What Does “Kafkaesque” Really Mean? A Short Animated Video Explains

We derive adjectives from great writers’ names meant to encapsulate entire philosophies or modes of expression. We have the Homeric, the Shakespearean, the Joycean, etc. Two such adjectives that seem to apply most to our contemporary condition sadly express much darker, more cramped visions than these: “Orwellian” and “Kafkaesque.” These adjectives also—suggests writer Noah Tavlin—name two of the most misunderstood of authorial visions. In a TEDEd video last year, Tavlin attempted to clear up confusion about the “Orwellian,” a term that’s tossed around by pundits like a political Frisbee.

Tavlin returns in the video above to explain the meaning of “Kafkaesque,” a less-abused descriptor but one we still may not fully appreciate. He begins with a brief summary of Kafka’s novel The Trial, in which “K, the protagonist, is arrested out of nowhere and made to go through a bewildering process where neither the cause of his arrest nor the nature of the judicial proceedings are made clear to him.” The scenario is “considered so characteristic of Kafka’s work” that scholars use the term “Kafkaesque” to describe it. Kafkaesque has become evocative of all “unnecessarily complicated and frustrating experiences, like being forced to navigate labyrinths of bureaucracy.”

But the word is much richer than such casual usage as describing a trip to the DMV.

Tavlin references Kafka’s short story “Poseiden,” in which the god of the sea can neither explore nor enjoy his realm because he is buried under mountains of paperwork. In truth, he is “a prisoner of his own ego,” unwilling to delegate because he sees his underlings as unworthy of the task. This story, Tavlin argues, “contains all of the elements that make for a truly Kafkaesque scenario.”

It’s not the absurdity of bureaucracy alone, but the irony of the character’s circular reasoning in reaction to it, that is emblematic of Kafka’s writing. His tragicomic stories act as a form of mythology for the modern industrial age, employing dream logic to explore the relationships between systems of arbitrary power and the individuals caught up in them.

Tavlin refers to The Metamorphosis and “A Hunger Artist” as further examples of how Kafka’s characters overcomplicate their own lives through their fanatical, singular devotion to absurd conditions.

But as Tavlin admits later in the video, the bewildering mechanisms of power in stories such as The Trial also “point to something much more sinister”—the idea that arcane bureaucracies become self-perpetuating and operate independently of the people supposedly in power, who are themselves reduced to functionaries of mysterious, unaccountable forces. Tavlin quotes Hannah Arendt, who studied the totalitarian nightmares Kafka presciently foresaw, and wrote of “tyranny without a tyrant.” More recently, philosopher Manuel De Landa has theorized increasingly complex, impersonal systems operating with little need for human intervention. His War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, for example, imagines modern warfare as the evolving operations of more-or-less self-organizing weapons systems. Theorists frequently observe that the speed of technological advancement now proceeds at such a dizzyingly exponential rate that it will soon surpass our ability to control or understand it at all. Perhaps, as Tesla’s Elon Musk suggests, we ourselves are no more than operations in a complex system, simulated beings inside a computer program.

But scenarios like De Landa’s and Musk’s are also not the Kafkaesque, for these theorists of modern technocracy lack a key feature of Kafka’s vision—his dark, tragicomic, absurdist sense of humor, which permeates even his bleakest visions. On the one hand, Tavlin says, we “rely on increasingly convoluted systems of administration” and find ourselves judged and ruled over “by people we can’t see according to rules we don’t know”—a situation bound to provoke profound anxiety and psychological distress. On the other hand, Kafka’s attention to the absurd, “reflects our shortcomings back at ourselves,” reminding us that “the world we live in is one we created.” I’m not so sure, as Tavlin concludes, that Kafka believed we have the “power to change for the better” the overcomplicated systems we barely understand. Kafka’s comic vision, I think, ultimately partakes in what Miguel de Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life.” But he does not fully deny his characters all freedom of choice, even if they frequently have no idea what it is they’re choosing between or why.

Note: You can download essential works by Franz Kafka as free audiobooks if you sign up for a 30-Day Free Trial with Audible. You get two free audiobooks with each trial. Find more information on that program here.

Related Content:

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Wonderful Archive of Historic Transit Maps: Expressive Art Meets Precise Graphic Design

transit 1

Anyone who loves cities almost certainly loves transit maps: for well over a century, they’ve not only played an essential role in the navigation of urban spaces but developed into their very own distinctive form at the intersection of utility and aesthetics. The finest examples simultaneously possess the clarity and information-richness of the best graphic design and hold out promises of excitement and modernity that require a true artistic sensibility to properly express. None of this is lost on Cameron Booth, the Australian graphic designer living in Portland, Oregon who runs the site Transit Maps.

Transit 2

“A well designed transit map conveys a lot of information in a very small space,” writes Booth on the site’s About page. “In an instant, we learn how to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’, simply by following some coloured lines. The very best maps become symbols of their city, admired and loved by all.” None have become quite so symbolic as the map of the London Underground, the oldest subway system in the world, and Transit Maps‘ posts filed under the London Underground tag, such as the 1929 cutaway diagram of its Piccadilly Circus station by Italian architect and urban designer Renzo Picasso just above provide plenty of good reading — and even better viewing — for its many enthusiasts.

Transit 3

Among American cities, no subway system has a more respected map than Washington, DC’s, the work of graphic designer Lance Wyman, for whom it has remained a work in progress: he oversaw a redesign just five years ago, almost forty years after the system went into service and his original map made its debut. Here we have one of Wyman’s original working sketches for the map straight from his notebook. “Interestingly, it looks like Wyman was experimenting with textural treatments for the route lines at this time,” adds Booth, “an idea I’m ever so glad he abandoned, because it would have looked so busy and hideous.”

Transit 4

Having seen many more transit maps than most, and even having designed some of his own (including a reworking of the DC Metro map), Booth doesn’t hesitate to point out both the virtues and the flaws of the ones he posts. He even grades them on a star rating system (with, of course, circular London Underground logos substituting for actual stars), collecting the very best under the five-star tag. One such passage with flying colors, the 1950s Yorkshire coast train map at the top of the post, has Booth exclaiming that “they don’t make ‘em like this any more. The 1908 bird’s-eye view of Chicago, source of the legend above, scores its own five stars by “minute attention to detail,” down to the inclusion of “smoke curls from factory chimneys” and “almost every tree in the city’s parks.”

Transit 5

Few cities have attracted as much attention from mapmakers as New York, possibly due to all its wonders — or at least those are what IBM graphic designer Nils Hansell emphasizes in his mid-1950s map “Wonders of New York” which, despite not looking far past Manhattan, does include transit and much else besides: Booth mentions its depiction of “300-odd numbered points of interest” as well as “the last vestiges of New York’s once-extensive elevated railway lines.” You need quite a high-definition scan to really appreciate all this, and Booth found one in the David Rumsey Map Collection, which we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture.

Transit 6

Scroll through the pages and pages of Transit Maps’ historical tag, and you’ll find a wealth of fascinating showpieces of the transit mapper’s art, not just from the Londons and New Yorks of the world, but also from times and places like Berlin in 1931Madison, Wisconsin in 1975, and Booth’s own old hometown of Sydney in 1950 and new hometown of Portland in 1978. The archive even includes transit maps from unusual places, such as a delightful one printed on the back of a Japanese matchbox in the 1920s, and maps for transit systems never completed, such as the one for the Baghdad Metro from the early 1980s just above. Iraq’s capital may still await a full-service subway system — and much else besides — but at least its map earns top marks.

tokyo subway

Related Content:

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Brexit 101: The UK’s Stunning Vote Explained in 4 Minutes

The Brexit votes have been counted. The Brits have decided to leave the European Union. And the financial markets are taking it hard. Right now, futures on the London stock exchange are down 8%. The pound is down 9.8 percent, more than double its previous record decline of 4.1 percent. We’re living in interesting times.

No doubt, some of you are suddenly wondering, what exactly is Brexit? And what’s at stake? Up top, you can watch a four-minute primer created by The Wall Street Journal. Bloomberg has its own two-minute version here (or view below). The Toronto Star breaks down Brexit in 13 points. And The Guardian went so far as to create a guide just for Americans. (For anyone who wants to dissect the propaganda for leaving Brexit, you can watch the feature-length documentary film, Brexit: The Moviereleased last month.) Please feel free to add other primers in the comments below.

For Americans reading this, I’d point out that Brexit and Trump share some important things in common: they’re both about putting up walls, placing blame on immigrants and minorities; exploiting the resentments of the economically disadvantaged; dismissing experts and establishment figures; and risking upending a fragile world order. How England looks on June 24th is perhaps a small preview of how America might look on November 9th. Only there will be trillions more at stake.

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1930s Fashion Designers Predict How People Would Dress in the Year 2000

From 1930 to 1941, Pathetone Weekly ran film clips that highlighted ‘the novel, the amusing and the strange.’ At some point during the 1930s (the exact date isn’t clear), Pathetone asked American designers to look roughly 70 years into the future and hazard a guess about how women might dress in Year 2000. Apparently, fashion designers don’t make great futurists, and the designs fell rather wide of the mark — unless you want to count Lady Gaga’s wardrobe, in which case they didn’t do a half bad job. Or, for that matter, the male connected 24/7 to his phone and sundry gadgets…

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

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Download Issues of “Weird Tales” (1923-1954): The Pioneering Pulp Horror Magazine Features Original Stories by Lovecraft, Bradbury & Many More

We live in an era of genre. Browse through TV shows of the last decade to see what I mean: Horror, sci-fi, fantasy, superheroes, futuristic dystopias…. Take a casual glance at the burgeoning global film franchises or merchandising empires. Where in earlier decades, horror and fantasy inhabited the teenage domain of B-movies and comic books, they’ve now become dominant forms of popular narrative for adults. Telling the story of how this came about might involve the kind of lengthy sociological analysis on which people stake academic careers. And finding a convenient beginning for that story wouldn’t be easy.

Do we start with The Castle of Otranto, the first Gothic novel, which opened the door for such books as Dracula and Frankenstein? Or do we open with Edgar Allan Poe, whose macabre short stories and poems captivated the public’s imagination and inspired a million imitators? Maybe. But if we really want to know when the most populist, mass-market horror and fantasy began—the kind that inspired television shows from the Twilight Zone to the X-Files to Supernatural to The Walking Dead—we need to start with H.P. Lovecraft, and with the pulpy magazine that published his bizarre stories, Weird Tales.


Debuting in 1923, Weird Tales, writes The Pulp Magazines Project, provided “a venue for fiction, poetry and non-fiction on topics ranging from ghost stories to alien invasions to the occult.” The magazine introduced its readers to past masters like Poe, Bram Stoker, and H.G. Wells, and to the latest weirdness from Lovecraft and contemporaries like August Derleth, Ashton Smith, Catherine L. Moore, Robert Bloch, and Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian).

In the magazine’s first few decades, you wouldn’t have thought it very influential. Founder Jacob Clark Hennenberger struggled to turn a profit, and the magazine “never had a large circulation.” But no magazine is perhaps better representative of the explosion of pulp genre fiction that swept through the early twentieth century and eventually gave birth to the juggernauts of Marvel and DC.


Weird Tales is widely accepted by cultural historians as “the first pulp magazine to specialize in supernatural and occult fiction,” points out The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (though, as we noted a few days ago, an obscure German title, Der Orchideengarten, technically got there earlier). And while the magazine may not have been widely popular, as the Velvet Underground was to the rapid spread of various subgenera of rock in the seventies, so was Weird Tales to horror and fantasy fandom. Everyone who read it either started their own magazine or fanclub, or began writing their own “weird fiction”—Lovecraft’s term for the kind of supernatural horror he churned out for several decades.

Fans of Lovecraft can read and download scans of his stories and letters to the editor published in Weird Tales at the links below, brought to us by The Lovecraft eZine (via SFFaudio).

Letter to the editor of Weird Tales, September 1923 – September 1923

Letter to the editor of Weird Tales, October 1923 – October 1923

Letter to the editor of Weird Tales, January 1924 – January 1924

Letter to the editor of Weird Tales, March 1924 – March 1924

Imprisoned With The Pharaohs – May/June/July 1924

Hypnos – May/June/July 1924

The Tomb – January 1926

The Terrible Old Man – August 1926

Yule Horror – December 1926

The White Ship – March 1927

Letter to the editor of Weird Tales, February 1928 – February 1928

The Dunwich Horror – April 1929

The Tree – August 1938

Fungi From Yuggoth Part XIII: The Port – September 1946

Fungi From Yuggoth Part X: The Pigeon-Flyers – January 1947

Fungi From Yuggoth Part XXVI: The Familiars – January 1947

The City – July 1950

Hallowe’en In A Suburb – September 1952

Fans of early pulp horror and fantasy—–or grad students writing their thesis on the evolution of genre fiction—can view and download dozens of issues of Weird Tales, from the 20s to the 50s, at the links below:

The Internet Archive has digitized copies from the 1920s and 1930s.

The Pulp Magazine Project hosts HTML, FlipBook, and PDF versions of Weird Tales issues from 1936 to 1939

This site has PDF scans of individual Weird Tales stories from the 40s and 50s, including work by Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Dorothy Quick, Robert Bloch, and Theodor Sturgeon.

SFFaudio’s Public Domain PDF page contains many scans of full Weird Tales issues, from the 20s to the 50s, tucked in amongst several other genre magazines and a few issues of 19th century title Argosy, the first pulp fiction magazine.

And to learn much more about the history of the magazine, you may wish to beg, borrow, or steal a copy of the pricy collection of essays, The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales: The Evolution of Modern Fantasy and Horror.


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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Johnny Rotten Becomes a DJ and Plays Songs from His Record Collection, 1977

lydon radio

Image via Wikimedia Commons

One of the initial impressions of the British punks–and one that impresario Malcolm McLaren tried to cultivate–was that they were dangerous, unschooled yobs creating rock music from primordial materials. That’s why McLaren was unhappy about John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten’s appearance on Capital Radio’s Tommy Vance Show in the middle of the summer of punk, 1977.

“Anarchy in the U.K.” and “God Save the Queen” had already been released as singles. The Pistols had made their infamous appearance on Bill Grundy’s chat show, where goaded into doing something outrageous, they swore a bit and the British press melted down in paroxysms of panic. They had been dropped by both EMI and A&M, and had finished recording the bulk of Never Mind the Bollocks the month before. The band was in limbo.

DJ Tommy Vance was sixteen years older than Lydon, but Capital Radio was an independent station and offered an alternative to the BBC, which only a few months earlier banned outright “God Save the Queen” from the airwaves and refused to award it a number one single spot, even though the single had earned it, saleswise.

Lydon was asked to bring in records from his own collection and talk about them, and, in doing so, demonstrated that he wasn’t a thug, but an eclectic young music fan with broad tastes. He liked a lot of reggae (Peter Tosh, Makka Bees, Dr. Alimantado) and dub, and says he grew up with it. It also explains the dub heavy outings he’d soon do with Public Image Ltd. And he chooses tracks by singer-songwriters like Tim Buckley, Kevin Coyne, and Neil Young; John Cale, Lou Reed, and Nico; and art rock like Can, a band introduced to him by Sid Vicious.

He’s still abrupt, insulting and dismissive when he needs to be. He calls David Bowie a “real bad drag queen,” doesn’t think much of the Rolling Stones or most ‘60s bands (“terrible scratching sound” he says), and says most of his contemporary punk bands are “stagnant” and predictable. But it wouldn’t be Johnny Rotten any other way, would it?

When asked about his record collection, Lydon says it’s quite big:

I ain’t got a record player at the moment, so I have to pass them around, because music’s for listening to, not to store away in a bloody cupboard. Yeah, I love my music.

You can listen to the broadcast here:

And here’s the full track listing:

Tim Buckley – Sweet Surrender
The Creation – Life Is Just Beginning
David Bowie – Rebel Rebel
Unknown Irish Folk Music / Jig
Augustus Pablo – King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown
Gary Glitter – Doing Alright With The Boys
Fred Locks – Walls
Vivian Jackson and the Prophets – Fire in a Kingston
Culture – I’m Not Ashamed
Dr Alimantado & The Rebels – Born For A Purpose
Bobby Byrd – Back From The Dead
Neil Young – Revolution Blues
Lou Reed – Men Of Good Fortune
Kevin Coyne – Eastbourne Ladies
Peter Hammill – The Institute Of Mental Health, Burning
Peter Hammill – Nobody’s Business
Makka Bees – Nation Fiddler / Fire!
Captain Beefheart – The Blimp
Nico – Janitor Of Lunacy
Ken Boothe – Is It Because I’m Black
John Cale – Legs Larry At Television Centre
Third Ear Band – Fleance
Can – Halleluhwah
Peter Tosh – Legalise It

via That Eric Alper/WFMU

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John Lydon & Public Image Ltd. Sow Chaos on American Bandstand: The Show’s Best and Worst Moment (1980)

The Sex Pistols’ 1976 Manchester “Gig That Changed the World,” and the Day the Punk Era Began

Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s . . . John Lydon in a Butter Commercial?

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Hear a 64-Hour Playlist of Sherlock Holmes Stories, With Performances by Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson & Many More

sherlock playlist

Image via Wikimedia Commons

When I first read all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, having found them collected in full (not, of course, including last year’s “lost” story) in two old volumes at an antique store, I understood immediately why they’d so quickly become so popular with their first readership in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Or rather, I should say that I felt it–that perfect alignment of form and substance that only comes along in popular art every few decades.

Whether that happened as a result of Doyle’s craftsmanship or his luck I don’t know, but it turns out that the adventures of his consulting detective play as well on the speakers as they do on the page, though in quite a different way. You can experience that difference for yourself, and experience it extensively, with Spotify’s 64-hour, 163-track playlist of Sherlock Holmes stories performed aloud. (If you don’t have Spotify’s free software, download it here.)

The very first voice it presents is Doyle’s own, speaking briefly on Holmes and spiritualism, which gives us time to settle in for a five-part rendition of the very first in the Holmes canon (and thanks to “more female interest than is usual,” one of Doyle’s personal favorites), “A Scandal in Bohemia.” It comes performed by Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson, two of the most respected actors in 20th-century British theater. We’ve previously featured their portrayals, Gielgud’s of Holmes and Richardson’s of Watson (and we can hardly neglect to mention the one and only Orson Welles’, of Moriarty), on the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio drama.

But this playlist provides a wealth of other voices from various eras interpreting Doyle’s most beloved works as well, a variety that certainly suits its protagonist, the most-portrayed literary character of all time — which means that, unlike the collected print canon of Sherlock Holmes adventures (that “lost” story and its mysterious authorship aside), the collected audio adventures of Sherlock Holmes will only grow longer and longer, so those who want to listen to them all had best get on the case without delay.

You can find this playlist added to our collection, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

Also find Sherlock Holmes stories in our other collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear the Only Castrato Ever Recorded Sing “Ave Maria” and Other Classics (1904)

Every human culture has practiced some form of ritual mutilation, from the mild marring of a Spring Break tattoo to the disfigurement of foot-binding. On the more extreme end of the scale, we have the early modern European practice of castrating young boys to inhibit growth of their vocal cords and thyroid glands during puberty. Such singers, known as castrati, became “high-sopranos, mezzos, and altos, strident voices and sweet ones, loud and mellow voices,” writes Martha Feldman in her book The Castrato.

The purpose of mutilating these singers initially had to do with a ban on women in church choirs. Castrati took their place, and were in very high demand. “Opportunities for castrati were staggering,” writes i09, “and many families were facing starvation” in 16th century Italy, where the practice began. Despite a church prohibition on unnecessary amputation, parents and surgeons conspired to illegally castrate boys chosen to fulfill the role, and the practice continued into the 19th century.

Several castrati achieved lasting popular fame. “The best castrati were superstars,” remarks Sarah Bardwell of the Handel House Museum, “adored by female fans.” Others, io9 points out, “were low-rent singers who spent their time doing small gigs in small towns, and others spun their singing careers into positions as ministers at royal courts.” One of the more glamorous fates awaited one of the last of the castrati, Alessandro Moreschi, who may have been castrated to remedy an inguinal hernia or may have been intentionally mutilated to become a castrato.

However he came by it, Moreschi’s voice so impressed a Roman choirmaster that he appointed the singer first soprano of the Papal basilica of St. John Lateran in 1873 at age 15. Soon after, Moreschi, his fame spreading widely, joined the Sistine Chapel Choir and took on several administrative duties. By this time, it’s said that Moreschi was so popular that audiences would call out “Eviva il coltello” (“Long live the knife!”) during his performances. While still with the Sistine Choir and near the end of his career, Moreschi began to make recordings for the Gramophone & Typewriter Company of London—the only known recordings of a castrato.

Between 1902 and 1904, Moreschi recorded 17 tracks, and you can hear them all here. At the top of the post, hear a restored version of “Ave Maria,” further down, a rendition of Eugenio Terziani’s “Hostias et Preces,” and here, the complete recordings of Alessandro Moreschi, in their noisy original state. Nicholas Clapton, curator of a 2006 castrati exhibit at the Handel House Museum in London, describes Moreschi’s voice as “Pavarotti on helium” and historican David Starkey tells of the “full horror” of the procedure, but also adds, “it’s horribly like the child star of today, forced into this artificiality, forced… to deliver that ineluctable, strange, desirable thing of star quality.”

Sadly, like many of today’s harried child singers and actors, few castrati actually achieved stardom. But those few who did, like Moreschi, “had a tremendous emotional impact on the audiences of the day,” Bardwell tells us. Moreschi’s recordings, made while he was in his mid-forties, sound alien to us not only because of the strangeness of castrati singing but because of the highly melodramatic style popular at the time. His singing may not be representative of some of the most renowned castrati in history, like the 18th century sensation Farinelli, but it is—barring a resurgence of the pretty barbaric practice—probably the closest we’ll come to hearing the infamous castrati voice.

via History Buff

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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