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?”