Exposé Two: Failure and Language

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Failure, for Benjamin, is precisely what makes Kafka's parables Kafkaesque:

To do justice to the figure of Kafka in its purity and its peculiar beauty one must never lose sight of one thing: it is the purity and beauty of a failure. ... There is nothing more memorable then the fervor with which Kafka emphasized his failure. [link]

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Although it should be noted that Benjamin's emphasis on failure here is not unmotivated, or at least not without some history. He makes this claim in a letter proposing a book on Kafka, one never written. Between his earlier Kafka essay and this one Benjamin increased his focus on failure, in part because of conversations he had with Bertold Brecht. Benjamin writes, in parable form to start:

...one would have to imagine a conversation between Lao-Tse and his disciple Kafka. Lao-Tse says: "Well now, disciple Kafka, the organizations, the leaseholds and other economic forms in which you live make you uneasy?" "Yes." "You can't cope with them any more?" "No." "A stock certificate worries you?" "Yes." "And now you are looking for a leader to hold on to, disciple Kafka." That is of course despicable, says Brecht. I reject Kafka.[link]

Benjamin is using a parable to try and explain to Brecht his attraction to Kafka - placing himself and Kafka within a parable (parabolic?) tradition. He leads this tradition up to the modern age, just like Kafka. But before Benjamin can finish the parable, he is interrupted. Brecht replies with his own parable

In the forest there are various kinds of tree trunks. From the thickest, beams for ships are cut; from less thick buyt still respectable trunks, box lids and coffin sides are made; the very thin ones are used for rods; but nothing comes of the stunted ones--they escape the pains of usefulness. "In what Kafka wrote you have to look around as in such a forest. You will then find a number of very useful things. The images are good. But the rest is obscurantism. It is sheer mischief. You have to ignore it. Depth takes you no further. Depth is a dimension of its own, just depth--which is why nothing comes to light in it." [link]

The hard line that Brecht takes, that it is "obscurantism" and "sheer mischief" is not without merit, and Benjamin takes it seriously - seriously enough that it becomes his starting point in his letter. Brecht's parable serves as an ideal counterpoint to the Kafkan parable - it has a clear point and little in the way of contradition, confusion, or abstraction.

So Benjamin essentially accepts, to begin, Brecht's rejection of Kafka by calling it "failure" instead of "obscurantism." The difference in terms leaves Benjamin an opening. The failure in Kafka's parables works out in several levels, but ultimately for Benjamin it is a failure of language to convey meaning. Benjamin Writes:

This is why, in regard to Kafka, we can no longer speak of wisdom. Only the products of its decay remain.[link]

"Wisdom" for Benjamin is something like a shorthand for the connection between language and tradition. He elsewhere writes:

Kafka's word presents a sickness of tradition. [link]

Notable in this context is that Benjamin refers to Kafka's singular "word," linking it to more traditional parables (the "word" of the god), but also, I believe, pointing to a deeper problem of language that Kafka's parables uncover - a problem that is something like a precursor to Derrida's "differánce." Benjamin argues that Kafka's parables show the emptiness of language, as Ziarek argues:

Reading "failure" in Kafka's parables in a way directly opposite to Politzer (and to the majority of Kafka criticism) Benjamin argues that Kafka's focus on the circulation of linguistic transport of meaning eventually aims to destroy the metaphysical concept of truth separate from the mechanism of signification.[link]

Benjamin sees in Kafka a very postmodern-looking understanding of language - the "word" points not to a signifier, but to nothing at all. Benjamin's theories on translation bear this out - translations are more "exalted" due to the fact that they lay bare the fundamental emptiness (or failure) of language. Assenka Oskiloff's 1992 Univeristy of Minnesota Ph.D. Thesis makes the point very well:

Any translation which sets out to reproduce meaning in another language is bound to fail and this has to do with a failure of the original. [link]

Thus, the property that is most blatant in a translation, the slippage between symbol and symbolized, revels something about the original. It is for this reason that Benjamin claims that the translation exists in a more "exalted' state than the original. History unfolds in a linguistic realm of contiguous fragments. [link]

Benjamin clearly believes in something very much like a signifiers without clear signifieds. Yet to simply apply this sort of reading to Kafka's parables would, I think, run into the "natural" dead end that Benjamin argues against. Benjamin himself seems to think that there is yet reason to reject a purely "natural" linguistic reading of Kafka's "word":

Kafka had a rare capacity for creating parables himself. Yet his parables are never exhausted by what is explainable; on the contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings. One has to find one's way in them circumspectly, cautiously, and warily. [link]

Kafka's real genius was that he tried something entirely new: he sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility, [...] Kafka's writings are by their nature parables. But it is their misery and their beauty that they had to become more than parables. They do not modestly lie at the feet of the doctrine, [...]. Though apparently reduced to submission, they unexpectedly raise a mighty paw against it. [link]

The gesture "rais[ing] a mighty paw" willl be the subject of the next Exposé.

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