How Kafka Became an Empty Signifier

In the Nation, Alexander Provan wonders whether Kafka’s work has nowadays been reduced to what he calls “a one-word slogan”: Kafkaesque.

What is the Kafkaesque? It is the scene described in Kafka’s story “A Report to an Academy,” in which an eloquent ape candidly recounts his arduous path toward civilization: “There is an excellent idiom: to fight one’s way through the thick of things; that is what I have done.” It is, Begley suggests, that familiar existential predicament so often played out by Kafka’s characters, who “struggle in a maze that sometimes seems to have been designed on purpose to thwart and defeat them. More often, the opposite appears to be true: there is no purpose; the maze simply exists.” It is the explosion of the international market for mortgage-backed securities and derivatives, in which value is not attached to the thing itself but to speculation on an invented product tangentially related to (but not really tied to) that thing. It is FEMA’s process for granting housing assistance after Hurricane Katrina: victims were routinely informed of their applications’ rejection by letters offering not actual explanations but “reason codes.” It is the Bush administration’s declaration that certain Guantánamo Bay detainees who had wasted away for years without trial were “no longer enemy combatants” and its simultaneous refusal to release them or clarify whether they had ever been such. It is, as Walter Benjamin wrote, “the form which things assume in oblivion.” “Kafkaesque,” in other words, is a phrase that has come to represent very much about modern life while signifying very little.

Provan reviews several recent books on Kafka, including one by Milan Kundera, who, interestingly enough, seems to blame Max Brod for starting the deification trend that resulted in vague terms like “Kafkaesque.”