The Write Stuff
How paperwork validates power—and obscures meaning.
Sep 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 01 • By PETER LOPATIN
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”:
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.”