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:

What “Orwellian” Real­ly Means: An Ani­mat­ed Les­son About the Use & Abuse of the Term

Franz Kaf­ka: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to His Lit­er­ary Genius

Franz Kafka’s Kafkaesque Love Let­ters

Four Franz Kaf­ka Ani­ma­tions: Enjoy Cre­ative Ani­mat­ed Shorts from Poland, Japan, Rus­sia & Cana­da

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

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Comments (9)
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  • Oskar says:

    Very inter­est­ing work…maybe .is pos­si­ble to ana­lyze the oth­er actors in the con­fig­u­ra­tion of Mr,Joshep K too, and their evo­lu­tion.

  • Aida luz Corredor says:

    That is a won­der­ful les­son, a love Kaf­ka and his kind of write

  • Lew says:

    The opti­mistic con­clu­sion to this talk seeks to make it — and Kaf­ka — palat­able to the gen­er­al listener/reader. It pro­motes Kaf­ka with the some­what banal idea that under­stand­ing and human­ism are good for you. In this way it is some­what Kafkaesque itself: Tavlin, the author­i­ty, knows what’s best and real, but unfor­tu­nate­ly, no one knows why.

  • Cheri says:

    Great ana­lyza­tion and insight. Some­times you are drawn to an author and can’t quite fig­ure out the why of it. With Kaf­ka, it is that saga­cious under­pin­ning behind his works. Thanks for the enlight­en­ment and prod­ding cer­e­bra­tion on such an enjoy­able top­ic.

  • RWordplay says:

    Quite enjoy­able until its banal and unnec­es­sar­i­ly pos­i­tivis­tic con­clu­sion, which was a mile off.

  • MARTIN-BERNE says:

    All kafka’s books were just amus­ing nov­els of imagination.He told to his inti­mate friends he wrote to pro­vide him­self enter­tain­ment and pleasure.Hence he is a great and splen­did artist.He was absolute­ly not neurotic.He pre­dict­ed noth­ing. I stud­ied this writer at The Goethe Insti­tute, Paris. France.It was the the­sis of our full pro­fes­sor. I think it is true.

  • Hogansaldi.it says:

    hogan scarpe
    buy now :www.hogansaldi.it

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