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Archive for March 4th, 2009

the bureaucratic sublime

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From Alexander Provan’s review of a group of works on and by Kafka in The Nation:

At the fin de siècle, the state bureaucracy already held considerable sway over people’s lives and selves, and Kafka wrote from the center of the age’s contradictions and anxieties. When he assumed his position at the Insurance Institute in 1908, after having spent a dismal year in the employ of Assicurazioni Generali, an Italian insurer, the Dual Monarchy was groaning under a superabundance of paperwork. Legislation enacted in the 1880s had ushered in the European welfare state, and its administration required a massive expansion and modernization of the notoriously sclerotic royal bureaucracy. By the turn of the century, district authorities were processing four times more paperwork than they had been twenty years earlier; the empire was “being suffocated by files and drowning in ink,” wrote the governor of Lower Austria. Meanwhile, the arcane official idiom had become so divorced from vernacular German that the bureaucrats and their charges could hardly communicate. One imagines a cadre of clerks madly dashing off reports and edicts, which would be inevitably eclipsed by newer documents before they arrived at the appropriate filing facility. In Kafka’s last, unfinished novel, The Castle, this flood of imperial documents has so overwhelmed the citadel that the living rooms of village homes have been turned into storage annexes.

I wish I had time to do the reading that I’d like to do in order to make the point that I’d like to make. But for now: it is important – when dealing with Kafka, modernism in general, and modernity in general – to remember that the alternative to bureaucracy isn’t necessarily free and easy human contact and everything working very smoothly indeed. Rather, the alternative, both historically and often enough at present day, is the efficiency of hierarchical fiat.

For in its most neutral sense, and under forseeable conditions (anarchist utopias where you simply take as many apples as you like from the big barrel notwithstanding), there is no distribution of public benefit without bureaucracy. If there will be free health care and subsidized education, there will be forms to fill out, boxes to check. There are ways to run a society without forms – the gentlemanly handshake, the emperor’s thumbup or thumbdown. I’m sure there are people who get into Harvard from time to time without filling out an application, just as there are doctors you can see who will bill you later. The welfare state is a state run on ticked boxes and eligibility criteria. This is not to say that the pejorative usage of the word bureacratic is unjust. Bureaucracy is in fact often enough used to inhibit the distribution of benefits by setting up obstacles for those who would obtain them to negotiate, as I’m sure just about anyone who has filed for unemployment benefits in the USA or UK could easily testify. But this fact – the way bureaucracy is put to work in neoliberal societies by those who would deprive citizens of their rights – should not distract us from the bigger picture.

In this light, take a look at IT’s excellent post on the RAE and the goalpost-shifting that’s perhaps about to happen. The RAE is perhaps the most maligned element of bureaucratic governance in the UK system of higher education. But if I might play the helpful American for a second or two, it’s worth remembering that for all the grumbling that we do (“we” being now UK academics – I wear a lot of hats) that, in the eyes of someone who comes from the states, the RAE seems like a potentially highly progressive manifestation of bureaucratic rationality. We can see in IT’s post just why the word potentially is in the previous sentence and why I’ve italicized it.

But the Americans out there can second this if they like. If we had a system of academic finance distrubution that held even the slightest possibility that if, say, SUNY Stony Brook outperformed Columbia during a given period, that SUNY Stony Brook would swipe some funds away from Columbia’s pot…. Well, that might change some equations around a bit. And if the system were weighted to reward good work against the odds and to draw some cash away from well-endowed but underperforming institutions…. well, we’d still be simulating “market” logic, but one could deal with that if the simulation was jiggered to be fair, given the unlikeliness of any true equality in university funding of the “nationalize Harvard and spread its endowment from sea to shining sea) model….

But, yeah, a potentially fair RAE might look like the one that just took place, but whose findings were then duely acted upon rather than burying them in shoulder slaps for the old boys and vague ramblings about “our current crisis….”

Anyway, back to bureaucracy in general:

I’ve attended private universities in the US, and I’ve worked at public or publically-funded universities in the US and the UK. And I can assure you, with a few notorious exceptions (looking at you, again, Columbia!), there’s lots and lots more paperwork and general bureaucratic overhead involved with every single thing that happens, from the changing of the title of a course to the admission of Ph.D. students at publically funded institutions. There are days when my life feels like it is dissolving into a mass of papers on my desk. And I resent it – you have no idea how much I resent it.

But the reason why I resent it is because I am a little bit of a snot with a few not totally healthy memories of life at extremely-well endowed private institutions, where if the right person wanted something done, it was simply done without all that much paperwork, all that much meeting and voting and squabbling and oversight. I will admit that there are times when I envy the working life at institutions like the ones I attended.

But of course, of course, there’s a distinct and clear dark side to this sort of efficiency. It’s country cousins with the darkside that goes by the parabolic abbreviation make the trains run on time. With the smoothness and humaneness of response comes often enough a lapse into nepotism of the worst sort, the hiring of friends and lovers and the lovers of friends, picking from the visible top of the heap (and we know who gets to be visible) and that sort of thing.

At the place where I used to work, when the department decided to hire someone, there was this hoop that we had to jump through called something like Affirmative Action Review. Now, the purpose of this review wasn’t expressly to force us to hire black candidates rather than white ones, or women rather than men. It often felt like a mostly useless paperchase involving interaction with some office or other in the adminstrative building, all of which generally came to ratifying the choice we’d already as a department made.

But there was a logic to it. I didn’t get it at first, but I had one colleague (who happened to be the single Marxist instigator, you know the sort) who incessant raised the point of the affirmative action procedures when we were tempted to play fast and loose with them by, say, not running a proper job advertisement, not interviewing several candidates for a position, or not putting a potential spousal hire through the full ordeal of the interviewing process.

As I said, I didn’t really get the point of the procedures that I’ve just listed at first, but he explained it all to me once so clearly that I never wondered about them again. The point is this. The AA protocol doesn’t ensure that we would hire, say, a black candidate for a job. What it does work toward ensuring is that we don’t fall victim to the temptation to hire intelligent friends,  to hire spouses and partners and lovers, even if they are talented and seem on the surface to be an obvious choice for the job. We might in the end end up hiring them anyway, once the full search has been completed…. or we might just hire someone else who’s astoundingly excellent when given the chance (I’ve seen this happen. Shit, I’ve made this happen. Just ask around my old school… Was amazing, I was….) Our friends and lovers tend to be similar to us in background, just by mandate of biographic probability. (If I had had to marry one of my grad school classmates, the odds were something like 5-1 that I’d have married a woman that went to a posh undergraduate school just like me, was white just like me, came out of similar socio-economic bracket as me, and so on and so on…) We had Stanford grads around, and without due diligence we’d likely have been experiencing a fall harvest of Stanford-types every year etc etc.

Perhaps I’m overplaying the point. Perhaps I’m just trying to tell myself something like rather than grumble about the paperwork that’s waiting for you on your office desk, that you’ll have to go in early and spend an hour filling in tomorrow morning, shut up and realize that sometimes the bureaucratic stuff has its purpose. And that, in fact, if society were the way you’d have it in the haziest vision of what it actually might best be, you’d likely be doing more and more paperwork, endless paperwork that would take the place of the easier “Oh, that’s a good school! Let’s let her in!” which is the worst thing in the world, really….

In short, and again absent the arrival of the anarchist utopia that is in equal parts a lovely idea and unlikely to work properly, I will content myself with fantasizing about a world in which I visit an office to apply for my housing, I fill out a form to apply for my shitty constructivist computer (as they would be hard to get, given the equal access that those currently without access would have to them – schoolkids in Ghana before the overly-pensive in London), I wait my turn for my subsidized vacation somewhere, and I hand in my dated vouchers to get me some food at post-Tesco. So long as all this pain-in-the-assery meant that I didn’t get to step to the front of the line because I carry American Express, so long as the bureaucratic hoops meant that we were all getting our fair share, so long as paperwork replaces class-privilege, it is a worthy dream to replace the ones that I currently am having about lost cats and the like…

Let’s hope the funders-that-be sit down and their desks and go through the numbers properly and give Roehampton its due. They’ve got some good fucking researchers over there, let me tell you. And from what I hear, worthy students too.

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March 4, 2009 at 12:15 am