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Kafkaesque nightmares

By Adam Ferguson - posted Friday, 17 February 2006

Literature can have a powerful influence on political culture - just look at how often the term “Orwellian” gets an airing whenever issues like state surveillance, the mangling of language or the power of propaganda are being discussed. Nineteen Eighty-Four has done a lot to define the terms of these debates.

But if “Orwellian” is the most overused literary pejorative in politics, “Kafkaesque” would have to be one of its closest rivals - and in the current political climate, Kafka’s surreal imaginings may turn out to have as much relevance for us as Orwell’s jackboot dystopia.

Unlike Orwell, Franz Kafka was not overtly (nor perhaps even covertly) a political writer. An architect of nightmarish worlds and haunting paradoxes, the Czech author remains an enigma, subject to endless reinterpretation. Nevertheless his name has come to be associated with the atmosphere of sinister irrationality that surrounds the looming bureaucracies of The Castle and, especially, The Trial.


Kafka’s sense of the absurd can be summed up in the best-known passage of The Trial when the protagonist, Joseph K., has been just placed under arrest. Demanding to know what crime he is accused of, he is told:

We are not authorised to tell you that. Go to your room and wait there. Proceedings have been instituted against you, and you will be informed of everything in due course.

At once comical and creepy, this kind of exchange is found throughout The Trial and The Castle, and it is a tribute to the lasting power of these novels that Kafka continues to be invoked whenever we encounter abuses of reason by shadowy, unaccountable bureaucracies - and there has been no shortage of these in Australia of late.

A couple of examples: in September last year, visiting US peace activist Scott Parkin was detained by members of ASIO. After being held in solitary confinement, Parkin was told that an unnamed body - referred to only as “a competent Australian authority” - had assessed him to be a “direct or indirect risk to Australian national security”. He was summarily deported, and lumped with the $11,000 bill.

In January, a Geelong photography club was confronted by police and ordered to refrain from taking shots of industrial architecture - apparently for security reasons, although no actual law was being broken. When the club requested a list of industrial sites that were off-limits, it was denied to them on the grounds that the information was secret.

Both of these incidents would be funny if they weren’t so frightening. Although unconnected, they are nevertheless representative of a growing trend of fear, secrecy and unaccountability - all the essential ingredients of a Kafka nightmare.


Unfortunately there are no signs that this trend will abate any time soon - if recent legislative changes are anything to go by, we will be in for plenty more Kafkaesque absurdity. The recent amendments to the ASIO Act, for example, almost read like a new novel by the Czech master of the surreal.

As well as giving ASIO increased powers of surveillance and the ability to detain without charge, the amendments also cloak these new powers with "secrecy provisions", making it illegal to discuss any “operational matters” whenever ASIO issues a detention or questioning warrant until two years after the warrant expires - in fact for the first 28 days the warrant is not even allowed to be mentioned, on pain of five years' imprisonment.

So not only do these amendments allow ASIO to lock people up without their having committed a crime, they impose a barrier to public scrutiny and debate, leading to a situation - Kafkaesque is the only word for it - whereby the media cannot know whether it is breaking the law by revealing information about a case, because ASIO will not reveal whether it has issued a warrant.

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About the Author

Adam Ferguson is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne, and has written features, political essays, reviews and travel articles for numerous publications in Australia.

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Kafka’s 'The Trial'.

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