Lecture Four: Kafka and the Crisis of the Society of Discipline
Reading: Franz Kafka, In The Penal Colony.
[Updated October 26, 2013]
So far in our attempts to explain the origins of Cultural Studies we have noted many instances of breaks or discontinuities in its history and geography. I know that thus far the sheer variety of subjects touched on and the range of references might give the appearance of an unstructured curio cabinet. There are two reasons for this misleading, though understandable, appearance.
First, the work of Cultural Studies was very much marginal and always critical, even when its was committed to a particular cause. This distance from the nodal points of authority is one of the treads of continuity that unites these works, even when direct communication was limited. Though marginal, disconnected and often exiled, like “tunnelers through a mountain working at opposite sides of the same mountain with different tools, without even knowing if they are working in each other’s direction” the work of Cultural Studies focused on the same objects of study: authority, everyday life, and the social relations of capital. These critiques converge because of their attention to these objects. It should not be surprising that in the middle of the 20th century, many were interested in questions of authority and domination, just as it is not surprising that today, these same issues continue to confront us as terror and the domination of nature.
Second, in terms of this critique of authority in these lectures, we are following a line of critique – and hopefully you have noticed this – a line of critique that is itself a critique of the very ideas of Culture and of history/identity. We have moved from the critique of Enlightenment and the notions of rational authoritarianism, to Borges and the critique of notions such as the author and the authority of the author, the text, tradition, narrative, and the self. We find this same critique, as did Borges and Adorno, in the works of Kafka. We even find writing itself brought into view as an instrument of political violence and terror. A defining characteristic of the State, as Max Weber pointed out, is that it has a monopoly on the means of violence.
As instruments, authority and terror are also artifacts of a society of discipline from its beginnings to its collapse: the apparatus of the penal colony and the rambling law courts of Orson Wells and Kafka’s The Trial are both jury rigged and on the verge of a collapse that we, like K., know already happened.
Let’s step back to the moment when the disciplinary society became threatened by its own subjects and successful expansion of the Bourgeoisie. Recall that famous assertion from the Communist Manifesto that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Straightforward as this might sound, it is actually rather nuanced: we are speaking of society and society is the history of multiple class struggles, but as to what a class is, that will always remain ambiguous in Marx’s writings and amorphous in reality. We do know that Engels amended this statement with a clarifying note to the 1888 English edition of the Communist Manifesto:
“That is, all written history. In 1847, the prehistory of the social organization existing previous to recorded history, was all but unknown.”
Since the writing of the Manifesto 40 years earlier, the field of Anthropology had become increasingly professionalized and interpreters of Darwin were everywhere. The work of the anthropologists Hasthausen and Morgan had established a past filed not with savages locked in a struggle of all against all, but a mosaic of primitive communistic societies “everywhere from India to Ireland” and yet they were not societies that used the written word. To Engels the decisive turn towards civilization was the general use and knowledge of written language.
So when Marx and Engels wrote that all of the history of society is the written history, they were in fact bringing together society, social conflict, and writing/civilization with the latter playing a central role in both social domination and in the domination of nature. Indeed in the note Engels refers the reader to his own work The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State where he follows Morgan in finding that the “upper stage [of Barbarism] begins with the smelting of iron and passes into civilization with the invention of Alphabetic writing and its use for literary records. Writing had to become public, rather than a special skill of the aristocracy and priesthoods. In fact, what separates the writing of civilization from the writing of Barbarism (e.g., runes) is the public consumption of writing and the expansion of readers as well.”
Marx, too, makes the connection between writing and history in The German Ideology, which you will remember from the fragment I already showed you. Marx observes that the writing of history and the modification of the earth and humans are all closely joined. So again, we have writing, history, the domination of nature, and the domination of social relations --- which together are themselves a social formation which is never without domination and repression as Freud reminds us in The Future of an Illusion.
In Capital, Marx argues that the history of the transformation from feudalism to Bourgeois society, with its creation of the “free labourer” is “written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire (Capital, vol. I, p.143). We have heard this before, you might recall, from Sade’s Julliette:
“Into hands stained by the murder of spouses and children, sodomy, killing, prostitution, and infamy, heaven has placed these riches to reward me for such abominations.”
When Benjamin wrote of the horrific beauty of Klee’s Nova Angeles, he was within an already long tradition of critique. We will hear this echoed in Nietzsche, Freud, and the darker writings of the Frankfurt School.
As the commodity is the crystallization of the accumulated labor time, so too is written history the crystallization of a real human struggle for life. The past is the accumulation of these struggles or what we can piece together from the accumulated remains, but the writing of the past is the interpretation of the past, and that means that the history of the past is always bound up with the systems of power in the present.
To understand this idea of writing and power, let’s look at this excerpt from Levi-Strauss:
“Writing is a strange thing. It would seem as if it appearance could not have failed to wreak profound changes in the living conditions of our race, and that these transformations must have been above all intellectual in character. Once men know how to write, they are enormously more able to keep in being a large body of knowledge. Writing might, that is to say, be regarded as a form of artificial memory, whose development should be accompanied by a deeper knowledge of the past and, therefore, by a greater ability to organize the present and the future. Of all the criteria by which people habitually distinguish civilization from barbarism, this should be the one most worth retaining: that certain peoples write and others do not. The first group can accumulate a body of knowledge that helps it to move ever faster toward the goal that it has assigned to itself; the second is confined within limits hat the memory of individuals can never hope to extend, and it must remain the prisoner of a history worked out from day to day, with neither a clear knowledge of its own origins nor a consecutive idea of what its future should be.
Yet nothing of what we know of writing, or of its role in evolution, can be said to justify this conception. One of the most creative phases in human history took place with the onset of the neolithic era: agriculture and the domestication of animals are only two of the developments which may be traced to this period. It must have had behind it thousands of years during which small societies of human beings were noting, experimenting, and passing on to one another the fruits of their knowledge. The very success of this immense enterprise bears witness to the rigour and the continuity of its preparation, at a time when writing was quite unknown. If writing first made its appearance between the fourth and third millennium before our era, we must see it not, in any degree, as a conditioning factor in the neolothic revolution, but rather as an already-distant and doubtless indirect result of that revolution. With what great innovation can it be linked? Where technique is concerned, architecture alone can be called into question. Yet the architecture of the Egyptians or the Sumerians was no better than the work of certain American Indians who, at the time America was discovered, were ignorant of writing. Conversely, between the invention of writing and the birth of modern science, the western world has lived through some five thousand years, during which time the sum of its knowledge has rather gone up and down than known a steady increase. It has often been remarked that there was no great difference between the life of a Greek or Roman citizen and that of a member of the well-to-do European classes in the Eighteenth century. In the neolothic age, humanity made immense strides forward without any help from writing; and writing did not save the civilizations of the western world from long periods of stagnation. Doubtless the scientific expansion of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries could hardly have occurred, had writing not existed. But this condition, however, necessary, cannot in itself explain that expansion.
If we want to correlate the appearance of writing with certain other characteristics of civilization, we must look elsewhere. The one phenomenon which has invariably accompanied it is the formation of cities and empires: the integration into a political system, that is to say, of a considerable number of individuals, and the distribution of those individuals into a hierarchy of castes and classes. Such is, at any rate, the type of development which we find, from Egypt right across to China, at the moment when writing makes its debuts; it seems to favor rather the exploitation than the enlightenment of mankind. This exploitation made it possible to assemble workpeople by the thousand and set them tasks that taxed them to the limits of their strength: to this, surely, we must attribute the beginnings of architecture as we know it. If my hypothesis is correct, the primary function of writing, as a means of communication, is to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings. The use of writing for disinterested ends, and with a view to satisfactions of the mind in the fields either of science or the arts, as a secondary result of its invention – and may even be no more than a way of reinforcing, justifying, or dissimulating its primary function.
There are, however, exceptions to this rule. Ancient Africa included empires in which several hundred thousand subjects acknowledge a singe rule; in pre-Columbian America, the Inca empire numbered several million subjects. But, alike in Africa and in America, these ventures were notable unstable: we know, for instance, that the Inca empire was established in the twelfth century or thereabouts. Pizarro’s soldiers would never have conquered it so easily if it had not already, three centuries later, been largely decomposed. And, from the little we know of the ancient history of Africa, we can divine an analogous situation: massive political groups seem to have appeared and disappeared within the space of not many decades. It may be, therefore, that these instances confirm, instead of refuting, our hypothesis. Writing may not have sufficed to consolidate human knowledge, but it may well have been indispensable to the establishment of an enduring domination. To bring the matter nearer to our own time: the European-wide movement towards compulsory education in the nineteenth century went hand in hand with the extension of military service and the systematization of the proletariat. The struggle against illiteracy is indistinguishable, at times, from the increased powers exerted over the individual citizen by the central authority. For it is only when everyone can read that Authority can decree that ‘ignorance of the law is no defense’. [Emphasis added.] – Claude Levi-Strauss, Triste Tropiques, pp.291-293.
[Mull that over for a side discussion, but frame those discussions in terms of this dialectical aspect of writing, that it is at once emancipatory and simultaneously an instrument of power. It would be intellectually dishonest to privilege the one aspect over the other simply because one appeals to our prejudices as academics.]
Levi-Strauss gets at the core of the dialectic in which I am trying to situate Kafka’s writings – and their importance for Cultural Studies: writing as a technique of Enlightenment and terror.
I should remind you again that culture in Cultural Studies consists of the artifacts and techniques of social relations. It is not about an identification with us by a veneration or valuation one’s elective affinities, nor of promoting either high or popular culture. Indeed, it is through the analysis and critique of artifacts (commodities and techniques (regulations, laws, social policy, the organization of knowledge, police powers, the State monopoly on violence, etc.) that we can begin to better understand the past and present structure of social relations.
From Sade to Conrad, Frank Norris, and Kafka, the imaginations of some writers of the bourgeois era captured glimpses of the apparatus of power, glimpses that can be directly derived from a critical inquiry into the accumulations of social life. We will see in Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil that Sam Lowery’s dreams are filled with such glimpses into the real apparatus that he sees --but does not recognize – in everyday life ...... until it is too late. But then, how could any of these works avoid providing us with these glimpses of what was for them “just the way the world is” and can we come to see our own relations of authority when we are immersed in them? It is the essence of everyday life that it appears natural, and it is the work of Cultural Studies to de-naturalize the world in order to oppose the domination of nature and humans. For the choice of the generations your own were as stark as “Socialism or Barbarism” Let’s hope that yours makes a better choice than mine, if indeed either had or has a choice.
In any event, our recent generations share the experience of terror and the internalization of terror, the naturalizing of it as “just the way the world is” is something that is shared by all in the societies of control. The difference is that at present the generalized terror has specific local effects, while the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) was also generalized in its effects. Under the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction one was always terrorized and one still is, except that now the threat we are always being reminded of is the stray bag on the subway, and not global annihilation. Not that that minor threat has gone away, it is still just present and if anything the threat is greater now than in 1960. In a sense it has become an adjunct to the global environmental crisis.
During the Cold War, we lived in a state of terror, and the State is a fundamental source of terror. After all, only States had nuclear weapons and States monopolized the scientific knowledge of modern weaponry. The State was constantly reminding us to be terrified and of the sensation of terror. We internalized that terror as M.A.D and now we do the same using WMDs.
When Henri Lefebvre wrote of our “terrorist society’ – as oppose to a merely terrorized society – he argued that this social formation “was first perceived by writers and critics” of the bourgeois era (Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World, p.143). Their writings mark the transformation from a society of discipline to a society of control and Kafka’s writings in particular are a mark of this transformation. If the writers of the bourgeois era had already grasped the extent of the repressive apparatus of Enlightenment Reason (Horkheimer), then we have ample reason to examine their works along side the other ruins. This is the reason why we turn to Sade, Conrad, Poe, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, etc., as well as Kafka and Borges. The connection between civilization and writing as both recording of history and as a mark of violence is why we must read Kafka’s The Trial and In the Penal Colony into the genealogy of Cultural Studies.
Kafka’s works abound with parables that can stand alone, such as “Before the Law” and stories within stories where we can find the repetition of everyday life – a sense of deja vu or a continual starting over/return to what is already present. But there are also the repetitions of dreams, fantasies and desires which we find intruding into and breaking off narratives. In Orson Well’s adaptation of The Trial, this is brought to the fore as K. is constantly distracted by his sexual desires from attending to “his case.” We will also see this in Gilliam’s Brazil in coming weeks.
For Adorno, Kafka’s use of deja vu is permanent:
“...each sentence says ‘interpret me’, and with it the question ‘where have I seen that before?’; the deja vu is declared permanent. Through the power with which Kafka commands interpretation, he collapses aesthetic distance. He demands a desperate effort of the allegedly ‘disinterested’ observer of an earlier time, overwhelms him, suggesting that far more than his intellectual equilibrium depends on whether he truly understands; life and death are at stake.” (Adorno, “Kafka” from Prisms, p.246).
As with Borges, the reader becomes actively engaged in the writing of the text; it is the reader who “completes the text.” Adorno sees that reading Kafka engages the reader into becoming an author. This active reader has very much like the same importance as the active listener to the New Music from Schoenberg and Webern to Henry Cow and Robert Fripp. And just as in the New Musics, we find that this active engagement with the text provides the reader with the element of shock that interrupts the routine and the everyday:
“Among Kafka’s presuppositions, not the least is that the contemplative relation between text and reader is shaken to its very roots. His texts are designed not to sustain a constant distance between themselves and their victim but rather to agitate his feelings to a point where he fears that the narrative will shoot towards him like a locomotive in a three-dimensional film.” (Adorno, “Kafka” from Prisms, p.246)
Let’s not forget the centrality of dreams in Borges and Kafka.
Orson Wells characterizes The Trial as “a dream or a nightmare” and opens his film The Trial with K. awakening as though from a dream, or perhaps even drifting off into a dream. It is the most dangerous time of the day, Kafka wrote in a deleted passage from The Trial.
As someone said to me – I can’t remember now who it was – it is really remarkable that when you wake up in the morning you nearly always find everything in exactly the same place as the evening before. For when asleep and dreaming you are, apparently as least, in an essentially different state from that of wakefulness; and therefore, as that man truly said, it requires enormous presence of mind or rather quickness of wit, when opening your eyes to seize hold as it were of everything in the room as exactly the same place where you had let it go on the previous evening. That is why, he said, the moment of waking up was the riskiest moment of the day. Once that was well over without deflecting you from your orbit, you could take heart of grace for the rest of the day. (Adorno, “Kafka” from Prisms, p.258)
In the film, K. is awakening and bringing the world into focus just as the Officer comes through the door. In the book, however, K. is already awake and wondering why Mrs. Grubach does not have breakfast ready yet when the routine of everyday life is interrupted and through the interruption the everyday becomes de-naturalized and even takes on a sinister hue. From then on, every action, even the ringing of the bell for Mrs. Grubach, becomes double sided and confirms his guilt. It reminds one of the opening to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, except that the bourgeois contemplative reveling in his recollections is not a part of The Trial. No, rather it seems to be implied that until his arrest K.’s mornings may have been the mornings typical of a young banker. K.’s revels are interrupted first by the absence of Mrs. Grubach, then by the surveillance of “the old lady” across the way, by his own ringing of the bell, and finally by the appearance of the Official coming through K.’s door. He is, after all, hungry, i. e., K. remains a physical being and that is an inescapable reality no matter what the content of our dreams and fantasies.
And as with Borges, dreams become a way to begin understanding Kafka’s writings:
“Cocteau rightly pointed out that the introduction of anything startling in the form of a dream invariably removes its sting. It was to prevent such misuse that Kafka himself interrupted The Trial at a decisive point with a dream – he published the truly horrifying piece in A Country Doctor – and by contrast confirmed the reality of everything else, even if it should be that dream-reality suggested periodically in The Castle and America by passages so agonizingly drawn out that they leave the reader gasping for air. Among the moments of shock, not the least results from the fact that Kafka takes dreams a la lettre. Because everything that does not resemble the dream and its pre-logical logic is excluded, the dream itself is excluded. It is not the horrible which shocks, but its self-evidence.... The attitude that Kafka assumes towards dreams should be the reader’s towards Kafka. He should dwell on the incommensurable, opaque details, the blind spots. (Adorno, “Kafka” from Prisms, p.248).
When Josef K. encounters the everyday routines of the Law Offices, he becomes dizzy. The offices are not only dreamlike, but a suffocating interior world – in which his own psyche is made to appear before him alienated and oppressing him. The distance between his interior and exterior, between his work, the law courts, his office, the artists studio become steadily reduced until they are all just rooms in an immense bureaucratic office.
This collision between the fantasy and the reality of social relations is something that we will see again in Brazil.
In the Penal Colony is a much more concentrated work than The Trial, and better displays the sense of the transition or transformation. In The Trial, K. has been arrested and his exploration of the apparatus of the Law are from the vantage point of the accused who is already-guilty. In the Penal Colony, the apparatus is the center of attention, not the accused/convicted, and the Explorer is more the observer from that part of the world which is progressing beyond the disciplinary brutalities of the Apparatus.
The Officer already knows what recommendation the Explorer will write in his letter to the new Commandant. The Explorer's task is not so much to evaluate the Apparatus, but to witness its demise:
“I can hear his voice – the ladies call it a voice of thunder – well, and this is what he says: ‘A famous Western investigator, sent out to study criminal procedure in all the countries of he world, has just said that our old tradition of administering justice is inhumane. Such a verdict from such a personality makes it impossible for me to countenance these methods any longer. Therefore from this very day I ordain...’ and so on... and I and the work of the old Commandant will be done for” (p.212).
We have seen this Apparatus at the moment of its very inception in Sade’s apparatuses and machines of pleasure/pain. We see it again in Wells’ portrayal of the law offices in The Trial and In the Penal Colony, but in both these two instances from Kafka, the Apparatus is crumbling materially and ideologically.
We could trace out this transformation with this scheme, with the proviso that like all schemes it is by definition simplistic:
Societies of Discipline Societies of Control
(Terrorized Societies) (Surveillance and Terror)
The Apparatus Power/Knowledge
of violence/pleasure (Sade) Terror, Desire, Authority
Direct Discipline Institutionalized/Internalized Terror
Guilt is assumed Guilt must be constantly experienced
Natural Power Naturalized state power
Under the disciplinary regimes, punishment was direct. It was conducted in public and punishment was was a spectacle carried out on the body of the condemned in keeping with the dictates of Reason. This we certainly touched on in our perusal of Constitutio Criminalis Theresiana . Relations of power were the result of the naturalized power of the Ruler/Tyrant to judge.
The society of Enlightenment was a disciplinary society, but so too are control societies premised on the same reason and rationality. They are continuous in their institutions: bureaucracy, the machine, the factory, prison, hospital, school/university, etc.
Under regimes of Control however, discipline is internalized. One does not need the hand of the police if one simply learns to obey the rules. And all the better that one willingly accepts a regime than be force to comply with its laws. The powers that were once represented by the body of the Sovereign were now naturalized as powers of the State and everyday life reproduces those relations. Josef K. stands between all of these. His is marginalized. In terms of a disciplinary regime, his guilt is assumed, but unlike a disciplinary regime, his punishment is postponed. His guilt must be constantly experienced and yet he demands to be found innocent. Even as he comes to realize the absurdity of the Law, the same Reason that brought him to that emancipatory moment is also the means by which he internalizes its operations. In his speech at his first interrogation K. lays out the entire apparatus of power whose existence had, until the moment of his arrest, apparently never bothered him in the least.
“‘What has happened to me,’ K. went on, rather more quietly than before, trying at the same time to read the faces in the first row, which gave his speech a somewhat disconnected effect, ‘what has happened to me is only a single instance and as such of no great importance, especially as I do not take it very seriously, but it is representative of a misguided policy which is being directed against many other people as well. It is for these that I take up my stand here, not for myself.... ‘There can be no doubt.... – there can be no doubt that behind all the actions of this court of justice, that is to say in my case, behind my arrest and today’s interrogation, there is a great organization at work. An organization which not only employs corrupt warders, oafish Inspectors, and Examining Magistrates of whom the best that can be said is that they recognize their own limitations, but also has at its disposal a judicial hierarchy of high, indeed of the highest rank, with an indispensable and numerous retinue of sevants, clerks, police, and other assistants, perhaps even hangmen. I do not shrink from that word. And the significance of this great organization, gentlemen? It consists in this, that innocent persons are accused of guilt, and senseless proceedings are put in motion against them, mostly without effect, it is true, as in my own case. But considering the senselessness of the whole, how is it possible for the higher ranks to prevent gross corruption in their agents? It is impossible. Even the highest Judge in this organization can not resist it. So the warders try to steal the clothes off the bodies of the people they arrest, the Inspectors break into strange houses, and innocent men, instead of being fairly examined, are humiliated in the presence of public assemblies. The warders mentioned certain depots where the property of prisoners is kept; I should like to see these depots where the hard-earned property of arrested men is left to rot, or at least what remains of it after thieving officials have helped themselves” (pp.45-46).
Even at the beginning of his deferred case, the absurdity of it all makes sense to him. And with his speech, which the Usher’s wife assures him cause quite a stir and set the Examining Magistrate to writing page after page to document his interrogation.
There is another precursor to Kafka that you may want to consider, for perhaps it is an artifact of the early disciplinary society, just as the In The Penal Colony is of the end of that society. Compare Kafka’s parable Before the Law, which Wells places as a prologue but which actually occurs during Josef. K.’s encounter with the Priest (the “prison chaplain”), with the brief chapter “The Prison Door” from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter:
The Prison Door
A THRONG of bearded men, in sad-colored garments, and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes. The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison. In accordance with this rule, it may safely be assumed that the forefathers of Boston had built the first prison-house somewhere in the vicinity of Cornhill, almost as seasonably as they marked out the first burial-ground, on Isaac Johnson's lot, and round about his grave, which subsequently became the nucleus of all the congregated sepulchers in the old churchyard of King's Chapel. Certain it is, that, some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with weather - stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than anything else in the New World. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era. Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pigweed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society, a prison. But, on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rosebush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.
“‘It’s a remarkable piece of apparatus’ said the Officer to the Explorer.... The machinery should go on working continuously for twelve hours’” (p.191). A glimpse of the camps, perhaps, in that the machinery operated continuously, but the camps had not yet been constructed. The Officer wants to explain the apparatus, but, Kafka tells us, “the Explorer did not much care about the apparatus” (p.191) and displayed a “visible indifference” to it, at least at first. The Explorer is not alone in this indifference. No one is interested in the execution of a soldier condemned for “disobedience and insulting behavior to a superior” -- which seems like a serious crime until Kafka reveals the absurdity of the orders the soldier had been given. Where once the spectacle of the execution – you see it in Westerns, for example – was the demonstration of authority, now that authority permeated everyday life and so there was no longer the need for a special demonstration of violence. The executions no longer drew the crowds. Even the residents of the colony had grown indifferent to the continuous executions.
There is a new Commandant who is not approving of the workings of the apparatus, but has not choice but to allow it to continue, at least for now. The apparatus and the colony share their origin in the head of the dead Commandant:
“‘This apparatus,’ he said, taking hold of a crank handle and leaning against it, ‘it was invented by our former Commandant. I assisted at the very earliest experiments and had a share in all the work until its completion. But the credit of inventing it belongs to him alone... Well, it isn’t saying much if I tell you that the organization of the whole penal colony is his work. We who were his friends knew even before he died that the organization of the colony was so perfect that his successor, even with a thousand schemes in his head, would find it impossible to alter anything, at least for many years to come and our prophesy has come true’” (p.193).
The officer refers to it as a machine: “let’s have a look at this machine” (p.192)
We are not really given a description of the Penal Colony. We learn something of its geography, but we learn much more about the Apparatus. (Perhaps the Apparatus is the Penal Colony and vise versa) We learn that it is located in “a small valley, a deep hollow surrounded on all sides by naked crags” (p.191). We also learn that the officer’s uniform was made for the cooler climate of the imperial center and so is “too heavy for the tropics” (p.192). The Apparatus is outside and seemingly exposed to the elements, but its decline is not blamed on the weather. In fact, the Explorer twice has to shade his eyes from the bright sunlight. Kafka writes that the Apparatus is “a huge affair” and yet the Bed and the Designer are the same size, “like two dark wooden chests” with “the Designer hung about two meters over the Bed; each of them bound at the corners with four rods of brass that almost flashed out rays of sunlight. Between the chests shuttled the Harrow on a ribbon of steel” (p.195). Though "a huge affair" it can accommodate only one prisoner at a time.
We’ve encounter an unstable space where the colony is both on the periphery and at the center, where the Apparatus is the size of one person and as infinite as the Penal Colony itself. Not unlike the map described in Borges’ poem “On Scientific Rigor” that we perused last time. The penal colony is literally an enclosure/prison island for those cast off from the community (Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals).
Even as he extolls the timelessness of the Apparatus, the Officer is constantly adjusting it. The cogwheel that is making too much noise particular irks him: “one of the cog wheels is the Designer is badly worn; it creaks a lot when it is working; you can hardly hear yourself speak; spare parts, unfortunately, are difficult to get here.” It is greasy and oily, as evidenced by the Officer’s need to wash his hands. Like the Law Courts, the Apparatus is obviously breaking down.
The Apparatus “consists... of three parts. In the course of time each of these parts has acquired a kind of popular nickname. The lower one is called the ‘Bed,’ the upper one the ‘Designer,’ and this one here in the middle that moves up and down is called the ‘Harrow’” (pg.193). In the past “a few things still had to be set by hand, but from this moment it works by itself” (p.192)
The Bed is completely covered with a layer of cotton wool and has straps for the wrists, ankles, and neck of the condemned, who is forced to lay face-down. There is a special gag of cotton wool “to prevent his screaming and biting his tongue” (p.195). In a measure of mercy or to increase the torment, “an electrically heated basin” (p.202) of gruel is available to the condemned during "the execution of the sentence."
Let’s turn to the text:
“Both the Bed and the Designer have an electric battery. The Bed needs one for itself, the Designer for the Harrow. As soon as the man is strapped down, the Bed is set in motion. It quivers in minute very rapid vibrations, both from side to side and up and down. You may have seen a similar apparatus in hospitals[*] but in our Bed the movements are all precisely calculated, you see, they have to correspond very exactly to the movement of the Harrow. And the Harrow is the instrument for the actual execution of the sentence” (pp.195-1960).
(* This may be a reference to the contemporary “Induced Rhythmic Motion” therapy which used vibrating hospital beds. They are now marketed as “Toning Beds.” http://www.therapeuticbodyshoppe.com/image/obj2852geo1650pg23p4.gif )
Running short of time – just as we are! – the Officer promises to fill in the details tomorrow, but for the moment, he gives only the essentials of the disciplinary technology of government.
“When the man lies down on the bed and it begins to vibrate, the Harrow is lowered onto his body. It regulates itself automatically so that the needles barely touch his skin. Once contact is made the steel ribbon stiffens immediately into a rigid band. And then the performance begins. An ignorant onlooker would see no difference between one punishment and another. The Harrow appears to do its work with uniform regularity. As it quivers, its points pierce the skin of the body whish is itself quivering from the vibration of the Bed. So that the actual progress of the sentence can be watched, the Harrow is made of glass. Getting the needles fixed in the glass was a technical problem, but after many experiments we overcame the difficulty. No trouble was too great for us to take, you see. And now anyone can look through the glass and watch the inscription taking form on the body.... there are two kinds of needles arranged in multiple patterns. Each long needle has a short one beside it. The long needle does the writing and the short needle sprays a jet of water to wash away the blood and keep the inscription clear” (p.200).
And the blood and water flow down open drains into the pit below the Apparatus.
But what is most important is not the machine, but the inscription – the Sentence – that it will be written on the body of the condemned. “How does the sentence run?” asked the Explorer (p.196). The Officer’s reply is instructive and leads us to consider not only the machinery of punishment, but also the machinery of the law: “Our sentence does not sound so severe. Whatever commandment the prisoner has disobeyed is written upon his body by the Harrow” (p.197).... the most important thing.... In the Designer are all the cogwheels that control the movements of the Harrow, and this machine is regulated according to the inscription demanded by the sentence” (p.202).
Here are a couple of examples of harrows, in case you are not familiar with the device:
The Explorer is allowed to see the inscription – the document is too fragile for anyone other than the Officer to risk touching and he tells the Explorer that “the script itself runs round the body only in a narrow girdle; the rest of the body is reserved for the embellishments...” (pp.202-203).
What the Explorer sees is “no calligraphy for school children....” it is – and we can almost hear Borges’ laughter – “a labyrinth of lines crossing and recrossing each other which covered the paper so thickly that it was difficult to discern the blank spaces between them” (p.202).
The Apparatus is a writing machine, a guide, a bed, and a machine operating in accordance with and reproducing the rules/plan/design of the dead Commandant.
Government and writing, knowledge and power are inseparably intertwined with each other. The violence of governing populations and territories is inseparable from writing (and statistics as well!). What is it that bureaucracies do that is not connected with writing and calculation?
What makes Kafka's work so frightening is his critique of the everyday. “It is not the horror that shocks, but its self-evidence” (Adorno, “Kafka” from Prisms, p.248). The fact, one might say, that we knew all along and yet chose not to know. Of course, the disciplinary societies were in crisis and collapsed along with the disappearance of their conditions for existence: conditions such as imperialism, colonialism, urbanization and industrialization, Fordism, and the domination of Nature. We can in hindsight say look back on the collapse of the disciplinary societies and say “Well, of course! The impending collapse of such a brutal social system was obvious!” One day the same will be said of our systems of social relations. “Well, of course!”
Social systems are inherently unstable and finite in time. To put that another way, to put it positively, is to acknowledge the concept of social change. We can argue about the causes, mechanisms, and results of changes in human social relations. But what we can’t do is deny that social change is a reality of human existence. History is in fact the narrative we construct of these accumulated and sometimes violent social transformations. It is not true, though it is about Truth, and it is limited, for if it contained the writing of all of the past, we would only find ourselves in amongst the stacks of Borges' Library of Babel.
So Kafka captures one of these moments: the transformation from a disciplinary society to a new society of control. He does so through a ruthless undermining and de-naturalizing of the everyday. He also does it with a wry humor and laughter at absurdity that is captured nicely by in Orson Wells’ retelling. He is one of the writers of the bourgeois era that, from his rather marginal social position, illuminated the decline of a social world and the social movement towards a different, though not necessarily better society. Just because there is social change does not imply that this change is for the better. One can quite easily have a notion of social change without having a notion of social progress, but one can not have an idea of progress without accepting social change..
If you want one final marker of the collapse of disciplinary societies and one that displays the indeterminacy of social change, have a look at Fritz Lang’s M. which presents a disciplinary society at its end, and it is an end that leads to a choice between authoritarianisms. This is further announced in Lang’s Metropolis with the handshake of reconciliation between labor and capital under the watching eye of the demigod. Whose to say that the android wasn’t in the end an authentic replica?
Let’s conclude on this note. Marx demonstrated that increased cooperation brings with it material benefits, including increased skill, knowledge, and division of labor. But that this greater cooperation also brings with it increased surveillance, control of social production, and affirmation of the technological domination of nature and humans.
The new society operates on the body in new ways. It does not need to punish when the status quo becomes naturalized, where our dreams and fantasies are no less a part of the reproduction of everyday life than is our entertainment.... but the old technologies of discipline kept at the ready... just in case. In the Penal Colony no one comes to witness the spectacle of execution anymore. There were once large crowds and immense spectacles of discipline, but now come down to four mere lonely figures. Compare these to the final scenes of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. The crowd that is so important to those scenes as the sentence is inscribed on the dying is absent from the Penal Colony. No one cares anymore. The Disciplinary Society is already receeding into the past, leaving behind broken machines, derelicts towns, and abandoned guards with useless prisoners. Once, the Officer laments,
“...the assembled company – no high official dared to absent himself – arranged itself around the machine; this pile of cane chairs is a miserable survival from that epoch. The machine was freshly cleaned and glittering. I got new spare parts for almost every execution. Before hundreds of spectators – all of them standing tiptoe as far as the heights there – the condemned man was laid under the Harrow by the Commandant himself. What is left today for a common soldier to do was then my task, the task of the presiding judge, and was an honor for me. And then the execution began! No discordant noise spoilt the working of the machine. Many did not care to watch it but lay with closed eyes in the sand; they all knew: Now Justice is being done. In the silence once heard nothing but the condemned man’s sighs, half muffled by the felt gag. Nowadays the machine can no longer wring from anyone a sign louder than the felt gag can stifle....” (p.209).
The Explorer and the New (and unseen) Commandant do not overtly destroy the Apparatus, they simply allow it to run its course and fall to pieces. No doubt the tortures and punishments remain useful to the new Commandant and many aspects of the previous apparatus, particularly the violence of writing, will be incorporated into the one that the Explorer flees towards. While fleeing the punishments of the past Apparatus, he is in fact also fleeing towards a new Apparatus that we will call, for the sake of argument, the Society of Control.
As the Explorer says to the Officer:
“You overestimate my influence; the Commandant has read my letters of recommendation, he knows that I am no expert in criminal procedure. If I were to give an opinion, it would be as a private individual, an opinion no more influential than that of the Commandant, who, I am given to understand, has very extensive powers in this penal colony. If his attitude to your procedure is as definitely hostile as you believe, then I fear the end of your tradition is at hand, even without any humble assistance from me” (p.212).