What makes something Kafkaesque? (in loops)


The term Kafkaesque has entered the vernacular to describe unnecessarily complicated and frustrating experiences, like being forced to navigate labyrinths of bureaucracy. So, what makes something “Kafkaesque”? Here are some mind-bending animated loops to help you understand.

Franz Kafka’s tragicomic stories act as a form of mythology for the modern industrial age, employing dream logic to explore the relationships between systems of arbitrary power and the individuals caught up in them. 

For example, in “The Trial,” K, the protagonist, is arrested out of nowhere and made to go through a bewildering process where neither the cause of his arrest, nor the nature of the judicial proceedings are made clear to him. While this story seems to focus directly on bureaucracy, the vague laws and bewildering procedures point to something far more sinister: the terrible momentum of the legal system proves unstoppable, even by supposedly powerful officials. This is a system that doesn’t serve justice, but whose sole function is to perpetuate itself.

Franz Kafka’s stories do indeed deal with many mundane and absurd aspects of modern bureaucracy, but accompanying the bleakness of Kafka’s stories, there’s a great deal of humor rooted in the nonsensical logic of the situations described. So on the one hand, it’s easy to recognize the Kafkaesque in today’s world. We rely on increasingly convoluted systems of administration that have real consequences on every aspect of our lives. And we find our every word judged by people we can’t see according to rules we don’t know. 

On the other hand, by fine-tuning our attention to the absurd, Kafka also reflects our shortcomings back at ourselves. In doing so, he reminds us that the world we live in is one we create, and have the power to change for the better.

From the TED-Ed Lesson What makes something “Kafkaesque”? - Noah Tavlin

Animation by TED-Ed

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