Media in Kafka’s Castle
Practically every university in India today has a full-fledged journalism faculty variously named as Mass Communication Department, Media Study Department etc. The objective is self-evident from the names of these departments. Mass media is acknowledged as 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, he noted how the number of people who died in these famines differed radically between democratic 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 by and large is in the negative. The reasons too are obvious. Only a very few students who decide to join these university faculties have a journalism career in mind. What most 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 and publicity related departments.
In poor economies like Manipur, the movement of talent, including in journalism, has been normally from the private to the government sector. Sometimes young journalists who are already in the field also enrol in these newly opened journalism courses, though not to hone their skills. They too are after the degrees which would open the doors of government jobs to them. This is quite understandable, considering the ever widening disparity in salaries, working conditions 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 where salaries are as much or even more than in the government, are also moving away from journalism to join the public relations departments of corporate houses. They have a reason. Many of the 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. No points for guessing this disenchantment would have multiplied manifolds after the Cobrapost sting operations which showed how unscrupulous big media owners have become and what scant regard they have for editorial independence.
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 objective of these faculties is not so much to bring about a better understanding of mass communication through researches or produce better media professionals, but to self-perpetuate in a Kafkaesque way. Why just journalism only, the same Kafkaesque alienation 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, etc. In this light, it is curious to think of what life skills or knowledge our universities impart to the millions of students who go to them each year in order to make them fit to meet the challenges of life outside? Are students being taught merely to deserve degrees which would make them qualified to be academics in turn, they that they can in their turn 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. Even the surveyor waiting outside The Castle becomes progressively irrelevant and his existence comes to be forgotten. However the activities inside The Castle that 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, totally alienated from the world outside, but nonetheless deeming itself superior to the 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. 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 twist of reasoning that the Castle can ever come to cite itself as the justification of its own existence. Mass media courses in the university which produce communication students with no love for journalism, except as specimens for their studies, is coming to be increasingly in this Kafkaesque trap.
The saving grace is, there has always been and there always will continue to emerge firebrand journalists, and in the same way that Kafka foretold in his story, most of these will probably be made in the newsrooms and not the university classrooms. What an irony it is that there is such a clear dichotomy between those who study journalism as an academic subject and those who practice it as a profession.
(First published in Assam Tribune)
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