Exposé One: Critical Failure

What are you building?-I want to dig a subterranean passage. Some progress must be made. My station up there is much too high.
We are digging the pit of Babel. [link]

If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without ascending it, the work would have been permitted. [link]

Franz Kafka's parables have, as it is popular to state, been the subject of a large set of critical works that run from new criticism to extentialism to religious to postmodern. A large portion of this literature has been affected, directly or no, by Walter Benjamin's reading of Kafka. Benjamin's engagement with Kafka comes to us primarily in two forms - an essay he wrote entitled "Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of his Death" and a series of fragments including a letter (a book proposal) and some notes regarding Benjamin's conversations with Bertold Brecht, collected together in Benjamin's Reflections.

(Click "Full Fragment" to continue reading)

These fragments are so influential (or at least their themes are so common) because Benjamin identifies two interpretative "dead-ends" early on and does his best to explicate a way to avoid them:

There are two ways to miss the point of Kafka's works. One is to interpret them naturally, the other is the supernatural interpretation. Both the psychoanalytic and the theological interpretations equally miss the essential points. [link]

It is not to extreme to take "supernatural" in this sense to mean simply "Beyond Natural" or even "Not Natural." The two, "natural" and "not natural" certainly seem to exhaust the field of possible interpretations. (The "natural" would then be a stand in not just for "psychoanalytic" interpretation, but any immanent, worldly interpretation). These two dead-ends are categorical in the sense that, taken to stand in for two major classes of understanding, there simply is nothing else.

Of course, that is quite an impasse. Or perhaps it isn't? Ewa Ziarek notes:

This paralysis thematized in Kafka's text raises again a question whether it is possible to build, write, interpret when we already know "that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible" (PP, 11). Walter Benjamin argues, however, that this failure of the transcendental purpose is not an impasse but a liberating force in Kafka's prose. [link]

This so-called "liberating force" has found many adherents:

Interpretation sets the text in motion by opening it up to possible readings instead of fixing it in respect to one tradition. [Oksiloff 178]

And

Kafka criticism, with its seeming endless willingness to carry on the chain of mutually replaceable signified and signifiers, assures the ongoing emancipatory force of Kafka's work, as such substitutions are always only inadequate replacements for wisdom. [Jennings 47]

The claim that Kafka's parables display some of the characteristics of the arbitrariness of the sign, or that they otherwise divorce language from truth is fairly widespread. Heinz Politzer's "'Give It Up!' A Discourse on Method" details some of the ways that the earlier mentioned "vast body of interpretation" has read the "Give it Up" parable:

It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and deserted, I was on my way to the station. As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized it was much later than I had thought and that I had to hurry; the shock of this discovery made me feel uncertain of the way, I wasn't very well acquainted with the town as yet; fortunately, there was a policeman at hand, I ran to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: "You asking me the way?" "Yes," I said, "since I can't find it myself." "Give it up! Give it up!" said he, and turned with a sudden jerk, like someone who wants to be alone with his laughter. [K 456]

His survey of methods, from psychoanalytic to existential to biblical all seem to correspond to the two "errors of interpretation" that Benjamin mentions. His conclusion, however, is not quite the "situating within the dialectic" that I believe Benjamin is aiming for. Politzer argues that

Generally speaking, Kafka's parables center on their paradox

This paradox then divorces the parable from truth and makes the parable essentially meaningless. Yet, to reduce Kafka's parables to a paradox does not actually escape Benjamin's dead-ends. In a logical if-then proposition, a contradiction in the "if" statement makes all "thens" necessarily true. If Politzer simply calls the parables a "paradox," then literally any interpretation will work.

Ziarek says of Polizer:

this strain of Kafka criticism in fact perpetuates both the notion of linguistic skepticism and the concept of truth distinct and separate from the process of signification. [Ziarek 178]

Ziarek is right to discount Politzer's reading as naïve, but this specific point - that it perpetuates the notion that truth is distinct from language - does not, in itself, actually refute his argument. What refutes his argument is, as Benjamin says, that the parables "had to become more than parables." These parables are not so easy to simply discount as meaningless paradoxes or even as stand-ins for the arbitrary signifier.

Yet by discounting some of these critical voices I by no means want to claim that there is a definite "true" interpretation. Quite the contrary, the central issue for Benjamin's ideas of Kafka center around what he sees as Kafka's failure,

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