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Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Aesthetics of Violence in The Penal Colony

Amy Goh #260354243
GERM 129-197 Images of the Other
Professor Bernard Deschamps
24th November 2009

The Aesthetics of Violence as seen in the Colonialism Trope in The Penal Colony

Even though “In the Penal Colony” does not explicitly state that it is a parable on colonialism, an intertextual layer of motifs underlies the text, revealing a surprising similarity between its fictional happenings and the mechanics of actual colonialism that was rampant in the 19th century European world. What is achieved is a complex interweaving of aesthetic, literary and religious elements that, ultimately, reveal the driving force behind all colonial aspirations, as well as the brutal instruments the colonizing force inflicts upon the colonized in order to 'communicate' his desires. Through the language of pain and punishment, exemplified both by the name of the text- Strafkolonie, meaning ‘the punishment colony1’ in the literal sense- and the central object of the narrative, the “remarkable apparatus”(Kafka, 532) of the machine, the colonizer is able to deliver a totalizing system of technical, political and psychological dominance.

This essay will seek to unearth the methods by which colonialism holds its power, as well as the grand ideas that drive the colonizer to conquer more land through the figures of the officer, the condemned man and the machine. Lastly, I will show how Kafka provides the reader with a
harsh criticism of colonialism by displaying the deterioration of the colonizer's ‘grand narrative’ 3, in which the colonizer is inevitably destroyed by the sheer unreality of the ideal itself, underpinning the stark irony of all colonial aspirations: that colonialism, in essence, is unsustainable.

1 Penal colonies existed in actual reality and were usually situated on a remote island, or on inhospitable land. Prisoners were sent to these places as a form of punishment, and were often subjected to harsh lives under a severe prison regime. Many often died from neglect, hunger, excessive labour, or in an escape attempt.

The machine, the grand apparatus “like no other” (53), consists of three parts: a bed, a harrow and a sketcher. The condemned man is laid on a bed of cotton wool naked, his mouth stuffed with a piece of felt. The harrow possesses two needles, a long and a short one. The long one inscribes the sentence of the condemned man upon his skin, while the short one squirts water to wash away the blood. The bloodied water then enters a system of grooves that flows into a pit in the earth. It is stated the condemned “deciphers (his sentence) with his body” (63) through the language of pain. The sentence itself is described as illegible, consisting of “maze-like lines in complicated criss-crosses, covering the paper so completely it was hard to see the white spaces between them” (60). In ideal, the machine imparts the divine revelation of the condemned man's sin via the medium of unnameable pain.

3 The term ‘grand narrative’ was coined by the French philosopher Jean--François Lyotard in his 1979 work “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge” to explain the form of thinking that shaped the modern mind. It refers to the uniting truths and worldviews people subscribe to.

In the mechanics of the machine, colonialism is revealed as an unnatural system involving, firstly, the invasion of the colonizing force into the land of the indigenous. In order for the colonizer to successfully colonize the people, he needs to, firstly, erase the existing history of the colonized, and to replace it with his own narrative. This narrative is born out of the particularities of the political and social milieu of his European Imperial roots and the Western rational ideas he is a product of. Only when this replacement has taken place will the spirit of the colony be successfully harnessed, and the colonizer free to exploit the land for his own ends through the construction of a mobilized workforce bound by psychological and physical chains. Labour generated, thus, serves in realizing the colonizer's goals, whether it is economic profit or military prestige on the world front. As this invasion is intrinsically unnatural, the methods by which it is characterized have to be, likewise, unnatural- that of the medium of violence, which is in its purest essence an irrational disruption of the natural order of being. The colonizer, thus, communicates with the colonized in the language of physical violence, which can, like a mechanized arm, take the form of material apparatus such as the chain with which the condemned man is bound in the text, or the whip that was used in actual colonialism to subjugate the locals by the British (Bernault, 1944).

In the text, this is executed by the machine which, by an intricate system of punishment, serves to communicate the colonizer's 'narrative' in the language of pain. By inscribing the sentence on the condemned man's back, the officer- and likewise, the colonizer- rejects all that has come before, erasing the past, cultural history of the people who were born of the land and replacing it with his own discourse which, like the illegible text the machine inscribes, is only understood by the colonizer. As Fanon puts aptly, the history the colonizer writes is “not the history of the country which he plunders, but the history of his own nation in regards to all that it skims off, all that it violates and plunders”5. In the execution of this corporal punishment, the machine acts as the ultimate silencer. The bloodied inscription the machine delivers serves a two-fold purpose, 'enlightening' the guilty to the fact he is disrupting the 'grand narrative' of the colonial idea by speaking out in his native voice (for the condemned man in the story is punished solely for retorting to his superiors), as well as to enforce the existing order by serving as a deterrent,
ensuring by its physical presence this prevalent silence is maintained, and thus, the colonizer is free to exploit his acquisition to further his own ends. Inscription, as Albert Memmi states, is the medium by which a “colonial system of obedience both on the outer surface of the colonized, as upon her inmost being”6 is etched into the souls of the colonized.

The machine's harrow by which the needles of inscription are attached, thus, can be interpreted as an additional symbol of exploitation. The harrow was an agricultural tool used by farmers who toiled the soil in order to reap a source of livelihood. Likewise, the colonizer reaps the flesh of the native people by means of blood, sweat and labour. The harrow and the needles are inseparable in colonialism, for as the blood of the condemned man flows into the pit, colonialism involves the necessary shedding of the indigenous people's blood into the earth, thereby fertilizing it for the colonizer and serving for his advancement. 7 As blood transmits life, stories ensure the identity of a people is preserved. Blood, here, symbolizes the cultural history of a people transmitted by language. Similarly, the harrow can be considered a technologically inferior tool, marking the simpler agricultural lifestyle of living purely from the land, a lifestyle prevalent in many colonized nations. This contrasts with the machine's artistry, which marks a more complex system of reaping profit via the mechanics of political and military strength and supremacy. The harrow, thus, also denotes the colonizer's supreme dominance both ideologically and technologically over his colony. This supremacy, naturally, is vital in ensuring he is able to pursue his colonial goals fully without disruption.

The colonial model Kafka presents has a parallel in the actual colonial practices of King Leopold in his acquisition of the Belgian Congo. When King Leopold first invaded the Congo, he declared them 'vacant lands'. Vacant, in this sense, denotes a blank script, free for the re-writing of the colonizer's narrative. The land, subtracted from the indigenous people, is in the colonizer's eyes a piece of prime ground for the cultivation of his economy. In disregarding the voice of the natives, the colonizer rejects their language. Oral heritage, in African tribes, was an important part of their identity, functioning as a transmission of thought and vital ideas. Storytelling, rather than the written word, was tradition, the passing on, of culture and oral lore to the next generation, ensuring the inheritance of a unique cultural history and literature.8 The robbing of language its replacement with words illegible to the colonizer, thus, serves as the ultimate antagonist: the destroyer of the soul. Kafka's machine exemplifies this in etching a bloodied tattoo on the skin of the condemned, which embodies the voice of colonialism's dissenters. It is the silencing of the “No!” that cries out in opposition to this oppressive system of punishment. In other words, it is the inscribing of the colonizer’s narrative onto the blank canvas of the native land.

8 Ki-Zerbo, Joseph: "Methodology and African Prehistory", UNESCO International Scientific Committee for the Drafting of a General History of Africa, James Currey Publishers, 1990; see Ch. 7; "Oral tradition and its methodology" at pages 54-61; at page 54: "Oral tradition may be defined as being a testimony transmitted verbally from one generation to another. Its special characteristics are that it is verbal and the manner in which it is transmitted."

If the machine serves as the ultimate articulation of the colonizer's system of violence, this language is also displaced to the relations between the condemned man and his superiors. Whereas the officer and his (European) contemporaries communicate sensibly in French, this does not extend to his relations with the condemned man and the soldier. When the condemned man failed to promptly to “get up every hour on the hour and salute in front of the captain's
door” (58), the captain immediately “went for his riding whip and struck him in the face”. Likewise, the officer “(takes) a clod of earth from the mound and (throws) it at the soldier” (59) when he inquisitively looks at the machine. The whip, like the chains that bind the condemned man to the soldier, serve as the instruments of colonialism by which the colonizer wields his power and 'communicates' his desires to the colonized. In the establishment of his technical superiority- for the whip, chains and the machine are technological innovations of the Western world- the colonizer is able to exercise full control over the colonized, upholding and sustaining the new order.

Similarly, as the officer and the condemned man do not communicate in any discernible language beyond that of physical violence, African chiefs were forced to sign lengthy treaties concerning the acquisition of land without any comprehension. Christian de Bonchamps, a French explorer who served Leopold in Katanga, parallels the explorer in the narrative, expressing disapproval regarding such treaties, stating the treaties “are really only serious matters for the European powers, in the event of disputes over the territories. They do not concern the black sovereign who signs them for a moment"9. The colonizing force disregards the perspectives of the colonized, only interested in his self-interests. He is concerned with the continuation of his ‘Odyssey’ 10, even if this means the sacrifice of the native's sacred narrative. Language, in this sense, is the beacon of power enforcing order, dictating what will occur. At the hands of the colonizer, it is a weapon like the whip. Kafka's machine, in its material reality,
draws together the two-fold nature of colonialism: the physicality of its invasion, as well as the psychological consequences that come with the erasing of a cultural heritage.

Moreover, there is another deeper layer that characterizes colonialism, a layer that approaches the spiritual in depth and reaches beyond material gain. This is what I will call the aesthetic motive that underpins all colonial aspirations. It is the seeking of and the surrender to an idea larger than oneself. In religious terms, it is the search for God- a Narcissus11- who will reflect, faithfully, man's own image in its ideal light. As Rey Chow states in his article “Ethics after Idealism”, “the most important sentiment involved... is not a negative but a positive one: rather than hatefulness and destruction, (it) is about love and idealism12”. In 19th century colonial reality, this was most apparent in the intellectual discourse of Social Darwinism which undercut the many aspects of social and civic life, going so far as to influencing the nature of the colonies European settlers chose to conquer13. Social Darwinism’s concept of ‘natural selection’ posited a evolutionary hierarchy of human types or races, whereby all biologically and culturally 'inferior' races were fated to be replaced by the superior race, the latter of which was, naturally, embodied by the white, civilized man14. Social Darwinism justified the European imperialist project, providing the Western imperialist with the excuse that, by the acquisition of land, he was serving the greater evolution of the human species as a whole into a nobler form by destroying the backward, barbaric man. Darwinism's 'ape', in Western colonial reality, was the black 'savage', who pervaded the lands of Africa. This overarching narrative served as the 'biblical doctrine' by which the colonizer acceded to. In this sense, the aesthetic and the religious can be united for, as Kafka's officer seeks the ultimate surrender to the image of a God-like image (the machine, here, serves as a medium of communication between him and God), the colonizer surrenders to the grand narrative of imperialism: that, in essence, it is beneficial to humanity for it serves to advance the evolution of man. Social Darwinism supports the latter theory, making the imperialist feel a sense of spiritual satisfaction that his economic and military conquests are for the greater good, and hence making him overlook easily the atrocities he commits. Similarly, the artistry of the machine highlights the aesthetic ideals that underlie all colonial enterprise: that of the furthering of the colonizer's epic narrative.

10 I am making a comparison to Homer’s epic “The Odyssey”, which represents an instance in which history has been transcribed into a form of literature providing aesthetic pleasure for the masses. The colonizer, similarly, writes his own epic in order to extend the literary history of his own people, replacing the traditional history of the colonized.

11 Narcissus is the Greek mortal who fell in love his own reflection. In making this comparison, I am making an allusion to a concept James Kirwan states in his book “Beauty” in which he describes as the search for the aesthetic ideal to be a desire for “the splendour of God shining through the body. It is a desire like that of Narcissus, that can never be satisfied” (Kirwan, pp73) Similarly, man is described as being made in the image of God in the bible, drawing a connection between the search for God and the seeking of beauty.

However, as the machine, like the intellectual discourse of Social Darwinism, is man-made, it is flawed. It is a secondary channelling inevitably coloured by human nature, acting more akin to an idol than an authentic source of divine revelation. In Kafka's text, this religious dimension is most fully articulated in the figure of the officer, who is described as a 'devotee' of the machine, religiously tending to all its operations. His attire, consisting of a “tight parade jacket, laden with epaulets and covered with braid” (55), separates him from the soldier and the condemned man, marking his superior status as guardian of the machine. Like the Judaic high priest who wore a 'Breastplate of Judgement' adorned with twelve precious stones, he is marked apart from the 'congregation' by the adornments on his garments. He does not question the preachings the machine imparts through the linguistic instrument of the needle-pen, possessing a stubborn resilience even in the face of the explorer's doubt to the practice's morality, stating verbally, “I know the machine best. Guilt is always (Amy's emphasis) beyond doubt” (57). In addition, he calls all who do not possess the same religious devotion to it as 'uninitiated', giving the machine the divine aura of a religious object. In other words, he fetishizes the machine, treating it as the authentic voice of God delivering judgement on the guilty. In addition, the ritual of pain around
the machine also possesses a religious hue. The officer, in his discourse (and as his is the only account the reader has, the reader is forced to believe him), states that under the old commandant,

“The machine was freshly cleaned and glowed... In front of hundreds of eyes—all the spectators stood on tip toe right up to the hills there—the condemned man was laid down under the Harrow by the Commandant himself. What nowadays has to be done by a common soldier was then my work as the senior judge, and it was an honour for me.” (64)

In addition, the crowds that gathered were so dense that “it was impossible to grant all the requests people made to be allowed to watch from up close” (64). Here, the reader sees the ritual in its optimal height, in a time when the doctrine preached by the old governor was fully believed. Then, the symbolic temple of colonialism gleamed, much like the machine was “freshly cleaned and glowed”. If the power of a doctrine is characterized by the devotion of its followers, the fanfare connected with the public ritual of violence can be seen as indicative of the power of belief. People appeared to devote themselves body and soul to the practising of the ritual, feeling a religious satisfaction in the delivery of judgement. Judgement, in this lens, serves as the enforcing of a holier, supreme law that presides and overpowers human judgement, the latter of which is flawed, thereby upholding the current religious order. However, the account we have of this ritual is obtained from the officer, whose voice we cannot trust, for he is a devotee of the old governor, and naturally, is blind to the reality of the actual situation in the Penal Colony- that the language of communication executed by the machine is not pure, but tainted. The picture he paints is that of the ideal image of things as he hopes they were and hence, it is indicative of a deeper resilience to the inevitable crumbling of the old system- that of which is colonialism.

In reality, the colonizer faces many predicaments in the conquering of land. Even though the colonizer believes- for the sake of his faith- that his rituals of punishment have resonance in the colonizer, this punishment is removed from understanding. It is, like the inscription of the machine on the condemned man's back, illegible. The discourse that justifies colonialism- that it benefits the greater good- lies feeble in the reality of colonialism, as exemplified in the destruction of the machine and the figure of the officer who feebly clings on to the ideal, eventually sacrificing his body in what can be called the ultimate surrender. With the explorer's appellation of a single “No”, the officer can no longer exist, for his belief system- the spiritual dimension of the system of colonialism- has been proved false. Either his God is a 'graven image' or his doctrine of justice is innately flawed. In sacrificing himself, the officer rejects the reality the new law posited by the new governor presents. Likewise, the failure of the machine to faithfully etch a sentence on the officer and its subsequent destruction can be interpreted as a failure of the system of beliefs the whole machinery of colonialism is based upon. The grand narrative underlying colonialism has crumbled. Justice, with a capital J, falls flat on its face. Here lies the irony of colonialism: even though the colonizer aspires to serve a greater cause, he inevitably fails in the megalomaniac nature of his ideas. The foundation for colonialism is thus squashed in the face of reality. In the destruction of the machine, Kafka prescribes the fate of colonialism: that it is, due to the illegitimacy of its claims, unsustainable.

The explorer, in his role, is similar to the reader. He is an outsider to the system, and thus serves as its judge. Like much of Kafka's audience, he is European, “travelling purely with the intention of seeing things and by no means that of altering other people's legal codes” (62). However, he maintains a detached tone, standing away from the action. He merely observes, making comments when required. Like the reader, he does not or cannot physically intervene with action. However, he is able to destroy the whole old, 'barbaric' system of torture via a single verbal appellation. Kafka, thus, seems to imply that, in the reading of his story, the reader, too, has to make his own judgements regarding the legitimacy of the claims colonialism makes. The explorer's utterance of a single “no” is, thus, not only reflective of Kafka's disapproval of the ideas behind colonialism, but also Kafka's insistence that it is, in the end, up to the masses to support or to denounce a practice. As action is propelled by thought, words are the vehicle by which power is channelled. In the text, this power is given to the audience, and the reader has to make the necessary decision himself whether, after seeing the brutal consequences of colonialism in the analogy of the machine, he should remain passively silent, or actively denounce its practices. Belief holds the optimum power in the system of social and political life, propelling both the atrocities carried out, and, conversely the good that can be achieved. Kafka's novella, thus, serves ultimately as a fable or a parable, wherein the reader can step into the story, and fulfil his role in the greater drama of life.

Kafka's “In the Penal Colony” shares many parallels to the practices prevalent in actual colonialism. However, Kafka does not merely address the physical tools of colonialism, but reaches beyond, revealing the complex network of ideas that underlie colonialism and drive it toward fruition. “In the Penal Colony”, thus, is similar to a dream in its weaving of symbolic motifs heavy with meaning that need to be deciphered. Through the reaping of these symbols- the separation of the meaning from the metaphor-, one uncovers a stark portrait on the brutal nature of colonialism and the devastating effects it has on the colonized.


Works Cited

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Brunton, Deborah, ed, Medicine Transformed: Health, Disease and Society in Europe 1800-
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Chow, Rey. “Ethics after Idealism: Theory-Culture-Ethnicity-Reading Ethics after Idealism:
Theory-Culture-Ethnicity-Reading”. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. Print.

Darwin C, 1859, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of
Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray [Facsimile of 1st ed.]:
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Fanon, F. Philcoz, Richard Trans. The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, 2004, 41. Print.
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis and Other Stories (Dover Thrift Editions). Dover
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Kirwan, James, Beauty. Manchester University Press ND, 1999. Print
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Committee for the Drafting of a General History of Africa, James Currey Publishers, 1990.
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Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized, Becon Press, 1991
Peters, Paul. “Witness to the Execution: Kafka and Colonialism”, Monatshefte, Vol. 93, No. 4
(Winter, 2001), pp. 401-425. Web.

René de Pont-Jest, 1892, L'Expédition du Katanga, d'après les notes de voyage du marquis
Christian de Bonchamps, Edouard Charton, ed, Le Tour du Monde magazine, 2007. Web.

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