Revolutionary Red Tape

Activity: Academic and Industrial eventsGuest lecture or Invited talk


According to Franz Kafka, ‘Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.’ But what if, far from being the residual by-product of a failed experiment, bureaucracy actually spawned revolutionary ideas?

Drawing on extensive archival resources (reports, memos, minutes), this paper examines how public servants and official committees helped to commission, disseminate and popularise modernist art, design, architecture and literature in Britain. From vanguard exhibitions in local restaurants to innovative sanatoria on the Welsh coast, these committees masterminded dozens of schemes to bring modernism’s radical aesthetics to a general audience.

In this paper, I will briefly introduce the six case studies that make up my postdoctoral project, ranging across literature, art, design, town planning, theatre and ballet, before moving on to a close examination of a little-known collaboration between avant-garde artists and civil servants at the Post Office from 1933-37. Using minutes, memos and private correspondence, I seek not only to uncover the fascinating history behind this short-lived and often fractious committee, but also to interrogate the textual ways in which this history is recorded. Drawing on recent theories of reading (surface reading, distant reading, just reading), I argue that official documents hold immense possibilities for literary scholars: far from just being sources of information, these documents are a genre in their own right. Records are not like the brash manifestos or magazines we usually read as modernist scholars; despite their formal, supposedly objective language, minutes and reports are often overly brief or euphemistic: one has to develop new methods for uncovering the conflicts and collusions obscured by the formal conventions of bureaucracy.
Period6 Jun 2018
Held atCardiff University, United Kingdom