Friday, April 12, 2013

K is for existentialism (see what I did there?)

No friends, K is actually for Kafka and K, one of his more famous characters.

In high school, we had to read The Metamorphosis for AP English, and then the Cliff Notes version of The Trial. (Literally. We sometimes just read summaries of famous works, in the event they might become handy on the test. This has allowed me to pretend I've read way more classic works of literature than I actually have. Shhh, don't tell.)

The trial is about a man named Josef K., who goes by K almost the entire story. He is inexplicably arrested but not charged with a crime. He's subjected to a tribunal of some kind (I like to think of it as an arraignment), but no one tells him anything about what he has supposedly done. He's then released to his own recognizance (that part I'm interpreted liberally) and told to await further instructions. The story continues on like this for some time.

Now, the story isn't really just about the law or a trial (it's about life and how we can all sometimes feel like cogs in the greater machinery of modern society), but on some level it actually is about a trial. Kafka was a trained lawyer and it's hard to argue that (various levels of AP English analysis aside) he wasn't also delivering a very literal message with The Trial. 

After AP English, I kind of forgot about The Trial, though the images of The Metamorphosis can be hard to erase. But then, during my first year of law school, I signed up for a class called "Storytelling and the Law." (Supposedly, it was about the narrative forms lawyers employ to effectively connect with and represent our clients. I would still like to take that class, because the class my peers and I actually took involved a lot of introspective essays entitled "Who am I?", watching documentaries about the communication styles of domesticated animals, and bringing poems lyrics to class to interpret them. Due to my resistance to sharing feelings, my grade was ... not good. But at least now I know what Spencer wants when he goes into puppy play pose!)

But one thing that actually stuck with me from "Storytelling and the Law"was my professor's belief that the law is inherently a violent construction. That there is no "right" or "wrong," and people who engage with the law (litigants, defendants, victims) inevitably end up worse off than they were to begin with. As such, a lawyer's primary function is to minimize the additional damage that the justice system is about to inflict.

I don't particularly agree with that vision of the law. In fact, sometimes I think it's the clients themselves who are making the law so violent, with lawyers, mediators, commissioners, and judges all shielding themselves from the shrapnel. But my vehement disagreement has softened somewhat since law school. The justice system can be a scary thing, even when (and sometimes especially when) you're a lawyer.

But much like Kafka himself (who had a tendency not to finish projects), I'm not entirely sure where I am going with all this, other than to ask -- what do you all think? About the law, about existentialism, or even about Cliff Notes?

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