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Your Neighbor Will Kill You: Reading Kafka with Lacan

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In my previous column on Kafka and Lacan we looked at the operation of the Law in Kafka’s novels. I argued that Kafka’s work demonstrates that the Law is situated in the Lacanian dimension of the Real. That is, Kafka’s Law is situated beyond the limit of any hermeneutic capability, and yet the Law as a stain of the Real insists because it somehow it ex-ists outside of meaning.

In this article, however, instead of looking at Kafka’s Law or the ‘external’ as it were, I will attempt to sketch the ‘internal’ workings of Kafka’s subjects. Perhaps the fates of Kafka’s characters are not necessarily sealed by an evil external bureaucratic machine but by the subject’s evil internalities. To do this we need to begin by exploring the notion of das Ding (the Thing), the question of guilt in the face of the Other (subject supposed to know), and finally how this might tie into Kafka’s interpellation machine – the Law in The Castle (1926). With these entangled notions, I believe we will find how Kafka works just as much with the difficulties of being a people as he does with the difficulty of authority.

Beings as Things

This (see picture) is the (evil) Thing. Or rather, Anthony Perkins as the Norman Bates from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960):

Norman Bates

Bates embodies an element of radical alterity; a void that, if we follow Lacan’s analysis, hides within every ordinary person, including, for example, your neighbor. Here we might recall as well the Lynchian theme in Blue Velvet (1986): Behind the pleasant façade of white middle-class American picket fenced houses, in their backyards, are severed ears and madness waiting to be unleashed. This is to say that there is, to some extent, within us an inhuman traumatic kernel, and here it is certainly correct to notice connotations to the Freudian death drive.

What is interesting about the property of the subject as Thing is not only that it implies a radical anti-humanism, but also because it is tied in with question of guilt. In Lacanian thought the subject is forever guilty or always pervaded by a sense of shame.

Psycho uses Bates to dive into madness and meaninglessness (spoiler ahead), for Bates is not just a serial killer, rather he is a killer who also preserves the body of his dead mother in the basement whilst slowly becoming her. This is the Thing or traumatic kernel that fails to enter any realm of meaning – Is Bates his mother or his mother Bates, or is Bates a Psycho with a capital P signifying something we cannot quite put our finger on? The Slovenian philosopher and Lacanian Slavoj Žižek writes on the subject: “Norman’s gaze into the camera is the very abyss of the subject not yet caught in the web of language – the unapproachable Thing which resists subjectivization, this point of failure of every identification, is ultimately the subject itself.”[1] What we are presented with here is another way to understand Lacan’s thesis that the subject is split or divided. As Žižek puts it: “he [the subject] is divided as to the object himself, as to the Thing, which at the same time attracts and repels him.”[2]

Let us briefly unravel these two remarks from Žižek. The Lacanian subject is inherently difficult to pin down precisely because it avoids any “pinning down,” or subjectivization and identification, hence Žižek’s equivalency of the subject and the Thing. This is why, the subject for Lacan opposes the Cartesian cogito, which he would point out as merely the ego. The subject cannot be defined as “I think therefore I am,” this is the ego speaking, whereas the subject would sound “I think therefore I am not” or “I am fully a subject when (and where) I am not thinking.” In other words, we can think of the subject as primarily an unconscious discourse, a thinking or being that goes on behind the ego’s back.

The subject is the point where Lacanian thought opposes the Althusserian individual. In Althusser’s famous essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatusses” he makes the claim that, essentially, there is no outside ideology for the individual. Ideology is an immanent field within which, the individual is always already trapped as subject(ed) to ideology. Yet Lacan’s subject as the Thing should be read as an element that resists Althussers interpellation act (that of being hailed as subject). We can see here jouissance (lethal enjoyment) connected to the Thing, as there is something fascinating and horrible about the Thing.

Beings of Guilt

What is interesting about the property of the subject as Thing is not only that it implies a radical anti-humanism,[3] but also because it is tied in with question of guilt. In Lacanian thought the subject is forever guilty or always pervaded by a sense of shame.

Here it is necessary to outline the relationship between the Thing and l’objet petit a. On the one hand, the Thing is radical alterity and incomprehensible, effectively the object-of-loss-itself, whereas on the other hand, l’objet petit a is the residue, the leftover of any signifying operation. Put differently, the Thing is the absolute void “while objet petit a designates that which remains of the Thing after it has undergone the process of symbolization.”[4] Then, returning to the thesis of the divided subject, we can understand that the subject is divided as the object (a) of desire (that which is in the subject more than the subject), and the Thing (a traumatic void constitutive of the subject).

As with our example of love, these questions directed at K. from big Other Oswald (what do you want? Who are you?) are hystericizing questions. Questions to which the answers might sound: I don’t know what I want! Interpellate me! Help me with my Thing! I want to become something not just a Thing!

We might understand this link by answering the following question: What is it like to be loved for Lacan? Why certainly a most traumatic experience! It is schismatic in the sense that it exposes the subject as divided and lacking. The subject can be seen as divided between its fixed identity in the Symbolic-Imaginary, the subject as a white Danish male who works part time in a bookstore, and the subject as an enigmatic being. The subject is a beholder of the l’ objet petit a, the object-cause of desire (in this case love) for the Other;[5] there is something in me that causes the Other to love me and it cannot just be my Symbolic-Imaginary status. So what causes the Other’s love? Here we can effectively see the burgeoning workings of shame that love evokes in the subject. The shame of the impossibility of an answer to the Other. The Lacanian subject can then be seen as impossibility of answer from the Real, which ultimately produces shame—the shame of not being able to pinpoint the cause of the desire of the Other.

This state of being as the impossibility of an answer; the schismatic experience of being a void-as-Thing and a beholder of something in me that is more than me, is a hysteric state. For Žižek, being a hysteric explains why interpellation works: “The process of interpellation-subjectivation is precisely an attempt to elude, to avoid this traumatic kernel through identification: in assuming a symbolic mandate, in recognizing himself in interpellation, the subject evades the dimension of the Thing.”[6] Interpellation is here connected to the problem of the impossibility of an answer to the Other. Through interpellation we identify with some institution, thought, movement etc., in order to avoid confronting ourselves as a void or radical alterity and thus we are alleviated of our hysterics. In Kafka however, we are faced with the subject prior to interpellation, namely K., and the aftermaths of a certain kind of interpellation that shows itself in the village inhabitants.

Kafka and the interpellation machine

“[I]s Kafka’s ’irrational’ bureaucracy, this blind, gigantic, nonsensical apparatus, precisely [Allthusers] Ideological State Apparatus with which a subject is confronted before any identification […] any subjectivation – takes place?”[7]

Having arrived at the village beneath the castle, K. is desperate to begin his work as a land surveyor in the village. Only, for K. to affirm his work as the village land surveyor, he must journey to the castle so as to speak to the authorities. Getting to the castle however, requires a permit. In an attempt to speed the process, K. decides to ring a local authority figure in charge of permits, but it is a strange answer he receives:

“The receiver gave out a buzz of a kind that K. had never before heard on a telephone. It was like the hum of countless children’s voices – but yet not a hum, the echo rather of voices singing at an infinite distance – blended by sheer impossibility into one high but resonant sound which vibrated on the ear as if it were trying to penetrate beyond mere hearing. K. listened without attempting to telephone, leaning his left arm on the telephone shelf […]”[8]

After this strange sound the voice of a man named ‘Oswald’ (a random authority) answers the phone and an elliptical conversation begins, which, of course, leads nowhere. Most notably, at one point Oswald asks K.: “’What is it you want?’ He [K.] felt like laying down the receiver. He ceased to expect anything from the conversation.” (my italics)[9]. What this early phone call exemplifies is the dialectics of subjectivity (an attempt to evade the dimension of the Thing) that will haunt K. throughout the novel: what do you want? Or who are you?

Here, I believe, Žižek misses a crucial aspect of Kafka. That being the problem of the ‘people’ that Arendt introduces. For what are the village people if not interpellated subjects that do not doubt the Law is as it should be?

As with our example of love, these questions directed at K. from big Other Oswald (what do you want? Who are you?) are hystericizing questions. Questions to which the answers might sound: I don’t know what I want! Interpellate me! Help me with my Thing! I want to become something not just a Thing!

As Žižek notes, there is something strange about this attempt at interpellation:

“The Kafkaesque subject is interpellated by a mysterious bureaucratic entity (Law, Castle). But this interpellation has a somewhat strange look: it is, so to say, an interpellation without identification/subjectivation; […] the Kafkaesque subject is the subject desperately seeking a trait with which to identify, he does not understand the meaning of the call of the Other.”[10]

Interestingly, the German philosopher Hannah Arendt makes a similar point during her analysis of The Castle in her essay “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition”. Arendt writes: ”K. […] would rather be a simple but genuine villager,”[11] and it is only, she adds, noting the strangeness of the village inhabitants: “within the framework of a people can a man live as a man among men” (my italics).[12] For Arendt, K. simply wants identity.

Here, I believe, Žižek misses a crucial aspect of Kafka. That being the problem of the ‘people’ that Arendt introduces. For what are the village people if not interpellated subjects that do not doubt the Law is as it should be? A people who perversely disavow the lack in the big Other, despite the ubiquitous and glaringly obvious lacks of the bureaucratic machine. This suggests that a perverse psychopathology prevails in the village. The pervert in Lacanian psychoanalysis is not defined by his or her disturbing fantasies, but rather by his or her relation to the Other “as the instrument of the big Other’s will.”[13] As the Danish philosopher and Lacanian Kirsten Hyldgaard writes on the perverse psychopathology:

“he [the pervert] is a humble instrument serving the Other. The pervert is just a willing instrument—for the institution, the political cause, ‘we all have our cross to bear.’ The discourse of power must always disavow desire, disavow any ’lust for power.’ A perverse trait can be found in the spiteful sentence ‘he had it coming,’ ‘it served him right’ when witnessing the other’s pain and misery with pleasure.”[14]

Is the village not merely a willing instrument for the Law? An instrument that disavows any desire and, in particular, any lust for power? We see this most clearly in the case of the Barnabas family, who are ostracized precisely because a family member breaks out of the pattern of being a willing instrument. What is left for the Barnabas family is only spite and contempt. Through the perverse position, the village inhabitants immediately identify with the Other. Thereby they avoid the hystericizing guilt-laden question what do you want? who are you? because the answer is ‘removed’ in immediate identification.

What we find in Kafka then is an exposition of the two movements of interpellation; the before and the after. K. is the subject before interpellation, he shows us the subject as an answer of the Real through his frantic, hysteric attempts at becoming interpellated or simply finding an answer to Oswald’s question what do you want? After interpellation is seen in turn, in the perverse structure of the inhabitants of the village and their immediate identification with the Law. Yet, what we cannot avoid is the immanent field of interpellation, which, in a Lacanian context, can be understood as a response of the subject as Thing or impossibility of an answer to the question of the Other. What Kafka shows us, are the pitfalls in responding to the question of the Other and the difficulties thereby in becoming a people. What at first sight seems to be an individual problem, the problems K. has with his hysteric relation to the Other/Law, is in fact a problem inherent in the entire social response to the Other/Law.


Hyldgaard, Kirsten. “The Conformity of Perversion.” Lacan dot com. Www.Lacan.com, Web. 05 June 2016. <http://www.lacan.com/conformper.htm>.

Kafka, Franz. The Castle. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso, 2008.

Žižek, Slavoj. Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock). London: Verso, 2010.

Žižek, Slavoj. How to Read Lacan. London: Granta, 2006.


[1] Slavoj Žižek, Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock), (London: Verso, 2010), 245.

[2] Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, (London: Verso, 2008), 204.

[3] The Lacanian Thing opposes the humanistic notion that deep down, the kernel of my existence is the exact same as the strangers. That is, deep down we are all human. With the Thing in mind we find that deep down, there is only a void of radical alterity, inhumanity or, as Žižek puts it, just a piece of shit.

[4] Slavoj Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies, (London: Verso, 2008), 105.

[5] Why the big Other here? For no doubt mad reason to paraphrase Lacan. The lover can personify the big Other as subject supposed to know (the Wife or Husband), or as idealized lover that fills one’s lack.

[6] Žižek, The Sublime Object, 205.

[7] Ibid., 43.

[8] Franz Kafka, The Castle, (Hardmonsworth: Penguin, 1964), 26.

[9] Ibid., 27.

[10] Žižek, The Sublime Object, 43.

[11] Hannah Arendt, “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” Jewish Social Studies April 6.2 (1944): 117.

[12] Ibid., 122.

[13] Slavoj Žižek, How to Read Lacan, (London: Granta, 2006.), 116.

[14] Kirsten Hyldgaard, “The Conformity of Perversion,” Lacan dot com, Www.Lacan.com, Web. 05 June 2016.

Alexander is currently completing his Master’s in Comparative Literature at the University of Copenhagen. Here he spends days desperately attempting to avoid literary theory classes in order to take courses in philosophy and Lacanian psychoanalysis. He is ostensibly a volunteer at Ark Books, but no one can remember the last time he took a shift. For the Ark Review he will be writing various analysis of literary things with Lacan as the theoretical spearhead. A deceivingly brilliant field to pick of course, because no one understands Lacan, and thus Alexander comes off as smart. He asks for all complaints or disagreements concerning his articles be addressed to the big Other.


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