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The Law Ex-ists: Reading Kafka with Lacan

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A reading of Kafka’s Law as a non-existent existence.

We begin, of course, with an excerpt from “Before the Law,” Kafka’s famous parable from his novel The Trial (1925):

“Before the law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. ‘It is possible,’ says the doorkeeper, ‘but not at the moment.’ Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: ‘If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each one more powerful that the last…1

The countryman, a fairly patient fellow, resolves to sit beside the Law and wait for admittance; years trickle by, which turn to decades, and the man is old. With his last breath appears a final spark of curiosity as he asks the doorkeeper:

“’Every man strives to reach the Law,’ says the man, ‘so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?’ The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: ‘No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.’”2

The parable begs the question, what to make of Kafka’s Law? The Law is at once within the countryman’s grasp though inaccessible, not to mention completely incomprehensible. For what is the essence of the Law if it is but a continuous cycle of doors and doorkeepers? Since an accurate definition of the Law here is impossible, we must move forward in an abstract manner, and provisionally describe the parable as the presence of lack, or more precisely the presence of the Law as lack. It is around this Law-as-lack that the entire story is centered. What we find in Kafka then, and to put it in more complicated Kantian phrasing, is a certain positivization of a void.

The Law has the character of being a positive entity that nonetheless is a negative magnitude. This is the terrifying and fascinating aspect of Kafka: The horrible presence of an absent Law.

Let us briefly assess the workings of the Law in two of Kafka’s novels, The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926). Firstly, in The Trial, during the hero Josef K.’s pursuit to make sense of his indictment, he finds himself allowed to momentarily inspect one of the examining magistrates ‘Law books’:

“K. opened the first book and found an indecent picture. A man and a woman were sitting naked on a sofa,” to which K. reasonably reacts: “‘So these are the law books they study here,’ said K. ‘I am to be judged by people like this.’”3

On what grounds is K. then accused? For surely the Law books should have been some sort of testament to the nature of the Law and thereby the nature of his charge? Here Kafka makes an incisive point, wherever the Law should be fixed in meaning it is reduced to lewdness. This is but one of many examples in The Trial of the Law as other than the Law, and yet still the Law.

The details concerning K.’s trial are never explained to him or to the reader. His case remains nothing but an effect ostensibly without cause. The Law seems as nothing but a certain will enacted from an indeterminate place. In other words, the Law in The Trial remains intangible. An immaterial materiality. Immaterial because in the place where the Law should be anchored, that is the texts of the ‘Law books’, there is vulgarity. Thus vulgarity is produced when an attempt to reduce the Law to materiality is made. Material because despite the fact that the Law is not stabilized as meaning in text, it exerts material presence through, for example, symbolic figures. Figures such as the guards that ‘arrest’ K., the magistrates that supervise his case, and ultimately the henchman that kill him in the final chapter.4

In The Castle we find a similarly intangible Law. In this case, it emanates from a castle on hill that presides over a small village. In contrast to The Trial, the Law in The Castle does not accuse, or more accurately, it does not enact judgement upon the hero K.. Rather its central role is precisely that of obfuscation, a mountain of maddening bureaucracy (the amount of small departments and paperwork described in connection to the castle is ridiculous). What then, is The Castle about? To put it simply, The Castle depicts K.’s attempts at entering the realm of the Law, which is the castle. This is very much in tune with the countryman in “Before the Law”. Kafka’s protagonists are always already barred entry to the Law at every turn.

The object-of-loss itself
Can we not flatly dismiss this as nightmarish surrealism or is there a meaning to find in Kafka’s irrational bureaucracy? We must return to the basic premise of the Law-as-lack in order to answer the fundamental question: what to make of Kafka’s Law? Here, Lacanian theory can provide an, albeit, tricky answer. It is the dimension of Lacan’s Real and the related pure-form of objet petit a (the object-cause of desire), that can help us understand Kafka’s Law.

Let us begin simply by understanding how Lacan recognizes existence. For Lacan, we are born too early. We are never quite ready to leave that ultimate experience of being that is being in the womb. Thus to be born is to be barred, divided from mother and into ‘reality’. This is an experience of horrendous loss. This analogy is a basic description of what it is to be in Lacanian thought: To be is to be a being that is always already lacking and divided. What is the subject lacking? The objet petit a of course, that elusive and perfect object that will satiate the subject’s feeling of lack.

How then, does the world look for this being? The Lacanian ontological model is divided into three orders: The Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary, (RSI) commonly illustrated by a Borromean knot where each order has its own ‘circle’.5 The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s illustration of Lacan’s three orders is strikingly relevant here. He writes:

“[The three orders] can be nicely illustrated by the game of chess. The rules one has to follow in order to play it are its symbolic dimension: from the purely symbolic standpoint, ‘knight’ is defined only by the moves this figure can make. This level is clearly different from the imaginary one, namely the way in which different pieces are shaped and characterized by their names […] Finally, [the] real is the entire complex set of contingent circumstances that affect the course of the game: the intelligence of the players, the unpredictable intrusions that may disconcert one player or directly cut the game short.”6

It is primarily the dimension of the Real that we are interested in, for Kafka’s Law lies in the Real. To expatiate on Žižek’s description of the Real in his chess analogy, the Real is that which is unsymbolisable in the game of chess. That which has no ‘piece’, nor follows any rules, and yet exists as a dimension of contingent circumstances that affect the game. Whereas the Symbolic and Imaginary exist in the field of the chess game as the pieces and their images, the Real, as Lacan notes, ex-ists.7 It is ex-centric, outside the field of representation. It is all that can never be represented within the Symbolic-Imaginary orders and yet it is the Real that underpins reality. As Žižek writes in Looking Awry (1995) the role of the Lacanian Real is “radically ambiguous: […] it erupts in the form of a traumatic return, derailing the balance of our daily lives, but it serves at the same time as a support of this very balance.”8 Death for example, is something that belongs in the Real, as it precisely embodies the Real’s traumatic derailing nature as something that also provides as a balance for reality and life. Death is completely incomprehensible (unsymbolisable) because it is absolute non-being and yet non-being enforces being.

If we follow the Hegelian logic that contends that for something to exist its inverse must exist as well, we might say that the Real is a necessary antinomy to the Symbolic-Imaginary orders, that which certifies the existence of the Symbolic-Imaginary by underpinning their existence by being their inverse.

Placing Kafka’s Law in the realm of the Real then, is a claim that the Law is a void that nonetheless frames reality, or, as Žižek would have it, curves the symbolic space, as he writes in The Parallax View:

”the ultimate secret of [Kafka’s] Law is that it does not exist […] This nonexistence, of course, does not simply reduce the Law to an empty imaginary chimera; rather, it makes it into an impossible Real, a void which nonetheless functions, exerts influence, causes effects, curves the symbolic space.”9

Consider then, the following illustration of the Kafka’s Law:

the law image

The Law is that bit of reality (the small white square) in Kafka’s universe (the large white square) that is ex-centric to it, outside of the Symbolic-Imaginary reality, and yet the void, the Law-void seen as the object-of-loss itself (the empty gray square where the Law should be), essentially frames and curves this reality. Thus the Law operates in a twofold manner: Firstly, the Law is what the Kafka’s world is lacking and its subtraction in turn structures reality. This reality, we might say, lending Žižek’s words: “obtains its consistency only by means of the [gray hole] in its center”.10 Secondly, the Law also operates as the object-cause of desire (objet petit a – the small white square), that which would satiate “reality” or make it “whole” again. A closer look at the representation of the Law in The Castle can perhaps provide a sketch of the relationship between the Law and objet petit a in Kafka.

The object-cause of desire
Our hero in The Castle K. is ostensibly drawn to the village because he is offered a job as land surveyor. Yet, as K. quickly finds out, the village does not need a land surveyor. The village superintendent (a minor official of the castle) explains to K. how the mistake of K.’s employment was due to a long complicated bureaucratic mishap. Papers were filed, then lost and found, then incorrectly filed again and so on. Despite being officially unemployed, K. decides to stay and seek the counseling of the most official of the village-castle officials, the famous Herr Klamm, whom, despite vigorous efforts, he never meets.

Herr Klamm is of particular interest here since he represents that immaterial materiality, the Law as lack in The Castle. As Olga, a member of an ostracized family with whom K. becomes close, describes Herr Klamm to K.:

“but we do often speak about Klamm, whom I’ve never seen; […] still his appearance is well known in the village, some people have seen him, everybody has heard of him, and out of glimpses and rumours and through various distorting factors an image of Klamm has been constructed which is certainly true in fundamentals. But only in fundamentals. In detail it fluctuates, and yet perhaps not so much as Klamm’s real appearance. For he’s reported as having one appearance when he comes into the village and another on leaving it; after having his beer he looks different from what he does before it…”11

Herr Klamm’s role in The Castle is precisely that of the function of objet petit a which supplements reality as a positive representation of a void – Klamm as an immaterial materiality of the Law-as-void. In ‘reality’, objet petit a is nothing at all, just a pure form or placeholder that (mis)represents a void. As Herr Klamm is in ‘reality’ nothing at all but a figure of the law posited by the multitude of (mis)perceptions that the law-abiding citizens have of Klamm.

Returning briefly to our schema of Kafka’s Law above, Klamm can be placed in the small white square that is outside reality. He ex-ists, but because Klamm is subtracted from reality, he frames reality, or structures the Law.

The logic of Klamm-as-lack is the logic that structures the Law, just as the logic of objet petit a structures desire. How does objet petit a structure desire then? Objet petit a is a certain je ne sais quoi (a pleasant quality that is hard to describe) an unfathomable X, and is something that we seek since it is the perfect object and will fill our lack, though we can never can obtain since it is subtracted from reality. If, for example, we all had our objet petit a, there would be no reason to write this essay nor read it, nor use language, nor do anything at all; we would be sated. In this manner the unobtainable objet petit a is that which structures our desire, precisely because we lack it. Remember the Polish Coca-Cola commercial from 1982 (because who doesn’t?): This is it! It is the objet petit a. Of course the it is not it, the objet petit a, since that would mean Coca Cola, after a spike in sales, would never have sold another bottle.

The same logic, as mentioned, applies to Klamm. This is Klamm! No, this is Klamm! And so Klamm structures K.’s search for authority, his search for the Law, a search that will ultimately never end. While Klamm is seen as the Law’s objet petit a, that is a representation of nothing, we must remember, that the Law itself is like the Kantian Ding an sich. The Law in Kafka is the object of loss itself. In this sense, we can only know Kafka’s Law in the sense that it somehow ex-ists. It can therefore only be present as elusiveness itself, as an objet petit a like Klamm or as the endless doors and doorkeepers in “Before the Law”. What Kafka, when read with Lacan, actually shows us then, is not merely bureaucracy gone mad, but rather how Kafka accurately pinpoints the feebleness of the consistency of reality as it is posited via a dimension which is outside reality.

Bibliography:

  • Kafka, Franz. The Castle. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1963.
  • Kafka, Franz. Collected Stories. London: Everyman’s Library, 1993.
  • Kafka, Franz. The Trial. Ware: Wordsworth, 2008.
  • Žižek, Slavoj. How to Read Lacan. London: Granta, 2006.
  • Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1991.
  • Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006.
  • Zupančič, Alenka. The Odd One In: On Comedy. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2008.

Notes:

  1. Franz Kafka, Collected Stories, (London: Everyman’s Library, 1993), 173-74
  2. Ibid., 175.
  3. Franz Kafka, The Trial, (Ware: Wordsworth, 2008), 40.
  4. Deleuze and Guattari rightly point out in their book Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, that the final chapter where K. is killed by the anonymous henchmen, a fragment Kafka wrote, though never himself implemented as an ending for The Trial, was mistakenly placed there by Max Brod; should Josef K. not simply have died a natural death as the countryman and never alleviated from the pressure of guilt before the Law?
  5. In 1975 Lacan actually introduces a fourth ‘order’ to the RSI model called the Sinthome
  6. Slavoj Žižek, How to Read Lacan, (London: Granta, 2006), 8-9.
  7. To further complicate things, the Real is extime, that is Lacanian for being both inside and outside at once, in this case within the coordinates of the chess game and outside of it. The topology of extime can be briefly explain via topology of the möbius band which Alenka Zupančič in The Odd One In succinctly describes it: ”it {the möbius band} has, at every point two sides (the surface and its other side), yet there is only one surface.”
  8.  Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, (Cambridge: MIT, 1991), 29.
  9.  Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View, (Cambridge: MIT, 2006), 39.
  10. Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry, 19.
  11.  Franz Kafka, The Castle, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), 167.

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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