Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

The Politics of Kafka

A 3D illustration inspired by Kafka's novel 'The Trial'.

By Martin Wagner

“Kafka envisioned a possible world that human beings would construct in which the actions of man depend on nothing but himself and his spontaneity, and in which human society is governed by laws prescribed by man himself rather than by mysterious forces, whether they be interpreted as emanating from above or from below.”

-- Hannah Arendt, "Frank Kafka, Appreciated Anew"

If we made a survey asking people to name one writer whose works convey a negative outlook on life, Franz Kafka’s name is likely to come up at the very top. And at least at first sight, this ranking seems rather appropriate. Take, for instance, Kafka’s novel The Trial. It tells the story of Josef K., who is persecuted--and in the end executed--by an amorphous justice system without knowing what he is accused of. The novel presents a dark allegory of modernity, focusing on the hopeless struggle between the individual and the judicio-bureaucratic apparatus.

Martin Wagner
Martin Wagner (Ph.D., German literature, Yale University 2014) is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Yonsei University, Underwood International College. His research and teaching focus on the intersections of literature, philosophy, and the sciences in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe.

Amor Mundi 11/8/15


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-upNostalgia for Obnoxiousness at Yale University

yale halloween freedomHaley Hudler on the FIRE website (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) writes about recent events at Yale University. Just before Halloween, Yale's undergraduate students received a letter from the university's Intercultural Affairs Committee advising them to be thoughtful in choosing their costumes. The letter affirmed Yale's commitment to free speech but advised students to avoid dressing in blackface, with feathers, or in ways that might make some at Yale feel uncomfortable. In response, Erika Christakis, a Yale lecturer and the Associate master of Silliman College, wrote: "I don't wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.... Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious... a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition." The disagreement between Christakis and Yale's Intercultural Affairs Committee could have become a productive one, leading to some thoughtful debates about civility, speech, youthfulness, and humor. That debate may still happen; Christakis and her husband are to be applauded for meeting for hours with students--at times openly hostile and angry students--to talk about their disagreements. As Hudler writes, the students demand that Christakis and her husband offer an apology for creating an unsafe atmosphere and for making Yale students feel comfortable. They are asking Christakis and her husband to resign as Masters of Silliman. Hudler concludes: "Are the students' protests against the Christakises protected speech? Of course. But the students' demand that the Christakises lose their jobs for their dissident opinions represents another strong example of the phenomenon Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt talked about in their September cover story for The Atlantic, 'The Coddling of the American Mind.' In their article, Lukianoff and Haidt argue that students are increasingly engaging in a culture of 'vindictive protectiveness' that seeks to control campus speech in a way that not only limits free expression and chills candor, but that can also promote distorted ways of thinking." There are long videos on the website of discussions between Mr. Christakis and Yale students. The videos are worth watching. On one level, the debates at Yale are a sign of a healthy intellectual culture and are to be applauded. On another level, the intensity of anger over an email that simply questions whether sensitivity has gone too far is evidence of a culture of extreme intolerance for hearing contrary opinions, opinions that are no longer said to be merely wrong but traumatizing, no longer disagreeable but threatening. Which is why the 2016 Hannah Arendt Center Conference asks: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus." Save the Date: Oct. 20-21, 2016. --RB

Whither Goes the Library?

reading roomJames Gleick considers the place of the library in the digital landscape: "In the midst of an information explosion, librarians are still the most versatile information specialists we have. And the purest. In his new book BiblioTech, a wise and passionate manifesto, John Palfrey reminds us that the library is the last free space for the gathering and sharing of knowledge: 'Our attention cannot be bought and sold in a library.' As a tradition barely a century and a half old in the United States, it gives physical form to the principle that public access to knowledge is the foundation of democracy. The problem of libraries now--and it is a problem--involves some paradoxes, which need to be sorted out. For one thing, as Palfrey says, librarians will need to cherish their special talent as 'stewards' while letting go of the instinct to be 'collectors.' Knowledge in physical form needs to be handled carefully, preserved, and curated. But with digital information pouring into iPhones and Kindles in petabytes--via Twitter and Instagram and YouTube, not to mention Amazon's self-publishing factories--libraries need to rethink old habits. They cannot collect everything, or even a small fraction of everything. 'That model is already too hard to keep up,' Palfrey says. 'A network of stewards can accomplish vastly more than a disconnected (even sometimes competitive) group of collectors ever can.' The packrat instinct is hard to shed. Five years ago the Library of Congress began a project that collects every utterance on Twitter, in the name of preserving the nation's digital heritage. That is billions weekly, sucked up for storage in secure tape archives, and the Library has yet to figure out how to make any of it available to researchers. Divorced from a human curator, the unfiltered mass of Twitter may as well be a garbage heap. Meanwhile, onward streams the continually vanishing conversation in Facebook and Snapchat and whatever next year's channels will be, along with the email of the great and small, preserved haphazardly or not at all, to the presumed dismay of future historians. What's an archivist to do? There is no escaping the tension between real and virtual space, between the shelf and the cloud. 'Librarians well know that the discovery of information is moving out of physical locations and into distributed spaces'--i.e. screens everywhere--says Palfrey, and this is an understatement. He recalls an afternoon in his town library in Andover, Massachusetts, when he heard a thirteen-year-old shouting into his iPhone, 'Siri, what does "terminal velocity" mean?' Evidently the feckless genius of the cloud had nothing to offer. Palfrey took comfort from that, knowing that any reference librarian could do better: 'I realized that all will be well in the world of libraries, at least for a while.'"

The Obligation to Daydream

neil gaimanNeil Gaiman, writing in the Guardian, defends reading, libraries, and the need for daydreams. "We all--adults and children, writers and readers--have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different. Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I'm going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It's this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on. This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things."

amor_mundi_sign-upOur Future

children refugeesThe New York Times Magazine launched a new digital multimedia initiative tied to a virtual reality app. To watch the story in virtual reality, you need to acquire special glasses. We here at the Hannah Arendt Center read the story in regular old reality. It was still powerful. The Times told the stories of four children displaced by recent violence in and around their homes and sought to bring us into their lives in new places. Jake Silverstein provides an introduction: "Oleg, Hana and Chuol account for the tiniest fraction of a percentage of those 30 million children, but their experiences stand in for the whole. In Hana's story, we see the daily trials of a refugee who now lives in a foreign country and is trying to make a provisional life; in Oleg's, we see the difficulties of building a new life amid the ruins of the old. Chuol's story is more grave. He is in the midst of a terrifying escape, unsure of where or when a new life might begin. As dissimilar as these three children are, they're bound in an unhappy fellowship, not only with one another but also with the other displaced kids around the world, with the two children in the photos on my desk and with the numberless children displaced throughout history by all the world's wars. Think of them, moving silently within the mass migrations and terrified departures, the families running away at night, the human displacements on an unfathomable scale. Aztec children fleeing the armored conquistadors. French Huguenot children crossing the English Channel with their parents. European children streaming east and west and north and south during the First and Second World Wars. Jewish children resettling all over the world. Vietnamese children leaping into boats. Liberian children riding on their parents' shoulders down roads lined by bodies. Iraqi children running from the gigantic explosions of the gulf war. Generations of Haitian children. Generations of Palestinian children. Generations of Afghan children. See them struggling along, year after year after year, carrying the burden of ensuring our future upon their small backs." There's something tempting about the opportunity that the Times thinks its providing, the ability to step into the world of these children and understand them better through a "360-degree environment that encircles the viewer" and "creates the experience of being present within distant worlds." Silverstein suggests this technology makes it "uniquely suited to projects, like this one, that speak to our senses of empathy and community." But this feeling of community, just like the connection that he draws between these displaced children and others throughout history, is a false one. It isn't wrong to speak of displacement as a global problem with global consequences, but it does collapse the varieties of causes that lead to displacement and the variety of experiences that arise from it; it is possible, perhaps even likely, that suffering is incommensurate, and the suffering of one person is unintelligible not only to people who haven't suffered but also those who have. To step into the worlds of these children through virtual reality provides the illusion that their experiences can become our own, a facade that masks the transformation of its subjects into a kind of technological spectacle that enables us to feel good for being on the cutting edge even as we feel bad about displaced persons across the world. In both cases, the experience provided by the Times virtual reality app allows us to encounter the issues of our world without forcing us to reckon with them. --JK

All in Good Pun

shakespeareChi Luu considers the pun: "It turns out puns are pretty weird, linguistically speaking, given what we think we know about words and what they signify, as Saussure might have it. In communication, it's usually desirable for meaning to be as unambiguous and clear as possible. Puns are plays on words, as everyone knows, built upon a deliberate grammatical ambiguity, whether phonological ('Grime doesn't pay'), syntactic ('Our business is picking up') or lexical ('A proud past, a perfect present'), among others. At any given time a pun can (and indeed must) simultaneously juggle multiple meanings in one form within one expression. That's rather precarious. According to Saussure's famed structuralist system, in any language, meaningful words are signs consisting of a signifier (the form the word takes, such as the sequence of letters 'b a t' to form 'bat') and signified (the concept it's representing, such as a small furry, winged animal, a bat). One signifier to one signified. Neat, simple, logical. That's not to say there can't be homonyms (such as 'bat' signifying a tool used in sport), but simply put, each sign is supposed to contain a one-to-one relation at any one time, with the mind 'naturally discard[ing] all associations likely to impede understanding.' But in the case of puns, 'bat' must represent both a small furry winged animal and baseball gear at the same time, not to mention any other meanings relevant to the context. Two signifieds to one signifier. The signs all point to a kind of lexical rebellion that is not supposed to happen, as clear communication and understanding descend into chaos--and yet something rather special emerges from the wreckage."

Hot Hat

metsIn the midst of the World Series, a Mets fan tried to find a way to exert some control over a sporting event that had nothing to do with him (at least on the field): "On July 31, the day Cespedes was traded to the Mets, I bought a Minnesota Twins hat at Target Field in Minneapolis. It was a tourist's purchase--I was in Minnesota for a couple of ballgames with some friends. But the hat started to mean something more. That weekend, the Mets swept the Washington Nationals to tie for first place in the NL East. So I kept wearing the hat. And the Mets kept winning. The Mets went 37-22 to close out the season, and won the NL East despite a 23 percent chance of doing so when I bought the hat. (The rational readers among you will note that they also went 37-22 to close out the season after Cespedes joined the team, but, again, this is not a rational story.) Soon, the Twins hat had replaced my Mets hat. My Mets friends texted me and asked me to wear it when they were feeling nervous about a game. I nearly forgot it on a plane, and felt the Mets season slipping away until I stormed back to retrieve it. At the start of the playoffs, I went on a poorly timed vacation to India, and brought the Twins hat to ensure the Mets advanced."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

Critical Theory and Surreal Practice: A Conversation with Elisabeth Lenk and Rita BischofCritical Theory and Surreal Practice: A Conversation with Elizabeth Lenk and Rita Bischoff

In 1962, a politically active Elisabeth Lenk moved to Paris and persuaded Theodor W. Adorno to supervise her sociology dissertation on the surrealists. Adorno, though critical of Surrealism, agreed. The Challenge of Surrealism presents their correspondence, written between 1962 and Adorno's death in 1969, set against the backdrop of Adorno and Walter Benjamin's disagreement about the present possibilities of future political action, crystallization, and the dialectical image. The letters offer a fresh portrait of Adorno and expand upon his view of Surrealism and the student movements in 1960s France and Germany, while Lenk's essays and Bischof's introduction argue that there is a legitimate connection between Surrealism and political resistance that still holds true today. Please join us at the Hannah Arendt Center for a conversation with Elisabeth Lenk and Rita Bischof to celebrate the English translation of The Challenge of Surrealism: The Correspondence of Theodor W. Adorno and Elisabeth Lenk.

Free & Open to the Public. Kaffee and Kuchen will be served!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #15

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:30 pm



How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusSAVE THE DATE - 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus". We'll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Champlin discusses how Arendt's description of The Trial in terms of "sarcasm" raises a number of issues about the effect and intended meaning of Kafka's writing in the Quote of the Week. Sigmund Freud reflects on the experimental and methodical nature of thought in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, Connel Fanning shares an image from his Reading for Change Book Club featuring Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Kafka’s Sarcasm and Arendt’s Action

franz kafka

By Jeffrey Champlin

"[W]hat is wrong with the world in which Kafka's heroes are caught is precisely its deification, its pretense of representing divine necessity. […] The modern reader, or at least the reader of the twenties […] is quite serious when it comes to Kafka's sarcasm about the lying necessity and the necessary lying as divine law."

-- “Franz Kafka: A Revaluation (On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of his death)”, Essays in Understanding

Arendt's reflection on Kafka emerged during World War II, appearing for the first time in the Partisan Review in 1944. The passage cited above occurs in the essay's section on The Trial. The manuscript then moves to The Castle, the stories in general, and concludes with an analysis of "A Common Confusion." Throughout the piece, Arendt repeatedly returns to the question of Kafka's modernity. She contrasts his contemporary readers of the 1920s with those of her time, who saw his prophecy of bureaucratic totalitarianism come true. The issue of Kafka's sarcasm has a key place in this contrast, and I see it pointing to a broader question of the relation between fiction and action in the present day.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Born of Necessity, Blindness, or Strategy: On Greece and the Bureaucratically Divine

greece austerity

By Jennifer M. Hudson

“The force of the machinery in which the K. of The Trial is caught lies precisely in this appearance of necessity on the one hand, and in the admiration of the people for necessity on the other. Lying for the sake of necessity appears as something sublime; and a man who does not submit to the machinery, though submission may mean his death, is regarded as a sinner against some kind of divine order.… It has been characteristic of our history conscious century that its worst crimes have been committed in the name of some kind of necessity or in the name--and this amounts to the same thing--of the ‘wave of the future.’”

-- Arendt, “Franz Kafka: A Revaluation (On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of his death)”, Partisan Review

Necessity signifies the absence of choice; therefore, freedom and necessity, as principles, are logically opposed. Enlarging the concept of simple necessity, imagining it as a type of perpetual motion “machinery” or “the ‘wave of the future’ amplifies this opposition. Necessity as “progress,” or providence, becomes a deterministic force that would take away our capacity to shape our human world and future. Arendt’s concern in this passage is not, however, the myriad ways in which real human needs restrict sovereign human action. Instead, she points to an ideology of necessity--“the admiration of the people for necessity”--through which human beings abdicate responsibility for their common world by way of false beliefs in their own helplessness in an uncertain world and, simultaneously, their power to control this world using artificial means. Bureaucracy, both symbolically in Kafka’s novels and in Arendt’s appraisal of actually existing configurations, is the tangible manifestation of this ideology.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

See You Again


“To my dear Hannah,

In these years our friendship has stood the test.

In this relationship we no longer need to have any worries.


Your Kurt.

New York, April 30th 1945.”

 “Meiner lieben Hannah,” reads a handwritten inscription in a copy of Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess (The Trial), gifted from publisher Kurt Wolff to Hannah Arendt in New York; the book is a Schocken Verlag 1935 edition published in Berlin. “In diesen Jahren hat sich unseren Freundschaft bewährt,” Wolff writes: “Wir brauchen in dieser Beziehung keine Sorge mehr zu haben. Auf Wiedersehen, Dein Kurt. New York, 30. April 1945.”

This inscription stands as a symbol of survival on many levels: from the survival of the names mentioned – Hannah Arendt, Franz Kafka, and Kurt Wolff as well as Schocken Publishing House – to the survival of friendship, to the implications of the date which invite this reading.

Kurt Wolff, who founded the publishing house Kurt Wolff Verlag in Leipzig in 1912 and soon became one of the leading publishers of expressionist literature in Germany, worked extensively with Kafka’s works up until the author’s death in 1924. With the exception of the unfinished, posthumously published writings, Wolff published the majority of Kafka’s works. A look at their correspondence indicates how significant Wolff was in convincing a hesitant Kafka to prepare his manuscripts for publication. Despite his efforts to come to terms with the gap between what the public wants to read and what the public should want to read, a problem which troubled him personally and financially throughout his publishing career, Wolff closed down the Kurt Wolff Verlag in 1933.

Wolff came from a German-Jewish family and, after fleeing to the United States, he started a new publishing house with his wife, Helen Wolff, what was to become Pantheon Books in New York. It was there in New York in the early 1940s that he first made Hannah Arendt’s acquaintance.

Although Arendt never met Kafka personally (she was 17 when Kafka died), she did seriously engage with his work during the last thirty years of her life. Indeed, after immigrating to the United States in 1941 she resolved to ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ many eastern-European Jewish authors threatened by abandonment through an idea for a ‘Jewish Journal’ (Jüdische Zeitschrift) featuring these writers. As Marie Luise Knott writes in her co-authored book with Barbara Hahn on Arendt, Von den Dichtern erwarten wir Wahrheit, this goal was something which, while never reaching fruition, endured throughout Arendt’s career.

Kafka, in particular, represented for Arendt a distinct voice articulating the alienation involved in the assimilation into a new place or society. In fact, after finally meeting Salman Schocken (of Schocken Verlag) in 1945 and accepting a position as a Chief Editor at Schocken Books (which had also recently recently moved its offices from Berlin to New York), her initial project was to edit the first English translation of Kafka’s diaries. Even before that, Arendt wrote an essay in 1944 for the 20th anniversary of Kafka’s 1924 passing, entitled “Franz Kafka: A Revaluation”; she spends the first half of the essay discussing The Trial (the novel Kurt Wolff chose for his inscription a year later). Kafka also appears in Arendt’s essay “The Jew as Pariah”, and she would go on to work with Helen Wolff, after Kurt’s death, for example, to co-edit Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations in 1968.

With all of this in mind, why did Wolff send this particular book of Kafka’s to Arendt, and why at this specific date?

“April 30th 1945” has become a historically significant date:  it is the date of Adolf Hitler’s suicide, marking a turning point and a near-end to World War II. It is unlikely, though, that anyone in New York knew of this on the actual day it happened. For Wolff and Arendt, however, both transplanted German Jews, the date after the fact also connects them symbolically to their survival of Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holocaust.

Postcard from Kafka to Wolff

In a different yet related reading, the date concerns Kurt Wolff’s publishing ventures in New York where he started Pantheon Books in January 1943. In Kurt Wolff: A Portrait in Essays and Letters, he is quoted as having written that “Pantheon was founded on an extremely small amount of initial capital to give me the chance to earn a living. It was an experiment- and since no matter what the balance sheet says on April 30, 1944, a profit is unavoidable- the experiment is a success.” One can read this, in conjunction with the Kafka inscription, as April 30 taking on a new meaning in his life. It marks, in addition to his personal survival, the survival of his first publishing undertaking in the United States, and it now points to his valuable lasting friendship with Hannah Arendt.

Wolff, though Kafka’s first publisher, never published The Trial. Max Brod prepared the manuscript from Kafka’s Nachlass for Verlag Die Schmiede in Berlin in 1925, then in 1931 gave full publishing rights of Kafka’s works and manuscripts to Schocken Verlag. That The Trial itself was not published by Wolff, but more importantly, was not published in Kafka’s lifetime, speaks to this theme of survival in the inscription. The Trial survived Kafka, this copy published in 1935 survived World War II, and Arendt, through her essays and editorial work, helped Kafka to survive and arrive in the public world after 1945.

Wolff sent this book to Arendt certainly not as a reading recommendation, but rather as a symbolic gift. For Arendt, as Wolff surely knew, had not only already read The Trial, but had also written essays on it. Thus, in contrast to other books in her personal library, there are no annotations or markings to be found anywhere else in the book. This particular copy was not meant to be read, it seems, but to be appreciated in a different way.

To conclude the inscription, Wolff writes Auf Wiedersehen. To translate this as the usual “Goodbye” gives this entire gift - of the book, of their friendship, of their survival – a perhaps unnecessarily ominous and melancholic feeling. Rather, the literal meaning is here the more accurate one: “See you again”.

- Kerk Soursourian, Bard College


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.