Kafka and Contemporary Social Context:

The Semiotics of Prejudice in Amerika and their Consequences

     The most neglected of his three novels, The Man Who Disappeared, or Amerika, presents a multitude of unique and perplexing problems for the critical Kafka reader, particularly one who wishes to glean from the work a cohesive social commentary, the applicability of which is pertinent to confrontations of contemporary times. Kafka’s trademark irony and opacity in language, symbolism, setting, and character relations are all on full display in this, his earliest, attempt at the novel, and numerous additional pitfalls confront a reader determined to draw insights applicable to the present social landscape. Chief among these obstacles is that the novel remained unfinished, and Kafka’s own notes, letters, and diary entries pertaining to the project often conflict, therefore offering little help in resolving debates surrounding the novel’s potential ending and its meaning. This is key, for how one reads the final, riddling, incomplete chapter unquestionably influences the reader’s understanding of the prior 250-odd pages. This paper will argue that if one wishes to understand the novel as Kafka intended, as a social commentary, and to glean from the novel critical insights into contemporary times, then Amerika should not be read as an allegorical journey toward Salvation, Purgatory, or Eden as has been variously contended (Fickert 1985, Tilton 1961); nor should the novel be read as a strictly Classical Marxist critique of Capitalist society in favor of the realization of a Socialist utopia, a comfortably entrenched position (Richter 1962, Thalmann 1966); but rather, those who wish to understand Kafka’s novel in our contemporary social context, and with an eye toward those constitutive social elements that appeared to Kafka most worthy of attention, one must peer into, and try to discern the lessons of, the semiotics of prejudice and their resultant deleterious and impractical outcomes that are an inextricable part of Amerika’s narrative.

     Reading Amerika through the lens of Classical Marxism, while tempting and not entirely unhelpful, is unnecessarily and inappropriately limiting, leading the reader to pass over critical points of analysis within the text. For, as has been pointed out by innumerable thinkers, the great failing of Classical Marxism is that it failed to appropriately appreciate differences between individuals within a given economic class. It is both more helpful and more true to Kafka’s intent, I will argue, that both in reading Amerika and in extrapolating its critical perspective to the existing world, to apply a more intersectional approach, taking into account the differences between individuals within groups. Focusing strictly on differences between competing economic classes oversimplifies and overshadows the novel’s actual intended insight into Kafka’s thoughts on the real factor of social differentiation and stratification: Otherness as a confluence of factors. The Stranger—the newcomer, outsider, immigrant—is not simply outside one’s own economic group, though economic status can be, and often is, a contributing factor of differentiation; rather, more totalizing, the Stranger is Other on account of attributes such as nationality, race, religion, gender, or ethnicity. The struggle of the Stranger is not simply to find a place in the new economic landscape, but rather to carve out a place for their particular, multi-dimensional identity in their prospective new homeland (Ruland 1961), often threatening or upsetting the existing social balance in the process. This conflict between the pressure to assimilate in order to mitigate this disruptive tendency and the desire to retain one’s identity will be taken up at a later point, after dealing first with several contributory considerations and textual illustrations.

     To substantiate the claim that the Classical Marxist lens is an inappropriate, or at least far less than optimal level of analysis, it would seem enough to show that within the novel Kafka takes care to differentiate between members of like economic class on the basis of additional characteristics, particularly nationality. Several passages from the novel’s first chapter, “The Stoker,” as well as a brief analysis of Karl’s uncle Jakob, will serve to illustrate precisely that. Apart from being a novel about an immigrant, given the period of which the novel is a product (the early 20th century, the apogee of European Nationalism) it is doubly unsurprising that nationality is given particular emphasis by Kafka. The second page of the novel brings the question of nationality and its importance immediately to the forefront: “‘Are you a German?’ Karl sought to assure himself, for he had heard a great deal about the dangers facing newcomers in America, especially from Irishmen.” Following shortly thereafter, page seven, after Karl confides that he knows “People here are often very prejudiced against foreigners,” his interlocutor, the eponymous Stoker, confirms this before launching into a brief tirade regarding the situation onboard the vessel “[…] ‘We’re on a German ship, it belongs to the Hamburg Amerika Line, so why aren’t all of us here Germans? Why is the chief machinist a Romanian?’” And lastly, for the examples could continue a great while longer, on page nine the reader receives this reflection from Karl: “He recalled the five nights he had lain in bed always suspecting that a little Slovak two beds away had his eyes on [his] trunk. That Slovak had awaited the moment when Karl would at last succumb to weakness and doze off so that he would then be able to take the long stick, with which he had played or possibly practiced all day, and pull the trunk over to his bed.” Karl’s evidence for this belief is nigh nonexistent, and the imagined prospective perpetrator is not a man, or a tall fellow, or a man with shifty eyes and bushy eyebrows: he is, in large part, reduced to his nationality (for he is still an apparently impoverished Slovak).

     What few facts we have regarding Karl’s uncle Jakob widen our understanding of Kafka’s view of the conflicting dynamics of identity in play. A self-made businessman and “State Counselor,” or “Senator,” Karl’s uncle is made known to him unexpectedly. Not knowing his uncle by sight, Karl is skeptical, as the illustrious stranger is introduced to him by the Captain of the vessel on which he has made the crossing as “Edward Jakob,” his uncle. While Karl admits to having an uncle Jakob somewhere in America, he corrects the Captain, stating that his uncle, as his mother’s brother, would be named “Jakob Bendelmayer” (Kafka 24). At this point Karl’s uncle quickly interjects and gives an explanation, for no one among the present company was aware that “Edward Jakob” was not, in fact, his given name. Such purposeful Anglicizing of one’s given name was not uncommon among those arriving in the United States, particularly those arriving from southern and eastern Europe, who faced prejudice not only on account of their foreignness, but also on account of their being frequently Catholic or Orthodox. It is telling, then, that Kafka begins uncle Jakob’s explanation of this revelation with the phrase “‘Throughout all the long years of my American sojourn—but the word sojourn hardly suits the American citizen that I certainly am with all my soul—’” (Kafka 24). The italicization is Kafka’s, emphasizing the transitory, temporary state denoted by the word, and emphasizing what uncle Jakob is repudiating by rejecting the word. Clearly, in the eyes of Kafka, even among those who have successfully climbed the economic ladder there is recognition of stratification, or perceived stratification, within the moneyed class, as in all classes. In short: there are rich natives and rich immigrants, just as there are poor natives and poor immigrants, the former occupying the desirable, entrenched position of privilege.

      Assuming my case against the narrow, Classical Marxist analysis of Amerika has sufficiently shown that such a reading, while tempting and in many ways ready on offer, the gap between the poor and the rich being present throughout the narrative, is unhelpfully narrow and not at all what Kafka intended, nationality occupying such a defining role in the identity of individuals, what are the signs of prejudice that form these additional divisions among groups within the broader economic classes that obviously do exist and are illustrated in the novel? Further, what is the nature of the superstructure of the society in which these prejudices are held and how do these compare to the present day? Further still, what are the costs of holding such prejudices, and what is the fate of a society so riven?[1]

The latter two questions will be addressed in conjunction with the formerly raised question of conflict over whether or not, or to what degree, assimilation is expected or desired, after introducing and exploring the final chapter of the novel, the so-called “Oklahama Theater,” while the rest will be dealt with here and in order. First, the semiotics of prejudicial division today clearly mirrors those of the early 20th century, the period in which the novel is set. Both a foreign accent, then Southern or Eastern European, today Middle Eastern or Latino, and skin color, then Black, Latino, Asiatic, non-Anglo-European, today all but arguably the latter, are discriminatorily perceived signs of Otherness. So, too, one’s name, the chief signifier of one’s identity, is deployed against the Outsider. Consider the following excerpt from Karl’s time at the Occidental Hotel: “The head waiter addressed him only by his first name, Giacomo, as Karl discovered only later, for the way his name was pronounced in English made it unrecognizable,” this crucial signifier garbled (Kafka 124, and this comes directly after Karl’s fitting for a uniform at the hotel, which when properly fitted to the hotel tailor’s liking restricts Karl’s ability to comfortably breathe, a further restriction of his identity in performance of a role). Additionally, religious practice differing from the still predominantly Protestant American Christian majority is viewed as Other, the prejudice formerly reserved for Catholics now largely directed at adherents of Islam and Judaism, of which the Hijab and Yamakah serve as visible symbols.[2]

     While some level of prejudice along the lines outlined above is still structurally extant in America, and to varying, more visible degrees is made manifest in certain individuals, or specific groups of individuals such as the Aryan Brotherhood, the superstructure over-arching American society has definitely changed from that depicted in Amerika. A nation of immigrants with an almost unbroken streak of variously directed xenophobia, the schizophrenic giant across the Atlantic was viewed by Kafka as a de facto melting pot and land of opportunity, but of a fundamentally unempathetic and, at times, outright hostile character toward those arriving on its shores seeking a new and better life (Ruland 1961, Thiher 2018). Indeed, the very first image of the novel is of Karl viewing the statue of Liberty as their ship enters the New York harbor, only instead of a flaming torch of liberty the hand clutches aloft a sword. This deliberate alteration is suggestive, particularly when juxtaposed with Emma Lazarus’ well-known poem “The New Colossus” carved into the base of the statue: “Give us your poor, your weak and your oppressed,” (Lazarus 1883). Offer them to my sword, Kafka seems to be saying: they will evade it if they are able.[3] While this “every man for himself,” “every man an island” vision of America was indeed once the truth from the perspective of the State, it has, thanks to the abolitionist movement, suffrage movement, broader progressive era, and continuing civil rights movements been supplanted by an America of almost full democratic participation, a (semi) functioning welfare state,[4] and in which laws exist barring most forms of overt public and private discrimination.

     There is more to be said of Kafka’s vision of America, but before that can be done the Oklahama Theater[5] must be explored. The ups and downs of Karl’s travails will not be detailed here, suffice it to briefly recap: he is dismissed from his uncle’s home following a confusing and hopeless misunderstanding; after a short time on the road he obtains gainful employment at the Occidental Hotel, loses it, again through no real fault of his own; serves for a time as prisoner and servant of Brunelda under the power of Delmarche; then gains lower employment, apparently as a messenger at a brothel, and loses that as well, though we know not how. Several fragments of no real deictic assistance divide the coherent, developed parts of the narrative from the arrival of the Oklahama Theater. The reader is simply suddenly dropped before an advertising poster: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” In all seriousness the credo and organizational structure of the Oklahama Theater could very well be described in just such terms as the quote popularized by Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Program. The actual text from the poster reads, in part: “‘Anyone who is thinking of his future belongs in our midst! All are welcome! […] We are a theater that can make use of everyone, each in his place!’” (Kafka 267). This apparent broadcast of the Socialist gospel is interwoven with undeniably Biblical language: “The great Theater of Oklahama is calling you! It is calling only today, only this once! Anyone who misses this opportunity shall miss it forever! […] Accursed be those who don’t believe us!” (Kafka 267). This theologically suggestive diction is quickly buttressed by commensurate imagery. The fantastical scene greeting Karl upon his arrival in Clayton, [6] where the hiring is to take place, sees women dressed as angels blowing discordant trumpets, the theater itself an outfit of tremendous, impractical, impossible size—indeed, as promised, everyone who arrives is taken in and given work: Kafka appears to be describing, using intensely Biblical language and imagery, the near idyllic realization of the Socialist program, the realization of a literal or metaphorical worker’s paradise.

     I argue, however, that the Oklahama Theater is Kafka’s invitation to the reader to judge skeptically the likelihood of the realization of such a place as the Oklahama Theater in the world of Amerika—a place free of prejudicial discrimination that turns no one away who comes to them willingly seeking a way to earn a living and a place to live unmolested. The Oklahama Theater is, in short, an idyllic impossibility—a fantasy—a retreat from the harsh, indifferent reality of the industrial society of the east. The journey west, toward Oklahama from Clayton, from New York, where the reader is left at book’s end, Karl aboard the train, I argue, represents the only alternative for those who cannot make a place for themselves in the east: in a society so defined by prejudicial power relations one can retreat into infinitesimally improbable utopian fantasy or be crushed beneath the wheel of indifferent industrial society. While during his life Kafka was known at various times by close associates to harbor favorable opinions toward what we would regard today as Libertarian Socialism or Anarchism (Brod 135), the juxtaposition of the fantastic, paradisiacal, dreamlike quality of the Oklahama Theater and the paramount importance of nationality throughout Amerika suggest that Kafka believes such a dream can never be realized, as realization of the workers utopia cannot occur until national identity is let go. And as Kafka seems to suggest throughout the novel national identity cannot be let go—even in the Oklahama Theater he is categorized as someone who attended “European Middle School” rather than simply “Middle School.”[7]

     Salvation, ideal but unrealizable, the universe does not answer the pleas of the suffering. It is indifferent. We can see this in the Trial, which Kafka had begun working on while attempting his third and final reworking of Amerika. Those who cannot acclimate themselves to the conditions in which they find themselves are erased, Josef K. with a knife in the heart and death, Karl by being stripped of his identity, subsumed by the theater, a functionary, an actor—and doing so under the moniker “Negro,” conflating the prejudice against immigrants with the prejudice against Blacks in America, illustrating that for the lowest of the low and oppressed the only possible freedom is in retreat from reality, either by death or delusion, disappearing into the void of American vastness.

     Despite the injustices Kafka perceived and projected into his vision of America, it was precisely the idea of “vastness” (Kafka 288), which appears on the novel’s final page, that intrigued and inspired in Kafka an excitement at the possibilities of America; that no matter the odds against it America, or at least the idea of America, was large enough to allow for the chance of self-expansion, discovery, creativity—possibility (Harman 16). Vastness is, it seems, a metaphor for possibility. Though Karl retains hope of its providence, its possibility in reality ultimately eludes Karl. At novel’s ostensible end the reader finds Karl on a train heading west for Oklahama, into vastness, as it were. But there is no suggestion that this move west results, or will result, in Karl’s actualizing his person, or his finding a place; but rather it results in him disappearing, being subsumed, I argue, into a fantasy in which he is part of a roving band of entertainment for those who have a place. His placelessness, a result of his Otherness, relegates him to a role in which he serves as a form of amusement and distraction to those who pay the price of admission.

     Given the ugly resurgence of visible xenophobia in our contemporary society, Amerika offers a grim warning of the irrationality and high cost of prejudice on the basis of similar and dissimilar signs, designating those “in” from those “out.” Karl is, in every conceivable respect, a highly desirable immigrant. And on this level Kafka’s warning seems perfectly clear: Karl, hardworking, honest, dutiful, capable, is lost, his potential never realized to anything close to its prospective, fullest expression.[8] Karl becomes an outcast and heads west to disappear into a fantasy. When one considers just how many tremendous advances in industry, the arts, and the sciences that have been contributed by recent immigrants or the children or grandchildren of immigrants, or when one considers the economic benefits wrought by immigration, that those who attempt to come to America are discriminated against on the basis of such signs as race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion seems the height of folly—particularly as the losses extend beyond such visible signs as economic data or technological development: social capital, the fabric of trust intertwining society, is critically undermined by prejudice.

     It is here that perhaps the most pointed place of conflict comes to center stage. In a time of increasing acceptance of the virtue of diversity, and of the encouragement and welcoming by many of increased multiculturalism in America, there has been significant pushback. How much should someone be expected to assimilate? Should they be expected to assimilate at all? One thing seems, unfortunately, to be becoming clear: in the presence of prejudice increased diversity erodes social capital.[9] Recent polls from the Pew Research Center, Gallup, and Cornell University reveal a large gap between the perceived fairness or malignance of the American socio-economic and judicial structure, an even wider divide on issues such as reparations and affirmative action, and on the desirability of more immigrants entering the country: all breaking down along racial, ethnic, or religious lines depending on the structure of the poll in question. Can prejudice be eradicated? While among college educated Liberals it would seem a betrayal to do anything but aver—and in the long run that, hopefully, will prove the case. But, as John Maynard Keynes so succinctly encapsulated the problem: “In the long run we’re all dead.”[10]

     While Kafka paints a vivid and ominous portrait true in nearly all respects to reality, he offers, to my mind, no tenable solutions to addressing the multifaceted dilemma presented by the confluence of prejudice, increased diversity, economic benefit, decreased social capital, ethical obligation, and moral principle that in total encapsulate the present problem in dire need of solution. Carrying the torch of Western Civilization, and as leaders of the free world, retreat into illusion is not possible, nor is turning our backs on the values of inclusivity, individual liberty, and innate human dignity, which are the bedrock of Western Liberalism, the principles upon which this country was founded. But Kafka’s novel stands as a sharp reminder, a warning of the cost of prejudice.

 

‚Äč

WORKS CITED

 

Brod, Max. Franz Kafka: a Biography. Hachette Books, 1995.

 

Burwell, Michael L. “Kafka's ‘Amerika’ as a Novel of a Social Criticism.” German Studies Review, vol. 2, May 1979, pp. 193–209.

 

Fickert, K.J. “Kafka's Death Fantasy in Amerika.” International Fiction Review, vol. 12, 1985.

 

Grimm, Reinhold. “Comparing Kafka and Nietzsche.” The German Quarterly, vol. 52, May 1979, pp. 339–350.

 

Harman, Mark. Translator's Preface to Kafka's Amerika. Shocken Books, 2008.

 

Kafka, Franz. Amerika. Shocken Books, 2008.

 

Richter, Helmut. Franz Kafka. Rütten & Loening, 1962.

 

Ruland, Richard E. “A View from Back Home: Kafka's Amerika.” American Quarterly, vol. 13, 1961, pp. 33–42.

 

Thalmann, Jörg. Wege Zu Kafka: Eine Latenpretation Des Amerika-Romans. Frauenfeld : Huber, 1966.

 

Thiher, Allen. Understanding Franz Kafka. University of South Carolina, 2018.

 

Tilton, John W. “Kafka's ‘Amerika’ as a Novel of Salvation.” Criticism, vol. 3, 1961, pp. 321–332.

 

 

 

[1] For a thoroughgoing textual analysis of all the ways in which the conventional Classical Marxist lens is undermined see the fantastic article by Michael L. Burwell, “Kafka’s Amerika as a Novel of Social Criticism,” wherein he additionally analyzes the novel’s failure to conform to the accepted Socialist artistic aesthetics of the period.

 

[2] Speaking of visible symbols, the various Christian sects of the West have long refused to “Other” their own purported savior, insistently depicting the definitely Arab, brown-skinned man the historical Jesus most certainly was as definitely white, often with blonde hair and blue eyes.

 

[3] Alternative explanations for the meaning of this alteration of the Statue of Liberty (that the sword is actually drawn against Karl’s conscience, or that it is meant to mirror traditional representations of Justitia, the ancient Roman personification of justice, or that like the double edged blade of a sword one can just as easily rise as fall in America, or that it is meant to call to mind the guardian sent by God to guard the gates of the Garden of Eden—courtesy of Politzer, Burwell, Binder, and Harman respectively) are interesting, though no textual evidence seems to support any of these views over the one offered above.

 

[4] Given the context of the present topic it seems apropos to point out in passing that opponents of the welfare state often attempt to demonize it on grounds other than the economic, depicting the program as not just filled with freeloaders, but freeloaders who are members of a minority group (Blacks), or in the country illegally (Latinos), thus attempting to demonize through Othering propaganda a program that is, in fact, majority White in terms of overall number of benefit recipients.

 

[5] Kafka’s idiosyncratic spelling, as has been pointed out by a number of scholars, can be traced to the travel writings of Arthur Holitscher, the Hungarian Socialist. Additionally, as one of the few primary source materials Kafka made use of it cannot be reasonably argued against that Amerika Heute Und Morgen, along with lectures by the Czech Socialist František Soukup on his travels in America, which Kafka attended, are to a significant degree responsible for the overall bleak picture of industrial capitalist America the reader encounters in the novel—Kafka never having visited the country (Thiher 2018).  

 

[6] Kafka’s choice of diction here, both in using “Clayton” and “Oklahoma,” has been called forth in defense of the final chapter being read in the strictly theological terms mentioned in the introduction (Fickert 1985, Tilton 1961): Clayton—the idea of clay, what man is made from in Genesis, what is poured over him at death; Oklahoma, whose Indian Etymology (“Happy and Beautiful Land”) provides further Edenic connotations.

 

[7] It is precisely for this reason that the shortcomings of the Classical Marxist analysis of the novel strike one so profoundly: nationality, the bourgeoisie concept, cannot be done away with—it is the new religion predicted by Nietzsche, of whom Kafka was an avid reader (Grimm 1979).

 

[8] Karl is a great worker who desires to rise by virtue of his work and to take part in society, yet he is pushed to the margins of society when he could be a great contributor to everyone’s increased prosperity. Now imagine a hundred Karls, or ten thousand, or one hundred thousand—and many more who are simply barred from entering the country at all—the economic loss is staggering to consider. The perniciously mistaken perception of economic growth as a zero sum gain continues to rear it’s ugly, mercantilist head. See the writings of Jason Brennan or Bryan Caplan on the economic case for vastly increasing immigration.

 

[9] See Edward Fieldhouse and David Cutts “Does Diversity Damage Social Capital? A Comparative Study of Neighbourhood Diversity and Social Capital in the US and Britain,” published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science or “Social Capital, Economic Growth and Regional Development,” by Sriya Iyer, Michael Kitson & Bernard Toh, published in Regional Studies, among several others. To come back to the idea of social welfare programs: the countries that have the most generous programs are highly homogenous societies with high social capital (the Northern European, Scandinavian countries in particular, as well as Japan).

[10] And the recent social and political resurgence of the long sidelined far right, whose ideology is deeply underwritten by such prejudicial precepts as “Replacement Theory,” suggests that the struggle may be long in ending indeed.