Feeling Like a File-Worker: On Affects, Bureaucratic Investments, and Care

How do judges feel their way through their case load? What is the role of the emotions and of affects in bureaucratic practices anyway? And how can we develop the tools to do justice to the affective texture of file-work?

It’s been in the making for a while now, but I am glad to be able to tell you Lieke Wissink and I will soon be publishing a piece in Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, that tackles these questions directly. Drawing on two ethnographic research projects, one in a European deportation unit, the other in a Dutch criminal court, we show how file-work is not simply dry and boring work of indifferent bureaucrats. Instead, this type of work is shot through with affects of various intensities, especially affects of care for the file’s completeness, its quality (a very difficult thing to define!), and its capacity for smooth bureaucratic movement.

Crucially, we also show – in contrast to approaches that gloss over differences between bureaucratic settings – that these affects differ very much in the two sites. In the deportation unit, the decision to report a person has already been made, and the actual individual referent of the file – the illegalized person – operates more as a nuisance to smooth bureaucratic functioning. In the criminal court, however, the decision is yet to be made, which also means that judges have to remain open to whatever may transpire in court:

Judges’ preferred affective relation to the file and to the file’s referent, then, is one of allowing oneself to be affected, but not prejudiced – a process assisted by not hurrying and by hesitations […] ‘Keeping a cool head’, however, is not the same as affective detachment. According to the judges, weighing the case, turning it over in one’s thoughts, is and will always remain ‘human work’ or a ‘craft’, not an ‘exact science’. Indeed, complete affective detachment from the file’s referent – the defendant – is something to avoid, as a proper decision has to be rooted in an appreciation of the severity and the context of the case, as well as the defendants’ personal circumstances.

As such, the article can be read as a problematization of the idea that bureaucratic practices are either rational or indifferent, and as an argument to highlight the daily work of paper-shuffling and its attendant affects and investment. Only in taking these practices of ensuring ‘good files’ seriously can we attend to the everyday, perhaps banal, reproduction of State power and its violence.

The pre-print of the article can be found here!

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