The Legibility of Legislation in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”

In: Legibility in the Age of Signs and Machines
Author: Siebe Bluijs

This chapter investigates the readability of the law through an analysis of Franz Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony” [orig. 1919]. In the story, a writing machine inscribes the verdict into the condemned person’s body until death ensues. Bluijs argues that the readability of the law is dependent on its ability to function as a form of writing as it has been theorized by Derrida: the law needs to be able to break away from its origins in order to be productive. Looking at various instances where the law is read by the story’s characters (and their failure to do so because of the law’s intrinsic illegibility), Bluijs explores how different acts of reading expose the law’s dependency on the presence of its representatives.