With the Eyes of an Artificial Angel: Benjamin and Adorno Reading Kafka

In: Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society
Stephanie Graf Postdoctoral Researcher, Institute of Philosophy, University of Innsbruck Innsbruck Austria

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Adorno and Benjamin’s common intellectual project has been labeled, by Adorno, an Inverse Theology. This re-translation of theology into it’s metaphysical truth contents can be only fully comprehended by taking into account their position towards the work of art. In this article, I locate the place where the categorical framework of “inverse theology” is displayed in a most complete manner in the discussion of Kafka’s prose and extrapolate the outline of an Inverse theology from Adorno and Benjamin’s readings of some of his most famous texts.

1 Literary Criticism and “Inverse Theology” as a Vantage Point

“There are two ways to miss Kafka’s writings fundamentally”, Walter Benjamin famously states in his essay Franz Kafka on the tenth anniversary of his death, naming the natural and the supernatural interpretations as those failed attempts to approach the literary world of the Prague author. Benjamin goes on to specify what he means by natural and supernatural: “both – the psychoanalytical as well as the theological – miss the essence in the same way”.1 This is startling insofar as Benjamin himself has been read as a theological thinker. In particular, the debates on Kafka involving his interlocutors Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, are known as the locus where most of the theological motives of his thought flow together.

While the discussion with Scholem on Kafka was marked by harsh disagreements on theological concepts such as revelation or the law and finally led to a dead-end, the passages where Benjamin and Adorno refer to Kafka are characterized by a remarkable concordance. In both cases, these passages have been read as having a theological dimension.2 What has been somewhat neglected is the fact that actually, this dimension of thought developed side by side, in an ongoing intellectual debate between Adorno and Benjamin; a debate that fictively continued after the latter forcedly took his own life in Port Bou. In his last note from 25th of September 1940, he asks for his thoughts to be passed on to Adorno. In the academic arena, this agreement has been clouded, perhaps by the groundless accusations against Adorno of having distorted Benjamin’s legacy in his editing efforts (accusations even supported by Hannah Arendt), perhaps by the famous letter from 2nd of August 1935 concerning Benjamin’s Arcades Project: as a spokesman for the Institute of Social Research, Adorno criticizes Benjamin’s dialectic as an unmediated one. The aim of this article is to reflect on the intellectual agreement between Benjamin and Adorno, once addressed under the name of “inverse theology” and to disclose its core on the occasion of their reading of Franz Kafka. In this context, I will show that Adorno’s Notes on Kafka not only draw on Benjamin’s explicit thematizations of the Prague author but remind us of the crucial insights on sovereignty and its connection to the metaphysics of Enlightenment made in Benjamin’s Origin of the German Trauerspiel.

In a letter on the occasion of Benjamin’s aforementioned essay on Kafka, the strange label of “inverse theology”3 is first used to describe a common intellectual tendency: the endeavor to bring “the relationship between prehistory and modernity” to conceptualization stands at the heart of this project.4 In the very same letter, Adorno encounters an image of theology that nurtures his own philosophical thought: “The stance against natural and supernatural interpretations simultaneously, that is formulated here for the first time with the greatest perspicacity, seems to me to be totally my own – it could be called, perhaps, ‘inverse theology’”.5 Claiming that his Kierkegaard book had already had the same intention, Adorno continues to outline that the relation between Kierkegaard and Kafka, “is located (…) exactly in the place of the ‘scripture’, of which you say so felicitously that what Kafka understood as its remnant, could be better – that is, socially – understood as its prolegomenon. And that is the encoded essence [das Chiffernwesen] of our theology, no other – but, of course, nothing less than that either”.6 As far as we know, Benjamin never protested against this description of the core of their common intellectual endeavor.

It might by now be obvious, but I still want to emphasize this in advance, that we must not conceive this stance as a theology in the conventional sense. Both philosophers explicitly oppose readings of Kafka that appropriate his writings for religious purposes. The following note, stated by Peter E. Gordon, should suffice for a first approximation, pointing out the closeness of Adorno’s inverse theology to a materialist’s view of religion “as an index of social suffering” Gordon finds accurate words to describe this view when he says: “Whereas existentialism eternalizes hopelessness but lacks a metaphysical vantage from which to criticize our fallen condition, an inverse theology invokes the bare idea of such a vantage, but only to gain critical leverage against our actual despair. Through its logic of inversion, then, a view of the consummate negativity of social suffering serves as an index to utopia”.7 In the following, I will show that this statement renders an accurate description of Benjamin’s stance as well, but I also want to draw attention to the fact that the idea of “inversion” goes beyond the mere idea of an “alienating” vantage point. In the following, I will disclose inverse theology as the procedure of re-translating theology back into its metaphysical core.

Before entering the analysis, a last possible objection has to be countered: recently, it has been pointed out that the categories that appear in Benjamin’s essay on Kafka, particularly the ones that concern us, “bear the features not of Kafka (…) but of Benjamin”.8 A similar objection can be made, of course, in relation to Adorno’s reading of Kafka. I will not contradict these objections; rather, I must agree that most probably, the interpretations that Benjamin and Adorno propose in their essays, are not what Kafka had had in mind when he produced his writings. We must recall at this moment that Adorno himself even goes so far as to point out the following: we have every reason to assume that Kafka himself did not understand his own work.9 A work of art that only carries the metaphysical content its author “pumped into” it, he continues, is comparable to a stillbirth that doesn’t evolve in time – a harsh but convincing judgment about the independence of a piece of art from its “creator”. However, the artwork does not exist without readers, and these do evolve over time; the aim is thus to analyze the readings Adorno and Benjamin offer on the backdrop of their literary criticism, and not to find out “what Kafka really meant” – if something like that should be possible or desirable at all.

In a first step, Benjamin and Adorno’s readings of Kafka’s position concerning a philosophy of history will be read parallely, extrapolating a portrayal of a world organized according to the metaphysics of myth. In a second step, I will follow the considerations on law and gesture in order to discover a negotiation between the abstract and the concrete elements of language hidden in Kafka’s prose, a negotiation that can shed light on an inverse theology that does not transpose an abstract doctrine into a narrative, but in an opposite direction parts from concrete experience for the sake of grasping a fragment of an (in its totality) unattainable truth. The third section will extrapolate Kafka’s theatricality, along the interpretations Adorno and Benjamin have offered, as re-staging a trial against the modern world order as analogous as the denunciation that tragedy articulates against the mythical one: in this denunciation, as it contains the wish for things to be different, the possibility of hope is salvaged. The fourth and last section is dedicated to Kafka’s supposed “antinomianism” as to a stance that criticizes the quasi-natural order of society as a divinely justified one. Taking these elements into account, the general objective of this article is to present Benjamin and Adorno’s “inverse theology” – despite their differences in presentation and method – as a common intellectual endeavour that displays a unique potential of critique of late capitalist society.

2 Where History Is Not Yet Happening … Kafka’s Swamp-World

Benjamin calls the world Kafka draws in his prose a Sumpfwelt, a swamp world, characterized by dirt, corruption, and confusion of what ought to be separated. It is dominated by an archaic and incomprehensible power, executed by fathers, prosecutors, and public officials who live in a parasitic state consuming the lives of others. The individual moves in this world as if led by the invisible threads of destiny, which is equivalent not to chance, but to a higher organization that thwarts any individual decision or action. In Kafka’s prose, the Vorwelt, the pre-world coincides with Kafka’s time, or in Benjamin’s words, it sticks out into [hineinragen] the contemporary world. The beginnings of humanity, which must have looked like a swamp world, he argues, are forgotten, but they are “present through their oblivion”.10

These pre-worldly powers, Benjamin states in his essay, are powers “that, with equally good reasons, one might, however, look upon as worldly ones [weltliche] of our days”.11 Playing with the double meaning of weltlich he indicates both the contemporaneity and the secularized character of the powers that populate Kafka’s writings: the swampy condition is not restricted to the past, but also characterizes our world. Adorno takes up this idea in his Notes on Kafka, and discovers that there is a taboo on history in Kafka’s work: “The name of history shall not be mentioned, because what would be history, the other, has not yet begun”.12 But he explicitly names the historical moment that is condensed in Kafka’s literary elaboration; only that we are falsely calling it a historical one. Adorno considers this specification necessary to disprove such readings of Kafka that claim a trans-historical or ontological condition of humanity to be the topic of his work. Against those kinds of readings, he claims:

It is the cryptogram of capitalism’s highly polished, glittering late phase, which he excludes in order to define it all the more precisely in its negative. Kafka scrutinizes the smudges left behind in the deluxe edition of the book of life by the fingers of power. No world could be more homogeneous than the stifling one which he compresses to a totality by means of petty-bourgeois dread; it is, like every system, logically air-tight and empty of meaning.13

The swamp world is close to the notion of myth, even though Benjamin at one point states it even preceded it: the world of myth is described as “incomparably younger”14 than the world of Kafka. Trying to situate these worlds then on something like a chronological time-line doesn’t seem to get us any further in our analysis. Nonetheless we can make out the following argument: what happens to the protagonists of Kafka precisely does not belong to the field of contingency, but to the field of destiny, explains Benjamin, and it is destiny that rules in the mythical order. The metaphysics of myth can prevail in a religious as well as in a secular order, and this is best characterized by a sentence from Adorno’s Jargon of Authenticity: “Mythical is the celebration of non-sense as sense”.15 The idea of myth, as opposed to the monotheistic idea of the divine, is a recurrent motif in Adorno, who extrapolated it from Benjamin’s extremely complex considerations in Destiny and Character, The Critique of Violence and the Origin of the German Trauerspiel as having a demonic as well as a prophetic character.16 One of the main theses of Benjamins highly complex extrapolation of the idea of the German Trauerspiel is that modern subjectivity because of its “inclination to apotheosis”17 threatens to fall back into myth, and it is this thesis that was taken over by Adorno in his book on Kierkegaard in order to conceptualize the problematic structure underlying the notion of an absolute interiority. Even though rarely properly understood, in the variation it has undergone in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectics of Enlightenment it could almost be read as the motto of the Frankfurt School: “Enlightenment has fallen back into myth”.18

It has done so because of an over-emphasis on the abstract at the cost of the concrete. If we understand metaphysics as the way the ideas relate to their material substrate, a metaphysics of myth is one that overruns their dialectical intertwinement, sacrifices the concrete for the sake of the abstract. The law, language and historiography of a certain epoch bear the mark of hegemonial metaphysics as the structure that mediates between the concrete and the abstract, the norm and the case. This brings us back to Kafka, and more specifically, to the problem of the law, a recurrent theme in Kafka’s stories and one that is crucial for understanding its metaphysical underpinnings. In his essay Franz Kafka, Benjamin states that “laws and circumscribed norms remain unwritten laws in the pre-world”,19 and because of that can describe the written law as one of the first victories over the pre-world. This victory though, claims Benjamin, is, in the world of Kafka, suspended by the fact that here the law became secret. When he says that the world of myth is “incomparably younger”20 than the world of Kafka, it is because myth already contains a promise of redemption. It is important not to understand “younger” here in a chronological sense, as occurring at a later point in history, because, as we already saw, the pre-worldly also characterizes Benjamin’s and Kafka’s contemporaneity and there is no reason to assume that it disappeared in our days. If in the pre-world no written law existed, the fact that now it exists doesn’t represent any progress over the beginnings of time: now, a person can infringe the law unknowingly, and actually, the violation seems to be wanted by the social order. Benjamin as well as Adorno recognize the domesticating powers of scripture, separating what ought to be separated and presenting a way out of the undifferentiated – the swamp-world.

At this point, it should be pointed out that Benjamin distinguishes the law from the teachings on it, referred to by the German term Lehre, but not entirely analogous to the distinction between the Jewish conceptual pair Halacha and Haggadah. Teachings, the Halacha, and fiction, the Haggadah, both point towards, but are not identical with, religious law. Benjamin explains, nonetheless, that this Lehre is to be understood as the question of the organization of life and work – that is, as operating in the realm of the profane, day-to-day existence. Stressing this point can be useful for an intervention in the debates about what kind of law Kafka is talking about: “Most interpretations of Kafka’s stories involving the law”, Vivian Liska has observed, “identify law with the juridical apparatus of the modern state, on the one hand, or the Jewish tradition, on the other”.21 In the following, we will see that the law is to be understood in a much wider sense: precisely, what appears as law in Kafka’s writings represents the abstract element of a metaphysical stance that can manifest itself in jurisdiction, theology, language and historiography of the Epoque in question. To support this perspective, it is advisable to remember that, contrary to Scholem who regards the law as the crucial concern of Kafka’s writings, Benjamin is of the opinion that “the concept of the ‘laws’ in Kafka – as opposed to the concept of ‘Lehre’ – has a predominantly illusory character and is really a decoy [eine Atrappe]”.22 Benjamin discovers not the law, but gesture, as “the middle of the events”.23 This echoes in Adorno’s plea to insist on the blind spots in Kafka’s work: “That Leni’s fingers are connected through webs or that the executors look like tenors, is more important than the digressions on law. Many times, gestures set counterpoints to words: the pre-lingual, withdrawn from the intentions cuts short the ambiguity, that has gnawed at all signification [alle Bedeutung angefressen] in Kafka”.24

3 “An Experience, Covered Up by Signification …”: The Gesture as Creaturely Material

In Kafka, the gesture functions as a reminder of something that verbal language is not able to express anymore. In his early essay On Language as such and on the Language of Men, Benjamin points out the distance from the actual human language to an ideal language of names, which would be able to express immediately the linguistic nature of things, its linguistic essence (das Sprachwesen der Dinge). He does so with the help of a reading of the story of the Fall of Man from paradise and the loss of Adamite language: The use of words as mere signs for things, as a mere means of communication, leads to the loss of expression, which means that concrete experiences cannot be expressed anymore by spoken language. We always find ourselves incapable of accessing truth as a whole; every attempt would be idolatrous and depict a false picture. In a theological language, this would be called the post-lapsarian state, the human condition after the expulsion from paradise. Here, it is important to recall that Kafka’s writings can be seen not as the remnant, but as the prolegomenon of ‘scripture’, as Adorno recovers from Benjamin in the aforementioned letter; prolegomenon is understood here as pointing towards the possibility of escaping the idolatrous practices in a possible future. Decades later, Adorno picks up on the Benjaminian motive of a broken language, affirming that the relationship between gesture and concept in Kafka has been inverted: even though we imagine the configuration of language as truth, he states, as a result of its brokenness it is untruth – “The gesture is the ‘That’s how it is’”25 of language. At this point, he also describes gestures as “the traces of experience, covered up by signification”.26

Let us make a small digression to contextualize this thought. Contrary to any law, experience is always concrete. It may be transmissible, and may be converted into some sort of “advice”. This is the task of narration, as Benjamin had extrapolated in his great essay The Narrator. I proposed before that the laws can stand for linguistic, legal, or governmental abstract structures: James Martel has linked them, in a reading of Benjamin’s anti-fetishistic critique of political sovereignty to “the universal pretensions that are embedded within a sovereign political system”27 which necessarily overdetermine genuine political practices. State law as well as abstract moral law can be seen as analogous to a postlapsarian language in the sense that it cannot express anymore the specificity of the case. Great narrators such as Johann Peter Hebel, Benjamin tells us, therefore proceed casuistically. According to Hebel, a moral action is one whose maxime remains hidden: it never springs from those points that one expects according to conventions.28 Benjamin also classifies the protestant Hebel as a great Haggadist – as problematic as the use of this term to describe an evangelical writer might sound. Of course, the difference between Hebel and Kafka lies in the fact that, for the former, a doctrine exists even though it may remain hidden, whereas for Kafka, it went astray.29 Based on these considerations, we could distinguish positive, negative and inverse theology in the following way: a positive theology is based on maxims that lie bare and that guide our moral actions, a negative theology recognizes the ungraspability of the divine maxims but is still concentrated on their disclosure via negativa, whereas Benjamin and Adorno’s inverse theology inverts it’s gaze from the divine universal towards the human individual. Therefore, I would rather shy away from attempts to transpose the term “negative theology” on the procedure that Benjamin and Adorno undertake.30

But let’s ponder for a moment on the relation of the concept to the gesture as analogous to the relation of Jewish Halacha and Aggadah, in miniature: If theology transposes the religious teachings – the law – into a narrative (the Aggadah) – and Kafka proceeds in an opposite direction, then he parts from the narrative and points to the law. But this task must inevitably fail: “Failed has his great attempt to transpose fiction [Dichtung] into teachings [Lehre] and to give it back, in the form of a parable, the durability and plainness, that seemed to him to be the only proper one in the face of reason. There was no poet who followed the >You shall not make for yourself an idol< that meticulously”.31 We arrived here, I claim, at another dimension of meaning of the “inverse theology” that Adorno had used to label his shared goal with Benjamin. To put it somewhat bluntly: If most of scholastic theology proceeds by transposing an abstract doctrine, a religious truth, into concrete cases for the sake of its illustration, inverse theology parts from concrete experience in order to obtain – or better: to gesticulate towards – something like teachings, doctrine, truth. The verb “obtain” may be misleading, for it has to be clear that every palpable representation of that truth would only lead to idolatry. Truth can be aspired to, but should never be posited as the totalizing instance from where the meaning of reality can be deduced. Inverse theology, I would state with James Martel, is one that is “aware of [the] inevitability of misreading, of the false promise of signs”.32 The gesture is related to this, if we follow one of Adorno’s claims, by setting counterpoints to words. The gestures of Kafka’s figures allow the readers to recognize something universal in them, without recurring to abstraction: in the experience of a kind of a déjà vu. Even though gestures don’t have a fixed symbolic meaning, by allowing this recognition they point towards the truth-content of the situation. So, gestures are not truth, but they offer a reading to decipher truth, perhaps in analogy to Adorno’s “wounds with which society brands the individual” that can be read “as ciphers of the social untruth” and thus “as the negative of truth”.33

But let’s have a close look at the structure and position of the gesture in Kafka’s work. In his famous essay on Kafka, one of Benjamin’s central claims is that many of the small studies and stories of Kafka’s fragmentary novel “Amerika” or “Der Verschollene” (in English The Man who Disappeared or The Missing Person) can only be fully perceived if one transposes them as acts composed of gestures into the Natural Theatre of Oklahoma [abbreviated as NTO in the following]– the final part of the novel, thus offering an interesting guide for the reading of Kafka’s prose.34 Benjamin believes that he discovered the function of this piece when he says that the NTO is the transposition of events into gestures, or ins Gestische [into the gesticulatory].35 An attempt to read the fragment referred to as the NTO on the backdrop of this monadic assumption leads to interesting results: The protagonist Karl Roßmann, a European immigrant in America, after a long and frustrating search for employment that can be read as a journey deeper and deeper into slavery – as a backward Exodus so to speak – finally runs into a promising job-offer: an institution that presents itself as the NTO is looking for actors. The situations that compose this fragment can be read as abbreviated miniatures of the episodes that Karl went through during his journey. The whole episode of his career assisting his rich uncle is distilled into the gesture of cutting in line at his arrival to the admission process. The poster carrying the job offer announces that everyone is welcome, as the reverse side of the series of failures Karl had experienced: it represents a weak promise of justice, the fulfillment of his wish that now, at least, his past as an uneducated European immigrant would not determine his professional fate in a negative manner. Even though Karl’s application is hindered by obstacles such as the need for identity papers, he finally is assigned a job category, albeit the most ignominious. The trip to Oklahoma starts, a journey by train in which all people sharing Karl’s destiny are crowded together, crossing a landscape so cold that it makes the passengers shiver. The peaks of the mountains remain invisible immersed in fog, dark valleys and immense piles of rocks drift past – the depicted landscape alludes in its impenetrability and opacity to a mythical one. The natural theater is portrayed as “the biggest theater in the world”36 and as an old institution, that is nevertheless continually expanding – easily recognizable as a transposed image of capitalism: its most attractive promise is not monetary remuneration, but the promise that everyone will encounter a place, regardless of his/her origins. This promise soon turns out to be a mere illusion; nevertheless, the jobs are taken enthusiastically, even though the social outcasts are being assigned openly shameful positions: needless to say, it is more terrifying not to be exploited by the system (to remain unemployed) than to be exploited. The idea that the selection of the candidates is carried out on a racetrack, on the exact spot where the bets are usually made, can be read as a depiction of another illusion of the system: participants are lead to believe in a competition among equals, an illusion that is readjusted by Karl’s first memory of seeing a racetrack as a child. He couldn’t remember anything other than being pushed around by the crowd – “strictly speaking, he hadn’t actually seen a race”.37

When individual biography pierces through history, the only experience worth remembering is the one about being pushed by the general tendency. Given lived experience, the illusion of free competition legitimizing capitalism crumbles. Benjamin’s proposition to decodify the gestures as monads – “citing, but also subverting, Leibniz”38 – points to the following structure: gestures are, simultaneously, miniatures of the episodes of individual life and miniatures of a certain epoch. Late capitalism as an epoch is contained, so to speak, in Karl’s life, and this whole life is, in turn, contained in the episode of the NTO, composed by gestures. Epoch, biography and instant are arranged as concentric circles in these gestures, and in its middle stands the name as the condensed expression of the experience with an epoch. They are held together by the illusions that legitimize the organization of life and work, the way in which those structures form the individual life as well as by the chasm that the individual experience opens between the legitimizing illusion and reality. They relate to each other in the same fateful way as the young emigrant’s hopes relate to the precarious existence of an unskilled worker that only leads from job to job; they are connected by the same inevitability, the same shrug of shoulders as Karl Roßmann abandoned his individual name in order to adopt a generic one: Negro. But there is still another image to be examined, that enigmatically demands an explanation: the selection of the candidates is accompanied by women disguised as angels who play the trumpets, producing a confusing, deafening noise. Its features point towards the idea of redemption – but what does it mean that the angels are artificial ones and that the music is not pleasing to the ears?

4 A Trial, Staged in the Theater of the World: Theatricality and Judgment

Even though we might go on in enumerating the sequences of the novel transposed into gestures in the NTO, the purpose of this digression was to prove fruitful Benjamin’s reading proposal: in the NTO, he encountered a code able to unlock, in a way, the rest of the novel. After having discovered the function of the Natural Theatre, Benjamin claims that we can understand Kafka’s entire oeuvre, by analogy with the NTO, as a “codex of gestures”.39 Those gestures don’t bear a fixed meaning but rather let themselves be re-grouped and re-contextualized in distinct experimental sequences. A comparison with the Jewish mystical conviction imposes itself, according to which, as Martel recalls, “only when all possible combinations of letters are made to form the name of God will we have finally a snapshot of truth”.40 Again, the truth that is in the world can only be hinted at in full awareness of its unavailability to human beings. Benjamin then directs his attention to the single gesture and reveals under his microscopic gaze – the miniatures presented before – a drama in itself. Benjamin examines the gesture as an act staged in the theater of the world: “The stage on which this drama takes place is the World Theater, which opens up toward heaven. On the other hand, this heaven is only a background; to explore it according to its own laws would be like framing the painted scenery of a stage and hanging it into a picture gallery”.41 Benjamin offers, instead of an interpretation of Kafka’s images, another image that we might arrange in a constellation with Kafka’s, in order to, perhaps, approach its meaning. The mentioned quote contains a political-theological statement: Human history, the world theater, takes place in front of the scenery of the divine realm, but the use of “scenery” points towards something not essentially connected. The divine might be the background from which human history can be contemplated, but in this picture, divine intervention does not seem to take place. The second part of the quote can be traced back to the Theological-political Fragment, where Benjamin claims the clear separation of the divine and the human realm, denying the possibility of orienting the movement of one towards the other, but nevertheless stating a mutual influence. James Martel puts it the following way: “Since God and the truth are not knowable to us, we cannot directly approach God via the signs and symbols that convey divinity to us. Only by turning our back on – i.e., ceasing to wait for – God, justice and truth, can we avoid the fate of being trapped by idolatry and mythology”.42 Benjamin’s ironical statement on “searching through ‘heaven’s own law” plays with the motive of the Bilderverbot, and points towards the irrelevance of trying to register some kind of internal structure of the divine law. Or, if we want to put it in secularized terms, for the exact composition of universal moral maxims. Its only relevance lies in the consequence it has for human life as its scenery and background. Divine justice is the scenery in front of which human history can be staged as judged.

This leads to another observation that Benjamin and Adorno make concerning Kafka’s literary technique. Both agree that Kafka relates the human condition to a specific historical moment, just as if he was putting it on a trial. There is a tense relation between theater, trial and law in their literary critique which can be clarified against the backdrop of Benjamin’s early reflections on theater: in the Trauerspielbuch, Benjamin had established a connection between theater and trial.43 Tragedy had the function of putting the mythical law on trial; through the sacrifice of the tragic hero, it announces a new world order, in which the mythical law was to be converted into history, that is, to be subordinated to the principle of subjectivity. Against myth, tragedy proposes the subordination of human matters under the principle of the sovereign, identical Self; this becomes a problem when the absolute sovereignty of the subject cancels any cognitive or productive relation to the object. The Trauerspiel undertakes a revision of that trial, conceiving this new world order as the fallen state of creation. It thereby conceives the failure of a world order based on the sovereign Self as trapped in immanence. The initial verdict about the mythical law is re-staged in the Trauerspiel, although the trial does not lead to a decision but rather to a lament of the human condition in modernity: It mourns the loss of relation to transcendence, that is, of the eschatological perspective of the middle ages and it mourns the loss of the significance of earthly life (and earthly death) for transcendence. It does not seem too far-fetched to see a parallel to Benjamin’s commentary according to which the task of the Torah seems thwarted in Kafka’s work.44 Benjamin reads, in the German Trauerspiel, an encrypted history of modernity. We can understand Kafka’s theatricality as an analogy, an effort of re-opening the trial against this order, this time without emphasizing the attempt to rescue the relation to transcendence (as the Baroque does) but rather by emphasizing the right of the individual life to be lived.

Kafka’s characters are not heroes that take their fate into their own hands; they drift around aimlessly and are flung back and forth by events as if they were merely things. The abyss that opens up between the individual character of a person and its social character, the abyss between a concrete human being and what Marx would have called its character mask, is bridged in favor of the latter. Only in getting hold of their own “thingness”, a possibility of hope emerges. The reminder against idolatry also applies to the truth of the identical self. Adorno elaborates on this idea accordingly in his Notes: “The crucial moment [der Augenblick des Einstands], however, towards which everything in Kafka is directed, is that in which men become aware that they are not themselves – that they themselves: are things”.45 It is little coincidence that Josef K. is executed at the end of the trial with a butcher’s knife, it is not arbitrary that Adorno’s multi-layered term Einstand, which is used to describe a moment that suspends the “normal”, linear flux of time, in one of it’s dimensions of meaning belongs to the hunter’s jargon: there, it designates a shelter or retreat for wild animals, a zone where they cannot be shot. This is why Josef K. is not successful when he pleads innocent in front of the court and especially in front of the priest as his representative. “‘But I’m not guilty,’ said K., ‘it’s a mistake. How can a person be guilty anyway? We’re all human, every single one of us.’ ‘That is correct,’ said the priest, ‘but that’s the way guilty people talk’”.46 Josef K. here is still convinced of the sovereignty of his Self, accepting the categories of the legal system that confronts him, discarding the unhappy proceedings as the result of (exceptional) mistakes or prejudices. ”‘You misunderstand the situation,’ said the priest, ‘the verdict does not come all of a sudden, the proceedings gradually turn into the verdict’”.47 The last paragraph of The Trial thus comes closer to this moment of Einstand, stressing the creaturely existence rather than an absence of guilt as the ground on which he should live: “Were there still objections he’d forgotten? Of course, there were. Logic may be unshakeable, but it cannot hold out against a human being who wants to live. Where was the judge he had never seen? Where was the high court he had never reached? He raised his hands and splayed his fingers”.48

As stated earlier, Kafka’s work is all about denouncing the failure of a world order based on the sovereign self. Logic is its highest expression. A closed system of categories and operations, without any gaps, able to subsume everything that was, is and will ever be. When he says that logic may be unshakeable, according to Adorno’s advice this has to be understood literally: unshakeable means to remain in immanence. It is a warning not to base the organization of society on logic alone, followed by the “forgotten” objection: a human being who wants to live. The most obvious – that justice should be oriented towards the human and its desires – was forgotten by the human-made order, the administered world. It is not a coincidence that the concluding gesture stresses the bodily nature of the plea for mercy – the raised hands and the splayed fingers – before Josef K.’s heart receives the butcher’s knife. It is as if reason, the spiritual part of human nature, by excluding the creaturely aspect from the concept of humanity, has lost all its credibility in the search for justice. It appears to be judged for its complicity in the world’s inhumane order.

Reason only remains valid where it permits an insight into the thing-like existence of humans: as in Adorno’s moment of Einstand. The hope of transformation that appears in the awareness of complete alienation brings us back to the special position that Adorno and Benjamin attribute to Kafka’s NTO: It is not only the religious references molding the scenery (statists disguised as angels equipped with artificial wings play the trumpets for the candidates) that tie the piece to redemption: it represents a certain relief for the protagonist, promising all the candidates at least be accepted. Indeed the promise is kept, although under the condition that each candidate enacts their previous social role: “It is no longer within the realm of possibility that they could, if necessary, be what they claim to be”.49

Identity is thus revealed as always being non-identical with itself. At the same time, Benjamin’s affirmation suggests the possibility of a clear-cut separation between illusion and reality, the possibility that illusion need no longer claim to be reality but could reveal its true nature, and thereby, be rescued. Admittedly, this thought inspires a kind of relief, even though a rather sobering one. Nevertheless, Benjamin identifies the actors of the NTO as the only figures in Kafka’s world that are redeemed. The redemptive component comes from the awareness of non-identity of the self; the abyss between the self and the social character, where the self may even be eclipsed. Nonetheless, this redemption is a flawed one, given the fact that the Natural Theater is the place where the system sorts out it’s “trash” to. The candidates that enroll in the theater are the losers of the capitalist system: the precarious, migrant and unqualified workers. Of the redemption offered by the system – by capitalism – only the promise can be preserved, its fulfillment within the system is to be discarded as broken. The NTO is a literary motif of the unfulfillment of the redemptive promise; by exposing it as mere appearance, Kafka gets hold of the distance between the human world and redemption. This is what Benjamin refers to when he states that the unredeemed world carries within it the index of redemption. Adorno takes the same line when he states:

[T]he fact that the mutilated creation cannot die anymore is the sole promise of immortality which the rationalist Kafka permits to survive the ban on images. It is tied to the salvation of things, of those which are no longer enmeshed in the network of guilt, those which are non-exchangeable, useless. This is what is meant in his work by the phenomenon of obsolescence, in its innermost layer of meaning. His world of ideas – as in the ‘Natural Theatre of Oklahoma’ – resembles a world of shelf warmers; no theologoumenon could describe it more accurately than the title of an American film comedy, ‘Shopworn Angel’. Whereas the interiors, where men live, are the homes of the catastrophe, the hide-outs of childhood, forsaken spots like the bottom of the stairs, are the places of hope.50

Kafka’s characters bear no self-sufficiency or autonomy, no immanent ability to express meaning, their individual death does not lead to any closure or resolution. Thus it is the languageless gestures that register this loss of self-sufficiency. Only where human beings resemble thing-, animal- or death-like material, is the construction of meaning possible.51 And yet, the picture is not devoid of hope: the awareness of loss of self-sufficiency, of the complete alienation of the subject, and its lament, carries a dim hope to escape the present order. The expression of utmost suffering, utmost desperation, is motivated by the wish for things to be different. This “reverse side” of lament, the wish for redemption, is thus the possible locus for hope.

5 Kafka’s Antinomian Theology: Parable, Teaching and the Law

The parable is the other literary technique that Benjamin makes use of in his essay to characterize Kafka’s writing. Adorno emphasizes his agreement to Benjamin when he says that in the center of parabolic style stands the paradox that Kafka’s stories want to be taken literally, but at the same time, they want to signify something else. In that sense, they are closer to an allegoric meaning than to a symbolic one.52 In short, the totality of the elements of Kafka’s construction does not blend smoothly into a single meaning.53 This statement parallels Benjamin’s observation that Kafka incorporated obstacles that hinder interpretation: while the traditional parable unfolds its meaning like a piece of paper spread out on an open hand, he says, the meaning of Kafka’s parables unfolds by way of a bud [Knospe] into a blossom: even though its potential is realized in the blossom, the secret of its origin is conserved but remains concealed. The delight of the readers as they unfold the true meaning [liegt auf der flachen Hand] is frustrated.54 Even though this kind of frustrating interruption reminds us of Brecht’s epic theater, it led to one of the harshest disagreements between Benjamin and Brecht – a disagreement that indirectly helps to understand the particular theology at work in this interpretation: Brecht estimated highly the imagery that Kafka was able to evoke, but he missed a clear message behind Kafka’s images, and therefore denounced his work as mysticism. Benjamin did not accept this objection, explaining the absence of a clear message or Lehre by placing Kafka’s prose in proximity to the Jewish Talmudic tradition. Let’s recall the comparison with the relationship of how the Aggadah relates to the Halacha; that is, as the transmission of the juridical tradition in stories relates to the corpus of legal texts itself. The relationship between Aggadah and Halacha relies on the citability of the first: the fact that the aggadic stories can be consulted for an explanation. But according to Benjamin, in Kafka’s work the Lehre, the meaningful counsel that lies at the center of a story, has gone missing.55 As suggested earlier, the terms law and Lehre cannot be used synonymously. “For Benjamin, focusing on the theme of the law in Kafka leads to an impasse”,56 Eli Schonfeld quotes a letter to Werner Kraft in which Benjamin opposes Scholem’s interpretive approach of focusing on the law in Kafka by pointing to its “predominantly illusory character”.57 At the same time, Schonfeld concludes that no such illusory character is assigned to the concept of Lehre, for Benjamin, “rather than focusing on law […] one should attend to the theme of Lehre in Kafka’s writing.” According to Benjamin, Kafka’s work can be seen as an enormous but unsuccessful effort to transfer a narrative into a Lehre. This Lehre would be – in the sense that Brecht had demanded – a correct interpretation of Kafka’s parables, the surface of the unfolded piece of paper. His parables work in a different way though; their meaning doesn’t reveal itself explicitly in the interpretation but remains concealed in it as its hidden secret. A prohibition of image is posed on it, and this can be seen as the nucleus in which Adorno’s and Benjamin’s inverse theology converge.

In a passage following the profane definition of Lehre, Benjamin addresses the opacity that the organization of human life had had for Kafka. “He was pushed to the limits of understanding at every turn”,58 he points out and compares this organization, the inner structure of which is inaccessible to its participants, with destiny. What teachings can there be, what counsel can one possibly imagine, that give meaning to an existence under such a rule?

Kafka’s teachings facing that question are of the “insufficient, even childish”59 kind, and must remain fragmentary. They never allude to the law as such, but to the relationship between the law and its subjects. They are indeed concerned with the space “before the law”. The man from the country hears that the door of law was only meant for him, that the law is not simply given, that it is not there as a universal set of rules that apply to everyone in the same way. It is thus revealed as a convention, as a human product that itself is a sediment of a subjective experience. But the insight does not reach the man from the country on time; it does not reach him as a counsel that can serve as a guideline onto how to lead his life. Similar to the protagonist of the novel – “the individual in his solitude”60 to whom the meaning of life only discloses itself at the end of it, the man from the country receives no advice. For him, every piece of advice comes too late, but something could have been learned from his destiny – by Josef K. (to whom the parable is told by a priest) or by the attentive reader of Kafka’s work. The words of the priest are crucial in this context, but only insofar as they represent the exact opposite of the operation Kafka suggests: “Some people say that the story does not give anyone the right to judge the doorkeeper. However he appears to us, he is, after all, a servant of the Law, he belongs to the Law and is, therefore, beyond human judgment”.61 Before that, the priest had expressed his disagreement with Josef K. who was supposedly “changing the story”, arguing that opinions only express the discomfort about what is written, as if this was a contemptible attitude. Kafka puts those words in the mouth of a representative of institutionalized religion, for which law, teachings and the divine relate to each other in a static way. This is exactly the kind of theology that ought to be “inverted”. The topic here is the confusion between natural, necessary laws conceived as divine, and juridical judgment. Since religious consciousness exists, the temptation to take natural disasters as divine punishment, expressions of the wrath of God, is present, providing comfort as well as an explanation for human suffering. The Baroque age, and this is one of the central themes of Benjamin’s Trauerspielbuch, was thrown back exclusively to analogizing divine and natural laws after the loss of an eschatological perspective. This belief expressed itself in the idea that economic welfare – determined by quasi-natural laws – was an expression of divine favor, a belief that lives on, in a secularized manner, in the idea that the winners of the system deserve what they got. And yet, Kafka’s priest even gives up this doctrine’s claim to truth, if only Josef K. accepts what is written as necessary. “’A depressing opinion’ said K. ‘It means that the world is founded on untruth’”.62 The law that rules the world is untruth, and Benjamin considers it as “merciful” that it never expresses itself explicitly in Kafka’s work. This statement calls to mind a letter by Adorno to H. G. Adler,63 on the inner connection of his own interpretation of Kafka and the one formulated by Franz Baermann-Steiner: according to both, redemption is not wanted by this order nor does redemption want the order, a theological idea that has an antinomian or gnostic bias to which I will come back to at the end of this study. Instead of claiming a sort of divine patronage and eternal truth for earthly law, Kafka reveals earthly law as being supported by untruth: a critique of any theology that justifies an existing, earthly order as divine.

In his essay on Karl Kraus, Benjamin had – pejoratively – referred to a direct translation of the holy into the concept of law (be it natural or social) as a “petty secularization [schnöde säkularisiert]”.64 In this passage, he characterizes the concept of law (Gesetz) as bescheiden aber bedenklich (modest but questionable), this does not only contain the suspicion that the concept of law is somehow dubious, it also questions the term itself: Gesetz, in German contains the verb setzen, to put or to place, and thereby the concept itself points toward a certain constructivism. The law is “gesetzt”, subjectively placed or put, and thus neither eternal nor beyond human judgement (as the priest in Kafka’s parable asserts). This suggests that the law appears as objective, whereas it is merely the expression of a subjective act that resides in a supposed autonomy of the subject. Only petrified theologies or their petty secularizations miss this point. This could be born in mind if the law had been studied. This is why the students in Kafka’s world bear something like hope, in contrast to the rest of Kafka’s characters who are usually desperate. Their noble task is to convert Dasein, existence, into Schrift, scripture/writing, and according to Benjamin, this task is directed backwards.65 Concerning the law which is studied but not practiced anymore Benjamin states in a concise manner: “The gate to justice is study”.66 According to Benjamin’s Kafka-essay, the rider who has set his goal in the future must be doomed, like Kafka’s bucket rider, whereas the rider who set his goal backwards flies lightly towards the past.67

Stating a “law which is not practiced any longer” as a gate to justice is reminiscent of antinomian theologies that preach redemption through transgression. Indeed, we find references to gnostic or antinomian theologies in both Benjamin’s and Adorno’s Kafka-essays; Benjamin recalls an anecdote transmitted through Max Brod, in which Kafka referred to earthly life and humanity as nihilistic, suicidal thoughts of God. Nonetheless, Kafka does not consider this an ontological state of humanity: claiming that there was hope, albeit “not for us”,68 expresses the notion that he does not consider this condition as constitutive for all eternity. But the last thesis of Adorno’s Notes on Kafka starts out affirming that if Kafka’s theology was antinomian, it would be antinomian against the God of the Enlightenment. A prominent interpretation of Adorno’s and Benjamin’s writings on Kafka formulated by Giorgio Agamben suggests that the antinomian tendency is always latent in messianic thought. Agamben thus links him to the teachings of Shabbtai Zvi, the “false Messiah” from the 17th century, a figure whose heretical teachings on redemption through sin fascinated Gershom Scholem during years of his scholarly activity. He resumes the Sabbatian antinomianism in the idea that recognizes in the “violation of the Tora it’s fulfillment”.69

The strategy that must follow Kafka’s gnostic insights would be to render the law inoperative, a deactivation that would take away the oppressive burden it represents for human life.70 However, contrary to what Agamben affirms, it is a different kind of antinomianism that Adorno defends when he cautiously states: “If, however, it is true that, in its late phase, Jewish mysticism vanishes and becomes rational, then this fact affords insight into the affinity of Kafka, a product of the late enlightenment, with antinomian mysticism.71 The motive of mysticism shifting towards enlightenment is clearly inspired by Scholem, with whom Adorno maintained an intellectual correspondence over several decades. He was greatly inspired by Scholem’s research on Jewish mysticism, particularly in the teachings of Isaac Luria of Safed. Furthermore, he was interested in he frankist sects of the 18th century and their indirect effect on the philosophical background of the French Revolution. The ultimate evaluation of an affinity of Kafka’s literature to cabbalistic ideas Adorno leaves to “those who know”72 – a hidden invitation to Scholem as the expert on matters of Jewish mysticism. His own idea of what “antinomian theology” means in Kafka’s work is the following:

A totally abstract, and indeterminate god, purged of all anthropomorphic and mythological qualities, becomes the ominously ambiguous and threatening one who evokes nothing but dread and terror. (…) Kafka’s work preserves the moment in which the purified faith was revealed to be impure, in which demythologizing appeared as demonology.73

The empty doctrine, as which Enlightenment theology is uncovered, transforms itself into the same anonymous power as the mythological law. It is this theology and its “petty secularization” that makes possible a concept of the law based on the “idea of an all-powerful almighty sovereign”.74 This concept of the law, also transposable to logic, to categories, even to conventions and formal rules of organization in art, maintains the appearance of objectivity: the illusion not to be a human product, but bound to a certain originality or necessity, if not truth. The modern mind, like Josef K.’s a suspicious one, no longer accepts this proposition and tends towards the dissolution of objective sets of rules and the destruction of conventions – with destructive consequences for the subject: Thomas Mann explores this dilemma through the words of Adrian Leverkühn, the protagonist of the novel Dr. Faustus (a literary figure deeply influenced by Adorno’s philosophical thought): “Freedom is, in fact, another word for subjectivity, and one day it cannot bear to be with itself any longer, it will eventually despair of being creative out of itself, and searches for shelter and protection in the objective. (…) It recognizes itself very soon in the bondage, fulfills itself in the subordination under law, rule, coercion, system”.75 If the recognition of the human-made core of law does not lead to an understanding of the dialectical relationship between subject and object, pure subjectivity, as the narrative of Dr. Faustus suggests, threatens to become demonic. This regression into barbarism can only be avoided by reaching expression in the utmost awareness of the objectivity of the material and the formal principles of the artwork.76 This kind of subjectivity corresponds to the oppressive and omnipresent law in Kafka’s world. About its ambiguity, Vivian Liska has commented that “[i]t is indeed difficult to make out whether in Kafka’s world the obstacle to justice is that the law is omnipresent or that it is distorted, compromised, and crippled to a point that makes it indistinguishable from lawlessness”.77

In this context, Adorno indirectly evokes the conception of subjectivity linked to this abstract concept of the divine: absolute interiority, withdrawn from existence, a conception of subjectivity without object that Adorno had already criticized in his early book on Kierkegaard. The enthronement of subjectivity undertaken by Kierkegaard’s immanent spirituality, the celebration of a supposedly “pure” spirit, has disastrous consequences: “In [Kierkegaard’s] philosophy the cognitive subject cannot recognize its objective correlate anymore, in a society occupied by exchange values, things are accessible to humans in their ‘immediacy’”.78 The subject is trapped in itself: every access to the world outside itself is cut, and the objects can only be reached by subsuming them violently under its own categories. At the same time, the individual is withdrawn into itself to a degree that no specific qualities can be stated about it – at this extreme, it dialectically turns into [umschlagen] abstractness.79 As Adorno draws the line from Kierkegaard’s thought to the mythical, the reference to the Kafka-essay starts to become clear: the opacity in the concept of the Self doesn’t permit real concretion, as little as the ambivalence of the culpable pre-world. Everything is indiscriminate – ungeschieden: “Here the names of the created things are confused, and in their place the blind material remains, or the empty sign. The common habit of attributing highest concretion to the mythical – archaic – thought (…) is misleading”.80 Instead, universal concepts are detached from concrete objects; the most relevant example of this way of thinking is the assumption that the human being, as an existing creature, is equated with pure spirit. Adorno insists, in line with Benjamin, on the importance of the creaturely human existence. The abstract equation of the spirit and the creaturely essence has become a mythical determination.81 Adorno’s Kierkegaard already denounces immanent spirituality as mythical, discovering the origin of pure spirit (blossen Geistes) in the ghost-like (Geisterhaften) and describing how this pure spirit re-transforms itself into something ghost-like. It’s not a coincidence that “Kierkegaard, where he sees through the mythical character of pure spirit, calls it demonic”.82 In Adorno’s eyes, Kafka is searching through this absolute interiority, as propagated by Enlightenment Philosophy and Theology, as if it was hell, but from the perspective of redemption. It is, he says at the beginning of the Notes, as if the doctrine of categorial intuition [kategoriale Anschauung] was honored in hell. Surprisingly, Adorno takes a Brechtian turn when he states that fabricating this place of redemption is a strategy of estrangement. It serves the purpose of revealing the earthly existence that is cut off from any transcendence as the hell that it always was. In an essay on Brecht’s and Weill’s opera Mahagonny, he found a different term for this procedure of estrangement: luciferian theology. Under the aspect of revealing the normalized conditions as a scandal, inverse theology could also be called a luciferian theology:

In the middle ages, Jews were tortured and executed ‘perversely’ – i.e. inversely; as early as Tacitus, their religion was branded as perverse in a famous passage. Offenders were hung head down. Kafka, the land-surveyor, photographs the earth’s surface just as it must have appeared to these victims during the endless hours of their dying. It is for nothing less than such unmitigated torture that the perspective of redemption presents itself to him.83

This point of view allows us to understand those hellish conditions not as the ontological condition of earthly existence, but as a result of human-made, unconsciously reproduced social relations. Presenting the normalized conditions of our everyday existence in late capitalism as infernal is achieved, in Kafka, by a special light-source. Adorno and Benjamin identify it as a hint of redemption: “[T]he world is revealed to be as absurd as it would be for the intellectus archetypus. The middle realm of the finite and the contingent becomes infernal to the eye of the artificial angel”.84 The fact that angels or the divine mind are used here as an artificial standpoint does not do away with their critical potential, nor renders this potential an exterior position. It still stems from the procedure of immanent critique, of the determinate negation of what deserves to be abolished. The stance of an inverse theology as an approach to the writings of Kafka, is “directed against natural and super-natural interpretations alike”.85 I have retraced the way inverse theology obtains its vantage point of a “consummate negativity of social suffering” that can serve, by means of inversion, as an “index to utopia”.86

6 Conclusion: A United Front against Fate

Admittedly, Adorno and Benjamin’s inverse theologies differ in style and method of presentation. Whereas Adorno’s dialectics move, in a Hegelian manner, back and forth between the extremes, Benjamin’s dialectics at a standstill construct images that superpose the polarities so that they appear simultaneously in front of the reader’s eye, just as in one of the vanguardist movies that rely on the technique of montage. But Adorno remained faithful to the legacy of his friend up to his latest writings that seem to be completely removed from theological considerations.87 In what seems to be one of the most improbable intellectual alliances of the 20th century, the radical non-conformists Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno summon the forces of Jewish tradition. Their manifold reasons can be bundled together by recalling that it is the struggle against myth that was the original “work of the Torah”: the struggle against an all-encompassing, never-changing lawfulness that holds human beings in its grasp. This work, Benjamin states, “has been thwarted” by an organization of society that resembles fate, but its intention can still be found in its ruins. In Judaism, the internal fractures of the law are conserved within tradition. Jewish law doesn’t pretend to constitute one whole, it’s made of manifold singularities bound to the concrete; the former anthropomorphic qualities of the divine are remembered by converting them into scripture.88 Benjamin had transposed this theology into the profane, his advice concerning the forgotten pre-world that sticks into the present was to remember and to study it. The answer of Enlightenment to this pre-world was a denial of it, but what is thrown out of the door promptly comes back through the window – like the helpers in Kafka’s Castle. Adorno processed the advice in order to denounce “the noumenal power itself”:89 knowledge should not be cut off from the phenomena; law should not be cut off the concrete case. A completely abstract god cannot be experienced by human beings, who are concrete and particular. Such an abstract god, and analogously the completely abstract law that doesn’t stop in front of the individual case, represents for the individual nothing else than fate. The subjectivity that is constituted in correspondence to such an idea of God is an absolutely sovereign one, in the sense of excluding the heteronomous, creaturely aspect and replacing it by abstract reason. The inversion is thus also one of the directionalities between the concrete and the abstract: an inverse theology, as a materialist metaphysics, comprehends that an abstract construction such as “the law” has its origin in the concrete. By analogy, the totality of moral maxims (pure justice) or the totality of language, but also the future, and the possibility of redemption – all facets of what religion would ascribe to the divine – are subject to inverse theology: To prevent that the abstract, in a reified way, turns against life, a prohibition of image is posed over the law.


Stephanie Graf received her PhD in Political and Moral Philosophy in October 2019 from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico City under the supervision of Dra. María Pía Lara Zavala. She wrote her dissertation on the intellectual undertaking of a so-called Inverse Theology in the thought of Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno. Stephanie Graf holds a master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and absolved her first master’s degree in International Development at the University of Vienna, Austria. During her studies, she absolved several research stays at the UBA in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and at the HUJI in Jerusalem, Israel. Stephanie Graf spoke at numerous international research conferences; her research interests include Political Economy, philosophy of language, German-Jewish Thought, and antisemitism studies. Currently, she is a postdoctoral researcher at the FWF Project Metaphors as Doorkeepers at the University of Innsbruck, and teaches Critical Theory and Political Theology at the University of Vienna, Austria.


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Benjamin, Literaturgeschichte und Literaturwissenschaft, p. 425. In the following, if not indicated otherwise, the quotes are my translations from the German original. In case that I make use of existing translations I indicate this in brackets after the original bibliographical reference. In some cases, I made use of the translation but had to modify it, this is also indicated in brackets.


Cf. Weigel, Die Kreatur; Gordon, Migrants in the Profane.


Adorno, Benjamin, Briefwechsel, p. 91.


Adorno, Benjamin, Briefwechsel, p. 91.


Adorno, Benjamin, Briefwechsel, p. 91.


Adorno, Benjamin, Briefwechsel, p. 91.


Gordon, Adorno and Existentialism, p. 179.


Conti, Justice for Josef K., p. 9.


Cf. Adorno, Aufzeichnungen zu Kafka, p. 256.


Benjamin, Franz Kafka, p. 428.


Benjamin, Franz Kafka, p. 427.


Adorno, Notes on Kafka, p. 255 [Aufzeichnungen zu Kafka, p. 268].


Adorno, Notes on Kafka, p. 255 [Aufzeichnungen zu Kafka, p. 268].


Benjamin, Franz Kafka, p. 415.


Adorno, Jargon, pp. 124 et seq.


For reasons of space, this cannot be elaborated here any further, but at this point it is important to remember that the core of Benjamins Trauerspielbuch was the disclosure of overly abstract enlightenment metaphysics as having fallen back into myth: here he had followed Carl Schmitt in his diagnostics of deistic theology as excluding the miracle as well as in his observation that the metaphysical image an epoch has of itself is manifested in the organization of its worldly powers, that is, in jurisdiction and in the political structure. By no means however, and the reader may grant a small digression, he follows Schmitt in his plea for an extralegal sovereignty. On the contrary, Benjamin reveals this extralegal sovereignty, founded in an absolutely independent subjectivity, as a repetition of this demonic, mythical metaphysics.


Benjamin, Ursprung, p. 356.


In this concise formulation, one could sum up the first chapter of the Dialectic of Enlightenment. “Just as myths already accomplish enlightenment,” Adorno and Horkheimer explain at this point, “so enlightenment entangles itself more deeply in mythology with each of its steps. It receives all material from the myths in order to destroy them, and as the judge it falls under the mythical spell.” Adorno/Horkheimer, Dialektik, p. 18.


Benjamin, Franz Kafka, p. 412.


Benjamin, Franz Kafka, p. 415.


Liska, Benjamin and Agamben, p. 55.


Benjamin to Kraft, 12.11.1934, quoted after Schonfeld, Am-ha’aretz, 113. What has to be retained in addition is that Benjamin doesn’t identify the Lehre in Kafka with the religious Halacha, he constructs an analogy that reveals the terminological pair Prose/Lehre as having a similar structure as Haggadah/Halacha.


Benjamin, Franz Kafka, p. 419.


Adorno, Aufzeichnungen, p. 258.


Adorno, Aufzeichnungen zu Kafka, p. 259.


Adorno, Aufzeichnungen zu Kafka, p. 259.


Martel, Divine Violence, p. 27.


Cf. Benjamin, Der Erzähler, p. 125.


Cf. Wizisla, Johann Peter Hebel, pp. 493–501.


As, for instance, Peter Gordon does in his otherwise marvelous “Migrants in the Profane” (2020).


Benjamin, Franz Kafka, p. 428.


Martel, Divine Violence, p. 11.


Adorno, Aufzeichnungen, p. 262.


Cf. Kafka, Amerika. Following the very same scent, we could think, for instance, of the fragment “Before the Law” as such an abbreviated transposition of the story The Trial, in the context of which it appears as a sort of mise en abîme.


Cf. Benjamin, Franz Kafka, p. 418.


Kafka, Amerika, p. 204.


Kafka, Amerika, p. 210.


Martel, Divine Violence, p. 50.


Benjamin, Franz Kafka, p. 418.


Martel, Divine Violence, p. 50.


Benjamin, Franz Kafka, p. 419.


Martel, Divine Violence, p. 83.


Cf. Benjamin, Ursprung, p. 251.


Benjamin suggests so in a letter to Gershom Scholem from the 11.08.1934. Cf. Adorno/Scholem, Briefwechsel 1933–1940.


Adorno, Aufzeichnungen zu Kafka, p. 267, [Notes, p. 263].


Kafka, The Trial, p. 152.


Kafka, The Trial, p. 152.


Kafka, The Trial, p. 162.


Benjamin, Franz Kafka, pp. 422–423, [Franz Kafka – On the Tenth Anniversary, p. 804].


Adorno, Notes, p. 261. Translation modified: In the orig. translation by Sam Weber “Ladenhüter” is translated literally as shopkeepers; but it actually means things that cannot be sold. The German original reads: „Seine Ideenwelt gleicht – wie im Naturtheater von Oklahoma – einer von Ladenhütern“ (Adorno, Aufzeichungen, p. 286.).


Ilit Ferber states something similar in relation to the Trauerspiel: “The fundamental recognition offered by the Trauerspiel is that there is no specific moment of closure; there is only a process of ending that opens up. Put otherwise, mourning begins the work directed toward denouement, toward coming into its own in an act of self-realization and putting to rest. In the plays this work remains unfulfilled, a mere presentation of the eternal return of inherited retribution and unaccounted-for debt. Understanding the ghost as undead or on the liminal threshold between life and death, past and present, announces the absence of reconciliation in the ghost itself. (…) For Benjamin, this connection between ghosts and the living, between past and present, is crucial not only because of the special reciprocal relationship it entails but also because of the special transverse relationship between the existent and the undead.” (Ferber 2013, 111) It is difficult not to think of Kafka’s liminal creatures, such as Odradek, the Hunter Gracchus, the Cat-Lamb or the like.


In Walter Benjamin’s Origin of the German Mourning Play, the distinction between allegory and symbol is central. The crucial distinctive feature of the symbol is that it maintains an ever-same meaning, whereas allegory rushes from one meaning to another, emphasizing the subjective element in the construction of meaning.


Adorno, Aufzeichnungen, p. 255.


Benjamin, Franz Kafka, p. 420.


Cf. Benjamin, Franz Kafka, p. 420.


Schonfeld, Am-ha’aretz, p. 113.


Schonfeld, Am-ha’aretz, p. 113.


Benjamin, Franz Kafka, p. 422, [Franz Kafka – On the Tenth Anniversary, p. 804].


Benjamin, Franz Kafka, p. 415.


Benjamin, Der Erzähler, p. 107.


Kafka, The Trial, p. 159.


Kafka, The Trial, p. 159.


Adorno/Scholem, Briefwechsel, p. 115.


Benjamin, Karl Kraus, p. 340.


From former passages of Benjamins Kafka-essay we know that the things in oblivion take distorted shapes: the strange beings that populate Kafka’s world, not animals, not humans, not things, are as such reifications of a forgotten past and forgotten guilt. They continue living, and in their distortedness convert themselves into a burden, like the little hunchback from the children’s song in whom Benjamin sees the Urbild, the archetype, of distortion. The rescue of the obsolete, similar to the answering of the ghostly call in the Baroque drama, could be one part of the redemptive task of studying.


Benjamin, Franz Kafka, p. 437.


Benjamin, Franz Kafka, p. 436.


Benjamin, Franz Kafka, p. 414.


Agamben, Der Messias und der Souverän, p. 299.


Moreover, it is in his book on the state of exception (2004) that Agamben takes up the controversy between Scholem and Benjamin on the issue of a “law which is not practiced any longer”. Agamben constructs an analogy of this law – in Benjamin an image of redemption – with the figure of the Tora, to which the key is lost, and this in turn as analogous with Schmitt’s law in the state of exception, which is “valid without being applied, or is applied without being valid” (76). It is important to point out here that the Tora to which the key is lost is a motive that points toward the task of making sense of the hidden, mythical law that has put a spell on earthly existence. For Benjamin, therefore, the students, similar to the helpers, are literary figures connected to redemption. The images cited by Agamben do, thus, not fall into one. Benjamin distinguishes very well between the law that rules Kafka’s swamp-world, the redemptive task to break it’s spell by studying it and thus, the hope that one day it can be redeemed. Another important difference between Agamben and Benjamin to point out is that Agamben seems to ignore Benjamin’s insistence on the law as being a “decoy” and his focus on the concept of Lehre, instead. This different perspective helps him to, implicitly, treat the different dimensions of meaning of the law in Kafka accordingly and also allows a perspective that supposes that in a redeemed world the law has changed: an entirely different order has, obviously, entirely different principles underlying it, but it cannot be, in advance, prescribed in which manner this order is going to change. In this aspect, Benjamin is also following the prohibition of image. For a different perspective and a substantial critique of Giorgio Agamben’s position, see Liska, Benjamin and Agamben, p. 4.


Adorno, T. W., Aufzeichnungen, p. 283 [Notes, p. 267].


Adorno, T. W., Aufzeichnungen, p. 283 [Notes, p. 267].


Adorno, Aufzeichnungen zu Kafka, my translation.


Liska, Benjamin and Agamben, p. 5.


Mann, Dr. Faustus, p. 257.


Even dodecaphonic music, inspiration and model for the compositions of Adrian Leverkühn, threatens to regress into barbarism by enthroning reason as its total internal principle of organization. It can only be saved, according to Adorno, by finding a way to express the creaturely lament through this organization and thus transcending it. For an overview of the cooperation Mann-Adorno concerning Doktor Faustus, see Mann, Die Entstehung.


Liska, Benjamin and Agamben, p. 2.


Adorno, Kierkegaard, p. 73, my translation.


Adorno, Kierkegaard, pp. 136 et seq.


Adorno, Kierkegaard, p. 142.


Adorno, Kierkegaard, p. 144.


Adorno, Kierkegaard, p. 102.


Adorno, Aufzeichnungen, p. 284, [Notes, p. 268].


Adorno, Aufzeichnungen, p. 284, [Notes, p. 268].


Adorno/Benjamin, Briefwechsel, p. 91.


Gordon, Adorno and Existence, p. 179.


See for example his essays On Subject and Object and Marginal Notes on Theory and Practice. In the latter essay, he explicitly recovers the legal principle of Casuistics against an understanding of the law that deduces it’s judgements from universal maximes.


This view could also be supported by numerous examples of inner-biblical interpretation of Scripture (for example, in the book of Ruth), where concrete situations rewrite and transform the law. For this hint I thank the anonymous reviewer, who also drew my attention to the passage Dt 29:28–29 (“What is yet hidden is with the LORD our God”), that allows the interpretation of biblical thinking about the law which doesn’t start from a given, available norm which is identical with itself, but rather from a partly hidden and thus never completely given law.


Adorno, Aufzeichnungen, p. 282, [Notes, p. 267].

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