Think Piece

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.

Think Piece

Conciliar Conversations

By Madeline McMahon

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Canones & Decreta sacrosancti…Concilij Tridentini (1564)

Canons and decrees are like the conference proceedings of church councils—polished, authoritative, and reflective of conversations, formal and informal, that nevertheless are often elided in the process of editing. As a meeting place for theologians, historians, and ecclesiastical authorities, the church council is an obvious site for intellectual history. Yet it can be tricky to chart that history, to disentangle the individual voices that contributed to the definitive, disembodied statements uttered by “the holy council” (mandat sancta synodus). After the Council of Trent ended in 1563, for instance, its decrees were published across the Catholic world. Revisions of liturgical texts—the missal and the breviary—soon followed in accordance with those decrees. So did a new catechism, a revised Vulgate, and the Index of prohibited books. These publications took on lives of their own as they were further revised, and, in some cases, revered or reviled. Yet what about the records from the council that did not get published? How can we recover the conversations that eventually became canons?

Sometimes we get a sense of the discussion from eavesdroppers. In 1416, the humanist Poggio Bracciolini attended the public hearing of the Hussite Jerome of Prague at the Council of Constance (1414 – 1418). In a letter to Leonardo Aretino, Poggio described how he listened, captivated, to “the eloquence and learning of the defendant.” Poggio quoted Jerome’s indignation at not being allowed to give a general defense speech rather than respond to each accusation one at a time. But it may be more accurate to say that the humanist, like a good classical historian, put words into his subject’s mouth. At one point, like a Cicero redivivus, Jerome exclaims to the ecclesiastics assembled, “O conscript fathers!” (patres conscripti). Compared with a quasi-official transcription from the council, Jerome incriminates himself far less in Poggio’s account (Renee Neu Watkins, “The Death of Jerome of Prague: Divergent Views,” 107). Yet Poggio also inserts specific readings of church fathers as well as the style of pagan orators into Jerome’s recorded speeches, suggesting, for example, that Jerome and Augustine had disagreed and that this was an argument for religious toleration (ibid., 108). Poggio’s depiction of Jerome’s stance thus differed substantially from the Hussite’s own. As Renee Neu Watkins put it, Jerome “believed…that he and Hus alone stood for the one just cause, the cause of the Church. Poggio suggests that eloquentia—that is, the classical moral tradition—offers another standard of justice” (120). This recorded conversation thus tells us as much about Poggio’s views as about Jerome’s.

Reading as well as speech feature in reports recording the 1529 Marburg Colloquy between Luther, Zwingli, and other Protestant reformers. Unlike the finished Articles, which stress the theologians’ agreement, an anonymous report begins with Luther acknowledging that in their “published pamphlets…they disagree” on important doctrinal issues and that he had even discovered by letter that “some Strassburgers” were saying that the fourth-century heretic Arius had taught more correctly on the Trinity than Augustine (“Anonymous Report,” trans. David Luebke 2). In addition to getting a sense of the earlier debate in print and rumors of theological contention on the street, these reports let us overhear an exegetical debate about the Eucharist at the colloquy itself. When arguing over the meaning of “this is my body,” Jesus’s words at the last supper, Zwingli demanded to know why Luther wants to understand the words literally. Oecolampadius, in support of Zwingli, cited Augustine’s exegesis of John’s gospel “that the body of Christ in which he rose must be in one place.” Luther, in turn, rejected the applicability of Oecolampadius’s reading to “this is my body”: “I say to this passage from Augustine…that it has nothing to do with the Lord’s Supper” (Heinrich Utinger report, Luebke, 13). The reports show the work of reading and discussion being done, while the Marburg Articles merely reference the friendly state of aporia the group reached: “at this time, we have not reached an agreement as to whether the true body and blood of Christ are bodily present in the bread and wine, nevertheless, each side should show Christian love to the other” (ibid., 17).

Pasquale Cati, Council of Trent (1588 painting in Santa Maria in Trastevere). Behind the allegory with the Church personified are a number of smaller discussions.

Like Heinrich Utinger’s report at Marburg, Gabriele Paleotti’s diary of the last two years of the Council of Trent, the Acta concilii Tridentini, is a semi-official account. Paleotti, a forty-year old judge at the Roman Rota, was sent to the council without voting power (Hubert Jedin, Das Konzil von Trient, 37). Joining the ranks of a number of other recorders, he kept eight notebooks on the final eight sessions, from January 15, 1562 to December 4, 1563 (ibid.). His Acta are immense—they take up over five hundred folio pages in the modern edition (Concilium Tridentinum…Collectio, III.233 ff.). His entries provide a glimpse of heated arguments between intellectuals of various national and linguistic backgrounds and theological and political convictions. The French delegates, for example, arrived even later than Paleotti, in November 1562; Paleotti’s diary depicts the crucial intervention of Charles De Guise, cardinal of Lorraine, on issues such as images and relics.

Another issue that occupied the Tridentine reformers in the final months was the appointment of bishops. Even before De Guise’s arrival, the French cardinal was rumored to believe “crazy things” about bishops—that they should be elected to office (Sebastiano Gualterio, quoted in Robert Trisco, “The Debate on the Election of Bishops in the Council of Trent” 262). In France and in much of Catholic Europe, rulers had often been granted the right to nominate successors to vacant sees in their territories. De Guise himself had been royally named an archbishop at the tender age of thirteen when his uncle, the previous archbishop of Reims, resigned (Trisco, 261). Yet on May 13, 1563, he stood before the council and argued that “election by the clergy took place according to the most ancient law out of the traditions of the apostles, although the confirmation was done by archbishops” (Paleotti, III.612, my translation). It was “absurd that even women, as in England and Scotland, who can neither teach nor speak in a church, nominate as bishops whomever they want” (III.613, my translation). (It is worth pointing out that the regent of France at this point, the ruler who had sent De Guise and his fellow French bishops to Trent, was Catherine de’ Medici.) To protect the church from the decisions of incompetent monarchs—whether minors or women—De Guise advocated for a return “to the form of the ancient church” (ibid.). Others immediately balked: “when the emperor, kings, and every commonwealth submitted to the decrees of this holy council,” that would be safeguard enough—as well as their due reward for the political support that the council needed (III.617).

The ultimate decision, delayed until November 1563, was to maintain the status quo but to impose higher standards: “Without wishing to change any arrangements at the present time, the council exhorts and charges all who have any right under any title from the apostolic see in the appointment of prelates, or assist the process in any way, to have as their first consideration that they can do nothing more conducive to the glory of God and the salvation of the people than to have every concern to appoint good shepherds who are fitted to guide the church” (ed. Tanner II.760). The tentative language hints at the contested nature of the decree—and the way in which the conversation developed to articulate what an ideal bishop should be like. Years later, when Paleotti was a bishop, he worked to revise his Acta of the council for publication. Such a publication would have been a kind of contemporary church history. But the changing and contested reception of Trent made it difficult, even impossible, to publish notebooks like Paleotti’s (Jedin, 39). The fluidity behind the final decrees was obscured, left for us to reconstruct from the letters, notes, and other records for an intellectual history of church councils.