Merve Emre’s “Bureaucratic Heroism” is among the best pieces I’ve read about contemporary movies and fiction; it’s hard to excerpt because the entire piece feels essential and it makes many subtle points, but I will point to this:
Bureaucratic heroes are not cartoon heroes, heroes for children who do not yet understand that the social world places limits on their actions. Nor are they adolescent, “dark” heroes like Batman, alternately rebelling against and ingratiating himself to lame authority figures. Bureaucratic heroes are “ultrareal” heroes for working, law-abiding adults: beholden to, yet eager to please, the systems of governance in which they operate. The rules they follow are not universal rules of justice, morality, or even common sense. They are rules that only make sense—that are only justifiable—within a particular institutional context, be it the CIA, the CDC, the corporation, or Hollywood itself. They are rules that perpetuate the self-preserving logic of the institutions that articulate them in the first place
The last bit is especially important: the “self-preserving logic” that holds institutions together is also always incomplete and inadequate for dealing with the needs of the complex real world. Everyone in the institution still has to make judgment calls of various kinds, and, because those judgment calls often entail breaking the rules, they leave violators vulnerable to institutional censure later on (here’s one example of an absurd experience that comes from refusing to break the mindless rules; the phrase “Kafkaesque” is surely used in the modern world with the rise of the bureaucratic state and corporation).
Following those rules also often yields sub-optimal or absurd outcomes, as pretty much everyone in industrialized countries has experienced at some point or another. Yet institutions still need those rules, and, as Emre points out in the introduction to his piece, “[Contagion‘s] true hero turns out to be the CDC, a tight regiment of epidemiologists and administrators whose acts of heroism are largely bureaucratic in nature: functional and routine, incremental and hierarchically situated, and keyed to the collection of data.”
Contagion, maybe not coincidentally, is one of the few really good movies I’ve seen in the last few years. It’s taut and plot-driven yet simultaneously thoughtful; too few movies rise above being stupid spectacles. There is a place for stupid spectacle but it’s not in practically every movie, which is the impression I get from most movie ads and reviews.
Novels are better in this respect, but even then relatively few plumb what modern bureaucracies are like; one thing I like about Tom Perrotta’s Election is his subtle but real portrayal of education politics. Francine Prose is similarly skilled in Blue Angel, in which sexual harassment tribunals in universities utterly fail to understand what actual human relationships are like. Automatic, incorrect assumptions about life and sexuality get applied in a way that distributes tremendous power to the potentially unhinged.
Perhaps the best novel I’ve read in the last year also has a bureaucratic, corporate facet: Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, in which scientist Anneck Swenson wrangles the funders of her research as a jungle guide might wrangle a python. Most of the novel occurs among a remote Amazonian tribe, yet even there athletic company symbols and university apparel appear on people otherwise living a pre-agricultural existence. Swenson fits into the heroic mode described this way by Emre, as “a ‘cinema of volition’ whose narrative tensions trade on the clean break between the hero’s boundless animus and the inertia that surrounds him.” In this case the hero is a her, but Swenson does experience “boundless animus” and overcomes the bureaucratic inertia that simultaneously enables her by providing money and holds her back by demanding results.