Kafka, Snowden, and the Surveillance State

in Policing Literary Theory
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Thinkers such as Adorno, Arendt, and Gide viewed Kafka as a predictor of the modern surveillance state, especially of Hitler’s Germany. Following Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of nsa spying, journalists similarly cited Kafka as a prophet of today’s nsa (and British gchq). But Kafka, as always, complicates matters. As I argue here, Kafka’s information organizations seem at first glance to refute the nsa analogy, in two ways: Kafka’s bureaucracies are comically inefficient and his “victims” are not innocent. Kafka’s authorities overwhelm themselves with trivial evidence, stuffing cabinets with papers until nothing can be found, and his protagonists betray hints of possible guilt. But these two points end up paradoxically cementing the connection to the nsa, which, like Kafka’s system, has collected too much material to analyze, yet never ceases to claim that the innocent have nothing to fear. Because personal information is everywhere and because, like Kafka’s Josef K., we have all done something “wrong,” everyone is exposed to the threat that opens The Trial: to be devastatingly “slandered” out of the blue. This creates the modern paranoid subject, in our world and in Kafka’s. Kafka evokes this through plot but also through an enclosed third-person point of view, a radical form of free indirect style. This leaves us only with the protagonist’s viewpoint, yet still with the equivalent of the authoritative eye behind his/our head – a narratological “Über-Ich” (“above-I”) that is both in and outside, watching every move, also of itself, as the subject collapses.

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