The Cultural Fantasy of Hierarchy: Sovereignty and the Desire for Spiritual Purity

Rhodes, Carl and Bloom, Peter (2012). The Cultural Fantasy of Hierarchy: Sovereignty and the Desire for Spiritual Purity. In: Diefenbach, Thomas and Todnem, Rune eds. Reinventing Hierarchy and Bureaucracy – from the Bureau to Network Organizations. Research in the Sociology of Organizations (35). Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 141–169.



Bureaucratic hierarchy, as the hallmark of the modern organization, has been remarkably resilient in the face of increasingly pervasive attacks on its fundamental value and usefulness. We investigate the reasons for this from a cultural, particularly psychoanalytic, perspective – one that sees hierarchy's perpetuation not in terms of the efficacy of its instrumental potential, but rather in the values that are culturally sedimented within it. We argue that hierarchy reflects longings for a pure heavenly order that can never be attained yet remains appealing as a cultural fantasy psychologically gripping individuals in its beatific vision. To tease out this cultural logic we examine two representations of it in popular culture – the U.S. television comedy The Office (2005–) and comedian Will Farrell's impersonation of George W. Bush (2009). These examples illustrate the strength of bureaucratic hierarchy as an affective cultural ideal that retains its appeal even whilst being continually the subject of derision. We suggest that this cultural ideal is structured through a ‘fantasmatic narrative’ revolving around the desire for a spiritualized sense of sovereignty; a desire that is always undermined yet reinforced by its failures to manifest itself concretely in practice. Our central contribution is in relating hierarchy to sovereignty, suggesting that hierarchy persists because of an unquenched and unquenchable desire for spiritual perfection not only amongst leaders, but also amongst those they lead.

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