Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin 

I can’t say I loved this book, though it’s entertaining, gives insights into a different era and most interestingly illustrates the complexities of power and liberation.

It’s set in 1970s San Francisco, when a new generation of people – and some older – are living footloose and hedonistic lives that were unimaginable to most earlier generations.

There is Mary Ann Singleton, who has just moved to San Francisco; Mona, her friend from back home who has been there a while; Michael, Mona’s gay and promiscuous roommate; Brian, a straight philanderer; Beauchamp, who works where Mary Ann does, and his troubled wife De-De; Norman, an apparently dull but actually odd and perhaps sick guy who Mary Ann befriends; and Anna Madrigal, an older bohemian lady who owns the building, 28 Barbary Lane, that many of the characters live in.

Most noticeable to me about the book, first off, was the style: there is almost no description, nearly all of it is dialogue, and very short, snappy dialogue at that. You learn about the characters almost entirely through what they say. It’s like a play as much as a novel in that sense.

The big theme of the book is liberation, both as a positive and negative force. It’s positive insofar as the characters are living free and experimental lives, doing things for themselves that few others would have dreamed of. San Francisco gives them amazing possibilities for living differently, for creating their own way of being.

But despite their liberation from conventional ways of life, they appear trapped by the new one they have embraced. They are troubled by relationships they are and aren’t having, they end up forcing themselves to do things against their better judgement (one woman pretended she was black for years, using hardcore pills that coloured her skin, in order to get on in the modelling industry), and there’s a lot of sadness that their hopes about how life could be are constantly unmet. 

The great thinker on power – Michel Foucault, who incidentally spent time in San Francisco in the 1970s and 80s for precisely the reasons the characters moved there – is quite clear on what’s going on here. He says there are always power relations and discourses in society that define how we live. New generations might liberate themselves from old conventional lifestyles but then new ways of thinking, new conventions, new forms of normality, take their place and despite being different and perhaps better than the old ones, they are still a constraint on people’s lives.

For Foucault we need to develop an ‘art of the self’ where, through reflection and hard work we craft a way of being for ourselves that takes bits of different discourses and become something that as far is possible our own, making us free subjects not just objects of discourse and power relations.

What we see in Tales of the City are a group of people trying – to different degrees – to tread a line and find their own ways of being between the new and old discourses about how to live, sometimes being trammelled by power relations, sometimes finding flashes of freedom.

“But if you could not close a door behind you to take a shit in the city – even if it was just the door to a shared toilet – if this one, most essential freedom was taken from you, the freedom, that is, to withdraw from other people when necessity called, then all other freedoms were worthless. Then life had no more meaning. Then it would be better to be dead.”

Patrick Suskind, The Pigeon

The utopia of rules – David Graeber

There are so many thought-provoking ideas and new analyses in here that it seems wrong to summarise it for fear of missing some out. In just over 200 pages Graeber makes you think differently about technology, democracy and bureaucracy – and also feel slightly better about being inept at filling out forms.

The Utopia of Rules is really a collection of five discursive essays on the theme of bureaucracy. It says a lot about Graeber’s style, I think, that it’s easier to pull out some of the overarching themes of the book as a whole than do so for each of the essays separately. So, here are some.

His premise, his basic argument if you like, is that ‘we live in a deeply bureaucratic society’, so much so that we can hardly see how bureaucratic it is and struggle to imagine things being any other way. Importantly, this isn’t just government bureaucracy but more commonly the bureaucracy of large corporations and the relationship between the two.

This is most evident in our assumptions about technology. He asks the really interesting question: why have none of the technological development fantasised about in the 50s and 60s (flying cars, part time work for all, robots that think and act independently) come to pass? His argument is that the funding and direction for research and development has become increasingly focused on creating processes to administer our current economic, social and political arrangements, thus creating, in fact, a more complex bureaucracy. Grand schemes to change the world or do something radical with technology largely came to a standstill when the space race ended.

Bureaucracy, ironically, is also part of what we have come to think of as freedom. While many of us fantasise about living in a world unshackled from bureaucracy – and in an excellent few pages Graeber dissects the mass appeal of fantasy fiction like Lord of the Rings in this regard – in reality we tend to view arbitrary power held by others as an impediment to our freedom and bureaucracy, conversely, as a way to limit arbitrary power because it standardises everything.

But he also points out elsewhere in the book that bureaucracy also creates unequal power relations, with those who know and enforce bureaucratic processes in a stronger position than those following them. He refers to ‘interpretive labour’ as the additional work that those with less power are forced to do, using examples like the CEO or Minister who is able to make any pronouncement they like, with his or her staff then having to work hard to understand what that is, carry it out and smooth things out with other people. The person at the job centre or completing their performance appraisal or trying to get insurance is in a similar position.

He discusses in this respect why it is so easy for an otherwise intelligent person to making mistakes on forms. The reason is that people are so busy with the task of interpretive labour, working out what is required, which hoops need jumping through next and so on, that there’s no brain-space left for the mundane job of filling in a form in the right boxes.

What he points out, too, is that bureaucracy is so effective in creating this sense of worry because, when it comes down to it, the paperwork and inequality inherent in bureaucracy is backed up actual violence. This might be the law coming down on you for failing to get car insurance, or one step removed, being sacked from your job for not completing the performance appraisal paperwork correctly and thus becoming unemployed and poor.

And all this, he points out, is quite ridiculous. Not only does bureaucracy limit our possibilities, create inequalities and rely on the implicit threat of force. As the title of the book implies, Graeber also points out that ‘all bureaucracies are to a certain degree utopian, in the sense that they propose an abstract idea that real human beings can never live up.’

In highlighting these few things from David Graeber’s excellent book I’m just scratching the surface. There is so much to these essays. The novel ideas, of course, but also the style, which provides simple explanations of complex theories with occasional stories about himself to bring it alive. Some of it I’m not entirely sure of. He often refers to developing a left critique of bureaucracy which I think unnecessarily limits the possible audience for some of the insights in this book. And similarly he occasionally lets a rather conspiratorial view of a state acting in the interests of capital creep into his reading of certain situations. But nevertheless this is one of the best and most thought-provoking pieces of political analysis I’ve read in a long, long time.