On the Psychic Life of Paperwork: Ben Kafka's 'The Demon of Writing'
This critical history and theory of paperwork traces its origins to the inception of the bureaucratic state during the French Revolution in order to sketch out the powers and failures of paperwork.
The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of PaperworkPublisher: Zone Books
Length: 182 pages
Author: Ben Kafka
Publication date: 2012-11
The key feature of all the “paperless” offices that I have worked in was the abundance of paper. While doing temp jobs that came with various spine-tingling designations like “data entry assistant” or “clerical assistant”, I only knew that my job was to make all that was solid—paper—melt into air—data. But certainly, you don’t have to work with paper to know how paperwork gets in the way of everything: a marriage or a driver’s license, a new passport, citizenship.
Paperwork makes you wait. Paperwork disappears, sometimes never to return; or to return much later, with the vengeance of the repressed. Paperwork obstructs. Paperwork keeps you in limbo. Paperwork means what you don’t know will hurt you, or eventually bite you in the ass when it turns out that all that stands between you and your goal is, “I’m sorry, it’s just that there’s a file missing.“
Ben Kafka, media theorist and professor at New York University, understands this. That’s why he’s titled his book The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork—the ghosts of paperwork haunt every missed opportunity and unforeseen error in the attempt to fashion a structured, disciplined, and well-documented life. At the heart of Kafka’s book on paperwork is the rerouting of Marx’s theory of paperwork—what he called the “bureaucratic medium”—by way of Freud’s theory of parapraxis. Paperwork has its pleasures, and more important—its powers—but it is fundamentally unstable.
Kafka begins his inquiry with a chapter called “The Disciplined State”, in which the story of an 18th-century French clerk who loses his job—and his failure to recover it—is what Kafka calls “the story of the French Revolution’s success”, or how the bureaucracy became an essential component of the state. This bureaucracy, however, was a double-edged sword: “The disciplinary state, which relied on documents and details to keep track of its subjects, would also have to be a disciplined state, aware that those same documents and details could be used to keep track of it.”
Morizot, the clerk who found his appeals and attempts to recover his job thwarted at every level by the power of paperwork—“What he needed was the right signature on the proper letterhead”—wrote frantic pamphlets to bring his case of bureaucratic misery to public light. As Kafka writes, “The French, Morizot asserted, were living ‘among the debris of a ruined monarchy, now converted into a bourgeois aristocracy’” and, as such, “a world of privilege was becoming a world of rights; the personal state was becoming the personnel state.”
While paperwork was designed to produce a more equitable form of society, where accountability for each citizen was recognized as an “inalienable, individual right”, the “foundation of representative government”, it also proved to wield power in inequitable ways. Kafka recounts the story of Labussière, an employee in the Committee of Public Safety’s Prisoners Bureau, who in the aftermath of the French Revolution, during the Reign of Terror, destroyed the files of the prisoners before the Revolutionary Tribunal could get its hands on it, thereby destroying significant information about the prisoners and rendering punishment impossible or eternally deferred, subsequently saving lives. Perhaps Labussière, whom Kafka depicts as a kind of trickster figure, practiced a form of radical clerking—paperwork for the people, as it were. But the significant point, as Kafka points out over and over, is that paperwork makes paperwork fail, because the “proliferation of documents and details presented opportunities for resistance as well as for compliance.”
Kafka’s theory of paperwork loops around the same premise—paperwork can consolidate power as well as unsettle it and render it futile—and is determined to remain in history without the slightest detour into the present. One wonders about his theory of paperwork and shifting powers in relation to Wikileaks while Bradley Manning is held within state power. “The duplicitous simplicity of the trickster”, as Kafka writes of Labussière, clearly doesn’t apply in Manning’s case, and if bureaucracy has the potential to beat state power at its own game, it’s difficult to think of a way out of situations where the state’s malpractices, corruption, violence, and excesses are laid bare—made transparent to all with access to the internet, even—while its powers remain firmly lodged in place.
In The Demon of Writing, Kafka circles around the same premise: “It is the story of how paperwork, even when it works, fails us. We never get what we want.” As such, a psychoanalytic theory of paperwork by way of Freud’s theory of parapraxis, or “the Freudian slip”, much like the political theory by way of Marx that leaves Kafka unconvinced, also leaves us wanting:
"Like the symptom or dream, the slip represents an attempt by the unconscious to get its message across—an attempt that is made difficult by repression, the primary processes, and any number of measures taken by the ego to prevent embarrassment or worse. The question to ask is: What was being communicated? And the answer is: We don’t know. We will never know. We can’t know."
The Demon of Writing is witty and entertaining, and Kafka seems both charmed and inspired by writers and thinkers who disliked paperwork, like Rousseau, or who found both paperwork and its pushers to be quite contemptible, like Balzac, who writes of the clerks in Les employés: “It is difficult to decide whether these plumed mammals were getting stupider because of their careers, or whether they had these careers because they were born stupid. Perhaps it is equal parts Nature and Government.” On the other end of the spectrum is Barthes, who predictably experienced jouissance while “dramatizing paperwork”.
But as a theory of paperwork The Demon of Writing, in its impact and potential uses, is slight. How to explain, for instance, the parapraxis of paperwork—the “powers and failures of paperwork”, as it were, to a “paperless” immigrant? To most, even while paperwork delays and obstructs and fails—or precisely because of this—the powers of paperwork and the administrative apparatus that supports it remain entrenched. If our stories about bureaucracy and its horrors are a means to thinking about the state, then this book shows that “we” don’t always get what we want; instead, paperwork provides “us” with the opportunity to “fulfill fantasies of power and powerlessness, revenge and love”. That leaves too much to chance and individual temperament, and material circumstances—economic and political systems—are able to remain very much unchanged despite these fantasies of power and revenge.
In his closing chapter, for example, Kafka talks about the short film The Paperwork Explosion that IBM commissioned in 1967 to promote its word-processor (see video, below). “Machines should work, people should think” was the message of the film, and Kafka wonders if the film could be read as a warning “against its own techno-utopianism”. Perhaps, but the present shows us that IBM is a corporate giant, and in the age of smartphones and gadgets, people, more than ever, are being put to work for machines. Maybe corporations want you to think, but it's usually because they want you to think what they think.
Fantasies of revenge are compelling to consider, but if the powers of paperwork—in other words, the powers of the capitalist state—are unstable and diffuse, then it seems like Kafka’s argument merely boils down to how the unconscious life of paperwork can often exceed or limit individual or collective expectations. This leaves no room for an alternative to paperwork. And as long as we have our fantasies and narratives of revenge, nothing really has to change.