Bureaucracy is Beautiful? Or Death by Papelismo

Bureaucratics-Jan BanningKyle Grayson’s Chasing Dragons pointed me to this extraordinary gallery of photographs called “Bureaucratics” by photographer Jan Banning. I recognized one of them (left): it graces the cover of Akhil Gupta’s new book Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India. My name for the rule of bureaucracy in Latin America is papelismo. I’ve definitely been in offices with teetering stacks of paper, but nothing like that captured by Banning in India or Yemen. His photos are beautiful, but bureaucracy? Not so much. Gupta and other scholars, e.g. Javier Auyero (Patients of the State: The Politics of Waiting in Argentina), make that much clear. Hannah Arendt defined bureaucracy as “rule by Nobody,” a form of government with such systematic unaccountability that she said it was “clearly the most tyrannical of all.”

My epic battles with my local phone company—I know, a small thing—certainly prove Arendt right (thanks Carlos Slim!). Maybe with Banning’s photos, I will be able to find some aesthetic solace and curiosity in the drab, fluorescent lights of the various bureaucratic spaces of my future.

Bannings photos are from all over the world. Just FYI: There’s a French bureaucrat with a trophy shelf of bongs in the corner of his office.  The ones from Potosí, Bolivia reminded me of the months I spent there as an undergrad doing research on the religious beliefs of the “self-employed” miners hollowing out what’s left of the infamous Cerro Rico. Apparently, Bolivia is one of the few (only?) places where posters on chagas disease, Simón Bolívar, the pope, and boobs can all adorn the same wall as you inquire about what other papers you’ll inevitably need to get, well, that other piece of paper you’re going to need. The work of people like Banning and Gupta make this life-crushing phenomenon incredibly interesting.

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