AGENCY IN THE SPACE OF REASONS
Josep E. Corbí
Agency calls for rationalizing explanations, that is, for the ability to make sense of one’s own actions. On the received view, rationalizing explanations consist of a suitable combination of two kinds of states with opposite directions of fit, namely: beliefs and desires. In The Retrieval of Ethics (OUP, 2009), Talbot Brewer objects that rationalizing explanations cannot simply rely on the fact that a certain action contributes to bringing about a state of affairs that the agent desires; the agent must also have some inkling how this action is good or valuable and, ultimately, what its place is in a full and flourishing human life. Complementarily, Brewer elaborates an alternative account of human agency focused on the notion of dialectical activity and the sort of engagement and practical thinking that it requires. The Castle by Franz Kafka will allow me to strengthen Brewer’s case against the received view with some additional lines of argument, but also to challenge Brewer’s alternative approach in some crucial respects. As a result, a third picture will be sketched as to the nature of our agency that aims to be more in tune with K.’s experience.
KAFKA, WELLES and THE TRIAL
In this paper, based on work with Tzachi Zamir, I distinguish between adaptations of literary works which take their originals merely as a source, and those which create a reciprocal relationship to the original, setting up something akin to a „dialogue“ with the original’s themes and modes of representation. In the light of this distinction I ask how successful we might consider Welles‘ film to be an example of works in this latter category.
ON DEFERRAL. KAFKA AND DERRIDA BEFORE THE LAW
The paper focuses on Derrida’s reading of Kafka’s Before the Law in order to point out that late deconstruction’s ethical goals are closely related to Kafka’s understanding of deferred meaning. As Derrida pointed out, Kafka conceived law as an aporia: the law is principally accessible to all citizens; moreover, everyone is obliged to know it. But, at the same time, the law remains inaccessible: it is guarded before citizen’s gaze. Apparently, juridical mediators could help to make the law „comprehensible“, but they don’t: their parasitical work of „translation“ helps only to keep pushing further the deferral.
Derrida’s deconstruction presented in Prejudices and Force of Law is surprisingly close to Kafka’s work. Similarly to Kafka, Derrida tries to disturb the „total“ mystical presence of the Law by showing the problem of its ontological absence. Both of them operate a subversive movement, which translates idioms into aporias. Derrida’s ethic of mistrust is inspired by Kafka’s description of the trial as a paralytic place, where it’s impossible to formulate a problem and to propose a solution. Finally, both Kafka and Derrida melancholically turn to resignation.
Nevertheless, there is an important difference. In Kafka, parasites are source of negative emotions and fatigue of the main character. Although the parasites give him advices to accept his situation as inevitable, he proudly refuses and when he resignedly accepts it, he dies. In Derrida, on the contrary, parasites positively establish the melancholic play of supplementarity. As deconstructed meaning is constantly deferred, general parasitism is seen as inevitable.
KAFKA’S WORLDS: GAPS AND DENSITY
Fictional worlds theory teaches us that in terms of saturation intensional function (roughly speaking, this function is “responsible“ for the density of fictional worlds), we are able to analyze and describe the structure of a fictional world from the perspectivy of its “fullnest“ or “emptiness“ . On the one hand, fictional worlds are considered limited in terms of the finite number of items they can encompass (due to the finitness of the texts on which they are based), on the other hand, fictional worlds must be entities full and consistent enough to be able to deliver their meaning.
The aim of my talk is to focus on selected Kafka’s worlds from the gap–density point of view: specific strategies used by Kafka in order to construct a fictional world will be depicted, thoroughly analyzed, and described from this perspective.
„ONLY FOR YOU“ – KAFKA’S GATE REVISITED
Kafka’s short story „Before the Law“ is about the Law. And yet as readers we are in front of it as in front of the Law: his text, for each reader, becomes or reproduces the very situation it describes. Readers read it – and can become the Law in turn, guaranteed as such by the more powerful Law they guard. This paper explores the readings of the fable/parable offered by Sartre and Derrida, taking in themes of responsibility and freedom, literature and non-literary fictions, laws and justice, and Wittgenstein’s affirmation of the mystical.
FINDING AN AUDIENCE
In this presentation, I consider some ways in which Kafka’s writings find an audience. Kafka can assist you, of course, in finding the audience you belong to. But his writing also is that of a kind of reader, a reader who has to deform himself in order to become the audience for the writing (and living) that others present. What then is the audience for that writing? How do his writings assist you in finding yourself as an audience for that writing? One way to see this point proceeds via Ted Cohen’s essay on jokes and the audiences for certain kinds of jokes. Another thread can be found in Benno Wagner’s essay on Kafka as Nietzsche’s “first reader.” Yet a third is to be found in the remarks of J.M. Coetzee’s character, Elizabeth Costello, who is one kind of reader of Kafka’s essay/story, “A Report to an Academy.”
THE INCOMPREHENSIBILITY OF THE WORLD AND THE INEXTRICABILITY OF THE GUILT
Our competence as Kafka’s readers does not consist in our ability to discover hidden messages or hidden links with the author’s biography, but in our sensitivity for the situations in which Kafka’s protagonists find themselves – which cannot have any other source than (and should not be separated from) our sensitivity for the situations we experience in our everyday lives. I will focus on a few selected parameters of these situations: their physical components (or: various ways in which they are physically constituted); their specific (“Kafkaesque“) strangeness, the corresponding inability of Kafka’s protagonists to find a way of behaving which would fit into these situations, and the readers’ inability to comprehend what happens to Kafka’s characters in these situations. The latter does not amount to inability to understand Kafka’s text and to get access to its literary functions (which should be compensated by discovering its „hidden sense“), neither it undermines our ability to relate these functions to our own everyday experience. On the contrary, the key function of the text consists precisely in this: the failures of our attempts to make sense of the Kafkaesque situations in ordinary pragmatic terms should remind us about the incomprehensibility of our own world, precisely like the failures of our attempts at continuous reading of late Beckett’s texts are supposed to let us experience various sides of the universal mess (the literary work being part and product of this mess). The incomprehensibility of the Kafkaesque situations and of the world they are anchored in implies the “inextricability of the guilt” – in that sense that it is impossible to identify those elements of the protagonist’s biography which constitute his guilt and separate them from the rest.
THE ANIMAL THAT LAUGHS
Early on, Deleuze and Guattari insisted on the presence of a subterranean and diabolical laughter throughout all of Kafka’s writings, which they opposed to the dominant existential, psychoanalytic, and theological traditions of secondary interpretations that focused almost exclusively on the themes of infinite guilt, resentment, masochistic sadness, and stoic resignation. In their 1972 work, pour une littérature mineure, they attempt to detonate all these “sad passions” that surrounded and obscured Kafka’s own expression, liberating the joyful intensities of laughter However, in Kafka’s own self-representation—especially in the letters and the diaries—it is the same “sad passions” and the situation of being held hostage by them, which provide the very condition of humor that marks all the comic possibilities of “playing with the Other” (Levinas), that is, of deferring the state of subjection to the accusative mode, or of being a subject to and for others. Of course, Kafka emblematizes—as a constant source of his own self thematization— the writer’s desire to escape from the world of others, which is certainly not divorced from the concupiscence that belongs to Gyge’s magical cloak of invisibility, which; moreover, in Kafka’s case, actually becomes a Dracula’s cape as he has been accused by critics of betraying almost every obligation, of breaking every promise and oath, in short, of being guilty. In some way, this is what Deleuze and Guattari wanted to free their “Kafka” from, as if liberating him from the great confinement of his critics, breaking the chains of interpretation, allowing him to take flight, ‘stealing head over heels and away,” to quote a line by Red Peter from „A Report to the Academy.“ However, in Deleuze and Guattari’s representation, Kafka’s laughter only belongs to animals, and does manage to address the real function of the comic in Kafka’s writings, which is its social function. As Bergson writes, beginning with Aristotle, the human (zoon politikón) is not only defined as a species that has the capacity for political life, but also as “an animal that laughs”.
KAFKA’S „UNDERGROUND MAN“: REFLECTIONS ON THE BURROW
In this talk I will explore a variety of interpretations of Kafka’s enigmatic and intriguing narrative, The Burrow, focusing most of my attention on the epistemic situation of its unnamed and minimally described protagonist, whom I will call the Burrower, and the unbanishable existential anxiety that is its upshot. Along the way I will make connections with some other literary works, most notably Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. Toward the end I will address the issue of Kafka’s narrative being unfinished, and whether that is a cause for regret.
NOISE: KAFKA’S LESSON
For all its reliance on logos and the powers of analysis, Kafka’s writing is concerned with, and almost obsessively explores and stages scenes of misapprehension, misunderstanding, communicational disorder as well as silence, interference and noise. In my paper, I will attempt to assess the explicative possibilities of the notion of noise, following the path the notion took in connection with information theory and further (Claude Shannon, Umberto Eco, Miroslav Červenka, Michel Serres). I will pay particular attention to that point where the conceptual import of information theory faced its limits (if not dead end), felt not least in the area of literary criticism and literary theory, due to the unwillingness of information theory to make a distinction between information and meaning, as well as between noise as disintegration or absence of sense and noise as a possibility of order. Even though my paper cannot achieve much beyond a preliminary mapping of directions, some questions seem to be immediately pressing in this context. Do we need a notion of “levels” in order to understand how Kafka manages to represent a dissipation of successful communicational structures within a dense and highly “organized” texture of a literary text? Can we actually usefully approach Kafka’s texts (either those published in his lifetime or the ones published posthumously, to apply a distinction tentatively) in terms of “organization” and “semantic density”, or even intentionality? And even if the relation between indeterminacy and interpretation (again, for the sake of methodological cohesion, information theory will be used as an initial reference point) can be approached from different angles and traditions (including, for instance, Kabbalistic interpretation, or psychoanalysis), can we assume a connection between the emergence of “new media” like phonograph and film at the turn of the century and Kafka’s strategies of textual disorientation – including the usage of free indirect discourse which Charles Bally (1914) calls “a phonographic reproduction” of thoughts and speech and Ann Banfield “unspeakable sentences”; representation of not-fully-human consciousness and non-human entities; exploitation of temporal inconsistencies, of repetition, etc.?
KAFKA’S THE JUDGEMENT AND THE LOGIC OF THE ORDINARY READING OF LITERATURE
My talk will focus on Kafka’s short narrative The Judgement (Das Urteil, 1913). I intend to give a concise presentation of the story (the ”Geschichte”, to use Kafka’s own characterization), explain how I myself read it, and also, briefly, address some of the questions concerning possible ways of approaching Kafka’s works to which the organizers point in their invitation to the colloquium.
However, the main point of my talk will be to sketch an overall perspective on the ordinary reading of literature. It is commonly believed that interpreting critics and ordinary readers basically have to perform the same task: that of understanding the meaning of the text in question. I will argue that this view seriously misconstrues the activities of both critic and reader. I will also discuss, in a more tentative fashion, what one is rationally justified to demand from ordinary readings of literature performed for the sake of understanding and experiencing the literary text. This discussion, too, may be of some use for the understanding of Kafka’s achievement and of The Judgement, even if his story will mainly play the part of an illustrative example in the latter part of my talk.
ABSORPTION AND RADIANCE, EXTERIORITY AND MIRRORING
Focusing primarily on Kafka’s short narratives, the paper will attempt to describe the peculiar „physics“ of the inner and the outer in Kafkian environments: the capacity or proclivity of a subject to absorb its surroundings or to permeate it, and on the other hand, the surprising opacity and impermeableness which characters can be faced with.
KAFKA’S EXCLUSION OF THE LAW OF THE EXCLUDED MIDDLE
Kafka’s prose is characterized by polarities described as contrasts, paradoxes, contradictions and ambiguities. In this paper they are studied as violations of the Law of the Excluded Middle in classic logic. An array of examples from the novel The Trial, the short stories The Judgement and The Burrow, ending with Kafka last novel The Castle, are presented and discussed.
FRANZ KAFKA, THOMAS BERNHARD AND THE COLLAPSE OF THOROUGH THINKING
Observing and describing, together with tireless questioning and inquiring are at the centre of many discussions and soliloquies of Franz Kafka’s and Thomas Bernhard’s characters. The characters strive to understand the world but they never come to a satisfying conclusion: it is always possible to ask yet another question. Thinking, an endeavour to understand, is thus doomed to collapse and so are the characters. They fail, go insane, die, or they never begin to live.
There are similar motifs how Kafka and Bernhard give expression to the question of thinking, as well as differences in what they believe to be the core of the problem. By drawing on Bernhard’s novels Gehen, Alte Meister and Holzfällen, and on selected Kafka’s works, I will focus on the reasons why observing fails as the way to knowledge for Kafka and Bernhard, why knowledge is deemed deceptive and why (and how) thinking has to be mastered, if one is to remain sane and capable of action.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE A BEETLE? KAFKA AND IMAGINING THE IMPOSSIBLE
In ”The Metamorphosis” (Die Verwandlung), Gregor Samsa is turned into a beetle. Then we follow his travails as a beetle, a beetle that still on some level is identical with Gregor Samsa – the story is not just that Gregor Samsa stops existing. We could perhaps see this as a story about personal identity. But it seems that there is a peculiar impossibility at work here (of course something that Kafka is well aware of all the time). How could the human being, the travelling salesman, Gregor Samsa be identical with a beetle? Still, it seems that we are able to imagine what is going on in the story. Imaginability or conceivability here exceeds possibility, virtually what sense of possibility we bring up. Certain stories may even go beyond what is logically possible. But there are still some kinds of limits to our freedom in making up stories. A story where Gregor Samsa wakes up as the number 2 doesn’t grip us. Kafka, and certain other writers, seem to find the points where there is something of interest to be shown when we stretch the limits of the conceivable.
My talk tries to sort out these issues.
COGNITIVE REALISM AND THE AMBIVALENT FASCINATION OF THE KAFKAESQUE
Emily T. Troscianko
Ever since people have been reading Kafka, they have had the feeling that what they are reading is at the same time deeply strange and wholly familiar, and have felt both unsettled and compelled by it. Early on, these mixtures were encapsulated in the new coinage ‚Kafkaesque‘. If we want to understand the source of these complex responses, and so how the Kafkaesque comes about, we need to understand what happens in the encounter between mind and text: what’s going on when we read Kafka? One way to pose this question is to ask how the minds in Kafka’s texts relate to the minds that engage with them. And a good place to start is the (visual) imagination, because this is one of the primary means by which we engage with fictional worlds.
Analysis of vision and imagination as they are evoked in Kafka’s characters and as they operate in readers‘ minds reveals a direct correspondence between the two: a striking and uncommon ‚cognitive realism‘ which may be able to account for some of the potency of Kafka’s style. Cognitive realism can serve as a framework for analysing the interplay between fictional minds, readers‘ minds, and ‚folk psychology‘ (the intuitions we have about how minds work). I explore what we can learn, using this framework, about the relation between Kafka’s worlds and our own, and what this in turn can tell us about our minds and how they construct realities through the complex pleasures of literary interpretation.