Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says: “Go over,” he does not mean that we should cross over to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.
Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid yourself of all your daily cares.
Another said: I bet that is also a parable.
The first said: You have won.
The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.
The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.
☛ Parables and paradoxes by Franz Kafka, tr. by Clement Greenberg and als., Schocken Books, 1961, p. 11. Available online.
Kafka’s comment on parables can be experienced as a tension. There’s a message about something (parables) but it seems to account for nothing, it leads to nowhere: it is lost even to its own protagonist. What is this exactly? Is there an intention to share without anything shared? Or maybe, while there wasn’t anything that was supposed to be shared, the reader is nonetheless left with something (be it an intuition, a vague feeling, some sort of paradoxical satisfaction).
In his powerful essay “Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death” Walter Benjamin explicitly addressed the hypothesis that Kafka himself may not have had a complete understanding of what he was writing:
At times [Kafka] seems to come close to saying with Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor: “So we have before us a mystery which we cannot comprehend. And precisely because it is a mystery we have had the right to preach it, to teach the people that what matters is neither freedom nor love, but the riddle, the secret, the mystery to which they have to bow―without reflection and even against their conscience.” […] Kafka had a rare capacity for creating parables for himself. Yet his parables are never exhausted by what is explainable; on the contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings. One has to find one’s way in them circumspectly, cautiously, and warily. […] His testament is another case in point. Given its background, the directive in which Kafka ordered the destruction of his literary remains is just as unfathomable, to be weighed just as carefully as the answers of the doorkeeper before the law. Perhaps Kafka, whose every day on earth brought him up against insoluble behavior problems and undecipherable communications, in death wished to give his contemporaries a taste of their own medicine. (originally written in 1934, reproduced in Illuminations, tr. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 2007, p. 1241)
The proposition echoed an important aspect related to both language and communication: Is there such a thing a fully successful communication? Can we claim perfect understanding through language (of each others as well as of the world)? Along with Benjamin, many have challenged this very idea in the last two centuries from Nietzsche to Agamben, all the way through Peirce, Adorno, Horkheimer, Deleuze and others. In this sense, language is also a thing, much like the table in Hannah Arendt’s comment:
To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time. (The Human Condition, Second Edition, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958, p. 52).
The fact is that the development of modern forms of communication hampers the communicability of experience. Most of us are aware, if vaguely, of this aporetical diagnostic. We can feel the ambiguous effects it has on our very (co)existence2. Paraphrasing Jean-Luc Nancy’s comments on community, this aporia could be said to be a condition of modern communications before being a virtue or a sin. Parallel than to the unavoidable conclusions and prescriptions we’re used to (“Communication technologies alienate us” or “The primary function of communication should be mutual understanding”), the question of how to think this aporetical condition poses itself as a crucial challenge.3
Apparent failure to communicate, it could be argued, is not always to be overcome, corrected, avoided or fixed. Just like usefulness stems from non-existence in the Tao Te Ching4 or like the way an obstacle can expose the path it is blocking in a new light, incommunicability may be just the occasion to think about something that remained unthought. And in writing about this heuristic nature of failures, I’m thinking more about Samuel Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” than about Paul Watzlawick’s first axiom “One cannot not communicate” which I increasingly think is only correct in a very narrow (and somehow naive) understanding of what communication is (the failure to communicate which is being discussed here is not another form of communication, at least certainly not of the form Watzlawick was thinking about)5.
From the point of view of the times we’re living in, a failure in communication could point toward a renewed critical stance. It could even be (already has been) interpreted as an effect of resistance6 stemming from the usurpation of communication by “the process that today dominates world history” (as Agamben puts it in The Coming Community: be it “capitalism” “spectacle” or “democracy”). Although this form of resistance cannot be thought outside or without the dominant concept of communication, it remains irreducible to radio broadcasts, television programs or social media (which is not to say they have nothing to do with it).
However, this potential function is highly risky both for those who engage with it and those who are exposed to it. It certainly cannot be apprehended as a simple and easy solution to the problem of our political coexistence. Georges Bataille described the risk of such an uncanny “communication” process with the utmost clarity in his essay On Nietzsche:
Communication cannot proceed from one full and intact individual to another. It requires individuals whose separate existence in themselves is risked, placed at the limit of death and nothingness; the moral summit is the moment of risk taking, it is a being suspended in the beyond of oneself, at the limit of nothingness. (2004, tr. Bruce Boon, London: Continuum, p.19)
Thus the paramount danger of incommunicability which bears the (redemptive) potential to realize our common destiny as well as the (catastrophic) potential to bring destruction through the bounds that unite and separate us at the same time.
At the very end of his commemorative text on Kafka, Walter Benjamin remarks:
To do justice to the figure of Kafka in its purity and its peculiar beauty one must never lose sight of one thing: it is the purity and beauty of a failure. The circumstances of this failure are manifold. One is tempted to say: once he was certain of eventual failure, everything worked out for him en route as in a dream. There is nothing more memorable than the fervor with which Kafka emphasized his failure. (Illuminations, pp. 144-145)
The question of knowing if we can address the various failures of our modern togetherness with a similar fervor remains open.
• • •
1. See also this article: “The Messiah who Comes and Goes: Franz Kafka on Redemption, Conspiracy and Community” by James Martel, Theory & Event, 12.3, 2009. ↩︎︎
3. Brian Massumi directly addressed this problem in his essay “Sur le Droit à la Non-Communication de la Différence”:
Il y a toujours un noyau de l’incommuniqué et de l’incommunicable dans la communication, de l’intraduisible dans la traduction. Il n’y a pas de langue commune. C’est une affirmation plutôt banale. L’important, c’est de donner de cette incommunicabilité une description positive, et d’une manière qui nous autorise d’avancer l’hypothèse qu’il peut se pratiquer des techniques sociales qui s’appliquent à ce champ de la relation en soi, en tant que site d’intervention hautement pragmatique. (Ethnopsy. Les mondes contemporains de la guérison (Paris), no. 4, avril 2002, special issue ed. Isabelle Stengers and Tobie Nathan, “Propositions de paix,” pp. 93-131; PDF) ↩︎︎
5. Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho, John Calder, 1983. Paul Watzlawick, “Some Tentative Axioms of Communication” (in Pragmatics of Human Communication, W. W. Norton: New York, 1967). It has been suggested that the dominant paradigm of most communication theories has to do with “how individuality is transcended” (see Briankle G. Chang: Deconstructing Communication: Representation, Subject, and Economies of Exchange, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993, ix). I would suggest similarly that most communication theories attempt to overcome separation and, in doing so, are deeply rooted in a humanistic ideology. ↩︎︎
6. An allegory of this dynamic is to be found in the film Cool Hand Luke by Stuart Rosenberg (1967). It is epitomized in the following (and famous) quote:
Captain : You gonna get use to wearing them chains after a while Luke. Don’t you never stop listening to them clinking, they gonna remind you about what I been saying for your own good.
Luke : I wish you’d stop being so good to me Captain
Captain : Don’t you ever talk that way to me NEVER! [hitting him]. What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach. So you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it… well, he gets it. I don’t like it any more than you men.
See also Jean-Michel Besnier’s book La politique de l’impossible where he traces the portrait of Theodor Adorno as a “penseur de la résistance” specifically because of Adorno’s critique of the communication process in general.
(…) c’est en étant le plus incompréhensible qu’on est le plus vrai (puisque céder à la clarté reviendrait à cautionner le mensonge des mots). C’est ainsi que, sur le plan de la communication dont le souci lui est commun avec Bataille, Adorno apparaît explicitement comme un penser de la résistance. (Paris: La Découverte, 1988, pp. 1991-194)