The Customer Service Representative and the Messiah

We never encounter customer service directly, only its representatives. Every quest after customer service is a Kafkaesque ordeal, in the purest possible sense. We are all the man from the country, waiting at the threshold to customer service without ever entering. Like the guard, customer service representatives exist to wait us out, to convince us that our demand can never be fulfilled. There is always another department, another number we should have selected from the phone tree, another interminable wait on hold.

We all want to ask for the manager, that sovereign who can decide to solve our problem, but we are by and large stuck with the incompetent customer service representative, who stares helplessly at the computer system that will not let them do or change anything. They tell us of the labyrinthine internal processes, not to empower us, but to convince us that nothing can be done. The computer isn’t showing that. Someone entered it wrong but no one can fix it.

Even explaining what the problem is requires the patience of Job. The customer service representative has a limited number of templates, it seems, and the particularity of your problem never fits. All they have to offer are solutions that implicitly blame the customer or presume that the customer is stupid. Have you tried resetting it? No, because I’m a total idiot who has never used any technology before. They just thawed me out of an ice block.

The question that arises for me is why every customer service representative isn’t a manager. Why even put us in contact with these pathetic souls who are forbidden from directly solving our problems? The answer is clear: they serve as human shields for our anger, in two senses. First, our frustration becomes displaced from the company that has wronged us to the fools in the customer service department. Second, and more insidiously, our anger is disqualified, delegitimated — after all, we shouldn’t take it out on this poor hapless underemployed petty bureaucrat. It’s not their fault, they’re just following orders.

But their orders are to systematically deprive us of service. The customer service phone tree is a trench in the war of attrition against customers’ justified demands. They are understaffed and underpaid because their role is to discourage us from seeking redress. They deny us a solution on the off chance that we will give up and pay the extra charge rather than go through the bother. And they wouldn’t continue to exist, despite being a byword and a terror to all customers everywhere, if they didn’t pay for themselves. The door really was meant for us alone, and the customer service representative stands ready to close it.

The messianic age will come when we finally see customer service face-to-face.

On the ending of Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”

The ending of Kakfa’s short story “A Hunger Artist” is strange, even for Kafka — in fact, it initially makes the story seem like kind of a “shaggy dog” story. After detailing the rise and fall of a professional faster, Kafka stages his death scene:
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Kafka as muse

The fine arts course I’m teaching at Shimer is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has inspired countless works of music and visual art. It strikes me that if any more recent figure has the potential to serve as such a productive basis for art, it has to be Kafka. The Trial cries out for operatic treatment. A ballet of “Josephine the Singer” would be inspired. Imagine what visual artists could do with Odradek!

What do you think, readers?

A way out

This post calling for a moratorium on “don’t go to grad school” advice columns, along with a post that captures the appeal of Don Draper in a way that challenges my conclusions in Why We Love Sociopaths, an old post of mine about class and academia, and some discussions with Brad yesterday, makes me think of a quote from Kafka’s “Report to an Academy” that I have always found deeply moving:

No, it was not freedom I wanted. Just a way out; to the right, to the left, wherever; I made no other demands; even if the way out should only be a delusion; my demand was small, the delusion would not be greater. To move on, to move on! Anything but standing still with my arms raised, pressed flat against a crate wall.