When, in the 1950s, the American military surveyed the incidence of plane accidents and accidents involving all the surrounding equipment necessary to get a bomber or a missile in the air, they came to an alarming conclusion: over ten years time, the chance of some accident setting off a hydrogen bomb was one in five. These are terrible odds. As with all military problems, this one was turned over to various war intellectuals at Rand. One of them, Fred Iklé, completed a secret report that zeroed in on the real problem here: once the accident happened, people might get mad at the Pentagon. In order to ward off the terrible notion that the Public would lose faith in the generals, Iklé spelled out several responses. The responses simply gave voice to what any old-timer could have told the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but it was put into print by Iklé. The first and most important thing was to appoint a board of inquiry – not in order to get to the heart of what happened, of course. That way lies suicide! No, what was great about boards of inquiry was they filled the all important function of “temporizing”. After all, wiping out thousands of people arouses unsightly passion, which needs to be channeled and mitigated – and what better way to do it than to fasten upon the incident and draw out the investigation of it until the headlines had moved on.
I found Iklé’s memo in Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, which is a history of nuclear near misses. But it made me think of another book, a wonderful book, about paperwork: Ben Kafka’s The Demon of Writing: Powers and failures of paperwork. This book I’ve been urging upon my friends, partly because it gives us a novel perspective on power, and partly because it is wonderfully written, with an exact balance of microhistories and big names – for instance, the story of a bureaucrat in the…, L, who, legend has it, made spitballs out of the orders passed down to his department to arrest and execute various people during the Terror, precedes Kafka’s presentation of Tocqueville, whose sense of the real accomplishment of the French Revolution was that it introduce a new administrative mechanism into the art of government, viz., bureaucracy, and in so doing changed everything. Tocqueville, by the way, deplores the lack of paperwork in America in his Big D. in America (as I sorta freely translate it), a theme that I never noticed before reading The Demon of Writing.
Kafka does not set out to praise paperwork – but, in spite of his title, he does seek to understand it, rather than simply demonizing it. Myself, I find many of his microhistories leading us back to Iklé’s rule: temporize. This, I think, is one of the a very important functions fullfilled by paperwork. Yet whether this is an accident of other functions, or a real function, is a question that traverses Kafka’s book, which is informed with a psychoanalytic sense of the unconscious. Some will groan, of course, at the idea of anything being informed by a psychoanalytic sense of the unconscious, since the times are against the psychoanalytic. Myself, I am convinced that, on the contrary, the relapse into analysing all human events solely in terms of consciousness is naïve and fundamentally wrong, a sign of these woeful times. But to get back to what I was saying before I became enamored with saying something else… I am a little bemused by the lack of analysis of this temporizing function. For surely here we are approaching neurosis not just as a condition, but as an instrument. The neurosis afflicting power becomes, through the daily exercise of power, a means of afflicting the powerless.
Of course, it isn’t that simple. Kafka’s insight into what he argues is the beginning of a qualitative change in paperwork – which he locates in the French Revolution, lining up with Tocqueville to this extent – is that paperwork arises out of a liberatory impulse. The revolutionaries sought a form of government in which the governors could be held responsible for what they did. In order to achieve this goal, what they do must be transparent. That transparency is the meeting notes, memo, slip, report, form. There’s a scene in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, one of La Carré’s Smiley novels, where a spy discovers that a crucial record of phone calls on a certain night has been excised from the book in which all phone calls are noted at HQ, an absence – a purloined letter – that operates as the key clue in the development of the plot. Transparency and responsibility are ruined when the records are messed with or missing.
What happens, however, when an administration pursues the goal of transparency is that records generate records, memos memos. This unintended consequence soon becomes an exploitable resource – it provides both an excuse for the bureaucrat and a means of temporizing that robs the client of his or her time. Indeed, the time is felt as something stolen. At the same time, the client can do nothing about the robbery – the client is robbed for his or her own sake.
In other words, the bureaucratic text, paperwork, presents itself as a text wholly without pleasure, the negation of Barthes’ pleasure of the text.
However, we should be suspicious of an activity that reproduces itself through the absense of pleasure. We should wonder if, indeed, pleasure has simply gone into hiding, or metamorphosed itself, as in one of those legends of gods coming to earth in the guise of mortals. Kafka has an eye on the rage, the blind anger, that can be provoked in the citizen who waits for the paperwork to be done, who begs for the proper forms, who is always being scolded for failing to assemble them properly. But as to the correlate of that rage, the circumlocutory pleasure of the bureaucrat – that is a story still to be told.