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This article is taken from PN Review 262, Volume 48 Number 2, November - December 2021.

The Bureaucratic Sublime
On the Secret Joys of Contemporary Poetry
Alex Wylie
Since the untimely death of David Graeber, a year ago at the time of writing, I have been looking once more through his catalogue of work: a catalogue, leaving the many articles and essays aside, which includes such brilliant, mind-altering books as Debt: The First Five Thousand Years; Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (a real life-ring, this one was, when I first read it in 2018); and, perhaps my favourite, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. These are all books that, if not necessarily that cliché of ‘changing my life’, I think made my life seem more valid: they suggested that, perhaps, I wasn’t completely losing my grip, and was not as isolated as I felt. In the more circumspect mood in which I re-read his work after his death, The Utopia of Rules, with its account of the bureaucratic as cultural-political paradigm, seemed even more urgent and timely beyond its personal appeal to me; and it has prompted me to consider its connections to the poetry of this current, bureaucratic, paradigm. Its point for political ideology as for poetry (and of much of Graeber’s work) is, I think, that what the citizens of the freedom-advertising democracies of the West really desire, or are made to desire, is freedom from freedom itself. This is what the bureaucratic, considered in its broader and deeper dimensions, affords the citizens of liberal democracies; it is the utopian form of our various dystopias, the waking dream of freedom underpinned by the secret joys of a commodious, but guiltless, unfreedom.

In The Utopia of Rules, then, Graeber defines the current political era as ‘the age of total bureaucratization’. Neoliberalism, despite its overt ideology of deregulation and (vaguely defined) personal and public freedoms, breeds ever more bureaucracy, says Graeber; and with this bureaucratic proliferation comes inevitably ‘a timid, bureaucratic spirit’ which ‘has come to suffuse every aspect of intellectual life’ and which, crucially, ‘comes cloaked in a language of creativity, initiative, and entrepreneurialism’. In other words, the contemporary political moment, in the UK and USA especially, is characterised by a loss of agency, across a number of interconnected spheres, ideologically cloaked as an unprecedented upsurge in personal agency. In Against Creativity, Oli Mould provides a view of this contemporary inversion: ‘[b]eing creative in today’s society has only one meaning: to carry on producing the status quo’. Creativity, in this argument, has become a counter-progressive power dressed up, of necessity, as progressive.

So, for Graeber and others, bureaucracy and creativity are intertwined in our cultural-political moment. We may be in an age in which the notion of individual creativity is an archaism (as Marjorie Perloff has claimed) but that very notion is the ideological fantasy fuelling the increasing bureaucratisation of our lives. This ‘bureaucratic spirit’, as Graeber puts it, offers freedom from risky and chaotic creativity into the purer (and probably more lucrative) pleasures of the ‘creative’; a guiltless reduction into ever more commodious, though alienated, forms of social existence. Neoliberal risk-aversion and procedure are elevated into cultural paradigm, offering within the Creative Industries, for example, the opportunity to be ‘a creative’ (a status as indefinite as its indefinite article suggests). Being a creative liberates you yet further from the chaotic and dangerous actualities of creativity, empowering you to dream of the endless potentials of self-creation. Administration has become creativity, and vice versa. On social media, for instance, people have the power to ‘curate’ and ‘develop’ their identities, their fingerprint on social reality; or, from another point of view, these platforms have made even humanity in its most intimate social forms a cynosure of regulation. The secret joy of social media is, indeed, being mediated at the most intimate social levels, like a sort of consensual panopticon. This sort of secret joy is what I’m calling here the bureaucratic sublime.

And this is a twenty-first-century mirror-image of the Romantic sublime. ‘Poetry puts a spirit of life and motion into the universe’, writes William Hazlitt in Lectures on the English Poets. The bureaucratic sublime (similarly vaguely – and the sublime always depends on vagueness for its power) offers the prospect of ‘a spirit of life and motion’, but supplemented by a profound, secret joy arising from freedom from these very conceptual forces. ‘What ultimately lies behind the appeal of bureaucracy is fear of play’, as Graeber puts it, elsewhere describing ‘a tacit cosmology in which the play principle (and by extension, creativity) is itself seen as frightening, while game-like behaviour is celebrated as transparent and predictable, and where, as a result, the advance of all these rules and regulations is itself experienced as a kind of freedom.’ A recent review by Fiona Sampson of Rachel Boast’s Hotel Raphael epitomises this spirit:

Her markedly old-fashioned literary sensibility, informed by Romanticism even, sometimes leads to a little too much fine writing. But the slightly suffocating inwardness is redeemed by the force of poems such as ‘Hand, Match, Ashtray’, which address a chronic health condition with fierceness and delicacy. (Guardian, 14/5/21)

‘[O]ld-fashioned literary sensibility’ is equated here with ‘fine writing’, the readership of the Guardian assumed by Dr Sampson to be part of this culture of self-consolation in which poetic style, or ‘literary sensibility’, is pegged as suffocatingly inward. The in-group of the Guardian’s review pages is presumably more at home with a poem addressing a ‘chronic health condition’. Dr Sampson’s use of ‘fine’ modulates into the laudatory, however, when talking about subject matter, describing Martina Evans’s ‘finely perceptive poems about houses and families’. In true bureaucratic spirit, subject matter rules here; style is an ideological embarrassment. Subject matter (or ‘content’) can be easily assessed, described, and categorised; style cannot. This contemporary promotion of the generic goes hand in hand, then, with a political culture of funding allocations and professional reward: the ‘language of creativity, initiative, and entrepreneurialism’. The readers of the Guardian are allowed, in a pact of tacit understanding, to share the denigration of ‘fine writing’ whilst approving the easy descriptions of subject matter.

‘Fine’ is a word with a broad range of meaning – an ideal word for such ideological disavowals. Fiona Sampson’s dispraise of ‘fine writing’ encompasses various meanings offered by the OED: ‘apposite, well expressed’; ‘affecting refinement or elegance’; ‘affectedly or excessively elaborate’; whereas her praise of ‘finely perceptive poems about houses and family’ may suggest the more materialistic ‘of a tool or point, having a sharp edge or point’. Such a utilitarian emphasis may be apt to an age of democratic materialism, as Alain Badiou has described it; perhaps a poem which is ‘about’ things, say a house or a family, is felt to have more of an ‘edge’ and certainly more of a ‘point’ to it. As the Creative Industries Council informs us, ‘The economic impact of the UK’s arts and culture industry is quantified in a report which highlights the sector’s high productivity and effect on employment.’ (Creative Industries Council website, 3/6/21: italics mine.) Subject matter is readily described in, transcribed into, the terms of this bureaucratic political culture. Poetic style, however, is precisely that which is untranslatable, resistant to quantification. This is why in contemporary poetry there is such an emphasis on subject matter, on poems about subjects: ‘health conditions’, tales of houses and families, and so on. This is a poetry of the quantifiable, in which poetry proliferates, just as creativity proliferates, as a marketable social good. It is the American Dream in Received Pronunciation.

There is a very famous passage in which the ‘fine’ is considered as a characteristic of the poet: that is, the almost-proverbial speech by Duke Theseus in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

The poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The form of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Chosen by Arts Council England as an official quotation for a recent National Poetry Day, this passage seems to be the go-to statement, in English-language literature, anyway, on the poetic or creative imagination. The Duke’s use of ‘fine’ here, retroactively, unites the bifurcation of sense in Dr Sampson’s usage, of fine as ‘elaborate and affected’, even as ‘empty rhetoric’ (OED definition 12), and as ‘having a sharp edge or point’, as well as other approbatory connotations – even ‘pure; perfect’. The image of the poet’s ‘fine frenzy’ may now be dominated by such definitions of fineness as ‘suffocating inwardness’, which was no doubt part of Shakespeare’s intention, speaking through his character (himself a kind of journalistic pundit here) – but, crucially, only part of it. While the act itself may be described, pejoratively, as ‘fine’, the product of the creative act is what the Duke (and Shakespeare?) really wants to eulogise here. While the act of creativity, and the creator, might be subject to caricature, it is art itself which does the caricaturing.

Prompted by this passage, we might say, also, that there may well be something faintly traumatic, or at the very least awkward, about the work of art. Perhaps this quality is what defines the work of art as such – a perception that drives Denise Riley’s poetry, for example (‘Out of  the depth of its shame it starts singing’). The uncompromising compromises us. However, whereas the event, in philosophical vocabulary, is the inevitable thing which could not have been foreseen – ‘The form of things unknown’ – the bureaucratic thrives by foreseeing all and making the future as inevitable as possible. Nothing is more threatening to capital than risk (an element which is, in another beautiful ideological disavowal, fundamentally constitutive of it). Bureaucracy muffles the traumatic, deletes the awkward; it is all about smooth flow, maintained systems, eliminated risk; and, accordingly, the bureaucratic emphasis is on creativity itself, rather than on the productions of creativity. People participate in this bureaucratic culture because they are encouraged to see themselves as anti-bureaucratic – as embodying the kind of ‘spirit’ defined by Hazlitt, the ‘spirit of life and motion’ we see now in advertising: ‘Catch that Pepsi spirit’; ‘Coke adds life’; ‘Hugo Boss: Boss in motion’. It is a creativity liberated from risks to health – Diet Creativity, you might say.

Style and matter are always in some kind of balance, and perhaps in Shakespeare and Thomas Nashe in the 1590s, for instance, that balance upends at times toward an apotheosis of style – though with this apotheosis usually goes a certain self-consciousness, an ironic attitude toward rhetoric’s temptations. But contemporary English-language poetry is currently tipping over into a prevalence of matter, reflecting, among other things, a (superficially ‘democratic materialist’) attitude that literature exists to reflect its social and historical moment (a tendency reflected also in the increasing prevalence of social sciences in university-level literary studies and in literary ‘theory’). The dividing line between an ethically, politically driven ‘anti-style’ tendency and a social-media-driven ‘linguistic timorousness’ (recently described by Emma Dabiri in the excellent What White People Can Do Next) is accordingly a thin one. Poetry-prize culture is symptomatic of the bureaucratic spirit, in which poetry is addressed to judges themselves beholden to state-bureaucratic forces, as is the system of rewarding prize-winners with lucrative academic posts; and this situation speaks also to the erosion of a ‘reading public’ for poetry, suggestive of the situation we have now in which readers of poetry are themselves part of the ever-expanding landscape of the creative industries of which poetry is increasingly a feature.

In a time of political foment and genuinely progressive moments and movements, it is natural and desirable that poetry, and all other cultural forms, reflect that foment, express it and in some way crystallise and embody it. It is important to remember in the case of poetry, however, that style and form are not only operative in the art-form but operative in its cultural-political reactions and assertions. Poetic style and form can themselves be reflexes of cultural, political, social assertion, and not trivial ones in the context of artistic ‘action’. It is as if achievement in artistic form, specifically here poetic form, voice, style, etc., offers dissent per se – in a more universal, yet still material, sense – rather than dissent in a particular cause. The fact that this dissent cannot be defined in particular terms is itself in the nature of the dissent. The detail and nuance that these things embody constitute a kind of freedom, a freedom as burdensome, as heuristic, as freedom really is – the kind acknowledged by the dictum that ‘pedantry is freedom’ – but also in the sense that attention to form, style, voice, and so on, keeps the poet ‘honest’ even as it propels her into artifice, pushing her beyond the prescribed boundaries of her accepted and acceptable idioms. The advice to ‘write about what you know’ sounds superficially quite sensible, until you consider the cultural-political situation this offers in which no one says anything unknown, in which the unknown as such becomes disapproved of. The authentic and the progressive thus become intertwined with the inauthentic and the regressive – a negation characterising our age.

The crisis I have been describing in this essay lies in no small part in creativity now being promoted as universally attainable. Of course, at some level, everyone can be creative, but at the same level this is a fairly meaningless assertion. Government rhetoric abounds with these kinds of idioms, as does advertising. While many things should be universally attainable – and Universal Basic Income is being trialled in Wales as I write, a good example of this kind of universal access to social goods – artistic creativity never can be and, crucially, perhaps never should be. Creativity is now seen as this kind of social good, but this seems fatally off-beam, to me; surely, it is the productions of creativity which are the social good, a position which, as I’ve suggested, Duke Theseus (and Shakespeare?) might seem to have agreed with. The promotion of creativity as a social good – you might say a kind of democratic privilege – is characteristic, rather, of the neoliberal bureaucratic spirit, its false empowerments and consumer-psychologist propaganda. The logic is that of the pseudo-progressive advertising tagline: ‘unlock the creative potential in YOU!’ But what’s really being sold is not creativity, as such, but ‘being creative’: that is, lifestyle rather than power, lifestyle which can only be sold in the guise of power. The secret joy this freedom from freedom provides is what I’m calling the bureaucratic sublime: it is neoliberalism’s liberation from liberation itself. In this age of democratic materialism, then, it would be an ironic triumph (and fit monument to his memory) if, as David Graber puts it at the end of The Utopia of Rules, we were able ‘to let our imaginations once again become a material force in human history’.

This article is taken from PN Review 262, Volume 48 Number 2, November - December 2021.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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