MODERNISM AS FAILURE:

Benjamin, Kafka, and Walser


The following is an effort to think seriously about failure as a philosophical concept intimately connected to the modern: that is, as a paradigm for thinking the relation of the modern to the exception. To think modernism as failure is to think the excluded not simply of the past, but also of the present.

What horrifies me is the thought that I might be successful in this world — Robert Walser

There is nothing more memorable than the fervor with which Kafka emphasized his failure — Walter Benjamin

Literature is the concern of a small people — Franz Kafka

The following presents a brief sketch of a paradigm of modernism as failure. This paradigm, like the others in this text, is affective, and refers to an experience which is both “real” and abstract: material and immaterial, something that has happened in the world, and yet something that is not “really there,” but has the status of the abstraction of an image (and this for “experience” itself). Walser, Kafka, and Benjamin are three exemplary figures of modern failure: Walser the “schizophrenic,” Kafka the “sickly Jew,” and Benjamin the “failed intellectual.” Nothing, perhaps, is more intolerable to the present of any modernity than a “failed subject.” These figures did not belong to their time, but at the same time, they were not outside the forces and relations that marked their era. These figures, therefore, can be considered, from an immanent conception of the modern, as among the excluded of modernity and of modernism itself. This brief sketch does not present an exhaustive treatment of this subject, nor of the works of these three figures. Rather it seeks to present a brief treatment of modernism according to a paradigm of failure. (1) The following is an effort to think seriously about failure as a philosophical concept intimately connected to the modern: that is, as a paradigm for thinking the relation of the modern to the exception. To think modernism as failure is to think the excluded not simply of the past, but also of the present.(2)

… this is an immanent conception of modernism … the philosophical question of the new and the different (even the “other”) means that the modern, as a philosophical designation, fully includes that which does don’t belong to it and, even, those who have been radically excluded in the course of modernist progress (and the “success” of modern development). We are not through with the modern — and, moreover, precisely because, from the perspective of Benjamin’s history, those who have been “lost” to it have yet to be redeemed through its radical transformation; that is, in the interruption of humanity’s separation from itself with the suspension of the state of exception that has become the norm.

Second Plan for Auschwitz from http://geographicalimaginations.files.wordpress.com/

A Paradigm of the Modern

It is more difficult to honor the memory of the anonymous than it is to honor the memory of the famous, the celebrated, not excluding poets and thinkers. The historical construction is dedicated to the memory of the anonymous — Walter Benjamin, “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History’”

Historical materialism must renounce the epic element in history. It blasts the epoch out of the reified “continuity of history.” But it also explodes the homogeneity of the epoch, interspersing it with ruins — that is, with the present — Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project [N9a, 6]

There is a tradition that is catastrophe — Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project [N9,4]

[T]he birth of the camp in our time appears to be an event that marks in a decisive way the political space itself of modernity — Giorgio Agamben, “What is a Camp?”

“History,” Benjamin writes, “is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now (Jetztzeit).” (3) The ruins of the present, the now of “knowability” of our modernity, comes to us not in the form of our era’s present self-image, but that of its disruption — in the shock of an image of the past that enables the present to recognize itself. This disruption within the ruins of the present — in the form of Benjamin’s dialectical image — gives potentiality back to the past. The past and the present come into an encounter with a third-term, precisely at a moment of danger, opening us up to the past. “The true image of the past flits (huscht) by. The past can be grasped only as an image which flashes up precisely the moment it is recognized, never to be seen again.”(4) This implies, in Benjamin’s usage of the verb huscht — which means to flash by quickly, so that something is barely seen — seeing something that is almost not seen, or seeing something on the verge of passing by unnoticed; almost as if one barely sees or notices something out of the corner of one’s eye (only this, in relation, not to human sense perception, but to history, to the past). It is by means of such “thought-images” that the “now” of knowability and the “now” of readability of the present comes to us, enabling us to “blast open the continuum of history.”(5) “Thinking, “ according to Benjamin, “involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a constellation pregnant with tensions, it gives itself a shock, by which it crystallizes itself into a monad.”(6) The ruins of the present, in Benjamin’s formulations of the dialectical image, are radically suspended, or interrupted — even if, only for a moment — long enough to make possible an intervention, long enough, that is, for the historian to actually have an experience with the past. “A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not in transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop. For this notion defines the present in which he himself is writing history. Historicism gives an eternal image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past.”(7) No image has given critics of Agamben’s work more trouble than a simple image that appears on the cover of the first volume of Homo Sacer: a blueprint of the second plan for Auschwitz. It has taken nearly ten years since the publication of this volume in Italian for it to be treated for what this image is: a paradigm. This is the context in which we need to think about Agamben’s statement that “the camp is the nomos of the modern.”(8)

Benjamin’s conception of the modern is paradigmatic and philosophical and not based on a theory of epochal periodization (even though, for his own purposes, this meant focusing on the 19th century, the period of “high” modernism, and, in particular, the effects of the commodity form — Benjamin sought, above all, to write a “pre-history” of the modern which would allow us to “awaken” from the dream of the 19th century). This brief sketch follows Benjamin in treating the modern as a philosophical problem — and, moreover, one that, due to the proliferation of the commodity relation, relations of abstraction, (in our time) into all areas and aspects of human existence, must be met with an equal level of abstraction in order to “read” the present. I’m curious, however, about one thing. Can Benjamin’s ruins from the 19thcentury be our ruins? That is, the ruins of our modernity? The answer, in one respect, is clearly yes — insofar as the “phantasmagoria” of the commodity form can be traced, in its development, to this period of time. (And one need only think of the Angel of History, with the garbage heap, the refuse, piling up beneath it to verify this.) However, in another respect, it seems to me that it is the ruins of Benjamin’s own time (more than those of the 19thcentury) that articulate for us, and continue to speak to us, of our modernity. That is, in looking to Benjamin’s own past, in his lifetime, and not the past the he, himself, literally studied, even as there is no reason to exclude this, by discovering the “secret agreement” between his past and the ruins of our present. It is here, I think, that politics, history, opens itself up to us.

Celeste Olalquiaga beautifully captures Benjamin’s formulations in her analysis of kitsch in the 19th century: “Despite appearances, kitsch is not an active commodity infused with the desire of a wish image, but rather a failed commodity that continually speaks of all it ceased to be.”(9) This is a perfectly Benjaminian formulation, one which points to the “used” commodity as a failure that speaks to the present about its own past. But I wonder: to think with Benjamin today may not be merely to inquire into the (literal) ruins of modernity from the 19th century, nor does it mean merely to sort through Benjamin’s ruins (which is how I read, to a certain extent, Olalquiaga’s work). Rather, I think that to think with Benjamin, today, is to take the risk of having an encounter with the past in order to articulate the ruins of our modernity in the post-war era (as, I think, Agamben attempts to do in Homo Sacer). In other words, this may be something different from having an encounter with the past that Benjamin studied and examined (as he studied and examined it). For the risk here is to end-up treating Benjamin’s thought, his extraordinary theory of history (and of the “dialectical-image”) to an historicization. It is, in effect, to stop, and prevent in advance, any radical thought or potential contained within Benjamin’s work from being deployed today, in the present (against our present “self-image”). As Benjamin himself wrote, “Someone who pokes about in the past as if rummaging in a storeroom of examples and analogies still has no inkling of how much in a given moment depends on its being made present.” (10) Another way of saying this, in an old, Benjaminian word: reification (and, perhaps, more than this old Marxist word). Articulating the past, for Benjamin, is dependent on a “messianic moment” — the historian “establishes a conception of the present as now-time shot through with splinters of messianic time.” (11) It is precisely such a “messianic moment” that subtends Agamben’s rediscovery of the concept of the exception in Benjamin. And modernism, as I read Agamben’s work as a whole, is also the form that begins to emerge when the state of exception reaches its apex (its point of extreme antagonism) in the history of the West.

The modernism of this brief sketch, then, is more broadly concerned with the philosophical question of the present as one of radical interruption and suspension, as that which departs from the norm of what Benjamin calls “epic history” — with what is radically excluded from that (standard, normal) history. It concerns the existential experience of the “ruin of the present” combined with an inquiry into the conditions of possibility (Kant, via Nietzsche and Deleuze) for that experience, which necessarily exceeds “historicism” and the “self-conception” of the present age. Thus, the modern concerns not merely the emergence of something new, different, and unique, as that which departs from the norm, and from (chronological, homogenous) “history,” but also its relation to an other or different history (including the sweetness of kairos as an immanent conception of time).(12) And, more importantly, in the case of Benjamin, it concerns the redemption of this other, different, or lost history, including all those who struggled against the power of modernization; all those whom it has radically excluded or, left ruined in its wake.

The usage of the term “modern” as a reference to the emergence of the “new” dates back, at least, to the 14th Century. Many scholars make a distinction between modernity — as something coextensive with the rise of modern capitalism (roughly from the 17th century on) — and “high” modernism, marking the period from the mid-Nineteenth century to the mid-Twentieth (which is close to the definition, in his literal historical relations, operative in Benjamin). These distinctions are important, and mirror, in part, differing theories of the modern. In recent years, debates about the status of the modern — particularly in relation to the present, sometimes called the “postmodern” (which, nonetheless, has not fully superceded the problems and problematzations of modernism/modernity) — have focused on the issue of periodization.(13) Some of these efforts have resulted in the schematic representation of entire periods, or epochs of human history (spanning some 500 years or more).(14) While having a certain heuristic value (I, myself, make use of these efforts, with qualifications, in teaching undergraduates) these studies are of little use when we try to define, more precisely, what we mean by these terms and, even more so, when we try to determine which figures (much less what people) “belong” to the modern. For example, Nietzsche is often considered a “postmodern” thinker, insofar as his work breaks with the dominant strains of modernity. Yet, Nietzsche remains a 19thcentury figure — however much his work ran counter to dominant modernist impulses, and insofar as so many of our so-called “postmodern” concepts derive directly from Nietzsche, we too, remain bound up with modern thought. The same is true when we look at a figure as complex as Spinoza (whom, thanks to Deleuze and others, we no longer view reductively as a simple rationalist). Spinoza, the first major critic of Descartes, opened up not only the theory of immanence (as opposed to transcendence) in modern thought, but the theory of affect as well. But do we — as those inspired by the reception of Spinoza via Nietzsche and Deleuze — think of affect and immanence as modern concepts? And, moreover, why don’t we? What would it mean to think affect as a modern concept?(15) This is the question that animates the present work, and a full treatment of this problem, beyond the brief sketch presented here, ought to be pursued. There is no single work on modernism that, I think, adequately poses this question: that of the relation of failure to the modern. Exploring the specificity of affect as a modern concept would necessitate, I think, an investigation analogous to the one Antonio Negri has pursued, primarily with regard to the concept of politics in Spinoza, in his The Savage Anomaly.(16) Needless to say, such a companion or, shadow, volume to Negri’s is outside the scope of this brief sketch.

Any inquiry into the limits of the modern remains, necessarily, bound up with the modern itself, insofar as the discourse of limits is tied to Kant (and this, whether or not we have inverted Kant’s “transcendental idealism” by means of Nietzsche, Foucault, or Deleuze). In other words, such an inquiry, by its very nature, is immanent to the modern and not transcendent. Posing the question — what is the modern? — immanently enables us to go beyond the normal, usual, and often teleological conceptions bound-up with this term, particularly with regard to questions of historical periodization. In other words, it enables us to regard the modern beyond the concern with epochal breaks in history (Renaissance, Reformation, Modernity, Modernism, Postmodernism), and to focus on the much smaller, and therefore, more subtle, minute, and all the more important breaks or, transformations operating at the micro-political level. The modern, in this immanent sense, is bound-up (like capitalism itself) with the displacement of its own limits. This is the essential Kantian theory within Marx: that capitalism is an economic system that ceaselessly displaces its own limits, and thus contains within it, the very possibility of going beyond it — an insight which is not lost on Benjamin’s larger project of a critique of modernity. In short, we are not finished with modernity and the modern, any more than we are finished with the present historical moment (or, with capitalism, for that matter). These are problems, both historical and abstract, that we are continuing to work through.

These problems indicate a need to be more precise, and careful, in how we approach the ambiguous status of the modern. The present work, following recent research on the subject,(17) and my reading of Benjamin’s dialectical image, views the modern as a philosophical problem: moreover, it views it as one in which the so-called counter-modern (engagements “against the grain,” as Benjamin would say, of the history of modernity as unending progress and development, Enlightenment reason and scientific rationality) is fully a part of, and at work within, the modern. In other words, this is an immanent conception of modernism. Thus, I will view modernization primarily as the thrust of economic progress, development, and rationalization co-extensive with both the rise of capitalism and the emergence of the modern subject (as co-extensive developments). The modern, on the other hand, as a philosophical problem, concerns both the emergence of the new, and the redemption of the past (of a lost experience) — if you will, the conditions of possibility for the emergence of the new, the avant-garde, the different, the event (in Nietzsche), politics, the dialectical image in Benjamin, and that which swerves or departs from the norm of linear (homogenous) history — that history written from the perspective of the victors of the present. In other words, the philosophical question of the new and the different (even the other) means that the modern, as a philosophical designation, fully includes that which does don’t belong to it and, even, those who have been (or were) radically excluded in the course of modernist progress (and the “success” of modern development). We are not, simply put, through with the modern — and, moreover, precisely because, from the perspective of Benjamin’s history, those who have been “lost” to it have yet to be redeemed through its radical transformation; that is, in the interruption of humanity’s separation from itself with the suspension of the state of exception that has become the norm. As Benjamin writes, “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world-history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train — namely the human race — to activate the emergency break.”(18) And that emergency break for Benjamin consists in bringing about a “real state of emergency” to suspend the force (the virtual state of emergency) of fascism.(19)

Why is this important? Because whatever we think about modernity and the modern — and even as I, myself, strive to retain an abstract and philosophical definition of the modern — these are both things that have actually happened to us as cultural practices (as, I think Foucault’s work on the subject in Discipline and Punish and the History of Sexuality, so clearly articulates). It is worth remembering, as Mike Davis reminds us, of the sheer number of lives lost to modernist progress and development.(20) The modern is bound up with the rise of capitalism (and, clearly, many modern concepts are fully dependent on the rise of a middle and leisure class that would have the time to think about the meaning and value of, for example, play, idleness in the Jena Romantic philosophy of Schlegel, or the individuation of a zero, in Robert Walser),(21) as much as the so-called counter-modern remains bound-up with the unknown potential of what comes after capitalism. Potentiality remains bound up with the modern/counter-modern, as well as capitalism. (The fragment itself is mirrored in the commodity-relation, exploded in the 20th century beyond any reference to a “whole” with, to take one example, the theory and radical proliferation of, “partial objects.”)

Could it be that in his final work, “On the Concept of History,” Benjamin is articulating one of the most radical critiques of modernity that has ever been proposed insofar as it points to a positive theory of radical failure to be deployed against modernization as the continuation of the state of exception? Did Benjamin finally reach the pre-history of modernity in the concept of the exception? Perhaps this is one way that we can think the relation between the baroque and modern failure. Benjamin seems to be suggesting that the failure of every liberatory potential is rooted in our inability to grasp the “pre-history” of the modern (and modernization itself) as something connected to the state of exception.

How then do we articulate the ruins of the present? The only way I can possibly pose the question of the failure of the modern (in relation either to Benjamin’s, or our own time) within the confines of Benjamin’s own thought, is by articulating and surveying the ruins of the present (of our modernity) through the intervention of, and a relationship with, the past (in this case, the past of Benjamin’s own present, the 1940’s, and not merely the past that he, himself, was oriented towards — the 19th century). This points us, I would suggest, toward the radical conception of modernity at work in Benjamin’s final work. Could it be that in his final work, “On the Concept of History,” Benjamin is articulating one of the most radical critiques of modernity that has ever been proposed insofar as it points to a positive theory of radical failure to be deployed against modernization as the continuation of the state of exception? Did Benjamin finally reach the pre-history of modernity in the concept of the exception? Perhaps this is one way that we can think the relation between the baroque and modern failure.(22) Benjamin seems to be suggesting that the failure of every liberatory potential is rooted in our inability to grasp the pre-history of the modern (and modernization itself) as something connected to the state of exception. This is, I think, an interesting perspective and one that is well worth pursuing further. My comments here are only meant to begin to articulate this as a philosophical problem and can, in no way, be construed as providing definitive answers.

Walser and his characters seem to inhabit an incredibly precarious existence — one in which the traces of the disappearance of something called “the world” (as an exterior foundation for politics, thought, being and ethics) is gradually observable (and, perhaps, mirrored in the radical dissolution of Walser’s own life as a human being — ending in a misdiagnosed schizophrenia and unnecessary institutionalization). This precariousness, this tension — mirrored, perhaps, in the historical development of the problem of the exception — should prove productive for the present inquiry. Walser’s work, like the problem of the exception, is a work of potentiality.

To conclude this introduction to the philosophical problem of modernism as failure, we need to look briefly at the ethical and epistemological implications of Benjamin’s and Agamben’s work for our modernity: that is, for the period immediately surrounding and after World War Two. It is here that we can see the importance of the literary-philosophical-existential figures of Franz Kafka and Robert Walser as theorists of radical failure, and in the case of Kafka, as a theorist of the exception: that is, as theorists of the failure of modernity, and as essential writers in articulating the foundations of our modernity, our present. The work of Kafka and Walser presents an extraordinary literary grasping of the problems of potentiality and the exception. In the case of Kafka, the theory of the exception is already fully developed (everything from The Trial to The Castle, the short stories, particularly “In the Penal Colony,” to the parables and the reflections, appears to take the exception as a starting and end point). Moreover, Kafka’s character’s often exhibit bodily “flaws,” “errors,” and deformities (a subject worthy of further study in the context of the present inquiry).(23) But Walser is something of a special case. His Jacob von Gunten is a novella about the radical failure of modernity (a broken modernity if ever there was such an image in modern literature) masquerading as a narrative about the individuation of a “social zero.” And his prose pieces — radically exterior, wildly descriptive, partial objects unto themselves, and often philosophically dense — are infused with a desire and wonder at the external world (the world of things and objects, desires and attachments, that we ourselves inhabit). This puts Walser much closer to Nietzsche, insofar as the eternal return is also a theory of the world (one in which individuation occurs in an abyssal moment, by locating one’s self, so to speak, within the abyss of the world — and the affirmation of chance, chaos, and all that exists). But what interests me in Walser are his figures of radical failure (particularly in Jacob von Gunten and the Robber), and the radical exclusion of any comparative figure to Walser, himself, in the literature of the post-war era (someone who, while just barely able to exist, is still able to write, to work, and express himself on the margins of society). In other words, Walser and his characters seem to inhabit an incredibly precarious existence — one in which the traces of the disappearance of something called “the world” (as an exterior foundation for politics, thought, being and ethics) is gradually observable (and, perhaps, mirrored in the radical dissolution of Walser’s own life as a human being — ending in a misdiagnosed schizophrenia and unnecessary institutionalization). This precariousness, this tension — mirrored, perhaps, in the historical development of the problem of the exception — should prove productive for the present inquiry. Walser’s work, like the problem of the exception, is a work of potentiality.

Several new inquiries into the modern based, in part, on the work of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus have appeared in recent years. A Thousand Plateaus, however, as I have already pointed out, repeats the exclusion of the exception that marks all post-structural politics; moreover, it remains heavily dependent on Nietzsche’s theory of the eternal return. While I am a Deleuzian scholar, my own way of thinking with Deleuze now proceeds via Benjamin and Agamben, precisely because of the possibility of the redemption of the political, and what is made available to us in the concept of the exception. This concept, after all, was not available to Deleuze and Guattari at the time they wrote their seminal work (and, really, we are just now beginning to grasp and explore the exception today, long after Benjamin’s death). What I am trying to suggest is that none of these extraordinary works on modernity — in particular, Sanford Kwinter’s Architectures of Time: Toward a Theory of the Event in Modernist Culture — is able to articulate the problems I am attempting to sketch out here. And, moreover, I think that the problem of modernity and the exception is really one of potentiality (and not that of the event, which remains too tied to Nietzsche’s thought of the return to think the exception, which is how I read Kwinter’s extraordinary work). It is this relation to potentiality that, I hope, will enable us to not only think fully what some have called the counter-modern (the excluded of modernity), but also to begin to bring its lost potential to completion. In other words, we need treatments of the modern/modernity that think with Benjamin (as well as with Deleuze and Guattari) in order to complete our project here.

The political, according to this reading of the text, is not merely bound up with failure, it is dependent on inhabiting failure (with, perhaps, one’s entire being). Failure is not, as is normally the case, an admonition (a call to normalization, a disciplining to orient one’s self towards success, towards the subject) nor is it merely a cynical expression of despair (well, not only that). Failure, according to this interpretation, is the way to make the political happen.

Drawing by Franz Kafka

Before the Law:
Kafka and the State of Exception

It’s only our conception of time that makes us call the Last Judgment by this name. It is, in fact, a kind of martial law — Kafka, “Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way” [40]

To do justice to the figure of Kafka in its purity and its peculiar beauty one must never lose sight of one thing: it is the purity and beauty of a failure. The circumstances of this failure are manifold. One is tempted to say: once he was certain of eventual failure, everything worked out for him en route as in a dream. There is nothing more memorable than the fervor with which Kafka emphasized his failure — Walter Benjamin, “Letter to Gershom Scholem” June 12, 1938

Kafka’s parable “Before the Law” is one of the most dense and enigmatic texts in modern literature. Comprising a mere two pages, its smallness (a concept very dear to Kafka) is only matched by its sheer poetic and intellectual force. As Benjamin referred to this parable in is “Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death”:

The reader . . . may have been struck by the cloudy spot in it. But would it have lead him to the never-ending series of reflections traceable to this parable at the place where Kafka undertakes to interpret it? This is done by the priest in The Trial, and at such a significant moment, that it looks as if the novel were nothing but the unfolding of the parable.(24)

The following interpretation of this text follows Agamben’s in Homo Sacer (25) quite closely (and is based on my teaching of Kafka’s text). What is important about this interpretation, from the perspective of the present work, is the treatment of the text as a positive form of radical failure (as opposed to the negative image of failure often ascribed to it in “political” interpretations of the text). Agamben’s treatment is also remarkable for the particularly clear example of the state of exception, or “being in force without significance,” it presents.(26) We will have more to say on this by way of a conclusion.

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 . . .(27)

The first question we have to ask ourselves is this: why does the gate stand open as usual? What does this mean? What prevents the man from the country from gaining admittance to the law? “Nothing,” Agamben notes, “and certainly not refusal of the doorkeeper — prevents the man from the country from passing through the door of the Law if not the fact that this door is open and that the Law prescribes nothing.”(28) Let’s back-up for a minute. There are vague threats made by the doorkeeper about other doorkeepers, each more powerful than he, but these are only vague threats. The doorkeeper does not physically prevent the man from entering the doorway. So, following Agamben, we have to look somewhere else — somewhere much less obvious — for an answer to this enigma.Perhaps it is the very fact, as Agamben argues, that the door is already open — that it “stands open as usual” — that prevents the man from the country from entering. This certainly would pose a problem, would it not? How can the man enter into (gain access and admittance to) what is already open? Isn’t entering the open impossible? Doesn’t this define the very impossibility of the text, and the text as an impossible one? Perhaps this impossibility is instructive? Is it possible that this is the hidden power of the Law — the impossibility of entering into what is already open?

How does this impossibility translate to a question of the Law? Is it possible that the law exerts itself with the greatest force at precisely the point where it no longer prescribes anything? Certainly this would make any such Law that much more intractable. It is worth remembering the experience of impossibility here — the one which we, ourselves, experienced and entered into just in trying to decipher this seemingly impossible text (and, let us ask, is not the experience of impossibility intimately connected with that of failure?). What is a law that prescribes nothing? In other words, what is a Law that doesn’t prescribe or legislate (you can and can’t do this or that), but simply excludes (you are banned). As the Priest says to K, in the interpretation of this parable that appears within the novel of The Trial, “The court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come and dismisses you when you go.”(29) This formula repeated by the Priest is nothing more, Agamben argues, than the original structure of the Law (as exception). What then is the relationship between the man from the country and the law? How does the law apply to the man? Does it apply to him in no longer applying (as a prescription), and grasps him, or holds him, through this radical exclusion — in other words, by excluding him from the law (banishing him outside of it). As Agamben formulates this, “The open door destined only for him includes him in excluding him and excludes him in including him. And this is precisely the summit and root of every Law.”(30)

What kind of a Law is this? What does it signify? Anything? Does it tell us what it is, what it does, or even what to do? Isn’t this a law that is “in force” — that works — “without signifying” anything? (What Scholem calls “being in force without significance”).(31) What could this mean about the power of the Law?Wouldn’t that make the Law all the more powerful and pervasive because of this (how can you resist or challenge what doesn’t signify?). This is what the complex relationship between Law and life — the “zone of indistinction” between them — is like in the state of emergency; exactly the type of life expressed in The Trial. This is a life “in which the most innocent gesture or the smallest forgetfulness can have the most extreme consequences. And it is exactly this kind of life that Kafka describes, in which law is all the more pervasive for its total lack of content, and in which a distracted knock on the door can mark the start of uncontrollable trials.”(32) This is why law is indistinguishable from life in Kafka’s work. As Agamben makes clear, “The existence and very body of Joseph K. ultimately coincide with the Trial; they become the Trial.”(33)

So, given this information, how do we think about the conclusion of this parable? Does the man from the country succeed or fail in his endeavors?

“What do you want to know now?” asks the doorkeeper; you are insatiable.” “Everyone 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.”(34)

Virtually every interpretation of Kafka’s parable considers it as one of the failure and defeat of the man from country in the face of the impossible task imposed on him by the law (and it is often read, negatively, as a failure of the political — a failure to “fight the power”). This is a teleological reading of the story (for a very smart reading of the text along these lines, see Derrida’s “Before the Law” in his Acts of Literature). But how can we think of the very last sentence of the parable, in which the door is closed forever, in light of the above formulations (about the openness of the law — the state of exception, and the indistinction between law and life)? As Agamben writes:

If it is true the doors very openness constituted, as we saw, the invisible power and specific “force” of the Law, then we can imagine that all of the behavior of the man from the country is nothing other than a complicated and patient strategy to have the door closed in order to interrupt the Law’s being in force. And in the end, the man succeeds in his endeavor, since he succeeds in having the door of the Law closed forever (it was, after all, open “only for him”), even if he may have risked his life in the process.(35)

In other words, the man from the country has succeeded in making the virtual state of exception real (in Benjamin’s sense). As Agamben states, “It is in this sense, precisely, that the parable tells us how something has happened — something has been accomplished — in seeming not to happen, not to be accomplished.”(36)

What is unique, I think, about this interpretation of Kafka’s parable is the positive theory of failure it opens up for us. The political, according to this reading of the text, is not merely bound up with failure, it is dependent on inhabiting failure (with, perhaps, one’s entire being). Failure is not, as is normally the case, an admonition (a call to normalization, a disciplining to orient one’s self towards success, towards the subject) nor is it merely a cynical expression of despair (well, not only that). Failure, according to this interpretation, is the way to make the political happen. It is, in the context of the exception, synonymous with politics itself. Moreover, what does this parable tell us about the subject? Doesn’t it suggest that the thought of the exception enables us to pursue the critique of the subject at a more intimate level? Is it, perhaps, in radically suspending the power of the subject that the man succeeds in his goal of shutting the door?The fact that the door is “meant only for him” is often taken to mean that the Law individualizes (that it produces subjects of legal knowledge). But is this, really, the case here? What is the theory of subjectivity at work in this parable? And how do these questions connect with that text most closely associated with Kafka’s The Trial — the Book of Job?

Regarding the Book of Job and the Trial: does Kafka’s parable unlock a new ethical relation to this Biblical text? While the Book of Job is often read as a book of a wrathful and vengeful God — who would inflict suffering on Job on a mere whim or “bet” — there is also a relation of this text to ethics: one which is intimately connected to life. For it is only when Job curses his life — when he curses life itself — and the day he was born that Job is “cast out,” as it were. And later, in an ending that historians generally agree was added on much later, it is only when Job takes back this renunciation of life that he is redeemed. Despite the impossibility of life in the exception presented in Kafka’s parable, there is, for all of that, no condemnation of life itself. This is, I think, precisely because there is no problem of “will” presented in Kafka’s text, as there is in the Book of Job. In other words, Kafka’s text is an answer to the Book of Job: the ethics of life in the state of exception — and is not divine creation such a state? — is located radically before the problem of the will.

If, today, the radical destruction of potentiality has become the norm, Walser’s prose pieces remind us of another time — a time between the turn of the century and the Second World War when it was still possible to believe in and to be, radically immersed in the world. That is, to inhabit the world and relate to it — the outside, exteriority, everything that exists (Spinoza’s immanence or, God).

Cover art to the first English edition of Jakob von Gunten http://50watts.com/Traces-of-Robert-Walser-1

Broken Modernity:
Robert Walser and the World

A contemporary of Kafka and Benjamin, and admired by both, Robert Walser is an exemplary figure of potentiality in modern prose. If, today, the radical destruction of potentiality has become the norm, Walser’s prose pieces remind us of another time — a time between the turn of the century and the Second World War when it was still possible to believe in and to be, radically immersed in the world. That is, to inhabit the world and relate to it — the outside, exteriority, everything that exists (Spinoza’s immanence or, God)–as the foundation for art, politics, and thought. This is not to say that I am positing Walser as a nostalgic figure. Quite the contrary: it is precisely because his work remains so pregnant with potential that it compliments Kafka’s and Benjamin’s work (as well as Deleuze’s — which, I think, Agamben has already shown us in The Coming Community). His precarious and vulnerable characters — which mirrored his own existence — inhabit a kind of exteriority without reserve. It is in relation to the outside, the world, that Walser’s characters take on and inhabit their radically singular lives. Walser’s characters desire nothing more than to dwell in their own being (such as they are).(37) These characters — whether animate or not (often Walser writes of objects, as if they had feelings and emotions, in short life) — simply want to take pleasure in themselves; in what makes them different.This emphasis on the life of objects, the outside of bodies and things, has a de-subjectifying effect, and mirrors developments in surrealism; consider Legar’s Ballet Mecanique and the commodity form). There is a kind of depersonalization here that is, for all that, all the more personal and all the more singular (different-in-itself, as Deleuze would say).(38) Of course, it is not by writing with one’s ego that one expresses what is different or unique about a given body, but through a process of depersonalization: through opening one’s self up to the world, exposing one’s self to other bodies and the world. It is in this way that Walser’s prose pieces give “voice to unmediated things” (“A Sketch,” 1928).(39) Consider, for example, “An Address to a Button” (1915):

You, why you are capable of living in such a way that nobody has the slightest recollection that you exist. . . . Your refusing to make anything of yourself, your being nothing more than your lifelong occupation, or at least your seeming that way . . Your being, as was said, what you are and your being as you are enchants, touches, captivates and moves me and makes me think that in this world, which is rich enough in disagreeable apparitions, there are things here or there that make the person who sees them happy, joyous, and serene.(40)

Here we have a shared sensibility with Kafka and Benjamin: an emphasis on the minor, the small, the overlooked, the radically excluded from life (including the singular life of things). This is why it is all the more remarkable that Walser’s prose, his self-described experiments with language, is so infused with life. The voice of unmediated things is a voice; singular, multiple, different. It is the voice of potentiality itself — the voice of the potential to inhabit one’s own potentiality, to inhabit one’s own being.

The problem of potentiality is addressed specifically to the problem of the modern in Walser’s novella Jacob von Gunten: Ein Tagenbuch (1908). The novella concerns the entry of the protagonist of the same name into the mysterious Benjamenta Institute, which seems intent on “training” its initiates for a life that is synonymous with failure:

One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life. The instruction that we enjoy consists mainly in impressing patience and obedience upon ourselves, two qualities that promise little success, or none at all . . .(41)

So begins what is perhaps one of the most amusing satires and critiques of German modernism ever committed to print. Jakob’s journal recounts his adventures in the Benjamenta Institute, a broken down school that, to the young initiate seems to hold all of the secrets of modern thought and knowledge. In fact, the Institute is something of a disaster. The pupils not only are being prepared for failure, they “have very little to do, we are given hardly any assignments. We learn the rules by heart. Or we read in the book What is the Aim of Benjamenta’s Boys’ School?”(42) This is, in fact, the only book that they read (and they read it over and over again). When Jacob finally does penetrate the Institute’s “lower depths” and “inner chambers” (in the quest to discover its secrets and hidden treasures), instead of knowledge, and rays of sunshine and enlightenment, he only discovers a gold fish bowl. There’s nothing there — only the nothing/everything that is all around us (immanence). It’s almost as if Jakob’s very existence, his very being, calls modern progress so into question that its facades collapse all around him, leaving only immanence in its wake (and this, I think, is the secret to the novella’s conclusion, of which I will have more to say below). The joke of Jakob von Gunten is, of course, that the Institute Benjamenta — a dilapidated boarding school for would-be servants — is Modernity

Jacob’s quest, as written in his journal, is not for mastery and control, nor for dominance, or even knowledge and enlightenment, but a desire to become a “perfectly spherical zero,” that is, a “social zero.” In fact, the novella/journal is written in such a way that it seems that the entry of this one young man, whose singular desire in life is to become a social zero — it is as if the entire apparatus of the Institute comes unraveled around him, that is, from the moment that he arrives. Perhaps we could say of this that the arrival of the excluded of modernity — the social zeros — within its already crumbling walls was enough to do it in. Jakob’s social zero-ness, it seems — the inseparability of his existence and his work — is such a pragmatic critique of the modern German institute that it can’t sustain itself in his presence. And all that is left in its wake is pure immanence. This, it seems to me, is the secret of the novella’s conclusion.

When Walser takes his final walk at Herisau on December 25th, 1956, he falls to the earth onto a bed of singularities, surrounded by an image of his own work; returning to his work and the earth itself. Snow is the image of our immersion in, and inseparability from, the world — an immersion in the world that exceeds all relation. This is the function of snow in Walser’s prose. Walser wants, we should remind ourselves, above all else, not to place himself above his surroundings — above the world that he inhabits, above this world — but to dwell in the nothingness of the world’s own being. This immanence — the singular immanence of Walser’s prose — can be named, or conceptualized as, a love for the world without presupposition.

Robert Walser

Snow(43)

. . . this nothingness is weighty — Walter Benjamin, “Robert Walser”

To understand something fully can, at times, mean to lose everything again. Uncertainty is often most beautiful, and majestic configurations do not want to nor ought they be entirely seen through and recognized. It is possible to destroy rather than assimilate one’s object of enquiry through penetrating research, immersing it, or so I imagine, in night and invisibility, in sum, I wish to call myself happy whenever I store up an intuition for myself, and have no wish to desire to know any more. So Jesus was not dead: That was the splendid thought, and I clung to it. Love stood there right before me in the snow, beckoning with wondrous tenderness, the heavenly shy eyes glowing with terrible brilliance. I threw my whole being into the apparition — Robert Walser, “Jesus” (from Vier Bilder, 1916).

I would like to comment on an image that subtends the text of Walser’s prose piece “Jesus” (from “Vier Bilder” or “Four Images”), an image, in fact, which surrounds Walser’s entire oeuvre: perhaps, we could say, an image that Walser throws his “entire being” into. This is the image of snow. Everywhere, it seems, in Walser’s life and work there is snow. The apparition of the messiah in “Jesus” appears in the snow. At the end of Jakob von Gunten, as Jakob and Herr Benjamenta leave the confines of the Institute Benjamenta — which is nothing if not an image of the confines and ruins of Modernity, itself — and go out into the world, towards the desert, towards the East, it is snowing. These are but two examples taken from a multitude. But what is snow? What is the image of snow in Walser’s prose? To ask this question is not to ask, what does snow signify or represent, but how does it work? What does it do? An obvious answer to this last question, of course, is nothing. Snow does nothing. It is simply there, referring to nothing other than itself. Snow. This image of a “nothing” that is there is not literally nothing, but the degree zero of Walser’s prose: the point from which it both begins and, perhaps, ends: a kind of eternal return of zero.

In order to look at this more closely, I would like to present three propositions, or hypotheses, regarding the function of snow in Walser’s prose. It is often said that no two snowflakes are exactly alike, that each snowflake is absolutely unique and different. Snow is a singularity. This statement, however, can never be proven. No one has ever, nor ever could, see every snowflake that has ever fallen, just as no one ever could see every snow flake that will fall. Snow is potentially infinite. It has also been said that, “if the potential precipitation in the earth’s atmosphere at any given moment fell all at once, it would cover the entire surface of the planet to a depth of one inch.”Snow is the potentiality of a multitude.(44) From these three propositions, we can see that snow is a plane of immanence composed of a multitude of singularities. Snow is a fold of the earth, which falls back to, or returns to it; a multitude that covers the earth. When Walser takes his final walk at Herisau on December 25th, 1956, he falls to the earth onto a bed of singularities, surrounded by an image of his own work; returning to his work and the earth itself. Snow is the image of our immersion in, and inseparability from, the world — an immersion in the world that exceeds all relation. This is the function of snow in Walser’s prose. Walser wants, we should remind ourselves, above all else, not to place himself above his surroundings — above the world that he inhabits, above this world — but to dwell in the nothingness of the world’s own being. This immanence — the singular immanence of Walser’s prose — can be named, or conceptualized as, a love for the world without presupposition.

While Walser’s “world” has not come to an end, literally, what I have tried to point out above is that this abyssal conception of the world has failed us in the period after May ’68 (because of the exception). What remains of Walser’s love for the world without presupposition? I believe that this is precisely the potentiality that the thought of the exception (in Benjamin and Agamben) seeks to make possible in a world that is marked by global separation and exclusion — including the exclusion of this love for the world, itself.

This is why the transition from a figure such as Walser to a figure such as Levi is so important for us to trace out. Perhaps it is here that we can glimpse a new answer to the question: how can philosophy give an account of itself in these times, in this world? In other words, how can philosophy give an account of the exclusion of thought on which it is based: the voices, lives, and thoughts that are lost in order for every expression to be able to come into existence, to emerge in the first place? Perhaps this is now the only way we can think about life as a work of art: as always including within itself, a form of bearing witness to a life that is or, was not allowed to be, a work of art (but mere existence, naked life).

iPhone 1.0 surrounded by its future. Photo by the author, 2007.

Remnants of the Modern

Only if I am not always already and solely enacted, but rather delivered to a potentiality and a power, only if living and intending and apprehending themselves are at stake each time in what I live and intend and apprehend — only if, in other words, there is thought — only then a form of life can become, in its own factness and thingness, from-of-life, in which it is never possible to isolate something like naked life — Giorgio Agamben, “Form-of-Life”

The foregoing, put differently: the indestructibility of the highest life in all things — Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project [N1a,4]

What remains of the modern? This question is not merely rhetorical, but deeply historical in Benjamin’s sense. What is left of the potential of the modern, including the potentiality of those who did not belong to the modern, those who were radically excluded from it, those who were lost to its “progress,” and those who continue to be excluded from our present modernity? The quote from Agamben’s “Form-of-Life,” above, reminds us of the (perhaps, specifically?) modern dream of living one’s life as a work of art; in which there would be no separation between one’s thought and one’s life. What has happened to this dream of a modern “form-of-life”? Is it not, everywhere today, in ruins? Walser is, perhaps, the last figure in modern literature to attempt to inhabit such a space, such an existence. And yet, our experiences today bear witness to the brutal fact that a figure such as Walser, who lead a completely precarious existence to begin with, would simply not be allowed to exist in our modernity.

This experience is instructive. More and more, it becomes obvious to us that we are thought (potential), but the more we attempt to grasp this immanent potential, the more we are separated from it. How can we account for this relation to thought in the post-war era? When we look at this problem from the perspective of what is “new” in the narratives of bearing witness that have emerged in the post-war era, we can begin to see the outlines of this more clearly. This new way of doing philosophy, after Auschwitz, after Hiroshima, has a curious epistemological status: it combines the singular, the outside (radical exteriority), and the image (narrative description) together — all of which are hallmarks of the work of Walser and Kafka, and Deleuze’s theory of affect — with remembrance, with bearing witness, with redemption. I think it’s important for us to consider the possibility that these narratives are, precisely, ways of doing Deleuze’s “transcendental empiricism,” or “theoretical fictions” specifically for the post-war era — that is, for a world that is experiencing trauma, separation, and disassociation on a global scale. And perhaps, conceptually, this is all one need do to reach the thought of the failed encounter that I have attempted to elucidate here: affect, singularity, and image, combined with the remnant, equals the failed encounter. In other words, to think the failed encounter is to bear witness to the failure of our modernity, of our “experience,” in the historical present. The concept of the limit (and Deleuze’s theory of affect is a part of this concept) means that the smartest person on the planet, the one who knows the most, is also someone who is unable to speak, to express what they have seen, experienced, and encountered, precisely because it is something so new, something that no one has ever encountered or experienced before. If thought is an encounter, as Deleuze’s thought so beautifully holds, and an experience with the limits of human experience, then this changes how we think about the nature or, pragmatics of thought with regard to the figure of the witness. Moreover, if thought is immanent, then we — all of us, every thinker, every artist, every writer, every form of human expression — are, perhaps, indebted to the innumerable voices of those who could not speak, the innumerable thoughts of those who were unable to express that thought in any form, and the innumerable lives that were unable to be lived in our respective modernities. This would then be the exclusion on which all thought is based. This is why the transition from a figure such as Walser to a figure such as Levi is so important for us to trace out. Perhaps it is here that we can glimpse a new answer to the question: how can philosophy give an account of itself in these times, in this world? In other words, how can philosophy give an account of the exclusion of thought on which it is based: the voices, lives, and thoughts that are lost in order for every expression to be able to come into existence, to emerge in the first place? Perhaps this is now the only way we can think about life as a work of art: as always including within itself, a form of bearing witness to a life that is or, was not allowed to be, a work of art (but mere existence, naked life). This conceptualization of the modern as a remnant is, I think, productive. In order to continue to sketch out the “ruins of our present,” and to further elaborate the concept of the failed encounter, we need to look at the relationship between what Debord termed the spectacle, the exception, and that uniquely and thoroughly modern form of art, cinema. In this way we can continue to think about the meaning of the present, the status of the modern, and the philosophical meaning of failure. What can it mean to think affect, film, and the exception, including the spectacle, within the theory of the failed encounter?

NOTES

1. Peter Osborne’s “Small Scale Victories, Large Scale Defeats: Walter Benjamin’s Politics of Time,” includes a brief section, “Modernity and Tradition (1): Kafka’s Failure,” that points to Benjamin’s critique of modernity and his relation to the figure of Kafka as one of failure. Andrew Benjamin and Peter Osborne Ed. Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy: Destruction and Experience (New York: Routledge, 1994): 69 – 81. Osborne’s reading of Benjamin is, of course, incomplete with regard to the thought of the exception. Moreover, his treatment of failure in Kafka proceeds not on the basis of a philosophical concept of failure, but on the basis of a secondary treatment of Benjamin’s work on modernity. Much closer to what I have in mind here is a text that I only recently discovered during the final editing phases of this work, Ewa Ziarek’s “The Beauty of Failure” in Unruly Examples: On the Rhetoric of Exemplarity, ed. by Alexander Gelley (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1995): 175 – 207. Ziarek’s articulation of Kafka’s thought for aesthetics in Benjamin is perfectly in keeping with the project I have engaged with here. She writes, “it is precisely the beauty of failure that disrupts the aestheticization of politics and enables, in turn, the politicization of aesthetics” 206.

2. This brief sketch can also be read as an effort to both articulate, and play with, Agamben’s reference to the camp as the “nomos of the modern” in Homo Sacer.

3. Illuminations, 261.

4. Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 1, Pt. 2. 695, translation mine.

5. Thesis XVI, “On the Concept of History,” 396.

6. Illuminations, 262 – 263, translation modified.

7. Ibid., 262.

8. Homo Sacer, 166.

9. The Artificial Kingdom (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002): 28 — emphasis mine.

10. “Paralipomena to the ‘On the Concept of History,’” 405.

11. “On the Concept of History,” 397. For more on “messianic time,” see Chapter One and Two above.

12. See Agamben, Il tempo che resta, and my treatment of his distinction between chronos and kairos in Chapter Two of the present text.

13. See, for example, Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997) and Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

14. See, for example, the economic reading of modernism in “Postmodernization, or The Informatization of Production” in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000): 280 – 303.

15. Two works that explore themes of relevance to this problem are Sara Danius, The Senses of Modernism: Technology, Perception, and Aesthetics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002) and Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, Aesthetics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

16. The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics, trans. Michael Hardt (Minnesota: University of Minneapolis Press, 1991.

17. The most important text in my inquiry has been Sanford Kwinter’s Architectures of Time: Toward a Theory of the Event in Modernist Culture (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 2002). There have been several outstanding readings of modernism/modernity/post from fundamentally new perspectives in recent years. Among them, in addition to the two texts cited in note 6 above, are: Scott Durham, Phantom Communities: The Simulacrum and the Limits of Postmodernism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), Cesare Casarino, Modernity at Sea: Melville, Marx, Conrad in Crisis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), History’s Disquiet: Modernity, Cultural Practice, and the Question of Everyday Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), and Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (New York: Verso, 2002). Also, David Harvey’s “Modernity as Break” in his Paris, Capital of Modernity (New York: Routledge, 2003) presents an interesting argument for a concept of modernity, based on its “myths,” as “creative destruction.”

18. “Paralipomena to the ‘On the Concept of History,’” 402.

19. “On the Concept of History,” 392.

20. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (New York: Verso, 2001). While I disagree with his use of the term Holocaust (see page 22, and compare with Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz, pages 28 – 31), Davis’ work is exemplary in articulating the role of the West in the millions of victims of famine in the third world during the period of “high” European modernism.

21. For a meditation on themes of potentiality, see Friedrich Schlegel’s Jena romantic, experimental, and philosophical novel Lucinde in Friedrich Schelegel’s Lucinde and the Fragments. Translated with an introduction by Peter Firchow (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971). For Robert Walser, see Jacob von Gunten. Trans. Christopher Middleton (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1969). For Benjamin’s complex thought on German Romanticism see his “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism” in Selected Writings Vol. 1: 1913 – 1926 ed. By Markus Bullock and Michael V. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996): 116 – 200. For Benjamin on Walser, see his “Robert Walser” in Mark Harmon, ed. and trans. Robert Walser Rediscovered (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1985): 144 – 147, and his comments on Walser’s “assistants” in his “Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death” in Illuminations, 116 – 117. For Agamben on Walser see The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993): passim.

22. See, for example, Agamben’s account of the genealogy of the concept of the exception in Benjamin and Schmitt in his State of Exception, including Benjamin’s discussion of the baroque sovereign in the Trauerspielbuch, 55. For Benjamin, see the “Epistemo-Critical Prologue.”

23. One place to begin such an inquiry might be with a re-appraisal of Sander L. Gilman’s Franz Kafka: The Jewish Patient (New York: Routledge, 1995).

24. Illuminations, 122.

25. 49–62.

26. Cited by Agamben in Homo Sacer, 50 – 51.

27. Kafka, “Before the Law,” The Complete Stories, Ed. and Trans. by Edwin and Willa Muir, (New York: Schocken, 1995): 3 — emphasis mine.

28. Homo Sacer, 49.

29. Cited in Homo Sacer, 50.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid., 51.

32. Ibid., 52 – 53.

33. Ibid., 53.

34. Kafka, “Before the Law” 4.

35. Homo Sacer, 55.

36. Ibid., 57.

37. For a reading of Walser via Deleuze’s “singularity,” see Agamben’s The Coming Community, passim.

38. See Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, xv – xvii, for a succinct definition of this term.

39. In Robert Walser Rediscovered Ed. By Mark Harman (Hanover: University of New England Press, 1985): 50 – 51.

40. “An Address to a Button” in Robert Walser Rediscovered., 27 – 29.

41. Walser, Jacob von Gunten, 23. This novella has to be placed, historically, within the tradition of the bildungsroman: the uniquely modern novel that chronicles the human “development” and “education” of a young person, from adolescent, to adulthood. That Walser’s initiate aspires to be a social zero is, itself, a commentary on, and critique of, the bildungsroman. The first bildungsroman is Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship) (1795).

42. Ibid., 24.

43. The following two paragraphs were originally written as a commentary on Walser’s prose piece “Jesus” for Agamben’s seminar at UC Berkeley in December of 1999.

44. Cullen Murphy, “In Praise of Snow,” Atlantic Monthly, 3.

Excerpted from Broken: Thought-Images of Life in the State of Exception (2005) Robert C. Thomas, Ph.D.

Originally published at beautiful.fail.