Apart from their literary value, Franz Kafka’s works are usually considered an important contribution to the understanding of the modern subject. This post explores exactly this aspect in the unfinished yet famous novel The Trial. It is argued that the novel does not only present an account of the experience of alienation under Law in modernity, but that it also provides important steps towards a formal theory of it, moving significantly beyond, for example, Max Weber’s account of bureaucratization, which has been a more conventionally accepted theory of modernity. Kafka’s Trial renders problematic the universalizing ambitions of modernity by demonstrating how a certain mechanism of alienation is not an incident upon a further unstained modern project, but rather its logical consequence, an unavoidable underside to any highly bureaucratic political system.
The plot of the short novel is simple enough, and seems not to narrate the choices and consequences of an agentive protagonist, but rather his discovery of and impotent attempts at breaking an uncanny pre-assigned condition: subjectivity under modern Law. Because of this discovery-structure emphasis is placed on the intricacies of the complex mechanism protagonist K. is discovering but never manages to escape.
Below I provide a short plot summary of the novel. Feel free to skip to the discussion part below if you are familiar.
At the start of the novel, K. finds himself arrested, facing a trial for an unknown crime. Instead of being incarcerated, he is left “free,” expected to regularly show up at hearings and to make his case. Soon he is summoned to the court for the first time. Looking for the court he finds an unusual building which is laid out confusingly and is poorly ventilated, much to his frustration. He never finds out the charges made against him or the way the trial is supposed to take place. When he finds the court room he ends up making a very negative speech about his trial, resulting in odd reactions from the crowd and the judges. When he returns there another day on which he is not summoned, the court is not in session, and he talks with the attendant’s wife who claims to be able to help him. He ends up nearly passing out from the bad air in the building.
By now several people know about his trail, including his neighbor Fraulein Burstner, who now tries to avoid him. At his work in a bank his work continues with increasing distractions.
One day he finds someone punishing the two agents which had originally arrested him in his storeroom, which upsets him. They are being punished because K. had complained about them in his court speech. K. tries to prevent this from going on but does not manage. This is an example of a scene which is rather dreamlike, hinting at a surreal narrative style.
When K.’s uncle visits the town, he urges K. to take on a lawyer. This lawyer explains at length how complex, intransparent and secretive the legal process is. Even he himself does not know the rules fully, and he predicts the case to be a very long one. K. gets distracted from all this by Leni, the lawyer’s maid, who lures him into another room, initiating what seems to be a sexual encounter. K.’s uncle is upset with him when he finally exits.
K. decides to take on the lawyer, who makes the case seem even more complex and cannot promise him anything, but still assures him that his work is necessary and useful. With his many connections in the legal world, the lawyer is effectively part of the complex system that K. is facing.
One of K.’s clients knows about his trial and recommends him to go to a painter, Titorelli, who apparently knows more about trials. Visiting Titorelli, he finds out that he is the official painter of all the judges. Therefore he also has many important connections, and he hints at the fact that he can be of help to K. He also explains the possible outcomes of his trail. Mostly, the expectation is that the trial will go on for a very long while, and the message seems to be that K. should learn to live with his trial as a nearly permanent condition. When he leaves, he finds out that Titorelli is also part of the court, as his apartment exits into a number of court offices.
K. then decides to get rid of his lawyer, because he is not convinced of his contribution. When he ventures to do so he finds a businessman named Block at the lawyer’s whose case has already taken over five years. He is depraved of his dignity and completely dependent on the lawyer and Leni, who treat him like a dog. K. breaks with the lawyer.
In the penultimate chapter, K. is asked to show around an Italian business contact in a local Cathedral. When he arrives there, the Italian never shows up, and while he is waiting he is confronted by a priest, who unexpectedly knows his name and wants to help him. He tells him a fable which is supposed to clarify K.’s situation. In the fable, a man from the country tries to enter a door to the Law, but the door is guarded, and he is not allowed in by the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper does accept his bribes but only to not make him feel like he did not try. His sole task is to guard this one door from the man, who is the only one for whom this door exists. Also, there are many more doors behind this one. The man waits for years, but is never let in, and he also forgets the other doorkeepers ahead, focusing so much on this one. He starts to perceive an “inextinguishable light” from the inside of the room. When his time has come to die, the doorkeeper closes the door. The priest and K. explore several interpretations of the ancient fable. The priest also works for the court.
In the final chapter, K. is arrested by two men, and taken out of town to a quarry. There he knows that he is now expected to kill himself with a knife provided. He does not do it, so the two men do it. K. screams out “Like a dog!” when the knife is thrust into his heart.
Although some have proposed that The Trial is fundamentally a text about the alienation inherent in religious experience, it is taken as a starting point here that the focus of Kafka’s critique is a larger social configuration of which religion is only a part. Another intuition on which this interpretation is based is that the parable of the doorkeeper contains the full philosophical diagnosis that Kafka is undertaking, and that the rest of the novel serves just as a narrative container with as its single goal to render his philosophical proposition experientially recognizable. This is justified not only from the fact that the parable was published separately (Before the Law) before incorporation in the novel, but also through a formalization of the parable, demonstrating that it has all the ingredients to The Trial in a mythical form.
Below you find the parable Before the Law as rendered in Orson Welles’ beautiful film adaptation of the novel:
The surface reading of The Trial will certainly emphasize its existentialist treatment of subjectivity under modernity. Indeed, we all are K., and share his alienating experience whenever we start to question “the Law” (in the widest sense). We have no access to its fundamental principle(s), only the differentiated agents which re-present it are partially available to us. Some of them are religious agents, and religion is part of the system of the modern nation-state and its bureaucracy. Our possibility for direct interference in the Law, personal responsibility and autonomy, and face-to-face contact with the Law are taken away from us by its sheer enormousness – a unique feature of modernity. The agency of the individual is fundamentally a matter of the scale of a political system, and Law IS a form of experience to its subjects. The rational and instrumental tendencies of modernity to universalize humanity (the Law treats its subjects all the same) have also dehumanized the particularity of experience.
However, to read The Trial as a gloomy existentialism is to miss its analytic core (the parable and subsequent interpretations) which, with a little work, can be formalized into a systematic analysis of the triad between subject, Other and Law. Doing so will also point in the direction of what could be Kafka’s anti-clerical intentions.
The parable Before the Law presents us with this triad. The man from the country represents the modern subject striving to be fully accountable to accusations by others, with the condition that he himself can confirm the consistency of the principles and decisions made about him. He does not stand condemned and accepts punishment without facing the Law, and therefore he sets out to “find the Law.” This brings us to the second figure in the triad: the Other. Both in The Trial and within the parable, the Other is the one which simultaneously guards the the Law but simultaneously is the only source of information about it. Because the Other has a “contractual obligation” to the Law, his responsibility to the face of the subject is deferred and therefore permits a new violence. In other words, the ethical relationship becomes mediated by the gigantic third which is the Law. Within this triad, the Law represents a fundamental absence. Where a consistency is promised, we only find highly complicated practices and behaviors reproduced by human actors. As is customary in the philosophical tradition since Xenophanes/Plato, the view from afar of this promise of consistency is represented by LIGHT: “he seems now to see an inextinguishable light begin to shine from the darkness behind the door.”
The point to be taken from Kafka here is not so much that the third does not exist. Rather, it exists by virtue of a contract between the subject and the Other, and its sheer excessiveness resulting from the rise of modernity is a source of alienation for all humans.
The specific predicament of both the subject and the Other in this configuration can be taken from the passage in the book when the priest and K. discuss their different interpretations of the parable. Both the subject and the Other can be regarded as being cheated:
The subject is cheated, because the Other always withholds crucial information from him. Also, his attempted quest to find the Law is individualistic, and there is one predetermined door to the Law for him, and a specifically assigned Other to block him from going through it. Indeed, our encounter with the Law at large is personal, like a religious experience, and so is the Other which is its stand-in. The subject is also exhausted from this struggle, drained of liveliness. The dupedness of the subject lies in the discrepancy between the egalitarian, shared, and social reproduction of the Law, and the radical individuality of the experience of challenging it.
The doorkeeper, according to another interpretation offered by the duo, is rather the cheated one of this intimate triad. He also does not know the inside of the Law, has only a childish knowledge of it (does not grasp its supposed consistency), and is himself rather afraid of what he tries to guard from the man. Indeed, the Law was able to employ him without opening itself to him entirely. Also, in a way, his work makes him even less free than the subject. The Other is bound by employment to guard, and consequently even less free than the free man to investigate the Law. This is the sad predicament of the bureaucrat. He stands with his back towards the Law, and therefore is even more blind to it, by virtue of employment.
From the perspective of the Law, the guardian, or defending Other, can not be judged by the subject, because the guardian represents the Law, which makes him infinitely more than the subject. Whomever is employed by the Law acquires a kind of immunity from judgment, even if his acts are results of instructions from above instead of complete knowledge of the Law. It is exactly this position that K. fundamentally rejects:
“I can’t say I’m in complete agreement with this view,” said K. shaking his head, ‘as if you accept it you’ll have to accept that everything said by the doorkeeper is true. But you’ve already explained very fully that that’s not possible.’ ‘No,’ said the priest, ‘you don’t need to accept everything as true, you only have to accept it as necessary.’ ‘Depressing view,’ said K. ‘The lie made into the rule of the world.’
What we see emerging here is a triadic investigation of subject, Other, and the Law. Whereas the subject and his Other refer to actually existing people, the Law arises as the exception, the lie which mediates the relation between the subject and his Other. The human practices constituting the project of institutionalizing this abstract universality in fact uproot the subject in modern society, which is of course the state-institutionalizing project of an unprecedented scale. This dehumanization is in fact a necessary result, and not an unhappy coincidence.
The above analysis recasts Kafka’s text as ever relevant, not only after Auschwitz (a bureaucratic project par excellence) but also in the current face of a struggle for transparency (wikileaks). Kafka does point in the political direction of anarchism, reminding us that the Law is after all a “noble” lie. As demonstrated, The Trial presents a formidable theory of the subject which situates him/her in a triadic relationship with his Other and the Law: a necessary reminder of the inherent tensions of the modern bureaucratic nation-state. This reading of the Trial also encourages to see Kafka’s politics as a direct confrontation with Plato’s Republic… .
Franz Kafka, The Trial.