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doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9299.2011.01957.

WEBER AND KAFKA: THE RATIONAL


AND THE ENIGMATIC BUREAUCRACY

TORBEN BECK JRGENSEN

Max Webers and Franz Kafkas respective understandings of bureaucracy are as different as
night and day. Yet, Kafkas novel The Castle is best read with Max Weber at hand. In fact, Kafka
relates systematically to all the dimensions in Webers ideal type of bureaucracy and give us a
much-contemplated parody, almost a counter-punctual ideal type, based on four key observations:
bureaucratic excesses unfold in time and space; a no error ideology generates inescapable
dilemmas; inscrutability is a life condition in bureaucracy; civil servants end up walking on the
spot, just like the figures in Eschers painting: Ascending and Descending. Nevertheless, Weber and
Kafka can both be right. While Kafka looks at the bureaucratic phenomenon through persons who
are marginalized, Webers perspective is historic-comparative and top-down. Are the observations
of the one more correct than the other? The question is meaningless. As two opposite poles, Weber
and Kafka magnetize each other.

Of those who have written about bureaucracy, two writers will always stand out due to
their unique analysis of the bureaucratic phenomenon: German sociologist Max Weber
(18641920) and Czech author Franz Kafka (18831924). They are both great cultural
personalities and have inspired and provoked incalculable amounts of research and
social debate. While Weber is known for his scientific analysis of bureaucracy as a
form of rational organization, emphasizing the advantages compared to earlier forms of
public administration, Kafka is known for his description of the nightmarish, labyrinthine
inscrutability of bureaucracy to such a degree that Kafka has become an adjective
Kafkaesque associated with the alienating and incomprehensible system control over
powerless individuals.
The two understandings of bureaucracy are so divergent that we need to ask whether
they are examining the same phenomenon. Indeed, Kafkas writings are often not
considered to be dealing with bureaucracy at all. The literary and philosophical readings
of Kafka are distinguished by a focus on exile, existence, guilt, punishment, alienation,
and father figures one may say on everything but bureaucracy (Derlien 1991). Within
organizational research, however, we can find examples although not many of the
comparative analysis of Weber and Kafka. Derlien (1991) and Warner (2007) have
outlined Webers and Kafkas respective backgrounds, writings and their significance for
the development of organizational theory and emphasize the considerable similarities in
their respective thoughts on societal matters.
Both men were sceptical observers of the breakthrough of modernity after the fin-de-
siecle period; both were lawyers with practical work experience; and they possibly had
more than indirect relations with one another. Kafka met Max Webers younger brother,
Alfred Weber, through his friend Max Brod, who was a student of Alfred Weber (Radkau
2009, p. 323). It was Alfred Weber who was later responsible for awarding Kafka his
doctoral degree in law. It is also close to being an established fact that Kafka read the
works of Alfred Weber (Heinemann 1996; Harrington 2007). Given that interest, it is
hardly unlikely that Kafka might even have read the works of Max Weber (see Derlien

Torben Beck Jrgensen is in the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

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UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
WEBER, KAFKA AND BUREAUCRACY 195

1991, pp. 1415). It is thus worthwhile pursuing how directly Kafkas understanding of
bureaucracy can be related to Webers understanding.
Derlien and Warner built their analysis on extensive parts of Kafkas rather heteroge-
neous writings and were looking for similarities. Doing so entails a risk of wiping out the
distinct differences in Webers and Kafkas respective understandings of bureaucracy and
how they are possibly related. I therefore delimit my analysis to two central texts: Webers
classic essay on bureaucracy and Kafkas novel entitled The Castle. It is my thesis that while
Webers and Kafkas respective understandings of bureaucracy are as different as night
and day, The Castle represents a very precise commentary on Webers understanding of
bureaucracy. In that way, The Castle is actually best read with Max Weber at hand. For
further, detailed, information on the two texts, see the appendix.

WEBERS MODEL OF BUREAUCRACY


Bureaucracy represents a certain kind of exercise of power; or rather, a certain kind of
regulation of the exercise of power. In the modern constitutional state, the relationship
between citizen and administrative authority for example, a tax authority should be
regulated in the following manner (see also Tonnies 1887; Parsons 1951):

1. My basic properties are less important. The tax authorities are not allowed to
emphasize whether I am red-haired, overweight or a smoker. What counts is my
performances or actions, for example, how much I earn and how I do so.
2. There are limits to how versatile the tax authority can be. For instance, not all of
my economic arrangements can be of interest to the tax authority. It is unimportant
whether I am an economic spendthrift. The tax authority must emphasize specific
matters, for example, my income and deductions.
3. A tax inspector with a thoroughly suspicious disposition cannot reduce my deduc-
tions merely on the grounds that he suspects that I have been cheating. Case decisions
must be made on the basis of objective not subjective criteria.
4. Nor can the tax authority staff treat me highly emotionally. The relationship must
be neutral. They cannot write: We are really tired of all your fake expenditures etc.
Instead, they must write something to the effect of: Based on our meeting last week
and our further investigations. . .
5. Everybody must receive the same treatment following universal criteria. It would be
a particular treatment if I were the only one to receive a specific treatment kind as
well as unkind.

These five principles action-orientation, specificity, objectivity, neutrality and univer-


sality can be understood as the essence of modernity and the rule of law. But this specific
relationship between citizens and public authorities does not develop spontaneously. The
civil servant will often feel great temptation to be subjective, particular, emotional, and so
on. Consequently, the exercise of power must be regulated. To ensure this regulation, the
bureaucratic form of organization is a meaningful choice.
Following Weber, the bureaucratic organization in short is characterized by:

1. The authorization to make decisions is established in rules.


2. The civil servant is placed in a hierarchical system, which at the same time
features a high degree of specialization.

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3. The work is based on documents.


4. There is a strict separation between the public and private lives of the civil servant.
5. The civil servant has professional/academic training.
6. Holding the office is a full-time job, and the salary is the only or most important
source of income.

It is easy to see how the bureaucratic form of organization is well suited to creating and
maintaining a relationship between citizen and administration that is characterized by the
five principles. For example, specialization promotes specificity; rules, separation and the
academic training promote objectivity and neutrality; and written documents combined
with the hierarchical principle may ensure action-orientation and universalism.
Weber recognized a number of positive features of bureaucracy compared to previous
forms of administration (Weber 1957, p. 214):
Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity,
strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs these are
raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration, and especially
in its monocratic form. As compared with all collegiate, honorific, and avocational
forms of administration, trained bureaucracy is superior on all these points.
However, Weber was no nave admirer of the bureaucratic form of organization in concreto
or of the bureaucratization of society in general. The following citation highly central to
the understanding of The Castle expresses Webers hesitant preference for bureaucracy
(Weber 1957, p. 216):
Its specific nature . . . develops the more perfectly the more the bureaucracy is dehu-
manized, the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love,
hatred, and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements which escape
calculation.
Webers model of bureaucracy is a so-called ideal type that represents the cultivation of
certain features of reality, which never can be found fully realized. The ideal type is an ana-
lytical tool. We can compare the reality with the ideal type and assess the distance between
the ideal type and reality. The main questions in our reading of The Castle are therefore:

1. In The Castle, does Kafka relate to the elements in Webers ideal type?
2. If so, what is the distance between the ideal type and The Castle?
3. In The Castle, what are Kafkas views on Weberian bureaucracy?

THE CASTLE: READ THROUGH WEBERIAN SPECTACLES


The very first lines of The Castle present the basic atmosphere the pedal point of the
entire novel:
It was late evening when K. arrived. The village lay under deep snow. There was no
sign of the Castle hill, fog and darkness surrounded it, not even the faintest gleam of
light suggested the large Castle. K. stood a long time on the wooden bridge that leads
from the main road to the village, gazing upward into the seeming emptiness. (p. 9)
K. believes he has been sent for to perform a task as a land surveyor. Some of the locals do
not believe this to be the case and insist that K. leaves the village. As the book proceeds,
K. fumbles through the little village and tries to find his way and to make sense of the

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systems which appear to govern him and the village. For example, K. tries to get to the
Castle the very first day. However, the road leading to the Castle does not run straight
to the mountain. [I]t only went close by, then veered off as if on purpose, and though it
didnt lead any farther from the Castle, it didnt get any closer either (p. 14). Step by step,
however, K. (maybe) becomes wiser. By scouring The Castle, we will map out the Castles
authorities with Weber at hand.

Hierarchical organization
The Castle administration is extravagantly hierarchically organized. The smallest unit in
a formal organization is a position. The position determines importance. For example,
whether K. is considered employed as a surveyor or not has bearing on his importance.
As a former assistant to K. explains:
As long as my relationship to you was an official one, you were of course a very
important person to me, not because of your own qualities but because of my official
instructions, and I would have done anything for you at the time, but now I couldnt
care less about you. (p. 117)
Through the book, we encounter a myriad of positions civil servants, heads of office,
department heads, directors of bureau, functionaries, secretaries, super- and subordinate
secretaries, castle stewards, castle sub-stewards, assistants, servants and messengers of
whom some are even further divided into finer gradations. All of the positions are part
of a ranking. Sometimes the rankings are easily understood, usually not. But somewhere
in this foggy hierarchy, a ranking is present. Vertical references such as above/below,
higher/lower even lower than the lowest are frequent throughout the book.
The clothing also has a hierarchical significance. Some of the civil servants are so
important that they may bear an official suit in contrast to insignificant others, while
other civil servants are so important that their significance can be taken for granted and
therefore requires no particular clothing (p. 88).
Presumably, the offices in the Castle are not hierarchically organized in floors or sizes.
But there is an important distinction between inner and outer offices, where the inner and
most secret are populated by the most important civil servants, because one must pass
many counters in order to reach them (p. 88).
A more unambiguous sign of hierarchy is the presence of controlling authorities, that
is, superior authorities, which can intervene and correct the decisions of lower-ranking
authorities. In this regard, the Castle administration is abundantly well-equipped. K. asks
the local authority the village chairman whether there is a controlling authority:
Youre very severe . . . but multiply your severity by a thousand and it will still be as
nothing compared with the severity that the authorities show toward themselves. Only
a total stranger could ask such a question. Are there control agencies? There are only
control agencies. (p. 38; italics added)
Highly skilled and professional civil servants live in these hierarchies. They are undoubt-
edly full-time employees, as in Webers model, some of them even considerably more than
that. Nothing is mentioned about the payment, but there is no indication that it is irregular
(for example, bribery) except in one case, which we shall return to later. The civil ser-
vants have truly professional training, which is tested if admission to the service is desired.
In that case, the civil servant is submitted to the public admission examination, which is
very difficult and may even last for years without any certainty of acceptance (p. 111).

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But the organization is not hierarchical in the monocratic sense, as Weber prescribed.
There would appear to be a plurality of hierarchies, which are linked or possibly not
linked to each other in an obscure manner. Furthermore, civil servants can mutually
represent one another, and there are often attached authorized, partly authorized and
almost unauthorized secretaries in several cases. In a peculiar way, Kafka is playing
with the Weberian demand of clear authority, as when secretary Burgel philosophizes
for almost a full page over the concepts of authorization and jurisdiction and how the
Castle applies the concepts, ending with the following statement: Doesnt the least bit of
jurisdiction contain all of it? (p. 131).
A decent hierarchical organization must have a top executive. But not in the Castle. It is
quite true that we are briefly introduced in the beginning of the book to Count Westwest
and to the Counts authorities. The count later disappears from the picture, however, and
the Kafkaesque hierarchy appears to be vertically endless. In fact, there is neither top nor
bottom, as we have heard about positions which are lower than the lowest.
The hyper-hierarchical world is marked by a number of cracks. Surveyor K. already
identifies an ambiguity in his letter of employment. There are passages in the letter
where he is addressed as a free man with a free will, whereas in other passages he
is being treated as an inferior worker, hardly visible from the elevated level of the
director, and he is offered two kinds of hierarchy both with an imaginary element
from which he can choose. The question to K. was: . . . whether he wanted to be a village
worker with a distinctive but merely apparent connection to the Castle, or an apparent
village worker who in reality allowed the messages brought by Barnabas to define the
terms of his position (p. 20). Time after time, cracks are pointed out with words such
as connections, advantageous opportunities, convenient occasions, possibilities, allusions
and hints, which correctly utilized and interpreted can grant one access to formally
unjustified advantages.
In sum, Kafka is systematically relating to the phenomenon of hierarchy. He paints a
portrait of an imposing, wildly growing hierarchy characterized by a confusing lack of
clarity, excessive worship of rankings, endless hierarchies, hierarchical contradictions and
cracks in the hierarchy: significantly different from Webers model, on the one hand, but
certainly relating to that particular element in Webers model on the other.

Documents
Documents and records form the keystones in the bureaucratic world. It is indisputable
what Kafka thinks of this feature of the Castles authorities. At this point, Kafka invites us
to join a pure farce. During his struggle against the Castle, K. is being directed to the village
chairman in order to obtain information about his appointment. The chairman must show
K. a decree from the Castle and makes his wife look for the document in a large cabinet.
When his wife opens the cabinet, two large piles of documents fall out. The wife continues
to dig and overturns one armful after another of documents on the floor (p. 36). Now this
is actually a very little stack, because most of the documents are kept in the barn, many
have been thrown out, and the chairman has even stopped copying all letters and decrees.
Weber might have suggested that this is merely the usual mess one can find with an
apparently pre-bureaucratic amateur civil servant. The heart is in the right place, the
papers are not. Let us therefore move up to the Castle, where we find a rule-following
and, in the Weberian sense, true Beamten: functionary Sordini. He is known and feared
for his extreme meticulousness, his stubbornness and quite unfortunately his great
capacity for work. He demonstrates the same dedication to the smallest and largest cases

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alike. In all of the cases, the documents are to Sordini what oxygen is to a human being.
According to what is told,
. . . the walls in his room are hidden behind columns of large bundles of files piled on
top of one another, those are only the files Sordini is working on just then, and since
files are constantly being taken from and added to the bundles, all this at great speed,
the stacks are constantly falling down, and its precisely those endless thuds in rapid
succession that have come to seem typical of Sordinis study. (p. 39)
Do documents have any significance? They do. The evidence is found one early morning
at the Gentlemens Inn, where the civil servants from the Castle are to be found when their
official duties force them down to the village. We now find ourselves in a long corridor
in the basement, where the civil servants stay in cubicles along the corridor. Around five
oclock, the civil servants wake up and life and commotion is everywhere in the corridor:
This babble of voices from the rooms had something extremely cheerful about it. First it
sounded like the jubilation of children getting ready for an excursion, then like wake-up
time in a henhouse, like the joy of being in complete accord with the awakening day,
somewhere there was even a gentleman imitating the crowing of a cock. (p. 134)
This description is in fact highly auditory and one can easily imagine Kafka having
listened to the beginning of the first movement in Gustav Mahlers first symphony. But
what is going on? Is it morning feeding in a monkey cage? Well, in a sense it is: From
a distance, guided by a servant, came a tiny little cart containing files. A second servant
walked alongside, holding a list which he was evidently using to compare the numbers
on the doors with those on the files (p. 135). Afterwards, the documents are distributed
among the civil servants in the cubicles. A few of them only receive a single piece of
paper, and dissatisfaction is pronounced in those particular cases. In other cases, the civil
servant is provided with a large pile of papers. Usually, this pile is left in front of the
cubicle for a while in order for the others to take proper notice. There is a rattling of doors
expressing the discontent from the neighbouring cubicles.
Distributional errors do occur. For unknown reasons, documents must be interchanged
on several occasions. Some civil servants must return the already-distributed documents,
and protracted and emotional negotiations are taking place at several cubicles. An over-
looked and offended civil servant only slowly settles: . . . just as childrens uninterrupted
crying gradually turns into ever more isolated sobbing, so too with his shouting, but even
after he had quieted down entirely, one could sometimes once again hear an isolated shout
or a hasty opening and slamming of that door (p. 137). In this inimitable manner over
several full pages Kafka portrays how the possession of documents is a strong symbol.
Of course, possession of documents represents the allocation of knowledge but also
and in particular the allocation of authorization and organizational status.

Procedural precision
All of the admirers of the Counts various authorities and the excellent administrative
procedures exercise every available opportunity to praise this administration in exactly
the same way Weber praises bureaucracy: fast, precise, competent, and with the greatest
thoroughness. At the same time, however, the consciousness of the admirers circles
perseveringly around the possibility that errors may occur.
We have just heard about errors if not chaos related to the distribution of case
documents, which in a bureaucratic organization as K. rightly notices is the lifeblood

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of the whole organization. Already upon K.s arrival in the village, however, the theme of
errors attracts the readers attention. K. is being accosted by the son of the Castle steward
(here is one error: it is later revealed that he is the son of one of the Castles very lowest
sub-stewards), who announces to K. that it is not possible to stay at the Inn without
permission from the Count. A phone call is made to the Castles main chancellery in order
to confirm or hopefully disconfirm K.s claim that he has been sent for by the Count
in order to work as a land surveyor. The Castle returns the call: no surveyor is expected.
But another call is received after a while: it was an error. A surveyor is expected.
That error if it is an error imbues the book. The explanation given by the village
chairman to K. as to why he has been sent for despite the fact that they do not need
him is central. This is a report of a little, in fact very little confusion. Errors are never
made in large cases, the chairman guarantees K. When the authorities announced that
a surveyor should be appointed, the village could only reply that there was no need to
do so. However, the answer ended in Department B and not in Department A, which
had sent the message. Unfortunately, the answer had also fallen out of the case folder, so
Department A receives no answer, while Department B receives an incomplete answer
related to a case unknown to them.
In Department A, they waited steadily and quietly for an answer, which was certainly
the appropriate behaviour considering the procedural precision of the whole organization.
In Department B, however, functionary Sordini is authorized to the case, which now only
consists of the file folder. He returns the folder to be completed. Several months if not
years have now passed, and the village chairman has also forgotten all about the case,
which actually does not matter, because . . .the excellence of the organization is such that
the file must zealously seek the wrong way, for otherwise it wont find it . . . (p. 37). If an
accident does occur, it can thus take quite some time for the error to be detected. Once
detected, however, Sordini reveals himself as a determined tormentor, who in writing,
of course cross-questions the chairman.
At this point, the ordinary reader and surveyor K. will start to wonder. Why is Sordini
not questioning the other departments in this mysterious case? Doing so would have been
an error, considering the organizational excellence and remembering that all cases must
be passed on with considerable speed. Moreover, the other departments . . .wouldnt
have answered, since they would have noticed right away that he was investigating the
possibility of an error (p. 37).
Due to the systems own outstanding logic, it is about to get off track. At this time,
however, the aforementioned control agencies surface; yet they do also follow the
relentless logic of the system, because even if they should find a little error, . . .who can
finally say that it is an error?, the chairman adds gloatingly (p. 37). At this point, K. is
very likely rather confused. Fortunately, the chairman can inform K. that the first control
agency has detected the error and acknowledged it to be an error. But, he adds, who
can claim that the second control agencies will judge likewise and the third, and so on?
(p. 38). Here, the endless hierarchy again surfaces and guarantees the order of everything
and at the same time a fundamental ambiguity, because one can never know whether
the last agency that has made a statement really is the final one or whether there is one
more in exactly the same way as with prime numbers.
The case creates some controversy in the village, and the case therefore drags out. This
points out a central characteristic in the authorities administrative procedures: the system
is so precise and fast-working that it is extremely sensitive. When a case drags out and
strains the system, it is possible . . .that suddenly, like lightning, in some unforeseeable

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place, which cannot be located later on, a directive is issued that usually justly, but
nonetheless arbitrarily, brings the matter to a close (p. 40).
All of this is unsatisfactory for K. He is subjected to a system in which only infinitesimal
coincidences or a soupcon of decent humanity separates the rational system from the
enigmatic. And the redemption is just as mysterious. K. is not satisfied with this: [W]hat
I want from the Castle is not charity, but my rights (p. 43).

The separation of the public and private life of the civil servant
A very crucial point in Webers model is the strict separation of the public and the private.
In The Castle, this separation totally breaks down: Nowhere else had K. ever seen ones
official position and ones life so intertwined as they were here, so intertwined that it
sometimes seemed as though office and life had switched places (p. 35).
One early morning, K. is seated in Secretary Burgels cubicle. Burgel explains how an
error can occur, because he is also insanely preoccupied with the possibility of errors. His
account is about the civil servants weak moment, at night, when the most peculiar things
can happen in the consciousness of the civil servant:
At night one involuntarily inclines to judge matters from a more private point of view
. . . entirely irrelevant considerations about the parties circumstances in other respects,
their sorrows and their fears, interfere with the judgment, the necessary barrier between
parties and officials . . . (and) the persons involved switched places in a strange and
absolutely inappropriate manner. (p. 129)
It so happens that one of the defendants creeps in during the night. One is then
tempted to fulfil the plea of the defendant, even though doing so would blast the entire
organization. Burgel is compelled to give in, to act based on subjective criteria, to do what
seems right but which is forbidden. In this dilemma lays the most severe trial of the civil
servant. Luckily, Burgel can comfort himself and K. by assuring that the nightly visits
occur very rarely. Almost never. Actually, K. is seated on Secretary Burgels bed right
now. Not at the part of the bed reserved for public duty, but at the private part!
Burgel is not alone in using a private room as a public office. We repeatedly encounter
secretaries who are seated in the their beds and accepting visits, or as in the case of
the village chairman have the office located completely in the private space. They also
handle their cases in the taproom at the Gentlemens Inn. Thus, already in the physical
organization of work, the division between public and private is blurred. Likewise, there
is no clear demarcation between working hours and private time; Such distinctions are
alien to us (p. 129).
Emotions are also mixed into the work in different ways. We have seen power
struggles during the distribution of documents in the morning, and Burgel talks about
the importance of passion: Isnt the passion with which the matter gets tackled decisive?
And isnt this passion always present to the same extent, isnt it always there in full force?
(p. 131). This passion even trumps authorization. No secretary can hold himself back if he
is offered a case, even if he has only the most moderate authorization.
Some civil servants even have illegitimate passions. This becomes evident when a new
member of staff is being interviewed for recruitment:
. . . there are some officials who very much against their own will love the smell of that
sort of wild game, and during admission exams they sniff the air, twist their mouths,
roll their eyes, men like that somehow seem to stir their appetite, and they must cling
to the law books in order to be able to resist. (p. 111)

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Another spicier passion seems rather widespread. The civil servants have mis-
tresses. And (apparently) they do not mince their actions: . . .anything is possible with
those gentlemen from the Castle, no matter how beautiful or ugly the particular girl
happens to be (p. 103). Olga, sister to Amalia, who is to be introduced shortly, tells of how
she has helped calm down the waiters at the Gentlemens Inn: . . . for over two years now
I have spent the night in the stable with the servants, at least twice a week (p. 110). These
servants have been described as shameless, fierce and disobedient, not to be restrained
by any other law than their own insatiable sexual instincts. It is fair to claim that the
Castle administration is almost extravagantly un-Weberian in its various violations of the
boundaries between public and private. But the conclusion yet again must be that Kafka
actually relates systematically to this dimension in Webers model.

The Castle and the village


While the Castle does not restrain itself when it comes to transcending its own barriers,
the village and its inhabitants have very strict limits. A harsh separation in the direct
relationship between a civil servant and his supplicant is being practiced. Due to . . .
the seamlessness of the official organization . . . (p. 130), a subpoena is immediately and
without any hesitation sent to the supplicant, . . . usually even before he has thought the
matter through, indeed even before he knows about it . . . (p. 131). In this manner, they
beat the humble citizen to it, decide when a contact can occur, and if the citizen shows
up at the correct time, he will often be sent home again with reference to the more or less
fictive remarks in the case.
Careful preparation has been made prior to the actual interrogations. The civil servants
only engage in negotiations if there is little reason to fear defeat; they test themselves
prior to the negotiations and cancel them if they are not feeling on top. In order to
soften up the defendant, they can be called for negotiations a maximum of ten times,
all of which are cancelled; and the civil servant can allow himself to be represented by
another civil servant, unauthorized in the specific case, who therefore can carry out fictive
negotiations.
The administrative separation is supported by a physical separation. It is difficult, even
almost impossible, to find the way to the Castle. K. already realizes this the first morning.
And when you reach the Castle and stand at the road in order to talk to a civil servant, the
problem is that there are several driveways to the Castle. One of the driveways is used the
one day, while another driveway is used other days and so on. Sometimes changes are
even made during the course of the day. The rules according to which these changes take
place are still unknown (p. 108). If you nevertheless manage to get into the Castle because
you have a legitimate errand, the problems are not over yet. K.s messenger Barnabas . . .
certainly does go into the offices, but are the offices actually the Castle? And even if the
Castle does have offices, are they the offices Barnabas is permitted to enter? He enters
offices, but those are only a portion of the total, then there are barriers and behind them
still more offices (p. 88).

The Castles power


No matter how comically the Castle is presented, its power remains unquestionable. The
Castle penetrates and encloses the whole village and all its inhabitants. Nearly all of them
belong to the Castle and draw their identity through the Castle. In Webers understanding,
administration is the everyday form of control. Based on the legal rationality of the Cas-
tle, the village inhabitants are given certain roles, such as subordinates and supplicants,

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and the Castle dominance is supported by the villages social self-control, neatly guided
by the Castle.
The Castles power is most obviously demonstrated through the history about Amalia
and her family. Refusing to grant a civil servant female favours can have harsh con-
sequences. Amalias family has been totally destroyed, because Amalia has torn up an
invitation and cast the pieces in the messengers face. The invitation comes from Sortini
(not to be confused with Sordini), one of the more prominent masters in the Castle.
Quickly but quietly and discreetly the familys situation changes completely.
The sisters account of the fate of her family is one of the tragic sections in The
Castle, because it reveals, among other things, that the ruining of the family is due to
the villages own self-control. Knowledge regarding Amalias unfortunate answer has
obviously spread far and wide, and as everybody fears the Castle, the village withdraws
from the family. The father loses his job as a voluntary fire inspector, his employees leave
him, and the family is being frozen out. The father humiliates himself by lining up in
front of the Castle in order to beg forgiveness. But as long as the Castle has not displayed
any discontent, the father has nothing to apologize for, and the Castle cannot accept an
apology for an error that they have not acknowledged has at all occurred. It then becomes
the fathers task to prove that he has something to apologize for. An efficient control-trap
has snapped shut.
The Castle encloses the village from an elevated distance. Klamm, director of Bureau
no. 10, is compared to an eagle:
(K.) considered Klamms remoteness, his impregnable abode, his muteness, broken
perhaps only by shouts the likes of which K. had never heard before, his piercing,
downturned gaze, which could never be proved, never be refuted, and his, from K.s
position below, indestructible circles, which he was describing up there in accordance
with incomprehensible laws, visible only for seconds . . . .(p. 62)
How do villagers then react to the Castle dominance? Using Hirschmans (1970)
concepts exit, voice and loyalty the villagers react with loyalty. Revolt (voice) seldom
occurs, though one might suspect K. to be a rebel. As it turns out later, however, this
makes no sense at all. Finally, the villagers could leave this unhappy place (exit), but
nobody does so. The only one who has had a remote idea of exiting is Klamms former
mistress, Frieda K.s fiancee for a brief period who says to K.: if only we had gone
abroad at once, that same night, we could be somewhere else, safe, always together, your
hand always close enough for me to catch hold of . . . (p. 125). However, both she and K.
remain. K. ends up as an illegal inhabitant in the room of one of the most subordinate
maids at the Gentlemens Inn. And on the Castle hill, we can still find . . . the authorities
in their inextricable greatness . . . (p. 93) smiling after having won the struggle (p. 11).

What Weber might conclude


There is little doubt that large parts of The Castle can benefit from being read through the
lenses of Weber, simply because all of the dimensions in Webers model of bureaucracy
can be identified in The Castle. Weber hereby provides a rather exact focus for reading the
novel. Through Weber, one can obtain a clear diagnosis of what is wrong in the Castle
administration: the distance between the Castle administration and the Weberian model
is astonishingly large.
Weber himself would immediately point to the lack of separation of public and private
life as a crucial problem. In many instances, we hear about connections, mistresses, the

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mixture of working and private life, the lack of physical separation between working
life and private time, nightly interrogations, and the excessive passion that the civil
servants put into their work. The Castles authorities have none of the prescribed
cool-headedness sine ira et studio.
Next, there are too many documents. There is no space to store all of the documents,
requested files cannot be found, and the piles of cases in Sordinis office are repeatedly
falling. Ironically, there are nevertheless too few documents, as the village chairman has
stopped copying and keeping the documents. And even worse than this chaos: while
changing meaning from being carriers of information to symbols of status, the documents
have become addictive. The civil servants in the Castle have grown heavily dependent
on the documents; indeed, they are fed with paper and hereby transformed from civil
servants to civil animals. Furthermore, the hierarchies are growing wild, and the endless
hierarchies without top or bottom cause unpredictability, a preoccupation with formal
positions, and a verticalization of language and sense of reality.
On the basis of a popular understanding of the bureaucratic phenomenon, one can
claim that the Castle administration is indeed supremely bureaucratic. This is a common
misunderstanding. Weber would correctly point out other interpretations. With regard to
the lacking separation of public and private life, the Castle administration is an example
of pre-bureaucratic administration. Apart from that, the Castle is a neat example of a
bureaucracy run amok. In that way, the Castle illustrates the differences between the good
type and the degenerate type, resembling Platos discussion of types of government in
The Republic.

KAFKAS RESPONSE
Kafka may smile mildly at Webers comments and say: Dear Max, I know. The Castle
is simply a parody of your model. Your model is fine as an analytical abstract, but how
do you think it will work in real life? Should that be the case, Kafka has written a
much-contemplated parody, almost a counter-punctual ideal type, based on four key
observations. Note that since Weber, many sociologists have discussed the shortcomings
of bureaucracy. For one of the earliest treatments, see Merton (1940), who partly touches
upon the first two of the four key observations that follow.

Bureaucratic excesses unfold in time and space


Documents and hierarchy can be exaggerated, but what causes all of these exaggerations?
The simple answer is that the bureaucratic model in practice is ruined by people.
A Weberian bureaucracy is an artificial state. It is worth pursuing, because it is suit-
able to regulate the subjective, emotional and interest-driven control of other people.
Nevertheless, an artificial state will inevitably break down or develop pathological traits.
For example, over time, documents and positions become symbols of personal sig-
nificance. Too much paper and hierarchy are the likely results. In the long run, they
create a demand for personal connections, beneficial occasions, offers of personal services,
and so on, which in turn break down the separation between public and private life. In
other words, overdevelopment leads to cracks in the bureaucracy. All of these cracks are
counterproductive and self-reinforcing. This is not to say that irregularity is a problem
in itself; well-functioning organizations require regularity as well as innovative and cre-
ative irregularity, but the exaggerated bureaucracy creates excessive regularity, which
necessarily leads to dysfunctional irregularity.

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In other words, Kafka points out the natural pathological developments in a bureaucratic
organization. While Webers model is a static description of a system, an organizational
chart, Kafka places the model in time and space, thus providing an alternative and more
accurate understanding. Like music, a social system is a phenomenon which can only be
understood dynamically.

The no errors ideology generates dilemmas


Kafka points directly to two unpleasant problems related to the concept of the infallible
administration. The first infallibility problem is internal. Based on the chairmans descrip-
tion, it goes like this: (1) the system is excellent in every respect, all agencies are control
agencies, and errors cannot occur; (2) since everything is expected to be under control,
the infallibility has become an organizational ideology, and control is unnecessary; (3) if
errors occur, the system runs away, because in reality it is not fitted to cope with errors,
nor has the urge to react to them, since it must then recognize that it was an error not to
expect errors; (4) the endless hierarchy means that one can never know if an error really
was an error; (5) as a result, there is very good breeding ground for small errors, which
have the potential to become massive; and (6) a perfect and exact system is of course
extremely sensitive and breaks down after a period of strain.
This means that bureaucracy as a form of organization cannot sustain itself. Kafka
more than suggests that there is very little separating rational bureaucracy and enigmatic
bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is organized artificial intelligence and just like artificial
intelligence cannot react in a flexible manner, repeating with pleasure absurd actions
infinitely. Another interpretation is that The Castle provides a neat description of a
total institution, that is, an institution in which all of the parts of the lives of the
individuals under the institution are subordinated to and dependent upon the authorities
of the organization (Goffman 1961). This is a systemic power that disconnected from
society has itself as reference.
Luckily, there is a kind of emergency brake an incomprehensible, arbitrary decision
which in most cases nevertheless is obviously correct. It does not rest upon rules and
competencies. It comes from an unknown place which cannot be investigated and
has the character of a revelation or something intuitive. This rescue is trans-rational.
Bureaucratic rationality can only be unfolded together with its antithesis: arbitrariness.
Otherwise, pathologies prevail. Indeed, Weber himself thought that a bureaucracy needed
to be challenged by external, arbitrary decisions, for example, from political leadership.
The second infallibility problem regards the relationship between client and system.
Secretary Burgel circles long around the relationship between the civil servant and the
defendant. As in Webers model, the excellent administration is supposed to handle
everyone according to the rules and without consideration to the persons reputation.
Burgel himself has the desire to show consideration, to supplement the rule of law with
fairness. But it is the burden of the civil servant not to show consideration. In fact, it
is thoughtful to the defendant to be inconsiderate, and individual considerations would
blow up the whole system. Burgel has a point. The rule of law is (also) that the defendant
is not to be treated better than others. However, the quest for infallibility the system
that continues to function has, as an immediate consequence, rigidity in the handling
of the defendant. In fact Weber also acknowledged this problem. He cautiously warned
in a footnote (Weber 1957, p. 215): Here we cannot discuss in detail how the bureaucratic
apparatus may, and actually does, produce obstacles to the discharge of business in a
manner suitable for the single case.

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Somewhat more serious is the delusion that the burden of the civil servant is not
to show thoughtfulness, while inconsideration is equated with consideration. The latter
legitimizes the questionable treatment the defendants receive from the Castles civil
servants, and in the same manner does the executioner legitimize his job. In other words,
the second problem of infallibility is the legitimization of inhumanity. Burgel is caught
in a bureaucratic trap: displaying individual consideration is tantamount to the abuse of
power. Failing to do so, he is inhuman. Indeed, the burden associated with exercising
authority is a phenomenon often approached in fiction dealing with public authorities and
organizational life. In his book The Flaw from 1965, Samarakis gives a splendid treatment
of inhumanity and infallibility. Kafka suggests that a fully developed as opposed to
excessively developed bureaucracy is not only a rare flower that is difficult to cultivate
and sustain, it is also a problematic flower.

Inscrutability as life condition


Weber was fully aware of the dark side of bureaucracy. He was concerned about
the bureaucratization of societal life through formalization, standardization and de-
humanization, that is, a pathological magnification of the five principles characterizing
the modern relationship between administration and citizen, which introduced the
article.
But is Kafkas concern the same? Certainly not. In stark contrast, Kafka fears the
inscrutability that follows the total breakdown of the principles. Understanding the
Castles authorities is no easy task, since the examples of ambiguity and inscrutability are
legio. On the very first page of The Castle, ambiguity is presented as the fundamental theme.
K.s very appointment to surveyor is dubious. K.s connections to the Castles authorities
are only apparent connections, and it is only K.s ignorance about local circumstances that
has made them real. The term real civil servants suggests that unreal or apparent civil
servants also exist. Last, but not least, there are the arbitrary decisions which are not to be
explored. Here, Kafka also suggests that technical rationality can possibly be approached
at the bottom of the organization, because rules can be made for decisions and behaviour,
while arbitrariness but not necessarily imprudence increases the higher in hierarchy
one gets. It should be noted that inscrutability is a favourite theme among fiction writers
(Beck Jrgensen 1994), just as ambiguity has long been a recurrent theme in organization
theory (see March and Olsen 1976).
Everything in an inscrutable world is subject to conjecture and sense-making interpreta-
tions. Barnabas has been promised an official suit. But it drags out. What is the meaning of
this slowness? That the affair is being handled thoroughly? That the handling of the affair
has not yet started? Or that it has already been finished, but that he has not been informed
about it (see p. 88)? What does it mean if he has not been informed? Similarly: what does it
mean that Barnabas has been given two letters to give to K.? Are these two letters of great
importance? Or is that a fallacy, the consequence being that one should consciously not
assign any significance to these letters? As a villager mentions: . . . the thoughts that they
prompt are endless and the point at which one happens to stop is determined only by
accident and so the opinion one arrives at is just as accidental (p. 114). Kafka later slightly
corrects this statement when he allows the landlord of the Gentlemens Inn to say: . . . and
chance is always on the gentlemens side . . . (p. 24).) One guesses, interprets, assumes
and it does not help at all. Unfortunately, Kafkas three observations are functionally
connected. The infallibility ideology allows for bureaucratic excesses ad libitum, and these
are suitable producers of inscrutability. This leads directly to the fourth observation.

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The perpetual walking on the spot


He who experiences inscrutability as a condition of life will end up walking on the spot.
The landlady in the Bridge Inn continues to be concerned about why she is no longer
Klamms mistress. Amalies father is still waiting by the wrong driveway. All of the
nameless defendants are held in check by the well prepared interrogations during the
night at Gentlemens Inn. And K. himself learns something about the Castle, but he never
comes close to it let alone conquers it. He never gets his justice, because perhaps there
is no justice. The Castles awareness about its own invincibility is already hinted at in
Chapter 1: . . . the Castle had smilingly taken up the fight (p. 11). With inspiration from
Hofstadter (1979), we may say that he has moved around as though in a crab canon
by Bach: the theme first moves forward, then is reversed and moves backwards. He
ends where he started without status. Even though he has become wiser after having
explored the Castle, it has not brought him anywhere. The Castle is still up there, wrapped
in mist and darkness in the apparent emptiness.
There is something surreal about the universe in The Castle which does not harmonize
with the physical world in which we live. We need to move to art to see what cannot
be seen in reality. M.C. Eschers paintings, with their strange perspectives in impossible
architectonical spaces, strike at something characteristic in The Castle. In Eschers painting
Ascending and Descending (1960), we see a number of persons who keep walking up
(and down). This is the perfect illustration of Kafkas topless and bottomless hierarchy.
At the same time, it also illustrates how the walkers get nowhere, because the stairs
continuously lead them back to where they came from, just as Waterfall (1961) portrays
water running down, only to end up where it came from. Again, we can see K. walking
towards the Castle but getting neither closer nor further away. He is walking on the spot.
In Hofstadters (1979) words, he is in a strange loop, where he ends up where he started.
Hofstadter labels a hierarchy characterized by a strange loop as a tangled hierarchy. That
is a rather precise description of the impression one gets of the Castle administration.
In Eschers painting Moebius Strip I (1961), the front becomes the back and the back
becomes the front. This again illustrates a universe containing both physical and logical
contradictions. We have seen many of these contradictions in The Castle, but these
contradictions are neither physical nor logical contradictions. They are natural paradoxes,
which is noticeably reminiscent of the mathematician Godels Incompleteness Theorems.
The first theorem states that in any axiomatic system above a certain level of complexity,
one can infer a statement which can neither be proved nor disproved, or both proved
and disproved. An axiomatic system is therefore either incomplete or inconsistent.
According to Godels second theorem of incompleteness, an axiomatic system which
can be proven to be consistent is inconsistent. If we then consider Webers model
of bureaucracy to be an axiomatic system and the five principles characterizing the
relationship between administration and citizen as derived theorems, then the model is
either incomplete or inconsistent. If anyone claims they can prove it to be consistent, then
it is inconsistent. That is exactly what Kafka tells us in The Castle.

WEBERKAFKA UNITED
Can Weber and Kafka nevertheless both be right? According to the traditional reading,
both The Castle and The Trial are primarily interpreted as narratives about the respective
individuals futile defences against a repressive superiority. That is an unfortunate
misunderstanding. The Castle and The Trial are very different novels. The Trial begins with

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208 TORBEN BECK JRGENSEN

the arrest of Josef K. for a crime, which he is not informed about. And it ends with the
request to kill himself. He is not able to do so, and two gentlemen must then kill him.
While dying, Josef K. feels guilty about not being able to execute the punishment himself.
If anything, that is repression and superiority.
In The Castle, Surveyor K. voluntarily arrives in the village. He chooses the place not
the other way around. What is his purpose? After close consideration, K. says that the
Castle has taken up the fight, and K. once refers to himself as an assailant (p. 35). So K.
has apparently challenged the Castle, and one is tempted to interpret K. as a rebel rather
than a victim.
However, this interpretation makes no sense, despite the mentioned indications. As a
rebel, K. acts very awkwardly. K. claims to be called for by the Castle. But where is the
letter that calls him to the Castle? K. never shows it. K. refers to assistants that shall follow
the next morning with instruments. They never arrive. They have probably never existed.
He has apparently never planned to do anything as a surveyor. Is it then surprising
that the Castle reacts in this situation? Add to this that K. insults everybody from the
very beginning. He quickly steals director Klamms mistress, Frieda, and has sex with
her immediately outside Klamms door (not very smart). He does not accept advice and
simply demands his right, even though he probably does not have any rights. When,
towards the end of the novel, Burgel actually wants to help, K. falls asleep (neither polite
nor very smart) and has a dream about a fight with a naked secretary, who resembles a
statue of a Greek God! Good Lord as a rebel, K. acts so unintelligently that Kafka must
have been thinking about something else.
K. makes most sense as the person who by walking, talking, listening, observing and
provoking uncovers the Castles authorities. K.s role resembles that of a social scientist.
He has a problem in the beginning: the apparent emptiness, the pedal point of the Castle.
Through several interviews and on-the-spot observations, he then encircles what this
apparent emptiness consists of and what it means. The reader becomes wiser while K.
works his way up through the hierarchy from the Bridge Inn to the Gentlemens Inn, even
though K. ends up where he started. Surveyor K. is Kafkas academic instrument, and
K.s own destiny in the novel is only of interest to the extent that it reflects the reality K. is
examining. One may ask why K. is a land surveyor? The literature addressing this question
outlines many detailed suggestions (see Zilcosky 2002). The most simple and convincing
answer is that the capacity to carry out research through action and provocation is
strengthened by the position as surveyor. A surveyor and especially a newcomer can
potentially create unrest and conflicts as the village chairman also remarks.
The data that construct the world for K. are the peoples interpretations and conjectures.
K. actually acts as if he has read about Webers verstehen approach. Social systems do
not exist through hard facts, but rather through the agents interpretations of what facts
are and what they mean. Obviously, Kafka never presents us with any exact knowledge
about the Castle administration. The only thing we know about the Castle is how some
people experience it. Furthermore, we only become acquainted with the Castle through
persons who are outsiders, subordinated or peripherally affiliated. This means that all of
the experiences of inscrutability and ambiguity are the experiences of the marginalized.
If we accept the role of K. as a social scientist, we require the specification of the
relevance of K.s insights. Here, K. has two problems. Firstly, he lets himself be caught. He
carries out field research as a social scientist (in the role of the surveyor), but never gets
out of the field again. Secondly, he is clearly limited to a certain group of people and their
experiences. This, it should be noted, is not entirely K.s fault. He is possibly up against a

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WEBER, KAFKA AND BUREAUCRACY 209

world that has very little interest in being investigated a condition, indeed, that many
social scientists have experienced. Against this background, we cannot rule out that with
a change of perspective, one could find order, system and clarity.
Webers way of analysing the world represents a change of perspective. Webers model
of bureaucracy and his entire essay tell us very little about the concrete relationship
between the bureaucracy and the citizen, especially from the citizens perspective. Weber
works with a top-down perspective, and his historic-comparative method places him in
a position that allows overview. Viewing the Castles authorities from a higher level
may provide clarity. K. actually hints at this possibility himself when, in an archetypical
Kafkaesque manner, he mentions: the admirable consistency of the service, which was,
one suspected, especially perfect on occasions when it appeared to be missing (p. 35).
As someone living in the shadow of the Austrian-Hungarian Dual Monarchy, Kafka
might have had more experience than Weber with pre-bureaucratic administration. But
the most important differences between Weber and Kafka are, with little doubt, that they
view the same phenomenon from different positions and with different methods. Are the
observations of the one more correct than the other? The question is meaningless. The two
texts enrich one another. As two opposite poles, Weber and Kafka magnetize each other.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
I am grateful to three anonymous reviewers and colleagues at the University of Copen-
hagen for helpful comments and especially to former professor at Copenhagen Business
School, Egil Fivelsdal, for not only being helpful but also visionary.

REFERENCES
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Realities in Fiction. Tampa, FL: Harwood Academic, pp. 267303.
Derlien, H.-U. 1991. Bureaucracy in Art and Analysis: Kafka and Weber, Journal of Kafka Society of America, 12, 420.
Gerth, H.H. and C. Wright Mills (eds). 1948. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Gerth, H.H. and C. Wright Mills (eds). 1957. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, 3rd edn. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Goffman, E. 1961. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. New York: Doubleday.
Harrington, A. 2007. Alfred Webers Essay The Civil Servant and Kafkas In the Penal Colony: The Evidence of an
Influence, History of the Human Sciences, 20, 3, 4163.
Heinemann, R. 1996. Kafkas Oath of Service: Der Bau and the Dialectic of the Bureaucratic Mind, PMLA (Proceedings of the
Modern Language Association), 111, 2, 25670.
Hirschman, A.O. 1970. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press.
Hofstadter, D.R. 1979. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Basic Books.
Kafka, F. 1998. The Castle. A new translation, based on the restored text. Translated and with a preface by M. Harman. New
York: Schocken Books (http://www.scribd.com/doc/13621292/The-Castle-by-Franz-Kafka-translated-Mark-Harman).
March, J.G. and J.P. Olsen. 1976. Ambiguity and Choice in Organizations. Bergen: University Press.
Merton, R.K. 1940. Bureaucratic Structure and Personality, Social Forces, 18, 4, 5608.
Parsons, T. 1951. The Social System. New York: The Free Press.
Radkau, J. 2009. Max Weber. A Biography. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Samarakis, A. 1965. The Flaw. A Novel. Translated by P. Mansfield and R. Burns. London: Hutchinson.
Tonnies, F. 1887. Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft. Leipzig: Fuess Verlag.
Warner, M. 2007. Kafka, Weber and Organization Theory, Human Relations, 60, 7, 101938.
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Date received 23 September 2010. Date accepted 7 November 2010.

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APPENDIX
Webers essay was first published in English in 1948 (see Gerth and Wright Mills 1948).
The English translation is based on Max Webers Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Weber 1918).
The 1957 third edition, edited by Gerth and Mills, is used. Citations are referred to as
Weber (1957). While the choice of Webers essay is obvious, The Castle is chosen on the
grounds that of all of Kafkas writings, it represents the work which deals most directly
and irresistibly with administrative and organizational phenomena. The translation of
Der Schloss used in this paper is Franz Kafka: The Castle, a new translation, based on the
restored text, translated and with a preface by Mark Harman. It was first published in
1998. The reader must be aware that I refrain for reasons of space from relating to other
writings by Weber and Kafka, not to mention the voluminous later research addressing
their work.

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