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Material Sacramentality | Josef K. and the Law

‘I do not agree with that,’ said K., shaking his head. ‘If we take that view, we must accept that everything the doorkeeper says is true. But you yourself have demonstrated in detail that this is not possible.’ ‘No,’ said the priest, ‘we must not accept everything is true, we must only accept it is necessary.’ ‘A dismal thought,’ said K., ‘it makes untruth into a universal principle.’ —Franz Kafka, The Trial

In Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, Deleuze and Guattari writes that Kafka’s aim was not to paint a picture of the law as transcendent and unknowable. This might come as a surprise to some since it has not been unusual to read Kafka as a negative theologian. The transcendence of the law and a priori guilt are obvious themes running through Kafka’s work but D&G assert that his intension was to dismantle the mechanism in a machine which simply need such a view of law and guilt in order to function: ‘The Trial must be considered a scientific investigation, a report of the experiments on the functioning of a machine in which the law runs the strong risk of playing no more than the role of exterior armature.’

Since the law functions as pure form in the bureaucratic machine to which Kafka connects his writing, it has no object but is made known simply by its verdicts. This is what the priest and K. are talking about in the above quotation from The Trial. In order to enter into the law one must pass a doorkeeper and walk through the door, only to find another doorkeeper and another door, again and again and forever. That is what the first doorkeeper says to the man who wishes to enter. With a humorous undertone Kafka thus reports that one can never enter into the law of the bureaucratic machine because the law does not belong to the realm of knowledge. And as the priest makes clear, we must not accept as true what the first doorkeeper tells us about the law, we must only accept it is necessary for the bureaucratic machine to function. Truly a dismal thought since, as K. tells the priest, this means that the universal principle of the bureaucratic machine is untruth.

Let us close with an opening, a yawn. The inaccessibility of the ultimate instances is not the outcome of an ecclesial hierarchy which follows a logic of ressentiment, it is rather, as D&G explains, a function of a contiguity of desire that causes whatever happens to happen always in the office next door:

The contiguity of the offices, the segmentalization of power, replaces the hierarchy of instances and the eminence of the sovereign. If everything, everyone, is part of justice, if everyone is an auxiliary of justice, from the priest to the little girls, this is not because of the transcendence of the law but because of the immanence of desire. This is the discovery into which K’s investigation and experimentation very quickly locks itself.

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