The Bickerstaffe Record

The world beyond West Lancashire

Franz Kafka and the Left: reclaiming political genius

02.26.09 | 1 Comment

This is a somewhat edited and tightened version of something I wrote a while back.  Long post alert – 2,650 words, so pdf file here for ease of reading.

 Would Franz Kafka be secretary to West Lancashire Constituency Labour Party, and a general out-and about Labour activist if he a) lived in West Lancashire b) was alive?  Yes, judging by his writings, I think he probably would, as long as he’d finished his last great novel by then,  I suspect he’d have made a mean minute taker.   Now this may seem a slightly outlandish claim, I accept, but if you’ll bear with me… 

There are about as many ‘interpretations’ of Kafka’s work as numbers of doors I’ve knocked on and asked people if they wouldn’t mind voting Labour this time around.  And that’s well more than 10.  

There are some I don’t buy – it’s all just a straight condemnation of early 20thcentury bureaucracy because he had to work hard in a dull office, for example.  I mean, how does the explain Amerika (otherwise called The Stoker or The Lost One etc. in English as well but I’ll stick with the title in still the most common translation, and the one I’ve got to hand)?  And until recently, until persuaded otherwise by a very clever person on the internet (see below), I wasn’t convinced by wholly ‘pyschoanalytic’ explanations, though it was fairly obvious that Kafka had a grasp of Freudian concepts of the ego/id, and the text is littered with what we might now call Freudian slips, where the unconscious (or ‘id’) peeps through the surface of the page.  This is facilitated by his regular use of the literary device of ‘erlebte Rede (‘experienced speech’) or indirect free speech, which collapses first and third person narrative; and indeed I note in my internet wanderings here and somewhere else I’ve forgotten, that Kafka was studious in the way he edited his work  to create this effect. The notion that central to Kafka’s work is the tension between the ego and the id (in modern society), and that alienation, despair and death comes from the suppression of the id at the expense of the ego, is straightforward enough to sustain.  We can just look at the way Kafka’s characters die for that evidence. K (The Trial) dies ‘as though the shame were meant to outlive him’ because he never accepts his guilt – he never accepts that he is guilty of the suppression of his unconscious desires.

Gregor (Metamorphosis), on the other hand, dies happy (and his family goes out into the light for the first time in months) because he becomes accepting of the animal he is.  When does Gregor being to move towards a happy death? When his sister plays the violin – music transcends – and when he starts to accept that he is an animal (his id) rather than struggle against it.  

K (The Trial) goes the opposite way – creating rational argument to seek to win out over what must remain irrational because it is of the subconscious. Why does the officer in the penal colony willingly choose death through what to the explorer seems like (pre-modern) savagery, and yet still not get  ‘redemption’ on his face as he dies? Well to be honest it’s years since I read it so I’ve forgotten how I used to think of that one.  Anyway, it’s bound to be because he refuses to ‘de-rationalise’ experience, just trust me on that one. 

And of course The Castle ends with death in defeat, but reconcilation with defeat by what-is-irrational. But that is not all there is to Kafka, not by a country doctor’s mile. 

While Kafka’s work is ‘timeless’ in the way set out – a message about needing to be true to yourself – such a relatively straightfoward interpretation risks leaving out from it a load of the words he actually wrote, especially about women. 

To deal with this we need to set his work back into its  historic context of a new modernity/bureacuracy which was, for Kafka, JUST THEN heightening that level of alienation,  through the rise of an early capitalist consumerist society. 

Ultimately, Kafka does not just, I suggest, question how people’s minds work within a social context, but also how ‘real’ that social context is in the first place. 

In this respect he presages (indeed is still ahead of) much of postmodern philosophical thought, and is the reason he is relevant to the Left and even to Labour – yes, I will get back to that.  Indeed I would argue that he is more relevant in the early 21st century than when leading thinkers in the left – notably Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin sought to claim him as one of our own some fifty years ago. A useful starting for that interpretative journey from an interpretation of Kafka as a writer that just ‘messes with your head’ to one of Kafka as sooneone who has profoundly important things to say to us about a  century later is, I am latterly persuaded, Jacques Lacan’s Marxian re-interpretation of Freud, who (as we have seen) may have been at least an indirect influence on Kafka. 

Now Lacanian psychoanalysis is notoriously difficult to understand – indeed there are those who suggest that Lacan wrote impenetrably because he was, in the end, talking pure bollocks, whether or not in a knowingly ironic manner. 

I don’t side with this argument (at least until I actually try to read his stuff), but I am happy to acknowledge that his primary texts are simply too hard for me and my small-size brain to handle, and I need to turn to intermediaries to get what he’s on about. 

Fortunately, when there’s Slajov Zizek around to write a ‘How to Read’ book on Jacques Lacan (those publishers must be chuffed with themselves), you’re in pretty safe hands, especially as it’s free on the internet as well.

So, what happens if you take a Lacanian-as-understood-by-Zizek approach to the text of The Trial, for example?

What happends is that, suddenly, the apparent irrationality of the Law  starts to reflect the inherent irrationality of the ‘desiring agency’ of Lacanian psychoanalysis.  That is to say, the law is all-that-is-desire, and in Lacanian terms the Marxian dialectic of structure and agency, the essential incompatibility of which creates the alienation of the individual, is collapsed into a permance of alienation, because ‘the law’ controls both K’s desire and that which is desired.  This ties into later elaborations in Lacan, in which he expands upon the Marxist concept of surplus value to include what he terms ‘jouissance’ (or enjoyment). Similar to the notion of surplus value, Lacan holds that any social enjoyment we get through work, leisure, consumption, sex etc.  comes a at cost, and is mediated through some bureaucratic agency, and intensified through the subject’s own compulsion to enjoy. This enjoyment can never be fully realised because it is mediated through these agencies,  which ‘skim’ off ever greater surpluses, leaving only enough enjoyment to engender further (obsessive) compulsions, to further consume and enjoy.   And so it in The Trial. It’s as if the Law operates both as the site/structure of obscene enjoyment (the magistrates’ books are full of porn, the couple have sex at the back of the examination room), and as the agency compelling K to enjoy while also forcing its prohibitions (the student working for the court carries off the washer woman whom K was trying to seduce).  

The relationship of women to K and to the Law is central to the key concept of this book. The Law is a wholly unknowable entity, from which things emerge/disappear but no answers can be given.  K receives no answer from the Law as it has none to give him.

What, then, does desire (the Law?) want? It wants K to keep on desiring, which is why the Law in the book permits an unlimited postponement maintaining desire until death, and even beyond as the shame of (unfulifilled) desire goes with K to the grave.  In short, Kafka expresses, in poetic form, a post-Marxist analysis of what it is to be alienated’, which only rears its head in philosophy some 50 years later.  And he’s easier to understand. 

(In passing, I think there’s a parallel with Kundera’s ‘treatment’ of women in the Unbearable Lightness of Being, where – and Kundera is rather more hopeful about stuff than K – the skimming of the surplus value related to sexual ejoyment actually declines as the hero (whose name escapes me) strives towards some form of revolutionary consciousness.) But this is not where it stops – if it did, it would be impressive, and Kakfa’s work would still be captivating,  but hardly something to the left to hold on to now as important for the times that are coming. 

For me, the pinnacle of Kafka’s intellectual outpouring is NOT the Trial, though it may be the most perfect work in terms of how it entwines form and meaning (though I’d argue that Metamorphosis and The Castle are both up there).  For me, the pinnacle is the last (unfinished) novel, Amerika. 

Amerika is the oft overlooked third big novel, ‘the lighthearted one’ which doesn’t really fit with the other two.  What Amerika is, though, is a step forward in Kafka’s ‘postmodern’ vision, and one which takes us beyond Lacan to the at once harder edged, but ultimately more liberating social theory of Baudrillard (at least in his last work, The Intelligence of Evil: The Lucidity Pact).   Baudrillard is of course most famous (and most pilloried) for his concept of a late capitalist society which has become a totalising ‘virtual reality’, a world in which consumer overload means there is no longer even any potential for the kind of ‘alienation’ that the left has hitherto set out as an inevitablity of the surplus value-based system of capitalism. This is because the concept of alienation in itself proposes some form of residual reality, however unattainable, or in Marxist terms, however far from the consciousness of the proletariat..   

It is possible to conceive of the Trial, and The Castle, as just such ‘realities’, from which only knowledge in death can release us (and I’m sure David Bowie had been reading Kafka rather than early Baudrillard when he penned Quicksand on Hunky Dory).  But Amerika provides the resolution to the philosophical impasse, just as The Lucidity Pact does so about a century later.  Essentially, the setting of Amerika IS a virtual reality.  It is no longer the near but never totalising (consciousness-excluding)  universes of The Trial or The Castle, where desire is unfulfilled and the end must be death and/or shame, depending on the level of guilt acceptance; instead it is a complete world,  where things seem as they are because what is written of them is based on photographic representations and travel guides  – the early 20th century equivalent of the television travel programme, in which you enjoy a virtual holiday without having to leave your armchair). But, as with Baudrillard’s Lucidity Pact, there is a liberation even within the acknoweldgment that there is no escape. 

It is not coincidence that Rossmann, the central character, joins a theatre – the epitome of artificial representation – and that this seems to be the key to his ultimate happiness (albeit in an unfinished novel).

Moreover, it is no coincidence that, at the end of the novel, he chooses to take a technical position (notably returning to a childhood daydream) instead of an acting position in the theatre.  He is at once accommodating himself to the fact that the theatre is the best place for him, and taking satisfaction that he is able to see it at one (small) step’s remove.    Importantly for the process of reclaiming Kafka for the Left, it is through engagement and solidarity with his fellow workers (how different to K, who seeks to dominate) – workers who are a disparate bunch but who get on fine, despite different language backgrounds  – that Rossmann nears contentment.   

The way Kafka set out this contentment brings us full circle to Metamorphosis, as the final (unfinished) passage has the train with the theatre on board moving out into the vastness of the nature of America, similar to, but on a vaster scale, than the walk in the springtime that Gregor’s family take after his death in Metamorphosis.. Here, it seems, is a poetic resolution of how to live (even in the literal sense) with the fact that all is unreal, unknowable and alienating. 

Which is precisely what Baudrillard is up to in the Lucidity Pact: “At bottom…..we are faced with an alternative: either we suppose a real that is entirely permeable to history (to meaning, to the idea, to interpretation, to decision) and we ideologize or, by contrast, we suppose a real that is ultimately impenetrable and irreducible and in that case we poetize.” (p. 63). 

(I am indebted to a certain Toodle Noodle, commenting at Dave’s Part, for this insight on this,  and I use the same quotation because it is the best one.)  Baudrillard, then seeks out – as an explicitly political project – a (poeticised?) ‘otherness’ of thinking, as a means to create a strained but workable compromise-with-virtuality by which we might live. 

Kafka, it seems to me, goes one stage further in his explicitly political ending to Amerika – it is is through communication and solidarity with other human beings that we actually manage to accommodate ourselves to this ‘otherness’. And here, strange though it may seem, I think both Kakfa and Baudrillard meet Jurgen Habermas and his chunky Theory of Communcative Action coming the other way. 

Habermas gets there by a completely different route – rejecting from the off what he considered to be the innate conservatism of poststructuralist/modernist relativity (especially and a tidgy bt unfairly, Foucault), in favour of an appeal to ‘ideal speech’ as the foundation for a new call to universal and interpersonal values.    But in the end, it seems to me, there’s an agreement that, while the ‘soul searching’ of the past fifty years of postmodernist philosophical development may have been necessary and worthwhile, that it’s also been regressive in terms of commitment to action, and that it’s time to move on with a renewed commitment to a clarity of (political) communication – whether that be as a result of some filthy pact with devilish virtuality, or because  the values of the enlightenment has been rekindled.  And what, ultimately, is communication in the context of universal values?  It’s solidarity. 

The main difference between the poltical philosophy journeys of Baudrillard/Habermas and Kafka?  Well Kafka travelled the road in a few short tuberculous years in the early 20th century, and used a lot less words to get there.  And for that reason alone, Kafka is worth reclaiming by the Left for what he is – not the Czech ‘enigma’, or the troubled genius, but a genius political philosopher a hundred years ahead of his time.  As I’ve noted, there have been plenty of  attempts to claim Kafka as one of our own (Adorno, Arendt), and more recently Michael Lowy has sought to identify Kafka’s ‘libertarian socialist’  leanings.  Recently as well, Sinead Kennedy had a pretty good stab, albeit in a brief article, at it, analysing from ‘the hard left’ how he’d been given a pretty rough ride by Stalin and his not-very-good-at-philosophy-or-art mates, but how he makes a lot of sense to the left. I contend that he makes more than a lot of sense.  I contend that he should be regarded as a leading intellectual light of the Left, a key weapon in the intellectual armoury of the Left as it seeks to combat the thirty-year philosophical hegemony of the New Right. 

He should be ‘required reading’ for the Left. 

So, back to the key starting question.  Would Franz Kafka have been the West Lancs CLP secretary.  Well, maybe that’s a stretch too far.  A hell of a Political Edcuation Officer though. 

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