Kafka and the Paradox of the Universal

December 12th - 14th, 2012
International Kafka Conference
University of Antwerp - (Hof van Liere, Prinsstraat 13, 2000 Antwerpen)

Jean-Paul Sartre’s saying that “Kafka’s testimony is all the more universal as it is profoundly singular” is indicative of a key paradox in the 20th century Kafka reception which has wide-reaching implications for our understanding of the interface between literature and philosophy. Kafka is indeed often regarded as the ultimate witness to the human condition in the 20th century and, like Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe in their times, is attributed a universal significance. Yet Kafka’s work is also known for expressing the irreducibly singular and unclassifiable. The various conceptions of universality and singularity that underlie these attributions as well as the different guises in which the paradox of their simultaneity appears will be explored in this three-day conference at the University of Antwerp.

Organizing committee

  • Prof. dr. Vivian Liska
  • Prof. dr. Arthur Cools
  • Drs. Jo Bogaerts
  • Drs. David Dessin

Keynote speakers

Prof. dr. Stanley Corngold

Princeton University
The Singular Accident in a Universe of Risk: an Approach to Kafka and the Paradox of the Universal

This paper ex plores a variety of approaches to the topic of Kafka and "philosophy", which is what the interlinking of the terms "singular" and "universal" requires. These approaches run both ways: from philosophical pre-suppositions to Kafka's writings and from Kafka's writings to these very pre-suppositions. The latter is what implicitly occurs whenever the category of the "Kafkaesque" is employed, for example, in (the philosophy) of law and (the philosophy) of sex. The paper then advances its preferred perspective: treating Kafka's fictional world as an extrinsic totality, as a "chorus" of assertions and readings, inspired by Kafka's aperçu: "Erst im Chor [der Lügen] mag eine gewisse Wahrheit liegen." Kafka's narrators, protagonists, and readers form a community--choristers of lies, in which, a possible truth is contained--each person inadequate, each "schuldig," but sustained by one another on the model of the "insurance state," which, this paper proposes, is a dominant model of Kafka's thinking.

Stanley Corngold, a graduate of Columbia and Cornell Universities, is Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at Princeton University, where he taught for more than 40 years. On his retirement in 2009, Corngold received the Howard T. Behrman Prize for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities at Princeton. He has published widely on modern German writers (e.g., Dilthey, Nietzsche, Musil, Kraus, Mann, Benjamin, Adorno, among others) but for the most part has been translating and writing on the work of Franz Kafka. In 2008, with Benno Wagner and Jack Greenberg, Corngold edited, with commentary, Franz Kafka: the Office Writings. In 2009, he was a Visiting Fellow at King's College, Cambridge, and in 2010, a Fellow of the American Academy in Berlin, where he completed a translation of Goethe's The Sufferings of Young Werther; with Benno Wagner, a monograph Franz Kafka: The Ghosts in the Machine; and with Ruth V. Gross a collection of essays titled Kafka for the 21st Century. He is the founder of the Princeton Kafka Consortium, which links the Universities of Princeton, Oxford, and Humboldt, and in 2011 was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Prof. dr. Rodolphe Gasché

University at Buffalo, State University of New York
As High as the Sky: The Village Schoolmaster's Discovery of the Giant Mole

Kafk a's short story, "The Village Schoolmaster," with its central figure of a giant mole, has so far received little critical attention. Yet, this story is significant not only insofar as it is a major example of Kafka's novel transformation of the imagery of the mole in literature and philosophy. It can also be argued that because of its complex and abyssal internal structure, and, above all, because of its concern with a law, or "universal," that is exclusively meant for one individual, it is decidedly on par with such stories as "Before the Law." The struggle between the narrator from the city and the village schoolmaster about the improbable discovery by the latter of the unique appearance of the gigantic mole in a remote village will be construed as one concerning the privilege regarding the right of incarnating what is only valid for one.

Rodolphe Gasché is SUNY Distinguished Professor & Eugenio Donato Professor of Comparative Literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His books include Die hybride Wissenschaft (Metzler, 1973); System und Metaphorik in der Philosophie von Georges Bataille (Lang, 1978); The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection (Harvard, 1986); Inventions of Difference: On Jacques Derrida (Harvard, 1994); The Wild Card of Reading: On Paul de Man (Harvard,1998); Of Minimal Things: Studies on the Notion of Relation (Stanford, 1999); The Idea of Form: Rethinking Kant’s Aesthetic (Stanford , 2003); Views and Interviews. On “Deconstruction” in America (The Davies Group, 2006); The Honor of Thinking: Critique, Theory, Philosophy (Stanford, 2007);  Europe, or The Infinite Task. A Study of a Philosophical Concept (Stanford, 2009); Un Arte Muy Fragile. Sobre la Retorica de Aristoteles, trans. Rogenio Gonzalez, Santiago, Chile: Ediciones Metales Pesados, 2010; The Stelliferous Fold. Toward a Virtual Law of Literature’s Self-Formation (Fordham, 2011); Georges Bataille: Phenomenology and Phantasmatology, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012. He has just finished another booklength study entitled: Geophilosophy: On Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s What is Philosophy? 

Prof. dr. David Suchoff

Colby College
Irreducible Pluralities: The Jewish Legacy of Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka’s recognition as a canonical modernist overlooked the openness to difference he discovered in the Jewish tradition. The pleasure of reading Kafka’s fiction in the early Twenty-first Century means recasting notions of the “modern” as an anguished relation to his Judaism, and re-discovering the irreducibly plural perspectives of the Yiddish, modern Hebrew and other Jewish voices that permeate his work. Kafka’s works convey a positive Jewish legacy in this ability to express and release new forms of human difference, discovering “ways out” from the universal’s paradoxical cage. Kafka’s “Abraham,” his “Jewish Maiden,” “I Was A Visitor Among the Dead” and longer texts all evoke this hidden openness of tradition, establishing a quietly humorous German perspective of postmodern effects. The keynote lecture to the conference Kafka and the Paradox of the Universal will therefore examine Kafka’s Jewish sense of identity in its most universal, and thus most surprising and singular forms. The lecture is concluded with a passage and discussion of the Jewish humor in Kafka’s “Researches of a Dog”.

David Suchoff received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California at Berkeley and is Professor of English at Colby College. He is author of Critical Theory and the Novel (1994), and editor, with Mary Rhiel, of The Seductions of Biography (Routledge 1995). He has published essays on Gershom Scholem, Hannah Arendt, Aharon Appelfeld, the Rosenberg Case and the New York Intellectuals and Franz Kafka, and translated and written the introductions to the English translations of Alain Finkielkraut’s The Imaginary Jew and The Wisdom of Love. He is also the translator of Hermann Levin Goldschmidt’s The Legacy of German Jewry (Fordham, 2007). He recently published Kafka’s Jewish Languages: The Hidden Openness of Tradition (2012), and his essay “Family Resemblances: Ludwig Wittgenstein as a Jewish Philosopher” will appear in Bamidbar this year. His current research focuses on Kafka and Samuel Beckett.

Prof. dr. Jean-Michel Rabaté

University of Pennsylvania
Kafka’s anti-epiphanies

If a comparison between Joyce’s epiphanies and Kafka’s aphorisms reveals important similarities, one should not miss huge differences. One main divergence stems from the fact that Joyce’s career begins with these enigmatic fragments, whereas Kafka’s career almost finishes with them. The compression of the form allows both writers to found their writing on a sense of the real as an insuperable outside, whose violence moves them further while dislocating a previous doxa. In Kafka’s works, aphorisms provide less stylistic keystones than steles or tombstones. Even though they engage in deliberate confrontations with mortality, faith and otherness, they do not provide a redemptive vision as is commonly said. In a movement parallel to Joyce’s auspicious beginnings, Kafka’s mystical shards and fragments all affirm the power of language to capture the shock of an encounter with truth.

Jean-Michel Rabaté, Vartan Gregorian Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the founders and curators of Slought Foundation. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has authored or edited thirty books on modernism, psychoanalysis, contemporary art, philosophy. Recent publications include Lacan Literario (2007), 1913: The cradle of modernism (2007), The Ethics of the Lie (2008), Etant Donnés: 1) l’art, 2) le crime (2010) and the edited volume A Handbook of Modernism studies (forthcoming).


Wednesday, December 12th 2012

18.30   Registration
18.50   Welcome by Vivian Liska
19.00-20.00 Keynote lecture Stanley Corngold - The Singular Accident in a Universe of Risk: an Approach to Kafka and the Paradox of the Universal
Followed by a reception

Thursday, December 13th 2012

09.30-10.10  Lorraine Markotic - Josephine's Singular Singing
10.10-10.50  Arthur Cools Desire and Responsibility in the Case of K.
10.50-11.10  Coffee break
11.10-11.50 Søren Rosendal - Exits into the World - Kafka with Hegel on the Tension within Freedom
11.50-12.30 David Dessin - Despite Everything. Kafka's Zürauer Freedom
12.30-13.30  Lunch (only speakers)
13.30-14.10 Jo Bogaerts - 'Une grenade dans nos bibliothèques': Sartre on Kafka's 'true universality'
14.10-14.50  Toni van Gennip - How to Judge (Kafka)?
14.50-15.10 Coffee break
15.10-15.50 Brendan Moran - Philosophy, Myth, and Ambiguity in Benjamin's Kafka
15.50-16.30 Ma'ayan Sela - 'The Only World': Ideological Constructs Through the Medium of Fiction in Franz Kafka's"In the Penal Colony"
16.30-16.45 Coffee break
16.45-17.45 Keynote lecture Rodolphe Gasché - As High as the Sky: The Village Schoolmaster's Discovery of the Giant Mole
19.30-20.30 Evening session: keynote lecture David Suchoff - Irreducible Pluralities: The Jewish Legacy of Franz Kafka

Friday, December 14th 2012

09.30-10.10 Wayne Stables - Intermediaries: Notes on Deferral, Gesture and Guilt
10.10-10.50 Nitzan Lebovic - Kafkaesque Walls: 'for all ages and peoples'
10.50-11.05 Coffee break
11.05-11.45 Vivian Liska - Kafka's Other Job
11.45 - 12.45 Keynote lecture Jean-Michel Rabaté - Kafka's Anti-epiphanies
13.00 - 14.00 Lunch (only speakers)