by Cornelia Vismann, translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008. 216pp. Cloth. $65.00. ISBN: 9780804751506. Paper. $24.95. ISBN: 9780804751513.

Reviewed by Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, University of Westminster, London. Email: andreaspm [at]


At first instance, this book is about the textuality of the law and juridical power in general. Indeed, the title FILES prepares the reader for a take on administration theory from a linguistic perspective. However, it quickly becomes apparent that this textuality is barely the beginning. After a short discussion of the connection between written and oral forms of communication, Cornelia Vismann invites the reader on a long and meandering historical voyage through the various turns which the recording of the law has taken, the linguistic turn included, ultimately showing what, at least for me, was the most important point of the book: the embodied materiality of the law as this appears in law’s textual apparatuses. The apparent linguistic turn of the law is taken to new levels with the introduction of the materiality of the text – the surface on which it was carved, the rod with which it was carved, the box in which it was stored, the room that contained the box, and so on. In what is often a lyrical and engaging language (“against old stories and rivers of files that never run dry, against whole oceans of texts, a dam is erected by industrious codifiers” (p.63)), Vismann describes the textuality of the law in its proper corporeality, by allowing a tactility to enter the law and its history with what I believe is an unprecedented intensity of engagement.

This intensity is not solely attributed to the academic merits of the text – and these are many. To start with, this an erudite book, full of unexpected insights and connections, historical research of the highest level and theoretical foundations of the most solid. It is also a book that takes risks. Vismann effortlessly combines Derrida, Weber, Luhmann, Kittler, Foucault, with often as little as a gesture towards their work but with a clear and solid understanding of the implications that their ideas might have on her study. With the exception of Derrida and possibly Weber, whose names appear more regularly, the others have contributed in not always explicit ways but whose implicitness somehow carries on performatively the subject of the book: namely, the concept of erasure, or to put it in the Derridean parlance, the trace left after the erasure, cancellation, loss, caesura. To put it briefly, the book’s main thesis is that the law (and with it political and juridical power) is produced through its very erasing: “deleting rather than writing establishes the symbolic order of the law” (p.26).Remarkably, this erasing is as much symbolic as it is physical, actual, tangible. Vismann uses a myriad of examples to illustrate this, in a loosely structured historical sequence which prioritises specific moments out of the history of writing law, with the running motif of the chancery informing the majority of her analyses. Chancery, as [*335] the institution of parallel legal order, is convincingly linked to the act of cancelling (etymologically, from the term cancellus, the latticed appearance of crossing out and deleting a text), in this case the cancelling of the draft once its text has been properly transferred onto its official form: “an erasable writing on wax tablets and its transcription into a durable inscription. The latter can attain validation and truth functions because it is preceded by a canceled ur-writing that has been rendered illegible” (p.56). This cancellation is also an act of violence, and it is perpetuated autopoietically with every cancellation, every annulment, and indeed any listing, codification and compilation that produces a new ‘original’ while deleting all its previous forms. It is also interesting that the act of cancelling occasionally turns against itself. Thus, when the time of files (at least in the conventional sense, since until then we had plaques and tables, scrolls and codices, parchments and papers) finally arrives in the sixteenth century, erasure as such is erased as a result of an obsessive retention of the textual progenitors of the (temporarily) final text. And when erasure is erased, the problems of authenticity, validity and priority rise to haunt the law: indeed, the law as we know it is precisely the product of an erasure, variably directed towards itself or towards the materiality of the law.

To give an example of the academic erudition of the book, it is probably enough to say that the research is equally thorough when it comes to the switch in the writing material from scrolls to codices in the Roman administration (and the magnificently drawn consequences for the law of the switch from the rolling and slowly unfolding papyrus of the scroll to the “detached and processed animal skin with fine hair” (p.44) of the parchment which was used for the codex and for which a knife – a clear technology of cancellation – was needed to cut it in manageable pieces for the codex). Equally thorough are the literary references with which the book is scattered, but whose more focused analysis takes place in the first chapter. There, Vismann offers the impossible: an interesting and at the same time novel reading of Kafka’s short story “Before the Law” in its connection to THE TRIAL. Using a heady mix of Deleuzian, Derridean and Luhmannian references, Vismann reads “Before the Law” as a preamble to THE TRIAL, namely a textual barrier that is announced by a cleric situated in a pulpit (as she correctly notes, the story is part of the chapter called “In the Cathedral”), a chancellor who turns into a prison-guard, a cancellus that discovers its identity with a carcer.

In this and other textual folds lies what I called earlier in this review the intensity of engagement. This book is clearly not just about files – although one would be very careful to say ‘just’ files after having read the book. It is about a loss, or even the process of losing and the nostalgia that comes with this loss. A loss of origin, or of the need for origin; a loss of writing in the digital age; a loss of materiality in its tactile and almost olfactory intensity with which some of the writing matter is described in the book. Vismann’s vertiginous trailing of cancellation from Kafka to Melville, from Goethe to Stasis, from Rome to Greece (in this order), from Prussia to Germany, unfolds an intense nostalgia that culminates in the coda dedicated to [*336] Anselm Kiefer’s gigantic metal books. These art installations-objects, prohibitive and monumental in their immovability, Vismann reads as files: renewable, comprehensive of their past and binding of the future, and able to exist (as art) only through their own cancelling (as files). In that sense, this is a most un-academic book. It is, in fact, a literary achievement, in the best sense of the word, that comes out equally from a writing style that manages to be lyrical about administrative files, a subtle sense of humour that makes some passages astonishingly personal, and a cohesive narrative that stops the reader from putting the book down.

Special merit should go to what I think is an excellent translation by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, both faithful and playful, that has managed to convey the subtleties of meaning. The only problem with the book is the lack of index, either a general one or even a main names’ one. As a final observation, a question more than a criticism: all this compilation of information, the piling up of levels of different materiality and the assembling of writing surfaces and technologies, so artfully presented as to make the reader forget the origin; all this then has managed to leave the present reader wondering: what was erased for this text to become possible? What sort of cancellations did the author have to make in order to produce this self-standing but hopefully renewable and continuing metafile? This is neither a quest for marginalia, nor some psychological inquiry. Rather, it is a genuine indication that this book has achieved its goal of showing the visible invisibility of the process of cancelling and its foundational role in the production of any text.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos.