In the twenty-odd-page short story, The Penal Colony, the Apparatus traps most of us. The metaphor turns the abstract concept into a tangible machine of harrows, designer, chains and wheels. As a metaphor, Kafka's Apparatus invites various interpretations enriching the story.
One reader might interpret it as a means to supply Kafka with many punishment fantasies. Another reader might delve into the contrasts between redemption, suffering, and guilt. Yet another reader will see how the voyager, or the old commandant who died as a folklore prophet expected to resurrect, resembles the new compassionate world of Christ in contrast to the old Testament. Or the new commandant's "moderate tendency," sounding like "let them eat cake" as a solution for the peasants. Another reader finds how language is too far detached from real-named things and requires words to be writing in a person's flesh to make any real sense. Some readers focus on Kafka's alleged masochistic tendencies.
Yet we can discover more from Kafka than a particular, personal condition. The story reveals universal behavior about raw power, political power, social power, the kind that includes torture, execution, judgment, and punishment without any due process. Let's keep in mind that Kafka trained as a lawyer. He also knew that Dostoevsky had been put up against a firing squad for sedition but was granted a reprieve. "'And what in fact is the sentence?' said the officer in astonishment, biting his lips: 'Forgive me if my explanations may appear disorderly,...?' "
The Apparatus draws a line between condemning a man by due process or without any rule of law or by guilt simply. We find these flaws in human behavior all through history in almost all countries over time, including Kafka's own homeland in the Austrian-Hungry Empire and WWI.
Kafka's short story helps us to contrast what we learn today about U.S. exceptionalism as in the neocon propaganda phrase: indispensable nation. Kafka's Apparatus helps us to discover gaps between propaganda that we learn in youth at school about freedom and justice and what we later learn as adults--or not.
We need only remind ourselves of U.S. detention camps or penal colonies like Guantanamo Bay or Camp Bucca where advisers view it as "an appalling miscarriage of justice where prisoners were not charged or permitted to see evidence against them and freed detainees may end up swelling the ranks of a subdued insurgency."
"It's a peculiar kind of apparatus," said the officer to the voyager, and he surveyed the apparatus, which was after all quite familiar to him, with a certain admiration. It seemed to have been no more than politeness that had prompted the voyager to accept the invitation of the commandant,..."
In the first sentence of the story, the voyager from another country surveyed the apparatus..."with a certain admiration." The voyager seems to know about the Apparatus or at least something like it and "walked up and down behind the condemned man with almost visible indifference...." The voyager seems accustomed to this Apparatus or at least its similar imposing raw power in his more northern county, presumably in Europe, and especially in an empire. Nevertheless the voyager does show some surprise that the condemned man doesn't know his sentence much less his defense. The officer explains that "guilt is always beyond question."
As a new-comer to the nondescript, generic setting, a valley with uniforms "too heavy for the tropics...." The voyager already knows about the Apparatus, mostly because a similar authoritarian power, like the Apparatus in Europe or the new world, exists. The voyager operates among the higher class of the military hierarchy. Meanwhile, the condemned man "wore an air of such hangdog subservience that it looked as if he might be allowed to run free on the slopes and would simply have to be whistled for when the execution was due to begin."
The authorities--the voyager, the officer, the commandant--view the condemned man as ignorant and subject to their judgments like a dog on a leash. Although Kafka wrote this story in 1914, it still applies to any country today imposing authoritarian power over the people, the great unwashed or simply the vast middle class.
Now in U.S. the Patriot Act and the NDAA (the National Defense Authorization Act) allow authorities to detain indefinitely suspicious looking citizens, including dozens of whistle-blowers or protest leaders. The FBI evoked the Patriot Act in order to arrest Susan Lindauer for talking publicly about her knowledge of 9/11. They incarcerated her without trial, and diagnosed her mentally incompetent. When she demanded to stand trial, authorities eventually released her. The FBI applied the State's Secret Privilege in order to muzzle Sibel Edmond's birth place, birth date, and language skills as secrets of state while she was about to bear witness regarding 9/11.
A part of the Apparatus, called the Designer, crawls under our skin before we know that it writes our fate, our beliefs. It writes our values in unintelligible longhand. It uses harrows to engrave into our flesh about how we must behave and believe. It imposes its program, unlike our popular, trendy tattoos that mark our skin in a superficial technique. It brainwashes us before we have time to pick and chose our preferences and thoughts.
The new commandant "would find it impossible to alter any part of the old system, at least for many years to come."
Powerful people, elites, craft the Designer carefully much like persuasion of the oldest, classical rhetoric. Here in America this Designer started as soon as the British aristocrats and the nascent bourgeoisie first put foot on the New World. By the time of Kafka, the Designer--propaganda--became more precise, more effective in manufacturing public consent. Kafka's contemporaries like Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann made a science of successful propaganda as an overwhelming source of power. The Apparatus can persuade us that even the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is a fight for our own freedoms and rights. Since then the raw power, the Apparatus, refines by subtle and sophisticated market categories, enabling a divide-and-conquer approach, a breaking up the citizens into small, manageable subgroups.
Most of us go along with the sweet-smelling, sugar-coated lies that the Designer conjures up for the benefit of those in power. Kafka's stories deal with personal freedom while facing a world of conform. Kafka's world swelled in conformity during WWI, Austrian-Hungary Empire when Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche and other writers dealt with nascent fascism in Europe, "special measures were necessary here, and that military procedures had to be adhered to throughout," the officer said.
And we now see in the U.S. where a corporate, inverted totalitarianism takes control and owns the government. As a metaphor, the Apparatus can represent various types of control. The elites in the U.S. can pay millions of dollars to buy advertisements for certain candidates in the same way they market a breakfast cereal or a cell-phone.
Most of Kafka's novels and stories center on personal freedom as it does in The Penal Colony. Kafka parses freedoms into various dichotomies: the Officer vs. the Soldier, powerful class vs. dominated class, enlightenment vs. ignorance, living by default vs. living originally, guilt vs. innocence, orthodox vs. personal spirituality, and so forth.
If you have not yet read any of Kafka's stories, The Penal Colony serves as an introduction to a world-shuddering fiction. There is much to consider in the twisted plot.