Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Bureaucratic Poetics

Bureaucracy isn’t the opposite of learning any more than a twinkie is the opposite of food. Who cares whether that’s how it seems? Bureaucracy is clearly a kind of learning. What’s at stake is the value of that learning.

The value of learning about bureaucracy is the value of learning disposable information that can be put to processes and ends that affect human beings, sometimes for the good, sometimes severely, but that are themselves as processes and ends also highly disposable. The relevance of bureaucratic detail is startlingly temporary.

Of course, one can study bureaucracy just as easily as one can study art, music, or literature. Studying bureaucracy becomes a way of studying history. One can learn as much about human life, especially daily life, by knowing the history of post offices, state colleges, and banks as by knowing about Cindy Sherman, John Coltrane or Virginia Woolf.

There’s no reason at all to see that as some kind of shocking loss.

Still, there’s a distinction to be made between studying the history of bureaucracy and working in a bureaucracy, in which the goal is not to understand the historical effects of the bureaucracy you are part of but to understand your job just well enough to get those tasks done today that can be done today, then forget about them forever, while calculating what kind of longer range tasks are beneficial and trying to move forward towards them. Knowing about the history of that bureaucracy may help in your job or make it harder.

Of course, the more middle or lower of a middle or lower manager you are, the less you have to do with anything regarding those longer range tasks and the more you struggle, often immensely, with trying to get done today those tasks that can be done today. As all middle managers know, it’s only on rare victorious days that one actually does, today, what can be done today.

Consider for a moment the aesthetics of a budget chart. The simultaneously ordered and fractured rows with their staggered figures that must, when one reaches the bottom line, achieve the beautiful symmetry of unity.

Theories of narrative and theories of budgets tended to synchronize well until about the end of the 1950s, when theorists of narrative began to wonder whether older theories of narrative were really just theories of budgets in disguise. And it quickly became clear that most were.

Just when you thought you were reading literature, it turns out you were studying bureaucracy. In fact bureaucracy is one of literature’s greatest themes. Isn’t Kafka’s almost only point how the human soul has wilted under the endless meaningful meaninglessness of the labyrinth of human bureaucracy? Kafka is one of the world’s great thinkers about bureaucracy and so is Marx, who to his credit perhaps was more optimistic about bureaucracy, if maybe naive about how quickly bureaucracies might improve. Even someone like Jane Austen who isn’t writing directly about bureaucracy might as well be. She tells great stories about how to make the system work for you and retain your integrity at the same time. Very few people know how to do that.

Literature and philosophy, it seems, aren’t that good as escapism from bureaucracy.

Besides, consider how much you’re learning about human life from working in that state office or that bank and maybe you’ll stop wishing you had more time to read and write. Think about forms, committees, personality foibles, individual conflicts, misunderstandings of language, the need to be passive aggressive and the rhetoric of leadership. Think about the differences between censorship, what isn’t possible to say, and what goes unsaid. Think about pressure and meddling. Think about lies, unrealistic ambitions, and resentment. Think about the clash of opposing bureaucratic forces pretending to work together. Now, tell me that you’re not learning almost as much about human life as you can stand.

You’re not going to get more time to read and write anyway, so you might as well consider that your bureaucratic position requires a different kind of reading. Certainly it involves a large number of words on pages. It’s not any more boring and soul killing than you tell yourself it is. All you need to do is stop caring so much about other interests.

Granted, you may have thought you had interests more moving than bureaucracy. You may have thought that bureaucratic structures were actively disdainful of, or at least unconcerned with, a whole series of human possibilities that they push to the side and harm. Bureaucracy doesn’t help you think about why living matters. It doesn’t help when it comes to love, or intellectual or emotional intensity, and it certainly can’t help you think about dying, your dying or anybody’s, although it can help with the funding for those who have been left behind. It uses up land, it uses up resources, it uses up time, it’s very good at giving things to people who already have too many of those things. It’s not so good at revolutionary change or even significant small changes, although it talks about change constantly. It doesn’t help, and indeed often prevents, your ability to create anything, a song or a painting or a poem, that doesn’t have a use in bureaucracy, although maybe, in rare instances, if you’re lucky, your song or your painting or your poem may be counted by the bureaucracy as part of what the bureaucracy likes and promotes about itself.

But don’t forget about the positive things it gives you and others. Think about that salary and those benefits. Think about the lasting friendships you make at the office. Remember how many people would love to be in a situation like yours. Bureaucracy creates structure and opportunity for people who might not have those things otherwise, and sometimes it enables circumstances in which people genuinely help each other live better lives.

And remember, great potential lies in the fact that if the bureaucracy you work for is damaging the environment, or mistreating its workers, or maintaining an old system of hierarchies and prejudices, all things that bureaucracies usually do, that you can by working together with others develop your own alternative bureaucracies, or work with others in the bureaucracy for change from the inside. Those alternative bureaucracies, whether inside or outside the bureaucracy which they challenge, may damage the environment, mistreat workers, or maintain old systems significantly less. They often do important good and, in rare instances, even suggest ways of dealing with groups of others that aren’t bureaucracies at all.

As Althusser would have pointed out though, a question remains regarding how much such moments of genuine good are overwhelmed by bureaucracy’s central goal of supporting state power structures.

When it comes to learning, bureaucracy can give you a good education by teaching you about itself. Some bureaucracies can even give you an education about things that are not bureaucracy, although how well they do that remains debatable. Another debate, of course, is whether bureaucracy is being wasteful in educating you about things that are not bureaucracy. Some visions of bureaucracy imagine a future in which there’s nothing but bureaucracy and nothing to teach about but bureaucracy, and they imagine that future as good. They imagine that future as more full than ever of helpful vaccines.

At this time, there is no escaping the existence of large bureaucracies, the damages they do and the benefits they offer. You can work with the problem or try your best to wander off by yourself, maybe even with a few companions. You might even try to create your own bureaucracy or see how much you can do without one. You might even be able to keep an occasional bureaucracy from knowing your name. I wish you luck on the way.

Go ahead, try to write a poem about that.


Joseph said...

Well the Poetic Research Bureau is against the "crat" in "beureaucrat," which implies power or rule of some kind. We are instead bureau-crits.

Anonymous said...

Much of the potency of bureaucracy lies in the hands of internal militias who control quality, productivity, promotions, etc.

Be not afraid. In a relatively free environment it comes down to the people (not the structure), and they are becoming more and more educated-active as time goes on.

Howdy said...

I always thing of the chinese tests for cultural accomplishments for their diplomats / foreign bureaucracy minions -- they weren't so interested in cultural imperialism as in identifying people with a strong enough internal life to survive mind-numbing machinations of corporate/government positions (especially in isolated locales with bad weather); also how this was reversed during the cultural revolution

a different approach than russians with siberia and with the romans and their colonies