- The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork by Ben Kafka
Michel Tournier, early in his novel The Ogre, has the protagonist offer a fable on “the nightmare of paper.” Once there was a man who wished to efface all traces of a brush with the law. Never certain of where those traces might have ended up, he escalates his efforts from disposing of documents to setting fire to police stations, town halls, and public archives. But soon he notices that, wherever he has been, the local people begin to stoop when they walk and to utter only inarticulate sounds when they attempt to speak. However much trouble the proliferation of documents creates, Tournier’s protagonist reflects, “to live without paper is to live like a beast. . . . And this because the human soul is made of paper.”
Paperwork, Tournier’s protagonist suggests, constitutes, even as it constricts, the modern subject. Similar paradoxes of “paperwork,” of the myriad files in which we are inscribed, fascinate Ben Kafka. For him, these paradoxes began in 1789, when paperwork materialized the rupture between patrimonial absolutism and popular sovereignty. Kafka turns to Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (a figure seemingly everywhere in contemporary historiography of the French Revolution) to supply his argument. According to Sieyès, paperwork opened the exercise of power to the scrutiny of an egalitarian public. Paper disciplined the state. It established accountability, but seemingly not responsibility, as Edme-Étienne Morizot, the subject of one of Kafka’s microhistories, discovered much to his dismay. Morizot was the victim of an arbitrary dismissal from the finance ministry at the very end of the old regime. Striving to clear his record and recover his position, he was passed among the ministers and deputies, courts and committees, of the new regime only to expostulate, amid his abject failure at every turn, “Does truth have departments where it can be suffocated?”
But if the unpredictability of paperwork failed to discipline the state, the same unpredictability failed the disciplinary state. As the Terror grew ever more unforgiving in the early summer of 1794, the volume of paperwork grew, and demands that its processing be accelerated became more urgent. Taking advantage of this situation, Charles-Hyppolite Labussière, a new and relatively obscure employee of the committee of public safety, destroyed the accusations of over two hundred individuals, including the actors and actresses of the Comédie Française. Labussière was a kind of Edward Snowden who, in concealing rather than revealing, also found in paperwork a foil for the actions of perhaps the first national-security state. It was in the early nineteenth century, Kafka shows, that writers like Balzac and Tocqueville constructed the comedic character of the clerical grotesque and the discourse of bureaucracy. They did so in order to mediate a potentially tragic contradiction. On the one hand, mass democracy entailed ever-expanding administrative demands. On the other hand, bourgeois civil society intensified what Kafka calls “the state of want.” If individuals languished in [End Page 138] lines, hoping that an anonymous official might understand their personal circumstances, the problem was not an inevitable concomitant of modernity. It was rather the consequence of the manner in which successive revolutionary regimes had proliferated institutions, multiplied employees, and centralized power.
Throughout this short and elegant book, Kafka conjures the demon of writing with a quite intentional methodological eclecticism. Derridean différance mixes with Freudian parapraxis; Latour’s ethnography of lawmaking and the media studies of Cornelia Vismann mix with François Furet’s interpretation of the French Revolution and with the Cambridge school’s linguistic turn in the understanding of modern political thought. Kafka’s focus is on the political life of paperwork, largely in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But his work resonates with writers as diverse as Jaron Lanier and Bernard Stiegler, and it alerts us to the various and contradictory manners in which we are inscribed, economically, socially, and culturally, in the contemporary digital age. Our online shopping profile both enhances and homogenizes our consumer choices; social media both...