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.

This observation led to Tocqueville’s famous thesis about centralization, which promoted equality (equal subjection to the center) at the expense of liberty (protection from state tyranny by means of intermediary bodies). It also underlay his argument about continuity: the centralization of the state began far back in time, and therefore the authoritarian strain in French history extended from Richelieu and Louis XIV right through the Revolution to Napoleon and Napoleon III. Seen from this long-term perspective, the Revolution merely accelerated a tendency that was already deeply embedded in the course of history.

But Tocqueville saw it through the C series. The intendants filled their correspondence with so many details about their activities—a natural emphasis for subordinates who wanted to impress superiors—that they seemed to fill the vast areas of their jurisdiction, généralités composed of many hundreds of square miles and many thousands of subjects, with their all-powerful presence. In fact, most Frenchmen never laid eyes on an intendant or even on one of his subdelegates, and most of France was underadministered. Although they could appeal to courts, villagers usually settled quarrels on their own, without recourse to the police, who could rarely be found outside cities. The state left the vast majority of peasants to fend for themselves, and they fought off local tyrants—the agents of seigneurial lords and clergy, who creamed off a large proportion of their crops—as best they could, until they overthrew the “feudal” system in 1789. The peasant uprising combined with decisive action by the National Assembly constituted a fundamental break with the past—a revolution.

Paper in the archives does not open a direct window to the past. It comes processed, organized, divided into segments determined by a conceptual grid. Everywhere in France the C series conveys the same impression of administrative power. Move into the X series (the Parlement of Paris) or the L series (the French clergy), and you are in another world. Foucault has taught us to allow for the existence of epistemological categories in historical understanding, and many anthropologists have demonstrated their importance in the organization of cultural systems.* It’s surprising that Kafka did not make use of this literature.

Perhaps, however, he was right to pair Tocqueville with Balzac rather than Foucault. Foucaultian interpretations are now so common that they seem banal. But Balzac! Kafka explains how his novel Les Employés gives life to a strange and unsuspected phenomenon, bureaucratic heroism. The hero develops a plan to save millions in taxes by reorganizing work in the dank and sordid bureaus of the state, but in the end he succumbs to office intrigue and goes down in glory, true to his peculiar genius and determined to redeem himself…as a grocer.

Tocqueville does not mention Balzac, but Kafka detects an elective affinity between the two in the only chapter of The Old Regime and the Revolution “that might be read for a laugh.” Entitled “Administrative Moeurs under the Old Regime,” this chapter recounts bureaucratic excesses in an ironic (if not quite Balzacian) manner at odds with the rest of the book. Why this shift in tone? According to Kafka, Tocqueville let down his guard and suspended his philosophizing long enough to write under the spell of contemporary fiction, and fiction opened a way for political philosophers to make room in their theories for the peculiarly modern phenomena of bureaucracy and paperwork.

A similar openness to a more popular, journalistic aspect of contemporary life led to a crucial insight in the thought of Karl Marx, as Kafka interprets it. Instead of studying the mature Marx of Capital, Kafka concentrates on the young editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, whom he presents as a “media theorist.” While covering a conflict between impoverished winemakers of the Mosel region and an inflexible administration in 1843, Marx analyzed the way they talked past one another. The winemakers petitioned the authorities for relief from an economic downturn, and the bureaucrats rejected their demands in statements full of statistics and jargon. It was not a case of straightforward class conflict but rather a dialogue of the deaf. Instead of acting simply as agents of the ruling class, the bureaucrats responded in good faith but in a language that expressed a worldview limited by the conventions of their paperwork. Sensitive to the incompatibility of two discourses, Marx saw the potential for the press to mediate in such conflicts by expressing the needs of the people in an independent idiom, one that would not be “refracted through any bureaucratic medium.” But the authorities shut down his newspaper, and Marx turned away from media theory. From that point on, Kafka claims, it was all downhill for Marxism as a political philosophy.

By seizing on such counterintuitive and seemingly aberrational moments—an odd aside in a speech by Saint-Just, a quirky chapter in Tocqueville, an obscure article by Marx—Kafka jolts the reader into rethinking the history of political thought. He seeks out the unexpected, catches you off guard, and takes you by surprise. To fault this short book for failing to sustain a systematic argument would be to reject the qualities that make it so enjoyable. It strings together episodes and insights, and it enlivens them with anecdotes about quirky characters—Edme-Étienne Morizot, an obsessive, self-destructive enemy of eighteenth-century bureaucracy; a tax inspector named von Zuccalmaglio, who set Marx’s mind spinning; Freud’s nemesis, Sebastiano Timpanaro; and the obscure, subversive bureaucrats Labussière and Lejeune. It is all recounted with so much wit and in such a lively manner that one suspends disbelief about what holds it together.

In a short introduction about his approach to his subject, Kafka explains that his argument, which had veered off into eclecticism, began to cohere after he took up a position in the media studies department of New York University. At that point he set out to blend historical research with media theory, taking inspiration from authors like Roland Barthes and Bruno Latour, who showed how the material qualities of objects such as legal dossiers—“grey, beige, or yellow; fat or thin; simple or complicated; old or new”—affect abstract discourse. By studying the way scientists manipulate instruments in their laboratories and judges handle dossiers full of papers, Latour created what Kafka calls a “technical turn” in the understanding of ideas. Paperwork fit perfectly in this approach to thought.

In fact, it fit too well. The relations of things in the bureaus of bureaucrats could indeed produce dialectical contradictions: an overabundance of paper in the Committee of Public Safety impeded the revolutionary justice that it was supposed to accelerate. But Kafka balked at attributing powers of agency to material objects. Instead, he perceived a “psychic life of paperwork” and explained its operation by invoking psychoanalysis. Curiously, Kafka’s discussion of Freud—a convoluted account of the material factors in his interpretation of slips—steers away from the Freudian interpretations that run through the other chapters. They stress the insatiability of the popular needs and desires directed at the bureaucracy. According to Kafka, all of us live in a “state of want” that operates at a preconscious level and cannot be satisfied by paper chases, no matter how hot the pursuit.

Kafka himself pursues his argument about paperwork at such a pace that it should be read for its flashes of insight rather than subjected to a demand for conclusive evidence. Moreover, his conclusion is as offbeat and open-ended as the rest of the book. It describes an avant-garde film to promote IBM’s Selectric typewriter in 1967. By mixing unconventional clips, bursts of dialogue, and waves of electronic music, the film marketed word processing in a way that got across a message that was simultaneously threatening and reassuring.

We all are suffering from the explosion of paperwork, it warned, but technology promises to free us so that we have time to think—unless, as is hinted by an unintended subtext, there should be some unexpected consequences produced by the next technological breakthrough. The inconclusive conclusion provides an appropriate coda for a work in media studies. We close the book and return to our e-mail with a heightened sensitivity to the process of communication and an uncomfortable feeling of arguments left suspended in the air.

This Issue

December 6, 2012