frustration of rules…
So briefly before I get interrupted or distracted:
I’ve been working for over a year now in a job funded by the DCLG and organised from within the Council in Sheffield. The job Has the Title of “Learning Champion”. Much now to my own frustration (in retrospect – the worst of all points of view) I’ve failed to write down any sort of account of the process I’ve been going through. The processes I’ve been through. The processes I’ve put other people through. The structures I’ve encountered. The individuals, organisations, frustrations, successes. I’ve made notes of nothing and I’m left with nothing. It’s been overall a humiliating experience for me. I’ve come to this point with little pride in what I’ve been doing and an almost forgetful lack of ability to defend myself even to myself. I suppose I should at least have some sort of sidelong smile to myself at having become the bad boy of the situation. But it’s a very wry grimace if anything. In fact these are just mumbling words coming out because I’m so cross with myself for not having written things down. I learned during the year in France that in order to make sense of the way I do things they have to be accompanied by text. Text like some sort of scratching on the wall. If nothing else a very rough mnemonic for a set of emotions. It really makes me sigh to realise that I’ve not done this. I don’t allow myself to take the blame for it entirely. Actually what has happened is that I’ve entered into a system towards which I have an immense critique already existent before I started. Into which I entered with an open spirit and felt a certain freedom. Within which I was trapped. Within which I became the prisoner. And for which I have taken the blame and find it extraordinarily easy to blame myself. But I know that I’m not to blame. In fact, if I had “done the job well”, if I’d “done the job properly” then I might actually be more at fault than I am by not having done it particularly effectively at all from the perspective of my employers and colleagues.
It’s always a matter of finding the time to write. A matter of what to write as knowledge becomes increasingly personal. And here the obvious missing element of writing about myself. Anyway. Enough of this for now.
Paper pushing. Pen pushing. That’s what I found myself doing recently and that’s what I observe most of my colleagues doing. It really is quite astounding the extent to which this sort of work is about keeping pieces of paper in some sort of coherent order. In an order that is based purely on demonstrating the utility of paying someone to gather together the bits of paper to prove the utility of paying someone to gather together the bits of paper. Actual affect in the world outside – from which the money is drawn and where the supposed beneficiaries live – is so marginally consequent.
About a year ago it must’ve been, I was asked to take some photographs at a Learners Award Ceremony. My nasty internal cynicism expected somehow something false. But I experienced the event, on an emotional level at the time, with immense positivity. A number of learners were awarded for their involvement in a particular learning enterprise. They were moved and I was moved along with them. Yet at the same time I saw that the relationship between that staged a moment of “receiving an award”, and the process that has led up to this (the very learning enterprise within which I am being employed) was entirely invisible as nobody would tell the truth (such as it is).
Nobody would become a whistleblower.
Especially blowing a whistle on something that seems to have both been handknitted and practically be on the level of punishing small children.
I mean something that’s pointlessly innocent.
So it’s about pushing paper and pushing pens. Collecting statistics and refusing to think. About gathering central funding to maintain the life of an organisation and that being the priority.
Before starting this job one of my concerns (no longer a concern but a reality as I discovered at there is genuinely an anti-intellectualism a large) was that work with the Roma always depended on problematising the Roma. That money derived in order to deal with the perceived Roma problem required there to be a problem. And I found myself in precisely that circumstance. I am caught in that cycle. I live from the Roma problem. I’m expected to contribute to solving that problem. The fact that I don’t perceive a problem is not relevant. That I perceive the problem to be mine as much as it is anybody else’s is not relevant. Thought processes generated during this period of work for the council are only relevant where they might produce further funding. It’s a horrible nasty tunnel with the only light at the end being leaving the tunnel. Getting out at the next station. But then when I look back I’d have to go back through the tunnel to undo the work. I should have got out before the tunnel shouldn’t I. Anyhow confused metaphors aside I’m feeling horribly trapped.
So with all this on my mind (and thanks by the way to Dave V for also being rather a light in the dark to me these days) it was without any thought other than what is the point in books (!) that I went into a bookshop with Kaius in Penzance on Saturday last. It’s an independent bookshop and always a treat, of sorts, to look around and choose a book. Rather long winded explanations always ensue concerning the history of bookshops which are more or less entertaining depending on the child and their humour. Anyhow in this instance a peaceful selection of an overpriced spin-off from Harry Potter left Kaius content and I filled in the time looking at some shelves of books not expecting to wish to buy anything. It’s hard for me to ever buy a book anymore because I can’t stand buying things I don’t read any longer.
The days of enjoying a book for being a book are fortunately well spent and have left me in debt to literature and little else. But my eyes alighted on a book called “The Utopia of Rules” by David Graeber. Now I’d heard this name before and I had an old suspicion associated with it: namely I’d met someone with a similar name at an anthropology conference about 10 years ago and had not been taken with what they said and allowed myself to indulge in a jealous confusion between the two. That’s a very typical mean-spirited thought process with which I occupy my private hours. But I also knew that this was not the same person and so I picked the book up, having little else to do and flicked through the pages to find myself immediately interested. It has word Utopia. I’ve fiddled around with that have I not here and there. And then I quickly found a central theme of the book focused around bureaucracy. Max Weber shouted at me from the past: Oi you! Really you thought that bureaucracy was over just because I was dead you fool. So the book tickled my jealousy but also grabbed my interest. I thought about buying it even. I glanced around back page and flicked through the inner pages, I picked up that someone thought is work called to mind Zizek. That put me off even more. Who the hell. But I was there to buy a book. For my son. Why not for me so I did. And started to read it. I’m actually enjoying it. Can’t think of when I last enjoyed reading a book. Actually it saying something find interesting. And that’s a real great painful pity that I find so little that interests me. It’s purely a description of my own stupidity. My own increasing concrete brained daft thickness.
The point is however encapsulated in the following quote:
”Such institutions always create a culture of complicity. It’s not just that some people get to break the rules – it’s that loyalty to the organisation is to some degree measured by one’s willingness to pretend this isn’t happening. And insofar as bureaucratic logic is extended to the society as a whole, all of us start playing along.”
The Utopia of Rules
Graeber, 2016, p.26
And the book continues in the same vein much to my pleasure. I have problems with the thesis, the same sorts of issues that I had with Foucault: there is a certain self-serving imaginary that something new is taking place (or being observed) rather than a repetition. The notion that there is an immense bureaucratisation of daily life, and imposition of impersonal rules and regulations which only operate if backed up by the threat of force is beautifully described but it’s also a description of a similar control exerted by mediaeval Christianity, by the Papacy. By the bureaucratic (and militaristic with which Graeber would agree) controls exerted by the Kublai Khan as written about by Marco Polo (the other book I’m reading the moment-a lovely gift from my friend Ben Graves). My critique of Foucault was similar in the sense that I also saw Foucault as having discovered something beautiful that was already the case. Now from the perspective of Zizek’s notion of the event – it is precisely the ability of the event to redraw the circumstances of its own emergence that make it into an event. Therefore my criticism of Foucault: that disciplinary processes have always been enacted for example, only exist due to the event of Foucault’s realignment of the past. Zizek writes or says somewhere a phrase that’s really beautiful, something like the following:
“It’s impossible to change the future and perhaps the only possibility we have is to change the past.”
So that’s perhaps a lovely element of this piece of work and reading by Graeber, and a great compliment to the work, that it allows me to develop a criticism of itself in its own terms. So that’s one issue with the work (entirely justified by my enjoyment of the manner of expression), the essential idea that bureaucratisation has continually increased precisely through those processes which have vilified its progression. This in itself is a very Zizek derived conception from my perspective: the simple idea that the answer to a problem sits within the way the problem is asked. In this instance that the absolute denial of bureaucracy is the process through which it increases.
There are other delightful derivations from Zizek’s thinking. Graeber may well hate me for writing about his work in this way. I’ve picked up that there is some sort of spat between Zizek and Graeber through Twitter and other social media or more extended discursive formats.
“The “self-actualisation” philosophy from which most of this new bureaucratic language emerged insists that we live in a timeless present, that history means nothing, that we simply create the world around us through the power of the will. This is a kind of individualistic fascism.”
Graeber, 2016, p.36
This I obviously relate to the (from my perspective magnificent) critique of the emergence but the emergence of Buddhism, mindfulness, the final Conservative sedimentation of 1960s personal freedom liberalism that has been so refreshing in Zizek’s writing. Graeber takes it on really effectively.
As he does with all sorts of themes. Particularly in the context of this piece of writing by me he develops a picture of bureaucratisation -there is a danger which he has yet to address of vilification of the bureaucrat- as entirely self-serving as I rant a little about above. His theme is that there is a coincidence between the military, commercial, financial, state, Social Security all of which are bureaucratic processes topped with this thick and artificial cream of financial rationalism which suffocates everything else below. It is this eventual servility owed to proportional financial care which leads to a situation where:
“All rich countries now employ legions of functionaries whose primary function is to make poor people feel bad about themselves.”
Graeber, 2016, p.41
So that stops this piece of writing for now.