Newsletter Issue:
Fall 2016

A Review of Franz Kafka's The Castle in Light of 20th Century Resistance

Athena Axiomakaros, Cohort ’15

IDSVA student seeking points of resistance. Photo by Gabriel Reed.
IDSVA student seeking points of resistance. Photo by Gabriel Reed.

This summer in Berlin, we had the privilege of touring Berlin with IDSVA Vice President, Amy Curtis where we visited the East Side Gallery and other important locations for graffiti as well as attended lectures by Howard Caygill covering an extensive range of topics including; the history of Berlin, resistance in its many forms, Franz Kafka’s The Castle, and Martin Heidegger’s ideas of Bauen and Wohnen. What can we learn when we take the lessons of Kafka, the history and graffiti of Berlin, and Heidegger’s thoughts when we combine them?

Students after a long day of art and philosophy.
Students after a long day of art and philosophy.

Through Howard Caygill’s lectures, we explored the importance of Heidegger's notion of Bauen (building) not as a home or structure but an action, a way of cultivating space, of being-in-the-world. It is not only pertinent to the topology of Berlin in that the city is ever changing and growing, in particular, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but also in Kafka’s, The Castle. In Bauen, there is a concern within the space for the beings around oneself. One cannot dwell and one cannot build without Wohnen (dwelling).

In The Castle, the protagonist (his name is K.) fails to practice Heidegger’s Bauen and Wohnen and therefore fails to find a place for himself in the village, a home. K. has journeyed to an isolated village with the promise of a job as land surveyor only to find that due to a clerical error, the job does not exist. K. is thus the victim of a flawed and sometimes absurd system; something quite relatable. But if we were K., would we accept our fate as many of the villagers have done, or do we resist as K. does? And in what form does our resistance take? In the case of K., resistance takes on the form of his desperate attempts to achieve his goals through the nefarious tools of the bureaucracy: manipulation, force, and lies.

History itself took over, abruptly ending the story due to Kafka’s sudden death - without closure we are left unsure how his book was meant to end or even if Kafka wanted it destroyed. According to his friend Max Brod, K. was notified on his deathbed that "legal claim to live in the village was not valid, yet, taking certain auxiliary circumstances into account, he was permitted to live and work there." K., in his resistance, failed to dwell in the Heideggerian sense of the word and therefore was unable to build a life.

Throughout history, resistance takes on many forms and graffiti does so through aesthetic means. Berlin is famous for its graffiti and artists from all over the world would travel to leave their mark on the west side of the Berlin Wall. Berlin saw the fall of the wall in 1989 and whether the power of graffiti and artists could be said to have helped achieve this goal or not, it would be foolish not to believe that it contributed. Quite opposite to K, the artists who contributed to the wall were conscious of the space that they were building, a space where artists could speak out against bureaucracy and where others could visit and hear these voices. This stands as an example of the power of aesthetic dwelling over the tools of the bureaucracy as a means for achieving resistance and eliciting positive change not for themselves but for others.

Kafka can teach us that using the tools of the bureaucracy against the system with little consideration for one’s being-in-the-world and others is not always the most effective weapon for change and that the tools of the artist-philosopher, aesthetics and dwelling, can be more powerful.

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