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Kafka, Kafka Everywhere

Surveillance capitalism, acts of resistance, and the censorship of art—all on the rise

Bailey Trela
May 15, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Across the globe, a unique, modern strain of the Kafkaesque is at play, infecting new layers of reality. Part of the absurdity of contemporary politics is how easily these instances of the Kafkaesque can be corroborated—and that for much of the public, at least, it doesn’t really matter. Take for example our experience with surveillance capitalism. For Kafka, surveillance was uncertain—an anxious dialectic of paranoia and denial. Today, we blithely kowtow to its ubiquity, so that paranoia itself can seem a naive response to the exigencies of late capitalism. We don’t question whether or not we’re being surveilled, but only the gradations of surveillance we’re being subjected to—that is, whether the camera on our laptop is recording us now or later; whether the microphone on our phone is recording us at this moment or the next.

The outsourcing of authoritarian mechanisms to private entities fits neatly into Kafka’s universe, where a nebulous alliance exists between the hidden hydra of the state and the various minor clerks, landlords, and businessmen that oppress his characters, as though the absurdities of economic oppression were privileged in some fundamental way—as though profiteering itself partook of the same rarefied psychology that engenders Kafka’s plots.

Amazon and massive corporations do well to monetize and disfigure a core Kafka logic, the one that stands as a specter behind Kafka’s works but which has been remade, in the marketplace, as an explicit logic of efficiency and optimization. Where workers are tagged and timed and mercilessly optimized as they rush about in an endless honeycomb of shelves and aisles. The neat trick of this modernized take on Kafka is that its most popular features function as their own form of obfuscation, with the sheer speed involved tending to elide any sense that the harsh treatment of human beings might lie behind it. When we order a package from Amazon and find it on our doorstep the very next day, the stunning ease of the transaction seems to belie the presence of pain or exploitation at any point in the process.

There was something of this observable obscenity in a recent attempt to stage a performance inspired by Kafka’s work in New York. “I am here instead of a performance which will not come,” said Krystian Lupa, the acclaimed Polish theater director. “So as the first part of my presentation, I ought to tell you about what will not be coming.”

The note of prophetic absurdity was fitting. Lupa, a sage and wispily white-haired presence renowned for his stage adaptations of literary works by writers like Thomas Bernhard and Robert Musil, was in in the city in March to inaugurate an absence—before everything else in the city was canceled as well. Lupa’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial had been set to run at the NYU Skirball Theater, but in January the Polish Cultural Ministry withdrew the project’s funding.

In place of the performance, NYU organized a panel discussion on censorship and artistic freedom, followed by a marathon public reading of The Trial, on March 8—a date, the former director of the Polish Cultural Institute Monika Fabijanska pointed out, that corresponded with the 52nd anniversary of a famous student rally at Warsaw University. Fabijanska’s account of the Warsaw protests touched on the authoritarian tactic of co-opting crises, where the censorship of art can quickly turn into disturbing acts of racial prejudice. The Warsaw protests were led by two Jewish university students who were later expelled; the protests themselves later justified a government-backed campaign of widespread anti-Semitism in Poland.

Lupa’s own comments situated the core of Kafka’s importance to contemporary conversations about censorship and the rise of authoritarianism in his persistent claims about the intentional obscurity of power. “Kafka, in The Trial, said we do not know exactly what we are fighting against because it is secret and we have to state it very clearly.” When the Law and Justice Party took power in Poland in 2015, he took refuge in Kafka. “We thought, this is an instrument. Kafka will help us see exactly that one who’s standing on the other side—somebody who’s stupid, who represents hatred, and is also incredibly powerful, and wields this power even though it is hard for us to tell what this power springs from.”

For Lupa, the ability to co-opt existing administrative structures allows authoritarians to don a mantle of legitimacy. His original staging of The Trial in Poland, for instance, found itself similarly disrupted. “In the middle of our work the theater changed its directorship through a fake competition, and suddenly the structure in which we were developing our performance ceased being ours,” he said. “This is the method used by the other side—the destruction, the attacking, not just of the artists, but also of the structures which they function within.”

“In Kafka there’s a kind of opacity and slowness in the process before the secrets of the state and of power,” said André Lepecki, a performance studies professor at NYU. “But right now there’s absolute obscenity from the conservative right wing—they’re absolutely transparent in terms of what they want, and they’re fast and absolutely agile.”

Today’s right-wing politics share the stage devices of transparency and obscenity with the theater. “I was thinking about this moment as a kind of rehearsal for a world that wants to be here,” Lepecki said.

“Language allows politicians to test how far they can go,” Fabijanska added. “It’s saying something and waiting to see how many people start clapping—if they do, we go much harder; if still not enough people are clapping, we have to withdraw and see how we can inspire them to clap the next time we do something outrageous.”

Kafkaesque questions of surveillance and repression likewise animate Philip Roth’s 2004 alternate history novel, The Plot Against America, recently adapted into a miniseries for HBO by David Simon. The first episode of the series was shown in March at 92Y, followed by a panel discussion with Simon as well as actors from the show, John Turturro, Winona Ryder, and Morgan Spector. Roth’s novel, a more direct analysis of the encroachment of authoritarianism, envisions a parallel history in which the charismatic aviator Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and begins to implement an isolationist foreign policy that rapidly morphs into an anti-Semitic regime on the homefront.

If the book’s description can feel like a thin working-through of the issues at stake, Simon, in his comments, was at pains to point out the intricate bedrock underlying his adapation’s narrative. As a study of resistance—from confrontation to collaboration—the series attempts to mirror the modern experience of politics.

“That’s what’s so brilliant about the book,” Simon said. “It’s a parlor drama in which everyone acquires history through a living room—and that’s where all of us are right now as citizens.”

In its interrogation of the forms resistance takes, the show can smack of Kafka, whose unappealable verdicts and faceless bureaucracies often lure his protagonists into a conciliatory form of appeasement. Turturro, who plays the collaborationist conservative Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf in the show, pointed out a trenchant historical parallel. “When I read the book, it reminded me of a chapter in [Primo Levi’s] The Drowned and the Saved about [Chaim] Rumkowski, who was the king of the Łódź Ghetto,” Turturro said. “That essay has always been imprinted on my brain, and how misguided he was, trying to save some of the population. Levi takes it apart beautifully, and I think Roth was influenced by that.”

Unsurprisingly, both book and show suggest that a true act of resistance can never be piecemeal, while at the same time acknowledging the generational divides that commonly spring up around the question. Morgan Spector, who plays Herman, the head of the Levin family, described his character’s struggles with passivity. “There’s Herman who thinks that if you stand your ground and fight injustice when you can, you’re doing your duty as a citizen,” he said. “But at a certain point, the times become so out of joint that just resisting, just protesting, and just fighting injustice in that limited way isn’t enough.”

Roth, an avid fan of Kafka, learned from his literary forebear a critical lesson about the banality of oppression. Since its motivating forces are inaccessible, we tend to think that the visible apparatus of the state might not be so malevolent as it seems. One of Kafka’s great observations was that, in the absence of a centralized source of oppression, our everyday encounters begin to take on a smoky cast of duplicity and malice. The irony that The Plot Against America seeks to surface is that, in American life, this Kafkaesque paranoia isn’t misplaced—and might not even be Kafkaesque.

“It wasn’t as if our country was completely immune from what was happening in other places—we had many people here who had influenced the National Socialists,” Turturro said, pointing out the manifold ways in which midcentury America was complicit in the rise of European fascism. “One of the books—Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race—was used during the Nuremberg Trials as evidence that the United States had influenced Germany’s way of thinking. So there wasn’t a Nazi party here, but there was a relationship.”

There are, of course, real-world anxieties at the heart of Roth’s novel, though with the arrival of its television adaptation, they can at times take a back seat. “Roth worried about what he knew and remembered from his childhood, but he was aware that he’d backed into [the story] being perfectly allegorical, that it was about something more fundamental,” Simon said. “Which is, whoever’s the latest in through the door, they can be maligned, they can be used as fuel to obtain and maintain political power.” Like Lupa’s adaptation of Kafka, The Plot Against America is an attempt to model a future that seems to be careening out of control—in short, it’s a performance that, you have to hope, will not come.

Bailey Trela is a writer living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Full Stop, Harvard Review, and The Threepenny Review.