Bureau–cracy

The connective quality of written traces is still more visible in the most despised of all ethnographic objects: the file or the record. The “rationalization” granted to bureaucracy since Hegel and Weber has been attributed by mistake to the “mind” of (Prussian) bureaucrats. It is all in the files themselves. A bureau is, in many ways, and more and more every year, a small laboratory in which many elements can be connected together just because their scale and nature has been averaged out: legal texts, specifications, standards, payrolls, maps, surveys (ever since the Norman conquiest, as shown by Clanchy, 1979). Economics, politics, sociology, hard sciences, do not come into contact through the grandiose entrance of “interdisciplinarity” but through the back door of the file. The “cracy” of bureaucracy is mysterious and hard to study, but the “bureau” is something that can be empirically studied, and which explains, because of its structure, why some power is given to an average mind just by looking at files : domains which are far apart become literally inches apart ; domains which are convoluted and hidden, become flat ; thousands of occurrences can be looked at synoptically. More importantly, once files start being gathered everywhere to insure some two-way circulation of immutable mobiles, they can be arrayed in cascade : files of files can be generated and this process can be continued until a few men consider millions as if they were in the palms of their hands. Common sense ironically makes fun of these “gratte papiers” and “paper shufflers”, and often wonders what all this “red tape” is for ; but the same question should be asked of the rest of science and technology. In our cultures “paper shuffling” is the source of an essential power, that constantly escapes attention since its materiality is ignored.

Bruno Latour: Visualisation and Cognition. Drawing Things Together. In: H. Kuklick (editor): Knowledge and Society Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present. Jai Press vol. 6, pp. 1-40, here p. 26 [.pdf]