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Why Tom McCarthy’s “Satin Island” isn’t Kafkaesque

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Satin Island by Tom McCarthy is not Kafkaesque as the recent review by Dr. Macon Holt suggests. To illustrate why, the following essay will attempt two things: First, a brief look at what Kafkaesque actually means. The argument here is that Kafka’s literature centers on the (Lacanian) big Other and thus the dictionary definition of the Kafkaesque as an oppressive power that crushes the little man is far from the mark. Second, we will look at Satin Island and its relationship to the Other. If Kafkaesque is to be anything other than a banal complaint about bureaucracy, we need to uncover what is actually at stake in the works of Kafka, namely, the exposure of the function of the big Other. The question we then must ask Satin Island is how it relates to the Other. The argument here is, that Satin Island does not tackle the big Other head on as Kafka does, and is therefore decidedly not Kafkaesque.

What does Kafkaesque mean?

According to Webster’s dictionary, the definition of Kafkaesque means “of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially: having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.” Moreover, theydefine the literature of Kafka as being “surreal fiction vividly expressed the anxiety, alienation, and powerlessness of the individual in the 20th century.”1 There is some sense to this definition, namely the mad bureaucratic regime of Kafka’s novels: In The Trial the protagonist K. is wrongly convicted for something that he never learns the nature of, nor is it possible for him to come into contact with any sort of authority to explicate, in short, what the hell is going on. The same happens in The Castle. Here K. is mistakenly hired as a land surveyor for a small town, and his attempts to secure a new position or reach an authority from the local castle are thwarted at every turn.

What is going on here? K. can never reach the final authority because authority is indefinitely deferred; shifted around and, thoroughly, always already unreachable. I believe Mark Fisher accurately describes the writings of Kafka as works properly attuned to the virtuality of the big Other (“the collective fiction […] presupposed by any social field [which] can never be encountered in itself”).2 As Fisher writes “The quest to reach the ultimate authority who will finally resolve K’s official status can never end, because the big Other cannot be encountered in itself: there are only officials, more or less hostile, engaged in acts of interpretation about what the big Other’s intentions.”3 The Other, like language, never presents meaning positively but is guaranteed negatively through the differential sliding of signifiers. A signifier cannot in itself provide meaning just as an official cannot in himself provide K. with meaning.

Kafka writes of the big Other, whereas McCarthy through the big Other. In Kafka, the big Other is something external to be experienced; in McCarthy, U. experiences the world as the big Other.

We can now supplement the dictionary definition of Kafkaesque with its proper virtual character. What is not going on is that there is some mad and illogical God/King at the end of a very long line of bureaucrats deciding the fate of K. In other words, there is no support for an interpretation of a negative theology. It is precisely opposite. The big Other is nauseatingly close but impossible to pin down because it is presupposed by each and every subject. What we encounter in Kafka is the paradoxical presence of a meaning as constituted by lack of meaning. For, as Lacan states, the big Other doesn’t exist because ultimately, the Other of the Other is the subject itself. Simply put, the big Other is a function of disavowal on the part of the subject who misrecognizes him/herself as the actual guarantee of the Other. Thus our final definition of the Kafkaesque is a literature of the Other as presupposed by the subject, including K. himself. We thus do not have an oppressive machine vs. the little man, but something entirely different: An explosion of the social in the sense that Kafka magnifies the very (oppressive) presuppositions that constitute the social, namely the big Other. (For further critique of the dictionary definition of the Kafkaesque see Deleuze and Guattari’s Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature. There argumentation however, does not, as I do here, rely on Lacanian analysis).

Why Satin Island is not Kafkaesque

If the extreme attention on big Other underpins the Kafkaesque, then we must ask: Does Satin Island expose the big Other? How does U. relate to the big Other? U. has a boss, a “Master” in the Lacanian sense which means that the metonymic sliding of signifiers stop and rest at a master-signifier (defined by being tautological and not differential), namely the Master and his demand: The Great Report. Of course, the Great Report is nonsense (a definition of Lacan’s idea of the Master), and begs the hysterical question what does it mean? This question pokes at the Master and attempts to undermine their position, rather like K. attempts to discover the big Other by hysterically questioning the officials (ie. Masters). Yet does U. do so? No, and here is our first objection against the idea of Satin Island being Kafkaesque: U. becomes a subject of the master-signifier; the one who writes the Great Report. Satin Island does not expose the virtuality of the big Other, but deals with the nonsense of the master-signifier as a signifier for the subject (U.) and ultimately, the nonsense of the Master. The point is, that meaning is not indefinitely deferred as it is in Kafka, but is ultimately allowed to rest at the level of the empirical Master-Signifier/Master.

In a way, Satin Island actually does blow up the social as Kafka does but the point is that it is Kafka in reverse. What Satin Island blows up is a world filled with surplus signification; meaning pulsates from everything and oozes through every crack like oil from an oil spill. U. begins to, as Holt writes “form spectacular constellations of meaning” from seemingly disparate elements.4  In Kafka there is no production of meaning because K. directly faces the big Other and experiences the necessary negativity of meaning that presupposes the social. Satin Island on the other hand, situates U. in the the position of the big Other and posits meaning. U. attempts to shoehorn the overwhelming amount of surplus signification under the banner of the Master-Signifier; the Great Report.

Thus our final definition of the Kafkaesque is a literature of the Other as presupposed by the subject, including K. himself. We thus do not have an oppressive machine vs. the little man, but something entirely different: An explosion of the social in the sense that Kafka magnifies the very (oppressive) presuppositions that constitute the social, namely the big Other.

I am inclined here to say that there is an ounce of the Kafkaesque in Satin Island because, as U. ultimately figures out, the posited meaning reveals itself to be meaningless (meaning that the big Other does not exist). But, there is a subtle distinction in the position of the big Other. Kafka writes of the big Other, whereas McCarthy through the big Other. In Kafka, the big Other is something external to be experienced; in McCarthy, U. experiences the world as the big Other.

Herein lies the fundamental difference. The positioning of the big Other has affective qualities. The affective quality of Kafka is disturbing, we find radical negativity where we would expect positivity, hence the dictionary definition of Kafkaesque as nightmarish. The affective quality of Satin Island is comical. It depicts the nonsensical attempts of the Master to organize a field of totality of meaning. The illusion at work here ultimately relies on the reader’s belief in the big Other (meaning is possible) which renders the nonsense of the Master as comical.

Perhaps this makes Satin Island more Kafkaesque than Kafka. Instead of exposing the big Other of the social as a nightmare gestalt, Satin Island exposes the big Other as presupposed by the reader through his/her comic response to the nonsense of the Master.

You can listen to the Ark Audio Books Club podcast on Satin Island right here.

  1.  https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Kafkaesque
  2.  Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2009), 44.
  3.  Ibid., 49.
  4.  http://arkbooks.dk/review-satin-island-by-tom-mccarthy/

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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