It’s Also a Memory Machine: On Kafka’s American Desk


Kafka is well known for his fictional machines.   Sometimes the purpose and the meaning of the machine are clearly laid out; sometimes they are vague. The most well-known is “the Harrow” in his short story “The Penal Colony.” The purpose of the machine is to slowly write the sentence on the body of “The Condemned Man.” The “traveler” – who knows nothing about the machine – asks the “officer” about it.

“Yes, the Harrow,” said the Officer. “The name fits. The needles are arranged as in a harrow, and the whole thing is driven like a harrow, although it stays in one place and is, in principle, much more artistic. Anyway, you’ll understand in a moment. The condemned is laid out here on the Bed. I’ll describe the apparatus first and only then let the procedure perform on its own. That way you’ll be able to follow it better. Also a gear wheel in the Inscriber is excessively worn. It really squeaks; when it’s in motion one can hardly make oneself understood. Unfortunately replacement parts are difficult to come by in this place. So, here is the Bed, as I said. The whole thing is completely covered with a layer of cotton wool, the purpose of which you’ll find out in a moment. The condemned man is laid out on his stomach on this cotton wool—naked, of course. There are straps for the hands here, for the feet here, and for the throat here, to tie him in securely. At the head of the Bed here, where the man, as I have mentioned, first lies face down, is this small protruding lump of felt, which can easily be adjusted so that it presses right into the man’s mouth. Its purpose is to prevent him screaming and biting his tongue to pieces. Of course, the man has to let the felt in his mouth—otherwise the straps around his throat will break his neck.” 

The Harrow has the “job of carrying out the sentence.”   But when traveler wants to know what is written on the body of the Condemned Man, the officer hesitates to tell him:

“What is the sentence?” the Traveler asked. “You don’t even know that?” asked the Officer in astonishment and bit his lip. “Forgive me if my explanations are perhaps confused. I really do beg your pardon. Previously it was the Commandant’s habit to provide such explanations. But the New Commandant has excused himself from this honorable duty. However, the fact that with such an eminent visitor”—the Traveler tried to deflect the honor with both hands, but the Officer insisted on the expression—“that with such an eminent visitor he didn’t even once make him aware of the form of our sentencing is yet again something new, which.…” He had a curse on his lips, but controlled himself and said merely: “I was not informed about it. It’s not my fault. In any case, I am certainly the person best able to explain our style of sentencing, for here I am carrying”—he patted his breast pocket—“the relevant diagrams drawn by the previous Commandant.”

The only person who knows the sentence is the Condemned Man.   But he doesn’t learn what it is until it is inscribed on his body:

The Traveler wanted to raise various questions, but after looking at the Condemned Man he merely asked, “Does he know his sentence?” “No,” said the Officer. He wished to get on with his explanation right away, but the Traveler interrupted him: “He doesn’t know his own sentence?” “No,” said the Officer once more. He then paused for a moment, as if he were requesting from the Traveler a more detailed reason for his question, and said, “It would be useless to give him that information. He experiences it on his own body.”

In contrast to this machine, which has prompted much discussion (especially with Foucaultians who are interested in “disciplinary mechanisms”), is the desk in Kafka’s America.   The desk is mentioned only once in the novel, but it is worthy of our consideration for a few different reasons.

First of all, there are two things that give Karl Rossmann “pleasure” when he comes to America.   His first pleasure, which his uncle says is unhealthy and unproductive, is to look off his balcony and stare at the New York City traffic. When he does he becomes fascinated with the destruction of perception and experience:

A narrow balcony ran along the full length of his room. In his native city it would surely have been the highest lookout, yet here it offered little more than the view of a single street that ran in a straight line between two rows of veritably truncated buildings and therefore seemed to flee into the distance, where the outlines of a cathedral loomed monstrously out of the great haze. In the morning and in the evening and at night in his dreams, this street was filled with constantly bustling traffic, which seen from above seemed like a continually self-replenishing mixture of distorted figures and of the roofs of all sorts of vehicles, constantly scattered by new arrivals…avidly refracted by the mass objects that made such a physical impression on one’s dazzled eye that is seemed as if a glass pane, hanging over the street and covering everything, were being smashed again and again with the utmost force

In contrast to this, his other great pleasure is in a machine: his desk.

In his room stood an America desk of the finest kind, such as his father had wanted for years and had sought to buy at a reasonable price at all kinds of auctions…Of course there was no comparison between this desk here and those supposedly American desks that made the rounds at European actions. (37)

This desk had a “hundred drawers of all sizes” and a “regulator on the side, so that by simply turning the handle one could move about and rearrange the drawers in all sorts of combinations to suit one’s every need and whim”(37).   In other words, the desk could, with one turn of the crank, be rearranged to fit the desires and fantasies of the user. But, like any device, it could also be turned into a game of sorts:

Even after a single winding, the base looked completely different, and depending on the speed at which one turned the handle, everything moved slowly or at a crazy pace. (37)

But instead of appealing to his present desires, the machine, in Karl’s hands, evokes memories of his childhood:

Though it was a most recent invention, it vividly reminded Karl of the nativity scenes at home that were shown to gaping children at the Christmas market, and Karl too had often stood before it, bundled up in his winter clothes, continually comparing the revolutions of the crank…with the unfolding of a nativity scene, the faltering progress of the three holy kings, the sudden illumination of the star, the cramped life in a nativity manger. (37-38)

Rossmann then remembers how, while he did, his mother did not pay “sufficient heed to all of the movements.” Rossmann wants to pay attention to the movements of the diorama and not the images that circulate.   Even though he “could feel her body pressing against his back,” and their bodies are close, they are separate. And this troubles Rossmann.   He remembers how, as a child, he made efforts to become one with her vis-à-vis his attention to movements and nuanced figures; however, he remembers how she stops him from talking and falls into her “prior inattentiveness.”

The narrator reflects on how the machine, with Rossmann, creates a memory affect. The fact that they he has them, however, is not uncommon in the “history of inventions”:

True, the desk had not been manufactured for the purpose of stirring such memoires, yet throughout the history of inventions people made associations that were just as indistinct as Karl’s recollections.   (38)

Karl’s uncle – who takes him in when Rossmann arrives in America – doesn’t like the affect the machine has on Karl.   So he tells him that excessive use of the machine may ruin the machine and it was “expensive to repair.”   However, the narrator tells the reader that it “wasn’t hard to see that the comments were merely excuses.”

To take his mind off the desk-machine, the uncle buys Karl a piano. The uncle’s American agenda starts to take shape. The point is to take Karl’s focus away from the destruction of experience (staring off the balcony) and lapsing into memory and gestural awareness. The uncle wants Karl to become pragmatic not absent minded.

The function of the desk-machine is to create a space within which Karl can work. And looking off the balcony distracts Karl from action. Kafka seems to be telling us that the problem, for the American, is to manage distraction. American pragmatics has no room for the misuse of the machine and vision.   If work is to be done, one cannot be locked into memories of childhood and its movements or into the astonishment that comes with the destruction of perception. Nonetheless, Kafka, throughout the novel, pays close attention to movements in and out of spaces. He shows how chance determines much of one’s life rather than calculated action.   What Karl gradually learns is how to stem the flow of these movements.

Karl Rossmann is thrown into one situation after another.   His decision to stay or leave is always the question; however, sometimes he is kicked out and forced to move. The consciousness that emerges out of this is a spatial consciousness which is concerned with differing modes of awareness and attention. Does Rossmann need to serve others and let them guide his attention or will he guide his own? Does our dawning awareness of differing kinds of attentiveness determine our sense of self? How does this desk, which has become a memory machine, remind Rossmann of how individuation is connected to his awareness that his mother doesn’t care to share his fascination with movement?   Is it that crucial?  And what does it mean that his uncle also doesn’t care and ultimately distances himself from Karl because Karl can’t act in the manner that he deems productive?

Kafka seems to be telling us that in an age of machines, attentiveness to movement is a key trait of self-hood and experience. But machines are not merely mechanical; for Kafka, they are also to be read in terms of social spaces and relationships. The relationship to machines – whether actual or social – displaces the relationship to family and (as the novel shows us) even “friends” (namely, Robinson and Delmarche).

When Rossmann stumbles upon people who seem to be potential allies, he is duped when he learns that the social machine they plugged him into was a hoax. He is also duped by another machine he hooks up with (a hotel) when he leaves them behind. (At the hotel, he operates an elevator.) When one of them (Robinson) comes back to see him, in the second half of the novel, and gets him ejected form the hotel-machine, they look to plug him into another kind of machine. That machine is a kind of sado-masochistic slavery machine that is centered around a woman named “Brunelda.”     While Robinson and Delmarche take to the Brunelda machine, because it gives them food and shelter, Rossmann – near the end of the novel – wants to leave.

What astonishes one throughout these displacements is the lack of awareness – either on his part or on the part of others – that is behind the mechanical alterations of fate that Rossmann is subject to. His only freedom is to flee these machines.   But that possibility only happens outside the novel, in a fragment of Kafka’s on the “Oklahoma Natural Theater.”

In the novel, Rossmann realizes that, in order to survive, he must work in one social group or another. But Kafka leaves open the possibility that one need not be stuck in one social-mechanism or another.   However, the fact that it – the Oklahoma Natural Theater” – didn’t make it into his novel is what needs to be thought through.   Even though the novel was unfinished and was never published, the fact that he left it a fragment suggests an attempt to think about the possibility of freedom – of a space that is not constantly threatened by violence and sado-masochism as the result of one mechanism or another being effaced. In that space, attentiveness to movement has a wholly other meaning.

….to be continued….


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