115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Power Struggles Reflected by Simultaneity in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”

Yao Pei, University of California, Irvine

Kafka condenses two parallel time zones, the ancient and the modern, represented by the killing apparatus and the explorer into the presence of the penal colony. By bringing both time periods together, Kafka unveils the concealing power of both systems and shows their rivaling dynamics striving for power.  


In “In the Penal Colony,” Kafka condenses two parallel time zones into the penal colony and manipulates their interaction with each other throughout the story. Reading this story as an allegory of Richard van Dülmen’s definition of premodern punishment, we see that ancient corporal punishment and punishment in old Europe share three similarities: both of them are regarded as festivals; they all bear educational intentions and both are closely related to pain and torture. In other words, corporal punishment on the island is a representative of the past. Contrary to the penal island, the explorer coming from Europe signifies the present. According to Michel Foucault’s understanding of the modern judicial system in Europe, we see that the explorer believes in the modern justice system which is based on the interrelationship of “the proliferation of authorities” rather than on the punishment itself, in three aspects. Firstly, the explorer values the interpersonal relationship between himself and the new commander more than the process of execution. Secondly, his concern with his personal identity as an alien on the island matters more to him than his empathy for the “unfair” penal system. Thirdly, he pays little attention to the officer’s expertise on the punishment but places his hope on the non-expert, powerful figure, the new commander. By bringing the different periods together, Kafka enables the confrontation of two inherently distinct forms of power and further incentivizes the dynamic transmission between them by destabilizing the explorer’s position of his original modern European belief and pulling him towards the ancient penal system. However, every time the ancient form of power grows, the modern force explodes even more fiercely, pushing the other one aside displaying its dominance anew. On stepping onto the island, the explorer’s interest in the machine is gradually aroused by the officer, yet it is followed by his rejection of any intimacy towards it due to the draw of the modern penal epistemology, and the responsibility to remain diplomatically infallible in his relationship to authority according to his identity as an outsider. Following his refusal, his sympathy for this indigenous form of punishment witnessing the sacrifice of a human being is aroused, culminating in his temptation to save the officer from committing suicide, which again fails in the end with the explorer’s belief in his own modern society restoring and controlling him, forcing him to leave the island. From this analysis, we see that through Kafka’s intentional arrangement of the simultaneity of epistemological periods, power, which has been concealed by ancient or modern ideologies emerges from their juxtaposition into plain sight.