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The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork
     

The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork

by Ben Kafka
 

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Since the middle of the eighteenth century, political thinkers of all kinds--radical and reactionary, professional and amateur--have been complaining about "bureaucracy." But what, exactly, are they complaining about?

In The Demon of Writing, Ben Kafka offers a critical history and theory of one of the most ubiquitous, least understood forms of media:

Overview

Since the middle of the eighteenth century, political thinkers of all kinds--radical and reactionary, professional and amateur--have been complaining about "bureaucracy." But what, exactly, are they complaining about?

In The Demon of Writing, Ben Kafka offers a critical history and theory of one of the most ubiquitous, least understood forms of media: paperwork. States rely on records to tax and spend, protect and serve, discipline and punish. But time and again, this paperwork proves to be unreliable. Examining episodes that range from the story of a clerk who lost his job and then his mind in the French Revolution to an account of Roland Barthes's brief stint as a university administrator, Kafka reveals the powers, the failures, and even the pleasures of paperwork. Many of its complexities, he argues, have been obscured by the comic-paranoid style that characterizes much of our criticism of bureaucracy. Kafka proposes a new theory of what Karl Marx called the "bureaucratic medium." Moving from Marx to Freud, he argues that this theory of paperwork must include both a theory of praxis and of parapraxis.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"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.) The Annotated Brothers Grimm: The Bicentennial Edition Edited and trans. from the German by Maria Tatar Norton, (552p) ISBN 978-0-393-08886-1 The 200th anniversary of the publication of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Children's Stories and Household Tales is the occasion for Tatar, a Harvard professor and leading fairytale scholar, to expand her annotated translation of selected tales (initially published in 2004). Adding only six new stories to the previous edition, readers won't find much new reading material here, but illustrations and expanded annotations enrich the text. Divided into "The Tales" (for children) and "Tales for Adults," there's fodder for burgeoning bookworms, nostalgic grown-ups, and serious academics. Beloved classics like "Rumpelstiltskin," "Hansel and Gretel," and "Rapunzel" occupy the first section, whereas lesser-known tales like the grisly "How Children Played Butcher with Each Other" and the anti-Semitic "The Jew in the Brambles" are appropriately sequestered in the second. But despite the separation, Tatar is consistent in her scholarly examination of each story–in illuminating introductions and annotations, she is equally comfortable calling up the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, imagining how audiences might respond to particular passages, and providing cross-references to other stories. This rich and valuable edition brilliantly showcases the brothers' storytelling acumen, and reinforces their tales as timeless for both children and for scholars. Illus. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

"[Kafka] pursues an argument that leads from paper to paperwork, "the psychic life of paperwork," the concepts of major thinkers…it is provocative, original, and a very good read."
Robert Darnton, -- The New York Review of Books

Zone Books

"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." -- The New Republic

Zone Books

The New York Review of Books - Robert Darnton

[Kafka] pursues an argument that leads from paper to paperwork, "the psychic life of paperwork," the concepts of major thinkers…it is provocative, original, and a very good read.

The New Republic

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.

The Weekly Standard - Peter Lopatin

Kafka examines the meaning and implications of this new regime, intertwining threads of historical narrative, psychoanalytic theory, and intriguing anecdotes into a thoroughly absorbing read.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781935408260
Publisher:
Zone Books
Publication date:
11/30/2012
Pages:
184
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are Saying About This

Samuel Moyn

This remarkable book teaches everyone who has gone blind on paperwork to see modern life anew: forms and reports, the stultifying preserve of bureaucrats, emerge as the foundations (and sometimes undoing) of state power. With elegance and poise, Ben Kafka blends the erudition of a masterful historian of the French Revolution with the rigors of a materialist who knows concepts depend on their circulation and the sophistication of a psychoanalyst who understands the psychic implications of worldly transformation. Through the utopia of the 'paperless office,' Kafka gives the clerks who destroy and fulfill our dreams their due, and a neglected form of modern writing the centrality it demands. And make sure to have a pair of scissors on hand!

From the Publisher

"Kafka draws on methods and theories most often found in psychoanalysis, political theory, and histories of the book to craft a marvelously engaging and wonderfully witty study of papers, paperwork, and bureaucracy. At the center of this tremendously clever and pathos-laden interpretation is the crucial insight that 'paperwork, even when it works, fails us. We never get what we want." -- Rebecca Spang, author of The Invention of the
Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture

Zone Books

James Swenson

Ben Kafka's The Demon of Writing is an unexpected pleasure. The wit and intelligence that shine through the notorious recalcitrance and tedium of paperwork make it a joy to read. The real surprise, however, is the reach of the Kafka's project, the amount this history of a few episodes in the life of paper and ink, files and forms, has to teach us about the proximity of our expectations and frustrations with the modern bureaucratic state. It will be of particular interest to scholars interested in the contradictions of the revolutionary experience, but it will be equally rewarding to everyone who has dreamed of working in an office that works.

Rebecca Spang

Kafka draws on methods and theories most often found in psychoanalysis, political theory, and histories of the book to craft a marvelously engaging and wonderfully witty study of papers, paperwork, and bureaucracy. At the center of this tremendously clever and pathos-laden interpretation is the crucial insight that 'paperwork, even when it works, fails us. We never get what we want.

Meet the Author

Ben Kafka is an Assistant Professor of Media History and Theory at New York University and a candidate at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research (IPTAR), a component society of the International Psychoanalytical Association. He works with adult and adolescent patients through the IPTAR Clinical Center and the NYC Free Clinic.

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