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Design Is a Bureaucrat

Image by imp kerr

But had we devised independently at least the more practical sorts of inventions, this could not but have had profound influence upon the conduct of our everyday lives, and even upon government, religion, art, and business. —Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

Portions of this essay first appeared at Generation BubbleOver 40 years of constant upheaval since President Richard Nixon closed the gold window on August 15, 1971, throwing the U.S. dollar into currency markets and the country’s industrial base into a death spiral; after decades of urban decay, white flight, suburbs, exurbs, mixed-use “third spaces” and the mallification of just about everywhere; after “Morning in America” gave way to an “Ownership Society” false dawn and a Götterdämmerung of “Too Big to Fail,” one fact abides.

Indeed, it abides with such undeniable persistence that to state it is to repeat a commonplace. Pioneering sociologist Georg Simmel first observed this fact in 1903, which he articulates in his landmark essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life“: “The metropolis has always been the seat of the money economy.” This seems uncontroversial enough an assertion. Simmel doesn’t seek to establish the historical validity of this statement (he treats it as self-evident) but to consider the consequences of this eternal fact on the individual for whom the metropolis is milieu.

The importance of considering the metropolis’s effect on the human individual, particularly at this historical moment when so grave a sense of catastrophe — religious, secular, or otherwise — inflects current popular discourse, cannot be overstated. Peak oil, greenhouse gas, heavy weather, war, rumors of war, pandemics, and just plain pandemonium represent but a few selections on today’s syllabus of doom. And if each reads from the same text, their construals vary widely. One truth remains, however, upon which they all readily agree: Their way of life as citizens of a developed nation trembles on the cusp of profound and lasting change.

Soothsayers tend to depict the shape of things to come in only the sketchiest free hand; for the embellishment of tone and shadow they inevitably resort to the palette blends of their subjectivities. James Howard Kunstler, perhaps the most vocal and voluble self-styled expert on this profound and lasting change, works in black and muted gray. Even a cursory perusal of Kunstler’s site Clusterfuck Nation reveals imaginary landscapes of dreary eighteenth-century monotones — “a world make by hand,” as Kunstler likes to call it, and powered by Lord knows what. Certainly not petroleum (Kunstler, a member of the peak-oil vanguard, laughs this off as impossible), not even coal or steam. Water, then? Wind? On such particulars Kunstler remains somewhat vague and noncommittal. He occupies himself with the theme of inexorable demise, which he gives the name the “Long Emergency.” “American life will just wind down, no matter what we believe,” Kunstler writes in post from a few years ago.

It won’t wind down to a complete stop. Its near-term destination is to lower levels of complexity and scale than what we’ve been used to for a long time. People will be able to drive fewer cars fewer miles. The roads will get worse. They’ll be worse in some places than others. There will be fewer jobs to go to and fewer things sold. People who live in communities scaled to the energy and capital realities of the years ahead are liable to be more comfortable. We’re surely going to have trouble with money. Households will drown in debt and lose all their savings. Money could be scarce or worthless. Credit will be scarcer.

From Kunstler’s point of view, postindustrial America will eventually look a lot like preindustrial America, albeit peppered with some technologically advanced doo-dads, concentrated, of course, at the tip-top of the postcollapse income distribution. (Think OnStar in covered wagons and MacBook Airs recharged by windmills.) Whatever devices the new aristocracy permit to fall into the hands of lowly clods will serve only to perform the new work of nations: the cyberdrudgery of constant tweets, Facebook updates, and one-click purchases.

Answering Kunstler’s somber chiaroscuro with saturated tones at once gauzy and bold, economic and social theorist Richard Florida foresees a future in which urban centers go not gently into that good night but go supernova, bursting into the second decade of the 21st century with renewed vigor. He predicts that the tripartite law of real-estate value — location, location, location — will become a general axiom of the economy to come. “Worldwide,” he observed back in 2009, “people are crowding into a discrete number of mega-regions, systems of multiple cities and their surrounding suburban rings,” a trend resulting in what he calls “talent-clustering”: Educated worthies flock to these mega-regions to realize their gifts, filling the area talent pool to a point where whole algae-blooms of vibrancy and brilliance issue forth to adorn the cityscape. Out of this talent clustering, Florida claims, arises “the creative class,” who will steer us toward our manifest aesthetico-techno-utopian destiny.

What resolves into view as the culmination of Florida’s auguries is a three-tiered society consisting of a minuscule elite of obscenely rich landlords, a slightly larger contingent of rent-gouged tastemakers below them and the great unwashed masses of the hills and plains on the bottom, to all outward appearances living in a way closer to Kunstler’s expectations than to Florida’s.

The coniunctio oppositorum of the competing visions of Kunstler and Florida means, for those with eyes to see it, effectively a single outcome best described as the “20:80 society,” in which, as the phrase’s coiners Hans-Peter Martin and Harald Schuhmann explain in their book The Global Trap: Globalization and the Assault on Prosperity and Democracy, “a fifth of all jobseekers” prove sufficient “to produce all the goods and perform all the top-flight services that the world society can afford.” For their troubles, this fortunate fifth gain full world-society citizenship and enjoy all its attendant privileges. That is, they receive license to “actively participate in living, earning and consuming.” From the remaining four-fifths, this license is apparently revoked.

The notion of the 20:80 society reeks so thoroughly of neoliberalism that those who do not subscribe to that ideology might hasten to dismiss it. But if events of the past half-decade have shown us anything, it’s that neoliberalism has become so hegemonic that even its most nihilistic and outrageous fantasies achieve an air of inevitability. The fraction that stands to gain would have the rest believe such economic lopsidedness owes not to conscious policy choices but to historical necessity. The only question remaining, as far as the lucky minority is concerned, is whether the hordes of losers will have to be frog-marched into this brave new world or whether they’ll go goose-stepping into it.


Pitch-perfect propaganda does wonders to persuade the masses to embrace the fate you have prepared for them — a fate characterized by Robert Kuttner in The Squandering of America as “The Tchotchke Economy” in which devices rather than property confer status. “As Americans have trouble affording the big things, many of us comfort ourselves with gadgets,” he writes. “The emblem of the new economy might be a 35-year-old listening to an iPod, with no health insurance, living in a shared apartment much more modest than the house he grew up in and struggling to pay the rent.” Kuttner’s poor schlub mistakes the surrogacy of “luxury consumption” for “secure membership in the middle class.” Denied membership in the emerging elite of the 20:80 society, he relies on the signifying power of items whose cachet rests on the tautologies of their branding.

As Kuttner’s déclassé iPod listener grapples with this status, the language of consumer objects by which he attempts to express himself invites a hermeneutic with which to interpret it. The same year that Florida heralded the ascension of the creative class as the rightful guardians of the rentier elite, filmmaker Gary Hustwit released Objectified (2009), a documentary that recommended itself as exactly this hermeneutic, offering to peel back the many-layered mystery of design and designy things.

Objectified makes a pretense of objectivity but mostly takes an uncritical, even loving, approach to its subject. Many feet of film (or perhaps megabytes of memory) are spent in lavish regard for design and the fingerprints it leaves all over both public and private space. In this respect, the film is less a documentary than a visual love letter to designers and other luminaries of the creative class — many of whom appear in the film.

Hustwit’s repeated indulgence of leaving the camera trained on objects being manufactured — a sort of cinematic Hamburger Helper extending a meager conceit — began to have an attritive effect on the tone of sunny technological optimism his film seemed eager to maintain. In their frequency and duration, these scenes brought out implications contrary to his apparent design in a manner reminiscent of literary theorist Pierre Macherey’s claim in Theory of Literary Production that literary texts “say what they do not say.” This is an admittedly cryptic way of asserting that the literary representation of some subject is at the same time a suppression of other ways of wording and thus representing it. These alternates are banished to “the margins” of the text. The actual wording on the page is one among myriad possible others, yet one that achieves a sort of incumbency simply by dint of it inscription.

Criticism in the spirit of Macherey, then, is an act of recuperation. The “spoken” — i. e., the literary representation appearing on the page — presents a point of entry through which the many marginalized other significations can be accessed in order to be brought dialectically to bear on what’s on the page, producing what Macherey’s teacher (and noted uxorcide) Louis Althusser called a symptomatic reading. Such a reading of Objectified reveals an urge for impeccable order, an incurable desire to purge from public view the irregular, the odd, the heteroclite, and even the excessively ornate or strictly utilitarian in favor of a whole array of everyday things boasting clean lines and soothing orbicularities — a regime of Platonic functionality, in other words, vouchsafed to an auxiliary of designers equipped with the latest drafting software and laser-guided precision instruments. The film comes across as a fevered portent of the world to come: the dictatorship of a tiny propertied “inner party” supported, enforced and exalted by a creative class “outer party” grateful to be so deputized because it means rescue from the Lumpenproletarian desuetude into which the bulk of humanity has lapsed.

At one point in Objectified, such a dictatorship is explicitly endorsed. One interviewee, Paola Antonelli, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, insisted that designers, already unacknowledged legislators of taste by virtue of their creative-class status, ought not only to win acknowledgment but also access to the corridors of power for their trouble. Designers should be empowered as cultural arbiters with their pronouncements not simply matters of passing interest but binding decrees.

Antonelli’s authoritarian tone points to power relations that lurk at the heart of any discussion of the true, the beautiful, and the good. Pull back the folds of any discourse on aesthetics and one is bound to discover principles that tend to justify the existing order. Or so Walter Benjamin concluded in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”: ”The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process.”

Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.

The ascendancy of design seems to break along similar lines, offering consumers the opportunity to express themselves while at the same time backstopping the existing order by salvaging surplus value from what to all outward appearances is an almost completely automated process. The strongest impression made by Objectified  is how thoroughly rarefied it makes actual labor appear from the manufacture of designed goods. Indeed, it’s attenuated almost to the point of being merely gestural. Some whittling of models, some free-hand sketching, a few clicks of the mouse — such is the extent of the human touch. From there, machines of various sorts take over. Even the most intricate details are etched into components by laser-and-servo instruments, which execute the work in a matter of seconds. The various production processes on display in the film suggest that the single most intractable matter with regard to production — the cost of labor — has been definitively put to rest.

The value added by design is dubious at best, measurable only through revealed preference rather than concrete utility or additional direct human attention in the manufacturing process. Yet customers remain willing to reveal such preferences by paying a premium for signifiers of designy-ness. Design, like fascism, leads people to misunderstand the fundamental verities of their existence. Objectified, with its many depictions of almost complete automation, should be showing us the way to emancipation; instead, it leads us down the primrose path to an ever more suffocating consumerism.

How does such a state of affairs come to pass? “Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible,” observes novelist and critic John Berger in Ways of Seeing. “This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable.” This false standard mystifies an issue which is at its root political and transforms it into an aesthetic one.

Once this transformation takes hold, the phantasmagoria that is consumer culture diverts the attention and dissipates the energies of the majority into small matters of taste and personal expression, frivolities which pose no threat whatsoever to the status quo (despite claims to the contrary by so-called “prosumers,” folks who insist that by shopping this way or that, one can effect political change or can promote proper ethical conduct). Design’s extension to things as mundane as toothbrushes and plungers  represents the absolute triumph of aesthetics over politics. And the fact that it managed to do so with few rallies, bonfires, or parades — though certainly with a great deal of spectacle — only highlights the truth that fascism the second time around will present itself in an altogether new guise.

Indeed, designers — and the cult of design generally — participate in the phenomenon of “inverted totalitarianism” that the term’s coiner, political theorist Sheldon Wolin, sees as having Americans in its grip. “The Nazi and Fascist regimes were powered by revolutionary movements whose aim was not only to capture, reconstitute, and monopolize state power but also to gain control over the economy,” Wolin writes in Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. “By controlling the state and the economy, the revolutionaries gained the leverage necessary to reconstruct, then mobilize society. In contrast, inverted totalitarianism is only in part a state-centered phenomenon. Primarily it represents the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry.” Michael Graves and Jonathan Ive succeed where Josef Goebbels and Vyacheslav Molotov failed.

The recommendation in Objectified that citizens of every nation refer their cultural questions to designers can only be of use to citizens who have lost sight of the fact that such questions can’t be answered in strictly aesthetic terms. This is because aesthetic questions are fundamentally political. Canons of taste help keep the existing order in place. Design, with its aim of conferring aesthetic value upon the humblest household items, simply attaches more articles and subsections to these canons. Design represents, in other words, a depoliticized form of democracy — a most convenient arrangement if one happens to rank among the wealthy elite who wouldn’t like to see their privileged perches rocked by a form of democracy with any real bite to it.


The ideology of design fails to deliver on its promise of a democratization of aesthetics. Instead it mires people more fixedly in the dreary procedures of conspicuous consumption. Its constant refrain is not “You deserve better than capitalism,” but rather, “You deserve better than the jerks exploited to serve the interests of those to whom falls the lion’s share.” In his book The System of Objects Jean Baudrillard writes of “the ambiguity of the object,” an infernal toil “in which individuals never have the opportunity to surpass themselves, but can only re-collect themselves … in their desires and in the forces that censor their desires.” This state of affairs is brought about by the fact that “a censor is personalized in the object,” resulting in “censorship [that] operates through ‘unconstrained’ behaviors (purchasing, choice, consumption), and through spontaneous investment.”

The system of objects is thus a system of personalized censors, each one seeing to it that the individual’s desire is aroused in such a manner that it may be channeled into an “impoverished language” of limited signs (i.e., salable goods) and indexed assumptions about desire (i.e., market research, target demographics). By ponying up the premium attached to a Dirt Devil spot-vac that resembles a Brancusi sculpture, you manage to differentiate yourself from riff-raff compelled by necessity to settle for spot-vacs that look like, well, spot-vacs. In this light, sleek commodities appear less décor than dispositif, less notions than nodes of a vast, decentered bureaucracy to administer a regime of inverted totalitarianism through the licensing, validation, evaluation, registration, and distribution of desire in acceptable expressions.

In their characteristically impenetrable way, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, take a discursive stab at bureaucracy’s dark heart. Offering a consideration of Kafka in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, they find in their subject’s work not “a desire for bureaucracy” or a will “to repress or to be repressed.” Rather, they identify “the bureaucracy as desire [emphasis added],” out of which flow “the divisions of oppressor and oppressed, repressor and repressed.” Bureaucracies come into existence because most people cannot deal with their desire in its most immediate form, which for Deleuze and Guattari is invariably excessive, ecstatic, polymorphous, impersonal yet deeply intimate — crowned Anarchy’s reign of a thousand years.

Utopia bereft of desire gives way to bureaucracy, the former’s creaking, mechanical facsimile. The fact neither capitalist and socialist socioeconomic orders, in all their guises and permutations, ever once managed to escape the need for bureaucracy only reinforces the idea that humanity must get its libidinal act together if it’s ever to get together its political.

This seems a tall order, however, especially these days, when design would have us conflate the two. One theorist who manages to distill the essence of bureaucracies is avowed deleuzoguattarian Manuel De Landa. Riffing on themes developed by his forebears, De Landa characterizes bureaucracy as a force of nearly geological inevitability. “Bureaucracies have always arisen to effect planned extraction of energy surpluses (taxes, tribute, rents, forced labor),” he writes in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, “and they expand in proportion to their ability to control and process those energy flows.” Whether this energy is ultimately libidinal, as Deleuze and Guattari would have it is of secondary importance. The larger question that begs asking is, whither the impulse to extract surplus energy? That an elaborate apparatus like a bureaucracy hulks into existence in order to meet this need only attests to the urgency with which the need is felt. At the back of it you can’t help feeling that there are dogs in the manger, denying others more sustenance than they themselves could ever consume, and to such an extent that the frisson that comes with denying others the full fruits of their efforts far surpasses the feeling that comes with satiety honestly achieved. Bureaucracy is the psychopathology of sadism elevated to the level of institution.

This realization as to the true nature of bureaucracy leaves you wondering just to what extent its evil pervades the social body. As Situationist paterfamilias Guy Debord observes in The Society of the Spectacle, bureaucracy’s “ultimate function” involves “continuing the reign of the economy by preserving the essence of market society,” and this essence is none other than “commodified labor.” Revolutionary slogans become mere phonemes when sent through bureaucracy’s wringer. In fact, bureaucracy’s birth signals progress’s death, if for no other reason than progress lapses into the legitimizing pretext for perpetuating bureaucracy, whose true raison d’être is simply its own continued existence and function. Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. And if it requires harrowing heaven to do so, so must it be.

Requisite to bureaucracy’s monolithic totality is a little accumulation of a most primitive sort. “Wherever separate power replaces the independent action of the masses,” observes Debord’s cohort, Mustapha Khayati, in “Captive Words (Preface to a Situationist Dictionary)“,

hence wherever bureaucracy seizes administration of all aspects of social life, it attacks language and reduces poetry to the ordinary prose of its information. It takes language for its own use, like everything else, and imposes it on the masses…. That language is above all a means of communication between men is ignored by bureaucracy. Since all communication passes through it, men no longer even need speak of it: above all they must accept their role as receivers, that is, receivers of orders to be carried out in the information-based communication network to which all of society is being reduced.

Debord and Khayati’s concern about the unidirectional, jussive character of language conquered by bureaucracy may have once been more imagined than real, but no longer. The various technological doo-dads flooding the market — Androids, iPads, Kindles —  represent not the means of liberation but our more thorough enthrallment to the bottom-up power relations of which the dispositif of design is so telling an instance. In his book Metapolitics French philosopher Alain Badiou writes that “it is essential to the normal functioning of the State that its power remain measureless, errant, unassignable.” Can you think of a better way to keep state power in this condition than by distributing it over a network of countless desktops, laptops, tablet PCs and smartphones — a network that, moreover, supports this power with such lack of ostentation that its users forget that it does so? Next time you peer into your personal entertainment device’s innocuous touchscreen, imagine that you’re clutching something from the darkest recesses of Kafka’s imagination. (Odradek, if you will, or something of the sort.) That little machine chiefly represents a means of extracting your surplus energy for purposes of directing it into the deep, depoliticized caverns of the ideology of design that gave rise to it in the hope that you’ll be entranced by the hollow bourgeois echo that returns to you.

Voltaire once wrote that if God didn’t exist, he would have to be invented. The same can be said for the hegemony of design and the inverted-totalitarian polity it both shapes and serves. You need only loosen up your conception of bureaucracy to appreciate this. The “take a number and we’ll be right with you, but first make sure you have completed the following forms” model of bureaucracy? That’s so “old economy.” In the world to come, bureaucracy, like everything else under the sun, will be all slim lines, intuitive interfaces and frictionless functionality. It will be miniaturized and digitized, so you can take it with you wherever you go. Now that’s convenience.

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