The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork

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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: 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.