Hannah Coolidge

On Paradigms: Oppression and Interpretive Authority


In his book On Clowns: The Dictator and the Artist, Norman Manea writes of life in Romania during the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu. He suggests that the most insidious aspect of the dictatorship was not the persecution and physical violence, but rather the dehumanization of its subjects. Central to this dehumanization was the appropriation of what I call individual interpretive authority, or the authority of the individual to make claims about himself and his situation.

Ceauşescu succeeded in appropriating the interpretive authority of his people by manipulating the nationalistic tendencies already in place at the time. Relying on their desperation for a sense of national significance as well as their desire for independence from both Soviet domination and Western influence, he drew the country deeper and deeper into his own ideology, in which he and the Romanian government were fearsome, powerful, and infallible. But interpretive authority should belong to the individual, not to the dictator or the Law, and if the individual loses this authority he may lose himself entirely to illogical and ungenerous whims of the dictator:

By decree, our clown has changed the whole country into a huge kindergarten populated by militarized and industrious children; but he can’t stand his own ‘children,’ or ‘subjects.’ If they obey, he spits on them and beats them up; if they act up, he cuts off an ear; if they disobey, he sews their lips shut; if they get sick, he presents them with a coffin and a bill for funeral expenses.
Here, the dictator has transformed the individual into a child, dependent upon the Law for its approval or disapproval; but the dictator is not sympathetic to the child, and so even obedience will be met only with spite.

In oppressive circumstances resistance is essential, and it seems that the most effective mode of resistance for a writer like Manea would be to directly challenge Ceauşescu’s nationalistic ideology. However, Manea reminds us that such public challenges are not always possible or effective, especially in circumstances where censorship prevails and outspoken intellectuals are persecuted. Furthermore, Manea argues, a direct challenge to Ceauşescu’s ideology fails to escape the greater interpretive paradigm of the dictatorship. Better to fight back with a reassertion of one’s own interpretive authority, to ridicule the dictator with “vengeful irony” or perhaps to reject his paradigm by simply ignoring him:

I refused to serve our tyrannical clown not because I disdained his favors but because I tried to ignore him as best I could. […] I took good care not to hate him [Ceauşescu], because that would have meant granting him too much importance—even though like a huge, tireless octopus he had already discharged so much shit that we were almost suffocating under it.
Even hating Ceauşescu, portraying him as cruel and manipulative, is an implicit acceptance of his paradigm because it acknowledges the weakness of the isolated individual when faced with a powerful government. Instead, Manea seeks to replace Ceauşescu’s paradigm of unquestioning Romanian nationalism with his own paradigm, in which Ceauşescu is a bumbling clown, unworthy not only of respect but even of hatred.

I want to turn to Kafka’s novel The Trial as a particularly dark image of what might happen if the individual tries to resist oppression without first escaping the interpretive paradigm of his oppressor.

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The Trial shows the struggle between an individual and the Law for interpretive authority, and the dehumanizing process of losing such a struggle. A man named K. is inexplicably arrested one morning, and he expends a great deal of energy trying to defend himself against a charge that he knows nothing about. Shortly after being arrested he tells the guards, “I don’t know the law… it probably exists only in your heads.” They assure him: “You’ll feel it eventually.” And K. does come to feel the Law: over the course of the novel, he finds himself inadvertently shedding his own interpretive authority as he becomes more and more deeply absorbed in the interpretive paradigm of the Law.

In order to understand what is at stake in the loss of interpretive authority, it is first helpful to examine someone who possesses it. At the beginning of The Trial, K. is such a man. He interprets his situation independently from the Law’s paradigm and so recognizes the absurdity of his arrest:

K. stared at the inspector. Was he to be lectured like a schoolboy by what might well be a younger man? To be reprimanded for his openness? And to learn nothing about why he had been arrested and on whose orders? He grew increasingly agitated, paced up and down, freely and without hindrance, pushed his cuffs back, felt his chest, brushed his hair into place, went past the three men, muttering, “It’s completely senseless,” at which they turned and looked at him in a friendly but serious way, and finally came to a stop before the inspector’s table.
Here, K. is confident and possesses a healthy sense of outrage at his situation. His annoyance at being chastised by “what might be a well younger man” shows both confidence in himself and a mistrust of bureaucratic authority; it also shows that here he perceives the inspector not as a representative of the Law but as merely another man, more deserving of contempt than respect. K. paces “freely and without hindrance,” and he feels his chest and brushes his hair into place, showing ownership over his own actions and body. Now he has sufficient interpretive authority to be his own man; however, K.’s increasing engagement with the Law on its own terms causes him to lose this sense of self-ownership and become increasingly dependent upon the constituents of the law.

Consider the following scene, from much later in the course of K.’s trial. He enters an attic in order to investigate the law office that resides there, and although he has expressed confidence dealing with officials in the past, he now feels suddenly unsure of himself and wants to leave. Earlier, in the security of his own home, he thought of the inspector as an uppity “younger man”; now, in the dusty attic, he imagines confronting “some high official” and this thought makes him sick. A woman tells him that he looks unwell, and he immediately begins to feel dizzy. When a man suggests that the dusty attic air is the source of K.’s illness, and that he should be led out of the law offices into fresh air, K. latches desperately onto the man’s suggestion:

“That’s it,” K. cried out, so overjoyed he barely let the man finish his sentence, “I’m sure I’ll feel better soon, I’m not that weak, I just need a little support under the arms, I won’t be much trouble, it’s not very far, just take me to the door, I’ll sit on the steps a bit and be fine soon, I never have attacks like this, it surprised me too. After all, I’m an official myself and I’m used to the office air, but it does seem really bad here, you say so yourself. Would you be so kind as to help me a little, I’m dizzy, and I feel sick when I stand on my own.” And he lifted his shoulders to make it easier for the others to grab him under the arms.
K. speaks quickly, nervously, and without authority, and he feels no shame at his complete dependence on the other people in the office. He does not even have the final word on his own physical symptoms: he only starts to feel dizzy when a woman tells him that he looks unwell, and he finds an explanation for his dizziness not through his own reasoning but through the suggestions of others. Worst of all, far from pacing confidently up and down as he did before, he cannot even stand on his own, and, like a small child or an injured puppy, he lifts his shoulders “to make it easier for the others to grab him under the arms.”

One of the final consequences of K.’s loss of interpretive authority is that the Law appropriates his identity until neither his name nor his actions are his own. Near the end of the story K. meets a priest—also the prison chaplain—who says without any introduction, “You’re Josef K.”

“Yes,” said K.; he recalled how openly he had always said his name; for some time now it had been a burden, and people he met for the first time already knew his name; how good it felt to introduce oneself first and only then be known.
Once he was “Josef K., the successful banker,” but now he is only “Josef K., the defendant.” His name has become a burden to him because it is no longer his to define as he pleases. The same is true of K.’s actions; they, too, have been usurped. Shortly before he parts ways with the priest, K. asks, “Do you want anything else from me?” The priest replies, “Why should I want anything from you. The court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come and dismisses you when you go.” The court wants nothing from K. because it has already taken everything; it has anticipated each of his actions so precisely that it has become impossible to determine whether his actions—his coming and going—are motivated by his own will, or if they are mere extensions of the will of the Law. K. is so profoundly entangled in the Law’s paradigm that he cannot interpret himself and his situation on his own terms: now, the Law has the final word on all matters Josef K.

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Illustration by Wesley Ryan Clapp

How does Josef K. lose himself to the Law? Unlike Manea, who repeatedly asserts his own interpretive authority by contrasting it explicitly to Ceauşescu’s paradigm, K. all too often seeks justice within the Law’s paradigm, and thus becomes ensnared in it. Rather than consistently expressing contempt for the Law and refusing to engage with it, he hires a lawyer, seeks various other forms of help, and gradually becomes obsessed with his trial. Early in the novel, K. goes to see the examining magistrate; this marks his first earnest engagement with the Law and its paradigm. During the hearing, K. speaks out against the examining magistrate before a large crowd. As he criticizes the Law and its bureaucracy with increasing feeling, he becomes increasingly attuned to the crowd’s reactions to his words:

K. interrupted himself and looked down into the hall. What he had said was harsh, harsher than he had intended, but nonetheless accurate. It should have earned applause here and there, but all was still; they were evidently waiting tensely for what was to come; perhaps in that silence an outburst was building that would put an end to everything.
Here, K. still believes in the possibility of achieving individual authority within the paradigm of the Law. He thinks that if only he speaks persuasively enough, if only he reaches enough people, he could effect significant change in the workings of the bureaucracy and so “put an end to everything.” As his argument reaches its climax, K. feels certain that the crowd is with him, but suddenly he is interrupted by a shriek from across the room. The crowd stops paying attention to him, and only then does K. see that everyone in the audience is wearing a badge. They are all officials; they were never on his side. K. does not have to agree with the Law to adopt its paradigm: as long as he takes the court seriously enough to believe that arguing his case in a hearing will mean something, he continues to relate to the law on its own terms. Even if he engages with the Law only by disputing its authority and slandering its constituents, he remains hopelessly caught within its interpretive paradigm, at the mercy of officials who will never be sympathetic to his cause.

In the end, K.’s protestations of innocence only doom him to failure. His guilt is never defined and so can never be refuted; it is incomprehensible outside the interpretive paradigm of the Law. The idea of K.’s innocence depends on the artificial dichotomy of guilt and innocence that is imposed upon him by the Law’s paradigm, and so his innocence, too, remains incomprehensible outside that paradigm. If K. is to prove his innocence, he must do so on the Law’s own terms, but on those terms K.’s innocence is impossible: the Law is “attracted to guilt.”