Forms of Bureaucracy

by editor John Raimo

What sorts of history does bureaucracy yield, and what might histories of bureaucracy itself look like? That the two questions remain distinct yet fall closely together emerged in the course of an excellent recent conference organized by Rosamund Johnston (New York University) and Veronika Pehe (European University Institute). Speakers for From Josef K to Lustration: Bureaucracy in Central Europe sought to move from case studies to broader definitions of bureaucracy or vice-versa even as they reflected upon historiographical and disciplinary challenges specific to the subject. Classical definitions from Max Weber, Georg Simmel, and others proved less a starting point than something to be challenged. A thematic organization of panels brought together a variety of regional and chronological expertise; the final conclusions were less simply heterogeneous than thrillingly suggestive of broader lines of common phenomena and historiographical challenges.

A panel dedicated to bureaucracy and the production of knowledge began the conference. Ana Sekulić (Princeton University) explored how Franciscan monasteries under Ottoman rule quickly mastered the intricacies of the imperial bureaucracy, even as the latter came to almost informally accommodate them with reference to questionable Ahidnâme charters. That is, overlapping competencies on both sides of an imperial divide gave way to something like a formalized détente, as in the case of exceptions made for monastic inheritance under Sharia law. Rachel Schaff (University of Minnesota) spoke on how postwar Czechoslovak bureaucracy created the genre of melodrama to categorize an important body of interwar films. Anachronistic discrepancies naturally followed even as the form of records prevented correction or, in a certain sense, a body of expertise to revise the record. Alina Popescu (University of Bucharest) took as her subject how Romanian censorship collapsed under its own weight both with its own increasing rigor and with widening autonomy from central authorities. Censoring institutions could be broken up and reconstituted as necessary under Nicolae Ceaușescu. In his comments, Jan Surman (Herder Institut Marburg) emphasized how closely archives would hew to the internal narratives of bureaucracy, and what challenges these posed for historians. Throughout the panel, one could trace the problem of how bureaucracies generate competing forms of expertise which in turn challenge the easy functioning of the system.

“Rethinking Images of Bureaucrats and Bureaucracy,” the second panel under Jiřina Šmejkalová (Prague College / Palacký University, Olomouc), moved from inner to outward workings of these offices and officials. Margarita Vaysman (St. Andrews University) looked to the popular author Aleksii Pisemskii who, drawing on his long civil service career, could mediate between his experience and public notions of bureaucracy. His role in forming a public ‘tradition’ of Russian bureaucracy to be criticized has been overlooked even as his sort of rhetoric towards the same came to be adopted across the political spectrum. The tensions between state teachers and the central educational authorities in late imperial Austria furnished the subject for Scott Moore (Eastern Connecticut State University), as the sheer distance between the metropole and country came to reflect operational challenges as much as ideological differences under the same rubrics of liberal progress. Alice Lovejoy (University of Minnesota) discussed the paradoxes linking bureaucratic sponsorship of cinematic avant-gardes. An interwar avant-garde notion of didacticism quickly became institutionalized after WWII in terms of personnel, funding, artistic form, and notions of an audience. At the same time, however, international associations of filmmakers fractured as the Iron Curtain fell across Europe, resulting in new artistic relations and antagonisms to bureaucracy.

Calling Mr. Smith (Stefan and Franciszka Thermerson, dir.; 1943), a wartime documentary on Nazi atrocities produced under the auspices of the Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation in London

As Felix Jeschke (Charles University) noted in his comments to a panel dedicated to bureaucrats and regime change, social upheavals directly affected the inner workings of bureaucracies more often than not. Ilya Afanasyev (University of Birmingham) discussed how a perennial lag between public, theoretical ideals of Bolshevik bureaucracy and its actual operations forced constant revisions to both sides of this equation. Marián Lóži (Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů) explored what he termed ‘regional Stalinist elites,’ the temporary layer of bureaucrats aiding in the transition to communist rule in Czechoslovakia from 1948-1952. Both as representatives as well as functionaries of a new system, these bureaucrats’ role necessarily proved transitory even as they embodied both the positive and negative effects of the new regime upon everyday life. Molly Pucci (Trinity College Dublin) went so far as to question to what degree Stalinism yielded new definitions of bureaucracy as opposed to classical definitions. Looking to biographical studies as much as distancing herself from the paradigms offered by secret police organizations, Pucci suggested that the instrumentalization afforded by the “machine of the party” (the rhetoric and structure of cogs and quotas), the “permanent purge” of personnel turnover, the structural ambiguities and redundancies attending hierarchies and authorities, and the complexity revealed by perpetrator studies resulted in something wholly new. And in an appropriate keynote speech to the first day’s proceedings, Ben Kafka (NYU) illustrated the psychological underpinnings of any individual interaction with bureaucracy, not least the phenomenon of a ‘still face’ both personalizing and depersonalizing the very lowest levels of contact.

Joanna Curtis (NYU), Mirjam Frank (Royal Holloway), and Tereza Willoughby (Hradec Králové) began the second day’s proceedings with a panel chaired by David Vaughan (Anglo-American University in Prague) on the subject of cultural bureaucracies. Looking to the postwar career of the Wiener Sängerknaben, Curtis showed how two myths of bureaucracy—the idea that it expresses rational impulses and that it fundamentally embodies irrationality—faltered in this instance of an institution falling between a humanistic embrace of music, fears of cultural imperialism at home and abroad, and a shambolic interior structure under strict state control. Frank continued the discussion of Austrian culture by moving to the interwar period and discussing how bureaucracies realizedvarious conceptual changes leading to the Ständestaat period. The cosmopolitanism of the Habsburg Empire was made to yield an ‘Austrian’ identity premised on the interior culture of the reduced nation in the fairs at the Prater; the genesis of a tourist industry in the Weiner Festwochen elided a movement from Volk to a public; and the Ständestaat eventually held ‘culture’ as a shield against geopolitics. Willoughby demonstrated something similar in terms of bureaucratic manipulation of popular culture, namely how an official and unofficial rhetoric of ranking artists survived in the Czech Republic after the transition from communist rule—even if the terms changed. In this sense, as Willoughby showed, bureaucratic inner workings of television simultaneously preserved not only a similar editorial structure but also an only slightly-modified notion of audience numbers guiding the programming choices.

Personnel and agents emerged as a running theme throughout the panels, appropriately leading to the “Bureaucracy Personified” panel chaired by Veronika Pehe. Mátyás Erdélyi (Central European University) looked to the life and career of Josef Körösy (1844-1906), the director of the Budapest Statistical office. Körösy’s work there over several decades demonstrates how the international networks girding national offices, professional training in medicine and law, and sheer problems of scale could open gaps and debates between different, supposedly parallel bureaucracies. Nguyen Vu Thuc Linh (European University Institute / Sciences Po) similarly focused upon Jacek Kuroń (1934-2004) and how the “immanent critique” of bureaucracy in his 1964 “Open Letter to the Party” and Polish reform communism helped yield the Polish dissident movement across generations. And in a tour-de-force of close-reading of police files, Muriel Blaive (Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů) showed how the tones, arguments, and vocabulary of the secret police in Communist Czechoslovakia allowed for pockets of agency on both sides of the state divide, with the basis of participation changing between generations of families, jealous wives, and lazy police officers caught in the midst of official forms and habitus-change.

A final panel on gaps in bureaucracy perfectly closed the conference. With Kafka chairing, Cristian Capotescu (University of Michigan) opened by suggesting that “bureaucratic blindspots” both followed from and further developed bureaucratic procedures, indeed startlingly so in the case of cross-border charitable ‘giving’ practices on the edges of communist Romania. In a lighter talk discussing his own experiences applying for a “Certificate of Slovak Living Abroad,” Charles Sabatos (Yeditepe University) showed the relative complexities of the term ‘národnost’ or nationality as they emerge in the retrospective projection of the term backwards in Slovakian bureaucracy today. Whether politicized or not in the wake of 1989, bureaucracies did not necessarily become simpler or uniform with the advent of the European Union, and Sabatos’ case suggests that indeed inefficiencies might be the true purpose of many offices. And finally, conference organizer Rosamund Johnston (NYU) presented her ongoing research into the history of Czech Radio. Moving between the extant archives and the period practices—technological, material, and human—of radio production, Johnston documented how Czech Radio produced its own idiosyncratic variations of bureaucracy filled with lacunae, parallel hierarchies, specific forms of record-keeping, and traces of history. Layers of bureaucracy both occluded and preserved characteristic gaps calling for further reconstruction. Her case studies suggested how much further historiography can and should go in order to ‘fill in’ these holes.

Excerpts from Postava k podpírání (Pavel Juráček and Jan Schmidt, dir.; 1963)

The conference ended on an artistic note. Pavel Juráček’s film Joseph Kilian (Postava k podpírání; 1963) was shown before a guided tour of linked art installations by students from the Center for Audio Visual Studies (CAS) at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU). Juráček’s script is darkly comical, dedicated to the travails of a man trying to return a rented cat (…) to avoid late fees when the business wholly disappears. A sort of collective solidarity gradually emerges in the face of grinding state and official absurdity; an almost gentle sense of sympathy emerges among the menace. The work of the CAS and FAMU students under Eric Rosenzveig’s guidance followed in much the same vein. The very impersonality of bureaucracy could be seen to allow certain forms of disinterested critique— humorous and edged with a greater sense of historical distance. What both the film and the artworks allowed viewers to understand is how tightly the personal experience of bureaucracy remains tied to particular aesthetic forms, images, and genres; this heritage of paperwork and incomprehension naturally survives until today.


Listening in to art by FAMU and CAS students (courtesy of Rosamund Johnston)

It reflects no small credit to the conference organizers that the proceedings both proved interesting and exploratory. Participants’ willingness to conceive of bureaucracy in terms other than those of Weber’s classical definitions—not to mention period or retrospective notions of secret police workings—opened up further avenues of research in terms both of a longue durée across eastern and central European history and of cultural exchanges and differences between east and west. The slow churn of paperwork may exhibit an unchanging face at first glance, but each case study of glacial bureaucratic rigor mortis yields considerable evidence of change behind the scenes.

The larger question hovering over the conference might be more bluntly termed. Did a particularly eastern and, later, a particularly Soviet form of bureaucracy emerge apart from any larger ideas about modernity? Here a tendency of many speakers to focus upon the Stalinist and postwar era suggested immediate problems of continuity. Did different degrees of internationalization (carried out from before and after WWII) characterize Austria and countries further to the east? That is, did competing models of bureaucracy and management exist—Soviet, American, Ottoman, Prussian, Habsburg, and so forth? And what might be said about the direction of causality between technology and organization? Despite what one might expect to find interesting, here a closer attention to the nitty-gritty, ground-level office forms, official rhetoric, and specific archival gaps proved most promising in terms of challenging old definitions and making clear the need for interdisciplinary research. Sociology, anthropology, media studies, cybernetics, historical epistemology, art history, architecture, law, and psychology to name but a few fields would all find work to do alongside more strictly historical research. One might be forgiven for presuming all this to be terribly boring. Yet seeing how the boring, frustrating, labyrinthine, and commonplace were specific, timely constructions—how they mediated social relations as much as experiences people had when encountering different state powers—draws back a curtain on the innermost workings of history.

From Josef K to Lustration: Bureaucracy in Central Europe (23-24 February 2017) was supported by NYU Prague, the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, NYU Global Research Initiatives, and NYU Center for European and Mediterranean Studies. The author thanks the conference organizers for the invitation to attend and report on the proceedings.

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