A Story That Must (Not) Be Shared
In these brutal, cynically self-serving and often litigious times, wouldn't it be wonderful to come across something that could prove that things are right, that it's right to subscribe to the 'competition-is-healthy-and-beneficial' story that we are expected to believe, those insistent claims that profit of pursuit is unequivocally good - for the soul and for society? Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a proof that the behaviour demanded of us by capitalism has no bad consequences and only benefits, and is truly altruistic, both individually and collectively improving? Well, one little book, Who Moved My Cheese?, by Dr Spencer Johnson, claims to be just such a thing. Part of a growing tide of management self-help books, Who Moved My Cheese? claims that whilst it is also a management book, its usefulness goes way beyond work, and its 'profound insights' penetrate deep into the heart of the lives of every single one of us. Who Moved My Cheese? claims its message can and should be applied to any aspect of our lives we deem needs 'improvement'.
Magnanimously, the book tells us that we must share the story contained within it, and its profound message: its testimonials and endorsements tell us to, its introduction does, as do its concluding words. So, there is no question about it: I must share it with you. But then come the words: "Copyright (c) 1998 Spencer Johnson, M.D. All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission." These seem contradictory. They seem to go against the general message about sharing. So, what is to be believed? Are we to follow the example of the testimonial-writers, more than one of whom tells us that they regularly share ('reproduce') Who Moved My Cheese? One admits having regular 'discussions [about it] with personnel, friends and customers'. Another confides that he 'can picture [himself] reading this wonderful story to [his] children and grandchildren in our family room with a warm fire glowing, and their understanding the lessons in these important pages'. Even the writer of the introduction informs us that he 'tell[s] the Cheese story ... in [his] talks around the world' (14). And the narrator of the book's central cheese-story itself, 'Michael', concludes the book with the words "I'm very glad you found the story so useful and I hope that you will have the opportunity to share it soon with others" (94).
We are both urged to 'reproduce' the book and forbidden from doing so, in two equally explicit yet utterly contradictory messages. What one message insists, the other forbids. Is it deliberately duplicitous? Or is it unaware of the impossible position it puts us in? The double-bind is that if you try to follow either one of its equally explicit messages, you transgress the other one. In fact, in terms of copyright laws, the only straightforward and immediate way to resolve this contradiction is to interpret the word 'share' as meaning 'purchase'. Obviously, this will be one thing the author, as producer of a commodity, will want - although any such motivation goes entirely unmentioned within the entire book (in fact, there is no mention of buying, selling, of money, or indeed of managing within the entire book, too). But, still, let's believe what the author does actually say. He may well be sincere. It may only be outmoded publishing convention that demands the threatening-sounding legal declaration (and surely we can discount that, for being self-contradictory: this assertion of copyright is itself in breach of copyright, for the words it uses have been directly 'reproduced' from other copyright declarations).
A Play Within A Play
So let's put faith in Dr Spencer Johnson's philanthropic intentions, and in his ability to understand what he explicitly says, through his characters and interlocutors. According to his wishes, then, I must share with you the story that takes place at the centre of Who Moved My Cheese? - the 'cheese story', after which the book is named, but which is itself actually only a subplot within a larger drama. The larger drama within which the cheese story occurs is that of the lives of some fictional characters, former school friends gathered together the day after their school reunion. The entirety of Who Moved My Cheese? relates to them. The cheese story is actually only a 'play within a play', told by one of these characters to the others in a drama about them, told to us. So the tendency to think that the cheese story itself 'contains the message' is certainly a misreading. But, I'll get to this. First, though, who are these secondary but central characters?
They are a group of people who, when introduced, are utterly dejected, totally disheartened with life, and bitter. Except one. He tells them a story that helped him. It's about cheese. Afterwards they discuss it, and manipulate its main analogy (i.e., 'cheese' standing as a metaphor for 'what you want') in ways that help them to come to terms with what they had hitherto understood as the sheer awfulness of their lives. So, the cheese story enables them to refocus, and come to view what they had previously deemed terrible as now being good. As the book's dust-jacket, its introductions and every other subsection of the book keep telling us, the book is about how to 'enjoy change'. So, the cheese-story itself is only a play within a play, used, primarily, to 'catch the conscience' of the characters.
The story goes like this. Four characters live in a maze. Two are 'littlepeople' (named Hem and Haw), and two are mice (named Sniff and Scurry). They all eat cheese. In the beginning, the humanesque characters, Hem and Haw, don't analyse things too much. They don't have to: cheese is just there, and they go to it and eat it. One day, there is no cheese there. There is much consternation. The mice leave. The two littlepeople fret and bicker about what to do. One of them, Hem, decides to stay, believing that he might be able to work out what's going on, and also in the hope that cheese will return again. Haw leaves, and the narrative focus leaves with him: the story does not return to Hem and his (Hamlet-like) dithering and ruminating. We go with Haw, who runs off into the maze and, after a few personal crises of confidence and a lot of writing aphorisms on walls, eventually finds some more cheese. The two mice are already there with the cheese. They have a cheesy party. And that's it. That's the story.
A Play Within A Play Within The Real Thing
You may ask why I have recounted such a childish (or, at best, child-like) tale as this. Indeed, it is significant that the book goes out of its way to look like a children's storybook: bright colours, large-print, not too many words, and none of them long or hard, short sentences, furry animals and "amusing" 'littlepeople', etc., all of which certainly should, I agree, set alarm bells ringing: A book for adults trying to pass itself off as a kids' book?! (Indeed, everything about its appearance is reminiscent of the Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy's front-cover message, written 'in large friendly letters': 'Don't Panic'. I'll get back to this.) First though, the question is, why bother with it, why worry about it, why even take it seriously?
There are two main reasons: the first is that this book is influential. Who Moved My Cheese? is 'used' by people and institutions that are definitively influential. Some, you cannot get more influential than (like the U.S. Military). And anything that influences the influential is surely important itself. The second reason relates to its 'message', and the 'influence' it might ever be said to have. Now, far be it from me to propose that there is ever a straightforward 'monkey see, monkey do' relationship between any text, any reading of it, and any 'action' undertaken by the reader after or because of that reading. However, institutions do impose ways of reading as being the 'right' ways. They impose certain meanings as being the 'correct' meanings, 'correct' interpretations which imply particular kinds of 'correct' conclusions and 'correct' judgements. And judgements at least 'influence' actions and relationships - or, in other words, how we live. And there are many institutions - globally important institutions - all reading Who Moved My Cheese? in the same way, all 'uncovering' the same message and 'deriving' the same conclusions about how to live and act, from this childish book. This still might not strike you as a problem or a big deal. However, I will endeavour to suggest just some of the ways in which all of the 'dominant' or 'proper' or 'legitimate' or 'reasonable' interpretations of Who Moved My Cheese? are actually delusional, certainly deluding, definitely inane (perhaps even insane), and ultimately socially, culturally, and personally or individually deleterious.
Now this is not to say that there is nothing 'good' 'in it'. Nor is my intention to belittle anyone who has found themselves in a bad, unpleasant, or problematic situation, and found something helpful in the cheese analogy, or in one or another of the book's aphorisms ('What would you do if you weren't afraid?', 'stop smelling bad cheese', etc.). My intention is different. For anyone may well find something helpful, provocative, or insightful in the cheese story. But, my initially pedantic-seeming point is that this is possible only if you only 'take bits and pieces', and overlook others. For if you try to read the book as a coherent entity (which it does purport to be), then it becomes apparent that the way the book claims it should be read is actually unsustainable, incoherent, and strangely odious, and that the putative 'proper message' of the book falls apart. Furthermore, in order to find any coherence in the book it turns out that you have to read it in ways that are dramatically different than those it itself claims are the 'right' ways to read it. This is my point: if you read it properly it simultaneously reveals how sinister its message is and it falls apart, showing that it cannot mean what it wants to mean, nor 'do' what it purports to do. It can, however, be read 'against itself', as containing a radical political and possibly even revolutionary message (entirely different to its intended conservative, depoliticising, culturally and interpersonally destructive and apathetic message). So, therefore, bad as it clearly is, there is nevertheless something 'good' in it.
If we consider some of the institutions that use this book, and fantasize about the implications of their reading it properly, then the prospects become quite exciting. Gushing testimonials from thirteen prestigious personages from business, universities, television and the military, tell us how moving, thought-provoking, profound and wonderful its message is. We are also informed that the book is used and endorsed by at least twenty-three massive institutions: Abbott Labs, Bausch & Lomb, Bell South, Bristol Myers Squibb, Citibank, Chase Manhattan, Eastman Kodak, Exxon, Georgia Pacific, General Motors, Goodyear, Greyhound, Lucent Technologies, Marriott, Mead Johnson, Mobil, Oceaneering, Ohio State University, State Farm, Textron, Texaco, Whirlpool, Xerox, countless 'churches and hospitals', unnamed 'government agencies', and the 'United States Military'. In many countries, including Japan and America, Who Moved My Cheese? is read widely in family homes, by parents to their children as a bedtime story; and many major UK companies have held many major conferences celebrating and 'exploring' the usefulness of Who Moved My Cheese? Mention it to just about any marketer or manager in just about any country and they will likely have heard of it, quite probably have read it, and maybe even attended a course or conference extolling it and its 'profound insights'.
Just Get The Message, Right
So what are these profound insights? The title directs our attention exclusively to the cheese story. It is this parable that we are repeatedly told the message is 'in'. Yet this section - the parable about Hem, Haw, mice, cheese, and faceless forces that move things - covers less than half of its ninety-five pages. As if to compensate, the parable itself is printed not in large- but in huge-print. It is framed, at the beginning, by sections of smaller-print approbation and instructions about how to read it. Its introduction and early scene- and mood-setting sections telegraphically announce and keep repeating how to read it. The concluding discussion (of the once dejected but now jubilant friends) reiterates how you should have read it. So, the cheese story itself is indubitably only a subordinate sub-section of the book. For primarily the book consists of telling us how to read the cheese story.
So, is there profundity in this - in these instructions, if not in the fact that something about the cheese story seems to demand that how it is read is strictly policed and controlled? Why go to such lengths to insist, repeatedly, how to read such a story? The answer can only be: because if you read the story without being told its message, before, after, again and again, then what you risk 'getting out of' this little parable (which allegedly applied to all aspects of the human condition) is something seriously different. This book, avowedly about 'change', wants to shelter itself from the risk of its 'proper meaning' being changed. So what can be 'got out of' the story? To establish that, one has to read it. Yet reading it is clearly the very thing this book does not want anyone to do. But it never explicitly says that, so we clearly must do it.
Smell That Cheese - and Reject It!
To begin our reading, note this: none of the characters in the cheesy story ever have, or ever come to have, any 'idea where the Cheese came from, or who put it there. They just assumed it would be there' (29). None question the fact that they are in a maze either. Amazingly, being in a maze is just accepted; so much so that Hem and Haw - foolishly, it transpires - come to regard 'the Cheese they found at Cheese Station C as their cheese', and 'they eventually moved their homes to be closer to it, and built a social life around it' (29). They do not, however, notice it depleting. When it does run out, it is only the mice, Sniff and Scurry, who 'weren't surprised. Since Sniff and Scurry had noticed that the supply of cheese had been getting smaller every day, [so] they were prepared for the inevitable and knew instinctively what to do' (32). (So, really, no one 'moved' the cheese, as such...)
This rodent-like reactivity is celebrated in Who Moved My Cheese? (a title which, clearly, from the outset, is inappropriate, as it immediately 'throws us off the scent' or tempts us to bark up the wrong tree or, rather, sniff in the wrong place.) This reactivity is called the propensity to 'change'. From the start, the mice are represented as best, because 'able to change'. More precisely, what is celebrated in particular, is that 'The mice did not overanalyze things. And they were not burdened with many complex beliefs' (32). Hem and Haw, however, are hampered by over-active 'brains', which 'overanalyse', as well as carrying the baggage of burdensome beliefs - 'unproductive' beliefs, such as the expectation of routine, of being able to have a stable home and a social life. But, in Who Moved My Cheese?, the deal is exactly as the mice well know: 'To the mice, the problem and the answer were both simple. The situation at Cheese Station C had changed. So, Sniff and Scurry decided to change' (32). 'Change', here and throughout, means only passive responsiveness. It never entails resisting anything. Resistance is presented not only as futile, but as ridiculous: when Hem and Haw take badly to having their cheese moved, their consternation is depicted as childish prating: 'as though if [they] shouted loud enough someone would put it back' (33). Hem complains loudest, but unfortunately has no one to complain to other than Haw. The complaint is straightforward, and fair enough: 'It's not fair!' (33). It clearly isn't fair. But such a complaint, the narrative cautions, is to be avoided, as it is 'not very attractive or productive' (34):
They ranted and raved at the injustice of it all. Haw started to get depressed. What would happen if the Cheese wasn't there tomorrow? He had made future plans based on this Cheese. The littlepeople couldn't believe it. How could this have happened? No one had warned them. It wasn't right. It was not the way things were supposed to be. (35) .... Hem analyzed the situation over and over and eventually his complicated brain with its huge belief system took hold. "Why did they do this to me?" he demanded. "What's really going on here?" (37)
Hem becomes bogged down in these questions, obsessed with a grievance that is neither attractive nor productive. Accordingly, he is deemed arrogant by the narrative. And we all know what pride comes before. Fool that he is, he believes himself to be too important to be squashed arbitrarily like some hapless insect. The profound and heart-warming message, of course, is that he is nothing more than an insect, he is wrong to attach any value to himself or to what he wants or needs (his 'cheese'):
Hem continued, "They're just simple mice. They just respond to what happens. We're littlepeople. We're special. We should be able to figure this out. And besides, we deserve better.
"This should not happen to us, or if it does, we should at least get some benefits."
"Why should we get benefits?" Haw asked.
"Because we're entitled," Hem claimed. "Entitled to what?" Haw wanted to know.
"We're entitled to our Cheese."
"Why?" Haw asked.
"Because, we didn't cause this problem," Hem said. "Somebody else did this and we should get something out of it."
Haw suggested, "Maybe we should stop analyzing the situation so much and just get going and find some New Cheese."
"Oh no," Hem argued. "I'm going to get to the bottom of this." (38)
This is a decisive moment. Hem and Haw differ in opinion: Hem believes they should have rights and self-worth. Maybe in this sense he has 'changed'. Something like an embryonic political awareness is dawning. But he hasn't changed 'fundamentally', as he still aims to 'get something out of' the situation, which is a fundamentally exploitative aim. Haw, however, is getting a slightly different message: he's learning that to respond properly to situations now demands plasticity, malleability, 'flexibility'. Of course, he too knows that one should still try to get what one can. But Haw is beginning to learn that now one shouldn't 'expect'. This is the crucial difference. Haw accepts (passively) the 'wonderful' lesson that to survive, one must be like mice, who "didn't think of anything else but finding New Cheese" (39).
Hem and Haw here embody the two great opposed figures of 'homo economicus': the demanding but inefficient Trades Union Man (Hem) and the 'go-getting' entrepreneur (Haw). Just as these were the only intelligible political positions forced on workers during the decisive 'changes' precipitated by Thatcher and Reagan, so they are the only intelligible positions now within the maze: either sit, rooted in the old unproductive ways, or go-get in the newly deracinated, economic situation. Either remain, unproductively, or go-get, ceaselessly. Either be a loser or be happy to subsist. The narrative entirely advocates the 'Haw-option' (and 'Haw' has an apt homophone), in which one must actively embrace a life of subsistence, touting it as the enjoyable advantage-taking of new opportunities. One must, in other words, live life as a perpetual-motion masochist.
Unfortunately, though, Haw can't yet quite shake off the baggage of yesterday's outmoded and unproductive 'complex beliefs'. It will take him some time to work them out, to exorcise all those hindering demons, like commitments to one's past, one's environment, one's friends, and so on. Indeed, the rest of the story is about Haw's gradual 'coming to terms' with the need to reject life and adapt to the single-minded pursuit of what you think you can get, but what the book itself decisively represents as an impossible fantasy, namely, 'Getting' the 'Cheese'. (The Explicit Lesson = it's not yours and you can't 'get' it.). In other words, after rejecting his former life as symbolised by Hem, the rest of Haw's story is about his 'working through', exorcising, and 'managing' to cope with the trauma of it all, so to speak. It is unsurprising that he oscillates between hysteria and depression: 'Finally, one day Haw began laughing at himself. "Haw, haw, look at me. I keep doing the same things over and over again and wonder why things don't get better. If this wasn't so ridiculous, it would be even funnier" (43). Henceforth, he oscillates between unprovoked hysterical laughter and fearful depression. But this laughter does enable him to change his relationship with the changed situation - which is what the book's all about. What is uncertain is whether this laughter comes as a defence against cracking up in the face of the horror of his new situation, or whether it is evidence of his having cracked up.
Either way, the solution to the problems of life is portrayed as involving an unavoidable masochistic 'striking at oneself' - denying oneself, 'letting go of oneself': 'As Haw prepared to leave, he started to feel more alive, knowing that he was finally able to laugh at himself, let go and move on' (45). In the maze one must laugh at oneself, and certainly one's former self, and one's unproductive attachments, and 'let go' of any sense of permanence, rights, entitlements, stability of location and social relationships, self-worth, and so on. One must also relinquish thinking, forsake 'excessive' thinking, 'unproductive' thinking: (like Lord Haw-Haw) 'Haw smiled. He knew Hem was wondering, "Who moved my Cheese?" but Haw was wondering "Why didn't I get up and move with the Cheese sooner?"' (47). Hem, of course, is a loser. The very question, 'Who moved my Cheese?' is the loser's question, the wrong question, the question that Who Moved My Cheese? rejects. 'Who moved my Cheese?' is the very question the book refuses to answer, refuses even to entertain as a question, and, indeed, cannot answer, without risking its own fragile coherence.
For, ultimately, the only answer that Who Moved My Cheese? could possibly allow would have to be 'I moved it myself', which, when stated like this, is embarrassingly problematic (even though, as noted above, Hem and Haw palpably did 'move' it themselves). Hence, it remains unspoken, but implied. Why can't it be answered directly? It is because the paradoxical logic of the book is the insistence that everything is your fault, your problem, and your responsibility to solve, for yourself. This is so even though the book does recognise that there are objective problems with the world. It's just that it is objective problems that it cannot and will not confront (they are, after all, its raison d'ętre). It is doubly conservative. It speaks like this: 'Objective problem? It's all in your mind'. Or: 'Someone else has moved the cheese you had? Well move/revise your cheese-expectations to be the same as what's on offer'. Or: 'all objective problems notwithstanding, you must only look at yourself and change yourself'. That is, the book acknowledges and denies 'objectivity'. And 'cheese' itself has a double and duplicitous status here: it operates both as 'actual thing' (as food, sustenance) and as impossible desire (ultimate satisfaction, the end of desire, fruition, plenitude). Needless to say, this duplicity, this shifting and problematically chimerical status is only stabilised and resolved when one realises that 'cheese' can only equal 'money'. This is perhaps a profound insight, especially if we read the book as allegedly being about 'life'.
What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?
The same thing applies to Haw's graffito (Haw is periodically compelled to write platitudes on walls) which reads, 'What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?' (48). Haw, himself, remains fundamentally terrified, throughout. He thinks he overcomes his fear by setting off running, and by being prepared to keep 'changing', interminably. And, in fact, the book proposes fear as a virtue: 'He knew that sometimes fear can be good. When you are afraid things are going to get worse if you don't do something, it can prompt you into action. But it is not good when you are so afraid that it keeps you from doing anything' (49). This is hardly a warrior-axiom, like 'fear is the friend of exceptional people' (which was phrased like this by Cus D'Amato, the former trainer of the exceptionally 'go-getting' and 'competitive' Mike Tyson). This is rather more Chandler from Friends' "I'm too afraid [to quit my job]".
But, if we actually answered this question, regarding our own lives, what would we do? Would we keep running? Really? Would we go to work? Would you? The question is a good one - arguably a brilliant one. Posing it could prompt radical, even revolutionary change. Of course, not necessarily for the best. One answer to the question could be 'murder', or even 'suicide', for instance. And, in fact, in a metaphorical way, when Haw daubs this question on the wall, it actually signals the moment of his complete resignation and, more disconcertingly, the unequivocal birth of his delusion.
For, he thinks he is 'taking control'; he tells himself he is taking control: 'Whenever he started to get discouraged he reminded himself that what he was doing, as uncomfortable as it was at the moment, was in reality much better than staying in the Cheeseless situation. He was taking control, rather than simply letting things happen to him' (50). He is, rather, merely becoming resigned to the fact that things will simply happen to him. Soon his delusion will palpably deepen. In ruminating about times gone by (itself a dangerous game, in this book - unless one concludes that then was not as good as now), he speculates that 'Mold may even have begun to grow on the Old Cheese' (51). But, there has been, never was, and will be no mention, anywhere, of this having happened. No one was formerly dissatisfied with the quality of the cheese. Not even the observant if changeable mice. The issue was only that it was moved, by... well, best not consider who 'moved' it.
This hallucinatory false-memory, this ambivalent relation to the past, is occasioned because Haw still has to confront the ultimate emptiness of his plight, the absolute nihilism of his situation. He is being forced to acknowledge that you cannot count on cheese 'being there'. You can only count on your having, interminably, to run after cheese. "This empty feeling has happened to me too often," he thought.... "What would I do if I weren't afraid?" (53). He cannot answer this question. All he can do is be afraid, as the motor for all of his actions. 'What would I do if I weren't afraid?' is not answered. Instead, nihilism, pointlessness, emptiness and repetitiveness are tautologically proposed as being the solution to the problem of nihilism, pointlessness, emptiness and repetitiveness:
As he started running down the dark corridor he began to smile. Haw didn't realise it yet, but he was discovering what nourished his soul. He was letting go and trusting what lay ahead of him, even though he did not know exactly what it was.
To his surprise, Haw started to enjoy himself more and more. "Why do I feel so good?" he wondered. "I don't have any Cheese and I don't know where I am going."
Before long, he knew why he felt good.
He stopped to write again on the wall:
"When You Move Beyond Your Fear, You Feel Free."
Haw realized he had been held captive by his own fear. Moving in a new direction had freed him.' (55-57)
Here, 'cheese' is given an entirely 'spiritual' and definitively non-material and non-practical meaning. As noted, 'cheese' has an ambivalent, double-status, as representing both need and desire (or, translated, as money: as what you need it for and what you want it for). The writer of the introduction himself claims 'cheese' is an almost infinitely supple metaphor, as Who Moved My Cheese? is 'a story about change that takes place in a Maze where four amusing characters look for "Cheese" - cheese being a metaphor for what we want to have in life, whether it is a job, a relationship, money, a big house, freedom, health, recognition, spiritual peace, or even an activity like jogging or golf' (14). But at this point, 'cheese' does not name a 'thing' (like food), it only names a desire, but a desire that produces satisfaction even though the thing desired is not received or attained. In other words, this is about learning to be satisfied with not getting what you want - or, as Adorno and Horkheimer once put it, it is about how to make someone who wants to eat feel satisfied with the menu. (This, Adorno and Horkheimer, too, associated with masochism.)
As with desire, so with fear. At the start of the story, Haw was afraid to start running and searching. His answer to the question of what he would do if he wasn't afraid of running was that he would run. When he was running, he was still afraid. He posed the question again, and the answer came that he would keep running. Eventually, the question became meaningless - not solved or resolved, just meaningless, tired, empty, and irrelevant. Haw now reaches the same condition of existence as that of the mice. In other words, at this moment, Haw is beaten. But this passive, masochistic state denies itself, and comes replete with a warped fantasy or 'hallucinatory relationship' with objective reality. For, note: Haw doesn't have any cheese, and knows that even if he finds any, it won't be permanent. Nevertheless, he tells himself, "Imagining Myself Enjoying New Cheese Even Before I Find It, Leads Me To It" (58), and "The Quicker You Let Go Of Old Cheese, The Sooner You Find New Cheese" (60). He even tells himself that he 'was happy when he wasn't being run by his fear. He liked what he was doing now' (61), 'In fact, he sensed he had already found what he was looking for' (62). It is in moments and formulations like these that this kind of ideology tries to pass itself off as almost spiritual - pretending to present a message of not clinging, of going with the flow, of being flexible, of not being attached to worldly things, etc., but in the service of an unending 'clinging', scrabbling after them, in denial. True, this situation does describe a certain 'detachment', but primarily in the sense of being unhinged.
The objective situation unhinges Haw. His semi-spiritual self-abnegation even switches registers, changing from sounding like some bizarre version of worldly and materialistic pseudo-Taoism, or some monstrous abomination of Taoism (don't cling, to cling properly; move with the cheese - to come to terms with never getting the cheese, etc.), into a kind of eminently guilty Catholic discourse. Haw places the blame for all of his troubles onto his own shoulders: 'Haw realized again, as he had once before, that what you are afraid of is never as bad as what you imagine. The fear you let build up in your mind is worse than the situation that actually exists' (63). Even though he still has the ability to acknowledge that objective situations would have seen him perish (70), everything remains squarely refracted through himself, through the individual. Despite the objectivity of the problems, Haw places the blame on himself. His next graffito is "Old Beliefs Do Not Lead You To New Cheese" (64). Haw has 'learned' that it's all about 'new beliefs'. And that's all. It's what you believe: 'Haw now realized that his new beliefs were encouraging new behaviors. He was behaving differently than when he kept returning to the same cheeseless situation' (65); 'He knew that when you change what you believe, you change what you do' (65); 'By now, Haw had let go of the past and was adapting to the future' (69). And then he finds some more actual cheese.
So what was it that made him change? Was it the fear of starving to death? Haw thought, "Well, that helped."
Then he laughed and realized that he had started to change as soon as he had learned to laugh at himself and at what he had been doing wrong. He realized that the fastest way to change is to laugh at your own folly - then you can let go and quickly move on. (70)
So, nothing is worth fighting for? And fear is your invention? (Good: there can be no war on terror. And no reason for such a war. And no terror.) Be like a feeble-minded rodent. That's all you amount to anyway: 'Sniff and Scurry. They kept life simple. They didn't overanalyze or overcomplicate things' (71) But if you're afflicted with more intelligence than a mouse, you can think, a little: 'Then Haw used his wonderful brain to do what littlepeople do better than mice. He reflected on the mistakes he had made in the past and used them to plan for the future' (71). But planning for the future is the one thing you demonstrably cannot do. Indeed, planning for the future is another duplicitously deployed dimension of Who Moved My Cheese? Recall: at the beginning, Haw's outrage at the loss of the cheese he had come to rely on and "had made future plans based on" (35) is offered as a lesson in the error of 'clinging' and indeed in the silliness of expecting anything at all (38); whilst at the end of the story, 'He reflected on the mistakes he had made in the past and used them to plan for the future' (71). If one is bad and another is good, is there a difference between these two types of planning for the future?
The distinctiveness of this final plan for the future appears to be that it has no content at all, other than the plan to 'keep things simple, be flexible, and move quickly' (71), based on the hilarious 'realisation' that 'the biggest inhibitor to change lies within yourself, and that nothing gets better until you change' (71). You must change, and utterly reject the past. The past equals the inferior and even the bad. Any change, no matter how disruptive or even destructive, equals improvement.
'He didn't like it at the time, but he knew that the change had turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it led him to find better Cheese
He had even found a better part of himself.
As Haw recalled what he had learned, he thought about his friend Hem. He wondered if Hem had read any of the sayings Haw had written on the wall at Cheese Station C and throughout the maze.' (72)
What's The Message Again? Beats Me
And what about Hem? Forget Hem. He couldn't see the writing on the wall. Who Moved My Cheese? is about helping us to participate willingly and gratefully in our own exploitation. It is an ideological text that acknowledges but denies, inverts and warps the problems of global capitalism, re-packaging them and selling them back as problems that are our own fault. It turns everything upside down and sends it back out again, back to front; claiming that the causes, the blame and the solutions for all of life's problems lie with 'individuals'. You and me, them and us, the message is: 'So your life has been screwed over by someone or something else? Well that's nobody's fault but your own. You should have known that others can and will cause your life to collapse, arbitrarily, painfully, violently and traumatically. You have no right to protection, and no right to redress; no right to objection, and an obligation to accept'. The cultural critic, Slavoj Žižek, speaking of capitalism and its ideology, puts it like this:
Here we are at the very nerve center of the liberal ideology: freedom of choice, grounded in the notion of the "psychological" subject endowed with propensities he or she strives to realize. This especially holds today, in the era of what sociologists like Ulrich Beck call "risk society," when the ruling ideology endeavors to sell us the insecurity caused by the dismantling of the Welfare State as the opportunity for new freedoms: you have to change jobs every year, relying on short-term contracts instead of long-term stable appointment. Why not see it as the liberation from the constraints of a fixed job, as the chance to reinvent yourself again and again, to become aware of and realize hidden potentials of your personality? You can no longer rely on the standard health insurance and retirement plan, so that you have to opt for additional coverage for which you have to pay. Why not perceive it as an additional opportunity to choose: either better life now or long-term security? And if this predicament causes you anxiety, the postmodern or "second modernity" ideologist will immediately accuse you of being unable to assume full freedom, of the "escape from freedom," of the immature sticking to old stable forms ... Even better, when this is inscribed into the ideology of the subject as the psychological individual pregnant with natural abilities and tendencies, then I as it were automatically interpret all these changes as the result of my personality, not as the result of me being thrown around by market forces. (Žižek, Slavoj (2001), On Belief, London: Routledge, 116)
But perhaps it's unfair to expose what is merely a practical self-help manual to criticism from a 'theoretical' and unpractical perspective like Žižek's. For, you could say, what use is such cleverness as Žižek's? It's not useful, whereas this book is useful. Such might be the objection. Indeed, all the book claims it is able to do (and I quote, from the dust-jacket) is 'show you how to anticipate change, adapt to change quickly, enjoy change, be ready to change quickly, again and again'. But the words 'show you how' are misleading, even though this is the entirety of what it claims to do: it claims to be able to show you how. On inspection, teaching 'how-to' is what it cannot do. It is not a 'how-to'. It is rather a 'that-you-must'. There is a difference: the difference being that a how-to would have a specific content. But, this has no particular content, and no particular 'practical' advice at all. It is exclusively a document which dresses up and states in a seductive and beguiling manner the cold hard fact that you are just going to have to handle unpredictable changes, imposed on your life from without.
Simply put, Who Moved My Cheese? is basically about coming to terms with having to get another job when you are sacked, or of offering you a way to be able to sleep at nights or look at yourself in the mirror when you have had to sack others As one character puts it, speaking of when he had to sack huge swathes of his workforce, "practically everyone, those who left and those who stayed, said the Cheese story helped them see things differently and cope better. Those who had to go out and look for a new job said it was hard at first but recalling the story was a great help to them" (91). The entire work of the book is that of providing its readers with a 'flexible' metaphor to offer a compensatory pseudo-philosophy - or rather, a mantra - of inane platitudes designed to help you soldier on when your business, job, or life goes down the toilet through no fault of your own. When another character confides that she fears she will lose her job very soon, another shouts "It's maze time!", about which all present laugh heartily. When she laughs too, she is rewarded with, "It's good that you can laugh at yourself" (84). Indeed.
The book says: this may seem to be no fault of your own, but you shouldn't have stopped running, and certainly if you let it get you down or try to blame anything or anyone other than yourself, you will be crushed. The only way to survive is to keep running. This is the text's explicit message - both literally and in terms of its explicit metaphors: keep running. All the characters in the story, all those unquestioningly stuck in its horrifically banal, in(s)ane and Kafkaesque maze wear jogging clothes and jog everywhere. Keep running. Do it - just or unjust makes no difference: just do it. The very proposition that you should 'enjoy change' demonstrates the sadism of the position from which this book is written, and the masochistic position it would have its readers adopt. One 'human' character, Frank, even says, "I think some things shouldn't change. For example, I want to hold on to my basic values. But I realize now that I would be better off if I had moved with the 'Cheese' a lot sooner in my life" (86). Sucker! Values are so last season! Another 'human' character even diagnoses the epidemic of stress and stress-related illness as being a result of - you guessed it - personality failings! She argues: "Some people never change and they pay a price for it. I see people like Hem in my medical practice. They feel entitled to their 'Cheese.' They feel like victims when it's taken away and blame others. They get sicker than people who let go and move on." (85).
So Who Moved The Cheese?
Who moved the cheese? You did, yourself, dummy! Well, you might not actually have done, but you might as well have done, as it can be no one's fault but your own. You think 'they' did it, but you did it. But did you? Don't dwell on it, in case you arrive at a different conclusion. Keep running.
There is much more to say about this book. I have not, by a long shot, exhausted the 'proper' message of the cheese parable - the 'intended message', the one that's reiterated again and again before and after the parable itself, and that is about 'changing', 'moving', 'running', 'pursuing', about hallucinating yourself into the position of blame, even for your fears, etc. This message - this proper message - itself disgusts me, I must admit. But then, people say I'm no 'realist' and they claim that this book does practically and pragmatically characterise 'reality': because, well you've got to run, haven't you? you've got to laugh, haven't you? Well, precisely.
But it's not just me. On inspection, the book itself 'knows' that it is disgusting. Why else would it, at several key moments, try to 'interpret away', interpret out of existence, the antisocial implications of itself, coming up with more or less convoluted rationalisations to the effect that moving to new cheese and dumping 'old cheese' does not mean running away, severing links, divorcing, rejecting, forgetting, denying? To show how untenable and forced such interpretations are would require a lengthy digression into even more dimensions of the duplicitous status of cheese in the story (for instance, the rhetorical sleight of hand by which cheese that has 'been moved' first becomes referred to as 'old', and then as 'stale', and as 'stale' connotes 'bad' this justifies the equation that 'old equals bad', etc.), and a lengthier account of the ways that cheese is set up both as 'real' and as an impossible fantasy, like a mirage - or, ultimately, like a carrot dangled in front of a mule's eyes.
As well as the convolution of the book's own attempts to argue that the moral of the story is not that we should have no morality whatsoever, it absolutely glosses over the fact that it demands the immorality that is complete competition. The littlepeople and the mice smile at each other and share the scarce cheese. Why? Are they mad? There is no logic to this, if scarcity demands running and competition. It has to be hard cheese for someone, as a matter of principle. Logically, reasonably, rationally, then, shouldn't they try to kill each other? Why would they not if they weren't afraid? Of course, the book is afraid, and especially of its two unanswered questions. It is far from an adequate or plausible representation of what its own consequences would be if anything about it were translatable into 'real life'. The picture painted by this book does seem in(s)ane in the extreme. And, yet...
Maybe it is all too sane and all too moral in being so simplistic. Maybe indeed we should move with the cheese. Of course that's all anyone can do. Maybe what we need to understand in no uncertain terms is that our cheese is not ours, not ever. As such, maybe we are morally obliged not to impede anyone else's moving to the cheese, even if we think it's ours; that we must share it with them. This would mean that if global population movements are merely people dynamically moving with the cheese, and if we must not ask who moved their cheese, then maybe we must just open borders, doors, jobs, cultures and families to anyone, everyone, including and especially political refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants, and share 'our' cheese with them. Remember, it's not ours, and they are doing what is advocated in this book. And if it is the case that, whenever cheese is moved, no one has the right to seek retribution or to attribute blame, then when what seemed most sacred to us is, say, destroyed, demolished, exploded, then there could be no justification for retribution, for waging war. Maybe nothing is worth fighting for. Maybe there is nothing to be afraid of, other than our fear. So, those whose cheese has been moved, those, say, in Africa or the Balkans, should move here, and we should know that what we think we fear is only a silly invention, and that objectively there is nothing wrong with this new cheese. And so on. Move with the cheese.... Tenuous? Far-fetched? Unrealistic? Maybe and yes and no, but why, why not?
My most emphatic point is, every way you read this book you see that the only way that it can make sense, in the way that it tries to and claims to, is if you don't read it. This book demands that you don't read it, that you don't interpret it, that you don't think about it. In this sense, too, it is exemplary of the contemporary capitalist/neoliberal condition: not only does it say, be like children, be like rodents, don't think, run, keep your head down, don't resist, don't think you have a real problem, if you do think that there is a problem then 'realise' that you are the problem, be content with having no rights, be pliable, plastic, malleable, and so on, ultimately what it says is: don't read. By which it means don't interpret. Don't think. Reading, then - properly, thoroughly, rigorously - seems to be the primary and only way to be other than vermin in someone else's laboratory. What would you do if you weren't afraid?
By Paul Bowman