Keywords for the Age of Austerity 3: Nimble

The crisis at the University of Southern Maine, where large-scale faculty layoffs have begun, has thrown up several new candidates for Keywords of the Age of Austerity. From the New Apps blog:

Words like “metropolitan,” “innovative,” and “nimble” passed from the president of the university and the chancellor of the system to the members of the board of trustees, all from banking, corporate law, and the business sector, constituting a dismal display of the current corporate common sense…The recasting of the university as corporation that must “adapt or die” was coupled with disparaging remarks about shared governance, union contracts, and public debates over the fate of a public university.

Constructing mass layoffs as “nimble” and “innovative” reflects one important aspect of our austere moment: as John Summers pointed out in his Baffler essay on the cult of “innovation” in Cambridge, Mass., it is not enough for the private sector to embrace its market-worshipping mantras. Instead, he writes, “the whole community must conform,” in the form of tax breaks for tech companies, the demise of rent control, and so on. The debacle at Southern Maine is one example: a university, which is explicitly not a corporation, must artificially assume for itself the mission and risks of a corporation—“or die.”

The layoffs of faculty, especially in the humanities, will mark a more “nimble” university, say the trustees and administrators mentioned in New Apps. What does this strange word mean? Like so many of the keywords of the age of austerity, on the one hand, the answer is simple: “nothing.” On the other…

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Google ngram reveals that “nimble” has remained steadily popular for the last two centuries, unlike once-obscure, re-purposed words like “stakeholder” or”innovation.” A quick search shows that in the 19th century, it was especially popular in children’s books and songs, most famously in the Mother Goose rhyme “Jack Be Nimble.” This reflects the word’s literal meanings, which are applicable to instructive and vigorous play, as well as little brains and hands: “Quick at grasping, comprehending, or learning” and “Quick and light in movement or action; agile; active.” The word, then, refers to intellectual quickness or physical dexterity in an individual person, although its literal usage seems to tend towards the latter, as in Jack’s leap over the candlestick.  

Even in the 1980s, it appeared in the New York Times most often in the sports section or, less often, to refer to a politician’s skillful deflection of scandal. An early, rare business usage appeared in a 1981 headline, “Nimble Commodities Broker,” above an article about the merger of two Wall Street commodities trading firms. The author of that article: a young reporter named Thomas L. Friedman.

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Although one occasionally still sees it applied to agile athletes, nimble is used most commonly now in a business context, as a metaphorical synonym for “efficient.” We can’t definitively blame Friedman for it, though, since his usage is rather dated. It is more often downsizing, rather than expanding, that commands the honor of being called nimble.” (But since these words often mean so little by themselves, no one said they needed to be consistent.) See, for example, its popularity in media coverage of the General Motors and Chrysler bankruptcies of 2009. The layoffs of tens of thousands of white-collar and especially factory employees were reforms necessary to make more nimble” companies. Here, the word was plainly euphemistic, depicting the firm as a overweight body that needed to slim down and get in shape, rarely stating the human consequences of “nimbleness” outright. GM was “bloated” and a “behemoth,” economic analysts were quoted as saying, causing it, wrote a Times reporter, to “lose a step to more nimble competitors,” especially Japanese automakers.

The literal meanings of “nimble” endure in some of its metaphorical economic uses, however. Take, for example, this NPR report on layoffs in the downsizing journalism industry, in which “nimble” refers to the willingness of an employee to assume the additional labor and learn the additional skills once provided by another paid staffer. A TV correspondent who doesn’t do their own editing and writing will not last in the industry, says a reporter. “They’re going to have to be more nimble both journalistically and technically in terms of the production of their pieces,” doing the additional work of filming, writing, and editing in the field. Describing the new director of the cash-strapped Colorado Symphony Orchestra, a Denver Post reporter wrote, “It’s Sobczak’s job to sell the CSO’s new image as a nimble set of talented musicians who can play anything well, and anywhere, including schools, office events, rock venues, rehab centers.”

In the Detroit Free Press, the founder of ePrize—“the largest interactive promotion agency in the world,” in case you were wondering—confesses that he once imposed too many quality controls at his firm. “Quality increased, but speed and nimbleness took a nosedive,” a rare appearance of the somewhat clumsy-sounding noun form. The C.E.O.’s usage has the effect of treating this metaphorical value concept—the physical dexterity of a bureaucracy—as if it is a measurable, meaningful metric.

The adjective “nimble” has long been quite popular in mainstream cultural criticism as well, where it regularly pops up as a generic term of praise for a writer’s prose style or a filmmaker’s storytelling chops. “Bondurant is a nimble writer,” writes Louisa Thomas in the New York Times of novelist Matt Bondurant, praising what she later calls his prose’s “liveliness,” “especially when it comes to depicting gore and guts.”

The reference to gore and guts is appropriate, since like its corporate close cousins, “lean” and “agile,” “nimble” is a bodily metaphor (as is “corporation,” derived from the Latin corporare, “to embody”). A lean or nimble business (or orchestra, or university) maximizes productivity while minimizing labor costs. While “lean” calls to mind emaciation or, worse, prime cuts of meat, “nimble” is more affirmative. It is athletic, vigorous, youthful, and gymnastic, like the boy who jumps clean over the candlestick. When your firm is described as “nimble,” your overworked, underpaid, and increasingly exploited charges sound more like Kerri Strug or Plastic Man.

Like “innovation,” it constructs any success, but also any failure, as personal, rather than systemic. “Nimble” also frames the self-interest of the corporate manager as a self-evident obligation, like eating right or watching your cholesterol. Why are you being laid off? Sorry, the firm just wasn’t nimble enough with you around. No matter that “nimbleness” is so often a vaporous concept. Much of the current language of austerity imagines corporate businesses as bodies in virtually every way except as a group of overworked or underpaid ones.

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