Bureaucracy: Resisting


Resistance to the systematizing drive of bureaucracy comes in many shapes; its traces can be seen in forms filled out incompletely or overabundantly, documents crumpled up in a ball, reference books dismantled or never finished, and catalogues amended or corrected with manuscript notes. Beyond resistance that comes with use, some printed objects are designed and produced with the specific purpose of contesting the work of bureaucracy and exposing its more pernicious tendencies. Illegible dictionaries, fantastical encyclopedias, philosophical satires and bureaucratic fictions—these works draw attention to the way bureaucracy homogenizes, oppresses, and eventually destroys the people and things caught in its web.

Codex Seraphinianus

It has been categorized as one of the strangest books ever published. A nonsensical art book with a surrealist vision. Grotesque, yet disturbingly beautiful, it commands a mix of wonder, awe and frustration. Originally published in two volumes by the Italian publisher Franco Maria Ricci in 1981, Codex Seraphinianus is an illustrated encyclopedia of an imaginary world, conceived and created by artist and designer Luigi Serafini (1949-) between 1976 and 1978. The copy of the Codex acquired by UNT is a facsimile reprint of the original, published as part of a 1993 single-volume edition. It is labeled copy #2159 of 5000, comprises 250 hand-made pages, and is bound in Ricci’s trademark black silk with gold gilt lettering on the cover and spine. Reissued in both the US and Italy, the book has gained wide recognition for its use of asemic (or non-semantic) writing and its depiction of bizarre and fantastical flora, fauna, anatomies, technologies, fashions and architectures.

In an interview with Wired magazine in 2013, Serafini said he wanted to “convey to the reader…the sensation that children feel in front of books they cannot yet understand.” Although there have been many attempts to translate the Codex, it has thus far resisted efforts to decipher its language and meaning. Jeff Stanley’s recent M.A. thesis examined the Codex using computer-assisted decipherment, and his conclusions support Serafini’s statements that the “language” is artistic, not linguistic. Following statements made in the book itself, some have speculated that Codex—created in the late 1970s when coding and decoding messages had become important across numerous academic fields, including genetics, computer science and literary criticism—represents a creative vision at the precipice of the Information Age (Davies). Today, as communication and information technologies multiply, the allure of Serafini’s work continues to grow. Decades after its initial publication, opinions remain divided over the asemic language of the Codex: is it a code meant to be deciphered, a meaningless jumble of signs, or perhaps entirely visual, meant to be “read” as a sequence of images?

The continued fascination with the Codex may stem from its combination of a rigid structure borrowed from the encyclopedia and illustrations that defy conventional classifications. The book is organized like many nineteenth and twentieth-century encyclopedias: there are eleven separate sections that, in spite of the impossibility of reading the texts, have evident topical coherence. The first section illustrates various types of flora, from eccentric flowers to trees that uproot themselves, migrate, and split in half to reveal an avocado-like structure. The second section transitions into fauna, depicting a bestiary of more ‘real world’ animals as well as one of fantastical creatures that appear to be made up of human body parts. From here the book moves through sections vaguely resembling physics, chemistry, meteorology, anthropology, biology, architecture, and so on. Although the Codex employs the organizational principles of an encyclopedia, its fantastical illustrations encourage imaginative play that actively confounds the systemization of knowledge characteristic of the genre.

A common theme in the illustrations is the idea of layers: as layers are peeled back from different creatures, new beings come into view. There is an image of a hippopotamus in which a human is pulling back the skin from its backside to reveal another, smaller hippopotamus beneath, emerging from the first’s skin. There are multiple images that show how the bureaucratic systems that seek to hold our inner animals in check fail as animals break forth from human bodies or humans turn into animals. In later sections, another related theme emerges: the integration of human and machine. A soldier is revealed to have an arm that ends with a gun instead of a hand. A writer’s arm ends with a fountain pen nib. These images suggest the bureaucratic drive for efficiency changes the very makeup of the human being. Perhaps most disturbing—and most relevant to the topic of bureaucracy—is the illustration in which surgeons are taking human skins and stretching them onto skeletons. The surgery table is held up not by legs, but by piles and piles of books, perhaps suggesting that the modern push towards homogeneity is built upon centuries of tradition. Other skeletons, awaiting their skins, watch the progress of the procedure. In the next illustration, the skeletons—now clothed with skin stitched together on their side—are examining themselves in the mirror. Clothing identical to the surgeons’ clothing sits next to them as they prepare to put on the uniform of the institution and, presumably, continue the process of making others just like them. Later on, there is an image in which a man is seen literally being fed words, with the ink dribbling onto the bib he wears around his neck. The sequence suggests that not only must physical appearance be made homogenous, so must words and thoughts.

Even though we cannot read the text of the Codex, these illustrations convey the idea that the knowledge system of the book aims to force us into a mold: people, animals and things must be classified and categorized, and the outcome is the homogenization of life. The surreal, uncanny elements of the illustrations get at the heart of the book’s larger message: to the artist Serafini, this drive to normalize society and make all human beings alike is horrifying, grotesque, perverse. The book thus dissents from the current condition of modern life with its divisive structures and drive to sameness.

Although the Codex Seraphinianus paints the image of an imaginary world in which there are creatures walking around that look like a pair of human legs and animals spring forth from people like Artemis came forth from the head of Zeus, the world of the Codex has a realistic quality as well—one that underscores its powerful critical rhetoric. As Peter Swirski wrote, “Literature simply cannot but constantly refer to, and otherwise depend on, real world structures. In a clear sense no work of literature—including what may probably be the least reality-dependent literary work of our time, Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus—could be understood if it did not correspond in some way to the actual world” (19). By embedding surreal images and asemic text in the form of a reference book, the Codex Seraphinianus resists the bureaucratic implementation of cultural norms; its language without sense both gestures to and undercuts the technologies of description we use to codify the world and ourselves.

Find Codex Seraphinianus in the UNT Libraries Catalog.

The Smallest English dictionary in the world

The Smallest English Dictionary, published around 1900 by the active Scottish press David Bryce & Son, is a miniature book measuring 1⅛ x ¾ inches (27 x 20 mm). It has 384 gilt-edged pages, and was bound in maroon morocco by Zaehnsdorf of London (UNT Library). “Johnson’s Dictionary” is embossed on the spine in gold letters, and there is a gold floral decoration, similar to a fleur-de-lis, beneath the title. There is a frontispiece engraving of Samuel Johnson inside the cover. The volume reportedly contains 13,000 definitions set in 1½ point type. In its miniature format and voluminous content, The Smallest English Dictionary enacts bureaucratic functions while simultaneously subverting them.

David Bryce (1845-1923) became a partner in his father’s Glasgow printing business in 1862, at the age of 17, and inherited the business when his father died in 1870. His first publishing effort, a large-format edition of Robert Burns’ poetry, sold only 5000 copies. Noting the growing popularity of miniatures in Victorian society, Bryce reprinted the edition in two volumes at a fraction of its original size, and sold 100,000 copies. Bryce soon became one of Scotland’s most famous publishers, issuing at least 40 different titles during the time the tiny books were in vogue. Bryce & Son’s catalogue of miniature books features British and Scottish literature, religious texts, including the Koran, reference works, and other miscellaneous publications (Catalogue). Bryce printed his books using “photolithography,” an innovative reduction process that allowed him to print at extremely small sizes while maintaining high readability. He also had access to special paper from Oxford University publishers, who owned a process to make ultra-thin but opaque paper called “India Paper.” It allowed hundreds of sheets to fit into very thin volumes. Cutting-edge materials and new technology made Bryce the most successful miniature book publisher in the Victorian Age (“Miniature Books”).

Miniature books have existed since the advent of printing, though their popularity grew as print technologies allowed for greater ease of production. Miniature books were popular because they served practical functions (Bromer). Portable and relatively cheap, we might say that the miniature book was an equivalent technology to today’s cellphone, allowing people to carry with them and access a great deal of information with ease. Readable miniature books were usually between 3 and 5 inches tall, but not all miniature books were practically oriented. Miniature books also allowed publishers artistic license to craft technically perfect yet essentially unreadable books.

The particularly small size of Bryce & Son’s The Smallest English Dictionary may indicate that it falls into this category, yet a look at an undated Bryce & Son catalogue complicates this assumption, for many of the publisher’s miniature books came with a protective case and a magnifying glass—including The Smallest English Dictionary (Catalogue). The case and the glass signify use; at the same time, the process of using this miniature aligns it subtly with less quotidian functions. Removing the dictionary from the case, pulling out the glass, finding the word through the glass—these acts constitute a ritual. In this way, the book’s miniature status brings attention to the act of seeking itself. The steps involve encourage the seeker’s awareness of the process he or she is participating in. Whether or not Bryce & Son intended this, to read their miniature books is to participate in the act of seeking as much as, if not more so than, finding. Finally, without the magnifying glass, t he words and definitions in The Smallest English Dictionary cannot be read, so its use value depends on mediation.

Because The Smallest English Dictionary, by way of its genre, takes part in the codification of knowledge, it also takes part in bureaucratic (mediating) functions. Because it is difficult to use, it simultaneously resists its bureaucratic function. The miniature book is interesting because the means of assessing its function and value are various. Is it meant to be used, or is meant to be an object of art? Where does one capacity end and the other begin? In the case of this particular book, how does having or not having the case or magnifying glass change the way the object was circulated and perceived?

The Smallest English Dictionary is connected to other texts in this exhibit, most clearly Glossographia and Johnson’s Dictionary in Miniature. All of these volumes have origins in the tradition of early modern reference books, and indicate to the reader socially appropriate understandings and uses of language. Perhaps because it straddles a line between function and art, knowing and seeking, the Smallest English Dictionary feels particularly modern, even post-modern. But like many texts in this exhibit, The Smallest English Dictionary both participates in and resists aspects of bureaucracy, and examining these texts may remind us that what we think of as a contemporary conundrum—the navigation of such systems—is not, in fact, particularly modern.

Find The Smallest English dictionary in the world in the UNT Libraries Catalog.

Satirical Dictionary of Voltaire

This small “dictionary” cannot properly be called an original work by Voltaire (1694-1778), although the words are, for the most part, his own. It was compiled by an American editor and illustrator, Paul McPharlin, and pulls material from Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique (1764) and Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (1770). McPharlin’s Satirical Dictionary is thus a compilation and condensation of Voltaire’s writings from several sources, all satirical in nature but not explicitly so. This co-authored work is a translation categorically, but is also a translation culturally, having been produced for a modern American audience. Voltaire composed the articles translated here after an apparently dissatisfactory job of working on articles for the letter “T” in the 1762 edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française; his Questions also responds to the massive Enlightenment project of knowledge making, the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert (see DOING/MAKING). Voltaire’s original texts resist the idea implicit in the creation, manufacture, and distribution of an encyclopedia or dictionary: that knowledge can be codified, information ordered and digested, and truth commodified. By calling attention to Voltaire’s satirical intent with his title, McPharlin directs his American audience to notice and embrace Voltaire’s resistance to the bureaucratic forms of systematized knowledge.

The Satirical Dictionary is a smallish book, about 5 inches by 7.75 inches; its hard-cover is printed all over with ornate, framed letters of the alphabet, in earthy tones of blue and taupe. It was printed by the letterpress method. The first edition of the Satirical Dictionary (UNT owns a second edition) was printed and designed by the husband and wife co-owners of Peter Pauper Press in 1945. Peter and Edna Beilenson commissioned Paul McPharlin to illustrate the cover, select and compile its contents, and write an introductory statement (AIGA). The Beilensons employed McPharlin as an illustrator for several other books, including James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh (a philosophical work) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” as well as another Voltaire-inspired project called Voltaire’s Alphabet of Wit, printed the same year as the first edition of the Satirical Dictionary.

McPharlin’s selection in the Satirical Dictionary comprises a whimsical smorgasbord of reflections on human hypocrisy, vanity, and hubris. It consists of seventy-six entries arranged alphabetically, with no particular logic to the selection other than the juxtaposition of the lofty and the banal: the subjects range from “Democracy” to “Love” to “Testicles.” Although the book is organized alphabetically, the articles in the Satirical Dictionary are actually more encyclopedic, stemming from their original inspiration in Voltaire’s response to the Encyclopédie. Voltaire’s use of satire may perhaps be obvious to modern readers but was not necessarily as obvious during his lifetime. For example, in Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, Voltaire includes an etymology of the word Bulgare (not included in McPharlin’s collection) which is rife with vicious satire aimed at his sometimes friend, Frederick the Great of Prussia. The entry can also be understood as a prompt to read his later and most famous work, Candide, as satire (Langille 55-57). Of “Books,” Voltaire counsels his reader to “[r]emember that the whole world, save only the savage parts, is under the sway of books…Who lead their fellow men in all civilized countries? Those who can read and write” (18). The satirical bent of such an observation only becomes clear when read alongside the entry on “government,” which observes that “[t]here must be some exquisite pleasure in governing, to judge from the numbers who are eager to be concerned in it. We have more books on government than governors in the world…I understand nothing about government” (50).

Voltaire’s choice of the word “dictionary,” and by extension McPharlin’s, can be inferred from the excerpt from Voltaire’s preface to the Dictionnaire philosophique: “This book does not require continuous reading; but wherever one opens it, matter for reflection can be found. The most satisfactory books are those of which the reader is part author” (4). Here, Voltaire draws on the idea of “consultation reading” common to early modern reference books (Blair), but he also encourages his readers to browse the work according to their own inclinations, and to share in the authority of the author/compiler. McPharlin’s selection takes Voltaire at his word: he admits to taking liberties with the material while also claiming that the articles “do not suffer from the condensation they have undergone” (3). What might strike a modern reader as an unforgivable disregard for textual integrity might actually, in an ironic way, bear an affinity to the spirit in which Voltaire himself composed his texts. In his brief preface, Voltaire uses a Biblical allusion to pinpoint his own process of compiling his text: as a compiler from “standard works,” “he himself remains anonymous, and take the position of the Gospel, ‘Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth’” (4). This serves as a tongue-in-cheek apology for any accidental plagiarism he might have committed; he adds that he expects his debts to be recognized and his innocence assumed. By reprinting this particular excerpt, McPharlin both points out Voltaire’s response to the procedures of compiling reference works and justifies his own practice of selective recompilation.

Find Satirical Dictionary of Voltaire in the UNT Libraries Catalog.

Bleak House

This 1853 edition of Bleak House by Charles Dickens represents the first publication of the novel in the form of a single book. Like most of Dickens’s fictional works, Bleak House was initially serialized. It was distributed to readers in 20 separate installments (19 individual issues, the last containing the final two increments) between March of 1852 and September of 1853. This edition of the novel was published by Bradbury and Evans and dedicated to the “Guild of Literature and Art.” It contains 38 lithograph plates featuring illustrations by Habolt Knight Browne, a. k. a. “Phiz,” as well as 42 demarcation points indicating this as a fully compiled and comprehensively re-edited issue devoid of any typographical errors. The covering is the original solid material overlayed with a thin film of half-calf leather. The spine and the corners of each side feature coverings as patches in marble coloring, an aesthetic largely enhancing the autonomy and authenticity of the full-text volume as opposed to the pamphlet installments often deemed as ephemera.

Bleak House presents a grand cross-section of British Victorian society, equally adept at describing the lavish wealth and opulence of the upper classes as well as the miserably impoverished suffering of the undeserving poor. This novel also levels a powerful critique of bureaucracy that highlight the potentially pernicious and destructive effects of convoluted and over-evolved systems of distributed power and authority. While the novel follows a vast web of plot lines, all of them are connected by a long-standing testamenry case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, that feeds needs of legal processes and processors while sapping the spirit—and money—of the litigants involved. Dickens had worked in law and was thus familiar with its mechanisms and personality. It is speculated that the fictional case at the center of Bleak House was based on one or several very protracted, real-life cases, including that of poet and novelist Charlotte Turner Smith. The novel reveals the English legal system—specifically its Courts of Chancery—“as producing gas in prolix pleadings and judicial vapourings, throwing up fog and mud in its lack of clarity and muck in its disclosure of old scandals, while resembling a dinosaur in its failure to address the modern age” (Slater 45). These Courts would be abolished approximately 20 years after the publication of Bleak House.

Find Bleak House in the UNT Libraries Catalog.

The Piazza Tales

This first edition of Herman Melville’s short story collection The Piazza Tales was published by Dix and Edwards in 1856. With the exception of the story “The Piazza,” all of the stories were originally published in the magazine Putnam’s Monthly. Joshua Dix (a former employee of Arthur Putnam) and Arthur Edwards had purchased that magazine in 1855, with the new book and magazine publishers working to maintain the successes of their predecessors.

The Piazza Tales contains six novella-length stories, from “The Encantadas” to “Benito Cereno” and “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Both “Benito Cereno” and “Bartleby” thematize bureaucracy by representing and replicating its material forms. “Bartleby” is set among the increasing visibility of large businesses and their managerial practices in the nineteenth century, which included the rise of the American corporation, the codification of managerial practices, the advent of Wall Street, and the privileging of efficiency over individuality. At the same time, by using as his subtitle “A Story of Wall Street,” Melville located the story in a space of labor activism and debates about the rights of workers (Reed). The actions of the titular scrivener—a copyist who replicated business and legal records—indicates how the bureaucratic system is susceptible to resistance from within. Bartleby’s famous line, “I would prefer not to,” is often referenced as a mantra of dissent towards the bureaucratic power of the state or capitalist economy. At the end of the story, Bartleby refuses to move from the law office where he is employed even when the lawyer who employs him switches buildings; when he is thrown in jail, he refuses to eat and dies. The story mocks the functions of bureaucracy—namely, the copying of obscure documents that the lawyer required of his clerks—while highlighting their effects on the human mind.

The lawyer who employs Bartleby places great emphasis on efficient, correct, written communication, even as he recognizes repeatedly that these bureaucratic ideals are undercut by the particular ages, bodies, preferences, work practices, whims, and hands of his clerks. While Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nuts might produce work of uneven quality, it is Bartleby and his statement that he “would prefer not to”—his refusal to work and to vacate the law office at night and, eventually, at all—that disrupt the efficient office and force the lawyer to move. Bartleby is further identified with non-efficiency at the end of the story, when the lawyer notes that he had previously worked at the Dead Letter Office, a repository for letters that, after failing to reach their recipients, were sent to the office to be destroyed. Bartleby’s jobs represent how bureaucracy must organize and consume all documents; they must be put into place regardless of whether or not they served their purpose. At the same time, Bartleby’s refusal to complete his tasks highlights the ways that bureaucratic systems are highly contingent on individuals and their participation in the system.

Melville temporarily adopted the role of a scrivener himself when he transcribed legal documents from Amasa Delano’s Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817) in order to write “Benito Cereno” (DeLombord). These documents formed the foundation of the short story, and Melville inserted selections from the actual legal deposition, or testimony, at the end of the novella. There, Benito Cereno, the Spanish captain of a slave ship, explained how the slaves took over the ship, held him captive, and forced him to pretend that he had freed them and trusted them. Finally rescued by an American captain, Amasa Delano, Benito Cereno gives a legal account of the events that led him to pretend as if the rebellion’s mastermind, a man named Babo, was his trusted manservant. The deposition provides only one perspective of the revolution and plot, since enslaved Africans’ testimony was not permitted in court. Moreover, the deposition employs the law and its bureaucratic forms to transform the past into historical record and to endow it with authority. As both “Bartleby” and “Benito Cereno” show, both the individuals and the forms required to complete this transformation resist it, and interestingly, they accomplish this resistance through inaction—by Bartleby’s preference not to and by Babo’s silence. If the point of Cereno’s deposition is to create an “officially sanctioned retrospective narrative” (DeLombard 37), then Babo’s actions and his silence throw that narrative into question. And, if the point of Bartleby’s vocation is to reproduce and recirculate letters, then his preference “not to” stalls that process and highlights its dependence on material forms and manual labor.

Find The Piazza Tales in the UNT Libraries Catalog.

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