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I Would Prefer Not To—What Paperwork Means in Modern Life

IN FRANZ KAFKA’S novel, The Trial, the hapless protagonist, Josef K., is asked to stand trial for a crime that has never been defined, in a court that is never in session. Instead of a trial, the protagonist spends his time arguing with bureaucrats over paperwork: “You come home one day and find all the documents you’ve submitted … lying on the desk, they’ve been sent back … they’re just worthless scraps of paper.” “Kafkaesque” has come to define the existentially hopeless bureaucratic mazes with no exit.

It is, therefore, puzzling that The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork mentions Franz Kafka only once and in passing. Although Ben Kafka has written previously about the writer who shares his last name, here he has almost entirely omitted any reference to the man whose surname is synonymous with the follies of paperwork.

So what does Ben Kafka—without his namesake—have to say about the power and failures of paperwork? In a series of vignettes, he shows what he calls “the psychic life of paperwork” or how paperwork became central to human consciousness after the French Revolution. Kafka’s point is that the upheaval of 1789—which began with rare parchment and ended in easy access print—brought about a new, more democratic form of paperwork. The question is, did this lead to the liberty envisioned by idealistic revolutionaries or to nightmares of The Trial?

Influenced by the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the authors of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) proposed a new era of greater transparency. Not only one of the founding documents on human and civil rights, the Declaration also insisted that “public agents” give “an accounting of their administration,” with open paperwork. The abbé Sieyès, a leader of the French Revolution, tried to design the revolutionary state on the model of a joint stock company in which all citizens were “stakeholders in the great social enterprise.” Because citizens “suppl[ied] the capital,” the state was accountable.

The new constitutions written during the revolutionary years would require all government agents or ministers to “deposit all … paperwork in the registry for detailed inspection by those members who might want to examine it more closely.” This was common practice in England in the 1780s and the state legislatures of the early United States (facts that Kafka omits), but in France, this new ideal of accountability was designed on the grandest scale in history, a country of more than 30 million citizens.

Almost immediately, however, this ideal was challenged. Kafka shows how the quest for political liberty (and pure power) butted heads with bureaucratic nightmare. During the Reign of Terror (Sept. 5 1793–July 27, 1794), the so-called Apostle of the Terror, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, called administrative paperwork the “demon of writing” and proclaimed “The prolixity of the government’s correspondence and orders is a sign of its inertia; it is impossible to govern without brevity.” He evoked the “terrifying multitudes of edicts and declarations that one sees emanating daily from some courts.”

Saint-Just was right to be worried. Not only had the number of clerks working for the Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety ballooned from forty to four hundred in one year, the great chain of paperwork was impeding the Terror’s killing machine. On July 1, 1794, the Revolutionary Tribunal was about to sentence all the actors of the Comédie Française to death. Realizing the travesty and disaster of such a decree a “simple employee of the Committee of Public Safety,” Charles-Hippolyte Labussière, took the accusatory documents to a bathhouse, soaked them so that they could be shaped into little pellets of paste, and then sent them “through the window of the bathing room into the river,” thus saving more than two hundred actors and citizens from the blade of the Guillotine.

Although it is his most dramatic story, Kafka’s point here is that it is not what Labussière did that should interest us. Rather, it was the explosion of “bureaumania” that had the most significant consequences: paperwork and bureaucracy became not only a means for subtle dissent, but also topics of public discussion, entertainment, art, and philosophy. By the nineteenth century, a leading government administrator, Jacques-Gilbert Ymbert wrote an analysis of “the waves of ink” which flooded society: “A thousand dispatches, parting from a thousand different places, are addressed to each minister.” Ymbert came to the opposite conclusion as Sieyès: in order to administrate, the great state bureaucracy was “sacrificing” liberty to the altar of efficiency. The great novelist, Honoré de Balzac immortalized Ymbert’s letters in The Employees, or, the Superior Woman (1837) and described in inimitable detail the often hopeless world of paperwork and bureaucracy that now ruled over Paris—what he called the Human Comedy. Banal paperwork became an unlikely muse for modern literature.

But apart from his discussion of Balzac, Kafka skims relatively quickly over the literary repercussions of “bureaumania.” While Kafka has previously written about Flaubert and Melville’s interest in paperwork, he does not do so here. The omission is a shame, for the examples would have enriched his case. Some of the finest literature of the nineteenth century focused on paperwork: Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener (1853) features a clerk whose simple refusal to fill out his paperwork halts the world around him; Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1857) tells of a document lost in the imaginary, maze-like Circumlocution Office, which destroys the Dorrit family; and in The Scarlet Letter, the narrator discovers the story of Hester Prynne in the files of the Custom House.

Rather than literature, it is the theory-centered assessment of paperwork that interests Kafka. He sees himself in dialogue with theorists such as the French sociologist of science Bruno Latour, who has famously studied the logics and filing systems of laboratories and offices. This leads Kafka to Orwellian, seminar-speak statements like “for reasons personal and professional, I am committed to the idea that people are ruled by unconscious processes, which is simply not true of even the most ‘agentic’ things.” And it probably explains the eclectic set of vignettes he offers in the second half of his book: He mentions Jacques Derrida; he describes Roland Barthes’s messy desk, covered not with literature, but with horrible administrative paperwork; he unearths a newspaper article by Karl Marx on paperwork. For Freud, Kafka writes, a paperwork snafu at the bank precipitates consideration of his own unconscious omissions.

But the more shocking omission comes not from Kafka’s emphasis on theory over literature, but from his odd historical orientation. In centering his study of “the psychic life of paperwork” in post-French Revolution, secular modernity, he ignores the outsized role that God has played in the history of paperwork. It is worth noting that in 1454–55, Johannes Gutenberg covered the expenses for the first printed Bible by publishing and selling 20,000 “confession certificates.” Indulgences were so lucrative that one printer at the Benedictine Monastery of Montserrat in Spain printed 142,950 between 1499 and 1500 (this press is still printing today). Good Christians bought these bits of paper, very possibly millions of them, believing (or not) that they would save them from purgatory and hell.

It was this avalanche of paperwork that so offended Martin Luther and that inspired his Ninety-Five Theses. Luther’s broadside set off the Protestant Reformation, split Christendom, and sparked two hundred years of war. (Some say it set the foundations for the French Revolution itself.) In another Kafkaesque twist, which supports Ben Kafka’s modernist theory, these controversial though ephemeral slips (people very often discard indulgences) were generally forgotten for centuries, only to be rediscovered by intrepid archival researchers. Although he missed this early, seeming crucial chapter in his story, Ben Kafka does the important job of reminding us that paperwork is part of the great human traditions, not only of communication and information, but also of revolution, existential philosophy, and for some, religion.

Jacob Soll is Professor of History at the University of Southern California and author of the forthcoming The Reckoning: Lessons From the Perilous History of Finance, Politics and Accountability—From the Ancient World to Modern Wall Street (Basic Books).