Fresh Fruit from Rotten Vegetables (part three): The Tension of Kafka’s Bureaucracy




Why is Kafka so relevant ninety-three years after his death?  Simply because his milieu was one of pure bureaucratic tension: not only did his works comment on the bureaucracy of his age, they foreshadowed the docile bureaucracy of the decades to come.  Today’s bureaucracy is so sluggish and short-sighted that it needs the smiley-faced, epigrammatic lexicon and cheery-voiced affectations of the customer-service ideology to in any way placate a society so ground-down by its ineptitude that is has come to expect the tension of confrontation.  When K attempts to gain entrance to the castle he is met with bureaucratic underlings who embody the rusted cogs deliberately put in place in any system to deter the achievement of knowledge.  For, knowledge being power and power being the ultimate capitalist commodity (even greater than time itself), it must be doled out in microscopic measure and in predetermined quantities (and the predetermining always carried out in turn by those with a slightly greater measure of [again, predetermined) of knowledge).

Kafka is referred to time and again in contemporary art, because his fictions achieved what contemporary art always strives for, which is to tabulate a social or cultural atmosphere and trim away the bureaucratic fat which obscures the fact of a thing from the view of the populace.  In order for any member of a populace to attain a greater standing or position of merit they must first use their predetermined measure of knowledge (granted [again, generally-speaking] on the basis of their social standing) and figure out a way to interpret the climate they live in with the power they are given.  Sometimes this measure of power is out-of-balance with a person’s social standing: for instance, poor communities with little educational clout produce fiercely intelligent individuals who have not the bureaucratic means with which to harness that intelligence.  Conversely, and this is more often the case [or so I have found], upper-middle class communities tend to award the dullest, most docile of its citizens with intellectual power which said individual has no way of yielding responsibly.

So, when speaking of bureaucratic tensions, the artist opens up a vast area for exploration.  And, like Kafka before him or her, has to trim away the fat put in place by the very bureaucracy they seek to expose.

Fresh Fruit from Rotten Vegetables (part two)

The word tension is probably old-hat these days (for, as Mr Virilio would no doubt point out, once a concept or term has been applied to any discipline it is already old-hat, ready for supersession).  But tension is without doubt the cultural vernacular of the Twenty-First Century: our Western, capitalist existence is based on myriad tensions, all applying pressure upon one another.  We have bureaucratic tensions (which are particularly relevant to me at the moment, and govern all of our daily lives), dialectical tensions (created when cultures, beliefs or political leanings co-exist) and – perhaps the greatest tension of all – the tension created when a sublimely fascist government manipulates a society into fighting amongst itself for individual endurance.

When dealing with dialectical tensions the burden is at once upon the artist to identify which dialectical oppositions are in conflict (or, as is often the case, should be made to be in conflict).  Heraclitus postulated that nature and society were a unity of opposites (one relying on the other to exist), but since Heraclitus’ day society has fragmented and re-unified itself so many times that it has created new dialectical unities (patois being an obvious example).  Nature, in the meantime, has carried on regardless, thus giving the lie to the old Greek.  Certainly, using Heraclitus in this manner is to simplify matters to a stultifying degree, and it is the critical theorist’s job to join the dots between the ancient Greeks and what remains of our post-Postructuralist reasoning, not the artist’s.  But finding these tensions (wherever these tensions are elusive enough to require any efforted search) is one of the first tasks when creating work in an environment which thrives on these dialectics.  Most artists – if I am being general – use material tensions to convey the dialectical tensions found in everyday life: steel, plaster, MDF, glass…these are all materials which have their tensions, and the most obvious way of reflecting these tensions is to manipulate said materials.  Find their weak spots, identify the precise area where they are most likely to buckle, etc.  For somebody who largely eschews the usage of materials (although there have been occasions when they have been incredibly useful), these tensions must be found dialectically.

Hence the artist as cultural renovator, manipulator or (and I have long preferred this term) magpie.  What shines in a pre-existing cultural climate must be made to stand in opposition with other things in either the same or a separate cultural climate (whether they be shiny or otherwise): only then do we find the inherent meanings, encoding and – worryingly enough – discriminations, perspicacities and intellectual failings (or, similarly, triumphs) in a given society.

Fresh Fruit from Rotting Vegetables (part one)

There comes a point in any artist’s trajectory (be it an established artist, or an unknown student who can’t even visualise a time when someone would respect them enough to give them the time of day), when they must take stock of everything they have done before.  It is necessary if one wishes to go forward, rather than backwards, sideways or plot a drunken, stumbling line of periphrastic aspect around the things one has already said and done.  The phrase “one step back,” loathsome and clichéd as it is, summarises the creative impasse which every artist faces – and there are times when the only way to go without falling flat on one’s face is to cherry-pick from the back-catalogue of works and find those things which succeeded, and even begin to contemplate those works which fell short.  Because at some point, even the things that fell short have to be re-considered as having potential (why did they fall short?  Is there anything that could have been done differently?  Were they made for the wrong reasons then, and can the right reasons be found now?).  Every artist revisits old themes: like a musical refrain, these themes and methodologies keep cropping up time and again in the careers of any artist who remains in the game.  The frequency of these motifs helps to create the tempo of an artist’s output: if John Baldessari repeats such-and-such an idea once every ten years, then that is ten years he has spent exploring other ideas, but this nonetheless means that he had an idea which was worth repeating.


Given my present circumstances, I have had little choice – due to time restraints and the urgency to present new work of substance – but to revisit old ideas, and these ideas happen to be in the form of an idea I had a few years ago of juxtaposing high-brow literature with low-brow ephemera.  The first time I went in this direction, it was a hackneyed commentary on Greenbergian themes, but when I began to explore this again I found that other “tensions” were there to be uncovered.  For instance, Maurice Blanchot’s Thomas the Obscure (being a short fiction noted for its impenetrable nature), begins to assume a dark humour when placed within the context of an old comic book.  Similarly, the “Body without Organs” piece used in conjunction with a Popeye comic strip begins to open up notions of diological tension – questions are continually raised (much like the questions one would imagine Deleuze and Guattari firing at one another when preparing to write).