Some years ago, I read Franz Kafka's The Trial, or at least the English translation of it. The story stuck in my mind and made quite an impression on me.

Particularly, I was struck by the chapter in which Herr K visits Herr Huld, encounters the similarly duped Block and is confronted with Leni, Huld's promiscuous nurse. From the point of that chapter on, I started to form a synthesis on what Kafka was getting at, which I can only describe as the interactional dimensions to the absurd bureaucracy that Herr K faced, as well as to the absurd forms of authority that it entailed.

If I remember correctly, Kafka portrays the court system that Herr K falls victim to as somewhat off-Broadway, in a sense: shadowy and quasi-official, with parallel structures and rules that come close to, but never in tangent to, the official courts. It is significant that, in the end of all things, Herr K is supposed to kill himself; he is supposed to be his own executioner.

Yet little in the way of actual duress or enforcement seemed to happen throughout most of the book. Herr K was told what to do, and out of fear, he did it. That is, he was pressed into conforming to the half-disclosed bureaucracy, and much of its effect seems to have come from his own actions.

I couldn't help but apply this interpretation of The Trial to more anthropological/sociological reasonings. Elsewhere, I've asserted that institutions are actually democratic, in a sense, in that they are composed of, and moved by, the people that comprise them, staff and patrons. Bureaucracies are people- (demos) powered (kratos).

You can take the bureaucracy out of the people (socialize or enculturate them without it), but you can't take the people out of the bureaucracy. Without the day to day activities of the staff, there is no bureaucracy. As bureaucracies are marked by systemic and institutionalized inequalities and authorities, I suggest that those inequalities and authorities are also, ultimately, the product of the staff that makes up the bureaucratic structure. That is, the people embedded in the bureaucracy make that bureaucracy together, in terms of the results of their interactions.

Like Herr K, we are all complicit in the bureaucracies in which we are embedded. The catch is that we have little choice in most instances, in which we are bureaucratically embedded. We get locked into vast webs of complicity, which are underpinned by what Sartre might have called bad faith, marked by ideologies and practices of the official and of authority. At the very least, most people have recorded and indexed identifications (as opposed to identities; I believe I'm echoing Josiah Heyman here), and most of us will draw a salary or wage at some point in our lives.

Really, is there a human being alive who isn't embedded in some bureaucracy, somewhere?

For example, what happens when blood samples are taken from Yanomami, samples that later get entangled in international legal disputes? What happens when Native American and First Nations peoples have to face issues of ownership and appropriation for sacred objects that have, traditionally, culturally, never really been a possession of anybody particular?

Are they not also caught up and become complicit through their struggles?

What about colonial transformations and modernization in the Third World?

Sartre argued that existential freedom is inalienable, even from a slave or prisoner. I tend to agree. Yet, as Nietzsche might have it, how easily we tend to forget the action in favor of the result of the action, which stands unwittingly reified and fetishized.

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Comment by Joel M. Wright on August 19, 2010 at 10:38pm
Please excuse my extended absence away from this blog thread. It was unintentional, but I wanted to think through Huon's August 3 response, and time got away with me.

However, I think that Huon's question is too valuable to ignore.

First, I'd like to point out that there are many kinds of complicities; and these complicities are likely to be entangled when found in situ. Also, some argue that the recognition of any social difference leads to the perpetuation of that very difference. So, not only are we implicit in gender, but also in race, socioeconomics, and a range of other social and cultural phenomena. My point is that the boxer's feint of the complicit is likely to be a much more complex issue than we could ever hope to discuss succinctly.

My second thought is a memory of a debate that I once had with a friend. She' was always very skeptical of the merits of higher education, and always insisted that success was more about who you know, rather than a degree in hand. No amount of bringing up the concept of social capital would counter her argument. She once told me that getting a job and working your way up the ladder would be a more positive contribution to addressing social inequality than becoming a professor, as you would eventually be able to have input into hiring and promotion practices. I'll add, as food for thought, that she is an aesthetician and a cosmetician, and that she was always pretty critical of what her job entailed: playing to people's insecurities in order to move products (her words, not mine!).

On another note, though I am institutionally embedded, being so has given me the opportunity to teach anthropology and sociology. So, even though I work in Institutional Effectiveness, I get to teach a pedagogy the centers around social awareness and issues of social justice and tolerance.

One last note. The other day, my boss asked me to find out when the sex ratio flipped from majority male to majority female in college enrollment numbers. Turns out that this flip occurred in 1979, perhaps significantly.

[SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS), "Fall Enrollment in Colleges and Universities" surveys; and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), "Fall Enrollment" surveys. (This table was prepared July 2000.) ]

The most current data indicates the following data:

Males: 7,815,914 (43%)
Females: 10,432,214 (57%)

[SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2007 and 2007-08 Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Winter 2007-08, Spring 2008, and Fall 2008. (This table was prepared July 2009.)]

My thought is that, yes, more women are contributing to business, the economy and all sorts of institutions and bureaucracies; and they are doing so in an increasing proliferation of complicities, different from the constellation of complicities that women typically engaged in in the past. As they do so, the do indeed help to perpetuate social stratification in modern societies. Paradoxically, in doing so, they also forge new avenues for themselves, which in turn are significantly altering our cultural understandings and social arrangements as a net effect.

I feel that there is something more that Huon is trying to get at, though. I’d like to hear her thoughts.
Comment by Huon Wardle on August 3, 2010 at 10:48am
There is a phrase from a Radioscope interview with Sartre that has always stuck in my mind (roughly translated): 'when a boxer makes a 'feint' he freely puts himself at the disposal of his opponent'. It is in this sense that anyone puts themselves 'at the disposal' of the bureaucrat or anyone else with regard to the exercise of power. But once we have made that point, what is the further thing that we wish to achieve other than an adjustment toward a model we have in mind of (a more) egalitarian exchange?
Comment by Joel M. Wright on August 2, 2010 at 10:10pm
Karl's first comment raises a very startling dilemma for me: in saying that it's quite human to collude with institutional falsities in order to preserve one's livelihood, are we seeing the matter with an unclouded ethnographer's eye, or are we orienting ourselves within some kind of realpolitik? Either way, I do think there's something to that claim.

Then again, if you can't see the inequality, it's easy to ignore it: out of sight, out of mind, as we would say in the U.S. To me, a lot of complicity might not just be about coming into contact with bureaucracies without choosing to do so. If you give somebody just enough, and if their expectations are low enough because they get what they think is normal to get, they're not going to care too much about social inequalities (though maybe personal issues, yes).

Keith has a great point. We could play the relativist's ethics-limbo game, but what kind of anthropology does that give us? Being clear on what you are hoping to accomplish seems to me the only route to an ethics not based on accident. On another level, I find myself very uneasy. What is all of the revolutionary ideology in the world when I find myself still tied into the same old socioeconomic system?

It’s like that Rage Against the Machine lyric, “So raise your fist and march around, just don’t take what you need.”

My thoughts here, though, are taking me farther from my original point. I’m most definitely of a mind that, from the apex of the hierarchical structure to the lowliest position, there has to be some kind of ideological buy-in into the bureaucracy. I’m not arguing that it’s a simple matter of walking away from bureaucracy, though: try not paying the taxes you’re due, and it’ll quickly become apparent that enforcement of some sort is an obvious factor in bureaucracies. However, even those who actually undertake the enforcement of bureaucracies are themselves complicit in its existence, no?
Comment by Keith Hart on August 2, 2010 at 6:58pm
I have a lot to say about assumptions concerning the history of the world economy in the last three posts, but, as Huon says, shouldn;t we make another thread for this? I too was distracted by Karl's last point, but the other two about what it means to be human and whether an ethical politics is pointless deserve some response. My mentor, an old revolutionary, used to say that it doesn't pay to work out the balance of forces on a given issue. You should try to figure out what the sides are and whose side you are on, then do what you can for that end. I happen to think that there is massive popular rejection of politics as normal. It just needs an outlet, as yet hard to figure. But, as Marx said, the revolution comes like a thief in the night, when everyone is least expecting it.
Comment by Huon Wardle on August 2, 2010 at 6:02pm
the withdrawal of US military and economic "world market" activity
from the 'third world'. But this would itself be an act outside the institutional system, and so unlikely to happen.


Arguably, the 'world market' means what it currently means because of US military intervention in so many parts of the world. That said, I recently came across something interesting: most major industrial countries invest a smaller proportion of their GDP in other countries around the world than they did in 1900. The world market, as such, is less effective than a century ago. This of course is not a blog about global economics but it is interesting that rapid loss of the principle of consent in Western societies (n.b. the huge bundling of 'anti-terror laws during the last decade) is closely related to a withdrawal from the world at large - a retraction of accountability. Maurice Bloch once pointed out that the result of the collapse of colonialism was that anthropologists stopped researching in non-Western societies and studied themselves instead. There is surely some connection there.
Comment by Joel M. Wright on August 2, 2010 at 5:51pm
Karl,

You pose some interesting points. For a youngling, such as myself, it's important to listen. In any event, maybe simplicity in communicating ideas is a sign of a type of mastery in itself?

In some of my classes, I have used the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, Washington, United States, to lecture about globalization. One of the flyers I show my students is for the Jubilee 2000, which calls for the cancellation of all debts of poor countries.

Even the United States works on a debt economy. I can't claim to make solid conclusions on debt by country, but it does seem to me that:

1. Global economic arrangements are built on and around debt.
2. Those global economic arrangements are marked by inequalities.
3. There seems to be a wide disparity in debt load by country.
4. Debt is central to those global inequalities.

It seems to me that a consideration of the geographies of creditors and debtors, on a global scale, will show a third interested that can only be partially accounted for by considering inequalities between rich and poor states: capital interests. Capital interests seem to thrive on a balance of debt, which is weighted in their favor. We have even built up complex bureaucracies in order to serve those creditor/debtor relations (World Bank, IMF...).

Really, why abolish a system that results in massive debt, on a global scale, when:

1. You benefit from that system.
2. You can distribute the burden of debt in your own country over, say, 309,887,170 fellow citizens (among which you are at or near the apex of the stratification pyramid)?

Another thing I teach in my classes is that, in this day and age, you have to understand inequalities between countries to understand them within countries, and vice versa.
Comment by Karl Reisman on August 2, 2010 at 5:07am
Let me take a rather plain minded set of looks at all this (which is all I am good for after 79 years on this earth) --
1. Let us say that I go to get a job - and they make it fairly clear (if in a duplicitous sort of way)
that if I want this job, or want to keep it, I will have to accept certain lies, and put them forth to whoever asks.
To the degree I accept to do this - then am I that much less human, or just facilitating my humanity
by increasing the scope of human "institutions"?
2. From a cultural geographic view of the world - it seems clear to me now that to hope for any kind
of ethical order in the world is beyond the possibility of any one leader, nation, bureaucracy, or other institution - or one generation (or ten). This being so, then surely the best we can do is "do no harm"
(hah!) and this would surely mean the withdrawal of US military and economic "world market" activity
from the 'third world'. But this would itself be an act outside the institutional system, and so unlikely to happen. Yet surely that is the first thing we can do - even if the consequences are not predictable.
Comment by Joel M. Wright on July 28, 2010 at 4:01pm
Huon's comments get directly at what I'm trying to say.

She says that, "unless people are complicit in various kinds of hierarchical, institutional arrangements beyond their direct ethical agreement civil society cannot exist."

I'll add, echoing Sartre maybe, that there is no being outside of doing. The sentiment does bring Nietzsche to mind as well. Most people don't seem to take this kind of complicity into consideration within their "direct ethical agreements." Yet, through our social interactions, we are the joint source-point of those very arrangements.

There seems, however, to be an inverse relationship between status and awareness of the kinds of power implied in bureaucratic complicity. That is to say that, the more a group of people are confronted by the regulatory mechanisms of a bureaucracy, the more they will likely come to understand, in their own fashion, not only the mechanisms of enforcement themselves, but also the principles that underlie the ideologies and practices at force.

Perhaps this very thing is akin to the apolitical, invisible whiteness that Renato Rosaldo mentions in Culture and Truth. I can say from direct experience that his comments on addressing race and social inequality in classrooms will tend to make some students very uncomfortable. In a like manner, most of the white people I know get really squirrelly when it comes to white studies, a la sociology.
Comment by Joel M. Wright on July 27, 2010 at 4:35pm
I once traveled to Quebec for language studies. Getting into Canada from the United States was a low-key, almost anti-climatic, experience. I showed up at a small airfield to be transferred to a connecting flight leading to Montreal.

The return flight was what interested me. Even on the Canadian side, the portion of the air port leading back into the United States was cordoned off by glass panes and highly regulated. The reception desks were framed by a rather large seal of the United States of America on the back wall, and ropes were used to corral incoming passengers in an (orderly) fashion that I didn't see in the Canadian side of the air port, but which is common at least in banks and government buildings in the United States. Ironic, that.

Our lived environments are replete with objects, which, through our capacities, we make redolent with sign-dynamics. It's interesting to see the profusion of signs that assault one, and which form a basis of state and bureaucratic authority on a very personal level in such cases as discussed here. I guess my point in this blog post is to comment on how power and authority rely so much on certain forms of investiture overlaid on space, environment and interaction.

I find myself hopeful and pessimistic in turns. I'm always amazed by the complacency that I see around me, and even the antagonism I am confronted with when I begin to address these issues outside of the social sciences (and usually using less...concentrated?...language). At the same time, there has to be some resistance to the insensibilities that happen due to audit culture and bonafide authority. I can't help the feeling that pointing to human accountability is going to be a key factor in that resistance; hence, my thoughts on complicity.
Comment by Huon Wardle on July 27, 2010 at 1:56pm
Another way of looking at this is that complicity of these kinds is the flip side of the existence of civil society. That is to say, unless people are complicit in various kinds of hierarchical, institutional arrangements beyond their direct ethical agreement civil society cannot exist. There is a scene brought out well in Orson Welles' version of The Trial where K finds one of the officers in a cupboard being beaten by his superior because K has made an accusation of corruption against the policemen: K's resistance has led to this uncharted consequence. At the same time The Trial is about citizenship in the Austrian empire and it is also much more a statement about the human condition. While citizens of the G7 live largely within the civil frame of bureaucracy and complain about 'audit' cultures and systemic complicity, most of the world's population confront bureaucracy as something exoteric, islands of incomprehensibility placed in their way (including with armed force) by Western states.

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