Exposé Three: Narrativity @ a Standstill

[back to Exposé Two]

Kafka could understand things only in the form of a gestus, and this gestus which he did not understand constitutes the cloudy part of the parables. Kafka's writings emanate from it. [link]

The "gestus", or gesture, is a singular event, though it does contain a sort of movement. Or, rather than movement, Benjamin thought of the gestures as performance. What is in tension with a gesture is that it combines the singularity of action with a more fluid space. In the current discussion, we might say this this is roughly analogous to the singularity of Kafka's "word" and the multiplicity of interpretations given it:

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Kafka's entire work constitutes a code of gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author from the outset; rather, the author tried to derive such meaning form then in ever-changing contexts and experimental groupings. The theater is the logical place for such groupings. [link]

The performing of the gestus in various contexts is what, for Benjamin, "derives meaning." But the "meaning" that is derived turns out to be a strange sort of meaning when Benjmain himself performs Kafka's gestures. Several critics see Benjamin repeating Kafka's gestus in his own work:

If Kafka's parables and stories reduce events to gestures, Benjamin (re)produces these gestures through the act of citation. Very little of his text [the Kafka Essay]can be considered "original," for, as I have mentioned, it is largely composed of quotes and excerpts taken from a wide range of materials. "Kafka" can be understood as a preparatory document for what Benjamin considered his ideal book, namely one made up only of quotes.[link]

The "act of citation" is one of the "ever-changing contexts" in which one might expect to finally find the meaning of Kafka's parables, since interpreting them on their own had tended to lead to Benjamin's dead-ends. But the nature of this citation is fragmentary, and this fragmentation is as much a function of Kafka's own effect on modernity as it is anything else. The "critical failure" I reference in Exposé One ignores the fact that the fragmentation of the parables necessarily affects interpretation of them as well.

Kafka's writings, as the self-referential parable of the leopard makes clear, are not merely constantive acts of narration, but hold a performative power. Like the leopards breaking into the temple and becoming part of the ceremonial ritual, Kafka's writing both provisionally program in advance their future reception, and then via the hidden mechanism of enforced retrospection, program that programming as inevitable and not provisional or contingent. [link]

The parable Samolsky is referencing is especially useful here.

Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony. [link]

Kafka's parables self-reflexively interpet themselves and "provisionally program in advance their future reception." This is a strong statement, one that at first glace appears even to be a New Critical stance. The difference here is that the "program" is one of exploding interpretation, of fragmenting it, of turning it into a gestus. Any interpretation of Kafka that does not run into either of Benjamin's dead ends must somehow, like Kafka's parables, become "more than [interpretation]" - since "natural" and "supernatural" seem to exhaust the field of possible interpretation.

The way to do this (and it is always already a failure) is to enact a fragmentary interpretation. To collect quotes. Quotation becomes an interpretative gestus. Benjamin used this method for The Arcades Project

Method of this project: literary montage. I needn't say anything.. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse--these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.[link] [see also, Method of This Website]

Collecting quotations begs several questions: which quotations? how to arrange them? how to read them? Benjamin begins to broach some of these issues in The Arcades Project:

Perhaps the most deeply hidden motive of the person who collects can be described in this way: he takes up the struggle against dispersion. Right from the start, the great collector is struck by the confusion, by the scatter, in which the things of the world are found. It is the same spectacle that so preoccupied the men of the Baroque; in particular, the world image of the allegorist cannot be explained apart from the passionate, distraught concern with this spectacle. The allegorist is, as it were, the polar opposite of the collector. He has given up the attempt to elucidate things through research into their properties and relations. He dislodges things from their context and, from the outset, relies on his profundity to illuminate their meaning. The collector, by contrast, brings together what belongs together; by keeping in mind their affinities and the succession in time, he can eventually furnish information about his objects. Nevertheless--and this is more important than all the differences that may exist between them--in ever collector hides an allegorist, and in every allegorist a collector.[link]

Taking collection and allegory in the context of interpretation and quotation, we can see that there is a tension between a contextualizing "collection" and a decontextualizing "allegory" - a tension one could easily read into discourse surrounding Kafka's parables. This tension is remarkably similar to the tension within a gestus between movement and statis. And, ultimately, similiar to the tension within Benjamin's conception of Dialectics at a Standstill.

The gestus that Kafka's parables consist of is, finally, nothing more or less than Benjamin's conception of Dialectics at a Standstill. But instead of a Dialectical History being frozen into an image, we have a Narrative Story being frozen into a Parable - Narrative @ a Standstill. Compare Benjamin's description of the Dialectic at a Standstill in The Arcades Project

Where thinking comes to a standstill in a constellation saturated with tensions-there the dialectical image appears. It is the caesura in the movement of thoughts. Its position is naturally not an arbitrary one. It is to be found, in a word, where the tension between dialectical opposites is greatest. [link]

With this description of Kafka's gestus:

...the gestures of Kafka's figures are too powerful for our accustomed surroundings and break out into wider areas. The greater Kafka's mastery became, the more frequently did he eschew adapting these gestures to common situations or explaining them. ... Like El Greco, Kafka tears open the sky behind every gesture; but as with El Greco-who was the patron saint of the Expressionists-the gesture remains the decisive thing, the center of the event. [link]

The gestus must be a movement, but at the same time it is a "decisive thing". Gestures have a unity, but also a starting and stopping point. These points are, instead of dialectical opposites, interpretive ones. Benjamin notes at one time that Kafka

Took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings. [link]

He also pays special attention to the fact that Kafka's wished his writings, his parables, to be destroyed. Yet at the same time, there are several places where Benjamin argues that Kafka's parables contain their own interpretation - (as a side note I might mention his affinity for the interpretation of "Before the Law" that Kafka provides.) Strangely enough, Benjamin's favorite parable happens to be mine as well, and his description of the pace of the parable is in line, I think, with the idea of the gestus and the dialectic at a standstill.

On at least on one occasion he succeeded in bringing its breath-taking speed in line with the slow narrative pace that he presumably sought all his life. He expressed this in a little prose piece which is his most perfect creation not only because it is an interpretation. [link]

The passage is The Truth About Sancho Panza. Note the singularity of the parable's gestus - the conceit about Sancho Panza - and the movment of the language - the constant stutter-step of the clauses forward and back again.

Without ever boasting of it, Sancho Panza succeeded in the course of years, by supplying a lot of romances of chivalry and adventure for the evening and night hours, in so diverting from him his demon, whom he later called Don Quixote, that his demon thereupon freely performed the maddest exploits, which, however, lacking a preordained object, which Sancho Panza himself was supposed to have been, did no one any harm. A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, and thus enjoyed a great and profitable entertainment to the end of his days.

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