Mi / 10:00 – 12:00

Red Tape Narratives

Fractured Subjects and the Administrative Grotesque in Bureaucratic Fiction

Alexandra Irimia, KWI International Fellow

Online (Zoom) & Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (KWI) Essen, Room 106, Goethestr. 31, 45128 Essen

The recent success of Apple TV+’s 2022 Severance has revived both popular and academic interest in fictional discourses on bureaucratic environments. Such narratives bring to the fore transgressive interactions between individuals and bureaucratic systems, flavored with institutionalized absurdity, workplace alienation, and power dynamics. But what is so captivating about stories set in the bleak world of cubicles and corridors? Their newly-rekindled visibility demands a closer look at the affective, textual, and visual flows that circulate within aesthetic representations of the administrative apparatus.

The talk situates Severance in the context of a larger tradition of literary and cinematic works drawing on the interplay between artistic and administrative forms. To refer to this corpus, Alexandra Irimia proposes the term ‚bureaucratic fiction’ and explores its potential to describe an autonomous genre spanning across media, but also cultural and linguistic boundaries. The genre is characterized by several recurring tropes: the split subjectivity of fictional office workers, the affect of bureaucratic malaise, and three systemic metaphors for bureaucracy: the machine, the labyrinth, and the living organism. The aesthetic category of the ‘administrative grotesque’ (Foucault) helps to explain how these tropes are deployed in a variety of often contradictory fictional modes, ranging from comedy to dystopian horror.

How has the character typology of the office worker evolved after the original iconic clerk figures, Bartleby and Josef K.? How has the spatialization of bureaucratic settings changed since The Castle? Alexandra Irimia’s research seeks to answer these questions in relation to a corpus of novels and films from the second half of the 20th century, using an interdisciplinary framework that combines literary studies (de la Motte, Reichman, Robinson, Wild), critical theory (Agamben, Foucault), and art criticism (Spieker) with sociology (Bourdieu, Castoriadis, Weber) and cultural history (Becker, Crozier, Kantorowicz, Supiot, Vismann).