Paper trail in history

Last Updated: Sat, Dec 22, 2012 05:05 hrs

Since their publication in 1971 the Pentagon Papers have been examined seemingly from every possible historical, political, legal and ethical angle.

But to Lisa Gitelman, a professor of English and media studies at New York University, there’s at least one aspect of Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking of top-secret Defense Department documents that scholars have failed to consider adequately: the Xerox technology that allowed him to copy them in the first place.

Actually, make that “copy and recopy”. In a chapter of her book in progress about the history of documents Gitelman describes the way Ellsberg obsessively made copies of his copies, even enlisting the help of his children in what she describes as an act of radical self-publishing. The Pentagon Papers were a landmark, in her view, not just in the antiwar movement, but in a “Xerox revolution” that allowed citizens to seize hold of official documents, and turn them to their own purposes as never before.

Gitelman’s argument may seem like an odd lens on familiar history. But it’s representative of an emerging body of work that might be called “paperwork studies”. In history, anthropology, literature and media studies departments and beyond, a group of loosely connected scholars are taking a fresh look at office memos, government documents and corporate records, not just for what they say but also for how they circulate and the sometimes unpredictable things they do.

Scholars “have always looked through documents,” says Ben Kafka, a historian at New York University and the author of The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork recently published by Zone Books. “More and more they are also looking at them.”

In The Demon of Writing Kafka lays out a concise if eccentric intellectual history of people’s relationship with paperwork. The rise of modern bureaucracy is a well-established topic in sociology and political science, where it is often related as a tale of increasing order and rationality. But the paper’s-eye view championed by Kafka tells a more chaotic story.

But for other scholars, putting the “bureau” back in bureaucracy, as Kafka likes to say, means looking, quite literally, at office furniture itself. Craig Robertson, an associate professor of media and screen studies at Northeastern University, is writing a history of the filing cabinet, a subject he hit on, he says, while researching his previous book, The Passport in America.

In 1909 the State Department introduced vertical filing systems with a decimal index, replacing hard-to-search bound volumes. “My research just changed,” Robertson recalls. “I hadn’t stopped to think about how radical vertical filing was. All of a sudden you could retrieve things.”

Paperwork is drawing particular attention among anthropologists, who see it as a window into the gaps between what official policy says and how it is carried out on the ground. At the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting in November, Matthew Hull, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, ran an informal “document clinic” to help young scholars figure out how to understand the role of official paperwork in, say, psychiatric hospitals in Kashmir, or campaigns against genetically modified crops in Latin America.

Hull’s new book, Government of Paper (University of California Press), examines the hypertrophied paperwork of Pakistan, where official decisions about building permits, say, or land disputes must be enacted by an elaborate system of signatures and notes attached to original files, which can be easily hoarded and diverted. “To control the movement of the files is to control the issue,” he says.

And sometimes the flow of cash: His book notes how in the 1990s Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, reportedly authorised extralegal business deals via removable Post-it notes attached to original files — paperwork without a paper trail.

Even as official files go digital, Kafka argues, the frustrations summed up by the word “paperwork” are hardly going away. “There’s always this idea that if you just got the structure right, running a big organisation would be easy,” he says. “Maybe that’s the grand narrative of paperwork: Why is it that no one gets it right?”

©2012 The New York Times

More from Sify: