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The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork Hardcover – November 2, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

From Bookforum

The concept that Kafka introduces is the psychic life of paperwork. Instead of dwelling on its technical details, Kafka listens to paperwork's surrounding "chatter," the compulsive jokes and complaints that reveal bureaucracy's emotional impact. Kafka betrays a psychoanalyst's preoccupation with desire when he repeatedly asks, "What do we want from our paperwork?" —Colby Chamberlain


This remarkable book teaches everyone who has gone blind on paperwork to see modern life anew: forms and reports, the stultifying preserve of bureaucrats, emerge as the foundations (and sometimes undoing) of state power. With elegance and poise, Ben Kafka blends the erudition of a masterful historian of the French Revolution with the rigors of a materialist who knows concepts depend on their circulation and the sophistication of a psychoanalyst who understands the psychic implications of worldly transformation. Through the utopia of the 'paperless office,' Kafka gives the clerks who destroy and fulfill our dreams their due, and a neglected form of modern writing the centrality it demands. And make sure to have a pair of scissors on hand!

(Samuel Moyn, author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History)

Ben Kafka's The Demon of Writing is an unexpected pleasure. The wit and intelligence that shine through the notorious recalcitrance and tedium of paperwork make it a joy to read. The real surprise, however, is the reach of the Kafka's project, the amount this history of a few episodes in the life of paper and ink, files and forms, has to teach us about the proximity of our expectations and frustrations with the modern bureaucratic state. It will be of particular interest to scholars interested in the contradictions of the revolutionary experience, but it will be equally rewarding to everyone who has dreamed of working in an office that works.

(James Swenson, author of On Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Considered as One of the First Authors of the Revolution)

Kafka's book is a keen, vivacious examination of the frustrating 'unpredictability' of paperwork as a cultural institution.

(Publishers Weekly)

Kafka draws on methods and theories most often found in psychoanalysis, political theory, and histories of the book to craft a marvelously engaging and wonderfully witty study of papers, paperwork, and bureaucracy. At the center of this tremendously clever and pathos-laden interpretation is the crucial insight that 'paperwork, even when it works, fails us. We never get what we want.

(Rebecca Spang, author of The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture)

[Kafka] pursues an argument that leads from paper to paperwork, "the psychic life of paperwork," the concepts of major thinkers…it is provocative, original, and a very good read.

(Robert Darnton The New York Review of Books)

Ben Kafka does the important job of reminding us that paperwork is part of the great human traditions, not only of communication and information, but also of revolution, existential philosophy, and for some, religion.

(The New Republic)

Kafka examines the meaning and implications of this new regime, intertwining threads of historical narrative, psychoanalytic theory, and intriguing anecdotes into a thoroughly absorbing read.

(Peter Lopatin The Weekly Standard)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Zone Books (November 2, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1935408267
  • ISBN-13: 978-1935408260
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #712,027 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Green on November 25, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This book, Kafka's first, is difficult to pin down. Kafka begins by claiming to have situated himself and his book, on either a un- pre- or quite conscious level, in response to Joan Scott's 2005 article "Against Eclecticism" ("So much for my hermeneutic circle around the campfire," he writes). Yet that this book is hard to categorize, eclectic even when one sees it in its entirety--and here I refer both to the genre one might use to talk about it as well as the phenomenological experience one is likely to have reading it--strengthens it and indeed makes it a marvelous book I am likely to go back to over and over again, as well as recommend highly to other people. In fact, I would argue that it is precisely the successful marriage of eclecticism of thought with dedication to critical responsibility and psychic detail--a union that results in the birth of a fascinating idea called "the psychic life of paperwork"--that will make this book not only a valuable contribution to media studies but a lasting one.

That we are taken on such a beautiful and witty literary ride--a journey on which we secure, among other things, privileged glimpses of archives we picture Kafka sorting through in anonymous Paris basements--almost makes us forget that the book is about a subject we usually run away from, and quickly. But only almost. Kafka's insistence on the theoretical inclusion and importance of praxis and parapraxis as essential tools to really understanding bureaucracy--or at least what we imagine is at stake beneath the surface of it--is interesting if underdeveloped. Yet Kafka, as we learn from his Amazon bio, is a candidate psychoanalyst himself, so we can imagine him sorting through these very questions as he poses them to us, an image I find refreshing.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Robert Johnston on January 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Demon of Writing
One conclusion from this book might be, great empires and states come and go but their archives remain. Largely true in modern times, more selectively earlier: China has maintained continuous archives across thousands of years; ancient Egypt's scribes were less numerous and well-trained than China's and their pharaohs less dependent on writing, and much of what they did accumulate was destroyed in the great fire of the Alexandria Library (a blow, perhaps, from which Greek civilization never recovered?); the Roman Empire's scribes were at least numerous enough to leave behind a mountain of written material for Gibbon to ponder at considerable length, and it was the Catholic Church which inherited this trove, which laid the basis for its own empire and manner of government, which it has guarded and strategically deployed in elegant Latin to this day.
Another conclusion, a bit closer to the surface and recalling the unnamed Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message," is that all our lives are run according to what is written on rectangular pieces of paper, starting with the birth certificate and ending with a death certificate, without which it is virtually impossible to establish today that one exists or, later, that one is dead.
In fact, while the author makes quite a few flourishes in the direction of a general theory of modern government by paper-based bureaucracy, he focusses almost entirely on the bureaucratic history of the French Revolution and its aftermath, mining the carefully tended archives of the French State, the first to be heavily dependent on bureaucrats and their paperwork.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By JR on November 29, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I read this book after reading Robert Darnton's favorable review in the NYRB ("a bright and sparkling study ... provocative, original, and a very good read"). I was not disappointed.

This is an often brilliant and always imaginative work, engagingly written, impossibly clever, and just downright fun to read. What other scholar encourages the reader to use scissors -- so that he can recreate, snip by snip, how Freud himself made a Freudian slip when making the required incisions on a bank withdrawal form? ("I have been unable to determine what sorts of scissors were used for this task," Kafka notes drolly, "though we can assume that they were connected to the bank's counters by cords that were just a little too short.") What other scholar locates a high point in Marx's thought in a seldom-read newspaper article written in his twenties about a tax inspector caught up in a dispute between aggrieved local winemakers and rigid public administrators? What other scholar finds, in a 1967 promotional film for IBM's first word-processor, an unwitting five-minute tone-poem of his own book's critical stance?

And that's just the last few bits. Most of the book tells the story of the French Revolution and its aftermath -- as seen from the perspective of its madly metastasizing bureaucracy. It's basically the Reign of Terror meets Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Serious intellectual history, with a paranoid-slapstick sense of humor. If this sounds like your sort of thing, I recommend.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Galileo on July 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover
If you've written proposals, pulled papers to build a home addition, filled out your own tax return, you might appreciate this book which examines how the French before and after the Revolution created archives which were eventually by law open to the public--so the public could keep track of what the governing officials were up to. This resulted in paper tonnage of ever vaster dimensions, so everyone could cover their trails/tails. It also means as long as a bureaucrat claims to be examining pertinent documentation, nothing ever gets done. Minor, or is it a major problem: it is written in High Academese, and is fairly incomprehensible to this reader.
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