Powers and Failures of Paperwork
by Ben Kafka
Zone Books, 2012, 182 pp.
We are all familiar with tales of inept clerks wasting people’s time, focusing on inane procedural concerns at the expense of common sense and elevating the protocols of paperwork for their own sake over the functions bureaucracy is ostensibly intended to perform. We have all been to the post office; we’ve had to renew passports, file quarterly tax payments, fight phantom parking tickets. We’ve all had infuriating encounters with customer service divisions, the privatized bureaucracy of consumer capitalism. One can customarily secure conversational sympathy with tales of inefficiency at voting stations, or the impossibilities of decoding medical bills and sorting out insurance coverage. Such stories are as safe and neutral as talk about the weather; contempt for bureaucrats conveys a comfortable, conventional normality.
How did such horror stories of clerical uselessness become so socially useful, so tellable? Where did the conventions of the bureaucratic nightmare tale come from? Media history professor Ben Kafka’s The Demon of Writing attempts to answer this question by way of a tour of post-revolutionary France and the nineteenth-century milieu that helped spawn “bureaucracy” as a pejorative term. Kafka joins thoroughly researched narratives of a few notable civil servants of the era with some psychoanalytically oriented speculation to trace the evolution of “the psychic life of paperwork”—how it has served not only as a field for passive-aggressive political action and a source of scapegoats for state authorities but also as a well of perverse wish fulfillment for citizens eager to acknowledge paperwork’s inevitable dominion over them.
The range of examples Kafka marshals demonstrate how these seemingly inevitable tales of bureaucratic incompetence and subversion have been put in service across the political spectrum. “Paperwork syncopates the state’s rhythms, destabilizes its structures,” Kafka notes, creating conditions that politicians, clerks, critics, and demagogues can all opportunistically exploit.
This wasn’t the intent, of course. The hope of some of the French revolutionaries was that paperwork would rationalize the state, that it would depersonalize power and destroy the corrupt networks of aristocratic influence. Kafka quotes from a 1791 French administrative directory that advised that “letters of recommendation will be perfectly useless” in petitioning the government and “might even become dangerous, in that they can foster the belief that one is soliciting a favor or a grace that one does not have the right to obtain through justice.” As Kafka puts it, “A world of privilege was becoming a world of rights; the personal state was becoming the personnel state.”
The hope of some of the French revolutionaries was that paperwork would rationalize the state, that it would depersonalize power and destroy the corrupt networks of aristocratic influence.
Paperwork was also to be the means for allowing all of a nation’s people to scrutinize government activities, an intention enshrined in Article 15 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen: “Society has the right to ask all public agents to give an accounting of their administration.” This mirrors the contemporary enthusiasm for open government and transparency among some activists and is the apparent raison d’etre for WikiLeaks. The idea was taken to astounding (and absurd) lengths by the Jacobins, who mandated that “all relations between all public functionaries can no longer take place except in writing.”
While this desire can turn documentation into what Kafka calls a “technology of political representation” by which citizens can track whether the state is serving their interests, it also makes paperwork into a voracious medium that authorizes blanket surveillance of citizens and their reconstitution as vulnerable data sets as a condition of citizenship. You are no one without your permanent file. Part of Kafka’s achievement in The Demon of Paperwork is to show how readily revolutionary optimism is undone by administrative surveillance, even when it’s adopted in the revolution’s name. Revolution promises to wash away the most intractable social problems, but then paperwork rears itself to show that these problems have only been displaced to an impersonal and intractable medium.
Instead of optimism, the specter of paperwork permits cynicism to flourish. Privilege may temporarily disappear into the meticulous procedures of paperwork, which become recognizable rituals of impartiality, even if no one is satisfied with their actual performance. Anyone who has ever visited the DMV has taken part in this grand democratization of frustration. In a state where the DMV is the model institution, everyone is equal in that they are equally miserable. But paperwork also opens new avenues for the exercise of influence that are just as opaque as any earlier systems abused by elites. As documentation proliferates, so too do auditors auditing the clerks, and auditors auditing those auditors, and on and on to theoretical infinity. This network of data and overtaxed inspectors and processors has the effect of creating a miasma of competing claims for legitimacy, as well as ample opportunity for doling out preferential treatment, circumventing the law, subverting authority, serving oneself. Information becomes obfuscation, particularly under the pressures of “surveillance and acceleration,” which Kafka isolates as the contradictory demands of state power. The state needs to know more to function fairly, but with more information comes more urgency to process it all, yielding even more information to process and sending fairness further over the horizon.
Nonetheless, this miasma has sometimes allowed for legendary feats of political resistance carried out through paperwork—the most striking of which, among the examples Kafka cites, are the exploits of Charles-Hippolyte Labussière, who literally chewed up documents while working for the Committee of Public Safety in 1794 to save accused citizens from the guillotine. Yet it also afforded alibis to the morally indifferent. Not only did metastasizing paperwork cast a patina of legitimacy on the workings of the Committee of Public Safety’s dictatorship, it also provided an excuse for those who signed death sentences. Some of them would argue post-Thermidor that the volume of documents they handled was so great, they didn’t even know what they were signing and therefore could not be held culpable for the results.
For reactionaries of all stripes, complaining about the inefficiency and tyranny of clerks who were never intended to be vested with authority has long served as an excuse to call for both limited government and enhanced executive power. For conservatives, clerks are de facto usurpers whose seemingly arbitrary authority has broken free from the constraints traditionally placed on it by social status. Decrying bureaucracy and all its tedious and procedures, in fact, serves as a good way of recasting the arbitrariness of any given class system as natural, organic, justified.
For reactionaries of all stripes, complaining about the inefficiency and tyranny of clerks who were never intended to be vested with authority has long served as an excuse to call for both limited government and enhanced executive power.
But revolutionaries too have found a convenient scapegoat in bureaucracy. Kafka cites Robespierre henchmen Saint-Just decrying the way paperwork was undermining the revolution as a justification for dictatorship. Better to expedite a more direct execution of the sovereign will than have power dissipated among legions of petty civil servants all narcissistically defending their tiny bailiwick to no great national purpose. Better to have flexible authority and get things done: Kafka notes that “even those of us most attached to liberal and democratic values—to diligence and process and everything else that is our due—occasionally succumb…to the fantasy that an omnipotent but benevolent authority might intervene in our case…even if it means breaking a few rules, circumventing a few regulations.”
Bureaucracy, Kafka argues, can be everybody’s enemy, and can thus serve as the organizing principle for otherwise untenable alliances, like the one between eighteenth-century liberals and democrats, or between some contemporary working-class voters and the neoliberal elites they vote for. Sowing contempt for bureaucracy, in the form of lambasting all government efforts as inherently inefficient, full of “lazy” and “parasitical” civil servants and their “bloated” pensions, remains a potent tactic of right-wing populism, but whereas conservatives of old evoked a nostalgic class paternalism to cure paperwork’s ills, the American Right offers a myth of self-sufficiency, of everyone for themselves, with no claims to be filed and no burdens to be shared. Bureaucracy, on the other hand, comes to stand for the inevitable outcome of all types of collective power, the emblem of neutered individualism. And since paperwork is an evil that proliferates no matter what the form of government, it can seem irrelevant to mount any political fights to reform it. Politics is thus reduced to the pettiness of sorting out strictly personal grievances, which in turn worsens bureaucracy, as these sorts of selfish claims are precisely what bureaucracy exists to process.
The inefficiencies and inadequacies of paperwork—and the clerks whose thankless task is to manage it—lend themselves to being used to construct the fantasy of a natural, uncorrupted, hierarchy- and bureaucracy-free direct democracy. Instead of a regime of mistrust, regimentation, and endemic “cover-your-ass” punctiliousness, let there be glorious horizontalism, an oral culture of power as presence, not paper. (This fantasy didn’t work out so well for the Occupy camps, as journalist Quinn Norton documented in this Wired report.) In this sense, paperwork encourages a misunderstanding of power as a medium, divested of actual people responsible for abusing it. Pursuing the dream of domesticating power becomes a matter of endless formal restructuring, while the mundane organizational work of politics is demonized as the sort of bureaucratic troublemaking “everyone” wants to dispense with.
Paperwork has often been regarded as if it were endowed with a will of its own. “The ‘paperwork explosion’ expresses both a threat and a wish,” Kafka writes, that the documents themselves have the energy to liberate or oppress us. Yet the traces of human error never vanish. In our encounters with paperwork, “carelessness is conflated with uncaring,” Kafka notes—the indifference of the state appears to be given a permanent, material substance. Kafka doesn’t claim that paperwork literally has a mind of its own, that its material intransigence is evidence of de facto agency, as “object-oriented” theorists like Bruno Latour might. But he does verge on attributing to paperwork its own unconscious urges.
Drawing on psychoanalytic theory, Kafka sets out to “account for how this medium makes everyone, no matter how powerful they may be in reality, feel so powerless.” But feeling powerless and actually being powerless are not at all the same; blurring the difference between the two may be the most far-reaching ideological function of frustration with bureaucracy. Representing paperwork as a great leveler, as subject to the same “unconscious forces” across the social body, threatens to exculpate the powerful for their abuses of authority and to make corruption a sort of unfortunate by-product of humans’ inevitable tendency to make transcription errors. Mistakes are made, and nobody’s perfect, so let’s not play the blame game.
The way errors creep into paperwork has seemed to encapsulate the inherent flaws of all human efforts at government, prompting calls for a humility about what sort of reforms the state can achieve. “Most mistakes are not the result of bad faith or even sloppiness,” Kafka argues, suggesting that our tendency to see malevolence in bureaucracy stems in part from our inability to close-read our way to an explanation of errors:
True, we will never gain access to the unconscious fantasies of some seventeenth-century printer or nineteenth-century clerk. And yet the practice of close reading might bring us a bit closer to their lives, frustrations, worries, if only in a partial and incomplete way, which is still better than no way at all.
Perhaps, but to what end? Kafka argues that paperwork facilitates “fantasies of power and powerlessness,” but leaves the nature of these fantasies and the social forces that mold them beyond the reach of transformation. For Kafka, our stories about bureaucracy provide us the elusive satisfaction that the state never can. We exact a pleasing narrative revenge on systemic political inadequacy. But the cost of this satisfaction is fatalism: we accept that “you can’t fight the system” to take comfort in not having to try.
Rob Horning is the executive editor of the New Inquiry.