Red Tape Measures

Curator's Note

Critics have been denouncing “bureaucracy” for more than 250 years, since the word was first coined by the political economist Vincent de Gournay (who also gets credit for the maxim laissez-faire). Paperwork, as bureaucracy's most tangible instrument, makes for an especially easy target. These attacks have taken on a new sense of urgency as the forces of neoliberalism have pursued their war on regulation. “Have you seen the red ribbons on ads, cars, or as a big banner on the outside of the headquarters of the World Bank during the first week of December? It showed support for the global HIV/AIDS campaign. Other than for such limited purposes, red tape is rarely a positive contribution to anything,” we read on the World Bank's Doing Business blog. “One day, when there is a global movement against unnecessary red tape, another color must be chosen for a ribbon and it will show in magazines and cars, or maybe even hang as a big banner on the outside of buildings. Anyone who wants to jump start this global movement? I invite you to become creative and come up with a color that shows that unnecessary bureaucracy is not cool.”

This television commercial belongs to a paperwork-reduction campaign launched by the Belgian government in 2003 with support from Microsoft and KPMG. The campaign, with the evocative name KAFKA.BE, sought to simplify or eliminate the steps required for many ordinary government transactions, from registering births to obtaining handicapped-parking placards. Filmed in a bleak style reminiscent of Aki Kaurismaki, the commercial follows a disembodied arm around the streets of what I take to be Brussels, though it may well be some other city. Abandoned by its owner, the arm is finally reduced to prostituting itself: “Will masturbate for money (no fistfucking).” What kind of person would abandon his arm to this fate? We meet the owner in the final shot, a one-armed man in jeans and a tank top. He pauses for a moment, looks at his arm lying there on the street, and then continues on his way. His arm gives him the finger before finally collapsing in the gutter. The message: “Plus besoin d’avoir le bras long,” “no more need for the long arm,” from an idiomatic expression meaning to have connections or contacts. 

Such are the rhetorical extremes of rationalization. The KAFKA.BE logo promises “Strength through simplification” and shows a man incinerating documents in a wastepaper basket. But like a duck-rabbit, this is an image with more than one aspect: Look again to see a man huddled over a trash-can fire for warmth. We must remain aware of these multiple aspects of paperwork. It may inconvenience us, even torment us, but it is still our best protection against the depredations of the free market, against the loss of life and limb — and ecosystem — that are the inevitable consequences of deregulation.




Your linkage of the streetwalking arm and the homeless figure over the trashcan fire brings back for me the sense of irrational material loss implied in another idiomatic expression: "he cut off his nose to spite his face."  I'm not familiar enough with the context for the "long arm" phrase to know its currency, but it seems strange to me for this campaign to liken its goals to the voluntary amputation of one's right arm.  Since most people are right handed, this ad implies something about writing too.  Is one supposed to understand that bureaucracy has become so linked to (embodied) personhood that such an amputation becomes desirable? What gives strength in the wake of such simplification, the removal of the dominant arm? Thanks for this provocative set of images and against the grain rereadings.

Thanks, Jon, for your comments. Thanks also for your moving and insightful post yesterday — both the videos and the discussion will become part of the history-of-communication curriculum here at NYU.

I think you're absolutely right about the irrationality of this advertisement. Indeed, its success rests on the presumption that we'll identify with the arm's owner rather than with the arm itself, which seems odd, especially since we don't even encounter the owner until very end. It would probably be a mistake to read too much into this: it's most likely just shoddy construction...




I've always been struck by something popular attitudes towards bureaucracy that's contradictory on its face. On the one hand, we associate bureaucracy with impersonality, hyper-rational formalism, and the law, but also the arbitrary, even spiteful authority exercised by a petty officer. It's as if we've layered all 250 years of criticisms on top of each other, to the point where we imagine a centerless labyrinth that nevertheless has a little man inside of it, hiding behind all those layers. 

The two best histories of bureaucracy that I've read (which double as two of the best books on paper culture) -- Cornelia Vismann's Files and Joanne Yates's Control Through Communication -- make clear how much of an achievement the creation of modern bureaucracy has been, for all of its shortcomings. I'm going to talk about this a little bit more in my post for Friday, but the technology and protocols invented and standardized by nineteenth- and twentieth-century bureaucrats really are the foundation for what we recognize as digital technology today.

Looking around the site that you linked, Ben, I was struck by the contact page, where a rather commanding animated graphic depicts people stepping up to a microphone to voice their complaints about excessive bureaucracy. Below is what I'd consider a fairly bureaucratic form, the kind that asks for more information than I would think is strictly necessary. Technically, one is only required to fill in the complaint and to answer a question about storing and using the contact information provided (or not provided). But contrast this typed form--its questions about contact information and its request to store your information and contact you at some point in the future--with the animation at the top. Anonymous silhouettes gesturing frustration or crossing their arms step up to the mic and make graphic sound waves. The illusion of immediacy and power, even of anonymity, clashes with the media platform offered and raises questions about how to fight bureaucracy unbureaucratically.

Ben, that video is deeply disturbing.  And I'm trying to figure out why.  It's disturbing, yes, because there is an arm walking around the screen; and it's disturbing because of its sexualization (with a nice bureaucratic twist that contains its own conditional clause -- masturbating, but no fistfucking).  But I think it was ultimately so disturbing because it shows the length of just how difficult it is to represent bureaucracy, that bureaucracies are like embodiments of broken synechdoches -- the end of parts being able to stand for wholes.  There is a major symbolic crisis to bureaucracies -- and paperwork -- that that video taught me.  Paper can't represent itself.  It's like the public good (what bureaucracies are supposed to stand for in your reading) is the ultimate private secret.

Anyway, amazing post. Best, Andrew

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