'The only true hell is there in the office, I no longer fear any other.'
- Kafka, letter to Felice, 7/4/1913
From the POV of the English Master Class (EMC), 'appropriateness' seems to cover (what they regard as) a multitude of sins: anything from sexual abuse ('inappropriate touching of a six year old') to the most trivial transgression of their random conventions ('inappropriate use of profanities'). This breadth of coverage is of course far from accidental, since the function of the prohibition ('You should never behave inappropriately') is precisely to obfuscate the difference between what is grossly unethical, what is illegal what are 'mere' questions of etiquette.
The temptation might be to regard the ethical and the legal as the really important zones of political contestation here. But who but a few nutters are going to question the idea that child abuse is wrong? And the legal does not have the power to function ideologically for two reasons. First, because it is self-evidently provisional. What is legal does not necessarily have normative force because the genesis of laws can be historicized (they emerged from particular historical circumstances, expressing the will of particular populations - and such circumstances and such wills may change in the future, or may already have changed, which means that there is a problem of legitimacy - if 'only' at the level of virtuality - for law.).
But given that most people do not behave grossly unethically or illegally (except in ways that the big Other seems to regard as acceptable: speeding, downloading mp3's, using soft drugs) what is it that controls their behaviour? Essentially, it is etiquette, 'appropriateness' - and the concept gains its normative power through its very confusing imprecision.
Deleuze is right to say in his essay on Societies of Control that Kafka is the prophet of postmodern cybernetic power. There may be something in Orwell's tedious liberal moralizing miserabilism that had some relevance to the grim austerity of totalitarian states (I have my doubts), but there is little in 1984 that has any purchase in UK 2004. The fact that people willingly submit themselves to 24 hour surveillance in Big Brother is only the most obvious Warholian/ Baudrillardian ironization of Orwell's failed analysis. As Foucault argued, it is the juridical subject, the modern soul, everyman, in other words, Winston Smith himself, who is the basic unit of power, of self-policing, in contemporary western societies. And what could be clearer than that now, when thinking collectively is so far off the agenda that it in itself is deemed to be a symptom of pathology?
Now, Kafka importantly distinguishes between two types of acquittal available to the accused. Naturally, definite acquittal is no longer possible ('we have only legendary accounts of ancient cases [which] provide instances of acquittal'). The two remaining options, then, are (1) 'Ostensible acquittal', in which the accused is to all and intents acquitted, but may later, at some unspecified time, face the charges in full, or (2) 'Indefinite Postponement', in which the accused engages in (what they hope is an infintely) protracted process of legal wrangling, so that the dreaded ultimate judgement is unlikely to be forthcoming.
Deleuze rightly observes that the Control societies delineated by Kafka himself, but also by Foucault and Burroughs, operate using indefinite postponement... Education as a lifelong process... Training that persists for as long as your working life continues... Work you take home with you.. Working from home, homing from work (I didn't make that up, honest...)
A consequence of this 'indefinite' mode of power is that external surveillance is succeeded by internal policing. Control only works if you are complicit with it. Hence the Burroughs figure of the 'Control Addict': the one who is addicted to control, but also, inevitably, the one who has been taken over, possessed by Control...
The implicit question posed by The Trial is the same one posed by the microcosmic parable embedded within it, the story 'Before the Law': what if K simply ignored the Escherized baroque labyrinth of the Law, what if the one before the law simply left instead of waiting in vain for permission from the authorities to enter a door he will never enter? Kafka implies that this is the one option absolutely unavailable to us. Because life itself, of course, is indefinite postponement.
(Which always reminds me of Bill's unanswered question in Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's most Kafkaesque film: 'What kind of fucking charade ends up with someone turning up dead?')
The conception of life as indefinite postponement, and further, of all aspects of life as potentially belonging to the Court, produces a generalized, unlocalizable anxiety without any identifiable object, and K's infractions tend precisely to be mistakes of propriety, sexual indiscretions or other apparently trivial embarrassments he falls into at the very time he believes he is outside the jurisdiction of the Law.
This unlocalizable anxiety is inevitable, given the nature of decorum and propriety, of which Infinite Thought kindly provides a definition:
"So, decorum then. 'Propriety of manner or conduct; grace arising from suitableness of speech and behavior to one's own character, or to the place and occasion; decency of conduct; seemliness; that which is seemly or suitable'. Well it doesn't sound too hard, does it? (Gah!) But it's impossible to work out what is suitable, I think, if it consists of imagining what it is that other people think is appropriate (or what they think they should think, etc.). And who the hell then is the big Other?....."
Yes, appropriateness is always a question of what the big Other deems to be appropriate. Which is difficult. Since, as we all know, the big Other does not exist...Posted by mark at November 17, 2004 12:55 AM | TrackBack