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Pushing Paper

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Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street
by Herman Melville (1853)

Bouvard and Pécuchet
by Gustave Flaubert (1881)

Why is there no Norton Anthology of Paperwork? Though the trove of Franz Kafka manuscripts hidden away in safe-deposit boxes has attracted more attention from the mainstream media, the collection of newly translated memos that the author crafted during his years as a staff lawyer for the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute in Prague is the real treasure. Kafka: “The Institute is convinced that if the case were such that the risk category for sheep’s-wool-weaving mills had been higher than the category for cotton-weaving mills, pressure would have been exerted to get the mixed-weaving mills classified as cotton-weaving mills, a change that would, if only coincidentally, have corresponded to actual conditions.”

Not bad. Nor is Kafka the only important modern author to have spent much of his time and energy at work on sentences like these. Who wrote, “I paid a visit to the Ministry of Public Instruction. There I verified that you have only one justificatory document to provide…I am confident that the minister, in his letter to the prefect of La Manche, will not ask for anything more. I thus believe that writing this letter of justification and transmitting it to monsieur the prefect, explaining to him the particular circumstances in which you find yourself, should suffice for him to recognize his error”?

Or who wrote, “Probationary faculty are reminded that enrollment, the needs of the department, teaching excellence, service, and the candidate’s scholarly productivity are essential considerations in annual pretenure reviews, third-year reviews, and tenure recommendations”?

If you guessed Alexis de Tocqueville and my dean, congratulations. Like Kafka, they are masters of the craft. Tocqueville’s sentences are confident, sensible, reassuring. At the time, he was working as a member of the council general of the prefect of La Manche; the mayor of St. Sauveur-le-Vicomte, to whom this memo was addressed, almost certainly grasped its meaning and import after only one reading, which is the best you can ask for in circumstances like these.

While it requires more than one reading, the dean’s memo is also artful in its way. It performs a perlocutionary wonder, simultaneously filling the tenure-track (“probationary”) faculty member with existential dread and intellectual smugness. Why is the goal “excellence” in teaching but only “productivity” in scholarship? Does this mean I can get away with producing crap, as long as I produce it in sufficient quantities? As long as I keep fertilizing the fields of knowledge?

Actually, we shouldn’t be too hard on the dean, who is a capable administrator and a talented scholar. The chances that she wrote or even read this sentence are slim. It is much more likely that one of her assistants copied and pasted it from some other letter, where it had been copied and pasted from yet another letter, and so on, back to a lunch meeting when an ad hoc committee of senior faculty members with kids and credit-card bills and elderly aunts in the hospital and papers to grade sat down and composed it over “lunch provided.” It’s boilerplate, which, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, once referred to sheets of iron, between a quarter- and a half-inch thick, that were intended for the manufacture of boilers but were also readily adaptable for other purposes.

My Norton Anthology of Paperwork would include some of the finest historical examples of boilerplate, alongside selections of letterhead, fill-in-the-blank forms, fine print, and the history of that wonderfully poetic instruction, “last name, first.” Indeed, the boilerplate metaphor could itself be a metaphor for a larger transformation, two centuries in the making, that has taken many of us away from extracting coal and forging iron and assembling boilers toward waiting for an inspector to come sign off on a certificate that needs to be filed with the local Department of Buildings. Paperwork occupies us and preoccupies us, whether we are maritime lawyers or nail-salon owners, congressional aides or human-resource managers, college professors or freelance web designers.

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  • The Underwriter's Bedside Book,published by Lloyd's of London Press in 1987 is an anthology of writing given over to the paperwork laden-world of insurance. It contains many contributions from the highly literate whose lives took them into this line of work, eg Conrad, Kafka and James M Cain to name but a few.

    Posted by Sam Ignarski on Fri 18 Mar 2011

  • And the world just keeps getting more and more this way, Kafka, et al, as "[mirrors] of tomorrow. http://learnmeproject.com/

    Posted by JRD on Sun 3 Apr 2011

  • I would prefer not to comment.

    Posted by Mike Cope on Mon 4 Apr 2011

  • Check out Jose Saramago's "All the Names," a quiet novel (in contrast to his tour de force "Blindness") about a bureaucrat who works in the central records office. The building is so massive and full of records that it is almost perpetually being expanded. A great account of paperwork and love. Yep.

    @Mike Cope: Ha!

    Posted by John Ryan on Mon 4 Apr 2011

  • "The man whose life is devoted to paperwork has lost the initiative. He is dealing with things that are brought to his notice, having ceased to notice anything for himself."
    -- C. Northcote Parkinson

    Posted by The Sanity Inspector on Mon 4 Apr 2011

  • The Faber Book of Office Life explores more of the nuances of white collar tedium drawing on a wide range of literary sources.

    Posted by shane cahill on Mon 4 Apr 2011

  • Similar misgivings about paperwork can be found in Banjo Patterson's Australian classic poem "Clancy of the Overflow" http://www.the-rathouse.com/ClancyoftheOverflow.html

    Posted by Figgles on Mon 4 Apr 2011

  • Your article reminds me of a Doonesbury strip in which a war veteran writes his memoir of military office work during World War II: "Hell in Triplicate: A Company Clerk Remembers."

    The heroes of paperwork are not those who do the work, but those who figure out how to reduce the need for it or, at least, the time needed to finish it. These heroes, perhaps, are guys like David Allen of "Getting Things Done" fame or Timothy Ferriss of "The 4-Hour Workweek". You don't know paperwork reductionists are your heroes until you realize how much time they've saved you.

    Posted by Mr. Poet on Tue 5 Apr 2011

  • Mr. Kafka,

    An interesting piece on an ostensibly tedious subject. Another worthy addition to the modest canon you describe is Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat," a long-ish short story worthy of any shortlist of essential Russian literature. Gogol tells the story of a lowly civil servant (a copyist!) and his quest to procure a new overcoat in the harsh Russian winter. Akaky Akakievich's peers at "the department" make cruel sport of him for still being a lowly copyist even after years of service to the Tsar. However, Akaky isn't humiliated. He takes pride in his diligent work and revels in the marvelous letter-shapes he reproduces; something like a mediaeval monk. There's a good deal more to the story; highly recommended.

    Posted by Misha D. on Wed 6 Apr 2011

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About the Author

Ben Kafka is an intellectual and cultural historian at NYU. His book The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork will be published by Zone Books in 2012.

If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper that did his job well.
Martin Luther King Jr., 1954
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