Papers, Papers, Papers

Papers, rules, administrivia, these too have their bards, and I’ve, for no particular reason, found myself reading a lot about papers and bureaucracy recently.

Screen Shot 2013-03-05 at 9.35.05 AM
French laws from the French Pamphlet Collections at the Newberry Library.

First, a review in TLS of a book by the aptly named Bruno Kafka on paperwork (sociologists get to study anything they want and call it science…doesn’t seem quite fair). Kafka’s THE DEMON OF WRITING Powers and failures of paperwork is full of stories about paperwork’s subtle and not so subtle influence on how things are.

A choice bit from the TLS notice (full review probably behind the paywall by now, sorry):

As proof of paperwork’s volatility, Kafka recounts a rich assortment of bureaucratic blunders, tracing what happens when official procedures fail or foster unforeseen outcomes.

In 1794, towards the end of the Terror, the actors and actresses of the Comédie-Française were saved from summary execution when the very files that had authorized their accusation abruptly vanished.

They owed their lives to one Charles-Hippolyte Labussière, a lowly clerk who had smuggled their papers into the baths, soaked them until they were “almost paste, and then launched them, in small pellets, through the window into the river”.

Labussière’s lesson, Kafka construes, is that while on the one hand “paperwork syncopates the state’s rhythms”, every so often it inadvertently “destabilises its structures”. In other words, if paperwork is a condition of possibility for state power, it is one which sometimes paradoxically renders such power impossible. In Labussière’s case, the files that facilitated the functioning of the security state were what revealed its vulnerability: from then on, “not only was power resistible; it was water soluble”.

This sort of instability was soon intuited by Saint-Just, who said of the proliferation of paperwork during the early days of the First Republic that “the demon of writing is waging war against us: we are unable to govern”.

Prompts the obvious response that that the last sentence could be updated today to “The demon of data is waging war against us: we are unable to govern.”

Second in the “paper” trope is the big number from Menotti’s 1950 opera “The Counsul,” about the efforts of a woman in an unidentified Eastern Bloc country to get a visa to leave, after her husband, a dissident, is targeted. Magda, after countless hours in the waiting room of the American Consulate, in which she fills out forms again, and again, finally loses it completely, doing a full-on operatic mad scene. (In case you were wondering, the required ingredients of an operatic mad scene are: one unhinged soprano, a recit, an aria (repeat optional, but recommended), a tempo di mezzo (middle bit, generally with choral interruption), and a cabaletta (faster, determined and emphatic, repeat strongly recommended, as is high note at the end, but these aren’t, strictly speaking, absolute requirements.)

Here is the scene with the original Magda, Patricia Neway, doing part of the scena, which comes at the end of the second act.


(By my lights the cabaletta starts at “What is Your Name?” FWIW, risk of camp nothwithstanding, this is a piece beloved by opera fanatics of a certain age. The singers who could bring off the role are revered.)

To end a poetic take on paperwork in the form of rules tipped by Poetry Daily :

Rule Book

At the age of ten you will be allowed
in the deep end. 52 inches will get you
on Thunder Mountain. You must be thirteen
with perfect vision to ride all-terrain vehicles.
Please, no unsupervised children. No idiots.
No mentally deranged wantons. We do allow
two siblings for the price of one on Wednesdays.
Eight Young-At-Heart’s for the price of seven
on Sunday at 2 p.m. Please understand that
we cannot make exceptions. The rule is
you must be 6’2″ with a chiseled profile
and brooding eyes. Size 32-C or larger to get
on the show. We do not accept coupons
or offer refunds. I sympathize
but just came out of surgery myself.
My kid is also sick. Are your eyes
at least two inches apart? We’re really looking
for someone with a better sense of the absurd
who is naturally blonde. Don’t feel bad,
we accept less than 1% of applicants.
Are you emancipated? On Atkins?
Have you checked all categories that apply?
Please don’t call to hear your status.
The process is fully automated, so
you should receive your results in the mail.

Lauren Shapiro

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