My Work is Not Yet Done, Thomas Ligotti. Virgin Books. 2002.
In “Before the Law”—a 1915 parable by Kafka that is also worked into The Trial—a man seeks entry to the law. A doorkeeper stands in the way. The man, insisting on entry, returns the next day, and the day after, and for years after that. In his first attempt to enter, the doorkeeper gives him this warning.
If it tempts you so much, try going inside in spite of my prohibition. But take note. I am powerful. And I am only the lowliest gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the last. I cannot endure even one glimpse of the third.
“Before the Law”, Franz Kafka
This is the existential horror in the story. Even were the man to succeed, to gain entrance to this first door, the second door would be in turn blocked. That is, every success would be illusory. The man’s misery, his frustration, his powerlessness, are things not to be solved by any immediate action, nor really by a change in his outlook, but are essential conditions of the world itself. (This is the basic conclusion of philosophical pessimists: what is wrong with the world is not something contingent and fixable, but rather something in its essential nature.)
Organizational Behavioral Management (OBM) is a field of study applying behaviorist psychological principles to the structuring of organizations. A certain strand of work in OBM studies work motivation. For instance, there is the use of Self-Determination Theory (developed in Deci 1985) in this connection (Deci 2005). SDT views motivations as falling on a spectrum from controlled, external motivations (I will do this because I will be paid if I do or punished if I do not) to self-determined or autonomous motivations (I will do this because it is intrinsically rewarding). In the middle are semi-internalized motivations, introjected motivation (I will do this because I will feel good about myself if I do) and identified motivation (I will do this because it advances my personal projects). According to the theory, a motivation that originates externally can become more or less autonomous in certain conditions. In particular, it can become self-determined when following that external relation at the same time meets people’s need for competence, relatedness, and autonomy.
There is person-to-person variation in the nature and intensity of the needs and hence in propensity to internalize various extrinsic motivations. Additionally, people can have different orientations towards the fulfillment of these needs and hence propensities to internalize motivations. There is autonomy orientation (a tendency to experience social context as autonomy-affirming), control orientation (a tendency to experience social context as autonomy-deriving), and impersonal orientation (a tendency towards amotivation).
This theory has a general utility for explaining corporate behavior. It helps to explain the focus on instilling “corporate culture” or “corporate values”—particularly on “knowledge workers,” whose self-motivation matters more for their output and their commitment to the company—and the tendency of contemporary (especially tech) companies to bring more and more of their employee’s personal lives under the auspices of the company. These things are aimed at satisfying these needs and getting the corporate goals internalized (at least where it counts). Hence also the focus on hiring and retaining “team players” who are “good fits for the culture” (read: the autonomy oriented) and avoiding or terminating the reverse, those non-team-players who are just “in it for the paycheck” (the impersonally oriented). The goal is to breed a pig that wants to be eaten.
The instinct towards revenge, in the model of Tripp and Bies (2010), is a rational one: it is an instinct towards doing something about (what one takes to be) an injustice visited upon one. In their model, one first experiences some offense (an obstruction of a personal goal, a violation of some norm or promise, an attack on one’s reputation or standing), appraises the offense as intentional and viciously motivated (out of greed or malevolence), and then responds (either by carrying out the revenge or doing something else, fantasizing, forgiving, avoiding). The instinct for revenge is thus part of an instinct to protect what one values, one’s goals, reputation, interests, or broader, interpersonal expectations. Revenge though can be sloppy (it is easy for us to misappraise situations) and dangerous (it can fail or lead to revenge cycles).
is a story of corporate revenge. Our narrator and protagonist, Frank Dominio is a senior employee. His seniority, however, has not been accompanied by a corresponding rise in the corporate ranks. Nor has he wanted it to. Frank is impersonally oriented; he cares about corporate expectations in a purely external, controlled sense. He wants to meet expectations only insofar as he can thereby be left alone.
Insodoing, however, Frank has an idea, a brilliant idea though we never know what it is, just as we are not told what the company does. Frank presents this idea as a way to freshen up and secure his reputation and standing. The Seven, a group of antagonists who occupy various powerful positions in the company, receive Frank’s idea, recognizing its strength but pretending otherwise. They drive Frank from the company in an attempt to steal the idea from him. The first part ends with him plotting (bloody) revenge on The Seven.
This part proceeds as a dark comedy. The corporate setting is one rife for all the disempowerment, and unpleasant, eccentric characters that the genre calls for (including Frank, who is an angry, obsessive-compulsive, anti-social man). The writing here and throughout involves all of the atmosphere and literary playfulness one would expect from a Ligotti story, and the dark dreams and gothic environs set the stage for the sordid second half.
In plotting his revenge something happens to Frank. What it is is not revealed to the end, but as a result Frank turns into a spirit with extensive reality-warping powers. Thereafter, this is a revenge fantasy in the most straightforward sense, as Frank uses these powers to take revenge one-by-one on the Seven. This part of the narrative follows a parodically Christian formula, as each of The Seven embody a particular deadly sin and are dispatched (as in Dante’s Inferno) in a “fitting” but grotesque and bizarre manner. This is surreal horror from the perspective of the monster.
From this description, it can sound like the metaphysics of the story is just Christian metaphysics, just junking all the nice stuff (God, heaven). Frank is a fury and furious. But there’s also a dark (or even darker) take on Schopenhaeur’s The World as Will and Representation, where Frank’s demonic powers come from a dark Will that animates all of existence. It’s pessimistic stuff—as Ligotti readers might expect—and it’s here that “Before the Law” comes back in. Frank’s revenge becomes not a clean break from corporate principles but an adherence to (worse, an autonomous adherence to) darker purposes. In this cosmic vision, all earthly evils, corporate malfeasance, even venal sins, are just minor expressions of an encompassing evil.
This vision or something like it is what animates much of Ligotti’s fiction. In his best work, it is the center around which all else orbits. Here, in this regard, I think My Work is Not Yet Done falters a bit. Ligotti is eager to get to this vision, letting spectral Frank (and ringleader of The Seven, Richard) have unfettered and unexplained access to this cosmic truth. But while the horror imagery is technically narratively connected to this, and although it’s largely classic Ligotti (manikins, grotesque transformations), it’s pulpy and trashy and out-of-place. It proceeds more from body horror and a base lust for revenge than any pessimist’s credo. This leads to a tension in the work that I think makes this one of Ligotti’s lesser efforts (though still worth reading). I’m not happy to issue this assessment, as I think corporate horror is a concept with much legs.
Gagné, Marylène, and Edward L. Deci. 2005. “Self-Determination Theory and Work Motivation.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 26 (4): 331–62. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.322.
Tripp, Thomas M., and Robert J. Bies. 2010. “‘Righteous’ Anger and Revenge in the Workplace: The Fantasies, the Feuds, the Forgiveness.” In International Handbook of Anger: Constituent and Concomitant Biological, Psychological, and Social Processes, edited by Michael Potegal, Gerhard Stemmler, and Charles Spielberger, 413–31. New York, NY: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-89676-2_24.
Ryan, Richard M, James P Connell, and Edward L Deci. 1985. “A Motivational Analysis of Self-Determination and Self-Regulation in Education.” Research on Motivation in Education: The Classroom Milieu 2: 13–51.