The Irony of Institutions: What the Battle over Kafka Can Tell Us about Duchamp (and vice-versa)
By Eli Epstein-Deutsch
posted: 04-20-11
What is a Urinal? To Whom Belongs Kafka?
Image Source

Duchamp, Kafka. Kafka, Duchamp. Seemingly an odd pairing, though both famed modernists. But bear with me.

Duchamp was many things, but always French. Kafka on the other hand, wasn't Czech or German. In fact, neither country existed when Kafka was doing the bulk of his writing. The author lived in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a polyglot territory stretching from Bohemia to Transylvania. Neither was Kafka Israeli; in fact he had a notorious falling out with a good friend over the latter's Zionism.

So, surely there's some way to ultimately determine Kafka's nationality once and for all, even if the details are a bit thorny? Weren't even the Austro-Hungarian peoples basically nations-in-waiting, ready to awaken and seek self-determination as soon as the Austrian emperor took his boot-heel of their necks?

Not according to Swarthmore College's Professor Judson, a current fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. Professor Judson, an expert on the Hapsburg Monarchy, is working on a book project challenging received notions about nationalism in Central Europe, particularly the common narrative that places the emergence of nationalist consciousness at the core of the Empire's history. For example, he marshalls many sources demonstrating that what language an Imperial subject chose to speak or write was hardly an indicator of Nationalist loyalty, as it later came to be seen.

So, when Kafka wrote in German, was this a betrayal of his Czechoslovakian roots, as commonly thought? Not really. There was no Czechoslovakia yet! In Bohemia, home to both languages, whether an individual chose to speak German or Czech depended on a host of factors, pointed out Judson in a recent lecture.

So can't we just say that Kafka was neither this nor that, but betwixt and between, as he famously experienced himself? We could, articulated Judith Butler last month in the London Review of Books, were it not for Big Money and the Force of the Law. Kafka's archived papers are literally sold by weight, worth almost as much in gold, and everybody wants them. Der Spiegel dishes the best gossip on the origins of this convoluted scandal.

Butler, on the other hand, gives the best account of how the need for economic valuation and juridical standards highlight strange and intractable paradoxes that inhere in the post-19th Century Wilsonian insistence on grouping everything under the concept of nationhood. And the irony that everybody seems at least vaguely aware of: it was Kafka's own works that most keenly satirized the absurdities arising from the application of legalism and institutionalization to the "swamp world" (as Walter Benjamin called it) of messy reality.

Duchamp may have beat Kafka; he satirized modern institutions and caused one to erupt in controversy at the very same time (Kafka had to wait for posterity). I'm referring of course to his submission of a signed urinal to the Salon Des Independants in 1917. Was this art, or just a manufactured product? You could argue that Art as such (meaning Art as a transcendent category separate from any technique, skill, or social utility) was, like the nation state, an invention of the 19th Century. So you could reject the false choice by rejecting its metaphysical presupposition. However, now we have a judging institution that must decide the undecidable, and Big Money (which the art market had become) is on the line. Thus, subversion. Thus, chaos. Thus, irony. And a prophetic rehearsal for the current Kafka brouhaha.


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