With a large part of the populus at war with various long-standing and once-believed-sensible institutions — government, the economy, even society itself — it comes as no surprise that our timeless scorn of bureaucracy hasn’t let up either. In fact, you could make a good case for this shared hatred to have the potential to bridge the political divide that has been growing in many Western countries. Finally, something on which we can all agree.
I’m no exception: I become nervous, even scared, when faced with some bureaucratic hurdle, regardless of its size. Which is good news because it’s not like studying on a different continent for an entire academic year will entail an increase in my usual paperwork. That should provide you with some context for my decision to write on this topic: I’m procrastinating.
In a somewhat clumsy literal translation from its French and Greek roots, the word “bureaucracy” refers to the power, strength, and authority of a desk used for accounting, a “reign of the table” so to speak. Although its associated institutions have undergone a violent transformation since the word was first conceived in the 18th century, tables still play a vital role in our struggle with bureaucratic duties. Take, for example, that dreaded office desk across from which you seek legal counsel, or the “I’m a friendly work environment” coffee table in your doctor’s waiting room. Even your own desk at home might one day be reduced to the bureaucratic (in-)efficiency or calculated playfulness found in those spaces.
Of course you could point at any piece of furniture that adorns public offices and find something typically bureaucratic about it, but I think the table’s proximity to the employee gives it a special status. There’s something so lonesome and generic, so depressingly utilitarian about a civil servant’s desktop that its mere presence triggers a fight-or-flight response in the majority of those whom it is designed to serve. Come to think of it, their digital desktops often have the same effect. With an interface downgraded to the grey functionality of a Windows 98 aesthetic, this virtual table, theoretically capable of computing everything from elaborate Photoshop retouches to cat videos playing across five different tabs, has somehow assumed the air of a sad single-purpose device — like a rectangular washing machine, except there’s not as much going on inside.
Yes, everyone hates bureaucracy — even people whose entire livelihood is built on its unnervingly solid foundations. And nobody embodies this simultaneous dependency and disdain of bureaucracy quite like Franz Kafka who, after completing his major in Daddy Issues, took on a rather time-consuming day job as an insurance clerk in Prague.
One short story of Kafka’s that especially expanded my understanding of his writing and mindset is “Poseidon”, barely two pages long. It’s a very unusual take on the life of the God of the Sea, illustrating his everyday sacrifices amid the stress of administering his vast domain.
Poseidon’s desk makes a prominent appearance in the very first sentence: we meet the Greek deity hunched over it, “doing figures”. Supplied with an endless amount of responsibilities and desperate to make sure all accounting is done properly, he’s virtually drowning in paperwork (pun intended). He finds no joy in his work but begrudgingly commits to it for lack of an alternative — he was appointed a god after all; he must take his position very seriously. It turns out that the idea of Poseidon “riding about through the tides with his trident” is nothing but a silly preconception, a myth: he’s too busy to truly inhabit his realm, let alone travel through it, getting only fleeting glimpses of the ocean on his way to Olympus. The narrator goes on to say,
He was in the habit of saying that what he was waiting for was the fall of the world; then, probably, a quiet moment would be granted in which, just before the end and having checked the last row of figures, he would be able to make a quick little tour.
Poseidon may be the ruler of the sea, but he in turn is controlled by the absurd magnetism of his desk, which could not be conquered by any sword or trident. In a TED-Ed video on the topic of the Kafkaesque, he is called “a prisoner of his own ego” — a fitting description for someone whose anxious attitude toward his profession inspires both bewilderment and sympathy. The tragedy at the core of “Poseidon”, however, is not his arrogance in distrusting his assistants, nor is it a failure to find a “work-life balance” for that matter; it’s the irreconcilable divide between what one is supposed to be and what one is obligated to do. And if that isn’t a mythology worthy of this new age of the table, of online forms, of terms and conditions, I challenge you to come up with a better one.