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  • Grand Theory on Trial:Kafka, Derrida, and the Will to Power
  • Nina Pelikan Straus

In summa: so that man may respect himself he must be capable of doing evil.

(Nietzsche, The Will to Power)1


The following pages offer evidence that in The Trial Kafka invents characters who deploy a Nietzschean-sourced language of deconstruction related to what we now call theory; that in "Before the Law" Kafka's priest deconstructs The Law to which K. is subjected, and that Kafka exposes the discursive devices by which laws can be deconstructed. Kafka's text then opens the way to another kind of deconstruction of that-which-is-already-deconstructed as performed by Jacques Derrida in his 1987 essay, "Before the Law."2 Although this claim may seem self-evident or rhetorically circular to some readers of Kafka and his commentators, it is the result of years of puzzlement concerning the impact of Grand Theory in American criticism.

This puzzlement, often accompanied by antagonism, is shared by critics whose essays comprise Patia's and Corral's Theory's Empire: An Anthology of Dissent. The 2005 volume includes major reassessments of poststructuralist theory, notably Derrida's, by Tzetan Todorov, Thomas Nagel, M. H. Abrams, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Frederick Crews, René Welleck, David Bromwich, and others. While the deconstructionist idea of the arbitrariness of the signifier appears to be a central target of these critics' analysis, it is precisely the arbitrariness of the signifier called the Law that Kafka explores in The Trial.

Kafka's intended relation to what he exposes has been much debated. [End Page 378] Stanley Corngold refers to the "undecidability" of Kafka's work and its "narrative mood of neutrality."3 The emphasis on "undecidability" in Kafka can be viewed as symptomatic of the influence of French Theory embraced by the American literary academy in the 1970s and 1980s. This latter view of Kafka's writing contrasts sharply with an earlier view, such as Hannah Arendt's, that The Trial, for all its ambiguity and multivalence, carries precise political meanings and warnings that Kafka fully intended. The deconstructionist moment did not bury convictions such as Adorno's or Canetti's that "from the beginning, Kafka sided with the humiliated,"4 or that for "a generation of early readers Joseph K.'s arrest was . . . a prophetic anticipation of the fate awaiting Hitler's victims."5 But deconstruction's skeptical effect undermined the certitude that Kafka was a politically important novelist. For its detractors, the deconstructionist view that there is "nothing outside of the text" ignores that texts like Kafka's have shaped human lives and human history. Wellek, who helped to introduce French theory to American literature departments, now asserts that theory has destroyed literary studies, while Frederick Crews argues that "Derrida's judgment that 'there is nothing outside the text' automatically precludes recourse to evidence." In Crews's view, "both Derrida and his myriad followers think nothing of appropriating and denaturing propositions from systems of thought whose premises they have already rejected." Thomas Nagel goes further in condemning "post-modern relativism" as a "quick fix" which puts reason to sleep. In Theory's Empire, Derrida's language is described as a "maze," a "prison house of language," a "limbo of combined attention and nonassertion."6

The arguments against deconstruction theory can scarcely be summarized here, but a sampling of the commentaries in Theory's Empire on Derrida can lead us through and eventually back to what is or isn't at political stake in reading The Trial. Two questions are of concern: How much of Kafka's political acumen does Derrida ignore or misread in his commentary on "Before the Law"? And: to what degree do Derrida's rhetorical devices and ingenious language games resemble the language of the Courtiers who torture Joseph K.? What might such an analogy imply? Other questions follow, such as David Bromwich's very important ones. "About the status of Derrida's procedures there was always a puzzle," he writes. "Was deconstruction a technique proper to the commentator, and necessary as a tactic against the naïve constructionism of the author? Or was it something the author's writing practiced for itself, in...


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