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The "blueprints" of revolution?: A comparative reading of Hannah Arendt's political thought and Franz Kafka's fiction(s).


K.'s stubborn singleness of purpose, however, opens the eyes of some of the villagers; his behavior teaches them that human rights may be worth fighting for, that the rule of the Castle is not divine law and, consequently, can be attacked. (Arendt, Essays 76-77)

For decades, negative theology, alienation, defeatism, shame and hopelessness have been some of the most commonly attributed literary themes to Franz Kafka's writings (Ackerman 105-13; Block 322-26; Cohn 182-88). Although this has changed considerably since the 1990s, most political readings of Kafka's fiction emphasize the symbolic, metonymic, spiritual, intertextual, and even the deconstructive qualities of its resistance than an overt political-will Kafka's characters might otherwise inculcate (Nemoianu 357-71; Liska 329-34). (1) For instance, in a conversation with Scholem, despite Kafka's "prophetic vision" of the "communal estrangement" of the modern individual, Benjamin calls Kafka "a failure" largely because his experiments with literary form (parables growing into novels) prevent him from elaborating his prophesies into fulfilling (political) visions (Benjamin 245-47). Instead, as Kafka's close friend and biographer Max Brod has observed, both the literary form and the aesthetic predicament of Kafka's novels could be prolonged to an "infinity" which, in its rhetorical panoply, guides the reader all the "way to God" (Brod 97). This view is also echoed by Kundera (39-45) and Borges (199-201) who conclude that Kafka's politics are neither definite nor transparent given the "infinite sense of procrastination" exerted by their characters, and a "boundless labyrinth" (143-45) of bureaucratic structures they are destined to pass through. For Blanchot (11-20), Kafka is first and foremost a performance artist, one who combines text and action together in an almost spiritual intonation, thereby turning his texts all the more radical but politically "intangible."

While a number of recent commentaries have drawn upon Kafka's politics as "voicing" the resistance of the nameless, the underdogs, and the victims of political tyrannies (Bennett; Deleuze and Guattari; Hell), none comes close to Hannah Arendt's reading of Kafka's fables, characters, and literary devices as the "blueprints" of resistance and emancipation. Though Arendt's interest in Kafka has been reasonably well-documented (Bernstein 46-60; Young-Ah Gottlieb 94-109; Scott 42-54; Boym 231-38), most commentaries on the subject simply reiterate what Arendt has already said about Kafka in an essay which appeared in Partisan Review in 1944. By and large, the existing comparisons give an excessive credit to Kafka's parable "He" (Feldman 67-95; Scheppele 1377-1407; Nowak 42-47; Terada 839-866; Bethania 294-320) which Arendt discusses at length in her introduction Between Past and Future. (2) Perhaps the only exceptions to this are Danoff (211-29) and Hansen (215-17), who make a strong case for political comparisons between Arendt and Kafka on the subject of totalitarian terror and violence. This essay aims to advance the scope of these comparisons by suggesting that Arendt's interest in Kafka cannot be understood in terms of a single parable or an isolated thematic. Instead, Arendt's entire body of political thought--from the anatomy of totalitarianism to her own hopes for revolution, freedom, and emancipation ("public life")--bears the traces of Kafka's fabulist imagination. In Arendt's own words:

Kafka's technique could best be described as the construction of models. If a man wants to build a house or if he wants to know a house well enough to be able to foretell its stability, he will get a blueprint of the building or draw one upon himself [...]. Kafka's stories are such blueprints [...] expose the naked structure of events. (Arendt, Essays 71)

Following this guiding statement, Arendt's further commentaries gesture towards Kafka's "uncanny" ability in uncovering the nature and function of totalitarianism at large (Arendt, Essays 71-7). And it is entirely possible that Arendt's reading of Kafka's narrators as the fabricator mundi of resistance and revolution is inspired by her own emancipatory longings for the restitution of the (lost) public sphere. As Hansen remarks, "the clearest and certainly the most moving statement of Hannah Arendt's own hopes for public life was written during the darkest days of the Second World War. Fittingly, it is devoted to the work of Franz Kafka" (216). It is therefore not by chance or coincidence that each "blueprint" in the household of Kafka's fiction eventually corresponds to some personage or concept in Arendt's own train of thought. The all too readily available "blueprints," often admired by Arendt for their sheer moral fabulism, often espoused on behalf of her own emancipatory idealism, rejoin the hidden sites/ sides of politics in Kafka's fiction. Therefore, a reading of Kafka through Arendt's political thought would not only challenge populist perceptions of Kafka as a "defeatist," but it would go a long way in exploring what has been a neglected site of inquiry for both literary and political critics: the politics of Kafka's fiction.


During the 1940s, as a senior editor of Schocken Publications in New York, Arendt played a major role in making Kafka's work available to the English-speaking world; she assisted in editing and co-translating Kafka's second volume of diaries into English (Danoff 211). Her interest in Kafka's project was so profound that Arendt stated her involvement with Kafka's work in her personal communication with her friends, mentors and intellectual companions. As Arendt's biographer Young-Bruehl informs, Arendt was immersed with Kafka's writings "when a respected member of the Partisan Review circle could ask her at a party "who 'Francis' Kafka was" (For Love 192). Evidently, Arendt was working on The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) at a time she was involved with the translation of Kafka's Diaries into English (Danoff 211).

Although The Origins of Totalitarianism is often criticized for its lack of a unified argument or thesis, it is recognized as a comprehensive historical account of the "elements" that "crystallized" into totalitarianism (Arendt qtd. in Benhabib 64). (3) In Arendt's view, the rise of the political terror in the twentieth-century Europe, particularly under Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, was marked by an epistemological break in the temporality of historical succession--an overt disjuncture in the function and organization of political violence (Arendt, Origins). Unlike the old tyrannies and feudal regimes where terror was insular to the sustenance of political power, the twentieth-century totalitarian power did not offer a rationale for the excessive use of terror and violence (Benhabib, Reluctant 72; Danoff 211-29; Villa 231). Moreover, such irrational, non-purposive use of the totalitarian terror posed a subversive ideological challenge to all rational, intellectual and artistic faculties that are historically endowed to us as the sine qua non of reason (Arendt, Origins).

Arendt elaborates this historical disjuncture of totalitarianism in terms of its three operational concepts: the destruction of the public sphere, worldlessness and loneliness (Arendt, Origins 470-76). In the latter, the totalitarian regimes destroyed the integrity of the public political sphere by tactfully mobilizing popular support in favor of fascist politics (Benhabib 67-69). As a result, while the public sphere was subjected to the perils of political vulnerability, the totalitarian political sphere became an uncontestable space for freedom and security or any other state of political confusion that came to be known as "hope" (Hansen 191).

In her subsequent work, The Human Condition, Arendt outlines the ideological depredations that historically counteracted the human capacity to action. Accordingly, Arendt analyses the features of worldlessness and loneliness in terms of three underpinning aspects of the modern human condition (vita activa): 1) labour (animal laborans); 2) work as humanity (homo faber); and, 3) and humanity as action (zoon politikon). (4) In the wake of the totalitarian regimes in Europe, however, the existential crisis of worldlessness has emerged from two stages of human alienation; one "from the earth into the universe" and one "from the world into the self" (Arendt, Human 2-6).

Rejecting the long-standing Marxian views on labour, Arendt redefines animal laborans as a private need of the individual. In Arendt's view, not only that labour is defined by a never-ending character, but it "creates nothing of its own permanence" (Arendt, Human 135; Yar, n.pag.). Whereas labour continually empties itself demanding perpetual renewal for more labour, it keeps human needs closer to animal necessities--animal laborans. Homo faber, on the other hand, falls under the unnatural realm of human existence, or the public sphere of the political life (Arendt, Human 28). Because work (as organized labour) "corresponds to the fabrication of an artificial world of things [...] a world distinguished by its durability and semi-permanence" (Yar, n.pag.), it confers relative autonomy and freedom to the individuals who are brought together by means of such artificial worlds. With the advent of industrial capitalism, however, and its radical transformation of private property into fluid wealth, animal laborans has achieved the new status of being the modus operandi of mass public production. As a result, alienating from the stable human world, the incessant deification of animal laborans has converted the earth-bound necessities of humans into necessities of the life process of society (Arendt, Human 116, 151-52). In effect, it is the values of the animal laborans which prevailed over those of the homo faber.

The destruction of the public sphere, however, is not merely a material artifact of capitalism or its attendant material transformations. On the contrary, Plato's preoccupation with "the life of the mind"--vita contemplativa--played a critical role in the demise of homo faber (Arendt, Human 288). Reinforced by Christianity for two thousand years, Platonism has made contemplation of true reality--the life of the mind--as the most valued activity (Arendt, Human 14-21, 283-84). Believing that truth could be discovered only by exploring the mind and by creating objects, the new science had in effect reified Archimedes' claim--a point in outer space from which one could look at the earth as an object (Arendt, Human 262-63). According to Arendt, having estranged from the earth-bound necessities of life, modern man in effect has turned into a "worldless" being--a "prisoner of his own mind" (Arendt, Human 288).

If worldlessness defied all the customary notions of humanity and action, loneliness was another mass experience that shaped the modern individual as the ideal subject for totalitarian regimes. In Arendt's view, "isolation" and "solitude" are somewhat interrelated, but categorically different from loneliness (Arendt, Origins 475). If solitude is the "state of being alone" by one self, it requires a periodic contact with the human world. Isolation, on the other hand, is a choice of the individual who isolates himself/herself for the purpose of artistic reflection. Since every art form consists of its symbolic referents in the real world, isolation does not necessarily alienate individuals from the rest of the human experience (Arendt, Origins 474-77). Unlike isolation or solitude, however, loneliness is a despairing existential fate "under which neither genuine thought nor reliable experience is possible" (Arendt qtd. in Canovan 91). (5) Even though labour is a commonly shared activity by a mass scale of individuals in capitalist societies, inasmuch as it is dictated by the laws of the animal laborans, the society of labour and labourers breeds, as paradoxical as it may seem, nothing more than a community of lonely people.

Having introduced the totalitarian threat to humanity in The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition, in Between Past and Future, Arendt invokes the failures of history in endowing the traditional meanings of truth, freedom and justice to the present. This work, as the subtitle indicates,--"eight exercises on political thought"--induces a more declarative political programme of Arendt's imagined future. In Eichmann in Jerusalem--a controversial text which delves into the psychopathologies of the evil--Arendt diagnoses Eichmann as a "normal" human being. Despite his proactive role in the mass murder of the Jewish people, Arendt argues that Eichmann's crimes were not instigated by his hatred towards the victims (Eichmann 26-27). On the contrary, deprived of basic human faculties to reason, Eichmann turns into a willing accomplice of the fascist agenda and propaganda. Incapable of separating "thought" from "judgment," reason from action, Eichmann was reduced to a hollow subject--a mere bureaucratic passageway through which the orders of his superiors could flow unhindered and unquestioned. Arendt's later writings, particularly the incomplete trilogy of The Life of the Mind, 2 volumes and the posthumously published essays entitled Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy are daunting critiques of the philosophical and intellectual histories of Europe which, for Arendt, were (in)directly responsible for the loss of the public sphere in the first place. In the anthologies of The Life of the Mind, Arendt offers a philosophical prelude to the redemption of this loss. Indeed, her prior work On Revolution is a socio-historical inquiry that deals with the redemption of the public sphere.

In On Revolution, while rejecting the conventional notions of revolution as euphemistic and inadequate, Arendt carefully examines the concepts of political upheavals, liberation and freedom. Political upheavals arise when "people feel revulsion at affronts to human decency" (Hansen 171). Hence, even in their progressive form, political upheavals are not informed or imbued by the ideological tenets necessary for a revolution or emancipation. Instead, the rise of political upheavals (e.g. French and American "revolutions") suggests "a process of irresistible movement according to fixed laws that operate beyond the control of human beings" in which people find themselves swept along "inexorable stream of historical events, whose logic they might comprehend but not actually challenge or transform" (Arendt qtd. in Hansen 173). Arendt calls this "historical event" liberation, as opposed to revolution. The making of a true revolution--"freedom," in Arendt's generic terms--is conditioned by a novel reality and freethinking transcendent of any force of historical necessity or event (Arendt, On Revolution).

Having said that, Arendt cautions that freedom is not some sort of material transformation that can be reified by the tools of social or political history. Instead, freedom signifies the means of "collective action" which pertains to the level of natural, human "cognitive faculties" of knowing, thinking, meaning, and above all, judging (Arendt, Lectures 128). Thinking relates to the representation of things that are absent, while judging concerns with one's ability to respond or react to situations and events at hand (Arendt, Lectures 128). Invoking Kant's thoughts on reflective judgment, Arendt argues that freedom is characterized by a judgment for which no rule of precedent exists (Arendt, Lectures 13,83). Quite inversely, reflective judgment originates from the point of commonly shared human faculties of all beings to reason and understanding. Such judgment inundates the true reflective traits of human beings as autonomous for whom there exists "an independent human faculty, unsupported by law and public opinion, that judges anew in full spontaneity every deed and intent whenever the occasion arises" (Arendt, Lectures 98).

Corresponding to the historical disjuncture of totalitarianism, Arendt believes that the occasion for public life also arises, and must arise, without preconceived categories, without the customary rules of morality (Hansen 194). Apropos of Arendt's emancipatory vision, it comes as no surprise when Karl Jaspers wrote to Arendt: "on the whole your vision is finally a tragedy--which does not leave you without hope" (qtd. in Hansen 172). Yet, "Arendt saw her own work as being comparable to "thinking without a banister," [...] a phrase that she coined in the early nineteen seventies [...] by which she meant that thinking must be done without the comfort of metaphysics and faith, because the capacity to think (philosophically) is ever present, and possible under any condition." (6)


Kafka's The Trial espouses a number of conceptual features on totalitarianism outlined by Arendt. The near-surreal arrest of Joseph K., the overwhelmingly meaningless progression of his trial in the hands of a schizophrenic jury, and his impending execution over a nameless crime present a glaring parody of the irrational, non-purposive nature of the totalitarian terror. "The court makes no claim upon you. It receives you when you come, it relinquishes you when you go [...] one must accept it as a necessity" (Kafka 243-44)--is the tautological moral of the many responses that K. encounters from the representatives of the law. The conflation of the irrational terror, and the incursion of impervious law around K.'s life in The Trial confirms to no utilitarian function. Nor is the law geared by such grave conditionality that it requires the excessive use of power and terror for the purpose of retaining its existence. On the contrary, as K. progresses through the pages of The Trial, there is a persistent encounter of growing tension and suspense, which would repeat itself in concatenating blocks by virtue of its own ineptitude and senselessness. Kafka's shorter narrative "In the Penal Colony" offers a more grueling account of the non-functionality of such totalitarian terror.

"In the Penal Colony" is the story of a condemned man who is strapped to a death machine, which inscribes the text of his punishment into his flesh. The condemned man, we are told, has no knowledge of his crime or punishment. The Executioner asks the Officer who is in charge of the machine and if the condemned man is aware of his crime and punishment. The Officer replies: "there will be no point in telling him. He'll learn it on his body." "But surely he knows that he has been sentenced," asks the Executioner. "Nor that either," answers the Officer. The answer prompts the Executioner to question: "then he can't know either his defense was effective [...] he must have had some chance of defending himself?" (Kafka 144-45). The Officer responds to the Executioner by shaking his head, implying that there is no point in talking about the offender's defense. In a fateful turn of the events, the Officer takes it on himself to test the machine's strength, eventually killing himself.

In an almost tautological relay, "In the Penal Colony" elicits a three-fold complication in relation to the non-functionality of the terror. Firstly, the preliminary details of the story indicate that the condemned man shows little or no resistance to the execution--"he looked so like a submissive dog that one might have thought he could be left to run free on the surrounding hills and would only need to be whistled for when the execution was due to begin" (Kafka 140)--as if the condemned man's guilt lies with his non-resistance to the execution. Secondly, in the case of any resistance, the condemned man's guilt would have been taken for granted, as his resistance would be deemed as a recalcitrant response to a crime he surely must have committed. Finally, the condemned man's body becomes a mere object for the spectacle of execution; a secondary thing to the machine's existence; "My guiding principle is this: guilt is never to be doubted" (Kafka 145), declares the officer of the Penal Colony. During Hitler's Germany, such "guiding principles" became the major ideological condiments for the fascist violence. The terror may serve no authoritarian function and therefore it owes no explanation. Since the terror owes no explanation, it explicates itself through the eventual falsity and the expectant guilt of the (objectified) subject upon which it is inflicted. Clearly, the extermination camps in Nazi Germany symbolized the "guiding social ideal of total domination in general," or these camps were "true central institution of the totalitarian organizational power," which for the totalitarians had no utilitarian purpose that could be explained in functional terms (Arendt, Origins 437-38).

At the outset, we may consider the Officer of the Penal Colony a replica character of Adolf Eichmann. The Officer's sole purview in the Penal Colony is to monitor and supervise the function of the death machine which is erected as a mark of morality and civic justice. Since the machine already fulfills a symbolic function of justice, the Officer finds the function or enforcement of law and justice to be a non-necessity. Instead, the Officer becomes frantically obsessed with the miniscule details of the machine, its parts, turns of the screws, the movement and operation of the entire body of the machine. The Officer wears the machine as a tag, a badge of honour; he accepts it as a token of glory from the High Rank of his precursors, and endows it to the present as the moral legacy of the Colony at the expense of his own life. In effect, both the Officer in the Penal Colony and Adolf Eichmann follow no line of individual reasoning, other than being mere passageways for the orders of their superiors to pass through. In much the same way, Arendt describes Eichmann as a "joiner," "a conformist," "a leaf in the whirlwind of time," who was only concerned, if not obsessed, with being "duty-bound" to almost fanatic proportions (Arendt, Eichmann 32).

Among other aspects of totalitarianism, Arendt considers the "historical disjuncture," both its material (function of terror and violence) and ideological (cognitive faculties of thought and action) manifestations, as a "novel form" of governance. The opening words of The Trial reveal this novelty so enchantingly: "someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K. for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning" (Kafka 7). Variously dubbed as the "most famous" phrase of the twentieth century, the rhetorical shadowplay in Kafka's words has a number of implications to Arendt's conceptions of time, history and morality. In the conventional understanding of truth, "arrest" and "wrongdoing" are mutually reciprocal and relational acts. But the arrest of Joseph K. announces a new testament of truth, wherein an individual can be arrested for no wrongdoing. Else, "someone must have been telling lies" about it (the arrest as truth). Such truth, in the conventional understanding of the event (the arrest), however, is a lie. But Kafka's added emphasis defies the conventional sense of "truth" in that anyone can be arrested for no wrongdoing, and there is nothing (no "someone") to lie about it. In other words, K.'s arrest is carried over (by Kafka) to the present as a normative act wherein "arrest" and "wrongdoing" lose their traditional yet relational meanings.

Kafka's parable "Before the Law" is a compelling tale of this epistemic rift between history and present. "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was only made for you, I am now going to shut it" (Kafka, "Before" 4) is the garrulous response of the gatekeeper before the law. After a lifetime of waiting before the gates of the law, the "Man from the country" suddenly learns that he is not permitted to access the law. There is no reason, for instance, why a gate had been erected only for the Man and why it had to be guarded by a gatekeeper when it was meant to be shut. The abrupt encounter with the gatekeepers response dissolves the Man's lifetime wait before the law into a dissipating image; rejecting his life and his past as though they were a mere temporal delusion, an overarching ghost time. In The Life of the Mind, Arendt laments the loss of the cognate faculties of thinking and judging by virtue of an abrupt break from history and tradition which, however, was instrumental to the function and sustenance of the totalitarian regimes (Bradshaw 68-71; Young-Bruehl, "Reflections" 277-305). Arendt further invokes Kafka's parable "He" as an allegorical "battleground where the forces of past and future clash with each other; between them we find the man who Kafka calls "He," who, if he wants to stand his ground at all, must give battle to both forces." (Arendt, Life of the Mind, Volume 1 203).

Like Arendt, time, history and tradition are the quintessential features of much of Kafka's fiction. For instance, "A Hunger Artist" opens with the statement: "During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished" (Kafka 268). With the very remarks "during the last decades" and "now a days it is impossible," Kafka invokes history to ascribe "hunger" an artistic status. As the story unfolds, Kafka's rhetorical devices develop in two curious directions. First, by staging hunger art for public performance, Kafka separates hunger from the private realm of existence. Second, after having staged the hunger art for public performance, the lead voice of the story embarks on a lengthy harangue over the loss of faith in the art of fasting. Subsequently, it is against the "failures" of history that the plight of the hunger artist is revealed in its fictional form. The staging of hunger as public performance, on the other hand, invites a number of parallels to Arendt's notion of worldlessness. Arendt's emphasis on labour as an animal necessity--a void object of desire that continuously empties itself--is equally tenable to the phenomenological realm of hunger. Even though hunger is not an activity per se, it is characterized by the same intrinsic necessity of the animal laborans--a necessity which pertains to the private realm of the individual. The interior of the story, which deals with the dynamics of social encounter between the artist and his spectators, reveals yet another dimension of the artist's alienation. Having successfully staged hunger as an artistic commodity for public consumption, the artist becomes disenchanted by the growing skepticism of his spectators over his performance. "There were also relays of permanent watchers," writes Kafka, "usually butchers, strangely enough," and "it was their task to watch the hunger artist [...] in case he should have some secret sources of nourishment" (Kafka 268). Save the butchers' intentions, for the spectators, it is the artist who serves as the symbolic exemplification of their judgments, through whom they seek to verify their expectations about art and its meaning. The artist channels all his energies into his performance as though he were uniting art and life into one (Kluback 3-4). "How easy was it," he remarks, "to fast" and "it was the easiest thing in the world" (Kafka 270). After forty days of non-stop performance, he questions, "why stop," when he could set "a record by a performance beyond human imagination?" (Kafka 271). The artist falls into an almost solipsistic madness by which he begins to construct a variety of demonic realities over the art of hunger. In the maze of the skeptical world around his cage, he becomes the only trusted spectator of his art, thereby a prisoner of his own art. Here, if the defeat of Arendt's modern man ("a prisoner of his own mind") is attributed to the perils of scientific revolution, then the defeat of Kafka's hunger artist can be traced to the fatalities of (his) aesthetic redemption.

Kafka's famous story "The Metamorphosis" features a more animating account of the crisis of homo faber. Despite the irresistible transmigration of his body into a bizarre insect, Gregor Samsa is chiefly concerned with getting to work on time (Danoff 211-29). When Gregor's religious imbrication to his work transcends the most diminutive of his human instincts, he becomes an allegorical figure of an entire society's metamorphosis into animals wherein everything is reified into work.

"The Burrow" contains an equally enigmatic opening as most of Kafka's stories: "I have completed the construction of my burrow and it seems successful" (Kafka 325) is the emancipating revelation, a temporal complacency of the creature. Yet, it is the very tautological force of the creature's remark that uncovers the hidden fears of its non-complacency at work. To construct a burrow, to build a home is the epitome of emancipation, a revolutionary leap in the tradition of animaldom (Kluback 25-31). After the successful construction of the burrow, however, the creature is haunted by the perpetual fear of being exposed to the predators because the very existence of a burrow may attract one's wandering attention. Eventually, the paranoia of living in the burrow reaches such an extreme that the creature decides to abandon it once and for all, taking refuge into a secure spot in the wild to study the weak points of the construction. Once the vulnerable points of the burrow haven been revealed and secured, the creature returns to its home, only to be terrorized by the "strange noises" of the insects from underneath the burrow. Soon, what was deemed a lifetime accomplishment--the construction of the burrow--begins to denude the most pernicious truths of its finitude and incompleteness. Whereas Arendt's concept of liberation is characterized by a similar sense of incompleteness, Kafka leaves enough traces in his work, at least for Arendt, to read beyond the failed (mis)constructions: K. is

[...] the supreme figure of man as a model of good will, of man the fabricator mundi, the world-builder who can get rid of misconstructions and reconstruct his world. And since these heroes are only models of good will and left in anonymity, the abstractness is general, shown only in the very function good will may have in this world of ours [...] (Arendt qtd. in Hansen 217)

Beyond the good-will of K.'s solitary quest(s), Arendt's constant emphasis on K.'s anonymity as the "general abstractness," the struggle of "everybody," the struggle of the "world of ours" reinstates her own conceptions of freedom as the human capacity for "collective action". Arendt draws this epistemic synchrony with Kafka dramatically upfront: "his novels seem to have a single appeal as though he wanted to say: this man (K) may be everybody and anybody, perhaps you and me" (Arendt, Essays 77).

This anonymity of Kafka's central characters, their fluid subjectivity, and their abstract reality to forge a mobile political space for an entire social world are indeed a central feature of Deleuze and Guattari's project on Kafka's "minor literature." Unlike major features, where a "lead" character is posed as the direct representative of a given social setting, Deleuze and Guattari argue that the passive heroism of Kafka's characters is often positively charged, in their imagined inaction, with the role and function of the collective (17-35). Although Deleuze and Guattari's reading of Kafka is largely based on the textual strategies in his fiction, it does not necessarily contradict Arendt's observations on K.'s anonymity as the rhetorical representation of the collective. To that, Deleuze and Guattari write, almost reiterating Arendt's words: "the letter K no longer designates a narrator or a character but an assemblage that becomes all the more machine-like, an agent that becomes all the more collective" (Deleuze and Guattari 18).

The Castle is a more explicit example of the technique of collective enunciation through abstract, anonymous and passive signifiers. In other cases, this technique is recurrent in the guise of nonhuman, unfinished and semi-finished beings. For instance, in "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk," the singer "renounces the individual act of singing" in order to submerge herself into the collective enunciation of "the immersed crowd of the heroes of (her) people" (Deleuze and Guattari 18). The dog in "Investigations of a Dog" turns her solitude into an emancipatory quest, calling for a collective action of the entire canine race:

It is not merely flesh and bones we have in common with all the others, but knowledge also, and not only knowledge, but the key to it as well. I do not possess that key except in common with all the others; I cannot grasp it without their help. The hardest bones, containing the richest morrow, can be conquered only by a united crunching of all the teeth of all dogs. That of course is only a figure of speech and exaggerated; if all the teeth were but ready they would not need even to bite, the bones would crack themselves and the marrow would be freely accessible to even the feeblest dogs [...]. For I want to compel all the dogs thus to assemble together, I want the bones to crack open under the pressure of this collective preparedness. (Kafka 291; emphasis mine)

In view of the dog's emancipatory call, perhaps no further qualification is needed to highlight the epistemic synchrony of Arendt's own thoughts on public life, freedom and collective action. Even a mere juxtaposition of the dog's words--"key" to knowledge, the united crunch of all the teeth, the pressure of "collective preparedness"--and Arendt's lexicon on freedom and reflexive judgment as "representative thinking," "enlarged" thinking, thinking without a "banister," "shared-deliberation" "collective action" will elicit, in the most unambiguous fashion, the emancipatory parallels between the two.


It may be tempting to conclude that this almost contrapuntal synchrony between Arendt and Kafka is merely associational than analytical, but there is enough (contextual evidence on Arendts persistent engagement with Kafka to suggest that it is not. For instance, Arendts essay on Kafka, which appeared in 1944, is her first publication in the English language. As Joanna Scott remarks "the American publication [of Kafka's essay] is far more important since it was her first in a major New York venue, Partisan Review, only a few years after her arrival" (848). Not only that Arendts essay caught a good deal of attention in the intellectual circles of New York, but it appealed for a sense of hope and resilience amongst the last generation of Jewish intellectuals who fled the totalitarian regimes.

Thus, given Arendts personal interest as well as her deep intellectual fascination for Kafka, it is somewhat misleading to limit the comparison between the two to a single parable or an isolated concept. Instead, as this essay has demonstrated, a holistic reading of Arendts work--from the rise of totalitarianism to its socio-epistemological roots in the vita activa-, from worldlessness to liberation; from liberation to reflexive judgment; from reflexive judgment to freedom; and finally freedom as the end of all human action--espouses the totalitarian predicament, the irrationality of terror, revolution, and more importantly, the emancipatory ideals forged by Kafka's stories, fables and novels. In spite of this, a political reading of Kafka's fiction should not be credited to Arendt alone; as William Golding remarks, whether it is Kafka or any other storyteller, "a fabulist is a moralist. He cannot make a story without a human lesson tucked away in it" (85).

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. London: Faber & Faber, 1961. Print.

--. Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil. London: Faber & Faber, 1963a. Print.

--. "Franz Kafka: A Revelation: On the Occasion of the Twentieth Anniversary of His Death." Essays in Understanding. Ed. J. Kohn. New York: Schocken, 1994. 69-80. Print.

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Pavan Kumar Malreddy



(1.) See Coetzee's reading of Kafka's story "The Burrow" (210-32); Sussaman's essay on Benjamin and Kafka (42-54), Derridas essay on Kafka in Acts of Literature (181-220), and Kundera's commentary in Testaments Betrayed (39-45).

(2.) Arendt claims that Kafka's "He," who is caught in-between the forces of being pushed forward and backwards, opens up to a spatial temporality; a "middle ground" from which "He" (the allegorical modern man) can relate to tradition, and more importantly, reclaim the (lost) human faculties of thinking and acting without a metaphysical precedent. See Young-Bruehl ("Reflections" 277-305) for a detailed rendition of Arendts commentary on Kafka's fable.

(3.) Benhabib's remark on the "elements" that "crystallized" into totalitarianism is derived from Arendts reply to Eric Vogelin.

(4.) Arendt reinstates the literal meaning of the term "political creature" to signify man's inherent capacity to act politically (Arendt, Human 26-27).

(5.) Arendt suggests that solitude can be converted into loneliness only when an individual is all by himself/herself, and willfully "deserted" by himself/herself (Arendt, Origins 470-77).

(6.) I owe these words to Dr. Leah Bradshaw, a well-known Arendt scholar at the Department of Political Science, Brock University, who wrote a detailed commentary on an earlier version of this essay.
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