Narrative Estrangement? From Kafka and Blanchot Towards a Critical Theory of Culture

Drs. Sebastian Müngersdorff

Promotor: Prof. dr. Vivian Liska; Co-promotor: Prof. dr. Arthur Cools

This new doctoral project focuses on the notion of alienation and estrangement in the work of the Jewish author Franz Kafka and the French essayist, writer and philosopher Maurice Blanchot. From Marx onward, alienation and estrangement became central concepts in the philosophy of culture. Although a notion of estrangement was already found in theology and was used by authors such as Pascal, Rousseau and Hegel, it was not until the nineteenth century that the concept became central to understanding both the human subject and its position in the world: the human being now became an estranged being. Estranged from his companions, estranged from labor, estranged from technology and, above all, estranged from himself.

Although estrangement comes from a tradition aimed at cancelling the estrangement and restoring the natural conditions of human existence, another point  of view is possible: one cannot nullify estrangement, for estrangement is fundamental. This premise will be central for this doctoral thesis.

Blanchot was thoroughly influenced by Kafka. In Kafka’s work, Blanchot found a kind of estrangement that would become crucial in his own work and thought. Whether it is the metamorphosis into a cockroach, or losing grip on reality amidst the machinery of bureaucracy, or a collection of notes titled Er, Blanchot witnesses a transformation from what was familiar, an ‘I’, into what is strange, a ‘He’ or ‘Him’. And, for Blanchot, as so often with Kafka, there is no escape.

In Blanchot‘s writings, which frequently address the Jewish tradition, estrangement connects with questions such as “What is the meaning of what is written?”, “Can we say anything about a book?”, “Is our language capable of telling something about the world?”, “Does it ever escape being a story?”, and “What does the Jewish tradition and its special relation to language and writing reveal about the meaning of parole and écriture?”. In the open-ended closing of Kafka’s The Castle, Blanchot seems to find a possible answer: everything that is written or spoken will eventually lack something. Every reading is already a form of commentary. The attempt to fully understand a text will eventually hit a black window and there will be a rest that remains dark and non-understandable. One part of the text may be open for interpretation and can be placed into the tradition of literature; another part, however, will remain unreachable. Blanchot’s reflections on these questions in the context of his writings on Kafka display an idiosyncratic approach to Jewish messianism.