7 Thoughts on Today’s Paranoid Society, after Kafka

Nitzan Lebovic                    January 2019

When thinkers and authors of Franz Kakfa’s time referred to his political-prophetic quality, they usually pointed out to the paranoid quality he gave to society, and its ensuing violence. They did so in two opposite ways. In the 1920s-30s, shortly after his death, Max Brod and Felix Weltsch, two of the writer’s closest friends in Prague, cast him as a prophet who predicted the coming of fascism and Nazism. While scolding Brod for his naive tendency to find prophecies everywhere in Kafka’s writings, the German-Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin admitted to himself, in unpublished notes written in 1934 that Kafka had indeed seen into the future. He observed, against Brod’s “theological use” of prophecy, that “Kafka’s prophecy about his immediate future” implied that “prophecy is more important than God,” as Kafka focused on political and sociocultural conditions, rather than the literal, political or theological, ones.[1] Writing during the same years as Benjamin, and adopting an approach much like his, the German-Jewish thinker Margarete Susman offered a different take. If Kafka was a prophet, he inhabited a world “truly abandoned by God.”[2] Suffering, she recognized, had come to replace the divine in the mid-twentieth century, and this very suffering empowered Kafka’s prophetic visions.

What none of these thinkers foresaw, God or no God, was one surprising form of realization of Kafka’s prophetic power: As a few authors and intellectuals pointed out, in the early 21st century Kafka’s paranoid society seems more relevant than ever and his walls its identifying sign. A strange realization came in the form of a new military strategy, implemented by Israeli colonialist forces, and grounded in the dialectical use of porous walls that Kafka imagined in 1917.

1. Our time, rich in Kafkaesque turns, has proved him more prescient than ever, but now the nightmare he anticipated is democracy, not fascism. Will it turn out that Kafka’s message—for those who read him today—is a warning about the thin, very thin, line that separates fascism from democracy? And not just today. Ever since 1945, authors and thinkers have seemed to think so.[3] In this new world, as the joke goes, “Paranoia is when you are the only one who knows what’s really going on.” In today’s surveillance society, the K’s and Samsas have turned out to be paranoid prophets, a certain everyone who gets what’s going on; and what’s going on is the consistent attack on all forms of solidarity. Nothing demonstrates this better than the idea of a porous wall.

2. Written in 1917, after nearly four years of global war, Kafka’s story questioned the logic of spatial divisions separated by walls or a plan to turn “the whole region [of China] which was to be enclosed within the wall” (“The Great Wall of China”).[4] Kafka was among the first to criticize the very existence of all absolute structures—walls, castles, law courts, burrows, homes—as over-reliant on the idea of a formal and informal mechanism of control. After all, he explained, neither circular walls nor linear ones can protect us from our own paranoia: “How can protection be provided by a wall which is not built continuously? In fact, not only can such a wall not protect, but the structure itself is in constant danger.”

3. In a speech to the European Parliament in March 1999, the Portuguese Nobel laureate, author José Saramago, seemed almost to channel Kafka, depicting a world of bureaucratic power “exposed to the dehumanizing forces at work.” In his novel The Cave (A Caverna, 2000), Saramago continued on the same theme, now explicitly responding to the impact of Kafka’s “Great Wall of China,” by equating it with the protecting walls of a shopping mall, or “a cavern”:

“At the far end, an extremely high wall, much higher than the highest of the buildings on either side of the avenue, abruptly blocked the road. It did not actually block the road, this was just an optical illusion, there were streets that ran alongside the wall, which, in turn, was not a freestanding wall, as such, but the outer wall of a huge building, a gigantic quadrangular edifice, with no windows on its smooth, featureless facade.”

4. Saramago isn’t the only Kafkaesque Nobel Prize winner.  J. M. Coetzee, a South African who has returned many times to Kafka’s stories and diaries, considered apartheid a variation on Kafka’s porous walls, in part because of the way it locked the builders themselves behind a paranoid, antidemocratic delusion of homogeneity. For Coetzee, the building of walls was part and parcel of the suspension of the rule of law, itself an essential condition for the rise of fascism. Coetzee sees Kafka less as a teller of tales than an analyst of power: In Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), the protagonist, an investigator, realizes that the wall that surrounds the Barbarian area feels more and more like the wall that encloses his—much larger–part of the land, with its big cities. He gradually comes to realize that the two—city and detention centres or concentration camps– are tightly connected. The Life and Death of Michael K. (1983), whose title pays homage to Kafka’s K., is a novel concerned largely with the construction of fences and other barriers in South Africa. In a more recent novel, A Diary of a Bad Year (2007), the protagonist, named J. M. Coetzee, remarks of a novel titled Waiting for the Barbarians: “I used to think that the people who created these laws that effectively suspended the rule of law were moral barbarians. Now I know they were just pioneers, ahead of their time.” (171)

5. In his dystopian novel, The Road to Ein Harod (1984), the late Israeli author Amos Kenan—a political radical and a strong critic of Israel’s discriminatory measures against Arabs—offered an acid comment about prophets: “Any fool can think forward, and telling the future is something that any fool can do [. . .] but the truly great thing is to think sideways and backwards. [. . .] One cannot fix history retroactively.” Borrowing Kafka’s structural sense of narrative and direction, Kenan pointed out, “Moving from the beginning to the middle and then to the end is bullshit. Time has no direction; it is circular and infinite exactly like space.”

6. The logic of moving sideways was shockingly demonstrated in Eyal Weizman’s book Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (2007), and Yotam Feldman’s documentary The Lab (2013). Both examined the architectural structures of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the function of the “separation wall,” itself much more than a sign of identity or a marker of homogenized space. As Shimon Naveh, a top Israeli military officer, explained to Weizman, “Travelling through walls . . . [and] traversing boundaries is the definition of the condition of smoothness. . . . We try to produce the operational space in such a manner that borders do not affect us. [The enemy’s] areas could indeed be thought of as ‘striated’ in the sense that they are enclosed by fences, walls, ditches, roadblocks, and so on. Rather than contain and organize our forces according to existing borders we want to move through them.”[5]The General mentioned Kafka, as well as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s book, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (1975), as his sources of inspiration. The person this general mentions as his follower, a philosopher-general, Aviv Kokhavi, has just been appointed as the IDF’s Chief of General Staff.

7. A century since Kafka’s “Great Wall of China”, it is clear that the attempt to surround a group with a wall and isolate them is an attempt to divorce that group from time and space, and with them, from all forms of solidarity. Interestingly, militants often find ways to use the inherent weakness of such walls to spread fear and extend control over the area—isolated they are not. Such walls stand in stark opposition to the normal condition of human life and are at odds with the very heart of the political. The United Nations’ Universal Declarations of Human Rights was proclaimed exactly seven decades ago, in December 1948. It states, in Article 13: “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. And everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”[6] This freedom of movement allows us to express our will to belong to a certain political community. The erection of walls, actual or metaphoric-technological, interrupts that basic understanding of both humanity and the political. In a postdemocratic, post-Kafkaesque world, the boundary between defense and offense is becoming vague, along with the separation between soldier and civilian, regulation and surveillance.  Where there is no movement, there is no sense of time; no story; no beginning, middle, or end of things (an attribute Aristotle found in every dramatic work). There is no separation between past, present, and future. No separation between private and public. This is a world not only devoid of God, as Susman argued, but a world devoid of humanity, too. It is indeed a world where “any fool can think forward” (and every General, sideways). It is our task to disrupt this post-Kafkaesque world full of infallible prophecies.

It is our shadowy task to seek out the cracks in the walls that separate interior and exterior, living and dead. It is our task to open those cracks properly. Kafka—and, following him, Saramago, Coetzee, and Kenan—opened a hole large enough to squeeze through. From a different angle, let us recall the Alexandrian poet C. P. Cavafy. Writing in 1904, the same year as Kafka’s “Description of a Struggle” and eight decades before Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, Cavafy offered a paradox:

Some people arrived from the borders,

and said that there are no longer any barbarians.

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?

Those people were some kind of solution.”

Dr Nitzan Lebovic is Associate Professor in the History Department of Lehigh University, U.S. Nitzan’s second book, Zionism and Melancholy: The Short Life of Israel Zarchi, came out in Hebrew in 2015 and will be published in June 2019 with the “New Jewish Philosophy and Thought” series at Indiana University Press.  

[1] Translated in Vivian Liska, German-Jewish Thought and Its Literature (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2017), 59.

[2] For an excellent analysis of Margarete Susman’s reading of Job and Kafka, see Barbara Hahn, The Jewess Pallas Athena, trans. James McFarland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[3] See Daniel I. Medin, Three Sons: Franz Kafka and the Fiction of J. M. Coetzee, Philip Roth, and W. G. Sebald (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2010).

[4] To read Kafka’s story on-line, see http://www.kafka-online.info/the-great-wall-of-china-page2.html. For a fine interpretation of that story, see chapter 4 of Ethan Kleinberg, Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017).

[5] Quoted in Eyal Weizman, “Walking through Walls: Soldiers as Architects in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” Radical Philosophy 136 (March/April 2006): 11.

[6] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Documents/UDHR_Translations/eng.pdf.

This article was amended on 04/03/2019.