KAFKA & TORTURE: Re-visiting “In the Penal Colony”–metacommentary by E. San Juan, Jr.

KAFKA  &  TORTURE:  Deconstructing the Writing Apparatus of

“In the Penal Colony”

-by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.

Copan, Honduras

Capitalism is a system of dependencies, which run from within to without, from without to within, from above to below, from below to above.  All is dependent, all stands in chains.  Capitalism is a condition of the soul and of the world.

–Franz Kafka (Janouch 1968, 206)


Long a prime staple of jurisprudence and psychopathology, torture of human bodies as a form of interrogation and subjection has now become a ubiquitous preoccupation. Every Facebook/Internet client has something to say about it. Even before Foucault, Lacan, Butler, and other postmodernist gurus have pontificated on body/corporeal politics, torture in the form of slavery, lynching, and “third degree interrogation” techniques used in domestic policing and military lgistics of acquiring secret information (for example, “water cure” or water-boarding during the Philippine-American War, Vietnam, Iraq) have precipitated endless philosophical controversies. Is torture justified under any circumstances?

In this epoch of post-9/11 terrorist wars, USA Patriot Act, sophisticated CIA counterinsurgency manuals, and drone killings (see Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars), torture has become so banal as “original sin” for repeat offenders.  What World Court dare pronounce the last word on the moral calculus of torture? It took Naomi Klein’s scrutiny of “the Shock Doctrine” to restore the gravitas of inflicted pain and injury on whole populations in the context of the rancorous debates on foreign policy and corporate globalization in international forums and urban mass demonstrations (see “Torture and the United States” entry in Wikipedia). Systematic torture of groups and collectives, not just of individuals, becomes the chief bone of contention.

The thematic scope of torture as sociopolitical-ideological policy of States and political parties surely demands space—–time far beyond the limits of a cultural critique. In this context, however, I confine myself to one text which presciently foregrounds the body, albeit the fanatical body, as the arena of ascertaining truth (fidelity to reality) by using torture as demonstration. Validating torture becomes a method to persuade others of its efficacy as an instrument of justice. Convincing the victim of State authority literally translates into conviction (in this case, the officer’s death gruesomely depicted).

Kafka’s classic fable dramatizing corporeal hermeneutics might be salutary both to the victims and practitioners of torture (as Lundberg recently suggested [2013]), a heuristic baedeker to the ecology of a planet where prisons/penal institutions function as model internal colonies of which the Guantanamo Bay maximum-security cells comprise but one obsessive mirror-image. More instructive, the chief protagonist of Kafka’s story, the explorer or traveller, is symptomatic of the vacillating if self-righteous mind-set of liberals (should we say neoliberals?) whose weapon of methodological individualism becomes an apology for Abu-Ghraib outrage, philanthropic rescue of veiled women, and mass drone killings.  But let us first inquire into the contentious status of Kafka as the unrivalled icon of twentieth-century existentialist, apocalyptic modernism as well as fragmented, aleatory  postmodernism.

Kafkaesque: Vortex of Antagonisms
One of the most bold if exorbitant claims about Kafka’s greatness as the exemplary modern literary artist was made by George Steiner, and previously by W.H. Auden and Albert Camus (1991). Steiner praised the first sentence of The Trial as “the most graphic moment of clairvoyance, of prophetic imaginings, in twentieth century literature” (Bradbury 1988, 258). And this quote, endorsed by the novelist Malcolm Bradbury, is meant to enlarge the image of Kafka as one “both of the humanity and the fragility of the modern writer in the face of power and of the spirit of anxiety” of our times (1988, 257). Clairvoyance, prophetic imaginings, humanity and fragility in the face of power, anxiety–all these terms distill the commonplace and somewhat now hackneyed consensus that the epithet “Kafkaesque” sums up the tenor, Zeitgeist, temper or frame of mind of the last century of wars, crises and revolutions.
But what exactly does “Kafkaesque” mean? With just two unfinished novels, The Trial and The Castle, and short fables or exempla such as “The Metamorphosis,” “The Judgment,” “In the Penal Colony,” “The Hunger Artist,” and “The Burrow,” Kafka has dominated the field of late-capitalist literary studies primarily due to the ambiguity and enigmatic resonance of his “clear hard prose of reality”–to quote Bradbury again  “at once profoundly imaginary and strangely surreal.” What was at stake beyond formalist standards or ideals?

Kafka’s worldwide fame as the exemplary artist of the absurd and cosmopolitan anguish began with tributes made by Camus,  Auden, Thomas Mann, Theodore Adorno, and others. In the two decades after World War II, Kafka took center-stage in the ideological Cold War. The leading Marxist critic Georg Lukacs attacked Kafka’s “blind and panic-stricken angst” delivered with “passionate sincerity,” without recourse to “formalistic experimentation” (1975, 380). The source of this profound anxiety, “the diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism,” centers on the world of the Hapsburg Monarchy.  But, for Lukacs, Kafka’s quasi-mimetic art embodied in “cryptic symbols of an unfathomable realism” fares poorly compared to the critical realism of Thomas Mann.  Kafka’s “decadent modernism,” lacking a dynamic historical perspective, is thus condemned. A more polemical argument is made by the Soviet critic Boris Suchkov who charges Kafka for depriving “the concept of justice of sense, makes it relative, doubtful, ambiguous, and debatable,” allowing evil paramount sway (1981, 151). For the American Marxist Harry Slochower, Kafka’s avoidance of tragic catharsis inhibits revolutionary action (Solomon 1973, 359; for other Marxist critiques, see Hughes 1981).

The struggle over Kafka in Czechoslovakia has been documented by Eduard Goldstucker who played the leading role in rehabilitating or “demilitarizing”  Kafka at the Liblice International Conference in May 1963 where East German, Soviet, and European intellectuals clashed. Goldstucker noted that Kafka then “had become a central point in the battle for breaking the isolation caused by years of Stalinism and the cold war” (1973, 283). For those living behind the “Iron Curtain,” Kafka symbolized not modernist despair but the freedom to inquire, explore and criticize. In an exchange on the problem of using the loaded term “decadence” as a criterion in judging literary and other art-works (by authors such as Joyce, Beckett, Proust) in general, Goldstucker concurred with Jean-Paul Sartre’s conviction that “decadence” as a concept is not only useless but counter-productive, even corrupting, in a serious dialogue on the task of interpreting the value of art in society. Sartre himself argued that “if one read [Kafka’s fiction] in depth one discovers that totality which a modern new novel must always aspire to attain” (1973, 257).

Storming the Institution, Smashing Everything

The orthodox Marxist view that Kafka’s message is historically circumscribed is echoed by maverick critic Edmund Wilson who reject the novelist’s “abject heroes as parables of the human condition” (1962, 94). But this historicist objection cancels itself: Kafka’s heroes are typical because they are actualized particulars. As Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg remark on the nature of narrative in general, “Typically, life is particular and it is inarticulate and irrational,” so that the writer’s originality of vision depends on the “creation of new types of actuality” (1966, 155-56). Hence, Kafka’s authenticity proceeds from the essentially ambiguous engagement with actuality. This engagement consists of “a commitment to the world” and a common language, combined simultaneously with “a reservation, a doubt, a fear before the letter of the signs the world proposes” (Barthes  1972, 136). Kafka’s forte, his virtue, inheres in the production of “negative affirmation” (Hubben 1947, 1173).

Accepting the historical situation with reservations, Kafka responds to his immediate situation with a “yes, but….,” coalescing in one act the realistic project and the ethical project. In other words, While Kafka registers life in the modern world as estrangement, a catastrophic form of exile, he also inscribes in it a utopian hope, with the iconoclastic ironies merging with the melancholy affirmations of Josephine the Singer, and the promise of free distant spaces hinted at in the last chapter of Amerika, the “Nature Theatre of Oklahoma” (1946, 272-298).

What has been ignored or obscured in the ideological war is Kafka’s socialist politics. In 1970, Lee Baxandall documented Kafka’s radical orientation, his affiliation with the revolutionary Youth Club of Prague sympathetic to Marxist thinkers, his early reading of Belinsky, Bakunin, Herzen, and Kropotkin, and the communitarian vision enunciated in the plan he drafted for a propertyless workers’ community. One reads in it this extraordinary statement as one of the “Rights”: “Working life as a transaction of conscience and of faith in one’s fellow man” (Baxandall 1970, 78). How can we be blind to this evidence of profound commitment to working-class solidarity? Let us not forget the confession he made to this friend Max Brod about workers seeking help from the office of the Workers Accident Insurance Institute where Kafka worked: “How modest these people are! They come to us and plead. Instead of storming this institution and smashing everything to bits, they come to us and plead” (Baxandall 1970, 74).

Dialectics versus Casuistry

Kafka offered a problem to Cold War protagonists locked each in one-dimensional optics. Writing about decadent features in capitalist society does not equal approving or justifying them; frames of mind, contexts, need to be factored into the larger picture. In truth, the situation is more complicated since all writers living in a bourgeois society dominated by alienation but also resistance, however minor, may be aware of such contradictions and have to adapt to them as best they can. Among orthodox communists, Roger Garaudy and Ernst Fischer distinguished themselves as rejecting, to some extent, the ethico-political use of “decadent” to downgrade Kafka. They would accept the reading of Kafka’s texts as realist descriptions of alienation, even satirical and critical to some extent.

In 1965, the Culture Theory Panel of the Central Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party issued a statement “Of Socialist Realism.” It criticized severely Lukacs’ one-sided valorization of bourgeois critical realism to the neglect of socialist realism. In the process, it also attacked Fischer, Goldstucker, Garaudy, Sartre and others who found Kafka’s work useful as a “cognitive mapping” (to use Fredric Jameson’s [2000] phrase) of the milieu at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth-century.  The Hungarian Party asserted that Kafka’s works may have aesthetic value, but its overall worth is nil because it “made alienation absolute,” metaphysical and totalizing; and even if one discerns protest, it is filled with “fear, pessimism without the essentials of tragedy…” It is decadent because it subordinates everything “to the atmosphere of imperialism,” unable to analyze causality in the recognition of relationships which remain mysterious” (1972, 254). In hindsight, every proposition in that indictment is questionable, dubious, ultimately untenable, given the substantial inquiries into Kafka’s complex ethico-political stance in the last forty years.

The enigma of Kafka’s equivocal style has been provocative and catalyzing ever since. The debate over Kafka’s realism grew central and prepossessing to the extent that his persisting aura grew out of the gap between writing and lived experience, between form and content (the prehended materials in the medium). This latter tension and its ethico-political consequences highlighted in the encounter between Sartre and orthodox Marxists was already rehearsed in the pre-WWII debates between Lukacs, Bertolt Brecht, Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin and Theodore Adorno, and other “Western Marxists” before World War II (see Taylor, 1977). With the verdict permanently postponed, Kafka continues to haunt the inner sanctum of partisan hermeneutics.

Brecht’s Intervention

Brecht’s position on the debate is historically nuanced and calibrated. Responding to Lukacs’ condemnation of expressionism, Brecht contended that a dogmatic Marxist criterion that rejects techniques such as the interior monologue in Joyce’s Ulysses was guilty of empty formalism.The traditional canon of the bourgeois Enlightenment cannot solely be the guarantee of the progressive nature of realism. Actualities change and, along with them, organic visions and social mores.

For Brecht, “literature cannot be forbidden to employ skills newly acquired by contemporary man, such as the capacity for simultaneous registration, bold abstraction, and swift combination” (1977, 75). He urged critics to proceed methodically and scientifically in judging what is popular and realistic, matters which exceed questions of aesthetic form. Brecht insisted that time flows on, “methods become exhausted; stimuli no longer work.  New problems appear and demand new methods. Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change” (1977, 82). Kafka responded strategically to those changes in history.

For his part, the philosopher Bloch advanced analogous objections to Lukacs’ “closed objectivist conception of reality.” He objected to the one-sided concept of seamless totality that Lukacs deploys, blind to discontinuities and disruptions. For Bloch, Lukacs’ mistake lies in ignoring the avant-garde artists’  attempt to shatter the capitalist image of life as they “exploit the real fissures in surface inter-relations and to discover the new in their crevices” (1977, 22). In short, one needs a dialectical optic to ascertain what is decadent and what is progressive especially in transitional genres and experiments. Bloch connected Kafka’s milieu to surrealist landscapes, alluding to “Kafka’s  dense yet quiet echo, coming from another world to this one,….a reflection of the groundwater of dreams leaking into the destruction” of bourgeois power, capitalist hegemony (1998, 105).

The outcome of this episode in cultural history epitomizes the still disputed canonization of Kafka as the inventor of a singular mode of writing, “an expenditure of a certain energy without return.” As a subtle “geometrician of metaphor,” according to Henry Sussman, Kafka performed arabesques of equivocation and duplicity similar to those of Hieronymus Bosch (1979, 181). Describing a nihilistic world without ideals, ends or causality, John Lechte remarks, Kafka produced a world of enigmas. It was a bizarre cosmos without rational protocols. It rendered a distinctive “writing of sacrifice” which is no longer a product of sociohistorical conditions but is constitutive of those conditions (1994, 244). Devoid of transcendence, expunging all boundaries, Kafka inhabited the extraterritorial realm of the exile, the nihilist, the Nietzschean nomad without origins–the portrait of Kafka drawn by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their epochal study of Kafka’s aesthetics (more later). At any rate, the Kafka dossier is still in the process of investigation, his reputation linked closely to the vicissitudes of controversies over aesthetic standards and literary tastes (since Kant) in the global marketplace of disposable values and fungible norms.

Inventory of the Archive

In a survey of Kafka criticism from 1944 to 1955, H. S. Reiss observed the persisting fixation of commentaries on metaphysical/religious themes, as well as on psychoanalytic leitmotifs tied to biography and milieu (Udoff 1987; Murray 2004).  He bewails the fact that his own emphasis on the literary or writerly dimension had not successfully integrated content and form. He hopes that a comparative method would repair its inadequacies. Substance should give way to form, content (prehended medium) to structure. Deconstruction of Kafka is now welcome.

In a collection of critical essays published in 1962, Ronald Gray lamented the plethora of arbitrary interpretations. He called for a focus on Kafka’s writing which, as the translator Edwin Muir testifies, embodies sufficient justification for a formalist, autotelic approach. Kafka’s language was “exquisitely just,” exhibiting “absolute precision,” “complete honesty and candidness,” “scrupulous case,” “an almost scientific lucidity” (1962, 1) so much so that it has induced, or coaxed, the most disparate, heterogeneous and incommensurable readings–a supreme irony that has not escaped the most astute exegetes.  Kafkas’s cunning opacity continues to elude scholastic ingenuity.

One of the shrewdest commentators is the celebrated New Left theorist Theodor Adorno.  In his “Notes on Kafka,” Adorno likewise discerned the literalness of Kafka’s sentences: “everything is hard, defined and distinct as possible.” Lacking the “aura of the infinite idea,” Kafka’s prose constructs “a parabolic system the key to which has been stolen,” but there is a chosen rationale for this method: “Without the principle of literalness as criterion, the ambiguities of Kafka would dissolve into indifferent equivalence” (1967, 246, 248).  So then the indeterminacy is sustained precisely by a textual literalism that multiplies the ambiguous, uncertain, inaccessible; thus monotony results. Allegory exists with the imagistic or representational vehicles, but the conceptual tenors are absent, as if the whole work is a parody of the allegorical technique. In short, a surfeit of the Kafkaesque results in boredom, intolerable sameness.

Negating the Negations

Adorno pursues an analogical argument based on the Marxist dichotomy of use-value and exchange-value. He tries to establish the sociohistorical matrix of this style in “the cryptogram of capitalism’s highly polished, glittering late phase” nullified in the text: “Kafka unmasks monopolism by focusing on the waste-products of the liberal era that it liquidates. This historical moment, not anything allegedly metatemporal illuminating history from above, is the crystallizing of his metaphysics: there is no eternity for him other than that of the endlessly repeated sacrifice, which culminates in the image of the last one….The last sacrifice is always yesterday’s” (1967, 257). In the penal colony, however, the sacrifice proves to be the terminal one with the breakdown of the immolating machine. The ritual of sacrifice vindicating the old system of justice deconstructs itself, in effect dismantling hollow rhetoric and self-serving pieties that once legitimized the penal colony’s existence.

Adorno points out that Kafka freezes history into the moment of the damned, the fate of peasants and artisans as well as merchants and bureaucrats–everything historical is condemned. But in Kafka’s adaptation of the expressionist style and ethos, history congeals into myth. Adorno’s analysis of how Kafka deployed expressionism reveals the logic of Kafka’s objectivity, his detachment, the perspicuous lucidity of his gaze:  “The more the I of expresionism is thrown back upon itself, the more like the excluded world of things it becomes.” Parody and irony are Kafka’s deconstructive instruments to subvert the Establishment cultural tradition and its ideological apparatuses.

By virtue of this similarity, Kafka forces expressionism–“the chimerical aspect of which he, more than any of his friends, must have sensed, and to which he nevertheless remained faithful–into the form of a torturous epic; pure subjectivity, being of necessity estranged from itself as well and having become a thing, assumes the dimensions of objectivity which expresses itself through its own estrangement. The boundary between what is human and the world of things becomes blurred….It is precisely this as it were external determination of persons existing inwardly which gives Kafka’s prose the inscrutable semblance of somber objectivity” (1967, 262-63). Paraphased simply, the hermetically sealed inwardness of the artist functions as the condition of possibility for the reification of his characters and their fictional world. That precious inviolate world of “objectless inwardness” thus allowed the scattered enigmatic fragments of his imagined characters and milieu to exist, “a closed complex of immanence” and its antinomian mysticism legitimized by “the hermetic principle ….of completely estranged subjectivity” (1967, 261). As to the reasons for the “sealed inwardness” or “estranged subjectivity” of Kafka, Adorno is silent.

Poetics  of  Intractable Recalcitrance

Adorno’s scrutiny applies a dialectical optic into Kafka’s expressionist style in order to grasp the ideological themes in the work. Synoptic and comprehensive, it does not radically depart from the thematic preoccupation of the majority of the critiques already mentioned, except in its concentration on the expressionist, subjectivist metaphysics of the artist. It is parallel to Lukacs’ censure of Kafka’s world-view as infected by bourgeois alienation and the pathos of reification. But Adorno is more appreciative, less polemical, of Kafka’s strategy of combatting bourgeois decadence by confronting it with its own morbid mirror-image, its mutilation and mythical decay, to no avail. Is Adorno subtly apologizing for Kafka’s simultaneously opaque and transparent style, a paradoxical brew for Derridean decoders?

In his oddly positivist metacommentary, Adorno mentions Walter Benjamin’s appraisal of Kafka’s parabolic tendency which collapses aesthetic distance. This leads Adorno to uncover a submerged flow of regression in the animal parables and in the “technification” of the deja vu: “Kafka’s hermetic memoranda contain the social genesis of schizophrenia” (1967, 277). On the schizophrenic aspects in Kafka, none is more obsessed than the duo Deleuze and Guattari whose formidable brief demonstrates the way philosophy both illuminates and exploits the art-work.

The montage of  deja vu in Kafka may now be summed up. In Kafka criticism, we are confronted with the cosmos of the existentialist angst distilled in a fantasmatic realm of presences alienated from each other and from the world of fetishized objects, commodities circulating in the cash-nexus. This cliche of the Kafka archive is formulated by the mainstream scholar Erich Heller in his 1974 treatise on Kafka, a doxa that Adorno tried somehow to complicate: “The Law without a lawgiver, original sin without a god to sin against: this is the essence of the negative theology that pervades Kafka’s stories” (1974, 22). Guilt and sin flourish because there is no god, no lawgiver; not action but mere existence triggers the existential nausea for which there is no antidote or panacea. That vulgate axiom found a more concrete articulation in Stanley Corngold’s view that Kafka really diagnosed and depicted an extreme form of estrangement now called “political terror” (1972, xxi). The timely example is “In the Penal Colony” written in October 1914 in response to the carnage and brutality of the war.

Dialogism pervades the colloquy. In a review of Sander Gilman’s book  Kafka: The Jewish Patient, Marshall Berman reflected on the canonical readings all centered on religious and metaphysical themes. Repetition of the allegorical/didactic message has made Kafka otiose and trivialized.  For Deleuze and Guattari, those moralizing critics only succeed in reducing Kafka’s complexly fabricated oeuvre into a monolithic Signifier or hermeneutic master code that would wrap it all up in a neat package of truisms and platitudes. If Deleuze and Guattari claim not to be interested in meaning, what do they have to offer the readers of the twenty-first millennium?

Immanence versus Transcendence

Short of summarizing their book, I would like to quote key passages to give a taste of Deleuze and Guattari’s highly provocative inquiry into the Kafkaesque syndrome.  They disavow the search for structure or significance. They seek instead to  rely on “tests of experience,” not the search for archetypes or generic topoi to define Kafka’s imaginary. They insist that “our method works only where a rupturing and heterogeneous line appears,” trying to grasp “where  the system is coming from and going to, how it becomes, and what element is going to play the role of heterogeneity, a saturating body that makes the whole assembly flow away and that breaks the symbolic structure, no less than it breaks hermeneutic interpretation, the ordinary association of ideas, and the imaginary archetype” (1986, 7). In effect, they focus on fragments that may function as intimators or indices of transformations, metamorphoses, mutations of all kinds.

It’s an intriguing experiment in unlocking concealed textual energies. Looking for Kafka’s politics that is neither imaginary nor symbolic, Deleuze and Guattari ‘believe only in one or more Kafka machines that are neither structure nor phantasm….,” an experimental machine that will indicate the flow of desire as a polymorphous and perverse movement of energy, a kind of ramifying or rhizomatic life force that destroys hierarchical ensembles and allows creative power to transform “territories” or fields of the social space undergoing an endless process of dismantling and reconstruction. Their concern privileges the phenomenon of process, the Bergsonian flux, infinite changes in form and direction of any vital movement.

Not A Lacerating but Desiring Machine

For Deleuze and Guattari, the key to deciphering the Kafka problematic is its strategy of overcoming the reductive Oedipal triangle of the Freudian theater of the unconscious. To release power caught in the paranoid hierarchy of institutions and practices valorized by psychoanalysis, the condition of schizophrenia materializes in the expression of desiring machines along the surface of a “body without organs,” the boundless space of freedom and creativity. Where is this space found in Kafka? In the interstices between the objective reality of Kafka’s life and the discursive universe of his prose, that is, between the writer and the world.  What Deleuze and Guattari are endeavoring to theorize in their singular anti-psychoanalytic argument may be discerned in this passage:

A Kafka-machine is thus constituted by contents and expressions that have been formalized to diverse degrees by unformed materials that enter into it, and leave by passing through all possible states.  To enter or leave the machine, to be in the machine, to walk around it, to approach it–these are all still components of the machine itself: these are states of desire, free of all interpretation. The line of escape is part of the machine. Inside or outside, the animal is part of the burrow-machine. The problem is not that of being free but of finding a way out, or even a way in, another side, a hallway, an adjacency.  Maybe there are several factors that we must take into account: the purely superficial unity of the machine, the way in which men are themselves pieces of the machine, the position of desire (man or animal) in relation to the machine.  In the “Penal Colony,” the machine seems to have a strong degree of unity and the man enters completely into it.  Maybe this is what leads to the final explosion and the crumbling of the machine….Desire evidently passes through these positions and states or, rather, through all these lines. Desire is not form, but a procedure, a process” (1986, 7-8).

In all of Kafka’s corpus of texts, Deleuze and Guattari strive to trace the machines or assemblages through which the characters pass, their movements themselves considered as lines of flight away from fixed positions or states–the flight of desire or energies that cannot be frozen, repressed or captured; thus Kafka does not negate but affirms, so they conclude. But what exactly does he affirm?  We are not sure what, for Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka affirms except the dynamics of process, contingency, metamorphoses of all kinds.

Why does Deleuze and Guattari resort to a naive gesture of locating the value of Kafka’s work in the space between text and life, between the imaginary and the empirical? Reda Bensmaia’s explanation may be summarized here. Deleuze and Guattari reject the orthodox modes of interpretation by genres, types, stylistic modes of allegory, symbolism, parables of negative theology, and so on, associated with “Literature” by inventing a category for Kafka’s texts, “minor literature,” which supposedly overturns the norm: “[I]nstead of Kafka’s work being related to some preexistent category or literary genre, it will henceforth serve as a rallying point or model for certain texts and ‘bi-lingual’ writing practices that, until now, had to pass through a long purgatory before even being read, much less recognized” (Bensmaia xiv).  Which means, in effect, we have to pass through the detour of a history of reading practices applied to Kafka, from the time of their editing by Max Brod up to the last critical exegesis, in order to really appreciate his originality and force.

Declarations of intent are fine, but what about the concrete analysis of the texts and their elucidation in a coherent and cogent manner? While Bensmaia alludes to the geopolitical and sociohistorical contexts that serve as the condition of possibility for Kafka’s unique sensibility and way of writing–Einstein’s relativity, twelve-tone music, expressionist drama and cinema, the Prague linguistic circle, and Freud’s Copernican revolution–none of these factors is really utilized by Deleuze and Guattari whose concept of desiring-machines, rhizome, etc. are the theoretical mediators of their interpretive project. Their polemical agenda has been aptly judged by Ronald Bogue as an attempt to ascribe a postmodern avantgarde politics to Kafka’s “creative subversion of social representations” (1989, 122). Ultimately, it is an attempt to impose the grid of Nietschean power-triumphalism on Kafka which transforms a unique strategy of writing into a nominally revolutionary practice. This is transvaluation of Kafka with a vengeance, a treacherous utilitarian alibi.

In any case, let us give the benefit of the doubt to this schizoid reading. We are tempted to conclude that Deleuze and Guattari have not demonstrated what the concrete relations are between language, signs, and the material forces of “desiring production,” given their concentration on superimposing their schizoanalytic approach to culture at the expense of illuminating the specific dynamics of reading/understanding Kafka’s texts against the grain. In contrast, a short essay by Regine Robin (1989) entitled “Kafka’s Place in the Literary Field” has much more novel insight to offer about Kafka’s language-practice and his fictive repertoire of interpellating individuals into subjects than all of Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadic speculations.

Charting the Site of the Execution

It appears that the methodical doubt applied on Kafka’s critics leads only t an impasse. Erwin Steinberg (1976) has exhaustively summarized previous explications focusing on the religious and aesthetic dimensions. After catagloguing the personal and historical factors (such as the influence of Judaism, Christianity, Kierkegaard, etc.) surrounding the composition of the story, Steinberg concludes that the story is flawed aesthetically and intellectually. Among other reasons adduced for the failure is Kafka’s neglect of fully delineating the antithesis between the Old Commandant and the New, as well as his vexed portrayal of the explorer. Rigorously identifying exact correspondences between image and idea, character and moral position, seems a fruitless if wrongheaded interpretive strategy.

Assuming indeed that Kafka’s work marks the conjuncture of specific sociohistorical contradictions that could not be resolved, it is only logical to confront a discursive aporia engendering diverse interpretations. This aporia manifests itself in fragmentation, inconclusive or deliberately incomplete texts, reified character-types, and other allegorical/parabolic schemes of dramatizing polarities, oppositions, disparities. Clearly one wonders at the variety of responses elicited by Kafka’s seemingly lucid, empirically contoured sentences.

But this should be a felicitous turn of events instead of being a predicament. The semiotician Floyd Merrell invokes Alfred North Whitehead’s view that paradoxes and aporias are “windows opening out to new horizons,” enablers conducing to ” heightened learnability, accountability and knowability… Paradoxes and their attendant praxis involve the conditionality and the conjecturability implied by the pragmatic maxim” (1997, 317), the principle of semiosis enunciated by Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of pragmaticism (cf. De Waal 2013; Merrell 2000; Robin 1998). Since this pragmaticist maxim has been distorted or perverted to the effect that meaning is what is useful or narrowly instrumental, it might be useful to quote Peirce himself.

First of all, pragmaticist interpretation concerns the meaning of an intellectual conception as connected with “what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception” whereby the sum of those consequences will constitute its entire meaning (Peirce 1931-35, 5.9). Ethical and aesthetic norms are involved when we consider what “conceivably practical bearings” or consequences a belief in a conception would have, bearings that “would go to determine how we should deliberately act, and how we should act in a practical way and not merely how we should act as affirming or denying the conception to be cleared up” (Peirce 1998, 145).

In sum, belief in the truth/meaning of a commentary–an interpretation of signs–entails judgment and action (ethics/politics). The end-result of any critical inquiry (in this case, a literary judgment) is not a true or false proposition but, rather, a pattern of conduct. The question then is what behavioral consequence might be inferred from our reading Kafka’s story as (for most critics) a rejection of old traditional ways of punishment (indexed by the torture apparatus and the dogmatic, authoritarian habits instituted by the Old Commandant’s regime) and an acceptance of humanist, more enlightened penal codes (presumably represented by the explorer). In other words, what actions are entailed or implied by our modes of reading Kafka’s narrative?

Everyone of course expects literary discourse to be polysemous, the denotative and referential functions of language articulated with their connotative or emotive functions, to use the common terminology. Hence the reading experience cannot be reduced to a table of truth-functions. What might be useful for us is to employ Peirce’s semiotics, more exactly his triadic theory of signs and the role of the interpretant, to clarify the differences in the readers’ understanding of the “message” (intention, motivation, purpose) of “In the Penal Colony” (Kafka 1948, 191-230).

For Peirce, the literary work is composed of signs that are triadic in nature. A sign is constituted by the representamen (often labeled the signifier), the object (signified), and the interpretant, the mediation between the object and the signifier. Without going into the complex schema of the categories Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness, suffice it to sum up Peirce’s concept of the literary work as “a sign of qualitative possibility,” “a representamen of possibility experienced as Rhematic Symbol” (Sheriff 1989, 78).  Rhemes are qualities, feelings, signs of immediate consciousness that acquire symbolic mediation in the art-work; thus, the interpretant, the nodal point in the process of formulating meaning, expresses the qualities evoked by the literary artifice. Peirce states that “the idea of a quality is the idea of a phenomenon….considered as a monad, without reference to its parts or components and without reference to anything else….An element separated from everything else and in no world but itself, may be said..to be merely potential” (1.424). The experience of a literary text subsists in this realm of possibility, a realm capable of being described in the discourse of critical analysis and evaluation.

Incarnation and Recognition

In Peirce’s semiotics, the interpretant serves to provide the premises of belief and the inferred effects of these beliefs.  As James Hoopes paraphrases the pragmaticist maxim, “A sign receives its meaning by being interpreted by a subsequent thought or action” (1991, 7). Without further elaboration, let us consider what interpretant situated in what realm of possibility is triggered by this crucial passage in Kafka’s story. This is the moment when the torture machine (here called the Designer) has begun operating on the officer who volunteered to vindicate the “justness” of the machine as an instrument of justice. But signs of breakdown had been initially noticed by the soldier and the condemned man (negative specimens of colonial degradation), with the explorer unable to be indifferent. The character of the “explorer” designates a European dignitary and visitor; the German term “Forschungsreisender” includes the senses of traveler, researcher, and voyager, whose selected physical movements and inquisitiveness or curiosity are registered here:

The explorer, on the other hand, felt greatly troubled; the machine was obviously going to pieces; its silent working was a delusion; he had a feeling that he must now stand by the officer, since the officer was no longer able to look after himself. But while the tumjbling cogwheels absorbed his whole attention he had forgotten to keep an eye on the rest of the machine; now that the last cogwheel had left the Designer, however, he bent over the Harrow and had a new and still more unpleasant surprise. The Harrow was not writing, it was only jabbing, and the bed was not turning the body over but only bringing it up quivering against the needles. The explorer wanted to do something, if possible, to bring the whole machine to a standstill, for this was no exquisite torture such as the officer desired, this was plain murder.  He stretched out his hands. But at that moment the Harrow rose with the body spitted on it and moved to the side, as it usually did only when the twelfth hour had come. Blood was flowing in a hundred streams, not mingled with water, the water jets too had failed to function. And now the last action failed to fulfill itself, the body did not drop off the long needles, streaming with blood it went on hanging over the pit without falling into it. The Harrow tried to move back to its old position, but as if it had itself noticed that it had not yet got rid of its burden it stuck after all where it was, over the pit. “Come and help!” cried the explorer to the other two, and himself seized the officer’s feet. He wanted to push against the feet while the others seized the head from the opposite side and so the officer might be slowly eased off the needles. But the other two could not make up their minds to come; the condemned man actually turned again; the explorer had to go over to them and force them into position at the officer’s head. And here, almost against his will, he had to look at the face of the corpse. It was as it had been in life; no sign was visible of the promised redemption; what the others had found in the machine the officer had not found; the lips were firmly pressed together, the eyes were open, with the same expression as in life, the look was calm and convinced, through the forehead went the point of the great iron spike. (1948, 223-25).

After this scene, the concluding episode describes the explorer’s visit to the teahouse where the previous Commandant was buried since the priest refused his internment in the churchyard, about which the officer was ashamed. Earlier the explorer could not read the script offered by the officer, simply accepting the officer’s word in trust; now, however, the explorer struggled to decipher the very small letters of the inscription on the stone marking the old Commandant’s grave. This sections strikes us as a parody of the Messiah’s second coming, given the failure of the torture/justice apparatus to deliver justice and the promised deliverance. The “Designer” betrayed its creator, the Commandant himself:

Here rests the old Commandant. His adherents, who now must be nameless, have dug this grave and set up this stone. There is a prophecy that after a certain number of years the Commandant will rise again and lead his adherents from this house to recover the colony. Have faith and wait! (1948, 126).

After paying his respects, as it were, to the relics of the old order/tradition, the explorer boards his ferry for the steamer, driving away the soldier and the condemned man who were eager to depart with him: “…but the explorer lifted a heavy knotted rope from the floor boards, threatened them with it and so kept them from attempting the leap” (1948, 127). The explorer thus decides that the specimens of the colonized, oppressed victims are not worth saving; the penal colony, in short, is unsalvageable for the benefit of civilized mankind.

Translating Stigmata

One psychoanalytic critic, Paul Goodman, finds in the explorer a mixed sadistic-masochistic posture so that the ending proves limited by the “reactions of the Explorer, who washes his hands of the problem: that is, the dreamer will not take the responsibility for the dream” (1947, 257). Goodman’s reductive gloss omits the ironic and parodic nuances discernible in the way the representamens (signifiers) are joined to the semiotic objects (the whole theater of torture, etc.). Together, those elements yield an interpretant both typical and singular, a concrete universal of dialectically fused detachment and involvement. In that context, Goodman’s inference is clearly untenable. More faithful to Kafka’s creative trajectory is Philip Rahv’s view that the story is a transitional one in which the violent patriarchal figures of “The Judgment” and of the old Commandant become “mythicized in the manner of images of authority projected” in The Trial and The Castle (1970, 195).

Taking all these into account, I submit that the pragmaticist key to the narrative function of the passage quoted earlier is condensed in the explorer’s plea to the other two spectators, “Come and help!” In contrast to the other precepts or exhortatory speech-acts–“Honor thy Superiors!”  “Be Just” and “Have faith and wait!”, the explorer’s call is fully synchronized to the demands of immediate actuality. It epitomizes the situation where a hypothesis, calculated from the signs (icons and images) of the actual environment, is tested if it meets the purposes of the moment. It is also a test of the reader’s sensibility, judgment and ethical intelligence, ultimately a signal for initiating a scheme of conduct, a program of action (already hinted at by the injunctions, “Be just,” “Have faith and wait!”), translating descriptive statements into hypothetical imperatives and commands.

Meanwhile, let us consider alternative readings. Roy Pascal resolves the seeming inconsistency of narrative perspective which distances the reader from the explorer but also compels us to identify with him and his dilemma (as in his calling the torture-machine an instrument of murder). From this angle, the explorer stands for “the modern enlightened man…whose distinctions it is to have detached himself from action and material interests, from the ranks of the death-dealers, and whose calamity it is, too. For if reflexion rescues him from the partisanship of action, it also enfeebles dedication and spontaneity” (1982, 88-89).

It is not exactly accurate to accuse the explorer of refraining from action–his skepticism about the inscription/torture machine becomes a death-sentence for the officer, and he drives away the colonized soldier and prisoner–or being paralyzed by thought; he enacts judgments and decisions inferrable from his actions. Clayton Koelb remarks that the explorer eludes the reading/writing system in which texts really “wound and stab us” (2010, 120). Meanwhile, the reading operation conflicts with the writing/killing operation, opening up wounds that induce understanding of the gap between the promised deliverance of the imperatives, “Be just” and “Have faith and wait,” and the sordid realities around.
The torture machine writes on the body to facilitate reading the fatality of the difference between what is promised and what is actual.

Taming the Logocentric Leviathan

Kafka is obviously playing with the ambiguities of meaning generated by the process of semiosis pivoting around the Peircean interpretant. Symbols of authority and tradition, both in their permanence and fragility, abound in the narrative. The most highly charged sign is obviously the torture machine, the instrument of justice manifest in the successful or failed transfiguration of the victim. The body and its motions stand out as the most visible iconic sign which also function as an index of the effects of power. From the linkage of icon and index, the symbolization of power as weak, unstable or precarious becomes evident. From the explorer’s point of view, the penal colony is in danger of disintegration. But he seems amused, indifferent, removed from any serious concern, driving away possible refugees, concerned only with his comfort and safety.

We can proceed to unfold layers of meanings without stopping, especially if we are academics paid to recycle old stuff and transmute them into new ones. But, as John Sheriff (1989) suggests, the experience of the literary work is not equivalent to any number of propositions or arguments which can be multiplied ad infinitum.  If the art-work is a Rhematic Symbol, the proper interpretant is an ethical move: a pattern of decisions leading to purposeful conduct.The interpretant emerges from our conception of practical consequences entailed by the explorer’s over-all attitude to the officer and his gratuitous sacrifice to vindicate the old order, as well as his stance toward the soldier and condemned man–unattractive victims of the colonial regime. This interpretant equals our understanding of how the explorer, despite his presumed humanity, either concurs with the decadent or moribund state of the penal colony, or dismisses the whole affair as something trivial, inconsequential, insignificant.

Peircean hermeneutics locates the effect of the artistic experience in the realm of qualitative possibility. This implies that what we conceive to be possible in the sphere of action (with the attendant feelings/emotions) is accompanied by changes in qualities, resonances, affects–the practical bearings or entailments Peirce emphasized as the ultimate goal of inquiry (1992, 132). Certainly the experience of horror at the brutality of the justice-machine, the mechanical absolutism of the ritual, and the almost animal if not mechanical behavior of the soldier and condemned man as representatives of the colonized subjects, induce traumatic moments and sets us adrift, marooned, discombobulated. This accords with a peculiar generic feature of modern short stories which one scholar described concisely as “the debunking rhythm characterized by conceptually unresolved antitheses” (Leitch 1989, 146).

As for the question of Kafka’s politics that we initially broached, it may be sufficient to refer again to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of Kafka’s usage of “minor” language as collective, political, and deterritorializing.  In Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s assessment, this minoritarian practice challenges the unicity of language understood as a system divorced from history and pedagogical praxis (as in Chomskyan linguistics). This practice is directly political because “it aims to grasp the state of the linguistic class struggle within a linguistic formation; it helps to define the moment of the linguistic conjuncture; it makes it possible to separate the emergent from the old. In short, it facilitates not only a description of the conjuncture, but also the intervention that it calls for” (2009, 213).

Within this frame of analysis, this essay can be taken as a deliberate intervention in criticism, particularly in semiotic (Peircean) theory as a rational mode of interpellating individuals to become subjects of a radical or transformative ethical/political program. Not only to come and help in a collective project of ultimately overthrowing global capitalism, but also (in the meantime) to make literary and cultural inquiry intransigently ethical and political at all times if the opportunities/contingencies permit.

Shadowing a Prophetic Horizon

It is premature to say that a reading of Kafka’s story will make the reader
loathe and condemn all forms of torture. In fact, the opposite—doubt, cynicism, or hedonistic playfulness–may result. Everything depends on the reader’s circumstances, inflected by the social milieu and the state of the global crisis. But so powerful is Kafka’s story that we wager that no reader can be wholly indifferent to the implications and inferences she can draw from the spectacle of the body written by the unrelenting claws of justice. In his diagnosis of Kafka’s illnesses, Gilman described how Kafka put his body on trial and pronounced harsh judgment on it (Berman 1995, 604). But, to be sure, this did not signal a postmodernist body politics separate from the historical and sociopolitical contexts in which bodies, collective relations, and the political economy of goods exist, so that Berman opines that Kafkaesque experiences–“what happen to people who claim their human rights and are referred to departments that can’t be found” (1995, 608), multitudes of bodies tortured to death being the paramount evidence–have become universal, ubiquitous, a fact of everyday life (see also Lingis 1994).

In the end, what Kafka’s text signifies is not any specific agenda for improving the justice system or reforming the penal institution.  Rather, the text explores the potential range of qualities and feelings of the immediate–the sense of tension, incompatibilities, discrepancies, in short, the complex network of contradictions invested in the images, characters and scenes constituting the narrative. This is the most precise hypothesis we can formulate in line with Peirce’s own theory of art as the means by which we experience the “possible successive awarenesses and interpretations of signs” (Sheriff 1989, 84). The most serviceable explanation of the logic and rationale of Kafka’s art is Walter Benjamin’s thesis that Kafka’s world is “world theater” already alluded to in the Oklahoma Nature Theater: “For him, man is in and of himself on stage” (2009, 209). Benjamin’s notion was borrowed from Brecht who rejected Kafka’s fear of the ant-colony state, a nightmare from which he could not wake up. Brecht believed Kafka’s “parable is in conflict with vision…As a visionary, Kafka saw what was to come without seeing what is….The images are good. But the rest is obscurantism” (Benjamin 1979, 205, 207).

Benjamin was not turned off by Kafka’s “obscurantism” which he grasped as an elaborate defensive pose, a repertoire of theatrical stances and maneuvers. This is in line with Benjamin’s theory of baroque allegory (1978; Buck-Morrs 1989). Less baroque and more cubistic, Kafka’s picture of the world as a stage converts everything into stylized moves according to a code not exactly equivalent to that of Deleuze and Guattari but one which is missing, like the code for photographs. Everything becomes conventional or stereotypical. But unlike the medieval or renaissance masquerade, the images and impressions (of Firstness; stream-of-consciousness) have not yet fully crystallized into conflicting indices (the realm of Secondness; experience), eventually to become symbols (Thirdness; laws and norms). Kafka’s theater is germinal, still trying out its performance cues and acting repertoire. Consequently, on stage, the most important is gesture, each one “constituting a process, one might almost say a drama, of its own… He robs human gesture of its traditional props and then possesses, in it, an object prompting unending reflections” (2009, 205-06); hence the officer’s gesture of voluntary sacrifice, the explorer’s reaction, etc.

With some qualifications, I submit that this is the key to unravelling the mystifying and enigmatic complexity of “In the Penal Colony.”  We cannot forget the gesture of the explorer performing his mock neutrality, equivocation, sham humanitarianism. We marvel at his facilty in playing roles in a world where “god is dead” (to use the old Nietzschean aphorism), but the human is only being born (this time echoing Gramsci). Kafka valorized the infantile situation (as Bataille argued) and thus made his texts of sovereign “nothingness” (1957, 141) fit for burning. The bonfire awaits the Kafkaesque Messiah. Before it, the torture machine, this exemplary Ideological State Apparatus, symbolizes the interregnum between old and new regimes, a stage filled with morbid symptoms, with old paradigms unable to clarify new phenomena–the stage of Kafka’s penal colony–with our view of its torturers and victims changing at every historical conjuncture.


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About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.
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