by hn. lyonga & Markus Posse
bureaucracy is music
When you think of bureaucracy the sound of your thoughts gets distorted. I can hear that because mine is clear. Unlike you, I don’t need to listen, I don’t even need to think. For now…
When I think of the b-word anyway, it is nothing more than the mere annoyance that arises, perfidiously manifesting my privileges. To be annoyed is a big luxury, in fact, it is a pleasure. So, perhaps, this is the actual purpose of systematizing something that doesn’t need a system (bureaucracy) – the pleasure of annoyance! This annoyance refers to something that needs to be done, but if it is not, it is supposed to be okay, too. It implies a gesture of inconsequence that transforms into a gesture of power. Funny.
Alas, this is only one side of the coin. If you flip it, a bunch of broken thoughts appear – carefully silenced by my ignorance. Obviously, power can only exist alongside the powerless ones, and inconsequence is a rare good. Bureaucracy, thus, is a protecting shield, made up by the powerful ones to maintain their status by implying a spacious structure. It is like a sieve that filters everything that won’t match the „beautiful“ facade. And there we go, its weave is made of strings that distract and drown your thoughts. They resonate with exclusion. I can tell from experience because I’ve listened to it over and over again. I’ve listened to you! And I can tell you now, it doesn’t start with the foreign office.
Whoever is reading this and just got tired of the “sounding thoughts metaphor“, here is the deal: in fact, there isn’t one! A metaphor, I mean. Just imagine you are on an empty street waiting for the traffic lights to switch to green. Many people would probably follow their impulse and cross, no cars, no trouble – simple arithmetic. This doesn’t apply to people with no permanent stay. While I can consider the act of crossing on red a micro risk that can only come along with a small fine called “Ordnungswidrigkeit“, you are made to fear the loss of your stay. I don’t know if that is what would happen for real and it doesn’t matter anyway. This is another pitfall of bureaucracy. It feigns universality. And, to a certain extent, it works. Suddenly, the mere act of crossing the road resembles the challenge of facing your clerk at the foreign office. But back to the traffic lights. When I find myself in that situation with you, this is what happens: usually, I start crossing mindlessly while you stay behind. I only realize that there is no one walking beside me when I start hearing your voice screaming after me, even though your mouth remains shut. I know that you are not actually speaking because your voice sounds different. That is what I call sounding thoughts. Your voice is cracky. I only saw you crying once but… the stupid lights do their jobs. Monuments of bureaucracy, to borrow your words. Of course, you don’t burst out weeping, but there is a collage of concerns that — in its density — provokes the same feeling. So what makes the soundscape of bureaucracy so visceral is its rhythm. The interplay with my own thoughts. And the invisibility of the instruments. If you hear a noise and you cannot detect its origin, you listen more carefully.
bureaucracy is a house on a high cliff
When someone says bureaucracy, I (am) triggered. I am so still I become a pillar of salt. I think of the word itself, a house and casual death. I cork my neck slightly and hope my prayers will be heard. And when they are not, I say “maybe it is my throat”, but no one notices.
bureaucracy is a house on a high cliff with tall white walls and crowded hallways, where bodies, living and dead, linger in no particular order in search of something they no longer believe is and was worth the price of their lives.
Whenever I am invited to grace its halls, something in me falls away and my body puts itself on alert. I become so small, I cave in. I am overcome with sadness and reminded of the fear of my own experiences with bureaucratic structures and how they have turned me inside-out over the years. So much so that, at the thought or utterance of the b-word, I see bodies in abstract places – surrounded by nothing but antiquities, repressed emotions, and fears marshaled into something that reads like a profound state of shock, stoicism, and complete focus. Thoughts of it remind me of dreams deferred, of nights where I have woken screaming and covered in a cold sweat and goosebumps.
On the other side of its walls, people don’t have full stories. They are ciphers, fragments, and desires lumped and categorized in countries, states, or continents. Its entrance inspires fear and a feeling of unsettling danger. At its gates, you are greeted first by warning signs, police vehicles, and then by armed men and women who do not shy away from claiming dominion over a visiting body, which they probe, inspect and lecture on how to behave to stay alive in front of a spectating audience.
When I visit, I wear button-down shirts, iron-pressed trousers, and a suit jacket. I do not wear bright colors or anything conspicuous like sneakers, jeans, or jewelry. I opt for navy blues, olives, and ash grays as if I were in mourning of the loss of someone who mattered. I do so in hopes it would read patriotic, respectable, and belonging. My hair is cut, laid, or held down to not draw any attention.
Once I am ushered in by the announcement of a number, my body is put on display to be further analyzed and judged with nothing but ideas of white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy. I enter into a room with tables unable to hold things on their surfaces long enough and cushion-less chairs tired of harboring bodies in transit but planted intentionally to keep the bodies occupying them in a state of unrest, uncertainty, and fear.
Here, bodies are haunched and caved forward in prayer like a mantis praying on its victim. In these rooms, power isn’t elusive. There is no confusion about who and what power is. Here, lines are drawn in the sand and every party involved knows on which side they stand. The gaps between one chair, table, and the other chair are continental. It is language, it is skin. It is experience.
This is why mouths are the first things I see when seated across from people in its rooms – I have trained myself not to look caseworkers in their faces. I do not wonder about what’s hidden behind the windows of their eyes. By now I know that a person does not enter into a room, a number does. I have finally come to understand that I am only understood if and when I am a statistic. The grotesqueness of knowing such truth and still having the resilience to hope lies in a dream.
So, my mind remains unwavering. It only imagines two fates. One where I exit the room with an invitation to come again for a renewal and the other where suddenly everything must come to an end and I am hauled off in handcuffs. Both scenarios involve judgments of some kind. They involve a jury of people in abstract rooms making abstract assertions and demands.
I think about my life as a dichotomy of being stuck in something that seems secure and being immobilized by that security. In the many years, my body has waited and undergone bureaucratic processes, I have learned that when you love something so much, you live with the fear of losing it or becoming it yourself.
To me, its tyranny hinders true integration. It does not read the rhythm and truth in our bodies. It does not listen for where we have been and what traumas are buried beneath the flap of a tongue. It continues to send the message that I do not belong and that I am not part of this society. It reminds me that at every turn, something or someone is watching. It creates a system where I am prayed on and looked upon as the other who is not part of or welcomed in the bounty of this society. It denounces the hard work of migrants and refugees. And undoes the hope in Germany as a safe place. It causes tension to the body and soul. These rooms are a site where bodies fleeing violence are re-traumatized.
By being bureaucratized, I am made into a scheme.
hn. lyonga is a Berlin-based Poet, Essayist, and Creative-writer. Currently, he is a Master’s student of American Studies at Humboldt-Universität Zu Berlin. He graduated with a Bachelor’s in American Culture and Sociology from the University of Kassel. He is a founding member of the Black Student Union at Humboldt and a member of the Kuratorium of BARAZANI.berlin. He is currently writing a thesis on the politics of waiting: an echography of black lives in postcolonial literature. He can be reached via email at email@example.com and on social media (Instagram and Twitter) at @hn_lyonga.
Markus Posse is a Berlin-based dramaturg, performer, and Artistic Researcher. After studying Scenic Arts in Hildesheim, Acting in Málaga, and Performance Studies in Hamburg, he was involved in various theater- and performance projects at Kampnagel, Lichthof Theater Hamburg, Theaterdiscounter Berlin, and other venues. With his work, he pursues a particular interest in investigating the autonomous body as a source of power, seemingly uncoupled from the mind.