Closely Watched Brains; or, Czech Your Premises: A Bohemian Rhapsody

Czech out this exclusive! expanded! three-part version of my 2019 Prague lecture on “Austro-Libertarian Themes in Three Prague Authors: Čapek, Kafka, and Hašek.”

(See the descriptions on YouTube for links to various items mentioned in my three discussions.)

In Part 1, on Karel Čapek (1890-1938), I discuss: intelligent, morally ambiguous salamanders; rebellious, morally ambiguous robots; the effects on supply and demand of unleashing the Absolute; a critique of the labour theory of Labour Day; the geometrical logic of imperial expansion; why police detectives have no interest in mysteries; the merits and demerits of government theme parks devoted to the preservation of Czech folkways; the magic word by means of which the English protect their property; why God can only be a witness and never a judge; the role of clumsiness in advancing civilisation; the benefits and hazards of replacing feet with wheels; inspirational workplace posters suitable for shackled newts; how I ran into one of Čapek’s robots in the lounge of the Auburn Hotel and Conference Center; and the crucifixion of Christ as a sensible protectionist measure.

Note: contrary to what I say in the video, I believe that the R.U.R. cover designed by Čapek’s brother Josef is not the one I show there, but instead this (rather better) one:

Incidentally, Josef Čapek also designed this Kropotkin cover:

On the subject of corrections, I think it may actually have been Paul Cantor rather than Ralph Raico who was in the company of my old stage partner in the Mises conference anecdote I tell. I’m not sure. Jeez, my memory is crap these days. Um, what was I saying?

In Part 2, on Franz Kafka (1883-1924), I discuss: theological versus political readings of Kafka’s vision of elusive, perpetually deferred authority; bureaucracy as hopelessly incompetent and out-of-touch, versus bureaucracy as all-pervasive surveillance; the dependence of rulership on those who rule; Stoic versus anti-Stoic readings of Seneca’s Medea; discovering Kafka through Marvel Comics (or not); and remembering Kropotkin but forgetting Nietzsche’s umbrella.

On second thought I don’t think the April 1982 issue of Epic Illustrated can have been my introduction to Kafka after all, as Dartmouth was running an Orson Welles film festival which I attended while I was living in Hanover NH, 1977-1981, which certainly included The Trial.

Speaking of which, here are some clips from the Welles movie:

I also meant to include this passage from Kafka on his own bureaucratic career (oh well): “What a fine thing it is to be a clerk at a town hall! Little work, adequate salary, plenty of leisure, excessive respect everywhere in the town …. and if I only could, I should like to give this entire dignity to the office cat to eat ….” (Still, at least his office had a cat; that seems like some solace.)

In Part 3, on Jaroslav Hašek (1883-1923), I discuss: the perversities of bureaucratic incentives; the state as a parasite on private crime; the importance of providing every voter with a pocket aquarium; the dangers of displaying, or not displaying, portraits of the Emperor; access to one lavatory as a bribe for permission to reopen another lavatory; electoral campaigns as anarchist street theatre; justice in canine nomenclature; what happens when criminals go on strike; the forgotten economic costs of farting; the ethical, logistical, and grammatical aspects of assassinating Archduke Ferdinand; my success and the Soviets’ failure in deciphering Czech signage; and the economic transaction that I conducted with a nun in the men’s room of the Vatican.

And finally, here’s a clip from the movie version of Hašek’s novel The Good Soldier Švejk:

6 thoughts on “Closely Watched Brains; or, Czech Your Premises: A Bohemian Rhapsody

  1. Pingback: Closely Watched Brains; or, Czech Your Premises: A Bohemian Rhapsody | Austro-Athenian Empire

  2. I still haven’t had the chance to listen all the way through your Kafka video, so you may address this somewhere, but how would you define “bureaucracy”? I ask the question because I’m wondering whether you think of bureaucracy as something specific to the State, or instead as something that the State has in common with non-State-based organizations, so that bureaucracy would be possible under anarchy.

    Intended as a different question: regardless of how it’s defined, do you think that bureaucracies are more likely to arise under the State than under anarchy?

    Offhand, I would think that “bureaucracy” should get a definition neutral as between State-based and anarchist societies, and don’t see any reason why bureaucracies would thrive more under the State than under anarchy. Indeed, one fear that defenders of a State often have is that anarchist bureaucracies would be even worse than the ones we have under the State, because they’d be under no legal obligation, even notionally, to adopt uniform principles of procedure or substance. Kafka would have at least as much to write about under anarchy as he did under the State, or so I think.

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  3. For a precise definition of bureaucracy, as opposed to a rough-and-ready I-know-it-when-I-see-it approach, I’d have to take more time to ponder than I have right now. But I don’t regard the state as essential to bureaucracy by any means; we have plenty of non-state bureaucracies now.

    I do, however, think the state creates the conditions in which both state and non-state bureaucracies thrive, and that they would be less common (though certainly not impossible, particularly if they were sustained by certain problematic cultural factors) in a freed market.

    For the case that the state sustains bureaucracies (their hierarchical characteristics in particular) and that they would be less common without it, I would point first of all to Kevin Carson’s book on organization theory. Ah, the joys of anaphoric philosophy!

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    • I am disappointed that you fail to accord the State proper respect by capitalizing its first letter. The State has earned its entitlement to respect across millennia by butchering and maiming far more people, and destroying many more lives, than other organization. The least you can do in acknowledgement of this achievement is to accord it the punctuational respect it deserves. How would you like it if we referred to you as roderick t long?

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