtuous only when trying to conform with the auditable, measurable indicators of virtue; and with only the most tenuous relationship to truth.   If companies were people, they’d be psychopaths.  These are the masters we have created.  No wonder sociopaths do so well in business. There’s a  deadly synergy between such folks and the culture they inhabit.  And this synergy is the secret of both Whitacre’s initial success and his eventual failure.


Whitacre and the ADM lawyers. Who's the real sociopath?

But failure kind of saves him. Most of us learn sooner or later that heroes exist only in stories; that we have to be learm to be the flawed,  ordinary people we really are.  Marc Whitacre’s tragedy is that for most of the film he is unable to make this shift: he can only try, over and over, with increasingly ornate fabulations, to be the hero he thinks he needs to be.   By the end of the film it is unbearable to watch: we watch him soldier on, unstoppably, caught like a fish on his own hook of lies.  Only one person is able to release him.  His wife, who all along has been playing along with him, maddeningly supporting him in his insanity, softly says to him during one of his meetings, Darling, you have to stop this.  It is a terrible, delicate moment.  It is the only time love speaks in the film.  I’m not sure whether it is goodness. But it is  kindness. She dares, oh so gently,  to speak the truth; and at last he can be liberated from his cage of lies.

To be like us:  Vulnerable.  Slightly pathetic. Slightly lost:  and therefore not so lost.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Helena permalink
    October 20, 2009 10:46 pm

    Mark does not seem like a psychopath to me – he is simply an ambitious executive. The man who has a relationship with Ginger is not a man suffering from an antisocial disorder. He shares with Ginger who he is – they have been together since eight grade; she knows he is not an orphan – and what he does. He does not try to manipulate her, he shares with her throughout what he is doing, and his hope from jail is that she will accept him back.

    Mark strikes me as a composite of clichés who has been seduced by a narrative where he can accept the challenge of defending the kingdom, fight on the side of “the good guys”, slay the dragon, and become the king. When he is instead expelled from the kingdom, he looks to Fortune magazine and the WSJ (“how did you like the pen sketch?”) to validate him. Even his fraud is framed in the language that infuses business – “severance package” and “financial security”.

    So he strikes me basically as an unoriginal man with a desire to do something great, to become someone important. But he is also a coward, and the movie makes the point that business is a confusing place for a coward. Even an Executive Vice President is only one vertebra in a snaking hierarchy. Decisions come “from above”, and at the very very top of that hierarchy, the CEO is held accountable by Chairman of the Board who is held accountable by “the shareholders”. Who are too diffuse and too numerous to exert any real power.

    We expect psychopaths to lie and cheat. The Informant suggests that modern business functions in such a way that it also creates psychopaths out of ordinary people with dreams of being not quite so ordinary. That scares me.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      October 20, 2009 11:34 pm

      Good points. Maybe the scary thought is that there is more of a continuum between ‘coward’ and ‘sociopath’ than we like to think…

  2. Helena permalink
    October 21, 2009 12:34 pm

    I am still thinking about Mark’s cowardice. Mark is a coward to the extent that he is utterly reliant on external validation of him and his choices. And the corporation offers such a tempting and such an empty promise of validation.

  3. colleen crawford cousins permalink
    October 22, 2009 9:28 am

    Hmm. Sounds like a blaming of the corporation – while the great thing about the movie is the way in which parallel psychopathies are shown and played off against each other – they are not equivalent, but complementary. Nothing forces Marc to lie, cheat and steal in the extraordinary way he does – (I so loved his unreliable, sentimental narration – constantly belied by his manipulative and cunning actions, so that the viewer starts to feel a little crazy too) – and in fact at the heart of the film is a mystery. What is up with Marc? DSM IV is extraordinarily flat and non-descriptive – unhelpful, says nothing – just as the rabbit of bipolarity, dragged cleverly across the path, provides no explanation, since even on his meds he’s crazier than a coot. And his wife is a classic enabler. Ginger knows what’s up, the thefts, the money, etc. And in fact it is she who insists he starts the game with the FBI. “Tell them, or I will.” This is their cover. And Andries, what she says, very quietly, is: “Don’t do this to yourself”. She’s not in there, nor is there any reference to the objective situation. The game is up, and Ginger knows it. The clue is of course that they are childhood co-conspirators. There’s nothing she doesn’t know about Marc. The question is HOW she knows it, what it means. Codependency is not so much of a mystery as what ails Marc – as common as the common cold, and trained in every woman since birth – but it is still a wondrous thing to see it so clearly and brilliantly demonstrated. Remember Marc’s tearing of his clothes and presenting himself to Ginger as having been attacked? Man. Does she believe that, or does she agree to believe that, as part of the muddying of the water? This is a terrific film, and worth seeing again.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      October 22, 2009 10:52 am

      Yes, these clinical categories are imprecise. And even in these vague terms psychopathy is probably not what best describes Mark – NPD is probably closer. And thanks for the correction. I still think it is a pivotal moment. She is not any less of an enabler after that, nor is he really deeply changed. But it is the moment in which, in their relationship, the truth is (dimly) recognised.

  4. andries du toit permalink*
    October 22, 2009 11:01 am

    By the way — I find it interesting how many people mention *fear* in the responses to the movie. We feel frightened after seeing it, either of people like Mark, or of corporations like ADM. I wonder whether some of this is not projective identification; us feeling the fear that the Man without a Self disavows even as it guides his every action?

  5. colleen crawford cousins permalink
    October 22, 2009 11:46 am

    Well, wanting to label Marc’s madness is a response to fear – as if this gives a bit more distance – my point being that the whole DSM Thing is a piece o medical anthropology in the making – the categories keep changing because we are very new at the game, Freud still hardly cold in his grave. (And it sets up the uneasy “normal” in opposition). But the “non-scientific” descriptor for this kind of high functioning crazy-maker is someone who lacks empathy – SOWF – (“Substance of We Feeling) in Lessing’s Shikasta – the magical muthi of which, in her fable, the entire planet was deprived at the time of the Disaster (when the beautiful Rohanda, spinning serenely on her axis, was struck by a meteor which made her wobble – winter, summer, autumn, spring – and become Shikasta, the Broken One). I like Lessing’s metaphor because it takes the problem out of the “merely personal” and makes it a much wider and broader phenomenon, to be seen in many high functioning people in positions of power, not only in corporations, (and many others besides). What happens when we truly feel for ourselves, and thus for others? And conversely, when we simply can’t imagine the pain and harm we inflict on others (persons, animals) as significant outside of a Victim Story, when we are primitively justified in Hitting Back First? There is a great deal to fear here.

    In developmental terms, to take up another descriptor, two-year olds have not yet developed empathy, and it is only because they are physically, politically and economically weak that they are manageable at all. Go hang with the tiny psychopaths, and See. Marc’s self-talk is very “childish”, and makes use of the circular logic typical of his true age-set. Somehow – and here is another great mystery – we are expected, and have the capacity, to grow up. How does that happen?

  6. andries du toit permalink*
    October 22, 2009 3:16 pm

    Hmmm. I wonder whether this process of ‘growing up’ is what Lao Tsu was on about…

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