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  • The Messiah who Comes and GoesFranz Kafka on Redemption, Conspiracy and Community
  • James Martel (bio)


If we look at Franz Kafka's writings from the perspective of political theory, it seems that the politics he offers us, if any, are those of passivity, failure and doom. When his friend Max Brod asked Kafka if there was any hope, Kafka famously replies "Oh [there is], plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us."1 This seems like a grim joke, a typically "Kafkaesque" commentary on the futility of resistance, on the inevitability of defeat. At the end of The Trial, K., the central character, who seems to epitomize the hapless, anxious characters that people a Kafka novel or story, is stabbed in the heart by his tormentors and dies, in his own words, "Like a dog!" ["Wie ein hund!"],2 suggesting the fate of all of us, in the face of obscure and irresistible powers. Many scholars of Kafka have described the way he is supposedly a Zionist or the way he uses psychological or other kinds of symbolism to denote states of despair and the tyrannies of power, but it is not clear that any of this amounts to a political theory or a model for some kind of political resistance.3

Yet, when we read Kafka the way Walter Benjamin read him, a very different thinker emerges. To his credit, Benjamin never tries to unlock the secrets of Kafka's text as so many other commentators have. Instead, I argue that Benjamin seeks to reread Kafka as a fellow conspirator, endowing Kafka with the same sort of conspiratorial strategies that Benjamin espouses in his own work. Towards the end of his life, Benjamin became increasingly interested in conspiracy. He devoted an entire "Konvolute" (section) of the Arcades Project to the question of political conspiracy and wrote broadly about it in his later works on the French poet Charles Baudelaire.

During the late 1930s, in the face of the overwhelming defeat of the left, it seems as if Benjamin began to turn away from (relatively) open rebellion and towards conspiracy as a form of resistance. While rebellion is overt, conspiracy is stealthy, a secret. While rebellion must end, one way or another, conspiracy is openended, potentially endless. The conspiracy that he turned to was not a typical sort involving secret plotting and machinations. As we will see further, the kind of conspiracy Benjamin calls for--the trans-temporal conspiracy that he calls Kafka to as well—is one that is so secret that it can function unbeknownst to its own agents; it is a secret that in some ways excludes every one of us.

This kind of secrecy and exclusion is required for Benjamin because our intentions, our conscious wishes and actions are highly suspect (something that is also true for Kafka as well, as we'll see). For Benjamin, we are deeply compromised by our place in history, by our relationship to the forces of commodity fetishism, fascism and liberalism (which in Benjamin's view are all versions of more or less the same phenomenon), and by the dynamics of power and authority in our time. Under such circumstances, even the intentionality of the theorist is suspect.

Given his mistrust of human intentionality, Benjamin's engagement with conspiracy takes place in a purely literary and textual form (as it does for Kafka as well). Late in life, Benjamin increasingly sought to produce texts that decentered and subverted even his own authorial intent. He also looked for this effect in the texts of other, past authors (like Kafka, Baudelaire, and many others). Yet he always sought for such textual conspiracies to parallel and subvert actual political practices. Thus Benjamin writes that for Baudelaire, "His prosody is like the map of a big city in which one can move about inconspicuously, shielded by blocks of houses, gateways, courtyards. Words are given clearly designated positions, just as conspirators are given designated positions …Baudelaire conspires with language itself."4 Such a "conspiracy with language" works to bypass (at least potentially) the compromises of human intentionality; it engages with the text's "failure" to perfectly convey the meanings...

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