Ben Kafka

Associate Professor, Departments of Media, Culture, and Communication; History

Ben Kafka

Office Hours: Wednesdays 10:30-12:00


Ben Kafka teaches critical theory and cultural history in NYU's Department of Media, Culture, and Communication and is a candidate psychoanalyst at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research (IPTAR-IPA). His first book, The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork (Zone Books, 2012; French translation, Le démon de l'écriture, Éditions Zones Sensibles, 2013) investigates the historical, material, and unconscious origins of our conflicts with bureaucracy. He is currently working on a new project about forms of magical thinking under late capitalism and co-directing NYU's Interdisciplinary Freud Studies Group. He sees adult and adolescent patients at the IPTAR Clinical Center.

Kafka has been a member of the Princeton Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts; the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study; the Internationales Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie (IKKM) at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar; and, since 2007, the New York Institute for the Humanities, where he currently serves as Chair of the Executive Committee. He also serves on the board of the Feminist Theory Archives at the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women at Brown University. He is co-editor of History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History and a member of the editorial board of Grey Room.

He received his B.A. in History and Modern Culture & Media from Brown and his Ph.D. in History from Stanford. 

Some Reviews of The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork (Zone Books, 2012)

Demon of Writing


  • Charles A. Ryskamp Fellow, American Council of Learned Societies (2012-13)
  • Best New Journal Prize for History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History, Council of Editors of Learned Journals (2012)
  • Senior Fellow, Internationales Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie (IKKM Weimar) (2012)
  • Member, School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study (2009-10)
  • Fellow, New York Institute for the Humanities (2007-present)
  • Cotsen-Perkins Fellow, Princeton Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts (2004-07)
  • Whiting Fellowship in the Humanities (2003-04)
  • Fulbright, Paris (2001-02)
  • International Dissertation Research Fellowship, Social Science Research Council (2001-02)

Selected Publications

  • The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork (New York: Zone Books, 2012) (link)
  • "Medium/Media" in Emily Apter, Barbara Cassin, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood, eds., Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon (Princeton University Press, 2014) (link)
  • "Paperwork: The State's Will to Know," La Biennale di Venezia: Il Palazzo Enciclopedico. 55. Esposizione Internationale d'Arte (2013)
  • "The Administration of Things: A Genealogy," West 86th (May 2012) (link)
  • "From the Desk of Roland Barthes: Putting Mater (and Pater ) Back in Materialism," West 86th: Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 18:2 (Fall-Winter 2011) (link)
  • "Only a Layman: Psychoanalysis and History," DIVISION/Review: A Quarterly Psychoanalytic Forum vol. 1 no. 2 (summer 2011) (link)
  • "No, Oedipus Does Not Exist" (with Jamieson Webster), Cabinet #42 (summer 2011) (view)
  • "The Radical Cure," Psychoanalytic Dialogues 21:3 (2011) (view)
  • "Paperwork Explosion," West 86th (May 2011) (link)
  • "Pushing Paper: A Reconsideration of Melville and Flaubert," Lapham's Quarterly vol. IV no. 2 (spring 2011). French. Polish. (link)
  • Review of Craig Robertson, The Passport in America: The History of a Document (Oxford University Press), Bookforum (Sept/Oct/Nov 2010)
  • "Red Tape Measures," In Media Res (June 2010) (link)
  • "Paperwork: The State of the Discipline," Book History #12 (2009) (link)
  • Review of Vincent Denis, Une histoire de l'indentité: France, 1715-1815 (Ed. Champ Vallon), The Journal of Modern History 81:4 (December 2009)
  • Review of Franz Kafka, The Office Writings (Princeton University Press), Bookforum (April/May 2009)
  • "Power Hungry," Cabinet #32 (winter 2008-09) (view)
  • "Hunting the Plumed Mammal: The History of 'Bureaucracy' in France, 1750-1850," in Becker and Von Krosigk, eds., Figures of Authority: Contributions Towards a Cultural History of Governance (Peter Lang, 2008)
  • "The Demon of Writing: Paperwork, Public Safety, and the Reign of Terror," Representations #98 (spring 2007) (link)
  • "Sabotaging the Committee of Public Safety," Cabinet #22 (summer 2006).
    [Anthologized in Curiosity and Method: Ten Years of Cabinet Magazine (Cabinet Books, 2012)]

Selected Presentations

  • "Teaching. Psychoanalysis. University." Psychoanalysis on Ice, Reykjavik.
  • "A Critical Dialogue on Media and Materiality" (with Bernhard Siegert), Heyman Center / Society of Fellows at Columbia University
  • "The Experience of Evidence," Shulman Lecture in Science and the Humanities, Yale University
  • "Meaning of the Meaningless: Towards a History of Graphology," Language Information Techné, Stanford University
  • "The Trade in Signifiers: Graphology, Psychoanalysis, and the Profession of Interpretation," Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis
  • The Sirens Go Silent: A Commemorative Colloquium for Friedrich Kittler, NYU
  • A Conversation with Bernard Stiegler on "Social Networking and Neuropower," Program: Media and Literature, NYU
  • "Repression," Political Concepts 3
  • "Cabinet on Trial," New York Public Library
  • "Now and Then and Here and Now: The Media of Psychoanalysis," IKKM Weimar
  • "Anti-Anti-Oedipus," Masculinity, Complex, CUNY Graduate Center
  • "Gray Matter: Ideology & Metapsychology," Psychoanalysis and Critical Theory in Conversation, Center for the Study of Gender & Sexuality, NYU
  • "The Schreber Effect" (with Friedrich Kittler & Zvi Lothane), Daniel Paul Schreber centenary, Gedenkstätte Pirna-Sonnenstein
  • "The Instrumentalization of Unreason," response to Joan W. Scott, Third Annual History & Theory Lecture, Heyman Center, Columbia
  • "Withdrawal Slips, or The Psychopathology of Paperwork", Beinecke Library, Yale University
  • "On Paperwork," Media Histories: Epistemology, Materiality, Temporality, Columbia, Princeton, and Bauhaus-Universität Weimar (IKKM)
  • "The Destiny of Anatomy (On Marie Bonaparte)," European Conceptions of Life: Biology, Psychology, Philosophy, Remarque Institute, NYU, Dec. 10
  • "The Bureaucratic Medium: Marx, the Press, and Paperwork," Interacting with Print Research Group, McGill
  • "The Administration of Things," Yale/Penn Workshop on Moral and Political Philosophy
  • "Withdrawal Slips," Columbia University Seminar on the Theory and History of Media
  • "Power Failures (paperwork, parapraxis)," for a conference "On Accident", Princeton School of Architecture
  • "Paperwork: Agencies and Subjectivities" (with Lisa Gitelman), Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard
  • "Freud's Waiting Room," faculty roundtable, NYU Comparative Literature graduate conference
  • "Vulgar Materialism: Wilhelm Reich's French Legacy," panel on "Recent Work in the History of Psychoanalysis," Society for French Historical Studies
  • "Matter/Form/Power: The History and Theory of Paperwork," Council for the Humanities, Princeton University


  • History of Communication (udg)
  • Print Media and Modernity (grad) / Print: History and Form (udg)
  • Media Archaeology (grad) / Dead Media Research Studio (udg)
  • Psychoanalysis: Desire and Culture (udg)
  • Marxism and Culture (udg)
  • Special Topics in Critical Theory: Hermeneutics of Suspicion (grad)
  • Special Topics in Critical Theory: Fetishism (grad)
  • Psychic Life of Media (grad)
  • Doctoral Core Seminar: Theory 1 (grad)

Other Research Interests

Forms of magical thinking in late capitalism; paranoia querulans ("querulous paranoia" or "morbid querulousness"); Freudo-Marxism and the search for a grand unified theory of unhappiness; the role of schisms, interpersonal conflict, fallings-out, and grudges in the formation of modern thought (socialism, feminism, psychoanalysis...); the preconscious in psychoanalytic theory and technique; Marie Bonaparte, Robert Lindner.