In this review in Reviews in History, Dr. Tom Cook discusses Ben Kafka’s book, The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork. Click here to learn more about the book. Click here to read the full review. An excerpt appears below.
“Bureaucracy per se was nothing new at the end of the 18th century. Kafka notes a survey undertaken in 1770 that suggested there were some 5,700 document depositories in France, largely in the hands of feudal, monastic and local authorities (p. 33). Furthermore, the irony that the Revolution only reworked rather than diminished the bureaucratic largesse of the Old Regime has been noted before. Alexis de Tocqueville recognised as much in his L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, published in 1856; and Tocqueville’s stock has been growing ever since François Furet resurrected his thesis regarding the fate of the Revolution in the late 1970s.(2) Kafka’s approach is different, and it is by no means a straightforward work of history, if indeed that is what it is. For his interest lies not just in the fact of bureaucracy, but also in how it functioned, just as it still does today, as a protean source of fantasy and perverse enjoyment. The book is, as Kafka sets out in his introduction, partly an exercise in ‘psychohistory’, in this case of ‘the psychic life of paperwork’ (p. 16). Bureaucracy is as much myth as material reality, argues Kafka; and the two – the materiality of bureaucracy and its conceptual-fantastical fashioning – should be grasped together, one stirring the other. More than this, bureaucratic myths, like all myths perhaps, as Kafka suggests, are about managing structural contradictions in how we are governed and govern ourselves (p. 11).”