Visibility Is a Trap
The Panopticon prison system proposed by Jeremy Bentham and, later, studied by Michel Foucault is nothing short of frightening. The prisoner of the system receives “the look” of the guard, but has no way of seeing guard as a person, but only as a distant object in a tower. Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish, “Each individual, in his place, is securely confined to a cell from which he is seen from the front by a supervisor; but the side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions. He is seen, but he does not see” (200). And for Josef K. this is entirely the case. In The Trial, Franz Kafka limits and, eventually, extinguishes K.’s freedom through “the look.”
Throughout the whole of the story, K. never really sees “the court,” but he knows that it sees him. The court is ubiquitous and its influences stretch from lawyers to painters to priests. And from his first trip out of the city to his conversation with the priest, K. cannot get a firm grasp on what the court knows and what the court wants. And this is where the power lies; the court knows all, K. knows nothing. As Jean-Paul Sartre relates, this master is “producing in the Other the consciousness of his state of nothingness” (Being and Nothingness 372).
K. feels this nothingness without much direct action on the court’s behalf, but it still drives him to the brink of insanity. And to quench his thrist for insight into the system and its judgement of him, he searches high and low for those who may know something. His lawyer, Dr. Huld, attempts to explain the process of handling a case and desperately tries to keep K. as his client. The painter, Titorelli, explains the three possible outcomes of a trial (actual acquittal, apparent acquittal, and protraction - none of which appeal to K.) upon which he can have a direct effect. And the priest tells K. the “parable of the doorkeeper.” The three intermediaries are not part of the court, but still are. It is not clear whether or not they are helping K. and, if so, whether or not it is for selfish reasons. Foucault states:
It does not matter who exercises power. Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine: in the absence of the director, his family, his friends, his visitors, even his servants. Similarly, it does not matter what motivates him: the curiosity of the indiscreet, the malice of a child, the thirst for knowledge of a philosopher who wishes to visit this museum of human nature, or the perversity of those who take pleasure in spying and punishing. (202)
Those who exercise the power become gods. For Jean-Paul Sartre, it was literally God who delivered this penetrating, stifling look, while for K. his god becomes the court. His life revolves around it (almost to the point of Block) and he comes to worship it. Once the court looks at K., he cannot escape it. Even if he were to reject his god, he would fall into the existentialist trap. He could not do away with it completely, so he would have to proclaim it “dead.” But, this is not the case. The court is god. It has the power over all the doorkeepers and all the men from the country. And it proclaims that K. is dead.