Kafka’s Trial and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (for images, go here and here) were once touchstones for understanding the deep anxieties of modern social organization. Mention them now and you mark yourself as a boomer (as if it weren’t obvious enough anyway). Both came to mind recently, and particularly Kafka’s depiction of K, the everyman caught in organizational processes that by turns snare, thwart, baffle, awe, and destroy him. Something like this, perhaps:
You are looking at a trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on August 9th, when shares were plummeting to the worst drop since February. It also looks as if K had wandered into an updated Metropolis (or perhaps Metropolis meets The Matrix). The concrete tower behind him (it loomed higher in the paper print of the photo), the machines surrounding everyone in the room, the anomic space in which each person stands alone: these are the signs of centralized authority, comprehensive organization, and social isolation. The trader stands at the center of the picture, dwarfed by the organization around him and anxious, very anxious. He is looking up as if to a superior officer dreaded for his harshness. He looks stunned into deference, waiting to take an order dictated by the unseen power. It could be his death warrant, but he would dutifully write it down.
Of course, he is a trader intensely focused on a screen of data. He is at work, not in a novel. Nonetheless, the photograph has captured the terror lurking in the shadows of a market society.
Photograph by James Estrin/New York Times.