Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature [Review]

Kafka: toward a minor literatureDeleuze and Guattari’s study of Kafka’s work is impressive both for managing to resist the traditional style of exegesis described by Réda Bensmaïa in her introduction and also on account of the perspicacity with which the two explore what they refer to as the Kafka machine. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature provides an extremely insightful examination of the work of one of the major figures of twentieth century literature.

Central to their study is the concept of a minor literature: a minor literature, according to Deleuze and Guattari is not one written in a minor language, but a revolutionary type of literature practiced from within the heart of a major one. Kafka’s German, they argue, was far removed from the established norms of the language: it was the German of a Jew living in Prague; it was not the language in which Kafka lived, but a strange and perhaps even alien one. This is something which clearly shows on the surface of his prose and Deleuze and Guattari cite a passage from a study by the German publisher Klaus Wagenbach summarising some of the key peculiarities of Kafka’s German. Deleuze and Guattari’s appraisal of Kafka’s situation reminds us that such complexities will always be particularly difficult, if not impossible, to convey in translation, and whilst English-language versions by the likes of Idris Parry have made admirable attempts at capturing the awkwardness of Kafka’s prose, it is nonetheless hard to imagine readers being able to appreciate the full subtleties of the language of a German living in Prague.

Kafka’s literature, the pair argue is not one in which language is used to record or represent the world in which he lives—a literature in which content creates expression—instead, the genius of Kafka’s writing is that it “begins by expressing itself and doesn’t conceptualize until afterward.” Thus, they argue, by taking flight from the world around it, by expressing microcomponents such as secretaries, officials and politicians whose proliferation solidifies into hierarchies which embody a collective desire, Kafka’s literature was able to prefigure the political spectres that were to dominate the twentieth century, in which the individual was rendered powerless in the face of the immense collective machinery of systems such as Stalinism, Fascism and Capitalism. Like the law, they explain, it is only ever possible to know these systems from the expression of the latent desire within them: “the law can be expressed only through a sentence, and this sentence can be learned only through punishment. No one knows the law’s interior.”

Deleuze and Guattari highlight the importance of a form of negative theology that dominates Kafka’s literature, a presumption of guilt they align with the Judeo-Christian reversal of the Greek Good: “the law no longer depends on a pre-existent Good that would give it materiality; it is a pure form on which the good as such depends.” Thus where once bureaucracies and states were servants of the people, in The Trial Kafka shows us how they have become master: the individual exists to serve the law, to justify his existence to an omnipotent state.

Kafka had an unparalleled knack for being able to perceive the intimate connections of these subjugate individuals and how the structures they formed constituted systems by which they were dominated. Consider for example his stinging critique of the socialist and anarchist movements of the day:

they rule the streets and therefore they think they rule the world. In fact they are mistaken. Behind them already are the secretaries, officials, professional politicians and all the modern satraps for whom they are preparing the way to power

In other words, the activists are as much a part of the system they decry as those within it. Or consider Kafka’s observations regarding machinery: “a machine is never technical. Quite the contrary, it is technical only as a social machine, taking men and women into its gears…” Kafka, Deleuze and Guattari remark, “has two poles that he will know how to unify in a completely new assemblage.” Kafka’s literature does not tolerate binary oppositions and instead forces them to collapse in on themselves: the protesters are part of the very machine against which they protest, the users of the physical machine are part of an abstract machine which encapsulates both elements.

Yet returning to the theme of desire: Deleuze and Guattari show us how Kafka’s literature is ill-suited to the sort of psychoanalytical exegesis it has attracted. Whilst traditional approaches may seek to turn inward in order to discover the intangible content of a literature of pure expression, the pair take the Kafka machine and, in the words of Réda Bensmaïa, “practice it as an experimental machine, a machine for effects.”

Deleuze and Guattari’s study serves to remind us that the disconcerting power of Kafka’s writing, its disturbing beauty, lies in its ability to capture by means of ellipsis the collective desire that governs the monstrous power structures of the twentieth century; Kafka knew better than anyone else that these structures could only ever be apprehended through their expression, he knew the impossibility of ever capturing the nebulous centre of desire that lies within. Deleuze and Guattari remind us that it is perhaps for this reason that Kafka’s literature remains the closest we have come to capturing the “diabolical powers” that form the heart of the modern world.

Deleuze G. & Guattari F. (1986), Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, University of Minesotta Press: Mineapolis & London.

 

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