In Defense of Red Tape

Red tape is an object that is rather hard to defend. It is, however, a thing worth defending, worth honoring. It has done us a great service. To recognize this worth, we must defend it as a thing, as its own thing, because it is when red tape becomes something other than red tape (when it becomes a cultural signifier, for instance) that it becomes difficult to defend. Beyond indefensible, red tape itself becomes invisible. It becomes a kind of fetish, which tend to have everything to do with humans and nothing to do with the thing itself. Defending red tape requires first and foremost that we restore to it its own unique thing-ness. Red tape is more than a symbol, a metaphor, or an analogy: it is a thing that did work in the world. 

 Red tape is almost always portrayed in the above way: as an analogue for restrictive regulation and bureaucracy. Interestingly enough, a quick Google Image search reveals that most images of this type show white men constrained by red tape, which may, on the whole, not be such a bad thing.

 Red tape is almost always portrayed in the above way: as an analogue for restrictive regulation and bureaucracy. Interestingly enough, a quick Google Image search reveals that most images of this type show white men constrained by red tape, which may, on the whole, not be such a bad thing.

Red tape is generally seen as inhuman, as the institutional, and is as such equated with all things that constrain human flourishing. It is an nonhuman scapegoat for anything that challenges human autonomy. It has become, as Herbert Kaufman writes, as "object of loathing."

But it wasn't always this way. Red tape, which wasn't always red but was sometimes pink and white, was woven tape "used to secure legal documents and official papers" (OED). It bound documents together; it related them as belonging to a case, a brief.  "Legal documents have been among the heaps of junk lying around a building site behind the Law Courts" (OED). Junk eventually, but first agents of the law. 

Red tape is a missing mass that has dutifully carried out its work. It is not simply a representation of petty human desire or a focal point for rage against constraints; it has been a vital participant in the work of government and in the maintenance of civic life. Our ability to maintain order and to make sense of complex procedures is predicated upon the ability to literally hold together laws and court cases. Red tape emerged from a real need to hold such things together. The very patterns of modern life, with its rule of law, and the possibility of social life, with its networks of relationships, is made possible, in part, by red tape (and its ancestors: the staple, the paper clip, the file folder). Our ability to wrap our heads around the law is function its ability to wrap itself around laws. Red tape is less a thread that holds us down and more a ribbon around a gift.

 Red tape is gift.

 Red tape is gift.

Now, my defense of the labors of red tape may be more or less objectionable (anarchy certainly has its adherents), but either way the historical work of red tape is rendered invisible when red tape is taken first and foremost as a front for, as a representation of, some deeper, realer human motivation. Indeed, I would go as far as to suggest that red tape is not just a scapegoat for bureaucracy but for all such nonhuman actors in society. By making nonhumans mere vessels of our fears, anxieties, hates, joys, or beliefs, we push them away as actors in their own rights. 

 Red tape is more than a vessel for human motives; it is an actor that makes particular articulations possible. 

 Red tape is more than a vessel for human motives; it is an actor that makes particular articulations possible. 

What if we were to recognize red tape as a rhetorical actor that played a vital role in the production of bureaucracy and the institutions we daily take for granted? It's unique ability to bind together documents into coherent wholes was vital to the cultivation of a certain kind of order. It was, to borrow a turn of phrase from Katie Zabrowski, a "rhetorical powerhouse." Recognizing its rhetoricity could, for instance, short circuit our instinct to see particular institutional constructs or bureaucratic structures as the manifestation of discernible human intentions. If that is all institutions are taken to be, the scope of rhetorical activity is limited to addressing only the human actors, which, I'd argue, is far from sufficient. Institutions are complex assemblages that emerge through time and as an effect of relations, relations that include humans and nonhumans alike. A full rhetorical intervention needs to take everyone and everything seriously. 

 

[Authors note: I wrote this whole thing listening to the punk sounds of Sleater-Kinney.]