A Note on Kafka and the Question of Revolutionary Subjectivity

Pothik Ghosh

A talk on March 6, 2009 at the Department of English, Hindu College (Delhi University), organised byBenjamin-Lukacs Circle (a joint initiative of Correspondence and Radical Notes).


To talk about Kafka is to talk of the law and its exception by other means. Exception is created within and by the law to make the latter possible. Like bare life is produced by the law to protect high life on whose behalf it speaks. So, exception is included by excluding. And through its inclusion into law, by it being named as bare life by that law, it is excluded from it. Exception not only proves the law, it is also constituted by it. Clearly, the search by the exception for emancipation from the law, even as it maintains its ontology as ‘exception’, is impossible. Since this exception constitutes the law, its existence reinforces the law and will thus not permit liberation for its ontic position from the law, which can only happen through their mutual abolition. It only (pseudo-)liberates the holders of the exception position at one moment, only by pushing them on to the ontic position of the apparent subject of the law. Josef K’s constant failure in The Trial to figure out his crime though his absurd encounters within the domain of the law shows how crimes are constituted by law in order for it to make and sustain itself.


In Kafka’s ‘Before the Law’, the man from the country is prevented by the doorkeeper of the door of the law to open the shut door to discover the meaning of the law that lies beyond it. He wants to cross the threshold of the law to find out what comes before or prior to the law, which determines his place in the universe of his existence by giving him his being and its meaning within it. He – that law-determined being manifest in the case of this parable as the “man from the country” – wants to know what the law is (means) and how does it become possible and come to be. What, kind of, necessitated it. (The emphasis on the word ‘know’ above will become progressively clear as we go ahead with our analysis. For now, it would suffice to stick with the plot of the tale.) The man waits and spends his entire lifetime before that shut door, trying to persuade the doorkeeper, without success, to allow him through it. At the end of his life the doorkeeper tells the man from the country that the door was meant for him but he had not tried hard enough to pass through it. The ironical, almost paradoxical, and seemingly absurd note on which Kafka ends this fable is meant to indicate the impossibility for a being, whose very existence is made possible by the law insofar as the latter creates it, to go outside and beyond the law to discover what lies prior to it. For, a being created by the law cannot step outside of it without obliterating and erasing itself. And if and when such erasure of the being happens, it obviously cannot know what lies outside or prior to the law. In that sense, the door of the law, in ‘Before the Law’, cannot be opened to the outside because there is no outside to the law. The door, even if the doorkeeper had not been around, would have opened out into nothing – no-outside. In fact, they would have opened out into the law itself. That is, clearly, because the outside of the law – the outlaw – is already within it by being its outside. In other words, the outlaw (exception) is constitutive of the law. Law makes itself happen by defining itself with regard to something that is defined in the same movement as-not-the-law, as outside it. The law creates its own outside in order to make itself existentially possible. The law creates its outside even as this outside simultaneously creates the law. The dialectic in this is that the law includes by excluding and excludes by including. The modern capitalist order, in which people, ideas, things and so on are at once hierarchically excluded and productively included is a concrete manifestation of this abstract dialectic of the law.

The law, Kafka shows us by attempting to reduce it to its zero-point, has no meaning outside its fact of being a pure force of domination and determination. Its only meaning is just that. In politics, this problem is captured in sovereignty struggles and rights-based movements where the oppressed of a temporal moment might escape their oppression at another temporal moment but oppression per se does not disappear. If anything, the oppressed keep escaping their oppression by turning oppressors. Thus the diachronicity – or historical change – that such struggles evidently and consciously articulate is apparent and even false as they are caught in the same synchronic vector (history). Such diachronicity is, to my mind, merely temporal and not historical because a real (historical) diachronicity – as opposed to simple quantitative flow of time that according to me characterises temporal diachronicity – founds a new movement or flow of time in a qualitatively different historical direction than what precedes it. Time by itself is – following Walter Benjamin who said that time can be counted but not numbered – merely scalar. It is history and historical ruptures that transform it into a vector with direction whereby the counting of time also becomes its numbering.


Integral to this vision of the law in Kafka is the impossibility of knowing or being a being that can reach a goal. K’s interminable approaching of the castle is a case in point. The more he tries to get there the more his motion seems to regress. It is as if he is merely going through the motions of walking forward (towards the castle), by standing at one point, without actually doing so. The knowing process or subject that originates that process constitutes the object of knowing, as something outside of the knowing subject that has to be known by that subject. For, knowing will not be possible if it does not have an outside that can be known. By the same token, this object in its condition of existence outside the knowing subject, which is of course designated thus by that subject, constitutes the knowing act. Thus the real concrete nature of something cannot be ‘known’ as it is constituted by the knowing process and the knowing subject, whose identity, by virtue of being made possible by the ‘on-the-outside’ existential condition of the ‘object-to-be-known’, cannot in turn be ascertained independent of the act of knowing at a certain moment. Knowing the concrete will, paradoxically, always yield abstractions.

It is this antinomy of knowing that Kant sought to overcome by introducing the ahistorical phenomenon-noumenon distinction and the a priori rationality of the knowing subject. Kafka brings this repressed antinomy to the fore by alluding to the despair occasioned by the constant and continuous slipping away of the concrete/real in the form of the castle or the applause for the hungry artist the more they are sought after (by K and the Artist in The Castle and The Hungry Artist respectively) to be known. Ultimate applause will be heaped on the hungry artist only after he has starved himself to death. But then he will not receive any of that applause because he wouldn’t any longer be there. Kafka hinted at this impossibility – which sharpens the modern finite human being’s ever-insatiable desire to overcome the impossibility into a fruitless obsession that he cannot rid himself of, thereby making the impossibility progressively keener – when he wondered in a diary entry whether the shoes and clothes in his closet were the same when he was not looking at them.


The sharply despairing apprehension of, nay confrontation with, such antinomies and paradoxes in Kafka ought to be ascribed to his Hasidic sensibility and its preoccupation with the idea of the invisible Jew. A preoccupation that has predisposed the Jews to believe the coming of the messiah is perpetually deferred.

The striving for the messiah that such sensibility and belief produces is, not surprisingly, always articulated as not yet, thereby tendentially implying that the messiah will come here within our given universe of the law where it cannot come yet, thanks to the counter-tendency inherent in this same striving. Clearly, the law cannot give way to the messianic unless the exception – the not-yet-but-yet-to-come of the messiah – which is constitutive of the law, is abolished thus also abolishing the law. The Pauline Christ-event of the moment of Christianity’s birth in and through Saint Paul’s epistolary interventions inaugurates – as shown by Alain Badiou and propagated by Slavoj Zizek – precisely such a new diachronic moment and movement. A moment of the actual arrival of the messiah in the shape of Jesus crucified and resurrected that is constitutive of a subtracted ‘lawless’ space outside and beyond the law and knowledge (as wisdom or doxa) , where it is not as if one doesn’t know or is being lawless but where one does not need to know or be subordinated to the law. That is because matter is, in such a situation, its own subjectivity, which otherwise would be open to beknown by a subject from its outside.

As for law, the existence of the subject in its singularity is its universal truth. Thus universality, in such a condition, is the auto-referentiality of the singular subject, which does not need to be designated and named as an ontology from a universalising outside termed the law. Clearly then, the condition of the subject’s singular existence is its law, which is negation of negation as a law that does not determine or designate the subject from the latter’s outside is an inversion of the logic of law and is thus not law at all. In the same vein, the subject is not a subject as it is not designated, determined and produced by law from its outside. Or, to be more accurate, it is named and produced by law that is not law. Since the subject is its own law, and the law its own object, what is named as the subject is only a provisional political naming of the trans-subjective at its one particular moment where it constitutes and expresses itself.

The law is constitutive of a condition that renders singular existence impossible by splitting the trans-subjective (or pure becoming), or the subject that expresses the trans-subjective at one finite moment of its many moments that constitute its infinity, into subject-object or universal-particular; or into heterogeneous strata of broken moments. In the Christ-event of Pauline Christianity, the messiah by actually arriving, abolishes the exception constitutive of the law and thus abolishes the law and its logic too. This is the path of, dare I say, anti-Judaic revolutionary politics, which produces a disjunction in the universe and discourse of the law to shift the ground of existence on to a space that is the logical inverse of the paradigm of law and law-produced being.

It is this that is missing in Kafka’s consciousness, thanks to it being grounded in the Jewish-Hasidic sensibility. And it is this Hasidism that is at the root of Kafka’s despairing optimism when he tells Max Brod that there is infinite hope “but it’s not for us (humans)”. This Jewish pessimism of Kafka articulates a tripartite schema wherein man is in between three conditions of being: the life of a burden of the law, which he is condemned to impossibly strive to be redeemed of; death that will extinguish the being that needs to be redeemed, rendering the question of redemption irrelevant; and, therefore, infinite hope outside of this life-and-death binary of a law-designated being. Such hope is vested in the figure of the messiah, whose arrival is always expected but perpetually deferred. This peculiar nature of the Jewish messiah, clearly, renders it into the negative exception to the given universe of the law – constituting it by making it possible and sustaining it.

Immanent in Kafka’s Jewish pessimism about the fate of ‘human beings’ is, however, the realisable possibility of a trans-human and trans-being existence. This immanent unconscious of Kafka’s Jewish consciousness, implicitly articulated by the tripartite schema we have extracted from him, is allegorically expressed by the actual coming of the messiah in Jesus, resulting in the rupture-like birth of Christianity from Judaism. The actual arrival of the messiah, as we have seen above, abolishes the exception of the yet-to-come-but-ever-not-here messiah and thus also ends up abolishing the given universe of the law and the existential condition of the law-designated, law-governed being. As a result, it also renders the fact of death of such a being into a redundant and meaningless idea. For, if within this horizon of non- or post-law the existence of being is not possible – because the pre-condition of being’s existence is the law – there can be no question of his death! The condition of life within this new horizon is the trans-human or trans-being condition. Christ’s second life, after he rises from the dead, is a metaphor of precisely such a trans-human life where the question of human death has been abolished, and rendered pointless and absurd.

This ‘Christian’ horizon is the horizon of Marxist revolutionary politics where one does not constantly and impossibly seek the yet-to-come-but-ever-not-here messiah, but where one is permanently restoring to the Church and its laws their originary and constitutive message and logic of messianic grace by, ironically enough, repeatedly decimating the churches and its laws. The death of a church of one moment is, within this horizon, not to be construed as the death of a being because what is preserved is the pure becoming or trans-subjectivity that formed that church but was also repressed by its reified institutionality. So, the death of a church (institution) of a moment, within this horizon, is the continuation of the trans-subjective life that was expressed in and by that church at that moment; but in so doing it also began threatening that life and therefore had to be destroyed to preserve the becoming-life that was constitutive of its existence. Within this horizon what lives is trans-subjectivity and the death of its one subjective expression of one particular moment is not a death because what lives through and in this apparent death, and matters, is the trans-subjectivity that also, dialectically speaking, lived in the coming-to-life of that church.

It is this immanence in Kafka’s riddles of the law and its exception, and the possibility that this immanence can be actualised, that drew the Marxist in Benjamin to the Czech-German writer. To that extent, Benjamin’s notion of Kafka, and his concomitant understanding of the writer’s work, was very different from the sense imputed to him by vulgar Communist Party-type Marxists and, ironically, even the anti-communist dissidents, who pride themselves as being votaries of a politics of high culture free from the exigencies and vagaries of politics proper. Both cherish Kafka for what they see as his depiction of the hapless everyman face-to-face with a bureaucratic and totalitarian behemoth. That can and must, of course, be read into Kafka. But such a reading would do justice to both Kafka’s aesthetic complexity and to a nuanced and effective counter-hegemonic politics only if the horror of bureaucratisation and totalitarianism are discerned in his work as a derivative and supplementary epiphenomenon of and within the essentially constitutive field of the law.


In that context, the case of Milan Kundera, especially his reading of Kafka, is a curious expression of the problem. Kundera, commenting on Kafka (and Hasek, Broch and Musil), writes: “…it would be wrong to read their novels as social and political prophecies, as if they were anticipations of Orwell! What Orwell tells us could have been said just as well (or even much better) in an essay or pamphlet.” Kundera is right when he argues Kafka ought not to be conflated with Orwell. His criticism of those Kafka scholars, who read in the Czech-German writer the description of man’s encounter with bureaucracy and totalitarianism, is entirely valid. And yet, Kundera’s reading into Kafka of the bureaucratisation and totalisation of every sector, nook, cranny and crevice of modern human society – indeed, the very soul of the human being – takes us only one step away from the descriptions of the manifest forms, artifacts and apparatuses of bureaucratisation that are constitutive of and central to the Orwellian reading of Kafka that Kundera rejects.

Instead of describing the congealed forms of bureaucratisation, Kundera finds in Kafka the situations that put those forms in a certain relation to one another. That is, at best, a more refined version of Albert Camus’ existentialist appropriation of Kafka. Kundera, thanks to his ‘situationist’ reading of Kafka, remains distant from Kafka’s central concern, which, to my mind, was to articulate the essential logic that constituted and was constituted by bureaucratic and totalitarian situations. In Kafka, situations are merely incidental epiphenomena of the essential logic. They thwart Kafka’s endeavour to efface himself so that language can emanate on its own from the non-lingual and the non-formal. In short, from the essence.

Kafka, the writer, is condemned to use language and thought to undermine language and thought themselves by attempting to capture the flux of the dialectical essence that lurks ghost-like in the depths of forms and concepts made possible by language. It is, as if, Kafka constantly conspires to set up a traumatic encounter of the symbolic (linguistic/conceptual/formal/situational) with the real, which is nothing but a trans-conceptual and/or formless dialectical logic constitutive of bureaucratic situations and orders. That is made manifest by the ‘unreal’ economy and sparseness of style in Kafka’s writing. This then is the impulse behind Kafka’s aesthetic of desiccation where the touch of the unsayable, as it were, has corroded and dried up language, thus rendering utterance barely possible.

Kafka wants the pure unbroken light – which is the visible, not the objects and forms this light congeals into – to express itself in just this state of its “unbroken-lightness”. He desires to free, as if anticipating Foucault and Deleuze, the visible from the threshold of the sayable and the linguistic. That is the reason why the language of Kafka’s prose, despite being made up of elements from the universe of human language, becomes nonsensical the moment one seeks to separate it from the reality of his prose, which this language embodies, to make sense of it as part of the sensible (and representational) human language proper. And yet, it is human language, or at any rate elements taken from it, that Kafka the writer can only resort to. Maurice Blanchot pins down this neurotic impossibility – or dialectic – in Kafka rather accurately: “…all Kafka’s texts are condemned to speak about something unique while seeming only to express its general meaning. The narrative is thought turned into a series of unjustifiable and incomprehensible events, and the meaning that haunts the narrative is the same thought chasing after itself across the incomprehensible like the common sense that overturns it. Whoever stays with the story penetrates into something opaque that he does not understand, while whoever holds to the meaning cannot get back to the darkness of which it is the telltale light. The two readers can never meet; we are one, then the other, we understand always more or always less than is necessary. True reading remains impossible.”

Thus Kundera’s discovery of the comic in Kafka is mistaken. Kafka’s novels and parables, to the extent they are linguistic forms and concepts, do certainly produce the comic effect. But that is as incidental as the situations that allude and simultaneously repress their essential constitutive logic. In fact, Kundera contradicts himself, sort of, when he discerns the tragic experience of the characters in Kafka’s texts at precisely those points that produce the comic effect for Kafka’s readers situated outside the texts. Clearly then, what matter in the Kafkan operation, as far as Kafka himself is concerned, is not the production of the effects of the comic or the tragic but a dialectic that reconciles, obliterates and, thereby transcends, the two. That is the logic Kafka wished to grasp and ventriloquisise, and not the situations or the effects that allude to it only to obscure and repress it.


Kafka’s concern, not unlike Marx’s, was to grasp and articulate the discursive logic constitutive of human history. We could almost imagine him closing the dialectical circuit – opened by Marx and Engels through the first sentence of The Manifesto of the Communist Party about “the history of all hitherto existing societies” having been “the history of class struggles” – by stating that the history of all hitherto existing human societies has been the inescapable domination of the human being by the equally inescapable law. While Marx’s historical optic of the class struggle enabled him to see and envisage the movement of history in terms of a diachronic succession of affirmative, law-unraveling moments that eradicated the law-produced ‘beingness’ of the human condition and the question of its death to posit the immortality of the trans-human or pure and infinite human-becoming, Kafka’s gaze grazed over those struggles to only see the law that is inevitably re-produced in the division of movements into people and the state. For Kafka then, struggle against the law to go beyond it is impossible and meaningless as beyond the law there is more law. Struggle against the law is immanent in Kafka’s pessimistic consciousness only as its unhappy unconscious.

Now, to come back to the attraction Kafka held for Benjamin, we would do well to attend to the latter’s discovery of the concept of gestus in operation in the former’s conception of fragments of one’s self. That, as far as conceiving the structure of the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary subjectivity goes, is a rather productive opening. Gestus, according to Fredric Jameson following French etymology, is both a gesture and an epic. What it means, for Benjamin, and also Brecht, is a particular fragment of a totalised self, embodied in one of its many gestures, and the singular totality of such a fragment whereby the fragment becomes a whole unto itself. We should, however, be attentive to how Kafka positions those fragments vis-à-vis his total self. We should be careful not to conflate what, in my view, is Kafka’s consciousness of the gestus – fragments of a self as particularities and/or negative Judaic exceptions to the totality of the manifest self in question that, as a consequence, reinforce that self and its coercive and false totality – and what is immanent in it, which would complete the etymological and also politico-aesthetic dialectic of the concept. To blindly follow Benjamin on Kafka, without recognising the productive tension in the ambiguities of his Judaic-Marxism, could be disastrous. And yet, it’s only the encounter with and awareness of such tensions that can enable the illumination of the real trauma in Kafka’s soul and aid the production of an authentic revolutionary subjectivity.

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