The Psychic Life of Paperwork: An Interview with Ben Kafka

By Alex CarpJuly 26, 2013

The Psychic Life of Paperwork: An Interview with Ben Kafka
Ben Kafka is a historian, critic, psychoanalyst-in-training, and recent author of a history of paperwork, The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork (Zone Books). Most historians, he writes, have done their work “by looking through paperwork” — using recovered documents, for example, to better understand the past — “but seldom paused to look at it.”

Kafka, instead, has set out to investigate not only the materiality but also what he calls “the psychic life of paperwork,” how it has become a background fixture in our stories and our internal lives. Since the various kinds of notes and writs first became understood as examples of more or less the same thing, and were grouped together under this title, paperwork has been a field in which desires and motivations from the other parts of our lives can play out or hide, and also something that has the power to unsettle those who encounter it: “What sorts of explanations do we offer,” Kafka writes, “what sorts of anecdotes do we share, what sorts of ridicule do we heap on that man or woman on the other side of the desk or telephone?” He regards paperwork as one of the most ubiquitous, least understood forms of media in modern history.

The Demon of Writing carries out this investigation by tracing the history of paperwork back to 1789, when the shift from the French monarchy to a constitutional republic meant that the power of government no longer rested with the king alone, but was to be dispersed across a professional staff of representatives and clerks who served the public — and who were responsible for providing written evidence of that service when called to account. Kafka argues that this change from “a world of privilege” to “a world of rights” was so radical that the languages of literature and political philosophy of the time could not accommodate it. The word “bureaucracy” soon began making its first appearances in dictionaries, plays, and novels, as well as throughout modern life.

Yet long after it has become normal for people to spend a significant chunk of their time writing memos, expense reports, applications, budgets, evaluations, and all the other documents Kafka describes as “the most ordinary texts […] for the most mundane purposes,” most of this writing still doesn’t comfortably fit our ideas of what it means to work. His book focuses on this centrality of paperwork — as well as the centrality of this discomfort — to our jobs, our lives, and, he argues, the history of our politics.

   – Alex Carp


The Voice of Power

ALEX CARP: In The Demon of Writing, you mention that literature was a step or two ahead of philosophy and sociology when it came to understanding things like paperwork, and that to better comprehend the workings of government, a writer like Alexis de Tocqueville had to look at literary sources. Why were these things able to find expression more easily in literature than in other fields?

BEN KAFKA: Political philosophy and political theory have always privileged the voice of power over writing, the great orations and legislative debates and things like that. All those theories of the social contract in the early modern period — Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau — there’s never a sense that the social contract is something written down, right? The social contract is supposed to be a metaphor for a kind of oral agreement. And so philosophy, at least canonical philosophy, just never really got around to asking why the state wants everything in writing.

Literature was much more interested in that problem. I also think that there are also certain kinds of experiences around paperwork, such as anxieties and desires, that literature had more of a vocabulary for. By the 18th century there are all kinds of theories of anxieties and desire in political theory, but I think not really in an everyday way.

AC: Some of the responses to your book have argued that the increase in paperwork after the French Revolution, which you bring a lot of attention to, comes from a broader political impulse that can’t be found in the paperwork alone. Robert Darnton argued, when he reviewed The Demon of Writing in The New York Review of Books, that although “this impulse expressed itself on paper […] the overproduction of paperwork was an unintended consequence of something more substantial, and it had little impact on the course of events.”  Do you have a response to that?

BK: I agree with the first part of Darnton’s comment, for sure, which is that the Revolution can’t be reduced to paperwork. I hope there’s nothing in the book that claims that we can understand the French Revolution only through paperwork.

But I don’t think we can understand the Revolution without paperwork, though. In other words, it is a “necessary but not sufficient” kind of situation. And I do think that people turn out to be really, really important in my argument. In other words, I’m not Bruno Latour. I actually do believe that various kinds of processes, both conscious and unconscious, are necessary.  But when Saint-Just or Robespierre or whoever was sitting there making decisions about strategy, they were making decisions looking at sheets of paper. The decisions they were making about the war or the economy were decisions they made not because they had some global vision of war, or global vision of the economy, but because they had reports on their desks — desks that were often times a total mess.

AC: I was curious how this project has affected or changed the way you see the paperwork in your daily life.

BK: It’s hard to separate that from just the fact that, when I started, I was a graduate student with very little experience with paperwork, except for a few temp jobs in college. These days I teach and just write a lot more memos and grade sheets and letters of recommendation and grant proposals than I ever imagined. My clinical work as an analyst in training also involves tons of paperwork. I’m just as bad at it as I’ve always been: tardy, and, like, delinquent. Tardy isn’t even a — tardy is a kind word. Delinquent.

And for reasons that are inexplicable. Certainly I think one of the lessons of the book is that I should get over it. [laughs] Not that I have gotten over it, but that I’m aware that I should be able to get over it.

AC: Because whatever is keeping you from doing that is—

BK: Because paperwork is work. It’s just one form of work among many forms of work that you do. It happens to be a form of work that a lot of us do a lot of the time. And like many kinds of work, it just has to get done. You’ve just got to sit down and do it, and not let yourself get all mixed up about it.

The Past and Future of Paperwork

AC: What’s the difference between doing a history of paperwork and doing work in the field that’s more generally called “history of the book”?

BK: There’s an argument that the history of the book has always been not only about books, but about the production of texts and technologies of writing in a much broader sense. At Penn, they call their book-history program the “history of material texts,” or something like that. The codex, you know, the book between covers, is just one form of writing among many. And that kind of work has been going on for at least a quarter century, if not longer.

AC: Yet the history of the book seems to have grown in response to the internet and digital technology, to the real threat that books might disappear — or at least the real fear of that. But no one really worries about the disappearance of paperwork. So there’s this little subfield that’s spun off from the history of the book, but that is not really in touch with that anxious motivation whatsoever.

BK: I think the rhythms of change are probably different. I actually think that books, like the kind we’re surrounded by in this office, will still be around in 25 years, but that paperwork, the kind of paperwork that’s stacked there on my desk, won’t be.

If I had to predict — which I probably shouldn’t be doing — I’d say that we’ll have actual paper books for a long time. Maybe they’ll be scarcer, but they’ll be here. Whereas I just don’t see any reason why, in 25 years, I’ll still be signing my lease agreement with my landlord on actual paper.

AC: I read Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper’s The Myth of the Paperless Office (2001), and in that book the authors write about how the digitization of the office has actually created more paperwork in offices. But I wasn’t sure if that was just a symptom of the transition period, or what.

BK: I think it is. I looked a little bit at the numbers. They base that claim on paper usage statistics, on how much paper has been manufactured and bought. And not long after that book appeared, those numbers peaked. And I’d have to go back and verify this, or you’ll have to go back, somebody will have to go back and verify this, but I think that the days of people printing everything out, printing out their emails and so on, are actually over.

AC: Because people won’t be using computers as if they were made of paper, basically?

BK: Yeah, I think that’s right. I do agree with Sellen and Harper, though, that paper is a far superior medium to digital media, judged by most standards. There’s all kinds of wonderful things about paper, that aren’t even the sentimental things, the reasons why we love them. It’s so easy to work with, whereas computers are so hard to work with. They bully us, they break down on us. They tempt us with solitaire and pornography and email. But people lower their expectations all the time under capitalism. And our expectations for what to accept as an interface, and how we communicate, I think are going to get lower.

AC: For what we accept as an interface?

BK: For communication. In the sense that people are just going to get used to — they already have gotten used to — the kinds of arbitrary limits that are placed on writing, and the creation and transmission of texts, that are part of working on computers.

AC: So this fear that books are going to disappear, which partially generated an interest in book history, you’re saying it’s unfounded. Yet there’s no fear of paperwork disappearing, which is actually likely to happen.

BK: In its paper form, yeah.

AC: In its paper form, right. And there’s a sort of moral investment in books being good and paperwork being bad, and people will just accept what you call “interface changes.” Why, of all the technologies of writing that are studied, do you think that the book has this privileged place?

BK: I do think that the book is privileged, and the question is well, why the book? The fact is that we love them. Right?

And most people in this business — in the humanities, let’s say — love books, and have loved books since we were in second grade or whatever. I’m going to guess that you had the same experience. We have a real attachment to the book that has much less to do with its materiality than a lot of people would like us to believe. It has to do with our memories, and our associations, and feelings.

You know, I’ve worked as a psychoanalyst with early adolescents and pre-teens, working-class kids, middle-class kids, and they all read tremendous amounts. And they read in book form, bound between covers. And they’re going have memories and associations also. Harry Potter or The Hunger Games or whatever — these most kids don’t read these things on Kindles, right? They have a relationship not just to the text but to the object, which is because it’s a cheap and durable object. You carry it around with you, and maybe your parents read it to you if you’re lucky. It would be interesting to know — I don’t know what the answer is — how many parents are reading iPad stories to their kids?

History and Psychoanalysis

AC: You started as a historian, and recently you’ve decided to begin training to become a psychoanalyst. It seems like sometimes these two fields can offer not just two different ways of reading, but two entirely different ways of relating to the world. What are you looking for when you’re approaching something as a historian, for lack of a better way to put it, versus when you’re approaching something as an analyst?

BK: I think that historical work, of every kind — well, almost every kind — is actually much closer to psychoanalysis, and psychoanalytic ways of thinking, than we usually think. The historian Joan Scott has a wonderful piece on the uses of psychoanalysis by mainstream historians, which begins with the president of the American Historical Association in the 1940s saying that he thinks he can imagine the day when every young historian has to go through psychoanalytic training. And he isn’t speaking from the marginal, feminist, queer, that sort of perspective — this was mainstream, Dead White Male history, saying we’re going to need to learn how to think psychoanalytically because people can only explain their own motives so much.

You can’t always just pretend that there’s nothing else going on, just because you have what you have, or all that’s been articulated. I think that there is something about trying to understand motivation that most historians and most psychoanalysts share, even when the motivation isn’t entirely explicit. That, and a suspicion of people’s explanations about why they do things.

But there are some things about the psychoanalytic project that are fundamentally ahistorical. And there are certain things about the historical project that psychoanalysis says are impossible. There’s just going to be a limit to what you can understand, when you have two people sitting across from each other, or even one person lying on a couch and one person sitting in a chair.

It’s about humility. Recognizing that we’ll never know everything going on inside our own minds, let alone inside somebody else’s, let alone somebody who’s been dead for fifty or a hundred or three hundred years. Which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying to find out.

AC: Do you see history and psychoanalysis as sharing the same goals?

BK: No, I don’t. Psychoanalysis, at its best, is really about helping people. Not that therapy is the only part of psychoanalysis by any means. There’s an incredible theoretical apparatus, and so forth. And certainly historians can be helpful. But you don’t write history because it’s going to help people, make them feel better. And I truly, honestly believe that psychoanalysis is about that.

AC: Why did you decide to undergo training to be an analyst?

BK: I don’t think that there’s any other way to really understand the unconscious. Except through — well, I’m gonna slow down here. Let’s see if I can come up with an answer! [laughs] I have a very dear friend, a historian of psychoanalysis, who gets so angry at me when I argue that psychoanalysts have a deeper or broader or broader and deeper perspective on the unconscious than other people, other scholars. Oh what does she call it? “Essentializing the clinical encounter” or something like this, she says. And, you know, I take her point. The unconscious is speaking all the time. You don’t need to be in a clinic, in a consulting room, to hear the unconscious speak. And you don’t need to be a psychoanalyst to understand it.

That said, there’s something about the clinical setting that makes the unconscious conscious, if you’re doing it right, and I just fell in love with that intensity. It’s an amazing experience. That makes it sound religious. And it probably kind of is, at some level. Also, I like learning things. I wasn’t just going to do it a little bit. I had to do the whole thing.

I mean, I’d been interested in psychoanalysis a long time. And then I sort of set that aside and went back to the 18th century and worked as a historian. And then I was in analysis for personal reasons, and returning to Freud from that perspective I found a very different Freud.

AC: One you weren’t aware of when you were reading him as a historian.

BK: Right.  Or one that I was only dimly aware of, you know? One that is really maddening and beautiful. A Freud who, despite all his faults and his prejudices, discovered a truly radical way of taking care of ourselves, of taking care of others. But I’m not just doing this for Freud. There’s a tradition — a 100-year-old, 115-year-old tradition, and I think it’s worth preserving.

Let me put it this way: I wish I had a coherent story. And I don’t. And I think probably the reason I’m stumbling is because I want to present it to you as a package, or as a series of calculated decisions that I made. And it certainly wasn’t just a series of accidents, but there was no master plan, you know? There was and there is no coherent story. The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has this wonderful essay on flirtation where he talks about flirtation as the production of uncertainty. And then there’s a parenthesis there: deliberate or nondeliberate. And there’s something to be said for flirting with ideas, too, and the kind of uncertainty that it produces. At its worst it becomes a kind of dilettantism, but at its best it’s a way of making everything a little less stable and a little less certain.

AC: That is actually a very coherent answer.

BK: Yeah, it’s actually a true one, right? I thought I was simply flirting with these ideas, and ended up committed to them. I guess you could say I’m engaged. I began to realize how much I was unaware of, or even sort of more radically I think, how much I thought I was aware and was just wrong about — like, mistakenly aware of.

But again, the story here isn’t a story of revelation or epiphany or anything like that. One of the things I love about psychoanalysis is how hard it is for me to talk about, the way in which it’s constantly bringing me, and everyone, up against the limits of their knowledge, and the limits of their speech. It’s an encounter with my limits. That, and I can help people.

But, you know, flirting with things — it didn’t have to be psychoanalysis — does produce uncertainty. So my scholarship is a lot less confident than it once was.

AC: How does that change how you teach?

BK: I think probably the biggest difference that it’s made in my teaching, undergraduate and graduate, is that I’m a lot more comfortable with silence. Like, prolonged silence in the classroom. Students can be as quiet as they want; I can be quieter. I’m a really good Freudian that way. Oh yeah, you want to try silence? I’ll show you silence!

AC: God, that sounds awful.

BK: For them, not for me!

AC: And will it also change the projects you work on in the future, or the other ones you’re at work on now?

BK: I’m working on this book about graphology, about handwriting analysis. And here again it’s sort of bringing together my historical impulses and my analytic ones — the question really being, how is it that people develop hunches, or intuitions, that marks on a page have meaning?

Graphology is the science of character through handwriting. And, for 500 years, people have been inspecting the slightest sort of deviations in the slant of letters or in loops, in descenders, to gain insight into people’s character. The idea is that in this act of communication they’re somehow betraying something about themselves, revealing something about themselves they don’t intend to reveal, right? Which is one definition of the unconscious.

AC: The voice you take in the essays you’ve written for a psychoanalytic audience seems to be different than the one in the historical essays — you allow yourself to make more prescriptions. When you’re making those prescriptions and writing more in the first person, are you doing that while assuming that the readers will be likeminded? Or are you doing that to start a conversation where the readers will be coming from a different perspective?

BK: I think the latter. But another aspect of being an analyst is I’ve become very skeptical of the act of persuasion in general. I think there’s also something about how not using the first-person plural was one of a bunch of rules that I overly internalized as a young person, as a child. And now I’m enjoying trying something different.

AC: I’m more familiar with the conventions of historical writing, and that sort of thing might raise some warning flags in a more traditionally historical essay. Do you think this will carry over to your future historical work as well?

BK: I think I’ll do it in all my work. I mean, who knows. Apparently there’s a lot of me in The Demon of Writing. Many of the reviews of the book have been surprisingly personal — less about the book than about me, my career, my last name. I suppose that there is something about the book that encourages that kind of response. But when I tell people that wasn’t really the idea, they don’t believe me. And there’s obviously a kind of pleasure that comes in having that much attention paid — it’s a very narcissistic kind of gratification. The book doesn’t pretend to be by nobody. A lot of academic books do.


Alex Carp is an editor for the McSweeney’s Voice of Witness book series and a reader at Guernica magazine.

LARB Contributor

Alex Carp is an editor for the McSweeney’s Voice of Witness book series, a reader at Guernica magazine, and a writer and researcher on a handful of other things.


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