Bright Grey: The Political Dialectic of Bureaucratic Boredom


In addition to accusations of authoritarianism, arbitrariness, and inefficiency, one of the more persistent criticisms of bureaucracy is that it tends to be rather boring. Yet while this boringness has historically informed both scholarly and popular forms of anti-bureaucratic critique, in this article I argue that it also might reflect necessary, and even desirable, aspects of democratic political practice. Working with fictional texts that have sought to represent bureaucratic boringness, in particular The Apartment (1960) and The Pale King (2011), this article traces how the aesthetic quality of boringness has historically been understood as a means by which bureaucratic systems can facilitate oppressive and anti-democratic forms of politics. However, with reference to recent attempts to automate and streamline contemporary bureaucratic systems, I argue that it does not necessarily follow that the elimination of boringness makes such systems more accessible and responsive. Instead, I suggest that boringness is better understood dialectically as a difficult but potentially necessary part of living together in complex societies. In doing so, I aim not to redeem bureaucracy and boringness, but also to argue for the necessity of an anti-heroic, pragmatic mode of politics. 

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