Sara Pheasant

Carpet Beetles in the Filing Cabinet


A newly-employed administrator enters an office not of her own making. There are multiple scenarios that might greet her. They include the adjustable-mechanical variety: one is thrust in front of a desk, generally adaptable to one’s shape and size (raise the chair, tilt the screen, bring an ergonomic keyboard if need be). The protocol is rigid but organized: the channels may be awkward at first but one moves through them easily with some minor shifts in physical mannerisms and written style. There is also the impenetrable-fortress variety, which advertises itself like the film poster of Michael Haneke’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Castle: a foreboding pillar of yellowed documents loom upon a black background. Expanses of paper await an archeological dig. The laconic and fragmentary notes contained within demand an exacting exegesis.

The difference between these two scenarios hinges on a document of access: an official authorization that grants access to internal channels of communication, or an index that transforms unintelligible reams into organized sets with pathways between functional divisions: a precisely organized archive. Until such a document is found, the archive’s impenetrability leaves emails interrupted, forms unsigned, and deliveries suspended. Things and people are waiting to move about within the world! If one can only find the right file. In search for the means to keep business going as usual, one wades through seemingly endless ephemera that the prior administrator never had the time to discard. The key proves increasingly elusive the closer one might seem to approach, or perhaps the ephemera prove increasingly key. Either way, by the time one can maneuver these files to make an office function, they might have been fundamentally rearranged.

The Castle, Kafka’s paradigmatic tale of the violence wrought by modern bureaucracy, is haunted by such an administrative key. Its absence thwarts the protagonist K. from fulfilling his administrative duty and leaves him languishing in the grey zone of perpetual bureaucratic processing. When K. arrives at a small, unknown town to assume responsibilities as its official land-surveyor, he finds the townspeople circumspect and indifferent. They defer his efforts to carry out his vocation to the sanction of a mysterious administration in a castle on the outskirts of the town. This castle, K. quickly realizes, is impossibly inaccessible. As the one clue that aids his dogged search, K. holds a letter from a mysterious bureaucrat called Klamm personally confirming his employment. As Klamm refuses all appointments, K. seeks out the town mayor and finds him in a rustic domicile that now doubles as town hall. The mayor, until recently a farmer, keeps all files in a towering cabinet that nearly consumes one wall of the room. The mayor’s wife, Mizzi, is primarily responsible for their administration, which the mayor admits is well beyond the couple’s meager capacities. The mayor explains that, in K.’s case, there has been a mistake: the town has no need for a land surveyor, and K.’s appointment was a belated effect of a bureaucratic miscommunication.

The mayor asks Mizzi to locate the official decree that closed K.’s case, which Haneke’s film adaptation portrays as a methodical, page-by-page pursuit turned chaotically absurd. The decree K. requires is annotated, the mayor recalls, with a thin blue line under ‘Land Surveyor,’ for which each page must be examined. The mayor narrates the missing file’s story as Mizzi searches, revealing a complex series of bureaucratic miscommunications and documents lost in transit. He explains that the castle had appointed a land surveyor to the town many years prior, to which the mayor had responded with a polite refusal. The mayor’s written response was lost in transit, resulting in a great deal of confusion and paperwork concerning whether or not the town was to receive a land surveyor. The case was finally resolved with an official written decree. But to prove the decision announced by this decree, the document must be found. While Mizzi climbs the wall-length shelves in her search, papers begin to spill from their shelves. K.’s hapless assistants rush in to help, and rifle gleefully through the stacks; their primary contributions are paper hats made of folded documents, with which they crown themselves and Mizzi. The contents of the cabinet soon blanket the room. Needless to say, the document is never found.

* * *

As a repurposed agrarian domesticity, Mizzi and the mayor’s bureau marks the advent of the modern office. Bureaucracy imposes itself on this hamlet like the insidiously omnipresent shadow of the castle on its border and subsumes domestic life, as with Mizzi and the mayor’s home, in paperwork. On the threshold of the twentieth century, the chests and wardrobes of 18th and 19th century monarchical administrations adapted to the mechanic imperatives of industrial production and the public ideology of the democratic state. This shift was born of a practical revolution in administrative technique, undergone at the site of the file. In her excellent genealogy of the file (to which this history is indebted), Cornelia Vismann finds precedent for modern bureaucratic form in the 16th century administration of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian and the effect of print on administrative form. Prior to Maximilian, medieval record-keeping was defined by the operations of the chancery and its eponymous act of “canceling.” The chancery’s job was to create a record by “canceling” or crossing out all previous drafts. Records—such as a list of food stores sent to an army or livestock sold—were kept on wax tablets and erased after the transaction had occurred. If these records were kept on paper, they were similarly crossed out after their function was exhausted. A document’s singular authority was established by its cancellation, ensuring no early drafts nor easily-made forgeries could circulate as the real thing.

As the reproducibility of print documents demystified writing’s singular authority, the administrator was no longer a ‘minister’ performing the sacred act of cancellation but a manager overseeing self-producing files. Threatened by print’s democratic possibilities, Maximilian was determined not to let any matter of government out of his sight. He demanded everything be put into writing; drafts and copies were not to be registered prior to cancellation, but themselves preserved. His innovative efforts to retain the secrecy and sacrality of his sovereign rule conflicted with a basic law of bureaucracy: namely, its tendency to expand. The registry assumed responsibility for ordering the rapidly amassing piles of material in an index so that previous documents could be referenced if need be. At the same time, uncancelled copies had to be closely guarded lest an unsanctioned correction be made and alter the official record. Proliferating files and the open access needed for their use challenged the secrecy demanded by Maximilian’s magisterial control. At a juncture between the bureau and the filing cabinet, furniture that once protected sensitive files now had to also enable administrators to readily locate and rearrange files in the course of daily business. Limited space demanded files not immediately in circulation be removed to attics, sheds and basements. There, extraneous documents hung in sacks and baskets in often-unsuccessful efforts to safeguard such delicate papers from the gnawing mice and seeping damp that threatened their decay. Such adapted and improvised office furniture led to scenes not unlike that of Mizzi and the mayor haplessly searching for K.’s letter in an amorphous “treasury” of documents: a literal treasure-chest, but one lacking its key.

Rather than retrospectively order previously produced documents, modern office technology allowed files to be systematized and scripted for autonomous self-production. The mid-twentieth century invention of the three-ring binder enabled files to stand up, move themselves from the cupboard, and self-organize vertically by subject and in alphabetical order. This revolution of the vertical file, Vismann describes, was born of its most minute mechanism: the three-ring binder clip. By the binder’s locking and unlocking action, individual sheets of paper could be reorganized according to pre-established protocol and circulate through a system of functionally interchangeable parts. Files’ automated organization developed in tandem with technologies of their reproduction: an administration’s linguistic operations were no longer imbued with the magic authority of writing and the poetic potential of authorship, but enabled an entirely different class of subjects—namely, women—to access, engage with, and inscribe themselves within the public record. The binder mechanism promised to snap the world into democratic alignment, enabling self-sovereignty within a harmonious social order and a fully transparent public record. In this bureaucratic utopia, papers are properly arranged inside their proper binders, sitting on their proper shelves in their proper offices in their well-functioning civil societies. Filing cabinets no longer required locks to protect sensitive information; and the individual administrator could rule her own world of files simply by following the binder’s mechanical prescripts in accordance with the standardized filing plan.

The utopia of the binder mechanism is the administrative equivalent of that of the modern industrial factory. However, like Charlie Chaplin as a cog-in-a-wheel mechanic who goes haywire in Modern Times, the office worker might also file so prodigiously to keep up with copying machines that she too spins off the rails. Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener classically epitomizes the technological domination of worker subjectivity, and a nonproductivist mode of refusal performed at the site of the subject itself. Bartleby is employed as a copying clerk by a Wall Street lawyer whose civic humanism is quickly becoming an anachronism within impersonal and abstract systems of law; and whose clerical scribes are soon to be replaced by scores of typewriters, primarily women. Bartleby sets to his labor with prodigious speed. He proves himself an exemplary copyist save a slightly odd preference “not to” to do insignificant tasks such as read his copy aloud with his co-workers to correct possible human errors. His mechanical qualities are so profound that he seems exempt from all social and biological rhythms: he subsists solely off ginger biscuits and inhabits the office after hours, so as to never leave its walls. Yet even Bartleby’s incessant production cannot keep pace with the mechanical reproduction enabled by the typewriter and carbon copy. Bartleby’s penchant for torpid refusal grows until he ceases work altogether and becomes a shell of the bureaucratic system that has rendered his labor irrelevant. Bartleby remains a living specter who haunts his employer until the man finally moves office and resigns Bartleby’s fate to the proper authorities. Bartleby’s languishing death in prison signals a final act of “canceling” the draft from which a “clean” copy is to be made.

During this process of self-cancellation, Bartleby inhabits the grey zone to which superfluous but not-yet-destroyed documents are stored. He bleeds out of the decor as a nearly-mute presence increasingly indistinguishable from the walls of the office itself. Bartleby’s preference “not to” operates by an irreproachable inner logic that frustrates the lawyer’s attempts at rational negotiation and casts a shadow of madness over the office’s standardized routine. Bartleby himself signifies an unassimilable impasse that increasingly obsesses his employer. The lawyer is finally compelled to escape Bartleby, lest he find himself with his shoulder stuck to the smooch of the wall, chasing figments of his own mind as they bloom within the office’s wallpaper like Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s lady in yellow.

It’s unclear, perhaps unlikely, that the quasi-mechanical Bartleby ever slept during his covert inhabitance of the office on Wall Street. If he did, and if he were to dream, it might have been of an infestation of carpet-beetles in the bureau. Suppose during his sleep he envisions a teeming mass of beady insects burrowing trails into the yellowing pages that comprise his unceasing labor. Removing a page to examine the damage, he realizes the beetles possess an insatiable appetite for ink. Rather than render the documents illegible, the beetles have rendered the record permanent in the act of erasing it: they have nibbled precisely along each scrawled line of script like exacting stencilers. Their work makes the rare slip of Bartleby’s hand all the more outstanding: where he might have dripped a blot of ink or crossed a “t” with too strong a stroke, the carpet-beetles seem to have gnawed with particularly ravenous fervor. When holding up a transfigured file to examine it in the light, the office interior would be visible within the negative space of its stencil. Where the play of madness’ symptoms might project themselves as shadows on the office walls, the organically transfigured file would reveal the office’s interior through its excisions, and frame the room anew.

Bartleby himself slips so silently into death his passing is barely registered. He leaves behind, however, a prodigious quantity of hand-copied files. His laborious output, the lawyer discovers, is not limited to the lawyer’s office alone. Prior to his employment on Wall Street, the scrivener was a clerk in a Washington D.C. dead letter office and responsible for registering undeliverable missives before shepherding them to incineration. The lawyer rues the tragedy of these “errands of life” lost to death, and considers Bartleby’s fate to be among such irredeemably ill-fated souls. His famous lament—“Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”--mourns the passing of a certain kind of humanism embodied by the singularity of handwriting and the authority of the (phallic) pen. Bartleby, however, has found himself right at home. Half between sleep and death while enclosed in the prison’s walls—“the perfect place for writing”—he has delivered himself to reside among his kin of “kings and counselors.”

Bartleby’s passing signals that the redemptory act of cancellation is no longer available to files in a secularized bureaucracy. The imperative of a self-governing system of files is to preserve everything possible—even another file’s destruction—and files require files to govern their filing. Filing cabinets do not just impose abstract order, however, but also have cracks, recesses, and forgotten drawers that are ideal hiding places for files that need to be gotten out of the way. As the guiding cliche of the open secret that is the modern democratic state, the best hiding place is often in plain sight.

The good administrator’s intention—in fact, the entire basis of her occupation—is not to keep the record per se but to keep a record in which things keep moving, materials and communication flow through the proper channels at the right times, or a record in which mistakes are never made. So one learns about business as usual when it is not: when the administrator reveals her hand in the trace of events she intends to keep “off the record.” In fugitive moments of attachment, irritation, indiscretion or discrepancy, a spectral presence announces its secret, an event that might be inaccessible or forgotten, but whose occurrence can’t be entirely effaced. Desk drawers can just as readily conceal secrets and symptoms as they make organized information accessible; and typewriting women might be poets themselves. Within the excess ephemera that bloats modern bureaucracy remain surprising and intimate marks of a prior hand. Inert and out of use, these files have all the more potential to transform under the natural processes to which paper is inevitably subjected. Somewhere between this mechanical processing and organic decay lies the agency of the file.

* * *

A spectacularly gymnastic use of office furniture called the “Rose Mary Stretch” marks one iconic instance of an administrative slip’s capacity to reveal public record to be a myth of transparency. This move was infamously named in honor of President Nixon’s former secretary, Rose Mary Woods, known for “accidentally” erasing 18 1/2 minutes of potentially incriminating tape under federal subpoena during the White House’s Watergate scandal. Woods would be immortalized in public record as the purveyor of this critical absence: upon her death, the Washington Post ran an obituary pointedly interrupted with a large block of white space.

We all may know how to read between the lines, yet Woods was a flawless secretary from the standpoint of official record. Her unique stretch was a feat of physical adaptation to office technology, enabling a “mistake” that was in fact the filing system functioning at its best. As the mayor says in response to K.’s complaint over the lost decree, "Are there supervisory authorities? There are only supervising authorities. To be sure, they’re not intended to detect mistakes in the vulgar sense of the word, since there are no mistakes, and even if there is a mistake, as in your own case, who’s to say that it’s really a mistake in the long run?”

In making office furniture work to its fullest potential, Rose Mary Woods also made it work for her. The typewriter, the file, and the binder were tools for use as well as structuring technologies. Woods’ silence enabled her to ventriloquize an authority she would not otherwise be able to yield, and her famously relentless dedication to her employer was also the site of her own political ambition. Although denied a more visibly powerful role, Woods maintained singular and complex access to “the Boss.” She was “Aunt Rose” to Nixon’s wife and daughters, and “the fifth Nixon” to the general public, juggling the complexities of professional and affective labor that are a near-cliche of secretarial work. Like typists’ sister kin, telephone switchboard operators, Woods was the gatekeeper to the most intimate inner workings of daily office life as well as the administrative flow of files. Yet where switchboard operators were the “live” conduits of ephemeral connections between speaking subjects, Woods was also, as an aide called her, “Nixon’s memory.” She not only regulated access to the secrets whose traces haunt the transparency to which the state makes claim on paper, but was also largely responsible for writing the record of Nixon as is known today. Woods approached her reproductive labor with particular skill if not a poetic sensibility: she was known to transcribe Nixon’s speech into stanzas, making it, as one of Nixon’s speechwriters commented, “much more easy to read, and incidentally… almost impossible to put back together as prose.” The writer further compared her transcriptions to an “E. E. Cummings page,” commending her artistic ability to sound, on paper, more like Nixon than the man himself.

Rose Mary Woods’ mistake marks another transformation of office technology: Nixon’s administration was the first to attempt a total audio record of all White House business. The president’s voice-triggered taping system was known only to a select few until the Watergate scandal uncovered its existence. The tapes were subpoenaed for public release during Watergate’s investigation, and Woods herself made responsible for their much of their transcription. In translating the record of events from audio to written material, Woods kept to the standard transcription practice of cutting out the stuttering and stammers characteristic of speech. She was also instructed to censor the president’s persistent swearing with “expletive deleted”—a euphemism that featured so prominently as to spawn its regular usage today. When rendered permanent on paper, Nixon’s crude mannerisms stood out all the more starkly in the absence of auditory information such as volume, tenor, and tone. The tapes and their transcription scandalized the public, and commentators speculated that the written document of the president’s “live” activities proved more incriminating than the available evidence of his criminal involvement in the Watergate break-in.

* * *

The office-place antagonism between audio and written media ensued with the development of the telephone, roughly concurrent with that of the typewriter, binder, and vertical file. Within The Castle’s burgeoning bureaucracy, the telephone is a mysterious instrument. It seems to speak a foreign language that is useless for administrative business. While K. is initially impressed to see such a modern invention in the hotels of this backcountry town, he soon learns from the mayor that the telephone is effectively as impotent as the personally addressed letter he holds from Klamm: both are private communications without significance for the official written record. Among the upper echelon of management, the telephone rings incessantly to speed internal and covert communication. The town’s switchboard connection, however, only transmits local calls to the castle’s lower departments, where the sound is nearly always off. If a townsperson’s call does receive an answer, it is merely the whim of a bored bureaucrat. As K.’s life is reduced to what is acceptable by standards of paperwork, the telephone seems less a device for calling others than one that might call him elsewhere. When he picks up the receiver, he hears a “humming” of “childish voices” that converge into one resonant voice and strike “the ear as if trying to penetrate further than into the mere human sense of hearing.”

Again prescient of the modern office, The Castle evokes the telephone’s awkward place in the twentieth-century workplace. Rather than speed business by making instantaneous communication possible, telephones in fact only generated more files. Per Max Weber’s law of bureaucracy, “administrative acts, decisions, and rules are formulated and recorded in writing, even in cases where oral discussion is the rule or is even mandatory.” A telephone may transmit a live presence, but this information is effectively in another language—a “rushing, singing” and “humming” as heard throughout The Castle—as far as the official record is concerned. To register as part of the paper bureaucracy, it would have to be written down as such, in yet another file.

One might note the typewriter and telephone’s formative role in another type of modern office: that of the psychoanalyst. Freud described the responsibilities of the analyst with a telephonic metaphor, instructing the analyst to “adjust himself to the patient as a telephone receiver is adjusted to the transmitting microphone.” This method enabled the analyst to bypass typical linguistic censors and access the noise of the patient’s unarticulated realms, which the analyst would then transcribe. The process of the talking cure pre-empted the tape recorder in its attempt to come as close as possible to a record of the movements of the unconscious. When the technology of tape recording was developed later in the twentieth century, its indiscriminate ability to capture all sounds present during a recorded moment furthered psychoanalysis’ suggestion that what we store and transmit in writing is one of many possible registers of sensuous experience.

Woods’s myriad duties would certainly have included presidential analysis of some kind, and she held prime responsibility for submitting Nixon’s stream-of-consciousness speech to the written record. We might consider that the process of transcription required of her a stance similar to that of a translator. Woods was, of course, faithful to her own vision as ever. But rather than use her poetic license to excise the president’s stammering and vulgarities and visualize the cadences of his speech, she might have captured shuffling papers and pacing footsteps, the whines and barks of Nixon’s three dogs, or the duration of breaths between each furiously spoken word. Woods’ various alternative transcriptions would not necessarily give any less credence to Nixon’s criminal behavior, but might rather suggest that his historical transgression was a single event within a long flow of the same. Faced with this endless babble, she might have tuned her transcription tool elsewhere, and granted us files of a different frequency.

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