Sunday, July 27, 2014

Precis - Kafka's Give It Up!

Give It Up! is not technically a philosophical essay, as it is better classified under the literary genre of parables. However, despite this difference from the rest of the works found in the syllabus, the rhetorical techniques found in the parable generate many potential arguments that Kafka might have intended to convey to his readers. The context is simple enough (at first glance, anyway): an individual, running late in the morning, gets lost in the deserted city streets on his way to an unnamed destination. The individual pauses and asks a policeman for the direction, and in response, the amused policeman tells him to “give it up!” before jerking away.

One might take this parable and immediately make connections between the text and the technological/fetishistic concepts that we have been going over in our other readings. For example, Kafka brings attention to the fact that the narrator, so dependent on societal customs and second-nature habits to get him from Point A to Point B, looks pointedly from his wristwatch to the clock tower. This suggests some sort of partly “shocking,” partly enlightening moment, when the narrator begins to question for the first time what he has always accepted to be true. It does not seem coincidental that what the narrator examines are material commodities: human life is translated into a calculated system of time telling, which is then controlled through the usage of material goods.

To the policeman—trained in his art of discipline (as argued by Foucault), and thus subject to the same limitations as the narrator—the request for help that the narrator makes after “discovering” the greater mechanisms behind the way society is structured is simply a laughingstock of an idea. The policeman, “turn[ing] away with a sudden jerk,” is an image decidedly mechanical and reminiscent of just another cog in this society dominated by commodity fetishism. In a sense, Kafka is being cynical, and there is even a sense of hopelessness through the narrator's experience with the bureaucracy. If those who are meant to be in a position of power cannot do anything, then what can the average layperson do to accomplish anything different?

An alternative or perhaps supplementary reading aligns more closely to Hannah Arendt’s take on another one of Kafka’s parables in the preface to Between Past and Future. In particular, she is focused on Kafka’s stance on the tensions between the future and the past framed through the perspective of man (all in the mind):
Seen from the viewpoint of man, who always lives in the interval between past and future, time is not a continuum, a flow of uninterrupted succession; it is broken in the middle, at the point where [man] stands. Only because man is inserted into time and only to the extent that he stands his ground does the flow of indifferent time break up into tenses; it is this insertion…which splits up the time continuum...the insertion of man breaks up the unidirectional flow of time. (Arendt 11) 
This somewhat abstract depiction of what Kafka considers to be time may be seen through Give It Up! in that Kafka seems to have recreated the perfect dreamlike environment in which his version of time is best displayed. There are several techniques Kafka uses to create a dreamlike effect: there is an utter lack of details, similar to what one would experience when trying to recount a dream to someone else and only just barely grasping the gist of it. There is no identification of the narrator (is it a he? she? who? what?), there is no description of what the city or what sort of street the narrator is walking through, where the narrator is going to or why, or how late they are. Most of all, there is a general factor of incredulity: in reality, when faced with a request from a civilian, the average policeman is far too entrenched in learned, strictly enforced codes of behavior to dismiss and even abandon someone in need of help. The policeman’s actions go beyond what we would traditionally expect from someone of his position, further contributing to the idea of a dream.

There is some ambiguity regarding Kafka’s beliefs on what one could do in the aftermath of realizing the extent to which society as one may know it has been colored by the theories presented by Marx and his successors. As mentioned earlier, there seems to be some cynicism and perhaps a bit of hopelessness as the policeman—a figure who is meant to help reconcile the disoriented narrator’s worries—furthers the disorder not only by being unable to help the narrator, but also by making a joke out of the narrator’s near-existential quandary. On the other hand, the dreamlike quality of the parable leaves it more open-ended, emphasizing the importance of the present in the context of a linear construction of time. In a dream, there is only a somewhat vague sense of future and past; the present is what is most pressing and real to the subject of a dream that is progressing in a lateral direction. In this “dream,” the future seems far away—and practically inaccessible, due to the narrator’s inability to advance to his destination—and the past is not detailed in any significant manner. This leaves the present to be highlighted and emphasized. Lastly, by leaving out the narrator’s response to the policeman’s behavior, Kafka ends with opening the parable to interpretation. Perhaps he means to convey a more optimistic message: that the present is to be taken as the period where man truly disrupts the lateral construction of time, that in the present, man must act to change the course of society.


Erick Berrios said...

Wow! I was personally a bit confused when I first read this text as there is very little information given. There was no background on the narrators past, and there was no information on what his destination was.

For this reason, I too can see the text focusing on the present. But I am impressed by how you were able to connect the other readings to this very ambiguous text. Good Job!

Angela Jiang said...

This is an enlightening reflection on Kafka!
I especially enjoyed the following passages:

"It does not seem coincidental that what the narrator examines are material commodities: human life is translated into a calculated system of time telling, which is then controlled through the usage of material goods".

"In a dream, there is only a somewhat vague sense of future and past; the present is what is most pressing and real to the subject of a dream that is progressing in a lateral direction".

Joshua Park said...

Wow. I can't believe you wrote such a detailed precis on such a short and ambiguous text. But perhaps the ambiguity created more freedom and space for you to interpret more freely.

Personally for me, I interpreted it in a way that identified the wanderer as a man who has "discovered" the homogeneity of society as Kafka described the barren and desolate society in a way that invokes an image of society being lost, mundane, etc. The wanderer is trying to do something about his discovery but he is late and when he asks the policeman, a man of the police/state institution, trained to force society to conformity, he rejects the plea for help, a representation to symbolize how society refuses to aid those who might otherwise be different or unconventional. LOL might be completely off and I don't think I wrote my ideas or perspective as accurately as I hoped. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that instead of me feeling the hopelessness at the incident with the police, I felt the sense of hopelessness at the description of society, a homogeneous society where uniqueness, individuality, and differentiation is utterly disregarded and incomprehensible. Wondering if such an interpretation is possible given the limited words of the text or if this limitation actually allows for such interpretation.

I, however, love the addition of your part on the dreamlike quality. Very interesting to read.

Cheyenne Overall said...

I think that this was a really good attempt at interpreting the underlying meaning of this text. Personally, I struggled quite a bit to make sense of what was happening in this text. Though I really liked your attention to the temporality of the dream, I was a little confused by your reading of the text through a Marxist/materialist lens. I just had a really hard time figuring out how exactly your argument was functioning. I think it may just be due to the length restrictions for this assignment that force generality in some ways. A more thorough explanation of how the text reflects Marx' theories would have helped me follow your thinking a little bit better.

After reading the comments on this piece, I also really liked @Joshua Park 's reading of this text. A clever and articulate read for such a short comment.

AC said...

@Joshua: That's an interesting interpretation! I feel like the text IS ambiguous enough for your interpretation to be valid. I wish I could offer up more of a rebuttal in support of my interpretation of the text, but I think my grasp of Marxist philosophy is not as solid as I would like it to be. I would say my interpretation ends up trying to redirect blame of those in power (at the very least, the average surveillance enforcer) by making it seem like it's also hopeless for them to do anything about the way society is. I don't know if Marx (or whomever) would agree with this.

@Cheyenne, thanks for your input! Like I said above, I'm have no problem admitting that my own interpretation of Marxist theories is just...shaky. A big part of what I'm afraid to go flesh out is how the theories that we've been reading approach agency. I do think that a lot of works we've read are focused more on describing what society currently is and how it got to be that way, but don't always make it clear about the "so what?" stuff that comes after, now that we've supposedly pinpointed the issues and where they come from. This is why I've found it challenging to clearly apply Marxist theories to my own argument, which I essentially shifted towards trying to answer those "so what?" questions that I'm not sure of. I can see why the argument seems unclear (especially if I myself feel like the concepts are unclear in the first place); I'll work on it! Thanks again for your feedback. :)

Joshua Park said...

@ AC

Ahh yes. I mean I don't have much grasp of Marxist ideas either but I see what you're going to get at. But I am confused now on what you said in your comments :"making it seem like it's also hopeless for them to do anything about the way society is." Are you saying it's hopeless for those in power to do anything about the way society is?