On the fourth floor of Lerner Hall, there is a short corridor where time curves back onto itself. Monday mornings at 9 a.m., the corridor expands to accommodate two lines of students, both queuing into the Columbia University Package Center. Until 7 p.m., no matter how many win the waiting game, the lines are caught in stasis.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the introduction of electronic kiosks to expedite pick-up, the package center is experiencing a system-wide failure. Inside the fourth-floor corridor, students commiserate, whine, and look for assistance. Unfortunately, there is none to be had, for the package center is an orphan, without progenitors or responsible guardians. I have spoken on the phone with Ricoh, the mysterious company whose name is plastered on the package center’s clocks and employee polos. Their customer service reps are unaware that our package center exists, let alone that it is a nuisance. Paperwork everywhere and nary a rubber stamp to be seen.
To reach the front of the line is cause for momentary jubilation. But then, there is the inevitable hunt for the package in question, a rummaging through overflowing bins of unsorted airmail. As is too often the case, your package may have been misprocessed and sent to an off-site location, or just a figment of the computer’s imagination. I have waited in lines that do not move for packages that do not exist.
The package center exceeds the Kafkaesque—it is as though Kafka’s dreams have escaped from his books and materialized in the fourth-floor corridor. Nonsensical, convoluted, and recursive regulations? A disregard for the value of life outside the borders of bureaucracy? These are melodramatic assessments of the situation, to be sure. Our package center seems too banal for such extreme criticisms. But it is precisely the banality of this crisis that intensifies its force. The package center is an abomination, however mediocre and minute.
At Columbia, we are sealed into an envelope of bureaucratic inefficiency—our every experience is mediated by bureaucratic processes, many of which are kept out of sight and thus, presumably, out of mind. Yet, it is no accident that our bureaucracy regularly appears in campus musical productions as a caricature and metaphor of Columbia life. The package center is more than annoying—is actually provocative and disturbing—because it renders the madness of our endemic bureaucracy completely transparent, and because it discloses our true powerlessness as inmates of an everyday insane asylum.
The defining characteristic of bureaucracy is its effortless theft of power from its subjects. Bureaucracy makes its subjects powerless to resist or protest, because the stakes are often nothing more than inconvenience. How can resistance, or for that matter, revolution, mobilize against bothers and misdemeanors? For the bureaucratized subject, there can be no claim to suffering. Such claims need to be qualified as “hashtag first world problems.” The relative insignificance of our inconveniences is absolutely incommensurate with the ongoing agony of others. Nevertheless, our inconveniences are symptomatic of a more profound suffering: total powerlessness to advocate for oneself as a political subject. Bureaucracy denies us our right to refuse, on the grounds of its own triviality. We are forced to participate, if only because we have no compelling reason, that is, no reason that liberal politics might label meaningful, to disengage.
In Kafka’s unfinished story “Der Bau,” the narrator’s solitary existence in a web of underground tunnels is terrifying and pathetic because “the burrow” is of his own creation. Not only does he live in the labyrinth—his life is the labyrinth. When I finally found my package in Carman Hall, I felt suffocated by the sense that my personal meaningfulness followed from bureaucratic formulas. My world, circumscribed by bureaucracy, can be tragic only in its banality. In order to locate the potential for political action—and tragedy—in myself, I need to free my mind from the logic and language of bureaucracy. Before we can liberate our political imaginations, we will need to leave the package center and never return.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in English literature. He is an arts & entertainment columnist.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com