The Bureau Insists Reality Matters
The first time I heard of the Ə I was sitting. A chilly nip in the spring air pierced my thin blouse, sending little bumps up all over my body. So I hugged my ribcage and crossed my legs tightly together until I was hardly bothered by the chill at all. To the contrary, I found it invigorating.
It was my first day at the Bureau of Biomedicaltechnology, the Bureau, or BoB as we used to call it.
As for where I was sitting, it was on one of the stone benches that dot the dignified main walk of the campus. Carved into the benches were the words of former Bureau directors, magistrates opining on cases brought by or against the Bureau (a notoriously litigious agency), and other grand hommes (I use “homme” here in the gender neutral sense, as the Bureau is renowned for its commitment to egalitarianism), all extolling the robust yet judicious vigor with which the Bureau executed its mandate under the law—namely, to police and promote Biomedicaltechnological Product of all known indicia. The inscription on my bench had been carved with unusual gusto, resulting in edges so sharp I could read the letters of the bench’s enigmatic inscription with my behind:
THE BUREAU INSISTS REALITY MATTERS
(I’ve always had unusually sharp senses—I believe the word is ubersentient—a genetic advantage that has perhaps compensated for certain deficits in life that I’ve had to overcome. Nonetheless, I scrupulously double-checked the intelligence coming from my rear end with my eyes and can confirm that, on that nippy spring morning, those were indeed the words staring back at me from my rear end’s erstwhile resting spot!)
I confess, initially I felt somewhat affronted by the cheeky inscription, as if it were challenging the absence of “insistence” or “mattering” from my personal relationship with reality. After all, my relationship with reality was my own business. But I saw beneath the inscription, in smaller letters, the words came from a judicial opinion. I may not have a credential, but I know a thing or two about the law. The case was the famous one that settled for once and for all that the Bureau’s dominion extended over legal figments, hypotheticals, notional commodities, or Non-Products—in short, things not known to exist. The court wisely opined that existence was but one facet of reality, the rest being whatever one makes of things. In short, the Bureau was ambivalent about existence, but all-in on reality. This background took the accusatory edge off of the inscription, if not the physical edge of the letters, which remained acute. Besides this comforting backstory to the otherwise jarring words, I didn’t want to start off on my first day feeling antagonized. I decided it was best not to think too much about the inscription, even if it was poking me in the behind.
As to what I was doing as I sat on the bench on the main walk of the Bureau campus, I was sifting through a stack of documents I’d retrieved from my new office. I’d been directed to report to an orientation that morning in Building 66, but I couldn’t find Building 66, Building 66 being positioned, I later learned, between Buildings 8 and 46. No one would say I’m a stickler for order, but I’d assumed Building 66 would be next to Building 65. It was only later, from the comfortable perch of the Building 1 roof, that I marveled at how the 73 rectangular buildings, as unique as Lego sculptures, were arrayed at odd angles and irregular distances as though plotted by an algorithm with a logic so intricate and abstruse that to the outsider it seemed random. At the time, I only knew where Building 65 was because it was beside Building 1, where my office was. Which perhaps should have been a giveaway. Anyway, an orientation hardly seemed needed. My entire professional life had oriented me toward that day. I reported to my office instead.
Immediately on entering my new office, the air assaulted me. It seemed busy, work-like, as if it had something to prove. Apart from the air it was a spectacular office by the standards for offices of government bureaucrats, one befitting my stature in the organization. It was spacious, with large windows looking out onto one of the courtyards where instead of benches there was a life-sized rendering of a piece of durable medical equipment—though it was hard to say what kind of durable medical equipment—atop an enormous plinth. The piece of medical equipment was square with knobs and dials all over it. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time; it seemed to be an electroencephalograph or an electroconvulsive therapy machine. Except for that the sculptor had forgotten to make a terminal or other human interface, without which it really didn’t matter whether it was an electroencephalograph or electroconvulsive therapy machine. Without the human interface, it was essentially furniture. There was something about the small solitary box with the knobs and dials of no known utility poised atop the enormous plinth that exceeded the sum of its parts, as though the empty space around the sculpture and the missing display equipment were as much the point of the sculpture as the electroencephalograph or electroconvulsive therapy machine was. At the same time, one could hardly ignore the poignancy of the electroencephalograph/electroconvulsive therapy machine poised to stand in for an enormous concept onto which the hopes and dreams of humanity had been projected, i.e., biomedicaltechnology, but not being up to it.
In other words, I liked the sculpture, so the sculpture had nothing to do with why I was sitting on the bench and not in my office. I don’t know what it was that infected the air in my office with its quality of officiousness, but perhaps it was that my superior so to speak, the Director, sat in the next office. The Director’s theoretical proximity made me uncomfortable even before I met the Director. It may hint at the fundamental conflict in our relationship when I say this occurred before she met me. So between the air in my office and the closeness to the Director, it’s easy to see why I chose to work elsewhere.
Perhaps anticipating that I wouldn’t be able to find Building 66, someone had thoughtfully left orientation materials on my desk—a campus map, the Manual of Best Practices, and IT instructions. I logged into my email account and printed the emails and attachments in my inbox, all of which had been sent in the earliest hours of that very day or forwarded that morning from the Director’s account where they’d waited unattended for months. Then I left my office without my jacket and found a bench to sit on.
The attachments were each identified by a red stamp as an Official Notice Documenting the Activities of the Bureau in its Oversight of Biomedicaltechnological Product (ONDABOBiP), and they were all overdue. Based on the messages accompanying the ONDABOBiPs, which in some cases were rather panicked, I deduced it was my job to sign off on the notices. At the risk of sounding like a naif, I didn’t appreciate at the time the significance of the accompanying delegation form and didn’t know I could simply check the box on the form, then place the form and the document in my outbox for someone or another to take them out of my outbox and give them to my delegee. At least, once I caught on, I always assumed that’s what happened. But I can’t say I ever confirmed what happened to the forms or the documents after they left my outbox. The last thing anyone could say of me is that I’m a micromanager; to the contrary, I have always trusted in the fundamental competencies of my reports. All I’m saying is had I delegated review of the ONDABOBiPs instead of reviewing them myself, I might not have learned of the Ə on that nippy spring day and the course of history would have thus been altered.
The first document in the stack had a header that read “Information Advisory re: NPPD Concerning ‘Ə’ Technology.”
“Now you know about the nipped.”
A sinewy fellow in fatigues and a windbreaker appeared as if out of nowhere and took a seat over the word “INSISTS,” a little too close to the space I occupied over “ITY MAT” for my tastes. I slid my rear to expose the “I” and shot him a look intended to let him know that he was making me feel crowded. Only my eyes were unable to meet his because his eyes were darting furiously from the Information Advisory to somewhere roughly in the middle of my face, approximately the area of the bullseye in one of those head and torso cutouts used for target practice. I was disconcerted. I looked down at his hands, which were large with awkwardly bulbous knuckles.
“Nipped. Non-Product Petition Denial. ENN-PEE-PEE-DEE,” he said. “As when the Bureau denies a nip. ENN-PEE-PEE. Non-Product Petition. It’s usually how multi-billion dollar corporations foist their death gizmos on a defenseless public.”
“That’s one opinion,” I said.
Though new to the Bureau as an employee, my long history as a Bureau gadfly—of whom there are legion, the Bureau being an object of fascination for so many—meant I was hardly a novice to its administrative processes. I knew a thing or two about Non-Product Petitions, having filed more than one in my day. One generally filed a Non-Product Petition seeking a formal Bureau declaration that one’s Potential Product was a Non-Product, thus avoiding the awesome responsibility of Producthood. The stakes of the Bureau’s decision couldn’t be higher: a Non-Product was free to be immediately released into the warm embrace of a grateful consuming public. A Product was in for a months- or even years-long slog through the rigorous scientific and regulatory processes put in place to protect those consumers from their own wants.
“It’s a subspecies of Decision Against Interests. DEE-AY-EYE. Would you like to know whose interests? The private interests of the corporate biomedicaltechnology industry, given cover by the immoral regulations of a complicit regime. You may or may not be familiar with the prohibition on disclosure of all information supporting DAI. In other words, a regulation promulgated by the regulators to silence the regulators. This they call self-regulation; a circular concept, a conflation of mastery and servitude, like a snake eating its own tail.”
“You don’t say,” I said.
Of course I knew all of that, but I didn’t let on. I saw there was an advantage in being taken for an initiate. Even a bloviator may unwittingly divulge things when operating under a false sense of security, things that could be used against those who stood in the way of the Bureau performing its mandate. And that’s what had brought me to the Bureau in the first place: to expose its enemies.
“Take the Ə,” he continued. “An atypical notional commodity the existence of which is the subject of fierce debate. ‘Product’ in the Biomedicaltechnology Product Act won’t tell you whether the Ə is a Product or a Non-Product. The law’s drafters understood language’s power lies in overreach and subterfuge. After a half-century of interpretations, like the one that gave us the quote jabbing us in our no-nos, here’s the most that can be said about existence and producthood: existence is probative of Product status but Product status tells you nothing about whether something exists. I’m in a position to know that evidence of the Ə’s existence is overwhelming. But that’s the wrong question. Ask yourself instead, whose interests are served by its Non-Producting? Who benefits from a placated populace opiated by technology’s false promise?”
“No-no” threw me off a little. The term seemed prudish. But his pronunciation of “probative” made the exact opposite impression. All the emphasis was on “prōb” with the last two syllables just tagging along for the ride. None of this was as surprising as what he did next. In short, he rolled his eyes while they were still darting around, which was not only unexpected but a good trick if you ask me.
“Sounds like a lose-lose situation,” I said.
Once my surprise wore off, I was left with annoyance. It was as though he was suggesting something amiss in the Bureau’s decision when I knew well that nothing could be further from the truth. A Non-Product Petition Denial is a denial after all. Every day the Bureau approved things and denied other things the way organisms inhale and exhale. Sometimes the Bureau approved things it had earlier denied just as organisms sometimes re-inhale the gases that they just exhaled. That was the point of the Bureau, to approve and deny and sometimes approve denials. And like an organism deprived of air, if the Bureau ceased to approve and to deny it would cease to exist. Pfft. You’d have no more Bureau. That may be why commentary so often likens the Bureau to something animate—a sleeping bear (for its strength and ferocity belied by a demeanor of passivity), a cockroach (for its uncanny ability to slink away, perhaps scathed but intact, from catastrophes that incinerate its opponents), and a schizoid Frankenstein’s chimera (for its many public-private organs to which were delegated the most pressing matters concerning biomedicaltechnology due to their double advantages of abundant funding and no accountability). And of course there’s the footnote written by that curmudgeonly Supreme Court Justice in his dissent from the opinion upholding the Bureau’s use of sleeper cells in medical supply chains, in which he compared the Bureau to an enormous fungi growing from an underground network of rhizomes the size of a football field, drawing polite wonder from botanists while it indifferently blights entire ecosystems. That’s a paraphrase of the original, which is of course completely scurrilous no matter how poetic.
His eyes were back in formation so to speak, focused if that’s the right word on my nose and the surrounding area. I recoiled farther from him, exposing the letters “IT.”
“I assume you’re with legal?” My tone was nonchalant. He seemed like the type who preferred to dictate the direction of a conversation so I intended the abrupt change of subject to frustrate him and spur his removal, leaving me to my notices. In fact, I never for a moment assumed he was with legal. To the contrary, he spoke in the manner of a person overcompensating for a lack of credentials. But besides being controlling, he was also literal and seemed not to pick up on irony.
“It is the responsibility of every informed citizen to know the law.”
To avoid his eyes, I focused on his Adam’s apple, which was prominent and similarly mobile even when he wasn’t saying anything. It was clear he had no idea who he was talking to.
“The statutory term, by the way, is ‘figment,’” I said. “As in the last word of the Biomedicaltechnology Product Act’s definition of ‘Product’: ‘Any Product that uses or purports, claims, appears, alleges, professes, suggests, adduces, insinuates, or in any way represents or is represented to use biomedicaltechnology to affect any condition of man and is not a figment.’”
The opportunity to put my deep knowledge on display so early in my tenure was unexpected but welcome, even if my current audience was unlikely to fully appreciate it. I was preparing to up my game with a discursive history of the term “Non-Product,” a topic that had generated countless law journal articles, including the one written by a junior colleague for publication under my name: “Non-Products: Taxonomy vs. Epistemology.” I never read the full article any more than I wrote it, but a blurb I signed off on suggested the centerpiece was a refutation of a slanderous accusation by the Bureau’s detractors. Namely, that the Bureau had adopted the term “Non-Product” as a semantic strategy to conflate regulated and unregulated goods by making the latter (i.e., figments) sound like the former (i.e., Products) and thus, in the ensuing confusion, broaden the Bureau’s purview while avoiding the bad optics of regulating a figment. Controversially, my article traced the origins of “Non-Product” to the Bureau’s third director, who had coined the term because the word figment “sounded queer.” But I was interrupted before I could say anything further.
“You’ve got it backwards.” Here he grabbed the Information Advisory and read from it. “‘The Petition was filed by Sorel Dern, founder of Glottal and inventor of the Ə, seeking a determination by the Bureau that the Ə was a Product.’ In other words, Dern’s gambit of petitioning for Product status backfired and instead the Ə got Non-Producted.” He put the word “inventor” in air quotes, apparently to indicate the logical conundrum of referring to a Non-Product as having been invented when you couldn’t even say whether it existed. So he wasn’t completely oblivious to irony.
I struggled to keep my composure. For one thing, even at that time, Sorel Dern was a polarizing public figure, having earned notoriety due to certain inflammatory statements quoted in the consumer technology trade press, ranging from crude nicknames for other tech icons to highly provocative assertions that ignited ideological warfare, such as “platform is irrelevant.” His entrée into the field of biomedicaltechnology was a stunning development to say the least. But that was nothing compared to filing a Non-Product Petition to petition against being a Non-Product. It meant Sorel Dern had asked the Bureau to declare the Ə to be a Product. He was asking for oversight. He wanted to be regulated. To submit. To be subjugated. What was stranger was that the petition had been denied. The Bureau, offered the opportunity to expand its reach and grow into something bigger than what it was, declined. It was as though the serpent had had enough of its own tail and started to gag.
“By the way,” the odd fellow with the dexterous pupils said as he leaned over and placed his knuckly hand over the word Reality, which had been completely exposed by the shifting of my rear onto “MATTERS.” “I know exactly who you are. YOU’RE N—.”
(Although he said my full name, which by now is known to anyone who pays attention. Concerning anyone else, they are invited to do their own research.)
When he stood to leave, I realized he hadn’t told me his name. It was clear he was a dissident, but that hardly narrowed things. The Bureau was teeming with dissidents. He struck me as one of the lesser dissidents and not worthy of further attention. He ambled off in his peculiar lope, his shoulders up around his ears and his knees lifted a little too high, as though signaling rectitude with the right angle of his knee, and that was that. I turned back to the two paragraphs of the Information Advisory, turned it over to see if there was more printed on the back, then noticed the two additional documents that had accompanied the Advisory as attachments to the same email. One was a press release from the company Glottal, titled:
Founder Sorel to Demand Non-Filing of BoB's Non-Product Petition Denial for Ə[NS1]
I almost fell off the bench. For one thing, the acronym “BoB” was an affront. I personally had a hand in rebranding BoB with its old familiar short form “the Bureau,” a reconcepting exercise I suggested in the many-months negotiation over my position. The name had been a thorn in my side for as long as I’d been part of the vast galaxy of influence orbiting the Bureau, and now I’d attained a position to do something about it. Double entendre has no place in an acronym of the administrative state, even if I’d be the last person to judge anyone for enjoying a good bob now and then! I was hot for the change to occur before I began my position, if only to avoid the discomfort of introducing myself as a senior employee of an organization the very name of which conjures a reversal of traditional intimate gender roles. To be clear, I personally couldn’t be more comfortable with reversed gender roles. But if I’m going to make a statement about gender norms, I prefer to do it on my own terms, and not when responding to an innocent question about what I did for a living. I was assured a major rollout of the new logo—including a Director’s blog, new letterhead, and a revamped website—was in the works when an article by The Washington Post’s technology and politics editor outed an alleged “conflict” concerning the Bureau’s first choice of logo design contractor, a shell entity created by the wife of the good-humored operations type who’d hired me and oversaw the Bureau contracting process. By then the contractor had already returned a whimsical design with a plump B, followed by “ureau” in small rounded letters situated midway between the top and bottom inverted c’s of the first letter, a design that provoked an unanticipated degree of offense from the focus group. In the end, it may be that reporter had inadvertently done the Bureau a favor, even if his scoop was the last straw as far as the genial bureaucrat who’d hired me, who found himself on the wrong end of such accusations more than was to be expected statistically speaking. The Bureau hosted a “real time” competition during lunch hour, which produced a winning logo design by a former aeronautics draftsman in the Division of Pneumatic Biomedicaltechnology; a design of stolid, reassuring block letters in a sans serif font that was as fanciful as a slide rule. This outcome had the added bonus of relieving taxpayers from paying the contractor’s fee, as the prize for turning in the successful design was a half day’s paid leave and a mug, baseball cap, and computer mouse pad with the new logo printed on them. In short, the new logo was a triumph of the resilient federal worker over the insidious oversight apparatus. I wasn’t prepared to assume this Sorel Dern understood the significance of his gaffe. I concluded that he, like all too many before him, had underestimated the Bureau’s power and hadn’t even bothered to confirm he was using the right name when addressing his new master.
But there was more to my alarm than just a name. This Dern was trying to have the last word by expunging the Bureau’s decision. If granted, the Non-Filing Petition would disappear the Non-Product Petition Denial; the NPPD would cease to have precedential value. Everything would return to the status quo ante, and the Product would revert to the status of a Potential Product. And because by regulation all Potential Products are Products unless and until the Bureau later decides they are Non-Products, the non-filing of a Non-Product Petition Denial theoretically extended the Bureau’s jurisdiction over Products to Non-Products outside its jurisdiction. The implications were so surreal and fantastic, I struggle to find an apt metaphor. Think of the same snake after it has eaten its tail, gagged, and consumed its own vomit, regenerating a new tail from the cells of something that wasn’t even a snake to start the process all over again. Then you might have an idea.
I wasn’t going to allow myself to be thrown off course. Whatever this Sorel Dern was up to, he wasn’t going to have his way just by asking for it. Bureau procedures are Bureau procedures, and procedures require a formal request for permission to seek non-filing. The Bureau is a fair task master, but a firm one, and wouldn’t be lured into expanding its reach simply because a brash young fellow demanded it in a company press release. He’d learn soon enough that one doesn’t poke a sleeping bear with a dull stick, so to speak. As for why this Sorel Dern was demanding to be regulated, speculating on the motivations of others seldom gets one anywhere. People make decisions for reasons difficult to understand or to quantify, like cachet, and being the developer of a Bureau-regulated Product carries its share of cachet due to the exacting standards for which the Bureau is globally renowned. A non-regulated Non-Product, on the other hand, might not even exist. And not to impugn the motives of Sorel Dern—who, after all, I didn’t know from Adam apart from what I’d read—but cachet has a price tag. Observers of the market have found over and over again that Products command two to three times the market price of Non-Products that do the exact same thing.
By the way, the third attachment was a short article written by that same technology and politics editor who helped us avert the awkward situation with our logo—apparently another Bureau gadfly—who went by Maddox Pinker. The article was buried in the science pages despite having nothing to do with science, as though The Washington Post felt obligated to publish the article but didn’t want anyone to read it. It contained a quote from the office of a certain U.S. senator concerning the Bureau’s subversion of the scientific process in its decision concerning the Ə, although overall it seemed more like an allegation than inquiry, and the first time I read it I read “perversion” not subversion. The part that piqued my interest, or one part I should say, was that the article cited privileged Potential Product submission information contained in the Ə Non-Product Petition, information that had been leaked not only to the senator but also to The Washington Post. The information was of a scientific nature and tended to establish that the Ə emitted sound waves at a frequency inaudible to humans, supporting (though by no means proving) the theory that the Ə existed and was therefore more like a Product than a Non-Product. On the other hand, nothing in the file suggested the Ə had an effect on a condition of man, regardless of the sound waves it emitted, which tended to support the decision of the Bureau. You might say it was a wash.
The senator’s name, by the way, was Jeremy Sakhdvar.
I won’t go into exactly what happened as I sat on the The-Bureau-Insists-Reality-Matters bench reviewing the press release and Post article, wearing a thin blouse with my legs securely crossed against the invigorating nip of the air as I felt a light prick from the sharp edges of glyphs against my derriere. I’ll just say that even now, when the Ə like a marble rolling down a chute toward a series of levers, trapdoors, and springs waiting to be tripped, has set off a sequence of personal and professional calamities involving professional relations, friends, and past lovers at the same time it has catapulted me into the harsh glare of notoriety, the first thing I feel when I think of the Ə is a little zing of arousal.
[NS1]Title of a press release