Shortly after adding a blog to my website, I began a project that has been in gestation for some time and that concerns a longtime interest in sentimentality. This word (or often, “sentimentalism”) has a long history in Western philosophy and literature, a history with which I am frankly not familiar enough to attempt explication, so I will not. But the sense that interests me is the one used contemporarily by all sorts of readers to criticize shlocky fiction, journalism, speeches, what have you: the sense that the work is appealing plainly to a specific emotion, but simplifying the emotion rather than revealing its complexity. In making such an appeal, the writer or speaker hopes to elicit an elementary response, which is generally more galvanizing (or placating if need be) than an intricate or vexing one.
The world is full of examples. TED Talks have built an industry off of them. Pete Buttigieg is a living, breathing one. A prominent recent example comes from President-elect Joe Biden, who in a pre-Thanksgiving address to the nation said, “I know the country has grown weary of the fight. We need to remember we’re at war with the virus, not with one another, not with each other.” Here Biden grafted many Americans’ frustration, disgust, and despair concerning the country’s handling of the pandemic onto a familiar, rousing call to arms for a war that is intrinsically worth fighting. Besides being a strange choice of phrasing for the president of a country involved in so many unsuccessful or disastrous recent wars (drugs, poverty, crime, terror, Afghanistan, Iraq), it’s an entreaty to his people that they continue playing along despite worsening conditions, no end in sight, and the real enemies forging tremendous fortunes from the wreckage. "This is war; buck up!"
Euphemisms, mischaracterizations, deceptive appeals, and generally nauseating language are almost all that’s available in public life, working life, social life. The economy continues to reach new levels of rot, and rather than make good-faith efforts to address problems from their roots, leaders use their vast resources to rebrand the situation in the hope that people will more quickly become accustomed to the conditions of decline, that they might tell themselves things could always be worse instead of feeling the hope abandoning their hearts.
There's nothing new about this phenomenon of large-scale expectations management, I know, but that awareness doesn’t make it any less exasperating to observe. And with little else filling my days this year, I’ve had plenty of time to obsess over it. For now I feel all I can do is catalog the blight as I see it, to at least get it on some sort of record, and so I’ve begun writing a reference book for the tendencies that don’t quite haunt my dreams but do in their maddening pervasiveness keep me awake at night, the tendencies that — it’s no exaggeration to say — obstruct my dreaming. The working title for this book is The Dictionary of Contemporary Evil.
I’ve decided that as I go I’ll post sample entries periodically on this blog. The first I offer, “deliverable,” is below. (It is worth noting that in order to show the scope and utility of the book, I will be leaving in "see entry" parenthetical references, which direct the reader to other entries, even though these referenced entries are not yet published anywhere.)
1) A good or service provided, especially as a result of a project to be delivered to a client or customer. [Merriam-Webster]
The origin of this unsavory formulation is not clear, but based on the OED’s documentation, it is reasonable to assume that the use of “deliverable” in office vernacular began in the twentieth century as the adjectival form of “deliver” (e.g. “Do you think that report would be deliverable by the end of the day?”). This notion of a small assignment able to be delivered easily has spawned a widely used holistic strategy for accomplishing nearly anything. For all is possible when conceived of as cellular deliverables. The higher-up businessperson understands their work as oversight of their employees’ actions, guiding their progress from deliverable to milestone to project. The lowly worker, however, is on a treadmill of delivering deliverables whose effects and greater goal are generally not visible.
Deliverables are particularly endemic to intellectual industries dependent on digital labor, such as advertising, consulting, and branding. For such employees, regardless of whatever end product categorizes their labor, their day-to-day activities will be rote fulfillment of incremental tasks called deliverables. These tasks take a range of shapes, though the larger aim they serve fits under the umbrella of “reports.” An individual deliverable may be a spreadsheet containing numbers from the client’s past, and might also make predictions about how those numbers might appear in the future. Or a deliverable may be a memo detailing possible venues for an upcoming company or client event. Or an email sent from employee to manager containing possible ways to publicize a product or recent achievement. Or a newsletter sent to customers or shareholders, intended to smooth over a controversy or simply show signs of life. It may also be a summary of third-party organizations suggested to the client as potential partners in the future pursuit of deliverables. No matter what small task it is meant to accomplish, the deliverable is a text document meant to ensure production of many more, similar text documents.
The greatest deliverable of all, the one that constitutes the very dreams of managers and their directors, is called a “deck.” A deck is a PDF that is meant to function like a slideshow, and often comes with a narrated presentation. Through charts and bulleted lists, it lays out plans for a broader milestone or project. A single deck, though a deliverable itself, is the summation of tens or hundreds of other deliverables. Hours of researching, reporting, consulting, branding, designing, and strategizing go into this document, which a company presents to its client as not just a model for their collaboration or a proposal for their deal, but also as a display of competence, which will be crucial if the client is to conscript the company in the production of further decks. In business relations, the deck is the vessel of trust. A successful deck promises prosperity for all involved in the project, doubtless requiring further deliverables for whose competent fulfillment the deck augurs favorably.
If a deliverable does not serve to impress a client, then it helps a company achieve greater efficiency. And if an employee does not continue to produce deliverables that will expand clientele or cut expenses, then the company will find someone who can. For there is infinite demand for deliverables, but no human is an infinite supply.