This is a summary of Ten Bos’s book: ‘Bureacratie is een Inktvis’. The concept of a hyperobject is valuable and was extensively used in my book about the firm.
Characteristics of a bureaucracy are: 1) they have viscosity 2) they are not confined to some location 3) they exist in different time dimensions 4) they are only discernible in phases 5) they are interobjective.
1) viscosity people dealing with bureacracies know these ethical stances: a) groups not individuals are the source of true creativity b) to belong is not a wish but a moral law to which an individual must comply c) to become subject to rationality and science of the collective leads to individual and collective benefit. This ethik is omnipresent in bureaucracies: bureacratic memes.
This is the system by which the business firms are directed and controlled via rules, responsibilities for decisions and their procedures. It also involves the way the company objectives are set, the means of attaining them and the monitoring of them. The focus here is on the relation between the shareholders and the management. Institutions can be seen as bodies of rules forming the environment of markets and organizations where trade-offs take place. The nature of these environments can for instance be economic, political, social, cultural and institutional. The environment provides the conditions for the creation of both coordination mechanisms, for shaping them and providing selection mechanisms evolving both. The environment of organizations and markets consists of rules shaping human interaction safeguarding transactions from any risk explicit to them. In this sense ’the way the game is played’ is shaped by the cultural institutional environment, which itself is a result of cultural evolution. It is suggested here that this myriad detailed routines, rules and attitudes evolve via human communication from person to person. And in that way that they are capable to generate a finite yet large variation of tentative and experimental beliefs and corresponding decisions and actions for people to exhibit in their professional and private lives alike.
The average counts: to not spend money is good but keeps the collective poor and to spend is sinful but benefits the collective. In that sense mediocracy is a good thing because it benefits the collective and excelling as an invidual damages the collective. As a consequence average performance is beneficial: too much or too big or too deep can never be a good thing. And this hangs in the balance: to not act so as to maximize some things (be a brilliant individual) yet to act so as to maximize other things (consume). Traditional theory of bureaucray states that the person and the position are separate entitities, but starting from the hyperobject theory it becomes clear that this is not possible and bureacracy exists in all of people’s daily activities. The appropriate term for this phenomena is ‘institutionalism’: what is ‘done’and ‘not done’ is institutional and to go against the grain is unprofessional or dilettante behavior. The prototypic and unreliable illustration: monkies associate cold water with some action and institutionalize their action. In this sense people become neophobic: people are very hesitant to engage in something new. Everyone is responsible and no one is accountable; good or bad are annihiliated because everything is proceduralized and everybody is responsible. ‘Nobody really washes her hands clean but everybody washes them together’ [Ten Bos 2015 p. 52].
2) Non locality
In everyday reality we manage to identify objects also using their locality in space and time. In addition we can use speed and acceleration to find out what they are. People are used to observe the world in a three dimensional grid where there a distance between ourselves and other things potentially as well as a difference in speed and acceleration. This is useful for our daily survival but it is also a construct whereby people become separated from their environment, while in fact they are an integrated part of it [Ten Bos 2015 pp 53-4]. Instead of distinguishing people as entities isolated from others and from their environment (the wish to communicate something is the cause of the communication and that the subject is separated from her communication), a better alternative is to understand that individuals are not discrete elements but entangled and very hard to distinguish. This is relevant for people dealing with bureaucracies (bureaucrats) also: the person, her position, the context have become so entangled that they are impossible to distinguish, cause and effect have become indistinguishable. As a conseqence people can act very differently in different locations and at different times: they are driven by outside forces alone and no internal forces. In bureaucratic reality cause and effect have become separate: the process becomes indeterminate. Everything touches everything else, everything is connected: it is an endless sequence of paper, conversation, decision and idea. In that sense bureaucracy is also the denial of singularity and while everbody affects eeverybody else, they are at a distance from each other.
When dealing with hyperobjects the observer has no control over the situation. Bureacracy is the water in which we swim; we don’t know much about it and what we are doing really is survive. This must be clear: this water is often a subtle and often a not quite so subtle form of violence. This violence leads us to the execution of a lot unnecessary work of the kind ‘bulllshit jobs’ [Graeber in Ten Bos 2015 p 59]. People dealing with bureaucracies often do not understand this environment or their positions in it because there is no perspective for their actions. Whatever is written does not conform to what is spoken or what is thought and in a bureaucracy nobody is authentic and everybody is to some extent stupid. This condition of stupidity is relevant in this era of late capitalism.
The pivot is shifting from a correct execution of the tasks belonging to the position, to the correct handling of the administrative tasks that come with the job. ‘This resembles the image of a large ferry boat that, nearly out of control, drives through a sea of drowning people’[ Peter Sloterdijk 1995 pp 13-4 in Ten Bos 2015 p 61]. The expression of emotion does not help, because it is not seen as solidarity and also because to express emotions something concrete to react to is needed. And so as a consequence people tend to feel small in relation to these processes within hyperobjects. The reactions of people between themselves (for example evaluations) are filtered and temporized in relation to their context and so people dealing with hyperobjects tend to be unsure of their performance.
A hyperobject cannot be seen in its entirety but only in parts or in time, as phases. To see it as one the observer would have to ascend to a higher dimension but our senses are limited to the dimensions of the reality they are in. Hyperobjects can appear to not exist for some time but then jump back into view at some point. Hyperobjects are permanently active and never stagnate. Nobody is in control of these processes including the bureaucrats themselves. There is no master mind steering these processes, the machine runs by itself, there is no higher authority. And conversely those considered to be in charge are not effectively in control or to a limited extent. Power is not centralized and can be dispersed in the organization or can even be located at the floor. Often the management has limited power and can not say much for risk of having to execute whatever they have expressed: they also feel observed and controlled. Though hyperobjects are at some times more present or noticeable than at other times, they have a tendency to force themselves to grab the attention. An important characteristic of bureaucracies is testing: once tested, certified or accredited – all procedures to conform to some standard – doors are opnede that were closed before.
This is an automatic absolvent for reflexivity: having entered some test it is no longer required to think about the essence of the thing put to the test, but about the essence of the test itself. People believe that to summarize some tested element by highlighting some issues and ignoring others implies to really understand and to know the element and to identify its causes in an attempt to improve the global performance of some system by tuning the micro-mechanisms. The thought behind this system is to represent reality in the simplest way and to then organize it. And yet, audits and tests are on many occasions no more than an opinion of the person designing the test. And as a consequence the acceptability of the test result depends on the trust that the testee has in the tester. And as a result the selection procedure of the most trustworthy testing agency and not discussion of the facts becomes the main issue for the test. The selection of the testing facility and the testing procedure itself have become the authority for trustworthiness.
The test now provides the certainty much sought after: having achieved the required score the testee feels she can rest assured. But two elements remain unsettling: has the test unveiled facts about the the truth or the testee: what is now known that wasn’t known before the test? And for how long does this last, namely when is the next test due? And so central to the hyperobject is a feeling of stupidity in the individual caused by the object, the bureaucracy in particular. Whenever testing, a bureaucracy looks in a literal way, not at her, but right through the individual in that sense causing a feeling of being stupid and clumsy in the given situation. The proffered support isn’t necessarily useful or helpful and this cannot be known in advance; it is known in advance however that the amount of offered support increases over time.
The essence is that people can use instruments and means and machines to leave marks that will last for weeks and months and years. These marks are symbols of power: whatever their concrete meaning is, they have the intention to state something and to hold someone to the statement. When the statement isn’t understood then the receiver of the mark pretends that she does understand. Kafka has understood that bureaucracy can be a comedy where everybody pretends to understand what everyone else says and does either or not intentionally. Bureaucracy cannot work if the people are dumb and cannot understand what the written texts say. People need to be enlightened to just the righ level so as to be capable to understand what the bureaucracy requires.
Bureaucracy requires the existence of the tools to register and administrate. The marks of power must remain in existence for some time and the ‘continuity of ink’ supports this. Importantly the objects that surround and pervade bureaucracies also shape the decisions and the communication. These are infrastructural conditions and restrictions that are made available or imposed by the objects that surround people populating bureaucracies.
Individuals exist between private person, her autonomous self, and the official person, her function in a hierarchy, servicing herself as well as the bureaucracy, namely the system that is her environment. ‘This perspective on people as employees sheds light on the concept of hyperobjects also. At this point we begin to understand how the hyperobject not only encompasses people but pervades them’ [Ten Bos 2015 p 112]. The confusion is how people’s wishes to live a normal life as an autonomous human being can be satisfied within the confines of the hyperobject, as often suggested by the human resources manager.