The Magazine

The Write Stuff

How paperwork validates power—and obscures meaning.

Sep 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 01 • By PETER LOPATIN
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When we bemoan some bureaucratic atrocity—and the paperwork in which it so often finds tangible expression—we are likely to do so with world-weary, unreflective resignation. A well-known passage from Edna St. Vincent Millay comes to mind: So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind.

Ben Kafka argues, however, that paper-work, together with the bureaucracies that generate it (and which—in reciprocal fashion—are sustained by it), have both a discernible historico-political origin (specifically, in post-revolutionary France) and a complex structure. Indeed, Kafka—a historian and media theorist at New York University—argues that paperwork itself, like the people who produce and consume it (and who, at times, are consumed by it), has its own “psychic life,” which he has set out to elucidate. 

Kafka notes that although it was only in 1764 that the word “bureaucracy” (la bureaucratie) made its first appearance in print, by the 1850s it had become all the rage, and was denounced (“in remarkably similar terms”) by Marx, Tocqueville, and Mill. Bureaucracy came to be recognized as a new regime of government (literally, “government by desks”) over and above “the classic three regimes” of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy: 

This piece of furniture was expandable, metonymically, to include the men who sat behind it, the offices in which they found themselves, and ultimately the entire state apparatus.

Kafka examines the meaning and implications of this new regime, intertwining threads of historical narrative, psychoanalytic theory, and intriguing anecdotes into a thoroughly absorbing read. 

His argument is that paperwork (which he defines as “all those documents produced in response to a demand—real or imagined—by the state”) frustrates the intellect by its unpredictability and its inherent contradictions. If that were all there were to it, however, the study of paperwork, though intriguing, would be merely an interesting historical sidelight. 

However, Kafka proffers the bolder thesis that “modern political thought was both founded and confounded by its encounters with paperwork.” The latter component of Kafka’s claim is certainly true; as to the former (foundational) claim, I remain unconvinced. But Kafka clearly has a case to make, and it is a pleasure to follow him as he makes it. Although the ideas of such postmodern luminaries as Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan, among others, inform Kafka’s narrative—we are told that Lacan characterized bureaucracy as a “rattling of the semiotic chain”—Kafka nonetheless presents his arguments with a minimum of academic cant and with admirable concision and subtle wit.

The French Revolution did not merely bring about the end of the monarchy; it purported, as well, to institute a form of government whose legitimacy was founded on its claim to be, at all times, the representative of every one of its citizens. Necessarily, such a government would have to be accountable for its every action and transparent in its functioning. This notion was embodied in Article 15 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789, which asserted: “Society has the right to ask all public agents to give an accounting of their administration.” 

In Kafka’s view, this principle reflected a “transformation in the culture of paperwork that was to have permanent consequences for modernity.” Governmental accountability was henceforth to be “recognized as an inalienable, individual right [and was to become] the foundation of representative government.” Since paperwork and its attendant bureaucracy were necessary for that accountability, the former became, as it were, a pillar of legitimate government: Actions undertaken by or on behalf of the state were to be meticulously documented, in the expectation that eventually there would be a public accounting of those actions. 

The devil is in the details, however. The power of a bureaucratic regime is intrinsically problematical in a representative democracy of the sort to which the French Revolution had purportedly given birth. In a far-flung nation of 26 million, “how could the general will express itself .  .  . without destroying its liberty, without endangering its very existence?” 

Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (the abbé Sieyès), one of the principal theorists of the revolution, had thought that the resolution of this riddle would be achieved by combining a division of governmental labor into numerous areas of narrowly demarcated responsibility, together with scrupulous attention to recordkeeping—which is to say, paperwork. As Kafka notes, however, its praxis in the revolutionary period involved an intrinsic contradiction: The greater the revolutionary regime’s attempts to wield its power, the more impeded it was in the exercise of that power by the need to precisely document its every deed with the requisite paperwork. 

Nowhere is this contradiction more compellingly shown than in the case of Charles-Hippolyte Labussière, a clerk in the Committee of Public Safety (that quintessentially murderous arm of the Reign of Terror), who secretly subverted the bureaucracy he claimed to serve, saving more than 1,200 souls from the guillotine. His heroic, if bizarre, sabotage of the bureaucratic machinery of the Terror would, in the years to come, earn him the admiration of his nation and a plaque in his honor on the wall of the Académie Française. 

If The Demon of Writing can be said to have a hero, it is surely Labussière. His method was directed at the very materiality of paperwork: He would hide those documents whose correct processing was a condition precedent to execution, soak them in water until they were pulp, and form them into balls of paste which he would then surreptitiously toss into the Seine. Without the necessary paperwork, the condemned could not be executed. The wrench in the works was the regime of paperwork itself, a problem that had led Saint-Just, the public face of the Terror, to complain that “the demon of writing is waging war against us; we are unable to govern.” 

On Kafka’s reading, the machinations of the Terror had fallen under the influence of “the agency effect”: 

The political relation between men had taken the form of a material relation between things. .  .  . This material relation did not simply eliminate individual agency, however. Rather, it refracted agency through its medium.

Paperwork presented a means of resistance to the power of the state, while remaining the means of the state’s assertion of that very power. 

The refractory power of paperwork drew the serious attention of Tocqueville, Marx, and Freud, each of whom receives Kafka’s extended attention. Tocqueville struggled with the contradictions of bureaucracy to the point of eschewing the very use of the word, though not its substantive import. He asks: “How to reconcile the extreme centralization that [the bureaucratic regime] consecrates with the reality and morality of representative government?” Tocqueville’s comments on the relative absence of paperwork in America—and on the greater appeal to ambitious Americans of trade and industry over service in “official appointments”—are timely, and Kafka’s discussion of the evolution of Tocqueville’s thoughts on bureaucracy makes for fascinating reading.

From a lesser-known early work of Marx concerning a dispute between the Prussian tax authorities and winemakers of the Mosel region—a dispute that was to generate innumerable notes, dossiers, and reports, but no just resolution of the winemakers’ claims—Kafka educes a theory of the praxis of paperwork. Here, we have Karl Marx as media theorist, propounding a conception of paperwork as “a refractive medium [in which] power and knowledge inevitably change their speed and shape when they enter it.” In its unpredictability, paperwork “accelerates and decelerates power [and] syncopates its rhythms, disrupts its cycles, which is why paperwork always seems to be either overdue or underdone.” 

Kafka finds in Sigmund Freud the beginnings of a “parapractical theory of paperwork.” Kafka’s Freud is the Freud of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), but as critiqued by the Marxist philologist Sebastiano Timpanaro and refracted through the semiotic lens of Roland Barthes. Seen in this light, Freud had failed to grasp the materialist basis of the Freudian slip, which should be seen not as the expression of repressed unconscious motives but as a reflection of “the mechanical and cognitive challenges involved in producing and reproducing texts” or as resulting from “material, cognitive, or institutional conditions.” 

Yet, though Kafka reads Timpanaro sympathetically, he recognizes that the individual’s struggle with bureaucracy is not so much a struggle for resources or recognition as it is for the satisfaction of a desire. It is, moreover, “a struggle .  .  . that both theoretical wisdom and historical evidence suggest is insatiable.” 

And where, if not in the unconscious, is the insatiable to be found?

Peter Lopatin teaches at the University of Connecticut at Stamford.