Adventures in Kafka’s Castle
The Castle is one of the last stories written by Franz Kafka. In it, a man faces the ordeal of trying to reach the authorities ruling the land where, by some misunderstanding, he was called to work. Nevertheless, although he has a precise contact to address to, there’s a chain of thick layers between the villagers and the authorities. His quandary will never get solved. We don’t know exactly what the officers working there do, but whatever happens, ambivalent or contradictory as it may be, is a respectful consequence or initiative from the castle and its members. The castle is the ultimate bureaucracy with copious paperwork that the bureaucracy itself maintains is „flawless”, although several episodes demonstrate the obvious contrary. It’s easy but rather simplistic to consider as a castle, either the European Union either any public administration machine. Still, it can be useful to look at it as such. In both cases, there are a lot of noises. Some of them are political noises. But most of all, I’d say that there are dissonances. Allow me to talk a little bit of my experience. For more than ten years, I’ve worked in the castle of the European Territorial Cooperation. It’s a rich ecosystem aiming to define and implement programmes to improve public policies in specific themes and bunches of the EU territory.
The logic of these programmes is to generate projects that, at some point in the future, will improve people’s lives by answering what was previously identified either as bottlenecks either as potential trendy subjects. In other words, this means that projects are supposed to align in the present with a framework that was designed in the past to provide some sort of ideal future. This seems logical and functional, but requires ideological engagement and flexibility in the procedures. In any case, as the British rock band Skunk Anansie would say, “yes, it’s fucking political”. Nevertheless, politics, contrarily to parties, is something that intimates with ideology, but ideology is an almost-forbidden word in the EU atmosphere. In fact, we’re all expected to enjoy the benefits of a new EU world, as long as it remains aseptic when it comes to ideology and as long as it is delivered by experts – be it “inside” technocrats or external consultants. I’d call it the ideological dissonance. And then, there is the stiffness of this kind of programming. A stiffness that is coupled with the obsession for quantitative evaluation (sometimes sold as qualitative) that is only requested or feasible in the short term.
If you add this obsession and rigidity to the previous inconsistencies, you’ll get something like a speed dissonance mixed with some sort of spoiled child syndrome: creatures that demand new results as new toys without actually considering what is already there. It’s in this mindset that the European Territorial Cooperation castle delivers the application forms through which the villagers present their projects. I’ve dealt directly with more than fifty projects in the last dozen years. I could send us all to sleep with a lullaby of numbers on total investment, countries involved, structures, people employed, reports, deliverables, outputs. Personally, what deranges me the most is my difficulty to provide you strong tangible examples of what have these projects changed. I’d like to do it for at least half of them, but I can’t, although at the beginning of each programming period, or in the introduction of each call for proposals, a very detailed scenario is presented on what and how projects are supposed to help building that above-mentioned better future, one cleaned of ideology and full of quantified benefits. It would be useful for everyone to have at least a global picture of what we do, how and with whom, and what remains of what we’ve done. It’s not an evident task, though. The challenges (in EU jargon, we say “challenges” instead of “problems”) include, for example, clustering the projects and their actions. It shouldn’t be complicated to do it with all the available digital paraphernalia. Instead, you get drawn every time you try to, at least, establish a common ground, an understandable taxonomy to favour comparisons between projects, and set bridges between activities, territories and institutions. And if you manage to define something resembling to that in one programme, you’ll never get to harmonize it at the scale of all the hundreds of programmes. I’m talking about something that relates to porosity/permeability (or the lack of it) but also to the absence of an efficient semantic framework.
To be more explicit, there’s a dissonance when programmes ask for a network and projects respond with memoranda of understanding for the duration of the funding. As there is dissonance when a university is involved in some projects on energy efficiency and others on renewable energy sources but the connections between them are not even imagined as a possibility. And this happens at project level as within programme secretariats, national or regional structures, EU DGs… Like in Kafka’s castle, we do things because we have to. We do it this way because that’s how things are done. And we don’t take the time to think about it because we can’t. In physics, this is something close to inertia. Nevertheless, there’s a major difference regarding today’s castles and Kafka’s. The dissonances I’ve mentioned ultimately draw the major essential problem: words. Words, they aren’t used for what they mean. They are perverted, recombined and reshaped in such a way that they become malware. A very simple example: structural reforms. When I say “structural reforms”, everyone knows that I’m not talking about changing something that affects the pillars of a certain construction. When I say “structural reforms” you know I mean a very particular kind of intervention, one that relates to liberalise as much as possible and make the job market more flexible, which, in this context, means to ensure job relations are more and more precarious. It’s not the fault of these poor words “structural” and “reforms” or “flexibility” if they’re abused like that. But it’s our fault to watch that violation without a proper response.
I’ll give you another example. “creative industries” or “sector” or “economy”. You know, the thing used to gradually replace “culture” and “art” by things with “market value”. We could go on with the list. It could eventually be an interesting exercise to publish a dictionary where these new concepts for old words are finally exposed and assumed. We would give a shape to this new “narrative” (to use a trendy word). I like words. I think that playing with metaphors and mingling concepts is a way of creating new horizons, which is something good. The problem arrives when they simply result into empty containers of adulterated meanings. It is the dissonance between content and container. The “word dissonance”.
THE dissonance, in a time and space where inertia favours the assumption of a radical ideological position disguised as aseptic technocracy. I think all of us, at one point or another, will join some castle. Sometimes we even play on both sides, I guess. So it would be important to acknowledge the existing dissonances, in order to promote a subversive one. Something like “I know that you know that I know that you think I’m not in the same sphere as you are, so I’ll allow myself to behave as I think it is more important”. I’d call it Active Citizenship. That is to say, we should assume when we eventually have different interpretations and beliefs and talk about it. Derange. A work of art that doesn’t shake us in some sort is just a proposal for renting some of our time. In a similar way, projects that don’t seriously take in consideration the way we do and live are not much more than occupational therapy – a way of living, if you prefer. And the same goes to programmes, and to anything relating to public policies and democracy in general. Now, this raises a lot of questions, for which I obviously don’t have the answers. I do have some ideas on what not to do. For example, I don’t believe simple provocation can be an effective tool if used arbitrarily. Still, how can we behave in so much needed non-aligned way while playing a game that is encoded to its minimum detail? How can we bring ideology and politics back to our work without facing accusations of proselytism and lack of equidistance? A lot can be discussed, but we have to be reasonable in 12 minutes. So I’ll finish with a sort of injunction inspired by one of David Sylvian’s terrific titles: Random acts of senseless violence. It is maybe time to engage into random acts of meaningful citizenship. I’d say, we can start by using words for what they mean and demand that the others do the same. THAT is fucking political.
Nuno Casimiro has been working, since 2004, in EU and regional policies, projects and funding. In parallel, he has developed his activity as a writer, having published short stories in different publications. His most recent book, with illustrations by João Vaz de Carvalho, has been included in the “White Ravens 2013” catalogue. His cooperation with the theatre company Visões Úteis includes the audiowalks created for Porto (PT), Parma (IT) and Santiago de Compostela (ES). He holds a degree in Maths, a post-graduation in Natural Hazards and Social Dynamics and a master in European Community Policies and Territorial Cooperation. He was the co-facilitator of the Populism Think Lab, part of “Dialogue on Europe”
project (http://dialogue-on-europe.eu/) managed by the German think tank Das Progressive Zentrum.
Kultura Enter, 2019/02 nr 88