Reality checks vital to avoid dark irony of Kafka’s Castle

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

Practically every university in India today has a full-fledged School of Journalism faculty, or variously named as Mass Communication Department, Media Study Department etc. The objective is self evident from the names these departments. Mass media is acknowledged universally important, and indeed, it has been termed as the fourth estate of democracy, therefore it must be developed to its optimum.

Without a free media, democracy can never be complete, and as Economics Nobel winner Amartya Sen in “Development as Freedom” puts it rather provocatively, a free media even prevents famines, or at least mitigates their impacts. In a comparison between two famine conditions which occurred at about the same time in India and China, not long after India attained independence and chose to be a democracy, he noted how the number of people who died in these famines differed radically between India, where a free media exposed every act of omission and commission of the government, and authoritarian China of that period where only the government’s words held sway.

No doubt about it that a free media is important and no democracy can be complete without it. However the question that arises in the midst of the new trend of introducing media studies in Indian universities is dubious at best. Has the trend strengthened journalism in any way? The answer most of those of us in the media business would give may surprise many, for it is in the negative. The reasons too are obvious. Few or no students who decide to join these university faculties have a career in journalism in mind. What most of these students are after are the degrees that would come after these courses which would then qualify them to enter the academia or else land a cosy job in the government’s media related departments, such as the DIPR in the case of Manipur.

As a matter of fact, in poor economies like Manipur, the movement of talent is in the reverse direction. Young journalists who are already in the field are entering these courses not to hone their skills, but for the degrees. This is quite understandable, considering the ever widening disparity in salaries and perks between jobs in the independent media and government. Ironically, though not for the same reasons, many journalists in senior positions in rich metropolitan media, who can pay as much or even more than the government, are also moving away from journalism to join the public relations departments of the corporate houses. Their unstated logic seems to be, these big media houses too are turning into corporations, and senior journalists are more often than not given managerial positions and not treated as independent editors much to their disillusionment, so why not as well join as media managers in the truly corporate sector and earn bigger money. I have been in the profession long enough and know of many contemporaries who have taken this route.

To return to the discussion on journalism schools then, quite unfortunately, these media study departments in Indian universities are not serving the purpose they were conceived for in the first place. In most cases, the chief cause these new university faculties serve is laying the conditions to self-perpetuate in a Kafkaesque way. Why just journalism departments only, the same Kafkaesque alienated reality is true of the way most of Indian academia perpetuate themselves, therefore their continuance as exalted professions. Let me elaborate more on this thought in the following paragraphs.

Ideally, there ought to be an organic relationship between the knowledge being pursued in the universities and the needs of life on the ground. In many ways this is still the case, especially so in many advanced institutes of higher learnings specialised in training professionals. For instance medical colleges train and produce doctors, the IITs engineers, IIMs business managers… In this light, it is curious to think of what life skills or knowledge our universities impart to the millions of students who go them each year in order to make them fit to meet the challenges of the real mean life outside? Are students being taught merely to deserve degrees which would make them qualified to be academics in turn, who would then go about seeking the same jobs to produce more academics and perpetuate the cycle endlessly. While obviously the academia is vitally important and must have a logic for continuance and self improvement, should not the trainings it imparts also make students fit for, and willing to, move out of the academia and add to the level of knowledge and skills available in the larger reality of life outside.

In Frantz Kafka’s “The Castle” this alienation process is depicted with disturbing force. A land surveyor arrives outside The Castle responding to a summon by someone in The Castle but those inside The Castle, lost in their own self acclaimed exalted occupations, are unable to trace the source or purpose of that summon. In the effort to locate the relevant file, certain staffs are set aside to negotiate the complex bureaucratic labyrinths inside. It would soon be discovered that at every section of The Castle where the file had to pass, new specific problems always surface, and to settle them more staffs had to be detailed. Soon, a whole gamut of engaging bureaucratic and non-bureaucratic activities develops around the issue of the arrival of the surveyor and the work order served to him. Occasionally the surveyor was sent a message on the progress of the work inside, but slowly but surely these activities inside The Castle overtake every other consideration, and the very project of determining the original purpose of the summon becomes a self sustaining and self justifying reality of its own, and even the surveyor waiting outside The Castle becomes progressively irrelevant. Ultimately even the surveyor’s existence come to be forgotten, but the activities inside The Castle his arrival triggered off continues on, driven now by an independent engine of its own making and logic. The Castle thus becomes a self perpetuating reality of its own, totally alienated from the world outside, but nonetheless deeming itself superior to the blue collared world beyond it. Reality thus becomes warped, and the onlooker is left unsure which represented it more, The Castle or the world outside.

Kafka’s Castle is obviously a dark and unparalleled parody of the modern State and its bureaucracy. It is therefore a strong expression of the postmodern disillusionment with the modern age, its call for absolute faith in science and scientific regimentation of the modern State, and the manner all this has succeeded in alienating the individual from the State itself, almost absolutely. The clarion call then, although not explicitly state in the novel, is also for re-establishing the bond between the reality of the Castle and the reality outside. The Castle needs an umbilical cord to the reality outside to morally validate its existence, and it is only by a grotesque and fascistic twist of reasoning that the Castle can ever come to cite itself as the justification of its own existence.

It is unlikely Kafka had the academia specifically in mind when he wrote the Castle. Nonetheless, any institution of importance, including the academia, can become absorbed in its own perception of self-importance and become Kafka’s Castle in its own way. As a career journalist, and as someone who could also have opted to be in the academia at the time of choosing a career, and as someone who mid career did have a foot in the academia, having been during the last two years a fellow of a premiere post-doctoral research institute, the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, IIAS, Shimla, on a book writing project, Kafka’s Castle was one of my biggest scares. During those two years when everybody had the tendency of prefixing my name with the honorific, Dr. or Prof. despite my earnest pleas that I held no Ph.D. degree to qualify to these titles, and when my week days were marked by endless hours of seminars and library, I had come to the conclusion that the only way any academic pursuit can earn itself a moral legitimacy is through committed researches into the predicaments of the reality outside the Castle, and therefore making contributions to the body of knowledge about the understanding of this world outside. The Castle coming to believe itself as a self-contained reality is a supreme parody of its own conceited falsehood.

In a recent seminar on media and conflict resolution in the Rajiv Gandhi University, in Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh, I again encountered this uneasy issue of intelligent and bright students of journalism from all over the Northeast pursuing a course in journalism, but professing no love for journalism as a profession. Missing are the passions traditionally associated with journalism, such as those of watching events of social import from close quarters as they unfold, the adrenaline of investigating into and covering conflict, the thrill at suddenly seeing illusive reasons behind vexed issues, the joy of visiting new places and meeting new people with new ideas…

Counterweighing all these are discussions in the rooms of “What is news?” the rule of the thumb of the five “W” that make an event newsworthy, the history of journalism in particular communities… These are interesting information and knowledge, but mastering them is hardly any guarantee of success in actual newsrooms. There will however continue to emerge firebrand journalists, and in the same way that Kafka told his story, most of these will probably be made in the newsrooms and not the university classrooms. What an irony again if this prediction does hold good, and a clear dichotomy between those who study journalism as an academic subject and those who practice it as a profession becomes an everyday reality.

Though the Kafkaesque alienation is still not there in any absolute sense in Manipur’s academia, there is no mistaking the trend of the emergence of self justifying realities, the surest indications of which is the absence of any substantive body of research work that throw new insights into the world outside and are able to impress peers elsewhere in the country and the world.

One has heard and read of outstanding stories from universities which groomed spectacular success stories of individual entrepreneurs, inventors, intellectuals, scientist… All these universities never neglected the matter of keeping in touch with the needs of the world outside. The Google story and how this came out of a Ph.D, research paper of two college colleagues is just one. Facebook, Apple, Microsoft were all, in many ways not the achievement of single individuals, but the end product of university programmes, though in the end it was individual geniuses who scored the winning goals.

Manipur must rethink its higher education orientations too in anticipation and preparation for the future. Its education at every level must never lose sight of the world outside. In fact periodic reality check should be encouraged to ensure health in the sector. In the Manipur University for instance, it would be revealing to see how many alumni of the different departments have found professions befitting the knowledge they were pursuing as students.


Source: Imphal Free Press

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