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  • The Bureaucrat Inside:Kafka, Office Media, and the End of Authorship
  • Matthew Schilleman (bio)

For Kafka, “the office is a horror” (1973, 21). Signing forms, dictating letters, and filing reports at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia in Prague since 1908—every task took a little bit more of his life in a system that would one day destroy him. And the reason why is clear. The machines of the office did not foster interiority, did not engender the depth of feeling that was supposed to be the function of writing, nor did they let anything be done or finished. Instead, they displaced subjectivity into technical processes of inscription, mechanics of printing, so that writing and being written became one and the same thing. As he says on one such occasion:

While dictating a rather long report to the district Chief of Police, toward the end, where the climax was intended, I got stuck and could do nothing but look at K., the typist, who in her usual way, became especially lively, moved her chair about, coughed, tapped on the table and so called the attention of the whole room to my misfortune. The sought-for idea now has the additional value that it will make her be quiet, and the more valuable it becomes the more difficult it becomes to find it. Finally I have the word “stigmatization” and the appropriate sentence, but still hold it all in my mouth with disgust and a sense of shame as though it were raw meat, cut out of me (such effort has it cost me). Finally I say it, but retain the great fear that everything within me is ready for a poetic work and such a work would be a heavenly enlightenment and real coming-alive for me, while here in the office, because of so wretched an official document, I must rob a body capable of such happiness of a piece of its flesh.

(Kafka 1948, vol. 1, 76-77)

In the office, Kafka would go from handwriting to typewriting and dictating to machines and female professionals, from autographing to mechanically signing, and from using a classic Kurrentschrift to writing in a Latin script matching the printed character of typeface. Concurrently, his literary works [End Page 99] changed from metaphor, symbolism, and scenes of nature, to metonymy, literalism, and endless corridors, from archetypal characters like the Fat Man and the Supplicant to simply typed ones, such as K. When writing became nothing more than the violent force of a machine, and women (including Kafka’s fiancée) an extension of it, it could describe neither the inner world of the subject nor the external one of reality, but only the material conditions of its own production. A writing about writing that was represented and enacted, among other things, by an animal stuck in the labyrinth of its own creation and a torture apparatus that turned the subject into a piece of paper. All of which is to say that authorship was dead for Kafka and the office had killed it.

This reading thus takes up a well-documented feature of Kafka’s oeuvre, its obsession with the “impossibility” of literature, and resituates it in the technological conditions of his office work. If, as Roland Barthes says, the death of the author is characterized by a writer who “no longer contains within himself passions, humors, sentiments, impressions” and instead can only practice a “writing which can know no end or halt,” it is under the conditions of modern inscription in the office that Kafka comes to manifest just such a relationship to his own work (1978, 147). In making this reading, I take inspiration from Friedrich Kittler’s work on the discourse network of 1900, and namely his notion that with modern writing media “humans change their position…from the agency of writing to become an inscription surface,” as well as related research into the “materialities of communication” that illustrates the various ways in which thought, literature, and media technologies are entangled.1 My reading will diverge, however, from the oppositional or even dialectical interpretation of Kafka vis-à-vis technology and the office that past...


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pp. 99-119
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