Monday, June 15, 2009

is there any value in, or factual basis for, attaching a class perspective to Kafka's writings? a proposed entrypoint

I'm not sure if I should apologize or not for including blog posts not directly related to economic history lately. You'll have to forgive me for now, since most of my work has been centered around reading books on American labor law and then writing summaries of them for my professors. So, I have been craving some other forms of entertainment in my spare time.

Kafka's short story "The Problem of Our Laws" will immediately be familiar in style and content to anyone who has read him outside of "Metamorphosis", that one great short story about a man who wakes up to find himself turned into a giant beetle on his back in his bed. Many of Kafka's works center around the ubiquity of bureaucracy in modern society, and the implications of that bureaucracy for the human condition. For example, one of the few novels he wrote is titled The Trial and is about a man who wakes up one morning to find he has been arrested and spends the entire novel searching for the reason for his arrest and how he may get to a court to straighten things out. The story has many themes, one of the most important being the struggle of the individual against things much larger than him. "Larger" here is defined in Kafka's works on a variety of dimensions, including spacially, temporally, and also in terms of social/economic class. This last dimension, of society and class, is elucidated in a variety of ways, most of which become "read into" the texts by literary criticisms. So, I guess much of it may be factually on weak ground and has more to do with the particular reader's politics. However, I do believe some sense of class is evidenced in Kafka's work and can be discerned to have an importance influence on how he tells his stories. Furthermore, I believe the best entrypoint for such a discussion can be found in "The Problem of Our Laws."

It is important to begin by noting the central place of myth in Kafka's writings. As in other modern literature, myth or parable is used by Kafka as a symbol for the modern condition, modern society and economy and all of its perceived problems (of which there is clearly no shortage, and which many authors have devoted their entire lives to writing about). So, myth or parable is very important so we must see every story that Kafka tells, however small or seemingly insignificant, as an attempt at describing some aspect of society. And Kafka does it beautifully: his dark prose and unique voice strike the reader in a way that may remind one of a storyteller who teaches a fundamental lesson with each new piece. Consider this small work titled "Prometheus":

"There are four legends concerning Prometheus:

According to the first he was clamped to a rock in the Caucasus for betraying the secrets of the gods to men, and the gods sent eagles to feed on his liver, which was perpetually renewed.

According to the second Prometheus, goaded by the pain of the tearing beaks, pressed himself deeper and deeper into the rock until he became one with it.

According to the third his treachery was forgotten in the course of thousands of years, forgotten by the gods, the eagles, forgotten by himself.

According to thefourth everyone grew weary of the meaningless affair. The gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary, the wound closed wearily.

There remained the inexplicable mass of rock. The legend tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of a substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable." (Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, from Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories. For another excellent short try his story on Ulysses and the Sirens)

The obsession with myth and the attempts to understand the meaning of myths is clearly at the forefront of Kafka's thought. Therefore, turning to "The Problem of Our Laws" we can appreciate his style and his aim more completely. What Kafka is attempting to do in this short story/myth is convey the meaning of modern society's complex bureaucracies by attaching to them a class structure. The story begins, "Our laws are generally not known; they are kept secret by the small group of nobles who rule us" (437). Further on, he questions whether the laws actually exist at all. In this alternative view, he postulates, "[t]here is a small party who are actually of this opinion and who try to show that, if any law exists, it can only be this: The Law is whatever the nobles do" (438). Here, the attachment of class to society is clear. Kafka questions not only whether the public can know the laws (they are "generally not known"), but also whether such laws benefit the majority of people. To really give the story a class, flavor, the only theme missing is some sort of antagonism -- should we accept this state of society as inevitable? Is it a simple consequence of market forces or human nature?

Kafka answers us! In this continued voice of one who is telling a myth or parable, he writes "[a]ctually one can express the problem only in a sort of paradox: any party that would repudiate not only all belief in the laws, but the nobility as well, would have the whole people behind it; yet no such party can come into existence, for nobody would dare to repudiate the nobility. We live on this razor's edge. A writer once summed the matter up in this way: The sole visible and indubitable law that is imposed upon us is the nobility, and must we ourselves deprive ourselves of that one law?" (438, emphasis added)

I have my own theories about this "writer" that I have never had the energy to check to see if anyone else has written about (or the story itself, for that matter). The writer, of course, could just be Kafka himself. The unique style he uses to tell the story, so that it sounds like a myth, is versatile in this way. I think Kafka could also be summarizing revolutionary thought in general through presenting all of it as one idea conveyed by a group of "writers". Since the idea itself is universal in the sense that it is applicable to any people that expresses the desire to overthrow the existing social order, to deprive themselves "of that one law" the writer could be a symbol (another myth) applied to a specific context to convey meaning.

As I said at the beginning, "The Problem of Our Laws" is an entrypoint for viewing other works of Kafka through the class lens. So, the myths don't stop here: in fact, I find them to be a central part of two of his novels, The Trial mentioned earlier and The Castle. And, of course, I find the story interesting in its own right for its connection to my interests in law and economics. I firmly believe that on some level, since the legal system is one aspect of the social system we live in that is constructed by capitalism, that the law generally represents the interests of a select class at times. And even when there is no outright class bias, the legal system serves to perpetuate the inequalities of society. Of course, these claims are meant for entire posts in order to do them justice.

And so, again, this is all to be continued...


  1. there's no reason to equivocate on your conclusions about the role law plays in this society:

    "the law . . . represents the interests of a select class [of the wealthy] . . ."

    do you know what i learned/realized today? if a police force were to decide all of a sudden to stop responding to complaints from the poor area of town, it would be REALLY HARD to win a constitutional case of discrimination/lack of equal protection as long as the police had some rational basis for not responding to the complaints (too expensive/too dangerous). isn't that FUCKED UP?


  2. Elisa,

    Thanks for your comment! In fact, James has called me out on making that statement in an earlier post which you may want to check out (I think it's titled "when playing by the rules...")

    I have a point of clarification concerning your realization. Is it based on some clause in the legal code which states that officers may provide a rational economic/safety reason not to respond to a call, or is it more of an empirical regularity (i.e., in a lot of cases you've seen, police officers have pulled this excuse off and normally when their case)?

    Does that make sense?

    Thanks again!