„Selbstzweck“ or my experience with bureaucracy

31 Jul

Hello there,

I have been planning to write this post for a while now. I kept putting it off because I feared it would put me in a bad mood. Well, today doesn’t look like it is going to be the best day of my week anyway so I might as well get it over with.

“Selbstzweck” is one of those words that I would like to call “very very German” but maybe I am wrong. Maybe this is a universal problem. The trusty lion offers only one translation in English: end in itself. I guess that is accurate. “Selbstzweck” basically means that you are doing something without having an external aim or cause. You just do it for its own sake. When I researched for this post I found several areas in which it is actually a positive or at least neutral concept. The most famous example would be “l’art pour l’art”. Another one comes from Catholicism where the dogma says you can celebrate a mass with nobody attending. The priest celebrating it is enough.

I, however, connect this word with one very particular part of life and this is where we get to the depressing part.

My job recently required me to have a lot of dealings with people who work in public administration. There were endless meetings in chic meeting rooms with bad coffee and conversations with people who have spend the better part of their lives reading and writing files. I have no general problem with our political system or the people who work in it and I totally understand that the massive undertaking of running a country with more than 80 million people living in it requires an insane amount of planning and certain administrative rules and rituals. But all too often, you, as the normal citizen who has an idea and asks for help in making that idea come true, find yourself in the position where you want to grab them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them.

All these mechanisms that smart people once put in place in order to make things run smoothly seem to have a habit of developing their own life, detach themselves from the thing they once used to serve (the people, the community, ideas…) and become “Selbstzweck”. Suddenly the content of the decision is less important than the question of who is making it. Because whether my program gets funded or not ultimately does not make a big difference to the people in power but breaking the chain of command can shake the entire operation to the core.

So yeah, bureaucratic process as “Selbstzweck”. My program ended up not getting funded by the way, which means that I will have to face the next “Selbstzweck”-hell, also known as the German agency for unemployment. Oh well, not the best day of my week.

3 Responses to “„Selbstzweck“ or my experience with bureaucracy”

  1. robert July 31, 2012 at 11:09 am #

    Der Papiertiger muss gefüttert werden

  2. Philip Soanes July 31, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    That’s a shame about your job. Good luck with finding something.

  3. Soros Soria January 3, 2014 at 8:53 am #

    I continue to be amazed at how precise the German language can be, as in your example above. Perhaps this is because the language has been cultivated by philosophers and poets, writers, to a greater extent than the more “democratic” or egalitarian languages like English. German aims at precision of meaning, especially in philosophical matters whereas English attempts at simple clarity. How is that for an explanation?

    By the way, you’re right on with the word “Geborgenheit”. I think of Freud and his “oceanic feeling” when I think of Gebrogenheit. Note that -heit = state of being and “borgen” has to be with being “borne” or “geboren”. Great word.

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