It’s a five minutes into the future scenario, but I still think of its themes primarily as a horror film. As I assemble the ideas, I’m thinking philosophically too. Not in a pretentious way – just about the broad themes that are holding the piece together.
|Orson Welles directs Anthony Perkins in his adaptation of The Trial.|
In the philosophical discussions I've had about absurdity, few ever
touch on how useful absurdity is to depict truth in societies where
no one is allowed to speak.
Ever since I first came across the storyline and read it, I found it clear that a book like Kafka’s The Trial is a depiction of how ridiculous the law, police, and justice institutions truly are – the arbitrariness of the application of the law, and of the law itself. This was all clear to me as soon as I read it.
But I’ve long been a bit of an anarchist at heart. So the idea that the law’s content is pretty damn arbitrary and the police have a horrifying tendency to let the power go to their heads, growing abusive and corrupt?
I've known this to some degree since I first watched Serpico as a kid. So Kafka’s point was clear to me from the start.
But the popular reception of Kafka’s stories is that they’re pure absurdities. Their depiction of our world is so strange that we disconnect them from reality. The Trial’s K goes through an obviously absurd justice system. Yet it was just an intensified, comically cartoonish version of real institutions.
At the end of the day, K’s story is of a man who’s arbitrarily detained on charges whose content he never knows, his arguments to defend himself are utterly disregarded on the flimsiest of contexts, authorities order him around arbitrarily. Then he’s just taken out to an alley and summarily shot.
|Who stole the soul from black folk?|
Same man that stole the land from Chief Black Smoke
And made the whip crackle on our back slow
And made us go through the back door
And raffle black bodies on the slave blocks
The new plantation, mass incarceration
That’s why Kafka’s books were received so weirdly in the West – with our democratic institutions, we didn’t know to recognize the reality they depicted. Westerners saw the cartoons only as absurdities. Not the absurdity as the only way to depict the truth.
We’re in the middle of something very different now. You can make a pretty strong case – and many do – that the police, military, and justice systems of the United States and many other democratic countries are not focussed on true justice.
Mass incarceration is the absurd system of modern criminal justice in the democratic West. The United States is at the leading edge of developing this system, and it’s most intense there, but most Western democracies have developed terrible incarceration rates, and even more terrible racial disparities in prison populations.
My country Canada has a mass incarceration problem of its own, mostly focussed on Indigenous people. It’s the latest phase of the Indigenous genocide that the Canadian state was designed to facilitate and complete.
Here’s the difference between what we can say and what Kafka – or whatever Kafka will emerge from the haunted dust of Syria’s revolution – could say. We can call it what it is.
Democratic states of the West currently live out a terrible conflict of conscience – we have free speech and free press rights and laws built into our constitutions. It’s immensely difficult to prevent a journalistic outlet or a social media forum from talking about whatever embarrassing fact of state violence they want to discuss.
More than that, we all generally stand by their right to talk about it. A 1910s Czech living under Austrian dictatorship or a 2010s Syrian living under Assad’s dictatorship could never say in public the horrible things their government did. Everyone knew, but no one could say so where they could be heard – the public square was happy, patriotic, living as if nothing at all was wrong.
We can still defend our rights to call a genocide a genocide, and accuse the icons of our nation of mass murder. No one comes to arrest us for it.
In a way, it’s even more absurd. We can keep calling attention to it, and show how ridiculous the defenders of genocide are whenever they speak. We can mock them in public. Yet the genocides and enslavement continue. It’s like they aren’t afraid of us.
In Syria, at least the government was scared enough of people who spoke the truth to put them in prison. Here, they just laugh at the SJW libtard.