Aesthetics for Birds

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What Makes Kafka Philosophical?



What follows is a guest post by Espen Hammer on his recent edited volume Kafka’s The Trial: Philosophical Perspectives.

When reading works of literature, philosophers often look for very general assertions of a quasi-theoretical nature. Thus, Camus’s The Stranger – to pick an obvious example  ̶  is supposed to demonstrate the absurdity of human existence. Or, if that doesn’t satisfy them, they typically start discussing entirely abstract questions of meaning, representation, and reference – of interest to academics steeped in Frege, Russell, and Davidson yet devoid of any concrete relation to actual texts of literary significance.

Kafka, however, on which a recent edited volume of mine entitled Kafka’s The Trial: Philosophical Perspectives (OUP, 2018) focuses, is peculiar in that his texts so vigorously seem to resist such general accounts. To be sure, many philosophers have tried to see in Kafka a kind of visionary thinker either of human existence as such or under specific circumstances, in particular those of modernity. Classical accounts of The Trial have focused on theology (“this is what the human condition looks like without God”), psychoanalysis (“this is what guilt and paranoia looks like”), and sociology (“this is the fate of the individual in a society integrated through anonymous, bureaucratic measures”). The list, of course, could be made very long. Note, though, that all the suggested interpretive keys stand in danger of violating our sense of Kafka’s mystery and ineffability. They all do what philosophers too often do: they reduce the text to a unified set of graspable, general meanings.

What is it that, in the absence of thesis-mongering, might make The Trial a philosophical novel? The answer I would propose is two-fold. First, qua philosophical, The Trial is a work of literary modernism. By that I do not mean “experimental” in the loose sense we assign to poetry by Apollinaire or collages by Kurt Schwitters. This novel contains no literary experimentation in the narrow sense. On the contrary, Kafka, being influenced by such master narrators as Goethe and Dostoevsky, aimed for clarity and articulation, writing stories that stand out by their extraordinary display of narrative economy as well as attention to significant detail. Rather, by literary modernism I mean a form of literary discourse that pays sustained attention to its own conditions of existence. The literary modernist dreams of a text that is fully self-authorizing – one that reflectively questions itself and its very capacity for making sense.

The modernism of The Trial is as radical as it gets. Kafka may indeed have been deeply versed in theology and able to translate this interest into his writings. He may perhaps have felt the suffering involved in Freud’s accounts of early childhood trauma. Writing in a turbulent Eastern European location at the outset of the First World War, and being employed in the insurance industry, he cannot have been oblivious to the kinds of experiences associated at the time with notions of alienation and reification. Yet the truly important thing – and this is the second part of how I would account for its philosophical implications – going on in The Trial is its questioning of the very capacity we have, as linguistic beings, to make sense.

In the Wittgensteinian view of language on which I would base such a claim, humans make sense when they manage to insert their words into the right kinds of contexts (or “language games”). The sentence “This is a robin” makes sense in contexts in which the question whether something is a robin can meaningfully be asked. We know what a pupil struggling to learn the names of birds means when he or she says such a thing. However, it makes little or no sense when no such context is provided. The philosopher G. E. Moore, who in front of a tree claimed to know that “this is a tree” when no issues of epistemic failure may be raised, produced little more than emptiness. Why would someone in perfect viewing conditions, faced with such an object and with their cognitive faculties unimpaired, say such a thing? “Language,” Wittgenstein would famously write, “has gone on holiday.”

The Trial abounds with strange, puzzling assertions verging on this kind of emptiness. The information being passed on may at first glance seem clear and comprehensible. However, its frequent elusiveness and obscurity cannot help escaping us. Words float around, failing to be fully intelligible and to make a point. Why, for example, is the painter Titorelli telling K. that he will only help him if the trial goes well? (If the trial goes well, K. doesn’t need his help.) Indeed, what is actually the court before which K. stands, and which slowly yet persistently destroys him? To what kind of order is it answerable? To what might K. appeal in order to demonstrate his presumed innocence? Also, throughout the novel various characters talk of arrests and court proceedings. Yet no clarity is provided about what exactly these procedures involve, or why anyone would instigate them. Of what crime is K. supposed to be guilty? No one seems ready to stand behind his or her words by making them matter. At stake is our very capacity to achieve intelligibility. The characters in The Trial experience each other as foreign not because they are unaware of each other’s identities, but, rather, because they seem utterly incapable of revealing themselves to their fellow human beings.

Is this – that we may find ourselves being mutually incomprehensible, that the generalized context of significance that we call “a language” may fail us, leaving us entirely isolated – perhaps the most timeless warning of Kafka’s The Trial? The pervasive anonymity that Kafka found in the functionaries and the bureaucracy of his own day has not disappeared. Our digitalized, information-saturated, surveillance-oriented surroundings are hardly any less intransparent than the court of that novel. The question I take from my re-reading of Kafka is how our standing as concrete, irreplaceable and vulnerable human beings can be protected from this onslaught of decontextualized speech and symbolization.

If Kafka’s text is philosophical, it is because it problematizes our very capacity for sense-making. While devoid of the kinds of generalities that philosophers usually look for, it becomes an exercise in the attainment of selfhood.

Notes on the Contributor
Espen Hammer is Professor of Philosophy at Temple University, Philadelphia. He is the author of, among other books, Stanley Cavell: Skepticism, Subjectivity, and the Ordinary (Polity Press, 2002), Adorno and the Political (Routledge, 2005), Philosophy and Temporality from Kant to Critical Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and Adorno’s Modernism: Art, Experience, and Catastrophe (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He is the editor of German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives (Routledge, 2007), Theodor W. Adorno II: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers (Routledge, 2015), and Kafka’s The Trial: Philosophical Perspectives (Oxford University Press, 2018). He is also the co-editor with Peter E. Gordon and Axel Honneth of the Routledge Companion to the Frankfurt School (Routledge, 2019) and, with Peter E. Gordon and Max Pensky, of A Companion to Adorno (Wiley-Blackwell, 2019).

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