Void Manufacturing

“Turning and turning in a cell, like a fly that doesn’t know where to die.”

A High Quality David Graeber Essay

Posted by voidmanufacturing on August 5, 2008

 

 

 

Beyond Power/Knowledge 

an exploration of the relation of 

power, ignorance and stupidity 

 

Professor David Graeber 

LSE 

Thursday 25 May 2006

 

 

 Let me begin with a brief story about bureaucracy. 

 Over the last year my mother had a series of strokes. It soon became obvious that 

she would eventually be incapable of living at home without assistance; since her 

insurance would not cover home care, a series of social workers advised us to put in for 

Medicaid. To qualify for Medicaid however, one’s total worth can only amount to six 

thousand dollars. We arranged to transfer her savings—this was, I suppose, technically a 

scam, though it’s a peculiar sort of scam since the government employs thousands of 

social workers whose main work seems to be telling citizens how to do it—but shortly 

thereafter, she had another, very serious stroke, and found herself in a nursing home 

undergoing long-term rehabilitation. When she emerged from there she would definitely 

need home care, but there was a problem: her social security check was being deposited 

directly, she was barely able to sign her name, so unless I acquired power of attorney 

over her account and was thus able to pay her monthly rent bills for her, the money 

would immediately build up and disqualify her, even after I filled out the enormous raft 

of Medicaid documents I needed to file to qualify her for pending status.  

 I went to her bank, picked up the requisite forms, and brought them to the nursing 

home. The documents needed to be notarized. The nurse on the floor informed me there 

was an in-house notary, but I needed to make an appointment; she picked up the phone 

and put me through to a disembodied voice, who then transferred me to the notary. The 

notary proceeded to inform me I first had to get authorization from the head of social 

work, and hung up. So I acquired his name and room number and duly took the elevator 

downstairs, appeared at his office—only to discover he was, in fact, the disembodied 

voice on the phone. The head of social work picked up the phone, said “Marjorie, that 

was me, you’re driving this man crazy with this nonsense and you’re driving me crazy 

too”, and proceeded to secure me an appointment for early the next week.  

 The next week the notary duly appeared, accompanied me upstairs, made sure I’d 

filled out my side of the form (as had been repeatedly emphasized to me), and then, in my 

mother’s presence, proceeded to fill out her own. I was a little puzzled that she didn’t ask 

my mother to sign anything, only me, but I figured she must know what she was doing. 

The next day I took it to the bank, where the woman at the desk took one look, asked why 

my mother hadn’t signed it, and showed it to her manager, who told me to take it back 

and do it right. Apparently the notary had no idea what she was doing. So I got new 

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forms, filled out my side of each, and made a new appointment. On the appointed day the 

notary duly appeared, and after some awkward remarks about the difficulties caused by 

each bank having its own, completely different power of attorney form, we proceeded 

upstairs. I signed, my mother signed—with some difficulty—and the next day I returned 

to the bank. Another woman at a different desk examined the forms and asked why I had 

signed the line where it said to write my name and printed my name on the line where it 

said to sign.  

 “I did? Well, I just did exactly what the notary told me to do.” 

 “But it says clearly ‘signature’ here.” 

 “Oh, yes, it does, doesn’t it? I guess she told me wrong. Again. Well… all the 

information is still there, isn’t it? It’s just those two bits that are reversed. So is it really a 

problem? It’s kind of pressing and I’d really rather not have to wait to make another 

appointment.”  

 “Well, normally we don’t even accept these forms without all the signatories 

being here in person.” 

 “My mother had a stroke. She’s bedridden. That’s why I need power of attorney 

in the first place.” 

 She said she’d check with the manager, and after ten minutes returned, saying the 

bank could not accept the forms in their present state, and in addition, even if they were 

filled out correctly, I would still need a letter from my mother’s doctor certifying that she 

was mentally competent to sign such a document. I pointed out that no one had 

mentioned any such letter previously.  

“What?” asked the manager, who was listening in. “Who gave you those forms 

and didn’t tell you about the letter?” 

Since the apparent culprit was actually one of the nicer bank employees, I 

changed the subject, noting that in the bankbook it was printed, quite clearly, “in trust for 

David Graeber”. He of course replied that would only matter if she was dead. 

 As it happened, the whole problem soon became academic: my mother did indeed 

die a few weeks later.  

 At the time, I found this experience extremely disconcerting. Having led an 

existence comparatively insulated from this sort of thing, I found myself continually 

asking my friends: is this what ordinary life, for most people, is really like? Most were 

inclined to suspect it was. Obviously, the notary was unusually incompetent. Still, I had 

to spend over a month not long after dealing with the consequences of some anonymous 

clerk in the New York Department of Motor Vehicles who decided my given name was 

“Daid”, not to mention the Verizon clerk who spelled my surname “Grueber”. 

Bureaucracies public and private appear—for whatever historical reasons—to be 

organized in such a way as to guarantee that a significant proportion of actors will not be 

able to perform their tasks as expected. It also exemplifies what I have come to think of 

the defining feature of a utopian form of practice, in that, on discovering this, those 

maintaining the system conclude that the problem is not with the system itself but with 

the inadequacy of the human beings involved.  

 As an intellectual, probably the most disturbing thing was how dealing with these 

forms somehow rendered me stupid too. How could I not have noticed that I was printing 

my name on the line that said “signature”? This despite the fact that I had been investing 

a great deal of mental and emotional energy in the whole affair. The problem, I think, 

was that most of this energy was going into a continual attempt to try to understand and 

influence whoever, at any moment, seemed to have some kind of bureaucratic power over 

 3 

me—when what was required was the correct interpretation of one or two Latin words, 

and correct performance of purely mechanical functions. Spending so much of my time 

worrying about how not to seem like I was rubbing the notary’s face in her 

incompetence, or imagining what might make me seem sympathetic to various bank 

officials, made me less inclined to notice when they told me to do something foolish.  It 

was an obviously misplaced strategy, since insofar as anyone had the power to bend the 

rules they were usually not the people I was talking to; moreover, if I did encounter them, 

I was constantly being reminded that if I did complain, even about a purely structural 

absurdity, the only possible result would be to get some junior functionary in trouble.   

 As an anthropologist, probably the most curious thing for me was how little trace 

any of this tends to leave in the ethnographic literature. After all, we anthropologists have 

made something of a specialty out of dealing with the ritual surrounding birth, marriage, 

death, and similar rites of passage. We are particularly concerned with ritual gestures that 

are socially efficacious: where the mere act of saying or doing something makes it 

socially true. Yet in most existing societies at this point, it is precisely paperwork, not 

other forms of ritual, that is socially efficacious. My mother, for example, wished to be 

cremated without ceremony; my main memory of the funeral home though was of the 

plump, good-natured clerk who walked me through a 14-page document he had to file in 

order to obtain a death certificate, written in ballpoint on carbon paper so it came out in 

triplicate. “How many hours a day do you spend filling out forms like that?” I asked. He 

sighed. “It’s all I do,” holding up a hand bandaged from some kind of incipient carpal 

tunnel syndrome. Without those forms, my mother would not be, legally—socially— 

dead. 

 Why, then, are there not vast ethnographic tomes about American or British rites 

of passage, with long chapters about forms and paperwork? The obvious answer is that 

paperwork is boring. There really aren’t many interesting things one can say about it.  

 Anthropologists are drawn to areas of density. The interpretative tools we have at 

our disposal are best suited to unpack complex webs of meaning or signification: intricate 

ritual symbolism, social dramas, poetic forms, kinship networks… What all these have in 

common is that they tend to be both infinitely rich, and at the same time, open-ended; if 

one’s intention was to exhaust every meaning, motives, or association packed in to a 

single Ncwala ritual, Balinese cockfight, witchcraft accusation, or family saga, one could 

potentially go on forever: all the more of so if one also wished to trace its relations with 

other elements in the larger social or symbolic fields they invariably open up. Forms in 

contrast are designed to be maximally simple and self-contained. There just isn’t much 

there to interpret. Literature, of course, has the same problem with bureaucracy. At best it 

can become the object of some kind of bleak Kafkaesque comedy. But even here there, 

it’s probably significant that Kafka has remained pretty much the only author to have 

made great literature of any sort out of bureaucracy: there’s so little there that once 

you’ve done it, there’s nothing left for anyone to add. 

 Still, social theory abhors a vacuum. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the 

literature on bureaucracy itself. Insofar as ethnographies of bureaucracy exist—the 

paradigm here is Herzfeld’s “The Social Production of Indifference” (1992)—the 

“bureaucracy as idiocy” perspective tends to be represented at best as the naïve folk 

model whose existence any sophisticated, cultural understanding of the phenomenon 

must start by being able to explain. This is not to say such works necessarily deny that 

immersion in bureaucratic codes and regulations does, in fact, regularly cause people to 

act in ways that in any other context would be considered idiotic. Just about anyone is 

 4 

aware from personal experiences that they do. Yet for purposes of cultural analysis, truth 

is rarely considered an adequate explanation. At best one can expect a “yes, but…”— 

with the assumption that the “but” introduces everything that’s really important.  

When we pass to the more rarified domains of theory, even that “yes, but” usually 

disappears. Consider the hegemonic role, in US social theory, of Max Weber in the ‘50s 

and ‘60s, and of Michel Foucault ever since. Their popularity, no doubt, had much to do 

with the ease with which each could be adopted as a kind of anti-Marx, their theories put 

forth (usually in crudely simplified form) to argue that power is not simply or primarily a 

matter of the control of production but rather a pervasive, multifaceted, and unavoidable 

feature of any social life. I also think it’s no coincidence that these sometimes appear to 

be the only two intelligent people in human history who honestly believed that 

bureaucracies work. Weber saw bureaucratic forms of organization as the very 

embodiment of rationality, so obviously superior to any alternative that they threatened to 

lock humanity in a joyless “iron cage”, bereft of spirit and charisma. Foucault was far 

more subversive, but in a way that made bureaucratic power more effective, not less. 

Bodies, subjects, truth itself, all become the products of administrative discourses; 

through concepts like governmentality and biopower, state bureaucracies end up shaping 

the terms of human existence in ways far more intimate than anything Weber would have 

possibly imagined.   

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, in either case, their popularity owed much 

to the fact that the American university system during this period had itself become 

increasingly an institution dedicated to producing functionaries for an imperial 

administrative apparatus on a global scale. The current ascendancy of Foucault seems 

trace back to ‘60s radicals’ rejection of Talcott Parson’s version of Weber for precisely 

this reason; the ultimate result however was a kind of division of labor, with the 

optimistic side of Weber reinvented in even more simplified form for the actual training 

of bureaucrats under the name of “rational choice theory”, while of the pessimistic side 

was relegated to the Foucauldians. Foucault’s ascendancy in turn was precisely within 

those fields of academic endeavor that both became the haven for former radicals, but 

that were themselves most completely divorced from any access to political power, or 

increasingly, even to real social movements—which gave Foucault’s emphasis on the 

“power/knowledge” nexus, the assertion that forms of knowledge are always also forms 

of social power, indeed, the most important forms of social power, a particular appeal.  

No doubt any such historical argument is a bit caricaturish and unfair; but I think 

there is a profound truth here. It is not just that we are drawn to areas of density, where 

our skills at interpretation are best deployed. We also have an increasing tendency to 

identify what’s interesting and what’s important, to assume places of density are also 

places of power. The power of bureaucracy shows just how much this is often not the 

case. 

This essay is not, however, primarily about bureaucracy—or even about the 

reasons for its neglect in anthropology and related disciplines. It is really about violence. 

What I would like to argue is that situations created by violence—particularly structural 

violence, by which I mean forms of pervasive social inequality that are ultimately backed 

up by the threat of physical harm—invariably tend to create the kinds of willful blindness 

we normally associate with bureaucratic procedures. To put it crudely: it is not so much 

that bureaucratic procedures are inherently stupid, or even that they tend to produce 

behavior that they themselves define as stupid, but rather, that are invariably ways of 

managing social situations that are already stupid because they are founded on structural 

 5 

violence. I think this approach allows potential insights into matters that are, in fact, both 

interesting and important: for instance, the actual relationship between those forms of 

simplification typical of social theory, and those typical of administrative procedures.  

 

 

II 

 

 We are not used to thinking of nursing homes or banks or even HMOs as violent 

institutions—except perhaps in the most abstract and metaphorical sense. But the 

violence I’m referring to here is not epistemic. It’s quite concrete. All of these are 

institutions involved in the allocation of resources within a system of property rights 

regulated and guaranteed by governments in a system that ultimately rests on the threat of 

force. “Force” in turn is just a euphemistic way to refer to violence.  

All of this is obvious enough. What’s of ethnographic interest, perhaps, is how 

rarely citizens in industrial democracies actually think about this fact, or how 

instinctively we try to discount its importance. This is what makes it possible, for 

example, for graduate students to be able to spend days in the stacks of university 

libraries poring over theoretical tracts about the declining importance of coercion as a 

factor in modern life, without ever reflecting on that fact that, had they insisted on their 

right to enter the stacks without showing a properly stamped and validated ID, armed 

men would have been summoned to physically remove them. It’s almost as the more we 

allow aspects of our everyday existence to fall under the purview of bureaucratic 

regulations, the more everyone concerned colludes to downplay the fact (perfectly 

obvious to those actually running the system) that all of it ultimately depends on the 

threat of violence. 

 In many of the rural communities that anthropologists are most familiar with, 

where modern administrative techniques are explicitly seen as alien impositions, many of 

these connections are much easier to see. In the part of rural Madagascar where I did my 

fieldwork, for example, that governments operate primarily by inspiring fear was seen as 

obvious. At the same time, in the absence of any significant government interference in 

the minutiae of daily life (via building codes, open container laws, the mandatory 

insuring of vehicles and so on), it became all the more apparent that the main business of 

government bureaucracy was the registration of taxable property. One curious result was 

that it was precisely the sort of information that was available from the Malagasy 

archives for the 19th and early 20th centuries for the community I was studying—precise 

figures about the size of each family and its holdings in land and cattle (and in the earlier 

period, slaves)—that I was least able to attain for the time I was there, simply because 

that was precisely what most people assumed an outsider coming from the capital would 

be likely to be asking about, and therefore, which they were least inclined to tell them.  

What’s more, one result of the colonial experience was that what might be called 

relations of command—basically, any ongoing relationship in which one adult renders 

another an extension of his or her will—had become identified with slavery, and slavery, 

with the essential nature of the state. In the community I studied, such associations were 

most likely to come to the fore when people were talking about the great slave-holding 

families of the 19th century whose children went on to become the core of the colonial- 

era administration, largely (it was always remarked) by dint of their devotion to 

education and skill with paperwork. In other contexts, relations of command, particularly 

 6 

in bureaucratic contexts, were linguistically coded: they were firmly identified with 

French; Malagasy, in contrast, was seen as the language appropriate to deliberation, 

explanation, and consensus decision-making. Minor functionaries, when they wished to 

impose arbitrary dictates, would almost invariably switch to French. I particularly 

remember one occasion when an official who had had many conversations with me in 

Malagasy, and had no idea I even understood French, was flustered one day to discover 

me dropping by at exactly the moment everyone had decided to go home early. “The 

office is closed,” he announced, in French, “if you have any business you must return 

tomorrow at 8AM.” When I pretended confusion and claimed, in Malagasy, not to 

understand French, he proved utterly incapable of repeating the sentence in the 

vernacular, but just kept repeating the French over and over. Others later confirmed what 

I suspected: that if he had switched to Malagasy, he would at the very least have had to 

explain why the office had closed at such an unusual time. French is actually referred to 

in Malagasy as “the language of command”; it was characteristic of contexts where 

explanations, deliberation, ultimately, consent, was not really required, since they were 

ultimately premised on the threat of violence.  

In Madagascar, bureaucratic power was somewhat redeemed in most people’s 

minds by its tie to education. Comparative analysis suggests there is a direct relation 

however between the level of violence employed in a bureaucratic system, and the level 

of absurdity it is seen to produce. Keith Breckenridge, for example, has documented at 

some length the regimes of “power without knowledge” typical of colonial South Africa 

(2003), where coercion and paperwork largely substituted for the need for understanding 

African subjects. The actual installation of apartheid beginning in the 1950s, for example, 

was heralded by a new pass system that was designed to simplify earlier rules that 

obliged African workers to carry extensive documentation of labor contracts, substituting 

a single identity booklet, marked with their “names, locale, fingerprints, tax status, and 

their officially prescribed ‘rights’ to live and work in the towns and cities” (2005:84), and 

nothing else. Government functionaries appreciated it for streamlining administration, 

police for relieving them of the responsibility of having to actually talk to African 

workers; the latter universally referred to as the “dompas”, or “stupid pass”, for precisely 

that reason.  

 There are traces of the link between coercion and absurdity even in the way we 

talk about bureaucracy in English: note for example, how most of the colloquial terms 

that specifically refer to bureaucratic foolishness, SNAFU, Catch-22 and the like—derive 

from military slang. More generally, political scientists have long observed a “negative 

correlation”, as David Apter put it (1965, 1971) between coercion and information: that 

is, while relatively democratic regimes tend to be awash in too much information, the 

more authoritarian and repressive a regime, the less reason people have to tell it 

anything—which is why such regimes are forced to rely so heavily on spies, intelligence 

agencies, and secret police.   

 

 

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III 

 

 Violence’s capacity to allow arbitrary decisions, and thus to avoid the kind of 

debate, clarification and renegotiation typical of more egalitarian social relations, is 

obviously what allows its victims to see procedures created on the basis of violence as 

stupid or unreasonable. One might say, those relying on the fear of force are not obliged 

to engage in a lot of interpretative labor, and thus, generally speaking, do not.  

 This is not an aspect of violence that has received much attention in the 

anthropological literature on the subject The latter has tended instead to emphasize the 

ways that acts of violence are meaningful and communicative. It seems to me this is an 

area where we are particularly prone to fall victim to the confusion of interpretive depth 

and social significance: that is, to assume that the most interesting aspect of violence is 

also the most important. This is not to say that acts of violence are not, generally 

speaking, also acts of communication. Clearly they are. But this is true of any other form 

of human action as well. It strikes me that what is really important about violence is that 

it is perhaps the only form of human action that holds out even the possibility of having 

social effects without being communicative. To be more precise: violence may well be 

the only form of human action by which it is possible to have relatively predictable 

effects on the actions of a person about whom you understand nothing. Pretty much any 

other way one might try to influence another’s actions, one at least has to have some idea 

who they think they are, who they think you are, what they might want out of the 

situation, their aversions and proclivities, and so forth. Hit them over the head hard 

enough, all of this becomes irrelevant.  

It is true that the effects one can have by disabling or killing someone are very 

limited, but they are real enough, and critically, they are predictable. Any alternative 

form of action cannot, without some sort of appeal to shared meanings or understandings, 

have any predictable effects at all. What’s more, while attempts to influence others by the 

threat of violence do require some level of shared understandings, these can be pretty 

minimal. It’s important to bear in mind that most human relations—particularly ongoing 

ones, whether between longstanding friends or longstanding enemies—are extremely 

complicated, dense with experience and meaning. Maintaining them requires a constant 

and often subtle work of interpretation, of endlessly imagining others’ points of view. 

Threatening others with physical harm allows the possibility of cutting through all this. It 

makes possible relations of a far more schematic kind (i.e., ‘cross this line and I will 

shoot you’). This is of course why violence is so often the preferred weapon of the 

stupid: indeed, one might say it is one of the tragedies of human existence that this is the 

one form of stupidity to which it is most difficult to come up with an intelligent response.  

 I do need to introduce one crucial qualification here. If two parties engaged in a 

contest of violence—say, generals commanding opposing armies—they have good 

reason to try to get inside each other’s heads. It is really only when one side has an 

overwhelming advantage in their capacity to cause physical harm that they no longer 

need to do so. But this has very profound effects, because it means that the most 

characteristic effect of violence—its ability to obviate the need for interpretive labor— 

becomes most salient when the violence itself is least visible, in fact, where acts of 

spectacular physical violence are least likely to occur. These are situations of what I’ve 

referred to as structural violence, on the assumption that systematic inequalities backed 

up by the threat of force can be treated as forms of violence in themselves. For this 

 8 

reason, situations of structural violence invariably produce extreme lopsided structures of 

imaginative identification. 

 These effects are often most visible when the structures of inequality take the 

most deeply internalized forms. A constant staple of 1950s American situation comedies, 

for example, was jokes about the impossibility of understanding women. The jokes 

(always of course told by men) always represented women’s logic as fundamentally alien 

and incomprehensible. One never had the impression the women in question had any 

trouble understanding men. The reasons are obvious: women had no choice but to 

understand men; this was the heyday of a certain image of the patriarchal family, and 

women with no access to their own income or resources had little choice but to spend a 

great deal of time and energy understanding what their menfolk thought was going on. 

Patriarchal families of this sort are, as generations of feminists have emphasized, most 

certainly forms of structural violence; their norms are indeed sanctioned by threat of 

physical harm in endless subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And this kind of rhetoric about 

the mysteries of womankind appears to be a perennial feature of them. Generations of 

women novelists—Virginia Woolf comes most immediately to mind—have also 

documented the other side of such arrangements: the constant efforts women end up 

having to expend in managing, maintaining, and adjusting the egos of oblivious and self- 

important  men, involving an continual work of imaginative identification or what I’ve 

called interpretive labor. This carries over on every level. Women are always expected to 

imagine what things look like from a male point of view. Men are almost never expected 

to reciprocate. So deeply internalized is this pattern of behavior that many men react to 

the suggestion that they might do otherwise as if it were an act of violence in itself. A 

popular exercise among High School creative writing teachers in America, for example, 

is to ask students to imagining they have been transformed, for a day, into someone of the 

opposite sex, and describe what that day might be like. The results, apparently, are 

uncannily uniform. The girls all write long and detailed essays that clearly show they 

have spent a great deal of time thinking about the subject. Half of the boys usually refuse 

to write the essay entirely. Those who do make it clear they have not the slightest 

conception what being a teenage girl might be like, and deeply resent having to think 

about it.  

 There are two critical elements here that, while linked, should probably be 

formally distinguished. The first is the process of imaginative identification as a form of 

knowledge, the fact that within relations of domination, it is generally the subordinates 

who are effectively relegated the work of understanding how the social relations in 

question really work. Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant kitchen, for example, 

knows that if something goes terribly wrong and an angry boss appears to size things up, 

he is unlikely to carry out a detailed investigation, or even, to pay serious attention to the 

workers all scrambling to explain their version of what happened. He is much more likely 

to tell them all to shut up and arbitrarily impose a story that allows instant judgment: i.e., 

“you’re the new guy, you messed up—if you do it again, you’re fired.” It’s those who do 

not have the power to hire and fire who are left with the work of figuring out what 

actually did go wrong so as to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The same thing usually 

happens with ongoing relations: everyone knows that servants tend to know a great deal 

about their employers’ families, but the opposite almost never occurs. The second 

element is that of sympathetic identification. Interestingly, it was Adam Smith, in his 

Theory of Moral Sentiments (XXX), who first observed the phenomenon we now refer to 

as “compassion fatigue”. Human beings, he proposed, are normally inclined not only to 

 9 

imaginatively identify with their fellows, but as a result, to spontaneously feel one 

another’s joys and sorrows. The poor, however, are so consistently miserable that 

otherwise sympathetic observers face a tacit choice between being entirely overwhelmed, 

or simply blotting out their existence. The result is that while those on the bottom of a 

social ladder spend a great deal of time imagining the perspectives of, and actually caring 

about, those on the top, it almost never happens the other way around.  

Whether one is dealing with masters and servants, men and women, employers 

and employees, rich and poor, structural inequality—what I’ve been calling structural 

violence—invariably creates highly lopsided structures of the imagination. Since I think 

Smith was right to observe that imagination tends to bring with it sympathy: the result is 

that victims of structural violence tend to care about its beneficiaries far more than those 

beneficiaries care about them. This might well be, after the violence itself, the single 

most powerful force preserving such relations. 

 

 

IV 

 

 All this I think has some interesting theoretical implications. 

 Now, in contemporary industrialized democracies, the legitimate administration 

of violence is turned over to what is euphemistically referred to as “law enforcement”— 

particularly, to police officers, whose real role, as police sociologists have repeatedly 

demonstrated, has much less to do with enforcing criminal law than with the scientific 

application of physical force to aid in the resolution of administrative problems. Police 

are, essentially, bureaucrats with weapons. At the same time, they have, significantly, 

over the last fifty years or so become the almost obsessive objects of imaginative 

identification in popular culture. It has come to the point that it’s not at all unusual for a 

citizen in a contemporary industrialized democracy to spend several hours a day reading 

books, watching movies, or viewing TV shows that invite them to look at the world from 

a police point of view, and to vicariously participate in their exploits. If nothing else, all 

this throws an odd wrinkle in Weber’s dire prophecies about the iron cage: as it turns out, 

faceless bureaucracies do seem inclined to throw up charismatic heroes of a sort, in the 

form of an endless assortment of mythic detectives, spies, and police officers—all, 

significantly, figures whose job is to operate precisely where the bureaucratic structures 

for ordering information encounter, and appeal to, genuine physical violence.  

 Even more striking, it seems to me, are the implications for the status of theory 

itself.  

Bureaucratic knowledge is all about schematization. In practice, bureaucratic 

procedure invariably means ignoring all the subtleties of real social existence and 

reducing everything to preconceived mechanical or statistical formulae. Whether it’s a 

matter of forms, rules, statistics, or questionnaires, it is always a matter of simplification. 

Usually it’s not so different than the boss who walks into the kitchen to make arbitrary 

snap decisions as to what went wrong: in either case it is a matter of applying very simple 

pre-existing templates to complex and often ambiguous situations. The result often leaves 

those forced to deal with bureaucratic administration with the impression that they are 

dealing with people who have for some arbitrary reason decided to put on a set of glasses 

that only allows them to see only 2% of what’s in front of them. Admittedly, something 

very similar happens in social theory. An ethnographic description, even a very good one, 

 10 

captures at best 2% of what’s happening in any particular Nuer feud or Balinese 

cockfight. A theoretical work will normally focus on only a tiny part of that, plucking 

perhaps one or two strands out of an endlessly complex tissue of human circumstance, 

and using it as the basis on which to make generalizations: say, about the nature of social 

conflict or about the nature of performance. I am certainly not trying to say there’s 

anything wrong in this kind of theoretical reduction (I’m arguably doing it right now). 

Actually, I suspect some such process is necessary if one wishes to say something 

dramatically new about the world.  

Consider the role of structural analysis, so famously endorsed by Edmund Leach 

in the first Malinowski Memorial Lecture almost half a century ago (1959). Nowadays 

structural analysis is considered definitively passé; Claude Levi-Strauss’ theoretical 

corpus, vaguely ridiculous. It seems to me this is unfortunate. The great merit of 

structural analysis is that it provides an well-nigh foolproof technique for doing what any 

good theory should do: simplifying and schematizing complex material in such a way as 

to be able to say something unexpected. This is incidentally how I actually came up with 

the point about Weber just above: 

 

 

 

I prefer to see someone like Levi-Strauss as a heroic figure, a man with the sheer 

intellectual courage to pursue his model as far as it would go, no matter how obviously 

absurd the results could sometimes be—or, if you prefer, how much violence he thus did 

to reality.  

As long as one remains within the domain of theory, then, I would argue that 

simplification can be a form  of intelligence. The problems arise when the violence is no 

 11 

longer metaphorical. Here let me turn from imaginary cops to real ones. A former LAPD 

officer turned sociologist (Cooper 1991) observed that the overwhelming majority of 

those beaten by police turn out not to be guilty of any crime. “Cops don’t beat up 

burglars”, he observed. The reason, he explained, is simple: the one thing most 

guaranteed to evoke a violent reaction from police is to challenge their right to “define 

the situation.” If what I’ve been saying is true this is just what we’d expect. The police 

truncheon is precisely the point where the state’s bureaucratic imperative for imposing 

simple administrative schema, and its monopoly of coercive force, come together. It only 

makes sense then that bureaucratic violence should consist first and foremost of attacks 

on those who insist on alternative schemas or interpretations. At the same time, if one 

accepts Piaget’s famous definition of mature intelligence as the ability to coordinate 

between multiple perspectives (or possible perspectives) one can see, here, precisely how 

bureaucratic power, at the moment it turns to violence, becomes literally a form of 

infantile stupidity.  

 If I had more time I would suggest why I feel this approach could suggest new 

ways to consider old problems. From a Marxian perspective, for example, one might note 

that my notion of “interpretive labor” that keeps social life running smoothly implies a 

fundamental distinction between the domain of social production (the production of 

persons and social relations) where the imaginative labor is relegated to those on the 

bottom, and a domain of commodity production where the imaginative aspects of work 

are relegated to those on the top. In either case, though, structures of inequality produce 

lopsided structures of the imagination. I would also propose that what we are used to 

calling “alienation” is largely the subjective experience of living inside such lopsided 

structures. This in turn has implications for any liberatory politics. For present purposes, 

though, let me just draw attention to some of the implications for anthropology. 

  One is that many of the interpretive techniques we employ have, historically, 

served as weapons of the weak far more often than as instruments of power. Renato 

Rosaldo (1986) made a famous argument that when Evans-Pritchard, annoyed that no one 

would speak to him, ended up gazing at a Nuer camp of Muot Dit “from the door of his 

tent”, he rendered it equivalent to a Foucauldian panopticon. The logic seems to be that 

any knowledge gathered under unequal conditions serves a disciplinary function. To me, 

this is absurd. The panopticon was a prison. Prisoners endured the gaze, and internalized 

its dictates, because if they tried to escape, or resist, they could be killed. Absent the 

apparatus of coercion, such an observer is reduced to the equivalent of a neighborhood 

gossip, deprived even of the sanction of public opinion.  

 Underlying the analogy, I think, is the assumption that comprehensive knowledge 

of this sort is an inherent part of any imperial project. Even the briefest examination of 

the historical record though makes clear that empires tend to have little or no interest in 

documenting ethnographic material. They tend to be interested instead in questions of 

law and administration. For information on exotic marriage customs or mortuary ritual, 

one almost invariably has to fall back on travelers accounts—on the likes of Herodotus, 

Ibn Battuta, or Zhang Qian—that is, on descriptions of those lands which fell outside the 

jurisdiction of whatever state the traveler belonged to.  

 Historical research reveals that the inhabitants of Muot Dit were, in fact, largely 

former follows of a prophet named Gwek who had been victims of RAF bombing and 

forced displacement the year before (Johnson 1979, 1982, 1994), the whole affair being 

occasioned by fairly typical bureaucratic foolishness (basic misunderstandings about the 

nature of power in Nuer society, attempts to separate Nuer and Dinka populations that 

 12 

had been entangled for generations). When Evans-Pritchard was there they were still 

subject to punitive raids from the British authorities. Evans-Pritchard was asked to go to 

Nuerland basically as a spy, at first refused, then finally agreed, he later said because he 

“felt sorry for them”. He appears to have carefully avoided gathering the specific 

information the authorities really wanted, while, at the same time, doing his best to use 

his more general insights into the workings of Nuer society to discourage some of their 

more idiotic abuses, as he put it, to “humanize” the authorities (Johnson 1982:245). As an 

ethnographer, then, he ended up doing something very much like traditional women’s 

work: keeping the system from disaster by tactful interventions meant to protect the 

oblivious and self-important men in charge from the consequences of their own 

blindness.  

 Would it have been better to have kept one’s hands clean? These strike me as 

questions of personal conscience. I suspect the greater moral dangers lie on an entirely 

different level. The question for me is whether our theoretical work is ultimately directed 

at undoing, dismantling, some of the effects of these lopsided structures of imagination, 

or whether—as can so easily happen when even our best ideas come to be backed up by 

bureaucratically administered violence—we end up reinforcing them.  

 

 

I’d like to thank David Apter, Keith Breckenridge, Kryzstina Fevervary, Andrej 

Grubacic, Matthew Hull, Lauren Leve, Christina Moon, Stuart Rockefeller, Marina 

Sitrin, Steve Cupid Theodore, and Hylton White for advice and suggestions and 

encouragement on this project. The essay is dedicated to my mother, in honor of her 

moral political commitment, irreverence, and common sense.  

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY 

 

Apter, David 

1965 The Politics of Modernization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

1971 Choice and the Politics of Allocation: a developmental theory. New 

Haven: Yale University Press. 

 

Breckenridge, Keith 

2003 “Power Without Knowledge: Three Colonialisms in South Africa.” 

http://www.history.und.ac.za/Sempapers/Breckenridge2003.pdf. 

2005  “Verwoerd’s Bureau of Proof: Total Information in the Making of 

Apartheid.” History Workshop Journal 59: 83-108 

 

Cooper, Marc 

 1991 “Dum Da Dum-Dum”. Village Voice April 16, 1991, pp.28-33.  

 

Graeber, David 

2006 On the Nature of Politics: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in 

Madagascar. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 

 

Herzfeld, Michael 

 13 

1994 The Social Production of Indifference: Exploring the Symbolic Roots of 

Western Bureaucracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

 

Johnson, Douglas H. 

 1979 “Colonial Policy and Prophecy: the ‘Nuer Settlement’ 1929-20” in Journal 

of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, X/1. 

 1982 “Evans-Pritchard, the Nuer, and the Sudan Political Service.” African 

Affairs, Vol. 81, No. 323. (Apr., 1982), pp. 231-246 

 1994 Nuer Prophets. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 

 

Leach, Edmund 

 1959 “Rethinking Anthropology.” Man:  

 

Rosaldo, Renato 

 1986 “From the Door of His Tent: the Fieldworker and the Inquisitor.” In 

Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (James Clifford and George 

Marcus, eds.), Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 77-97. 

 

Smith, Adam 

 XXX Theory of Moral Sentiments

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