Submitted: The Two Sides Team December 27, 2012
Paperwork is drawing particular attention among anthropologists, who see it as a window into the gaps between what official policy says and how it is carried out on the ground. At the American Anthropological Associations annual meeting in November, Matthew Hull, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, ran an informal document clinic to help young scholars figure out how to understand the role of official paperwork in, say, psychiatric hospitals in Kashmir, or campaigns against genetically modified crops in Latin America.
December 16 2012
by Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times
Since their publication in 1971 the Pentagon Papers have been examined seemingly from every possible historical, political, legal and ethical angle.
But to Lisa Gitelman, a professor of English and media studies at New
York University, theres at least one aspect of Daniel Ellsbergs
leaking of top-secret Defense Department documents that scholars have
failed to consider adequately: the Xerox technology that allowed him to
copy them in the first place.
Actually, make that copy and recopy. In a chapter of her book in
progress about the history of documents Ms. Gitelman describes the way
Mr. Ellsberg obsessively made copies of his copies, even enlisting the
help of his children in what she describes as an act of radical
Even though we think of copying now as perfunctorily ripping something
off, he was expressing himself by Xeroxing, she said.
The Pentagon Papers were a landmark, in her view, not just in the
antiwar movement, but in a Xerox revolution that allowed citizens to
seize hold of official documents, and official knowledge, and turn them
to their own purposes as never before.
Ms. Gitelmans argument may seem like an odd lens on familiar history.
But its representative of an emerging body of work that might be called
paperwork studies. True, there are not yet any dedicated journals or
conferences. But in history, anthropology, literature and media studies
departments and beyond, a group of loosely connected scholars are taking
a fresh look at office memos, government documents and corporate
records, not just for what they say but also for how they circulate and
the sometimes unpredictable things they do.
Scholars have always looked through documents, said Ben Kafka, a
historian at N.Y.U. and the author of The Demon of Writing: Powers and
Failures of Paperwork, recently published by Zone Books. More and more
they are also looking at them.
If paperwork studies have an unofficial standard-bearer and
theoretician, its Mr. Kafka. In The Demon of Writing he lays out a
concise if eccentric intellectual history of peoples relationship with
the paperwork that governs (and gums up) so many aspects of modern life.
The rise of modern bureaucracy is a well-established topic in sociology
and political science, where it is often related as a tale of
increasing order and rationality. But the papers-eye view championed by
Mr. Kafka tells a more chaotic story of things going wrong, or at least
getting seriously messy.
Its an idea that makes perfect sense to any modern cubicle dweller
whose overflowing desk stands as a rebuke to the utopian promise of the paperless office.
But Mr. Kafka traces the modern age of paperwork to the French
Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which guaranteed
citizens the right to request a full accounting of the government. An
explosion of paper followed, along with jokes, gripes and tirades
against the indignity of rule by paper-pushing clerks, a fair number of
whom, judging from the stories in Mr. Kafkas book, went mad.
The Demon of Writing takes in Marx, Freud, Tocqueville and Jim Henson
who in his pre-Muppets days made a surreal promotional video for an
early IBM word processor called The Paperwork Explosion. Mr. Kafkas eclectic approach has impressed, if not totally convinced, his fellow historians. Robert Darnton, writing in
The New York Review of Books, praised the books conceptual
nimbleness while questioning the idea that the French Revolution is a
story of cluttered desks.
But for other scholars, putting the bureau back in bureaucracy, as Mr.
Kafka likes to say, means looking, quite literally, at office furniture
itself. Craig Robertson, an associate professor of media and screen
studies at Northeastern University, is writing a history of the filing
cabinet, a subject he hit on, he said, while researching his previous
book, The Passport in America.
In 1909 the State Department introduced vertical filing systems with a
decimal index, replacing hard-to-search bound volumes. My research just
changed, Mr. Robertson recalled. I hadnt stopped to think about how
radical vertical filing was. All of a sudden you could retrieve things.
Clerks also suddenly needed an entirely new set of skills that seemed as
baffling as mastering the latest version of Microsoft Office can seem
today. Mr. Robertson points to early-20th-century office supply catalogs
listing dozens of options for alphabetical tags (Aa-Ar or Aa-As?) and
ads for courses, lasting hundreds of hours, teaching the ins and outs of
complex filing systems. Theres a literacy associated with
documentation, he said. This was a skill people had to learn.
Mr. Robertson sees the history of the filing cabinet and the passport
alike as part of an early-20th-century paperization of everyday life,
where things that had once been vouched for personally required complex
official documentation, with sometimes confounding results. (His book on
the passport begins with a 1923 newspaper article about a Danish man
who was stranded abroad until the mustache he had shaved off after his
passport photo was taken had grown back.)
Paperwork is drawing particular attention among anthropologists, who see
it as a window into the gaps between what official policy says and how
it is carried out on the ground. At the American Anthropological
Associations annual meeting in November, Matthew Hull, an associate
professor at the University of Michigan, ran an informal document
clinic to help young scholars figure out how to understand the role of
official paperwork in, say, psychiatric hospitals in Kashmir, or
campaigns against genetically modified crops in Latin America.
Mr. Hulls new book, Government of Paper
(University of California Press), examines the hypertrophied paperwork
of Pakistan, where official decisions about building permits, say, or
land disputes must be enacted by an elaborate system of signatures and
notes attached to original files, which can be easily hoarded and
To control the movement of the files is to control the issue, he said.
And sometimes the flow of cash: His book notes how in the 1990s Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, reportedly authorized extralegal business deals via removable Post-it notes attached to original files paperwork without a paper trail.
But taking the files-eye view, Mr. Hull said, reveals just how much of
what goes on in a bureaucracy reflects the influence of the paperwork
itself. Often, he said, how things happen doesnt necessarily have
anything to do with what people want.
Some paper pushers, of course, do manage to make things go wrong in the right way. The unofficial hero of Mr. Kafkas book is Charles Hippolyte Labussière,
a French government clerk who in 1794 purportedly saved hundreds of
people from the guillotine by dissolving the relevant paperwork in
Pariss public baths (or, as one version of the story has it, eating
Ms. Gitelman sees a kindred spirit in Mr. Ellsberg, whose rogue
photocopying, she argues, finds echoes in the just in case dossier
where many office workers store dirt on their bosses. Today if his
smudged photocopies seem quaint in the era of PDFs and WikiLeaks,
digital technology, Ms. Gitelman argues, has only increased the amount
of bureaucratic gray literature that circulates outside the world of
official publication, and often eludes official control.
And even as official files go digital, Mr. Kafka argues, the
frustrations summed up by the word paperwork are hardly going away.
Theres always this idea that if you just got the structure right,
running a big organization would be easy, he said. Maybe thats the
grand narrative of paperwork: Why is it that no one gets it right?
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 19, 2012
of an editing error, an article on Monday about scholars who study
paperwork misstated, in some editions, a word used by Craig Robertson,
an associate professor of media and screen studies at Northeastern
University, to describe a phenomenon exemplified by the history of the
filing cabinet and the passport. He said they were part of the
paperization of everyday life in the early 20th century, not the
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