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We Are All Joseph K.

Kafka in America

by WILLIAM MANSON

In his novel The Trial, Franz Kafka conjured up the nightmarish, surreal yet strangely familiar world of an ordinary person trapped in a web of bewildering government interventions. Inexplicably, the eponymous protagonist “Joseph K” suddenly finds himself under relentless observation—and is then arrested on charges which remain undisclosed. (“Is it political?” gasps Jeanne Moreau, in Orson Welles’ film version; or, as Orwell’s Winston Smith would say, “is it a thought-crime?”) Seeking to uncover why (and for what) he has become ensnared, Joseph K will take a labyrinthine journey through the intricate legalisms and self-perpetuating contradictions of courts and bureaucracies–only to find himself, once again, back at the beginning of his quest.

Trapped in endless litigation–or in the clutches of creditors or foreclosing banks—how many millions of U.S. citizens feel today like Joseph K? At one time or another, highly complicated legal quandaries and arcane bureaucratic tangles plague most of us. (Thus, any major city “yellow pages” includes 100 pages-plus of “Attorneys” listings.)

But lately, we’re inclined to worry more about our Internet communications: are they being surreptitiously intercepted and stored permanently (PRISM)? In order to be periodically retrieved, scrutinized and “analyzed”? If so, why? The NSA Director, appearing on TV’s “Sixty Minutes,” hastened to reassure all (mere) citizens that–despite its mega-billion-dollar budget and ongoing expansion (the giant Utah data-storage complex)–the NSA is currently only actively focusing on less than “60 U.S. persons.” Was Gen. Keith Alexander telling “the whole truth” (to use a quaint phrase)? Or was he giving us, as did his illustrious colleague James Clapper (DNI), the “least untruthful” answers he felt obliged to offer?

Therefore, our average Joseph K today is still just a tiny bit worried that most (if not all) of his communications are being permanently stored, and subject at any future time to sophisticated “analysis”—under whatever rationale meddlesome technocrats may come up with. If not by the neighborly people of the NSA, then what about the 13-odd other “intelligence” agencies? What mischief are they up to? Joseph, who finds everyday life complicated enough, still finds himself even wondering about all those marketing “research” firms, think-tank contractors, credit bureaus, and so on. How are they “mining” and storing his personal data? He doesn’t know.

But enough of that—Joseph K has enough troubles without succumbing to an obsessive paranoia! He’s even tempted to get rid of the Internet all together: his “service” stinks and he’s always hated computers. But wait! Our Joseph K has just been told—by some faceless bureaucrat—that he must quickly go the website “Healthcare.gov” and register to shop for (mandatory) private health insurance. Again, Joseph finds himself perplexed: frankly, he dislikes hospitals and drug companies—and has managed quite well without them. Moreover—or so Joseph insists–if he finds himself suffering from terminal cancer, he’ll choose to die—rather than subject himself to excruciating, degrading (and often-dubious) “procedures.” (And Joseph K is also aware that preventable medical errors are, by some estimates, the “third leading cause of death” in the U.S. today.) Joseph, you see, is one of those old-fashioned curmudgeons, the type that once fancied itself radical-populists and hated Big Business and Big Government with equal fervor. He even thinks (can you believe it?) that the entire insurance industry is some kind of racket—and wants no part of it!

And admittedly, our Joseph K is not very “computer-literate” and finds it more than a little exasperating to try to comprehend all the provisions of a jerry-built “Affordable” Care Act. Couldn’t the government, he asks, simply have mailed (simplified) application forms to each and every citizen (listed in the 2010 U.S. Census)? He’s always found legalistic small-print, provisos and disclaimers more than a little confusing (and annoying). Given such typically over-complicated ordeals, Joseph understandably has become a fanatic for simplification. Why can’t “the government,” he again recently demanded, simply establish “Medicare for All”? After all, he pointed out, “we” spend trillions for “defense”—and against whom, exactly? He doesn’t know (but was under the impression that the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race ended some time ago).

In closing, I heard some sad news the other day. Turns out our Joseph K, feeling trapped between corrupt insurance giants and coercive big government, has begged his creator Kafka to return him back to the world of fiction–wherein he may at least continue his Sisyphean struggles for autonomy with some measure of defiance and tragic dignity.

William Manson, a psychoanalytic anthropologist,  formerly taught social science at Rutgers and Columbia universities. He is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press).