Kafka, Angry Poet ([2011] 2015), Pascale Casanova’s final book (she died in September 2018), offers an innovative and insightful reading of Kafka’s literary work and of his place in early twentieth century Czech, German, and Jewish intellectual debates. However, Casanova does more, and what she does deserves attention from sociologists concerned with understanding the dynamics of domination in all its forms.

Casanova frames her book with a dissection of the ways in which the literary and political space that Kafka occupied was marginalized and dominated. Kafka’s solution, which he developed in his novels, short stories, and other writings, obviously allowed him to transcend those restrictions to become one of the most innovative and influential writers of the twentieth century. Casanova challenges the existing interpretations of Kafka: internalist ones that ignore historical and social context, biographical and psychological readings that focus on Kafka’s individual experiences and emotions, metaphysical and religious readings, “ones that foreground his Jewish identity,” and “post-modern readings (for which the meaning of Kafka’s writings is undecidable.” While Casanova also sees herself as rejecting “historical and sociopolitical readings,” what she actually does is to develop a more sophisticated historical analysis that is at once broader and more precise than past efforts to place Kafka within time and space. In so doing, she employs her theory of the dynamics of cultural inequality to find within Kafka an analysis of domination that transcended the circumstances of his era and social position.

Casanova begins by locating Kafka in the particular literary and political space he occupied during his years as a writer in the first quarter of the twentieth century. As a Jew living in Prague, during a period when it still was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kafka was marginal to both the blossoming Czech nationalist movement and to the German literary world, which became increasingly nationalistic and intolerant of Jews.

The Jewish and Czech writers in Prague faced, albeit on different terrains, what Casanova calls the dilemma of the small nation. They came from a place without an extensive recognized body of literature. As Casanova showed in her earlier and widely influential book, The World Republic of Letters ([1999] 2007), first written as a dissertation under Pierre Bourdieu’s supervision, writers from cultural peripheries most often seek to contribute to the building of a national literature. They followed the prescription developed in the eighteenth century by Johann Gottfried von Herder. He argued that new nations — which were to be defined by the “necessary bonds between nation, language and people” — could build literary greatness, even in the absence of an ancient tradition (which favored Greek and Latin and then French, English, and German). They could draw on “folk tales, songs, legends, proverbs, and epics — the supposed literary emanations and objectivizations of the peculiar spirit of that people,” expressed of course in a distinct national language. Herder’s prescription, which Casanova showed was highly influential in shaping writers’ ambitions and careers, and even more in determining the reception of their work, was most easily adopted by writers who were part of a national majority in formation. Such writers produced works that were stylistically conservative and often directly engaged with domestic politics. Such literature, though, has little influence beyond its borders because it “had no autonomous existence…but [was] the emanation of a people”. (I present a longer overview of The World Republic of Letters in States and Power, pp. 92-95.)

Writers who were minorities within nations faced different limits and choices. German speaking Bohemian Jews, like Kafka, were marginalized in multiple ways. First they were seen as part of the oppressive German-speaking Austrian elite even as Christian German nationalist writers excluded them. Second, they didn’t have their own national language, a fate that befell Jews everywhere in Western Europe. Third, as Jews, they were subject to repeated outbreaks of anti-Semitism, which escalated as Czech nationalism gained strength. Fourth, educated Jews in Prague and in other European cities were estranged from the more religious Jews of rural Eastern Europe.

Kafka and his generation of highly educated Jews who grew up in secular homes debated whether they had a future in Prague and if so how to make careers as writers. For many, the answer was to leave: to go to Vienna or Berlin, where they could be part of a society that was wholly German. Few educated Jews in this era joined the mass of poor Eastern European Jews who migrated to America.

Many Jews who remained in Central and Eastern Europe were attracted to Zionism or Bundism. These two movements had dramatically different ideas of how Jews could achieve emancipation and escape domination. Of course, in the end Zionism won out, creating its desired state in Palestine, while Bundism disappeared. However, in the early twentieth century, Bundism seemed just as viable. Jews were gaining legal rights in much of Europe and socialist parties were winning elections, first in Germany and increasingly elsewhere in Western Europe.

Zionism was a way for Jews to reject assimilation into majority European cultures by creating a new nation, with its own Hebrew language, in Palestine. For Zionists, literature could no longer be apolitical and autonomous (i.e., just expressing an author’s personal sensibilities and aesthetic choices); it had to engage with the project of Jewish nation building. Bundists, by contrast, sought to build a transnational Marxist party that would protect Jews’ civil and workers rights. Jews in the Bundist vision would gain emancipation in the diaspora through a class-based political party and unity through a common language, Yiddish, which already was spoken by most Jews in Eastern Europe. Unlike the Zionists, “Bundists were militantly anticlerical and opposed the perpetuation of religious practices.”

In the early twentieth century Zionists and Bundists alike looked to the non-assimilated Jews of Eastern Europe as “an ideal typical form of the ‘people’, offering Western Jews a living storehouse and repertoire of Jewish cultural traditions”. Martin Buber, the dominant Zionist intellectual, published books of Hassidic stories that, like all ‘rediscoveries’ of tradition, were in part made up.

When Casanova turns to Kafka himself she presents someone who was engaged in the political struggles of his time and place. Kafka’s day job was as an official in the government agency that provided accident insurance for workers. Contrary to portrayals in many popular biographies, Kafka did not see this as a stultifying bureaucratic position. Rather, this occupation flowed from his commitment to working class politics, and he played a central role in creating a social benefit funded by capitalist employers.

Casanova shows how Kafka broke out of the narrow choices open to writers from “small countries” or to minorities, which Kafka was twice as a German speaker in a majority Czech city (Prague) whose majority was agitating to form a national homeland separate from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and as a Jew. Kafka was inspired by Yiddish theater troupes that visited Prague, even though he didn’t know the language. However, the Yiddish plays and poems that most impressed and influenced him were secular socialist, not religious, and often had been written and first produced in America. Kafka thus reversed the intellectual move developed by Buber and other Zionists, of discovering a rural, Eastern European “world which seemed to them frozen and immobilized in time and which they saw as a reservoir of rites, traditions and ancestral customs they had now forgotten as a result of the assimilation imposed by their fathers.”

In reality, the Eastern Jews who didn’t leave for America were becoming urbanized, secular and politicized. “Eastern Jewish intellectuals were working…to secularize Jewish culture, to invent forms of the novel, poetry and drama that would enable them to accede to literary modernity… to ‘modernize’ their culture without denying their Jewishness.” Kafka instead looked to the secular, politically active Bundists for a Judaism that could challenge domination, whether directed at Jews in particular or at a broader array of people: workers, the colonized, oppressed minorities throughout the world. Similarly, he looked to the characteristics he saw in “little literatures” like Yiddish — their concern with ‘the people’ rather than literary history or an author’s individual prestige, their “liveliness,” and political engagement — as Kafka “prepared his own literary project…to adopt a dominated stance within a dominant literature.”

Casanova’s mapping of Kafka’s place, and that of his fellow German-speaking Jews, in the global field of literature and in Jewish politics leads to two valuable results. First, it leads Casanova to produce a new reading of Kafka’s literary works. Second, it allows her to discover Kafka’s depiction of domination, which can offer something to sociologists and others concerned with that dynamic.

Kafka’s key literary technique, his use of unreliable narrators speaking to readers in a “free indirect style” (a technique developed by Flaubert in Madame Bovary), although one in which the narrator often describes himself as I, allowed him to construct ambiguous narratives. In that way Kafka was, in Casanova’s analysis, able to develop a “new literary form, built onto existing [Eastern European Jewish] tradition [which] required the takeover and use of ‘popular’ genres…In this way [Kafka] can be said to have chosen to leave himself wholly out of the picture, so as to speak not of and for himself…but for ‘everyone.’”

Casanova draws out the implications of Kafka’s method in her analysis of his story, “An Old Manuscript.” Set in ancient China and told from the (unreliable) point of view of a tradesman who, as the author of this supposedly found manuscript, recounts the arrival of barbarians in the unnamed capital. The narrator’s fantastical and racist description of the barbarians echoes and satirizes anti-Semitic tropes as well as US depictions of blacks. (Kafka also drew clear parallels between Jewish and African Americans in his first novel, which he titled The Man Who Disappeared and which was later published as Amerika.) The tradesman’s final comments are criticism of the emperor and his court, in which he offered an apt description of the Austrian emperor’s passivity or acquiescence in anti-Semitic and other forms of mob violence and systematic discrimination in his empire. J. M. Coetzee used similar techniques to make similar political points in his 1980 novel Waiting for the Barbarians.

Kafka’s story, “Jackals and Arabs” again is told from the point of view of an outsider, a traveler who recounts the jackals’ efforts to enlist him in killing Arabs whom the jackals see as alien and unclean. Most superficially, this is a story of “two social groups at odds over a ritual law.” Also, it is a satire of German anthropologists’ renditions of Arab folktales that were published in Germany in the early twentieth century. Indeed, the settings of many of Kafka’s stories track the journeys of German colonists and anthropologists. However, Casanova rightly asserts that this story like Kafka’s other writings “does not really concern either the Jews in their relations with Germans…or indeed any identifiable nation whatsoever.” ‘Jackals and Arabs’ can be said to describe, more broadly, the constitution of the spontaneous representations of all dominated marginal peoples whose codes of behavior are not spontaneously in accord with the dominant ones. Seen from this angle, Kafka is not producing an enchanted version of the life of dominated peoples but trying rather to provide an ‘ethnological’ version that can explain… the spontaneously racist vision of the traveller.”

Casanova sees Kafka’s fiction as allegory, with “hidden but intended meaning”, not, as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno thought, an indecipherable parable. The Trial is on one level “an almost theatrical staging of the… situation of anti-Semitic denunciation and suspicion from the standpoint of the victim.” The court that arrests and eventually executes Josef K. is unofficial yet “known to all and accepted by everyone [even as it] operates on rumor and semi-official materials, and in camera.” Court decisions are never published, and K. only learns of the court’s judgment when he is taken from his home to be executed. The legal process is “aimed first at producing, then maintaining all possible forms of social humiliation”. The initial arrest divided K. and all the other defendants from the rest of society, subjecting them to endless humiliation that eventually makes it impossible for them to pursue their careers or interact normally with others in society who are not defendants.

Drawing on Bourdieu’s distinction between shame and guilt, Casanova argues that K. is shamed by the court and by ordinary people’s reactions to his condition. Contrary to various psychoanalytic interpretations of the novel, at no point in the novel does K. express guilt over a crime that is never specified and for which he repeatedly asserts his innocence. The last line of the novel makes this explicit: “it seemed as if his shame would live on after him.” Throughout the novel K.’s encounters with the court take place before audiences (his neighbors, the large crowds hanging out around the court and attending hearings [scenes that are vividly shown in Orson Welles’ film version of The Trial]). Spectators and their contemptuous reactions to K. and his situation produce shame. They deploy, to use the contrast Bourdieu developed and Casanova cites, symbolic rather than physical violence. Casanova notes that women are shamed throughout the novel and makes a convincing case for a proto-feminist (or at least highly observant) Kafka.

While Casanova makes use of Bourdieu’s concepts in her analysis of Kafka, she makes a strong case that Kafka goes beyond Bourdieu by showing resistance to domination and shaming in much of his fiction. Kafka, through innovative literary techniques, is able to model resistance at the same time as he depicts domination and its reproduction. Casanova argues that she was able to find this element in Kafka only after she located him in the particular debates of Jewish intellectuals in early twentieth century Prague. However, while Kafka was engaged in his moment on a particular terrain, he drew parallels among different sorts of domination. He implicitly compared the conversion of African youths to Christianity with Jewish assimilationism. “In the Penal Colony,” set in a nameless French colony, “makes the connection… between invisible situations of political oppression — such as those that affected the Jews of Eastern Europe — and colonial situations”. Like K., the condemned man in the penal colony never knows he has been condemned until his gruesome execution.

What can we learn from Casanova and Kafka? From Casanova, we get a methodological model of how to excavate historical subjects’ temporal and social location so that we can understand how they comprehend and react to their condition of domination (or, if rulers, to the specific sources of their power). Casanova shows how Kafka’s anger became invisible when the specific world in which he wrote, and upon which he commented, disappeared. Only by recovering the political disputes of his time and place can we make sense of the literary ‘weapons of the weak’ that Kafka developed.

Casanova’s message is directed not just at analysts like us but also at the oppressed. She argues that understanding one’s situation is the basis of resistance, and understanding needs to be both specific to one’s situation and capable of finding parallels to other dominated peoples, as Kafka succeeded in doing. Kafka offers tools that differ from the ones that Bourdieu or most of us employ. If “the greatest obstacle to freedom lies in submission to authority, in the symbolic potency of power, in the most dominated themselves internalizing a belief in the necessity of obedience to authority which consequently has no need to impose itself by force,” then the dominated and we as analysts can undermine that authority using the tools that Kafka employs in his fiction: unreliable narrators to expose cant and the cruelty of power, and to show the differing yet parallel ways in which domination transforms the oppressors and the oppressed. Kafka’s place on the periphery of the literary world gave him an opening to innovate that elevated him to the apex of twentieth century literature. Those tools can be used by the oppressed in other circumstances. Casanova rightly acknowledges, “In no way did [Kafka] harbor the illusion that he would win out.” Neither should we as academics think that we will win out. However, radical honesty and intellectual innovation are their own victories, ones not available to oppressors.

Richard Lachmann, an American Sociologist and specialist in comparative historical sociology, is a professor University at Albany, SUNY. He is the author of several books, including Capitalists in Spite of ThemselvesWhat is Historical Sociologyand States and Power.