The Calculable, the Incalculable, and the Rest: Kafka’s Virtual Environment
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The Calculable, the Incalculable, and the Rest:
Kafka’s Virtual Environment


The fact that I am reverting, on the occasion of a major retrospective on Kafka and architecture, to Kafka’s late animal parable, “Der Bau” (“The Burrow”), a phenomenally suggestive text I viewed in a deconstructive light forty years ago, is itself something of a feedback loop. What will be “fed back” into this circuit of coding and decoding is precisely the differential of what was not there to be projected and articulated at the time. The world is of course much more stressed, in demographic and environmental terms, than it was at that time; much more prey to worldwide, globalized forms of commerce, communications, and control; much more committed, in its memory, communications, and even thinking, to virtual states, digital orders, and cybernetic technologies. There is no way that a ricorso back to a text by Franz Kafka that still both enervates and enchants us can possibly encompass the full brunt of these innovations, as uncannily prescient as Kafka was—whether of the politics that brought us horrendous war-machines, or of the technology to which we owe global telecommunications. The philosophical oeuvre of Gilles Deleuze and [End Page 1144] Félix Guattari places “Der Bau” squarely in the mainstream (if we can speak of one) of schizo accompaniments to the telling “advances” of twentieth-century life. The “static” emitted by these developments, however deranged it may be, is a quintessentially literary screen or display to the underside of twentieth-century discoveries, inventions, and syntheses. Mirroring the predicament of the unidentified subterranean rodent who fills his “Bau” with the proliferating ruminations that he can neither master nor subordinate, Kafka’s text persists in emitting a noise that we somehow cannot manage to ignore even though we would better off if we did.

If I gravitate toward filling in the steps between “Der Bau” and its anticipations of and implications for the regimes of digital languages, technologies and virtual states under which we labor, love (in the sense of online websites for dating and other intimate arrangements), and spend our leisure time in such pursuit of video games, it is in several contexts and for multiple reasons. My wider grounds for believing that the making explicit of our investments in and commitments to digital technologies and their impact upon our cognitive processing is of crucial and unavoidable import to cultural critique have been elaborated at length in the introductory material to my most recent book, Around the Book: Systems and Literacy:

It is highly advisable for those who engage in critical encounters with the broader cultural environment to access the “cybernetic unconscious” accruing from the countless hours they spend online, surfing the Web, and translating different databases into electronic impulses. These activities . . . are in themselves rich in theoretical apprehension and nuance. The rendering explicit of the conceptual operations we perform while working on computers is yet another challenge that cultural psychoanalysis, particularly as performed in universities, museums, and other public collections and archives, would do well to address.



At the core of Kafka’s deconstructive construction, then, is not merely a Castle Keep, a command-post, a supply distribution center, an engine-room, but an isomorphic interface, extending like the two sides of a zipper, down two parallel sides of notation. In the subterranean environment of “Der Bau,” the two strings of notation whose parallelism and inter-translatability are, scene after scene, invoked, invariably arise out of the opposition whose expression is “différance/ in-difference” or “articulation” (noise)/silence.” Line by line, this is what the novella is “really” about: the mini-climatic fluctuations from [End Page 1145] oblivion to sense/meaning/gradation/what Derrida means by écriture, placed in the “maw” of a hybrid human/animal surrogate standing in a limit-case of literary “characterization” in general. The movements or “developments” in this relentlessly experimental piece of writing (the “experimental” trenches that its protagonist builds late in the narrative are not for nothing) are nothing other than switches or transfers over from one iteration of the isomorphic interface (say, “noise/silence”) to the next (say “many little enemies/one big one”), in...