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Chasing Paper


If the Internet has revolutionized communication as thoroughly as most of us believe, one of its by-products is likely to be nostalgia—a longing for a past when messages came on paper. Texting and e-mailing have cut us off from what once composed the material substratum of communication. Contrary to common belief, cyberspace is not like outer space—that is, empty. It is composed of cables and servers, not of clouds. But there is an immaterial eeriness to texting and e-mailing, at least for those of us who are not digital natives. We may enjoy the tactile compactness of smart phones and the bright glow of computer screens, but the messages we exchange seem to be disembodied—words that come and go across the screens without being attached to anything solid. The uneasiness produced by reading disembodied words can be taken as an opportunity to reassess the experience of dealing with words on paper.

Sensitivity to paper never died out in countries like Korea and Japan, but industrialization killed off a paper consciousness that once existed in the West. Prospectuses for books in the eighteenth century served as samplers for the paper on which the books were printed. They contained sales talk such as “manufactured from the very best paper of Angoulême” and “papier d’Hollande.” Printers spent half or more of their production costs on paper, and they bargained endlessly with their suppliers, haggling over qualities such as whiteness, weight, elasticity, and sizing—or the selection of rags that went into it in the first place. Advertisements for books stressed the same themes, along with the excellence of the type.

In the publicity campaign for his edition of Voltaire, Beaumarchais emphasized the physical qualities of the books—the beauty of the specially commissioned font of Baskerville type used in the superb presses at Kehl—almost as much as their contents. When we think of customers in the bookshops of old-regime Europe, we should imagine them sampling the wares like wines, studying their appellation contrôlée (“avec approbation et privilège du roi” on the title page indicated a legal work; “à Cologne chez Pierre du Marteau” signified illegality), inspecting the register (the alignment of lines on both sides of a leaf), assessing the blackness of the ink (beware of tar in the lampblack), holding the paper up to the light, and savoring its touch.

The same sensitivity prevailed in handwritten communication. Supplicants and subordinates often began halfway down the page when they petitioned superiors for favors, because the extravagant waste of a valuable commodity served as a sign of deference. Clerks divided pages vertically: the right half for the memorandum, the left half for a superior’s comments on it. The trimming of the quill pens, the preparation of the ink, the quality of the handwriting, and the design stamped on the wax seal all contributed to the import of the letters. Common expressions such as the French “Je vous écris de bonne plume et de bonne encre” (“I write to you with good pen and good ink”—that is, in a positive spirit) brought out the materiality inherent in the message. Diderot kissed the ink as it dried on his love letters, and Buffon put on a fresh pair of sleeves when he prepared to work on his Histoire naturelle.

Paper in all its materiality provides the starting point of Ben Kafka’s bright and sparkling study of how communication systems generated political thought in France during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He does not pause over the aesthetic and sensual qualities of paper, nor does he relate the physical support of texts to the experience of readers. Instead, he pursues an argument that leads from paper to paperwork, “the psychic life of paperwork,” and the concepts of major thinkers. Rather than working systematically through their ideas, Kafka catches them in unguarded moments and surprising positions. Tocqueville writes as a comic fellow traveler of Balzac. Marx fantasizes about the mentality of a tax collector. Freud misdiagnoses his own Freudian slips, and Barthes delectates on writing as sexual delight (jouissance). It may not be completely convincing, but it is provocative, original, and a very good read.

The most substantial part of the book concerns the French Revolution and the process of bureaucratization. Kafka accepts a Tocquevillian view of continuity. In centralizing its control of the kingdom, Tocqueville argued, the Bourbon monarchy spawned a bureaucratic form of power, which continued unabated from Louis XIV to Louis Napoleon. But Kafka notes that the Revolution accelerated the process in a way that changed its nature. Article 15 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen provided that “society has the right to ask all public agents to give an accounting of their administration.” Accountability therefore became a crucial aspect of representative government, and the result was a tidal wave of paper.

Successive revolutionary governments managed it as best they could by hiring more and more bureaucrats to do the sorting, filing, copying, replying, and reshuffling. The result was frustration among constituents and inertia in the administration. By the time of the Terror, action became crucial. The Committee of Public Safety hired more bureaucrats—their number, for the committee alone, went up from forty to four hundred in 1793–1794—but it never managed to dispatch all of its business, even when it was dispatching alleged counterrevolutionaries.

“Revolutionary justice” required paperwork—more of it, in fact, than other aspects of the highly centralized regime that governed France from December 4, 1793 (the authoritarian law of 14 Frimaire) until July 27, 1794 (the overthrow of Robespierre on 9 Thermidor)—because the Jacobin extremists did not believe in abrupt judicial murder. They adhered to legalistic procedures—arrest warrants, acts of accusation, rules of evidence, formal trials, officious death sentences, all of it recorded in reams of paper. Victims could not be guillotined until their dossiers appeared at the top of the pile.

Enter Charles-Hippolyte Labussière, the obscure hero of Kafka’s book. An employee in the Committee of Public Safety’s Prisoners Bureau, Labussière would remove dossiers, soak them in a bucket, roll them into balls, stuff them into his pockets, take them to the public baths, separate them into smaller balls, soak them some more, and toss them out the window into the nearby Seine. He saved many lives, although not as many as those celebrated in the literary and cinematic versions of his insubordination (Abel Gance’s Napoleon has him actually eating documents).

Kafka retells the story in order to argue that the history of bureaucracy is shaped by something similar to Murphy’s Law. If something could go wrong, it did. Characters like Labussière threw spanners in the works, and, more important, paperwork contained a self-defeating element. The more it accumulated, the less effective it became; it blocked action by virtue of its own volume. To make this point, Kafka quotes a little-noticed passage from a key speech by Saint-Just on October 10, 1793. While arguing that the Convention should suspend the constitution and invest unlimited power in the Committee of Public Safety, Saint-Just railed against the burden of paperwork. “The prolixity of the government’s correspondence and orders is a sign of its inertia,” he warned. “The demon of writing is waging war against us; we are unable to govern.”

Kafka incorporates this remark in the title of his book and uses it to expand Murphy’s Law into a kind of dialectic. As Saint-Just complained, a fundamental contradiction existed between “surveillance and acceleration.” Saint-Just attempted to speed up the action of the Committee of Public Safety in order to subject everyone to its surveillance, but he could do so only by increasing the flow of paper, which slowed things down. All authorities everywhere in the country were to report directly to the committee once every ten days, and all relations among public officials were to take place exclusively in writing. That, of course, was impossible. So writing became a demon, and some of the clerks managed to be so prolix that they stalled the operation of the guillotine. “Paperwork could take lives, but it could also save them,” Kafka concludes.

It’s a valid point, and he makes it well, working in anecdotes about wonderfully counterproductive paper-pushers, like Augustin Lejeune, chief of the General Police Bureau, who claimed after Thermidor to have saved lives by padding dossiers with more detail than the Revolutionary Tribunal could digest. Behind the anecdotes one senses interpretive moves inspired by Michel Foucault and Bruno Latour: from Foucault, the notion of power inherent in and limited by the organization of knowledge; from Latour, the “agency effect” of paperwork, which meant, as Kafka puts it, that “the political relation between men had taken the form of a material relation between things.” Kafka’s conceptual nimbleness and his talent for viewing familiar events from an unfamiliar angle—the Terror as the playing out of paperwork—make his book a delight to read. But how well does its argument stand up?

However great the clutter in its bureaus, the Terror was driven by men, not determined by things. Behind the push for paperwork there was a political impulse—a will to exterminate the counterrevolution, win the war, overcome the rebellions in the provinces, and beat back the disastrous inflation in the price of bread and other commodities. The impulse expressed itself on paper, but the overproduction of paperwork was an unintended consequence of something more substantial, and it had little impact on the course of events, Labussière and Lejeune notwithstanding.

In fact, paper touched the lives of citizens in ways that Kafka might have explored as a counterpart to his theme about the self-defeating character of paperwork. It took the form of certificates of civism, reports on suspects, and anonymous, handwritten denunciations. The Revolution construed denunciation as a civic duty, which it inscribed on the most important kind of paper that circulated under the Terror: paper money in the form of assignats, which bore the slogan:

La loi punit le contrefacteur.
La nation récompense le dénonciateur.
The law punishes the counterfeiter.
The nation rewards the denunciator.

Paper also impinged on the ideas of Tocqueville in a way that deserves further consideration. Like other great works, The Old Regime and the French Revolution had a complex genesis, but it emerged in large part from Tocqueville’s contact with the mountains of paperwork produced by bureaucrats of the ancien régime. This research took him through one particular mountain range, the C series in the archives at Tours, which like the C series in all departmental archives contains the correspondence between the provincial intendants—or administrators—and the ministries in Versailles.

After mastering all this material, Tocqueville reached a point where he could enjoy a vast new view of the historical process. Everywhere from the early seventeenth century to the present, he saw the long arm of the state reaching into the lives of ordinary subjects, pushing aside intermediary bodies (above all the provincial estates and parlements, which Montesquieu had identified with the preservation of liberty), and subjecting the entire kingdom to the central administration in Versailles—or the bureaucracy, although, as Kafka points out, he generally avoided the term.

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