The Utopia of Rules

Last week, I wrote about David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy in the context of Fortnite Battle Royale.

There, Graeber’s most salient observations had to do with the similarities between fantasy role-playing games and accounting, the role of comics in socializing future leaders, and the tension between the fun of rules-based games and that of anarchic play.

That’s certainly an idiosyncratic list of topics to find in a book that is ostensibly about bureaucracy, and still it doesn’t begin to show the extent of the ground that Graeber covers.

It’s a testament to the fact that bureaucracy—the use of impersonal rules and procedures to regulate public life—is so deeply embedded in our lives that I have a hard time thinking of a society that gives a sharp enough counterexample the make it concisely clear what Graeber means by “total bureaucratization.” Continue reading “The Utopia of Rules”

Accounting for Taste: On Bureaucracy, Batman, Battles Royales, and Black Cultural Production

David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy is not exactly a feel-good read for a bookkeeper. For me, as a money minder who has found learning to code her way out of data management problems to be an unanticipated creative outlet in her work, this hits close to home: “In the few areas in which free, imaginative creativity actually is fostered, … it is ultimately marshaled in order to create even more, and even more effective, platforms for the filling out of forms.” Ouch.

Worse still for one who enjoys fantasy worlds and role-playing games is Graeber’s observation that, while those may feel may feel imaginative and subversive, with their elves and dwarves and orcs, if they follow the path laid down by Dungeons & Dragons of quantifying character attributes, they “ultimately reinforce the sense that we live in a universe where accounting procedures define the very fabric of reality.” Sigh. Continue reading “Accounting for Taste: On Bureaucracy, Batman, Battles Royales, and Black Cultural Production”

Austin’s Highland Mall as Victor Gruen’s Last Laugh

Oh, Highland Mall, the stuff of my childhood back-to-school shopping dreams. It opened in 1971 and closed officially in 2015, though it had been dead for a while before then. During the 80s, it was the most accessible mall in Austin to my family, who lived in rural isolation to the east of the city. I salivated to be driven 50 miles to shop in that neon-lit concrete bunker, though now I’m much more likely to be found eating ice cream in a green space at The Domain farther north when I visit my home city. Today, the property is owned by Austin Community College and is being transformed into a mixed-use anchor of neighborhood amenities, including not only retail, residential, and park areas, but also computer and chemistry learning and co-working facilities.

Food court at Highland Mall, Bellerophon5685
So who was Victor Gruen? Tom Scott gives a brief introduction to the Austrian architect who conceived of the shopping mall as a way to combat suburban sprawl in the United States, his adopted country–then hated the “bastard offspring” of his idea and developers’ money that resulted. The Highland Mall of my youth was one of those bastard offspring; the Highland Mall of the future is much more what Gruen had in mind.


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Last Day for the Fearless Girl?

Women’s Day 2018 may be the last day that Kristen Visbal’s Fearless Girl faces down Arturo Di Modica’s Charging Bull in New York’s Financial District.

The four-foot-tall bronze of a defiant girl with her hands on her hips appeared across from the bull a year ago, commissioned by State Street Global Advisors to highlight the paucity of female representation on the boards of the high-market capitalization companies that compose the Russell 3000 Index.

Fearless Girl’s original permit lasted for a few weeks, but public response was so positive that the city extended that through today.

Though the statue’s origins with an asset management company whose record on pay equity is tarnished by a suit by female and Black employees who allege underpayment is problematic, the public quickly embraced Fearless Girl as a resonant symbol of women’s empowerment. A few months after the statue’s installation, State Street paid a $5 million settlement in the suit, though the company denies any wrongdoing.

Her Charging Bull counterpart has a similarly checkered history. Arturo Di Modica intended his sculpture, which he installed without a permit under a Christmas tree in front of the New York Stock Exchange in December 1989, as a morale-boosting gift to traders. They were nonplussed and removed the bull within a day. The statue found a new home two blocks south, where it became an icon of American might and capitalism–problematic themes in their own right.

Fearless Girl’s sculptor Visbal admires Charging Bull as “beautiful” and “a stunning piece of art.” For his part, Di Modica opposes the positioning of Fearless Girl, arguing that she is “and advertising trick” that raises “issues of copyright and trademark” and frames his valedictory gift as a villain.

But New York Mayor Bill DiBlasio put a bow on the complexities of the standoff with an April 2017 Tweet reading “Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.”


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