The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork

November 22, 2012

Ben Kafka is wised up to any jokey allusions one might play upon his name: he is a witty, very well-read and genial master not only of the Marx and Freud he takes as prime movers of his little jeu d’esprit but fluent also with the daunting inversions and reversals of the puns of the two Jacques (Lacan and Derrida) on différance.

But throughout his book - a joy to read for its humour as well as its sagacity - I was put in mind of a fragment left by Kafka’s great namesake Franz: “It was not my door, up there in the long corridor, that I opened. ‘A mistake,’ I said and was on the point of going out again. Then I saw the occupant of the room, a gaunt, beardless man with compressed lips, sitting at a little table on which there was only an oil-lamp.”

The vividness of this tantalising moment is of the same kind as our latter-day Kafka delights in deploying as part of the many startling and illuminating historical anecdotes he takes for exegesis and diegesis.

His giant subject, miniaturised in this brief book, is the rise and rise of bureaucracy since word and concept were born out of the French Revolution. “Bureaucracy” has long been a tetrasyllable impossible to pronounce without a downward inflection, and much as Kafka gleefully delights in historical instances of its weirdnesses and comicality, he doesn’t have much good to say about it. He quotes Hannah Arendt’s remark, “The rule by Nobody, which is what the political form known as bureaucracy is”, and, setting out to “demystify the comic-paranoid style of political thought to which it has given rise”, provides a memorable, even astonishing sequence of forgotten tales with which less to demystify than to confirm the hooded menace of this phantom Nobody.

Kafka begins in Paris in 1788, following a civil servant as he loses his job and seeks redress from the National Assembly, while the guillotine is raised and the monstrous new state devises its monstrous new vocabulary of paper domination. Saint-Just himself had argued for the dread Committee of Public Safety because “it is impossible to govern without brevity”, but the torrents of paper deepened, drowning victims of the denunciations swept along by their weight until a local hero-clerk began to pinch a selection, pulp them in his bath and chuck them in the Seine.

There is delicious charm as well as exemplary force in all the author’s well-told tales and, apart from the odd lapse from good-humoured poise into sanctimonious declarations of his materialism, Kafka allows his subjects plenty of room to live their own lives as well as to illustrate his grand, familiar theme.

He listens to Alexis de Tocqueville telling us that, unlike the free-spirited pioneers across the Atlantic, social ambition in France is greedy only for “official appointment”. In an unheard-of (to me) episode, he re-creates Karl Marx’s editorship, aged 24, of a local newspaper and cheers Marx on in his editorial attacks on the state bureaucracy until its officers closed the paper.

A bit too conscientiously for my taste, he reports a strenuous piece of psychopathological remembering-and-forgetting by Freud and its no less dutiful rebuttal by Sebastian Timpanaro in the name of materialism. All that was needed was to repeat the daily lesson taught by Microsoft to enraged users of their PCs that machines sometimes work so badly that the people using them can’t think straight. But the reader is then restored to the best of humours by a memoir of Roland Barthes, praising him to one’s great pleasure as the perfect bureaucrat. He was, it seems, Max Weber’s model: master of the files, just and impartial in treatment of his clients, incorruptible in office. He is the man in Franz Kafka’s mistake.

But he is not a mistake. He is a possibility. Bureaucratic writing does not have to be - in George Orwell’s rousing words - “designed to make lies sound truthful…and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. Ben Kafka is no doubt a dissenting Democrat, but he is all-American in his deep suspicion of the State itself. His chapter headings - “The disciplined state”, “The state of want” - cook the book. He mentions Quentin Skinner as one of his authorities, but it has been a main strand in Skinner’s work to chronicle the genealogy of the State as the multiplex concept it is, crucially formulated by Thomas Hobbes, in Skinner’s own paraphrase, as “the moral agent of the people”. Without some such Leviathan, bureaucratically and punctually allocating clean hospital beds and life-sustaining benefits, let alone paying national debts, social life would become Hobbesian indeed. The creature is under heavily ideological attack, and needs stouter hearts in its defence than are summoned up by the breezy conclusions of The Demon of Writing.

The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork

By Ben Kafka
Zone Books, 208pp, £19.95
ISBN 9781935408260
Published 14 December 2012

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