The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork

Ben Kafka, Author
Ben Kafka. Zone (MIT, dist.), $28.95 (192p) ISBN 978-1-935408-26-0
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"The demon of writing is waging war against us; we are unable to govern", said the French orator Saint-Just, in reference to a tidal wave of government paperwork. The felicitously named Kafka sees our experience of paperwork as contradictory, perceived sometimes as the exacting tool of faceless bureaucracies and at others as a congeries of misunderstandings, miscalculations, and misdirections (the dimpled chads of 2000's Florida voting ballots, for example). This in turn reflects an inconsistency in our views about the workings of government: "We have been unable to reconcile our theories of the state's power with our experience of its failure," and so we blame the failures on bureaucrats and paperwork. Kafka traces the rise of a "new ethos of paperwork" to the upheavals of the French Revolution in his first two chapters; the latter chapters investigate the origins of the word "bureaucracy" and outline a theory of "the psychic life of paperwork," which (Kafka argues) is prey to the same "unconscious forces" that drive other acts of speech and writing. Partly survey of the materials and processes of paperwork, partly theoretical meditation on the symbolic functions of paperwork, and partly intellectual history (unsettling anecdotes about various bureaucratic failures abound), Kafka's book is a keen, vivacious examination of the frustrating "unpredictability" of paperwork as a cultural institution. Photos & illus. (Nov.)
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