Kafka (Benjamin and Brecht) on Facebook: Understanding Astonishment, Discipline, and Guilt on Facebook

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Let’s be honest. Many of us have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. Although we check it on and off throughout the day, we need to admit that, most of the time, it isn’t a pleasurable experience. We expect to find, each time or at least a few times a day, film clips, articles, images or status updates that are shocking or sensational.   And when we comment or put up a status update, there is always the fear that someone will say something that puts our credibility or image on the line. Sometimes we fear that we will be ignored. In short, half of the excitement of going on Facebook comes from seeing things that are shocking, but the other half comes from the apprehensive feeling that we will most likely be judged.

But why would anyone find this experience so addictive? Why would anyone want to experience shock and judgment on a daily basis and not once but several times a day?

Just yesterday I came across an article from The New Yorker that sketched the problem out for me and gave me a starting point for addressing an experience I have been troubled by since I joined Facebook. Joshua Rothman’s article, entitled “In Facebook’s Courtroom,” draws on Kafka to explain this experience. While I find his reading of Facebook by way of Kafka very interesting, I find his reflections to be preliminary (in a good sense). I would like to build on them by focusing on Kafka’s reading of astonishment and using it to take Rothman’s reading to another level. To this end, I will be drawing on the dispute between Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht over the meaning of astonishment in Kafka’s work. By outlining their differences and applying it to a reading of experience on Facebook, we can better understand our troubling addiction to Facebook shock and the experience of addiction.

Rothman articulates his description of Facebook experience at the outset of the article by describing the omnipresence of the TMZ Video of Ray Rice hitting his wife, Janay Palmer, in a Las Vegas elevator. He notes how, over time, it “grew baroque.”

In my Facebook feed, people hate-liked terrible reactions to the video. Others wrote impassioned posts addressed to supporters of Ray Rice, even if they didn’t know any supporters. Some used the video as a “teachable moment” to share facts about “#domesticviolence,” or helpfully suggested as-yet-unblamed parties who could also be criticized. (“Why is no one talking about the role of alcohol in this?”) A widespread response was meta-outrage: asking, in an outraged tone, why there weren’t an even greater number of outraged Facebook posts about Ray Rice.

Reflecting on this, Rothman notes that, of course, there is a “lot to be angry about” but “at the same time, though, there can be something unsettling about the Web’s communal rage, even when that rage is justified.” He points out how, in Web Culture, “anger is an end in itself.”   This turns into what he calls a “never ending, unpredictable justice system.”

In recent years, the Web’s continuous pageantry of outrage, judgment, and punishment has become an inescapable element of contemporary life. We all carry in our pockets a self-serious, hypercritical, omnipresent, never-ending, and unpredictable justice system.

Drawing on the words “never ending, unpredictable justice system” Rothman makes an analogy between Facebook experience and the experience of Kafka’s characters in novels like The Trial and The Castle.

But Kafka wasn’t writing about the D.M.V.; his novels and stories are actually about justice, which he saw as aloof and possibly unobtainable, and punishment, which he saw as endless and omnipresent. He described an aspect of life that the online world makes more visible and acute.

Echoing Kafka, Rothman astutely points out how, on Facebook, one is likely to come across an “unexpected discipline in progress.” This, I think, hits the nail right on the head. After all, I have not only personally seen this but I have also been the subject of such “unexpected discipline.” Rothman sums up the experience of seeing or being the subject of such experience in these words – which are the same words that can be used to describes K’s experience in The Trial where, like Facebook, “punishment is pervasive.” On Facebook, as in the Trial, we have “a mixture of guilt and innocence, fear and excitement, outrage, pity, incomprehension, revulsion, and prurient interest.”

Rothman dovetails into a brief discussion of how, in Kafka and Facebook, there is a “surreal humor.” What makes it surreal is the fact that the judgment and disciplining are often done by way of exaggeration.   Moreover, he notes that this exaggeration is mixed with “something sexy” and “something childlike.” But the most important Facebook feeling of all, for Rothman, is the feeling of guilt. With all of the judgment on Facebook, regardless of the inflections of something comical, childlike, or sexy, there is this pervasiveness of guilt (for the discipliner and the disciplined and the witness to such disciplining).

Employing an ironic and apologetic tone, which one often sees on Facebook (out of fear of being attacked) Rothman, notes that it’s not always so bad:

It’s not always so grim. Sometimes, when Facebook is in especially fine form, Kafkaesque humor emerges. As you scroll, you wonder, what’s next on the docket? Which outrages and exemplars will confront me today, and how will I react to them? On the one hand, you’re criminally uninterested in a controversy about sexism amongst hedge-fund managers; on the other, at least you’re not one of the “ten celebs who have killed people.” The social-media stream puts moral life on shuffle—and expresses the fact that, while being a good person matters perhaps more than anything, it’s also very unclear how one might go about being good. This gently comic sense of ironic, bitter, and morally exhausted desperation even has its own Kafkaesque emoticon: ¯\_()_/¯.

Rothman ends his reflections on Facebook with a set of questions that hits on the main issue. Why, if we all clearly experience and understand the omnipresence of judgment, guilt, shock, and discipline on Facebook, do we return over and over again? Wouldn’t it be more optimal to live a life without the daily experience of these troubling emotions?

Rothman’s appeal to Kafka to address Facebook is the best I have seen yet. It raises questions I have had, in my own work, about how to read Kafka in relation to our society and ourselves. In my own work, I am very interested in how Walter Benjamin reads Kafka as it informs his reading of the modern schlemiel. One of the most interesting discussions Benjamin has about Kafka’s work is with Bertolt Brecht, a playwright he deeply respected. To be sure, Benjamin struggled with Brecht’s reading of Kafka and brought it into his famous essay on Kafka. All of themes that Rothman touches on in terms of Kafka, to be sure, are touched on by Benjamin in his essay on Kafka.

Benjamin, to be sure, in the spring of 1931 spent time with Brecht in France. In a journal entry, dated June 6th 1931, Benjamin notes how, for Brecht, astonishment was the central motif of Kafka’s work:

He believes that Kafka has just one there, and that the richness of Kafka as a writer is simply the rich variety of this one theme. According to Brecht, this theme, in its most general sense, is astonishment. The astonishment of a man who feels that huge shifts are in the offing in every aspect of life, without being able to find a niche for himself in the new order of things. For this new order…is governed by the dialectical laws that dictate the life of the masses to themselves and to the individual. But the individual as such must react with astonishment tinged with panic-stricken horror to the almost incomprehensible deformations of life that are revealed by the emergence of these laws. Kafka, it seems to me, is dominated by this to the point that he is incapable of portraying any event without distortion.

Benjamin goes on to note that Brecht doesn’t like the astonishment of Kafka’s characters. Brecht found the lack of astonishment of Schweik, the main character of the Czech writer, Jaroslav Hasek’s satirical novel about war, to be better.

Brecht contrasts Kafka – and the figure of K. – with Schweik: the man who is astonished by everything with the one who is astonished by nothing.   Schweik puts to the test the monstrous nature of existence into which he has been placed by making it seem as if nothing is impossible for him.

Benjamin brings many of Brecht’s thoughts on Kafka into his essay on Kafka. In that essay, he posits a difference between two types of fools who have a different relation to astonishment. Benjamin reads astonishment as a gesture and notes that Kafka “does not grow tired of representing the gestus (of the characters in The Castle and America) in this fashion, but he invariably does so with astonishment”(137). This astonishment is the same astonishment as K. who differs from Good Soldier Schwiek: “the one is astonished at everything, the other nothing”(137).

Benjamin also brings in the notion of astonishment to a radio talk on Kafka in 1931. he notes how astonishment at law is a key feature of Kafka’s characters.   And he sees this astonishment as prophetic:

Kafka’s work is prophetic….His only reaction to the almost incomprehensible distortions of existence that betray the emergence of new laws is a sense of astonishment, mixed with elements of panic-stricken horror. Kafka is so possessed by this that he is incapable of imagining any single event that would not be distorted by the mere act of describing it…In other words, everything he describes makes statements about something other than itself”( Selected Writings 1931-1934, Volume II, 496).

Benjamin goes on to note that this is not a “purely poetic prose” but is a direct result of the rapid shift of our lives and the effort to describe it.   Astonishment, in other words, relates to the failure of man to create a new idiom for rapid shifts in one’s existence. This failure – which, without a doubt, has mystical resonance – gives one access to language as such.

To be sure, while Benjamin thought of astonishment as prophetic, Brecht found this aspect of Kafka to be most deplorable. Brecht was very harsh with Benjamin’s obsession with Kafka and thought of Kafka’s work (and Benjamin’s) as “mystery mongering,” and “nonsense”(786).   Astonishment and mystery mongering, for Brecht, go hand in hand.

As Benjamin learned, Brecht saw Kafka as a “Jewboy…a feeble, unattractive figure, a bubble on the iridescent surface of the swamp of Prague’s cultural life, and nothing more”(786).   Astonishment, for Brecht, it seems, came out of Kafka’s Jewish, poor life. For this reason, Brecht, building on his anti-Semitic view of Kafka, told Benjamin “I reject Kafka” and his “depth.” This rejection of Kafka (and Benjamin’s project) had an effect on Benjamin. He even admits that “I could not refute the criticism that it was a diary-like set of notes…I was well-aware that his writings contained a lot of debris and rubbish – a lot of real mystery mongering. But other things were crucial, and my study touched on them”(786-87). These “other things” are things that Brecht, apparently, could not understand because he could not understand the meaning of a schlemiel.

Astonishment, for Benjamin, is the key to the schlemiel and Kafka’s characters’ wakefulness: it is in a constant state of surprise because the schlemiel is always forgetting what it was and, for that matter, who or what it is. Hence, the astonishment goes hand in hand with a vigilant study. The schlemiel, as an exceptional character, is astonished at what “normal” people would consider average and nothing.   It is acutely aware of change.   Unlike Soldier Schweik, who is a cunning trickster much like Odysseus, Kafka’s schlemiels are more astonished and less cunning.

Instead of being self-present, cunning, and self-reliant, (which is what Brecht loved about Schweik) they are open to and affected by alterity. And in this Benjamin differs radically from Brecht and his privileging of reason, will, and freedom. Brecht associated this interest in questions, “depth,” and astonishment with “Jewish fascism,” while Benjamin saw astonishment as a positive, critical feature of the Kafka’s schlemiels. Astonishment, which has its mystical correlate, is pronounced in these moments in the text.

Benjamin relates this astonishment to that of the reader or viewer when seeing one’s own gestures in another medium: this is an astonishment at one’s alienation: “The invention of the film and the phonograph came in an age of maximum alienation from one another, of unpredictably intervening relationship which became their only ones. Experiments have proved that a man does not recognize his own walk on the screen or his own voice on the phonograph”(137).

And perhaps this is the key to our fascination with Facebook. Contrary to Brecht, we cannot help but be astonished at the surprises we find on Facebook vis-à-vis ourselves and others. Regardless of how cunning and unastonished we try to be (or present ourselves) on Facebook (and I have many academic colleagues who attempt to maintain this image), the fact of the matter is, as Rothman suggests, that – regardless of how sexy or comical it may seem – we are under constant discipline (either as the subject or the agent).  He is correct. Facebook experience is very “Kafkaesque.” And our attraction to it should trouble us. However, the reason for this doesn’t have to do with the medium alone or the age we live in. It may have to do with the fact that we like to experience astonishment. It evinces a deep and mysterious experience (one that Brecht was sickened by) of our own oscillation between power and powerlessness.

But, ultimately, this may be too much for us to handle. Why, after all, would we want to experience this?  For this reason, leaving Facebook for a while may be a good thing; it can make us feel “as if” we are in control of ourselves and outside of judgment, discipline, and guilt.  But the truth of the matter is that, in every modern situation we, like the schlemiel, may always be astonished. On or off Facebook, there will be astonishment. However, on Facebook the experience of judgment is omnipresent and often very troubling.

…..to be continued….

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