We are all familiar with tales of inept clerks wasting people’s time, focusing on inane procedural concerns at the expense of common sense and elevating the protocols of paperwork for their own sake over the functions bureaucracy is ostensibly intended to perform. We have all been to the post office; we’ve had to renew passports, file quarterly tax payments, fight phantom parking tickets. We’ve all had infuriating encounters with customer service divisions, the privatized bureaucracy of consumer capitalism. One can customarily secure conversational sympathy with tales of inefficiency at voting stations, or the impossibilities of decoding medical bills and sorting out insurance coverage. Such stories are as safe and neutral as talk about the weather; contempt for bureaucrats conveys a comfortable, conventional normality.
How did such horror stories of clerical uselessness become so socially useful, so tellable? Where did the conventions of the bureaucratic nightmare tale come from? Media history professor Ben Kafka’s The Demon of Writing attempts to answer this question by way of a tour of post-revolutionary France and the nineteenth-century milieu that helped spawn “bureaucracy” as a pejorative term. Kafka joins thoroughly researched narratives of a few notable civil servants of the era with some psychoanalytically oriented speculation to trace the evolution of “the psychic life of paperwork”—how it has served not only as a field for passive-aggressive political action and a source of scapegoats for state authorities but also as a well of perverse wish fulfillment for citizens eager to acknowledge paperwork’s inevitable dominion over them.