Magazine article Times Higher Education

The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork

Magazine article Times Higher Education

The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork

Article excerpt

The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork. By Ben Kafka Zone Books, 208pp, Pounds 19.95. ISBN 9781935408260. Published 14 December 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 differance.

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. …

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