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In the work of Slavoj Žižek

The term “bureaucracy” is defined straightforwardly enough by Žižek as “a depoliticized and competent administrative apparatus” (LC: 259). Simply citing this definition, however, belies the philosophical and political possibilities for Žižek’s notion of bureaucracy, especially in undercutting familiar notions of the term in history and literature. The idea of bureaucracy is most frequently engaged in Žižek’s writing with regard to Hegel’s defence of a monarchical head of state.

Ironically, in order for the state to function rationally, it requires the irrational leadership of a king. The monarch, in Žižek’s reading of Hegel, exists only for the purpose of authorizing and thus enacting the plans of the state bureaucracy. Th is relationship can be described in a number of ways. In the first, Žižek distinguishes between the “performative” role of the monarch and the “constative” role of the “business of the state bureaucracy” (LC: 134). The monarch and bureaucracy function symbiotically – the bureaucracy prepares constative plans, ideas and commands, which are only realized positively or negatively through the performative actions of the monarch (“I say it is true. Therefore it is true,” etc.). Another way of reading this relationship between monarch and bureaucracy is through the difference between the role of the bureaucracy as an objective function of the state that will best serve the interests of its citizens and the subjective role of the monarch, which exists to enact state business but has only subjective concerns. Finally, Žižek takes up Lacan’s terminology of the “chain of knowledge” or the functioning bureaucracy and the master-signifier, here embodied in the monarch (ibid.).

These distinctions between monarch and bureaucracy have as much to do with their respective functions as with how they come to occupy their roles. Whereas bureaucrats are chosen for their roles by their qualifications, the monarch is “an authority not justified by its qualification … the king is justified by the very fact that he is king” (LN: 30). Indeed, to return to Lacanian discourse, “the monarch is the ‘pure’ signifier, the master-signifier ‘without signified’. His entire ‘reality’ (and authority) rests on the name, and that is why his ‘effectiveness in reality’ is arbitrary; it can be abandoned to the biological contingency of heredity” (ITR: 127–8). Žižek acknowledges that for Hegel “the master is an imposter” (LN: 430). The master is only the master because “he occupies a position of a master (that his subjects treat him as a master)” (LN: 430). Indeed, the entire functioning of the monarchy and the bureaucracy rests on the tautology “I obey the king because he is king” (ITR: 129). Žižek asks if Hegel is not “caught in an illusion of purity – namely of the purity of the expert-knowledge of the state bureaucracy which only works rationally for the common good” (LN: 424). However, it is precisely this “illusory wager”, where “if one isolates this moment of impurity (subjective caprice) in the figure of the monarch, this exception will make the rest (the body of the state bureaucracy) rational, exempted from the play of conflicting partial interests” (ibid.), that holds the true possibility for Hegel and makes the wager worth taking. The random, biological manner in which the king is chosen puts the king above and outside of the day-to-day manoeuvering of the bureaucracy.

Žižek notes that societies before the modern age relied on “a transcendent source which ‘verified’ the result, conferring authority on it (God, the king …)” (LN: 428). The problem under modernity is that “modern societies perceive themselves as autonomous, self-regulated; that is, they can no longer rely on an external (transcendent) source of authority” (ibid.). However, despite this perception, if our modern mechanisms were “fully mechanized and quantified, deprived of [their] ‘performative’ character”, the system would have no support (ibid.).

The bureaucracy must then occupy the position of master-signifier in the absence of a monarch. Žižek takes up one of Lacan’s examples of the power of the master-signifier as the minimal gap or delay in knowing the results of an exam. Even if a pupil provides perfect answers, it is not until those answers are confirmed by the teacher or another authority that the anxiety of testing is lifted. Žižek notes that it is the mystique of bureaucracy that also maintains this gap. He writes: “You know the facts, but you can never be quite sure of how these facts will be registered by bureaucracy” (LC: 22–3). The mystique of bureaucracy, or what Žižek describes as symbolic efficiency, “concerns the minimum of ‘reification’ on account of which it is not enough for us, all concerned individuals, to know some fact in order for it to be operative” (TS: 394). Symbolic efficiency or the symbolic institution, on the contrary, must know or “register” this fact if the performative consequences of stating it are to ensue.

Bureaucratic symbolic efficiency is capable of shaping perception and reality: “Symbolic efficiency thus concerns the point at which, when the Other of the symbolic institution confronts me with the choice of ‘whom do you believe, my word or your eyes?”, I choose the Other’s word without hesitation, dismissing the factual testimony of my eyes” (TS: 394–5). To illustrate this point of symbolic efficiency within bureaucracy, Žižek uses what he describes as the well-worn joke about a young man who believes he is a grain of corn. After working with a doctor for some time, the man is relieved to realize that he is a man, not a grain of corn. Upon leaving the doctor’s office, the man encounters a chicken and runs with fear back to the doctor. The doctor expresses surprise since the man no longer believes himself to be a grain of corn, to which the man replies: “I know that I am not a grain of corn, but has anyone told the chicken?” Žižek writes: “This story, nonsensical at the level of factual reality, where you are either a grain or not, is absolutely sensible if one replaces ‘a grain’ with some feature that determines my symbolic identity” (TS: 393). Žižek notes that within bureaucracy, for instance, one can be promoted and then encounter a lower-ranking member of the bureaucracy who does not recognize the authority of the new position because it has not entered into the symbolic register of bureaucratic functioning. “Isn’t this a bit like telling you: ‘Sorry, to us you’re still a grain of corn, not yet a human being’? In short there is a certain mysterious moment at which a measure or decree becomes operative, registered by the big Other of the symbolic institution” (ibid.).

Perhaps because of its potential to take on the role of master-signifier and its symbolic efficiency, Žižek is wary of bureaucracy and its possibility for overwhelming leaders. He advocates, thus, for a strong leader: “We should not be afraid to draw all the consequences from this insight, endorsing the lesson of Hegel’s justification of monarchy and ruthlessly slaughtering many liberal sacred cows on the way” (LN: 1001). Separating the roles of the bureaucracy and the monarchy produces a necessary distance between bureaucracy and the king. This distance is what protects against totalitarianism, which for Žižek is not a master who “imposes his unconstrained authority and ignores the suggestions of rational knowledge” (LN: 430). Rather, totalitarianism is “a regime in which knowledge (the rationally justified authority) immediately assumes ‘performative’ power” (ibid.). For Žižek, this is precisely the problem in perceptions of Stalinism: “Stalin was not (did not present himself as) a master, he was the highest servant of the people, legitimized by his knowledge and abilities” (LN: 1000). Indeed, according to Žižek, Stalinism did not actually suffer from an “excessive ‘cult of personality,’ but quite the opposite: [Stalin] was not enough of a Master but remained part of the bureaucratic-party Knowledge, the exemplary subject-supposed-to-know” (ibid.). Žižek also pushes back against the characterization of Stalinism as “Bureaucratic socialism” – the problem for Žižek is not that Stalinism was mired in bureaucracy as Stalin himself was wont to declare, but the contrary, that what “Stalinist regimes really lacked was precisely an efficient ‘bureaucracy’” – that is, to reiterate the definition of the term, “a depoliticized and competent administrative apparatus” that stood separate from Stalin (LC: 259).

For Žižek, Kafka’s novels are exemplary of the dangers of integrating ruler and bureaucracy. Žižek counters the usual claims about Kafka that the worlds of his novels are an irrational or exaggerated, a fantastic and subjectively distorted version of “modern bureaucracy and the fate of the individual within it”. On the contrary, he claims that these readings miss the fact that “this very ‘exaggeration’… articulates the fantasy regulating the libidinal functioning of the ‘effective, ‘real’ bureaucracy itself” (SO: 33). He clarifies this passage by stating that Kafka’s world is not a “fantasy image of social reality”; rather, it is an image of the “fantasy which is at work in the midst of social reality itself”. Th is fantasy works through a rather powerful “as if”: “We act as if we believe in the almightiness of bureaucracy, as if the President incarnates the Will of the People, as if the Party expresses the objective interest of the working class” (SO: 34).

Throughout Žižek’s writing, the idea of bureaucracy is closely linked to Hegelian considerations of monarchy. Bureaucracy also holds its own symbolic efficiency, however, and in contemporary society, in the absence of a monarch, can take the place of the master-signifier. The mystique of bureaucracy holds the power to shape both social reality itself and the functioning fantasies within it.