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


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….

Blindness And Insight: From Paul and Augustine to Woody Allen’s “Anything Else” – Part I


The movement from blindness to insight is a time honored theme. It has its roots in early Christianity and in the Enlightenment it becomes a guiding principle.   The Christian appropriation of blindness is fascinating. In Corinthians 2 (3:14-16), Paul associates blindness with the Jews and sight with the Christians:

Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech – unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in their reading of the Old testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless, when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

Following these lines, Paul associates the vision of God seen by Christians with freedom:

Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image form glory to glory, just as in the Spirit of the Lord.

In other words, insight, which the Jews don’t have, is associated with “freedom.” Hence, if Jews lack insight, they are not just blind, they are servile to materiality (and not the Spirit). This bias finds its way from Paul to Augustine.

In Augustine’s Expositions on the Psalms, Augustine likens the Jews to a blind person who turns to a mirror:

The appearance of the Jews in the holy scripture which they carry is just like the face of a blind man in a mirror; he is seen by others, by himself not seen. “He hath given unto reproach those that trampled on me.”

Reading this, Jill Robbins, in her book Prodigal Son/Elder Brother: Interpretation and Alterity in Augustine, Petrarch, Kafka, Levinas, argues that the “reproach” of the Jews “consists (1) in their servitude, in their carrying a book they are unable to read because they fail to read figuratively…and (2) also in their self-concealment, their blindness, when they fail to recognize themselves as “the reproach” signified in the figural reading of the scriptural verse.” This suggests, jut like Paul, that the Christian has insight and freedom while the Jew is blind and servile.

The Enlightenment takes this metaphor on as well and situates the critic as a person who unmasks the truth and reveals it to the knowing rather than the faithful. This very same tradition is also taken by Karl Marx who was keen on disclosing the truths hidden by Capitalism. In his system, it would be the Proliteriate who would see the truth and lead the revolution as a result of their insight into what Capitalism had hidden from them.

The post-Enlightenment crowd, however, wasn’t too happy about the blindness/sight metaphor. For this reason, a deconstructive thinker like Paul deMan, in his essay “The Rhetoric of Blindness” argues that critics who claim to move from blindness to insight are blind to their own assumptions and in this blindness they, paradoxically, attain their greatest insight:

Critics’ moments of greatest blindness with regard to their own critical assumptions are also moments at which they achieve their greatest insight. Todorov correctly states that naïve and critical reading are in fact actual or potential forms of “ecriture” and, from the moment there is writing, the newly engendered text does not leave the original text untouched. Both texts can even enter conflict with each other. (109)

In other words, the critical text, without knowing it, doesn’t reveal the text it is examining so much as come into potential conflict with it because, as Todorov suggests, it is naïve and blind to its own assumptions.

But there is more to the story. The deconstructive critic, like a good writer, communicates a kind of blindness to his or her readers. Writing on Derrida, deMan argues that: “Lukacs, Blanchot, Poulet, and Derrida can be called “literary,” in the full sense of the term, because of their blindness, not in spite of it.”

DeMan, in distinction to Paul and Augustine, tells us that blindness is also passed on to the reader. The irony of his reading is that deMan, who is thought of by many (and for good reasons in his early work) as anti-Semitic is actually siding with the Jews that Augustine and Paul is rejecting. He, like Derrida, affirms a “literary” kind of blindness that doesn’t presume to have the “spirit” of the text. And it doesn’t presume to be free in the same way someone with insight considers him or herself to be free. The freedom of the text consists in a certain kind of blindness.

The theme of blindness and insight also makes its way into schlemiel film and literature where, oftentimes, a schlemiel is depicted as a Jewish character who fails to see what is front of him or her. And this blindness, like the blindness of Don Quixote in Western Literature, is not tragic, as it was for Augustine, so much as comical.   However, depending on your approach to blindness, it can be good or bad.

One can read oneself (as an audience member), via irony, as better than the character who cannot see. Or one can, alternatively, identify with the blindness and naivite of the schlemiel. The purpose of such an identification is to admit that there is a problem with society which is blind to the schlemiel’s goodness and not simply the blindness of the schlemiel to society. There is, in this scenario, a double blindness. This is more akin to the Eastern European reading of the schlemiel and has resonance with what deMan means by “literature.”

The German-Jewish reading of the schlemiel takes the opposite view and makes the schlemiel’s blindness into a figure that has more in common with Paul and Augustine.   Like a Christian looking at a Jewish reading of the “Old Testament,” it is something that one doesn’t want to do if one is to be “free” rather than servile to something old (or, in the case of German-Jewish schlemiels, servile to the pre-modern ways of the ghetto).

Early on in his career, Woody Allen clearly took to the schlemiel character. And in films like Annie Hall he decided to create a schlemiel character whose failures had a certain kind of charm. The theme of blindness and insight was not, to be sure, at the forefront of this or any of his films before it.   If anything, Alvy Singer’s awkwardness and failure are the main attraction.

Woody Allen’s Everything Else (2001) shows a different trend. In this film, he has a schlemiel character who explicitly moves from blindness to insight. Moreover, this movement is associated with becoming free and independent (which has echoes with Paul and Augustine) and not just the American spirit of self-reliance.

In this film, Allen plays a reformed schlemiel named David Dobel. He is a veteran comedy writer who, echoing his role in the film, happens to now be an acting teacher. Dobel’s primary role, however, is to play the teacher to Jason Biggs, who plays Jerry Falk – a young aspiring Jewish comedy writer whose biggest problem is that he’s vulnerable, too nice, and can’t say no.

While Dobel, his teacher, has insight into what’s in front of him and what not to do, Falk plays the role of the blind schlemiel who can’t see what’s in front of him and is often unable to act. Dobel’s role is to help Falk leave the schlemiel behind and become an independent agent; he does this by way of several conversations in or around Central Park. In these conversations, Dobel advises Falk. Dobel’s advice prompts the blinded, yes-saying schlemiel to say “no” and, as Allen believes, this magic word, when acted on, will transform the schlemiel into a man.

What makes Allen’s treatment of the schlemiel in this film so interesting is the fact that he shows the audience how, for us today, the schlemiel lives on. And, at the same time, he shows us why, in his opinion, this isn’t such a good thing. Biggs, not Allen, is the new schlemiel. However, Falk, the millennial schlemiel, must be taught how to not make the same mistakes as Allen’s generation of comedians; and for the Woody Allen who wrote and directed this film, one of the biggest mistakes was the adoption of the schlemiel as a model for Jewishness in America. The irony, of course, is that Allen created the problem; after all, he popularized the schlemiel in many of his films and especially in Annie Hall.   Now, in the role of teacher and in the wake of a career playing schlemiels, Allen, playing Dobel, realizes that Falk needs to be educated. He needs a comedic father-slash-teacher. And Dobel has the right to play this role since he has already gone through the process of playing the schlemiel and leaving the schlemiel behind.

His first words of advice and the last words of the film are the words of the film’s title. Instead of being blinded by astonishment (at being lied to, betrayed, or surprised) by things that seem to come out of nowhere one must simply admit that this or that shocking thing is just like “everything else”(a position Bertolt Brecht, in contrast to Walter Benjamin, believed was optimal). The meaning of these words and the attitude that go along with it inform the transformation of the schlemiel (a man-child) into an independent man. And we see this transformation slowly unfold throughout the film. Each major scene shows us how the schlemiel’s hesitations and attitude are eventually displaced by that magic word: no.

At the outset of the film, Doblin tells two jokes which situate him as Falk’s teacher and hit on what Allen understands as the key contrast between a man and a schlemiel:

You know there’s great wisdom in jokes. There’s an old joke about a prizefighter and he’s getting killed, he’s getting his brains beat out, and his mother’s in the audience, and she’s watching him getting beaten up in the ring. And there’s a priest next to her and she says, “Father…father…pray for him.” And the priest says, “I will pray for him but if he could punch it would help.” There’s more insight in that joke than in most books on philosophy.

The comparison of the joke’s wisdom to that of “books on philosophy” is by no means accidental. To be sure, Falk loves existential literature and philosophy. As Doblin understands it, most of these books make suffering, absurdity, and freedom into themes or ideas. While they are interesting, the person reading them, like the prizefighter who is loosing, could do a lot better if he knew how to punch. And this, for Doblin, hits on the problem with Falk’s version of the schlemiel: he doesn’t know how to punch and stand up for himself. Falk hides behind ideas and the book he is trying to write on existential themes. Doblin’s joke suggests that Falk takes the book (and existential ideas) so seriously that his will and autonomy suffers in the process.   To be free, one must act not think. And for this to happen, Doblin suggests that one must eliminate one’s blindness. One must recognize it and say no. We see this articulated in the second joke Doblin shares with Falk:

There is a seminal joke that Henny Youngman used to tell that is perfect…It sums it up perfectly as far as you go. Guy comes into a Doctor’s office and says, “Doc..Doc…it hurts when I do this.” (Dobel twists his hand.)   The Doctor says, “Don’t do it.” Think about that.

The irony of it all is that even though Doblin looks like a schlemiel, he portrays himself and acts like someone who knows how to punch. (He, in a sense, is, like his name, “doubling.”) He portrays himself as someone who can say no.   Falk, in his view, can do neither because, when he first meets Doblin, Falk doesn’t realize that he is blind to his condition; and for this reason, he can’t say no. And that is what, in Doblin’s eyes, makes Falk a schlemiel.

…to be continued….