Bureaucracies rarely make sense. The rules and regulations that we face every day are too numerous to list. Such matters have seeped into the way of life, and as such, they are imperceptible. They’ve evolved and bonded to human consciousness. A free person tries to avoid bureaucracies, and being face-to-face with a bureaucrat is akin to standing in the presence of a fleshy automaton.
In his collection of essays, The Curtain, Milan Kundera reflects on this strange and unwelcomed bonding between bureaucracy and human mind. The intricacies of the bureaucratic world lead to madness, and “the bureaucracy has infiltrated the whole tissue of life.” Kundera quotes Franz Kafka’s The Castle: “Never till now, anywhere, had K. seen the administration and life so thoroughly enmeshed that it sometimes seemed that the administration and life had changed places.”
Life’s made of shapeshifting, insignificant, immeasurable measures. Any bureaucracy thrives on confusion and contradiction. Man, by nature, can exhibit and experience a series of metaphysical contradictions, but they’re not impositions from a system but questions that arise from his interiority. Man’s interior life is synonymous with soul, and his “home” is built on this foundation. But what happens to various spheres of life when that essential interiority is violated, totalized (to use Emmanuel Levinas’ thought), and denied?
Once again reflecting on Kafka’s The Castle and the main protagonist, K., Kundera notes that the concepts of freedom, private life, and time are affected by the bureaucrat’s invisible fist. “What can a citizen,” writes Kundera, “with all his rights, change about the immediate environment… no one means to stop K. from making love to Frieda… still, the eyes of the Castle follow K. everywhere, and his couplings are meticulously observed and noted; the two assistants assigned him are with him for that purpose.” (We see the same behavior in Florian Henckel von Donnersmark’s 2006 film, The Lives of Others.)
The citizens’ rights are merely symbolic, and they can’t be used or implemented in any way. Law means nothing, and if there’s such a thing at all, it only exists to provide protection for the administrative state and class. It’s 2023, and by now, it should be obvious to everyone that the United States is experiencing a very bureaucratic state of affairs—a rootless place in which humans don’t exist. However, their suffering does.
A face-to-face relation isn’t only about humanizing the other but about evaluating whether such a relation will result in a “duel,” conflict, or something more noble, like dignity. Kundera writes, “Well, these days we are confronting not one another but administrations, whose life knows neither youth, nor age, nor fatigue, nor death, and occurs outside of human time: man and administration experience two different times.” This is why the language of a human being and that of a bureaucrat will never be compatible or translatable.
Technological intrusions and advances have made matters worse. Tech gurus like to talk about “streamlining” every life process in the vein of “there’s an app for that,” but what exactly are they streamlining? Certainly not a better experience for the “users” of the technology. The bureaucracy has only multiplied, and just like Kafka’s observation of the world around him, it only benefits bureaucrats themselves.
In our case, however, the current overwhelming nature of technological bureaucracy is only benefiting bureaucracy itself. No one has control exactly because of the burdensome automated states of non-being. It’s impossible to comprehend the vastness of the bureaucratic state. Man desires to know and to untangle the puzzles of his mind. This desire is then extended into the possibility of knowledge in regards to the bureaucracy but such knowledge is impossible to attain. Since there’s no knowledge and no accountability, how can a citizen seek justice?
There are, however, cracks in the bureaucratic screen. Nothing runs that smoothly, especially any given bureaucracy. A bureaucrat may successfully fatigue a person to the point of dehumanization but I’m inclined to say that a complete disappearance of the human soul is absolutely impossible. A soul can get exhausted, even drained, but totalizing bureaucracy doesn’t have the last word. Even in death, it’s the soul that lives on, and not dossiers that detail the private lives of others.
As for our immediate technological totalizations and seemingly creative bureaucracies that we see through market, social media, and advertising, there’s one piece of advice from Michel Houellebecq that rings true: have a “cold revolution…You just need to stop participating, to stop knowing; to temporarily suspend all mental activity. You literally just need to stay still for a few seconds.” In a way, we need to reclaim time from the bureaucracies that thrive on rejection of history, both personal and collective. To reclaim time is to reclaim human consciousness and the possibility of freedom.