Failure

Adorno and repudiation

Theodor Adorno, for instance, argues that Kafka's parables signify not "through expression but its repudiation";

[Ziarek 177]



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An Early Draft

Kafka and Benjamin Presentation:

Dieter Bohn

Good Afternoon, everyone. Since my paper today will treat Kafka's parables, I think it is fitting that I begin with a couple as epigraphs:

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. [K 464]

If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without ascending it, the work would have been permitted. [K 464]

(click "Full Fragment" for the full Draft)



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Anti-Parables

If this is the definition of "Parable," then Kafka writes "anti-Parables"

but that's not quite right - these parables are "organized around binary structures," but one of the binaries is missing. A sun circling around a black hole.

[the binary structures in which the particular discloses or illustrates the truth]



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Benjamin's interpretative text repeats Kafka's gesture

The failure is never simply that of the modernist text in opposition to history, but of a text that realizes how it is the very material production of history. If Benjamin's interpretative text repeats Kafka's gesture, it is with the intent of embracing, rather than overcoming, this failure.

[Oksiloff 195]



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Boredom is the threshold to great deeds

We are bored when we don't know what we are waiting for. That we do know, or think we know, is nearly always the expression of our superficiality or inattention. Boredom is the threshold to great deeds--Now, it would be important to know: What is the dialectical antithesis to boredom?

[Arcades Project 105]



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Completeness

Aphorism is whole-r (hole-r?) than word. It is more complete-in-itself. A word is like a tool -- taken out of context there is no expectation for meaning. Aphorism has no context, it is always already taken out of context, yet there is the expectation of meaning. But there is not supposed to be any meaning.

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Examining the Rungs

But if "the panorama opening out to him" is never revealed - or cannot exist, we are left to examine the rungs. They do not climb up, but are scattered about. They can only be used to beat people with.

Dramatic, that. But the point: quotations are decontextualized. They can be used for whatever purposes I put them to. They are the words of others, but they cannot speak for themselves here.

Are Kafka's parables still parables when they are quoted? Are they always already being quoted - quotations in the service of another from the moment they are written down?

[rung by rung, according as chance would offer a narrow foothold]



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If one says that he perceived what was to come

If one says that he perceived what was to come without perceiving what exists in the present, one should add that he perceived it essentially as an individual is affected by it

[Illuminations 143]



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In the idea of eternal recurrence, the historicism of the nineteenth century capsizes

In the idea of eternal recurrence, the historicism of the nineteenth century capsizes. As a result, every tradition, even the most recent, becomes the legacy of something that has already run its course in the immemorial night of the ages. Tradition henceforth assumes the character of a phantasmagoria in which primal history enters the scene in ultramodern get-up.

[Arcades Project 116]



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Kafka listened to tradition

Kafka listened to tradition, and he who listens hard does not see.

[Illuminations 143]



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Kafka's strategic use of failure

I would like to suggest that Kafka's strategic use of failure as a response to the traditional tasks of the parable is intertwined with a critique of the often opposite tendencies of modern aesthetics: the autonomy of the work of art and nostalgia for linguistic community.

[Ziarek 175]



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Material Production of History

Kafka's parables are as aware of their engagement in the decay of meaning as they are in the decay of material. If Benjamin embraces this failure, then does it countenance postmodern play of interpretation?

If a single meaning decays into failure, then multiple meanings will also decay, each one being singular. And so this interpretation too decays. and so on. Too juvenile?

[Benjamin's interpretative text repeats Kafka's gesture]



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On "The Pit of Babel"

This parable seems to be the most potent for my purposes - but it seems as though it is because it is the most meaningless. The meanings of it are difficult to figure out. Any reading I make of it - such as the "postmodern" one of pursuing multiple meanings that seems to be the most obvious to me - seems to reduce it to less than it should be.

[The Pit of Babel]



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Parable and Context

Can anything be always already taken out of context? Taken out of context at all? The answer should be no. But that is apparently the claim of the parable - that is can be taken out of context. Or is that just a left-over new critical stance? Kafka's parables should be a new critic's wet dream. They are. But they also reference an absent context - a reference that makes a straight "just the text" reading insufficient - an absence that makes it the only criticism that gives Kafka his due as trying to write something metaphysically important. Kafka's parable is a litmus test for the critic - are you a modernist or a postmodernist?

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Phantasmagoria and Mythic Anguish

Blanqui's cosmic speculation conveys this lesson: that humanity will be prey to a mythic anguish so long as phantasmagoria occupies a place in it.

[Arcades Project 15]



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Self-recognition according to Fichte

Self-recognition, according to Fichte, is possible in so far as human beings are capable of transferring their perspective to a point outside of themselves. But Kafka no longer deemed reasonable this process of "speculation," and this resulted for hom a strict dichotomy between the realms of life and recognition, experience and knowledge.

[Gray 461]



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The Forest

Another parable - but this one from Brecht!

"Depth is a dimension of its own, just depth" - the perfect explanation, the depth of the Pit of Babel! You build the tower up to a single meaning, you dig the pit down and down and down and you never stop digging and you never find the bottom. Just Depth.

See "The Burrow"

[In the forest]



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The Limits of N@aS

Theorizing this similarity is an exercise I leave to the reader or at least to a future time. Theories of the Archive, of Montage, of Mechanization, and of Hyptertextuality all would seem to apply -- and all threaten to overtake the fragmentary discourse of Benjamin and Kafka I am trying to engage in. For now, it is simply a matter of scope.



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The Starting Point

This must be my starting point, that the Parables--and Benjamin--participate in some sort of "pre-diffferance," where instead of constant deferrment, we get a stop, a singularity, a standstill, in the face of the lack of truth/signified.

[the metaphysical concept of truth separate from the mechanism of signification]



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The law of his journey

Kafka, however, has found in the law of his journey--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.
The Truth About Sancho Panza

[Illuminations 139]



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a blotting pad to ink

My thinking is related to theology as a blotting pad is related to ink. It is saturated with it. Were one to go by the blotter, however, nothing of what is written would remain.

[Arcades Project 471]



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a conversation between Lao-Tse and his disciple Kafka

...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.

[Reflections 207]



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a failure of the original

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.

[Oksiloff 170]



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a sickness of tradition

Kafka's word presents a sickness of tradition.

[Illuminations 143]



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he did not found a religion

Kafka was a writer of parables, but he did not found a religion

[Illuminations 126]



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his parables are never exhausted by what is explainable

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

[Illuminations 124]



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plenty of hope

"Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope--but not for us.''

[Benjamin Quoting Kafka]

[Illuminations 116]



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products of its decay

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

[Illuminations 144]



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purity and beauty of failure

This claim feels so much like a qualification designed for Brecht and Benjamin's potential publisher. "Don't get me wrong, it's definitely a failure."

How seriously do we take Benjamin's altered stance in the face of Brecht's criticism? I think very seriously - but I think also that it is not his most "natural" take on Kafka, it is not Benjamin's inclination to damn Kafka for mere obscurantism.

[purity and beauty of a failure]



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the accusation is [not] sinful

But one must not conclude from Kafka's definition that the accusation is sinful because it is false. Nowhere does Kafka say that it is made wrongfully.

[Illuminations 114]



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the deficiency of Kafka's parables explicity as their failure to transmit truth

This time Benjamin sees the deficiency of Kafka's parables explicity as their failure to transmit truth and argues that in order to "do justice to the figure of Kafka," it is essential to confront the significance of this failure without apologies.

[Ziarek 179]



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the impossibility of finishing

The "tower of Babel" does not merely figure the irreducible multiplicity of tongues; it exhibits an incompletion, the impossibility of finishing, of totalizing, of saturating, of completing something on the order of edification, architectural construction, system and architectonics. What the multiplicity of idioms actually limits is not only a "true" translation, a transparent and adequate interexpression, it ais also a structural order, a coherence of construct. There is then (let us translate) something like an internal limit to formalization, an incompleteness of the structure.

[Derrida, quoted in Ziarek 195]



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the purity and beauty of a failure

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.

[Illuminations 145]



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the term "failure"

Benjamin's use of the term "failure" is motivated by his audience - who believes with Brecht that Kafka is indeed a failure. But perhaps that is not what Benjamin would like to say?

the "failure" here is a success - they fail to transmit what was never there.

[the deficiency of Kafka's parables explicity as their failure to transmit truth]



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the true character of life as a series of inassimilable and utterly meaningless shocks

Judged against the intense unity of coherence of the mystical nu, the true character of life as a series of inassimilable and utterly meaningless shocks emerges in a way that effectively blocks its repression.

[Jennings 44]



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what writers say

Never trust what writers say about their own writings.

[Arcades Project 203]



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whether it is possible to build, write, interpret

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...

[Ziarek 200]



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