This is the first post in a series documenting texts, images, cases and legislation that are important or influential on my research. Not limited to legal or theoretical text, but encompassing the broad and eclectic range of sources that a critical scholar may draw upon, I hope that this will serve as a partial archive of influences on my thinking throughout my research and writing.
I’ve noticed a change in the way that lists work on traditional media like television and newspapers (including their web form) and on mediums that have always existed on the Internet. Although not prescriptive or universally applicable, traditional media tends to employ the list as a countdown – here is a list of the 100 Greatest Books or films or albums, starting with numbers 90 to 100 and the next ten will be published every day until we get to number one – whilst websites such as Buzzfeed will say 27 Times Cats Owned the Internet, in no particular order.
All of which is to say that this being a blog, and the time I have to edit my own work rather limited in between PhD, work and starting a business, it is going to take on the Here is a List of Things in No Particular Order form. Or perhaps, In the Order of Where My Brain Has Landed. So, please don’t take this as me advocating for China Miéville over Kafka or for Judith Butler over Michel Foucault. It is an atemporal and a-hierarchical archive.
So, Kafka is first, because of course we are drawn to our nightmares first.
Fateless Fate and Bureaucracy
Kafka’s characters are on a conveyor belt – from the first sentence, their last is decided.
Gregor Samsa will remain the monstrous, scuttling beast, whose form demands that he slip into the dark spaces under furniture. We hate insects because they live in the dark where we cannot see them, waiting to brush a furry, ticklish feeler across our skin, but insects live in the dark because we hate them. Josef K starts The Trial already accused. He will not escape the sentence. Neither will the administrator In the Penal Colony, whose machine at once creates the crime and punishes the crime and whose subjection to the machine he speaks so lovingly of seems inevitable.
However, the conveyor belt of narrative motion is not the arc of fate, where each thing that happens to a protagonist is designed to prepare them for their destiny. It matters little what they do. Once the first sentence is over, the machine is rolling and they will meet their fateless ends.
The first sentence of the story can be compared with the sentence of law – but the judgement itself appears to have taken place off-page. The authority of advocates/lawyers in The Trial is unquestionable but their character, and the character of the judges, the court and the agents of the law appear morally poisoned. And yet, Josef K keeps getting told he has no choice but to go along with the process.
It is the bureaucracy of outcomes and pre-determined conclusions that surrounds Kafka’s characters. The stories induce a feeling of nausea from being shown a series of grotesque people, situations and feelings whilst being carried along the juddering bureaucratic machine. The nausea is also the result of an uncanniness – the characters look human (even poor Gregor still sounds human in his thoughts) but they behave as though acting out tableaus from a tradition that neither we, nor the main characters, are a part of and so have no hope of deciphering. There’s a sense of some code or puppet strings determining the action, but it is behind the stage, and someone has confused the role we should be playing but there is nothing to be done.
It is this sense of systems that are both opaque and inevitable at the same time that has led so many scholars to finding Kafka vividly articulating experiences of legal systems and of modernity.