Paperwork Against the People

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

The hope of some of the French revolutionaries was that paperwork would rationalize the state, Rob Horning says, citing Ben Kafka’s The Demon of Writing, and that it would destroy the corrupt networks of aristocratic influence:

Kafka quotes from a 1791 French administrative directory that advised that “letters of recommendation will be perfectly useless” in petitioning the government and “might even become dangerous, in that they can foster the belief that one is soliciting a favor or a grace that one does not have the right to obtain through justice.” As Kafka puts it, “A world of privilege was becoming a world of rights; the personal state was becoming the personnel state.”

Paperwork was also to be the means for allowing all of a nation’s people to scrutinize government activities, an intention enshrined in Article 15 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen: “Society has the right to ask all public agents to give an accounting of their administration.” This mirrors the contemporary enthusiasm for open government and transparency among some activists and is the apparent raison d’etre for WikiLeaks. The idea was taken to astounding (and absurd) lengths by the Jacobins, who mandated that “all relations between all public functionaries can no longer take place except in writing.”

While this desire can turn documentation into what Kafka calls a “technology of political representation” by which citizens can track whether the state is serving their interests, it also makes paperwork into a voracious medium that authorizes blanket surveillance of citizens and their reconstitution as vulnerable data sets as a condition of citizenship. You are no one without your permanent file. Part of Kafka’s achievement in The Demon of Paperwork is to show how readily revolutionary optimism is undone by administrative surveillance, even when it’s adopted in the revolution’s name. Revolution promises to wash away the most intractable social problems, but then paperwork rears itself to show that these problems have only been displaced to an impersonal and intractable medium.

Instead of optimism, the specter of paperwork permits cynicism to flourish. Privilege may temporarily disappear into the meticulous procedures of paperwork, which become recognizable rituals of impartiality, even if no one is satisfied with their actual performance. Anyone who has ever visited the DMV has taken part in this grand democratization of frustration. In a state where the DMV is the model institution, everyone is equal in that they are equally miserable. But paperwork also opens new avenues for the exercise of influence that are just as opaque as any earlier systems abused by elites. As documentation proliferates, so too do auditors auditing the clerks, and auditors auditing those auditors, and on and on to theoretical infinity. This network of data and overtaxed inspectors and processors has the effect of creating a miasma of competing claims for legitimacy, as well as ample opportunity for doling out preferential treatment, circumventing the law, subverting authority, serving oneself. Information becomes obfuscation, particularly under the pressures of “surveillance and acceleration,” which Kafka isolates as the contradictory demands of state power. The state needs to know more to function fairly, but with more information comes more urgency to process it all, yielding even more information to process and sending fairness further over the horizon.

(Hat tip to Foseti.)

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