Kafka's Ethics of Interpretation

Between Tyranny and Despair

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Jennifer L. Geddes
  • Evanston, IL: 
    Northwestern University Press
    , April
     176 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


To Rabbi Tarfon the saying is attributed that it is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it (Ethics of the Fathers 2:16). This proverbial delimitation of human effort might serve to paraphrase the enjoinment of Jennifer Geddes’s new monograph, Kafka’s Ethics of Interpretation. Geddes’s point of departure consists in the observation that much of Kafka criticism has succumbed to two hermeneutic temptations: either to pretend to have discovered the “real” meaning of the author’s enigmatic work—usually through the utilization of a particular theoretical lens—or to declare his corpus uninterpretable and resistant to the identification of any stable reading. Ostensibly antinomies, these conclusions are actually governed by the same logic insofar as they assume that reading is essentially a process of decipherment by which the reader unlocks a preexisting meaning that waits for disclosure, that the relationship between text and reader is a power struggle that ends with a clear victor and capitulator, and that interpretation as an activity has a terminus—either in the profession to exclusive possession of the truth or in hopeless resignation over the inability to grasp it.

For Geddes, Kafka’s writings bring into relief something that should be said of all texts, namely, that they elude total intelligibility. A reading that purports to be final and complete is not only a fantasy but in fact does violence to both its complex object and to other perspectives seeking recognition. On the other hand, neither is the appropriate response to desist entirely from the endeavor of interpretation. Geddes’s book claims that Kafka’s works dramatize this hermeneutical conflict between the “tyranny” of domination and the “despair” of surrender by personifying them in warring characters. Yet as the subtitle of her book suggests, she also discerns in Kafka’s work a course that steers clear of the destructive consequences that this battle inexorably causes, an alternative and more ethically-sensitive model of interpretation: “Rather than an activity of mastery like solving a puzzle, interpretation becomes, for Kafka, a means of navigating and engaging the complexity of others and the world. Rather than something that finds its endpoint in a solution, interpretation becomes an ongoing activity, one that never ends, and its ‘arrivals’ at meaning and understanding are always open to revision and aware of their provisionality” (17). Geddes argues that this third way ensures not only that the task of interpretation stays productively interminable, but also that the objects of that hermeneutical engagement (text, world, humanity) are protected against violation.

For the purpose of elaborating this “ethic of interpretation,” each chapter of the book pairs a story of Kafka’s with the work of a twentieth-century theorist, all the while remaining attentive to the ways in which the chosen juxtapositions across different discursive forms are indeed mutually illuminating. Geddes is certainly successful in this dimension of the enterprise, guiding her reader through these penetrating explorations with a commendably clear writing style and a welcome insistence that interpretation in and of narrative has urgent implications beyond the world of the text.

However, there are several aspects of this project that deserve and would benefit from more precise consideration. First, although Geddes’s call for a plurality of interpretations is an imperative terminus a quo, the reader is never provided with examples of the Scylla and Charybdis that she is charting a course between, thereby serving to question the impermeability of the constructed oppositions. In order to effectively combat hermeneutical tyranny and the unfulfillable desire to “have Kafka right,” it would seem necessary to present instances of this hubris in action. Otherwise, how can one learn to discriminate between epistemological chauvinism and the mere promise of enhanced understanding that interpretation always intends to provide? On the other hand, given the definition of “interpretation” qua decipherment of truth that she works to reconceptualize, the possibility arises to understand those in despair as arguing less that Kafka is neither uninterpretable nor concerned with interpretation, but that, like Geddes, evades the closure of representation. Yet more fundamentally, are those in despair over Kafka’s resistance to comprehension truly so, causing them to turn away from interpretive activity in mournful impotence? One thinks in this respect of Derrida, who at the end of “Structure, Sign, and Play” draws a distinction between the one who laments the loss of absolute presence and the one who joyously affirms the endless play of signifiers to which it gives rise.

Certainly Derrida is one of the friendly ghosts looming over this book, to whom Geddes is indebted in her eschewal of the decipherability of a stable center of meaning on the one hand, and her alertness to the damaging effects of hierarchical power structures on the other. In Geddes’s no doubt justifiable attempt to make Kafka a herald of trends in French post-structuralism, however, she seems to overlook the fact that Kafka’s hermeneutic restraint of “reaching approximations, deepening understandings, and catching glimpses” (7) was felt primarily as a deprivation and a personal weakness. His non-fiction attests to a deep-seated self-doubt by which he was tormented from childhood, while his fiction is often characterized by the experience of disorientation and confusion that results from the lack of a reliable anchor. If the uncertainty principle is thought to be a virtuous attitude detectable in Kafka’s writings, then the impulse to think beyond it must also be recognized therein. The reader must decide for himself whether he can live without some bedrock.

In redefining “interpretation” as proximity, Geddes is also implicitly advancing an understanding of “ethics” as a continual openness to or engagement with alterity. Yet how this is an ethic, rather than merely a sensibility or posture that ought to be cultivated so as to live in a less violent world, is left somewhat unclear. Levinas’s ethics of the face, which argues that the presence of the human being is that which cannot be subsumed under the metaphysics of the Same, is clearly informing Geddes’s reformulation, but the duty to attend to the Other’s suffering does not constitute a first philosophy for her as it does for him. If the Kafkan ethic would be further fleshed out, we could also broach the unanswered question of why the longing for hermeneutic satisfaction is perforce harmful, and how completion might otherwise be a kind of peace.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Creighton is a doctoral student in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jennifer L. Geddes is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Evil after Postmodernism and coeditor of The Double Binds of Ethics after the Holocaust.



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