This book, Kafka's first, is difficult to pin down. Kafka begins by claiming to have situated himself and his book, on either a un- pre- or quite conscious level, in response to Joan Scott's 2005 article "Against Eclecticism" ("So much for my hermeneutic circle around the campfire," he writes). Yet that this book is hard to categorize, eclectic even when one sees it in its entirety--and here I refer both to the genre one might use to talk about it as well as the phenomenological experience one is likely to have reading it--strengthens it and indeed makes it a marvelous book I am likely to go back to over and over again, as well as recommend highly to other people. In fact, I would argue that it is precisely the successful marriage of eclecticism of thought with dedication to critical responsibility and psychic detail--a union that results in the birth of a fascinating idea called "the psychic life of paperwork"--that will make this book not only a valuable contribution to media studies but a lasting one.
That we are taken on such a beautiful and witty literary ride--a journey on which we secure, among other things, privileged glimpses of archives we picture Kafka sorting through in anonymous Paris basements--almost makes us forget that the book is about a subject we usually run away from, and quickly. But only almost. Kafka's insistence on the theoretical inclusion and importance of praxis and parapraxis as essential tools to really understanding bureaucracy--or at least what we imagine is at stake beneath the surface of it--is interesting if underdeveloped. Yet Kafka, as we learn from his Amazon bio, is a candidate psychoanalyst himself, so we can imagine him sorting through these very questions as he poses them to us, an image I find refreshing. I am reminded of Laplanche and Pontalis's The Language of Psycho-Analysis (1973), where parapraxis is defined as [an] "act whose explicit goal is not attained; instead, this goal turns out to have been replaced by another one." Kafka's goals are replaced again and again; what we think the book is about, twenty pages later, changes dramatically as important paperwork is crumpled and goes up in smoke. This is what makes the book both so successful and so challenging: by the end we, as readers, are slipping--psychically and actually--all over the place, and we race collectively to our individual file cabinets to take stock of what has happened.
The book's style is witty and accessible. I can imagine handing a copy to the man who happens to be sitting next to me on an airplane, or to the president of the university where I teach, or to my mother. I can imagine each of them handing a copy to someone else. The book both is and offers a curious and wonderful mix of provocation and frustration that every so often one is lucky enough to have, and for that we have Kafka, and his revolutionaries, to thank.