As we all know, Kafka and Bureaucracy are more or less synonymous. No one in the history of literature has managed to capture the particular c20th frustration of having to deal day in day out with an anonymous, incomprehensible and monolithic bureaucratic structure like Kafka. (My train, for instance, today was cancelled and I was thrown into the horrendous paper-free nightmare of having to “go online” to claim a refund, with no human face to comfort me on my tenebrous journey but merely some simple instructions to follow). If you look at the Wikipedia article on bureaucracy, Kafka is mentioned in the second paragraph (apparently he stresses its dehumanising effects).
And yet – I was reading The Trial the other day, and it struck me that actually Josef K’s main problem is the total lack of bureaucracy that appears to exist in the world he inhabits. He is thrown into a nightmare which is entirely based on bureaucracy’s absence.
So what, you may ask, is bureaucracy. Well (like Franz Kafka) I may be a poor literary critic, but I’m good at my job; and I know my management theory. Bureaucracy was first defined by a man well known to literary criticism, having coined the phrase “disenchantment of the world”, called Max Weber: here’s a short and typical article on Weber and Bureaucracy, and this is a typical quote from it of Weber’s views on what makes a bureaucracy:
Bureaucratic coordination of activities … is the distinctive mark of the modern era. Bureaucracies are organized according to rational principles. Offices are ranked in a hierarchical order and their operations are characterized by impersonal rules. Incumbents are governed by methodical allocation of areas of jurisdiction and delimited spheres of duty. Appointments are made according to specialized qualifications rather than ascriptive criteria … The “modern judge,” Weber stated in writing on the legal system of Continental Europe, ” is a vending machine into which the pleadings are inserted together with the fee and which then disgorges the judgment together with the reasons mechanically derived from the Code.”
Is that what we find in The Trial? – Quite emphatically not. The judicial system put forward here by Kafka has no clear rules or hierarchy, no “methodical allocation of areas of jurisdiction” or indeed any clear notion of what areas the justice system covers at all; it appears to be based on irrationality rather than rationality; the process of the system seems to be a matter of rumour by uninformed people outside the system itself, and the judgements (indeed, the charges as well), rather than being “derived from the Code”, appear entirely arbitrary. Rather than depersonalising by systemisation, Kafka’s justice system appears in fact remarkably individualistic in its trial of cases, taking each on its own merits to a troubling degree. In opposition to the basis of how a bureaucracy is meant to work, the ways recommended to Josef K for taking forward his case involve going outside any apparent hierarchical structure and using the influence of people who are not part of the justice system itself. (The whole point of bureaucracies, with their painstaking rules, is to prevent this kind of informal influence / corruption and to restrict people from wielding undue power).
Perhaps then, Kafka is really presenting us with a caricature of bureaucracy which we carry about with us: the idea of a system seen from the outside world, whose rules and regulations we do not understand, which appears to be irrational and to have no governance.
And some other stuff too … I’ve lost interest now.