April 14, 2013 § 6 Comments
And also a month late–my review of Ben Kafka’s The Demon of Writing: Power and Failures of Paperwork. This book was frustrating. I wanted to like it a lot more than I did. What I got out of it: 1) Paperwork makes assholes out of us; 2) Paperwork may facilitate, but mostly gets in the way, of people power. I don’t like those conclusions, or rather, I’m not sure why Kafka didn’t take them further. It’s a thoroughly engaging and well-researched book, though, but not much to wrangle with beyond the historical facts and some Freudian speculations. Maybe the sheer amount of paperwork involved in the research overwhelmed Kafka in the end, too.
The key feature of all the “paperless” offices that I have worked in was the abundance of paper. While doing temp jobs that came with various spine-tingling designations like “data entry assistant” or “clerical assistant”, I only knew that my job was to make all that was solid—paper—melt into air—data. But certainly, you don’t have to work with paper to know how paperwork gets in the way of everything: a marriage or a driver’s license, a new passport, citizenship.
Paperwork makes you wait. Paperwork disappears, sometimes never to return; or to return much later, with the vengeance of the repressed. Paperwork obstructs. Paperwork keeps you in limbo. Paperwork means what you don’t know will hurt you, or eventually bite you in the ass when it turns out that all that stands between you and your goal is, “I’m sorry, it’s just that there’s a file missing.“
Ben Kafka, media theorist and professor at New York University, understands this. That’s why he’s titled his book The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork—the ghosts of paperwork haunt every missed opportunity and unforeseen error in the attempt to fashion a structured, disciplined, and well-documented life. At the heart of Kafka’s book on paperwork is the rerouting of Marx’s theory of paperwork—what he called the “bureaucratic medium”—by way of Freud’s theory of parapraxis. Paperwork has its pleasures, and more important—its powers—but it is fundamentally unstable.
Kafka begins his inquiry with a chapter called “The Disciplined State”, in which the story of an 18th-century French clerk who loses his job—and his failure to recover it—is what Kafka calls “the story of the French Revolution’s success”, or how the bureaucracy became an essential component of the state. This bureaucracy, however, was a double-edged sword: “The disciplinary state, which relied on documents and details to keep track of its subjects, would also have to be a disciplined state, aware that those same documents and details could be used to keep track of it.”
Morizot, the clerk who found his appeals and attempts to recover his job thwarted at every level by the power of paperwork—“What he needed was the right signature on the proper letterhead”—wrote frantic pamphlets to bring his case of bureaucratic misery to public light. As Kafka writes, “The French, Morizot asserted, were living ‘among the debris of a ruined monarchy, now converted into a bourgeois aristocracy’” and, as such, “a world of privilege was becoming a world of rights; the personal state was becoming the personnel state.”
While paperwork was designed to produce a more equitable form of society, where accountability for each citizen was recognized as an “inalienable, individual right”, the “foundation of representative government”, it also proved to wield power in inequitable ways. Kafka recounts the story of Labussière, an employee in the Committee of Public Safety’s Prisoners Bureau, who in the aftermath of the French Revolution, during the Reign of Terror, destroyed the files of the prisoners before the Revolutionary Tribunal could get its hands on it, thereby destroying significant information about the prisoners and rendering punishment impossible or eternally deferred, subsequently saving lives. Perhaps Labussière, whom Kafka depicts as a kind of trickster figure, practiced a form of radical clerking—paperwork for the people, as it were. But the significant point, as Kafka points out over and over, is that paperwork makes paperwork fail, because the “proliferation of documents and details presented opportunities for resistance as well as for compliance.”
Kafka’s theory of paperwork loops around the same premise—paperwork can consolidate power as well as unsettle it and render it futile—and is determined to remain in history without the slightest detour into the present. One wonders about his theory of paperwork and shifting powers in relation to Wikileaks while Bradley Manning is held within state power. “The duplicitous simplicity of the trickster”, as Kafka writes of Labussière, clearly doesn’t apply in Manning’s case, and if bureaucracy has the potential to beat state power at its own game, it’s difficult to think of a way out of situations where the state’s malpractices, corruption, violence, and excesses are laid bare—made transparent to all with access to the internet, even—while its powers remain firmly lodged in place.
In The Demon of Writing, Kafka circles around the same premise: “It is the story of how paperwork, even when it works, fails us. We never get what we want.” As such, a psychoanalytic theory of paperwork by way of Freud’s theory of parapraxis, or “the Freudian slip”, much like the political theory by way of Marx that leaves Kafka unconvinced, also leaves us wanting:
“Like the symptom or dream, the slip represents an attempt by the unconscious to get its message across—an attempt that is made difficult by repression, the primary processes, and any number of measures taken by the ego to prevent embarrassment or worse. The question to ask is: What was being communicated? And the answer is: We don’t know. We will never know. We can’t know.”
The Demon of Writing is witty and entertaining, and Kafka seems both charmed and inspired by writers and thinkers who disliked paperwork, like Rousseau, or who found both paperwork and its pushers to be quite contemptible, like Balzac, who writes of the clerks in Les employés: “It is difficult to decide whether these plumed mammals were getting stupider because of their careers, or whether they had these careers because they were born stupid. Perhaps it is equal parts Nature and Government.” On the other end of the spectrum is Barthes, who predictably experienced jouissance while “dramatizing paperwork”.
But as a theory of paperwork The Demon of Writing, in its impact and potential uses, is slight. How to explain, for instance, the parapraxis of paperwork—the “powers and failures of paperwork”, as it were, to a “paperless” immigrant? To most, even while paperwork delays and obstructs and fails—or precisely because of this—the powers of paperwork and the administrative apparatus that supports it remain entrenched. If our stories about bureaucracy and its horrors are a means to thinking about the state, then this book shows that “we” don’t always get what we want; instead, paperwork provides “us” with the opportunity to “fulfill fantasies of power and powerlessness, revenge and love”. That leaves too much to chance and individual temperament, and material circumstances—economic and political systems—are able to remain very much unchanged despite these fantasies of power and revenge.
In his closing chapter, for example, Kafka talks about the short film The Paperwork Explosion that IBM commissioned in 1967 to promote its word-processor (see video, below). “Machines should work, people should think” was the message of the film, and Kafka wonders if the film could be read as a warning “against its own techno-utopianism”. Perhaps, but the present shows us that IBM is a corporate giant, and in the age of smartphones and gadgets, people, more than ever, are being put to work for machines. Maybe corporations want you to think, but it’s usually because they want you to think what they think.
Fantasies of revenge are compelling to consider, but if the powers of paperwork—in other words, the powers of the capitalist state—are unstable and diffuse, then it seems like Kafka’s argument merely boils down to how the unconscious life of paperwork can often exceed or limit individual or collective expectations. This leaves no room for an alternative to paperwork. And as long as we have our fantasies and narratives of revenge, nothing really has to change.
April 12, 2013 § Leave a comment
In yet another instance of Shameful Neglect of the Blog, I share with you a review of Sonic Multiplicities: Hong Kong Pop and the Global Circulation of Sound and Image by Yiu Fai Chow and Jeroen de Kloet that came out in Pop Matters a month ago. A whole month!
Why have I been slacking off on self-promotion? I don’t know. I’ve been away, travelling in Sri Lanka, writing fragments in my notebook, fragments in Microsoft Word (do MS Word users still publicly admit to using MS Word?) and staring into my dogs’ eyes in an attempt to find the answer(s) to various hard questions. No answers are forthcoming, but one of my dogs does like to nibble on my chin and nose–perhaps that should be enough for now.
I’m going to do a revolutionary new thing and post the entire review here, below.
When did Hong Kong popular music die? Theories abound as to the death of Hong Kong pop songs delivered in the local language of Cantonese, or Cantopop. Some say it died when Hong Kong was handed over by the British to the Beijing authorities in 1997. Others say that it died along with its two international superstars, Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui, in 2003.
Either way, facts and especially figures are marshalled up in defence of this death, with decreasing record sales being the primary means of assessing the pop music’s industry ill-health. If the industry isn’t making money, or as much money as it used to, then it’s clear that something is ailing the Hong Kong pop music industry. The industry cannot imagine that Cantopop continues to live on in various different forms and places: as karaoke, for one, or on the internet, for another.
Sonic Multiplicities: Hong Kong Pop and the Global Circulation of Sound and Image enters into the discussion as a sort of corrective. Jointly authored by Yiu Fai Chow, assistant professor in Hong Kong Baptist University’s department of Humanities and Creative writing and songwriter of Chinese pop songs, and Jeroen de Kloet, a professor in globalisation studies at the University of Amsterdam and author of China with a Cut, Sonic Multiplicities is deeply immersed in theories and techniques of cultural studies as it sets out to look at (and listen to) the multiple ways in which Cantopop has proliferated into new and different forms in late capitalism.
The issues of Chineseness and Chinese national identity is the spectre that haunts Hong Kong pop culture, and Chow and de Kloet are interested in troubling or resisting conventional “rise of China” narratives that present a stable and uniform history and Chinese subject. With Hong Kong’s colonial legacy as the geopolitical starting point, the first chapter of Sonic Multiplicities is a combination of theory and autobiography that sees Chow speak on a political and personal level about the “politics of Chineseness” through articulations on nationalistic songs, or folk ballads known as minzu gequ.
The autobiographical “I” in this chapter is refreshing in an academic book, and Chow’s struggle with notions of Chineseness growing up as a young boy Hong Kong, and later while living in the Netherlands, is reflected through the changing political and social mores of the ‘90s when, as Chow explains, “the Chinese Communist Party replaced its legitimizing ideology from communism to a market-driven nationalism”. Chow’s analysis of how Chineseness is performed in nationalist songs is undercut by his own ambivalence in having written songs meant to serve as nationalist propaganda and his attempts, within that particular framework, to subvert and discreetly undermine accepted, conventional narratives with his lyrics. How are newly (re)nationalised subjects allowed to dream of a nation, or a better nation?
“For the Hong Kongers at the time of imminent changes, we willed ourselves to be brave, to be Chinese, to become one with tens of thousands of those who at least looked like us. But it is not easy… It necessitates a logic of empowerment by conjuring up an enemy, the other… It also necessitates a submission of the part of us alien to the whole, the part of the city alien to the nation, the part of the future alien to the past.”
To be of a nation but not of it is a theme that resounds over and over again throughout the book, and in their sensitive and generous assessment of the politics and cultures of fandom, the authors aim to show readers how “the fans” exercise their agency in their consumption of pop music and their engagement with, and celebration of, celebrities. In this sense, by focusing on two “local” celebrities from the Netherlands and Hong Kong, Marco Borsato and Leon Lai, Chow and de Kloet shift the pop cultural focus away from the US and onto what is truly a global sphere, although they recognise the hegemony that operates within “global pop culture”, where North American pop stars are often claimed as “international stars” while Asian pop stars are rarely so—even when they are truly international, as was the case with Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung. In this sense, “whose international” seems to the concern here—whose cultural production is centred and considered “global”?
One of the more intriguing chapters focuses on sex and morality in Hong Kong and Chinese pop culture by way of the Edison Chen scandal. Far from adopting simple and reductive positions that sees the scandal as either bad (yet another spectacle!) or good (sex is healthy and we should enjoy it!), the authors interrogate the questions of morality that were mirrored in the media coverage of the scandal, particularly in how the subjects involved in the scandal immediately sought to control their reputation and image along conventional binaries of proper male and female behaviour.
Edison Chen, the sole male actor, sought refuge in cringe-worthy pleas and what the authors term “extreme moralism”, even announcing at one point that he will need to “step away from the Hong Kong entertainment industry… to heal myself, and search my soul”, in addition to performing the role of the moral, law-abiding citizen by publicly promising to assist the police in ongoing investigations. As the authors point out, the mediatised nature of the public spectacle demands the so-called salacious or transgressive act for collective consumption and, following Rene Girard, also demands a public scapegoat.
Meanwhile, with the women involved automatically framed as victims, the female stars in Chen’s videos had to take another, culturally proscribed route: that of repentance with a feminine/maternal slant, as in the case of Cecilia Cheung, who said “I have to stand up for the sake of my son.” The authors ensuing discussion of spectacle and conspicuous consumption—as evidenced by Edison Chen “bouncing back” from this scandal by throwing himself into his fashion business, and by co-opting the scandal for an art show—and its connection to “mediatized moral panics”, which, by way of Stuart Hall’s arguments in Policing the Crisis, act as “vehicles for the transmission of dominant ideologies.” The more scandalised we are, it would appear, the more things stay the same.
If there is a problem in Sonic Multiplicities, it’s that its ethnographic approach produces a rather shaky foundation on which the authors juggle multiple concepts and theories, going as they do from Rey Chow to Theodor Adorno, back to Guy Debord, then to Fredric Jameson. While discussions are deep-rooted and show an inclination to resist pat conclusions and easy assumptions, Sonic Multiplicities suffers from a less-than-rigorous consideration of political economy, as in the chapter on Beijing’s Olympic ceremony and the production and interpellation of national subjects in spectacles of global sporting events.
In discussing Soviet and Chinese authoritarian communism, the authors rightfully resist dominant narratives in liberal democracies that tend to depict “the masses” in these countries as totally docile and utterly subject to control—being away from the local particularities and nuances, these narratives often miss out, or simply can’t see, the necessarily discreet or prudent forms of resistance. But while they discuss the performative aspects of nationalist songs and speeches, the authors neglect to tease out the implications of a kind of performative Communism as espoused by China’s main party, even while market reforms put into place by Deng Xiaoping since the late ‘70s have had everything to do with capitalism. In this sense, the authors missed out on an opportunity to interrogate China’s official communist position against its increasingly capitalist reforms. While the authors state that “performative contestations” of the spectacle is not something unique to China, they neglect to draw connections between performativity and late capitalism and continued Western political and cultural hegemony in the global pop culture marketplace.
However, Sonic Multiplicities is an intriguing study of pop culture that doesn’t take North America as its starting point and yet does not avoid analysis of political or cultural forms of dominance that affect and, indeed, produce these forms of “globalised” pop commodities. The authors are particularly attentive to the formation and production of both the national and diasporic subject, consistently grounding these subjects in temporal and spatial circumstances, especially or even when these circumstances are stable, shifting, or ambivalent. It manages to trouble notions of a radical or emancipatory potential in pop culture without demeaning either the cultural workers or the consumers—indeed, recognising that subjects and producers of popular culture using the internet as a platform are most often both.
Hong Kong pop is not dead, but it has transformed, mutated, and altered, and the authors want to encourage people to see, listen, and think in new and altered ways.