Élan Reisner

(neé Odradek)


ISSUE 27 | DRONE ROBOT CYBORG | APR 2013

Ἔτι ὅθεν ἡ ἀρχὴ τῆς μεταβολῆς ἡ πρώτη ἢ τῆς ἠρεμήσεως, οἷον ὁ βουλεύσας αἴτιος, καὶ ὁ πατὴρ τοῦ τέκνου, καὶ ὅλως τὸ ποιοῦν τοῦ ποιουμένου καὶ τὸ μεταβάλλον τοῦ μεταβαλλομένου.

In yet another way [a “cause” is said to be] that from which the first beginning of change or of rest is, as the legislator is a cause, or the father of a child, or generally the maker of what is made, or whatever makes a changing thing change.

—Aristotle, Physics (tr. Sachs)

Those signs that our technologies emit, those innumerable and vastly complex signals that they give and take, should we call them language? Or are they not rather sounds without sense, signs without meaning beyond their intended utility? If they make up a language, surely it is merely a functional one. True, we say of our own language that it too is a means to an end (communication, for instance). But the language of technology would distinguish itself by being purely functional, bound in its essence to the utilities of the system or systems it serves. The language of technology would itself be a technology, would belong to technology in general, and this therefore technical or artificial language would as such be grounded in the thoughts, intentions, and desires of those who build and use, design and sign the technologies that “speak” them. Thus, not a language with words but a code with inputs and outputs, all of which lead back, at the end of a continuous chain of translations and transformations, to a fundamentally human logic. Whatever else in the way of sounds and signs our technologies produce would be nothing but unintended side-effects—superfluous and meaningless noise. Whence the particular irony of the fact that in lay language, unmanned aerial vehicles go by the name of “drones.” We name them after what they say rather than what they do (more precisely: we name them after the noise they make rather than after the ends they’re for), as though taking them at their “word.”1 But of course this is insane. What would it even mean for a tool to name itself?

Kafka explores some of these issues in a short story called “The Cares of a Family Man” (“Die Sorge des Hausvaters”). The story is extremely brief (a mere five paragraphs) and lacks almost any narrative. Really, it’s hardly a story at all. Whatever it is, it’s probably safe to say that two characters are involved, the eponymous paterfamilias, who narrates the story, and a certain “Odradek”—a strange little being that hangs around the narrator’s house and has started to cause him a bit of concern. It isn’t that Odradek has overstayed his welcome, exactly. At least it doesn’t seem like the narrator is about to kick him out. Part of the issue is that it isn’t clear what Odradek is, and so one can’t be certain that the rules of hospitality even ought to apply. At first glance Odradek sort of looks like a tricked-out spool of thread or a wind-up tchotchke or some other such whatnot, but then he starts acting up and evading questions and by the end one can’t help but wonder whether Odradek is a contraption with a life of its own or a living being reduced to a whirligig—or a different beast entirely. To be sure, Odradek is no sublime supercomputer, no cybernetic loom of fate that threatens to delete the world it was programmed to serve. Odradek is too puny for anything like that. He’s just an unreasonably awkward home appliance, like a gadget that should be child’s play and yet manages to evade the grasp of a grown man. This puniness is what makes Odradek both so cute and so uncanny. He can fit in your palm and yet slips through your fingers, like a proverb or parable that anyone can recite but no one comprehends:

“The Cares of a Family Man” (“Die Sorge des Hausvaters”)

Some say the word Odradek is of Slavonic origin, and try to account for it on that basis. Others again believe it to be of German origin, only influenced by Slavonic. The uncertainty of both interpretations allows one to assume with justice that neither is accurate, especially as neither of them provides an intelligent meaning of the word.

No one, of course, would occupy himself with such studies if there were not a creature called Odradek. At first glance it looks like a flat star-shaped spool for thread, and indeed it does seem to have thread wound upon it; to be sure, they are only old, broken-off bits of thread, knotted and tangled together, of the most varied sorts and colors. But it is not only a spool, for a small wooden crossbar sticks out of the middle of the star, and another small rod is joined to that at a right angle. By means of this latter rod on one side and one of the points of the star on the other, the whole thing can stand upright as if on two legs.

One is tempted to believe that the creature once had some sort of intelligible shape and is now only a broken-down remnant. Yet this does not seem to be the case; at least there is no sign of it; nowhere is there an unfinished or unbroken surface to suggest anything of the kind; the whole thing looks senseless enough, but in its own way perfectly finished. In any case, closer scrutiny is impossible, since Odradek is extraordinarily nimble and can never be laid hold of.

He lurks by turns in the garret, the stairway, the lobbies, the entrance hall. Often for months on end he is not to be seen; then he has presumably moved into other houses; but he always comes faithfully back to our house again. Many a time when you go out of the door and he happens just to be leaning directly beneath you against the banisters you feel inclined to speak to him. Of course, you put no difficult questions to him, you treat him—he is so diminutive that you cannot help it—rather like a child. “Well, what’s your name?” you ask him. “Odradek,” he says. “And where do you live?” “No fixed abode,” he says and laughs; but it is only the kind of laughter that has no lungs behind it. It sounds rather like the rustling of fallen leaves. And that is usually the end of the conversation. Even these answers are not always forthcoming; often he stays mute for a long time, as wooden as his appearance.

I ask myself, to no purpose, what is likely to happen to him? Can he possibly die? Anything that dies has had some kind of aim in life, some kind of activity, which has worn out; but that does not apply to Odradek. Am I to suppose, then, that he will always be rolling down the stairs, with ends of thread trailing after him, right before the feet of my children, and my children’s children? He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.

(Translation by Willa and Edwin Muir)

It’s tempting to begin a discussion of “The Cares of a Family Man” by drawing out the formal similarities between the text and the strange creature that obsesses it. Certainly the text is “nimble and difficult to be laid hold of” and in its own way a mess of “old, broken-off bits of thread, knotted and tangled together, of the most varied sorts and colors,” like so many threads of discourse intertwining and disentangling around the Bakhtinian axle.2 One could also point to the way in which the reader and the narrator mirror one another in struggling to comprehend an inscrutable textual/textile being.

But there is at least one formal element that skews the comparison. If the text as a whole were at bottom, or at its core, the double of the creature it describes, then all of its principle characteristics would have to correspond in some way or other to those of Odradek. And since chief among those characteristics is the possession of a proper name, the story ought to share that of its protagonist. Like Moby Dick, or The Golden Bowl, or even The Castle, surely this is a text whose form doubles its content. And yet instead of entitling his text “Odradek,” Kafka christened it “Die Sorge des Hausvaters.” What does this difference amount to, and what accounts for it? In my opinion, its meaning is double. First, it indirectly announces the fact that names and naming count among the text’s crucial themes. I would go so far as to argue that the text is a commentary on the nature and art of naming. Second, it raises the question of the “matter” of concern (die Sorge): its object, its structure, and its relation to the thematics of naming. I will argue that the matrix of these issues is the home (the oikos of “eco-logy” and “eco-nomy”), of which “Odradek” could be read as the maiden-name.

The text is supersaturated with questions. Some are posed directly (“Well, what’s your name?” “And where do you live?” “What is likely to happen to him?” “Can he possibly die?”), and others are merely implied, alluded to, or anticipated. These begin with the story’s title. Like the title of a folktale, “The Cares of a Family Man” whets our readerly desire by arousing our curiosity. Who is this so-called “family man” and what are his mysterious “cares”? It comes, therefore, as something of a shock that the story doesn’t begin by answering these questions (“Once upon a time there lived a man who headed a large and prosperous household and bore the weight of its cares, namely...”), but rather starts by cataloging (and criticizing) the different answers to what seems like a wholly different question—a question, moreover, that is never outright posed: “Was heißt »Odradek«?” “What is the meaning of “Odradek”?” Perhaps the reason that this question is never asked out loud is because doing so requires having already settled a prior question, namely, the meaning of the question. The German verb “heißen” equivocates between a number of senses: depending on its context, it can mean “to signify,” “to be called” (or, non-reflexively, “to name”), or “to call for,” among others. Thus, before one can ask “Was heißt »Odradek«?”, one has to ask “Was heißt »heißen«?” How is heißen meant here? But this second question presupposes the first in turn. For example, if “Odradek” is a word, then it makes sense to ask what “Odradek” means in the sense of what it signifies. But if “Odradek” is a thing, or a person, then the question effectively asks about its functioning as a proper name. And if “Odradek” were neither a word nor a thing, but rather a condition or an event, then to ask was es heißt (what it calls for, what it requires, what it means for us—now) would mean something different altogether, not least because of its sense of urgency.

By never explicitly posing the question “Was heißt »Odradek«?”, the text keeps the hermeneutic circle from suffocating the question it means to ask. But the unasked question leaves its trace in the language of the text it secretly animates. This is first apparent when the narrator transitions from his discussion of linguistic research into the genesis of the word “Odradek” to his own description of the being that bears the name: “No one, of course, would occupy himself with such studies if there were not a creature called Odradek” [Natürlich würde sich niemand mit solchen Studien beschäftigen, wenn es nicht wirklich ein Wesen gäbe, das Odradek heißt]. This sentence is fascinating for more reasons than I’m going to discuss here. Passing over all of the questions that pertain to its almost apophatic logical structure (we would begin by drawing up the truth-table of this hardly self-evident [natürlich: “of course,” “naturally”] negative counterfactual conditional), I will just focus on two terms, and specifically on the ways in which by resisting being translated into English, these two terms confirm and further illuminate the thematics of naming.

It will come as no surprise that first term I want to focus on is “Odradek.” But the translation-resistant dimension of this term that I want to discuss has to do with neither etymology nor paranomasia.3 What rather interests me is the term’s orthography. Unlike in English, where only proper names and nouns beginning sentences are capitalized, in German all nouns begin with capital letters. This means that the English translators of the text have to decide whether and when to interpret the German term “Odradek” as a noun and when as a proper name. There are of course advantages and disadvantages to any course of action, and for better or for worse Willa and Edwin Muir have decided to capitalize o/Odradek’s “O” throughout the text, anticipating the narrator’s stipulation of o/Odradek’s “real existence” in the second paragraph and his appearance “in person” in the third. I can’t help but feel that the narrator would lend his voice to this decision, not only because it takes for granted—as he does—that the term “Odradek” is indeed the creature’s name (which I believe the text calls into question), but also because it tacitly supports a patronymic theory of nouns, i.e. that a thing’s name is bestowed upon it by its creator.

So what else could be done about “Odradek”’s “O”? One solution that I find fitting would be to let the letter mutate alongside the creature it designates. As it is, these mutations are already in a sense grammatical: Odradek’s gender changes from the feminine (die Zwirnspule) to the neuter (das Gebilde), before settling into the masculine (er). One could likewise begin by printing “odradek” with a little “o,” as though “odradek” were simply one word among others, and later transition to “Odradek” with a big “O,” as the term turns out to name the creature Odradek might have have been all along.

But this solution has a necessary limit. On what basis could it be decided whether “Odradek” is a name or noun at the very moment that the narrator ascribes its referent a real existence? This question turns on the German noun “ein Wesen,” which, like the “o” of o/Odradek, harbors a vital ambiguity that gets lost in the move to English. Indeed, it is as though the other sense of “Wesen” and the little “o” of o/Odradek run off together. For the decision to capitalize Odradek’s “O” brings him into conformity with one sense of “ein Wesen” at the expense of the other. On this standard reading, “ein Wesen” is more or less synonymous with “ein Lebewesen” (a living being) or “eine Kreatur” (a creature) that is, an essentially living or animate being endowed by its creator with a soul. In short, precisely such a being as receives a proper name.

“...[I]f there were not a creature called Odradek.” This translation is convenient, economical, and even ingenious, but it effaces an alternative sense of “ein Wesen.” “Das Wesen” can mean the essence of a thing: the distinguishing characteristic or property that makes something what it is. Admittedly, in the German this sense can’t be read as the dominant one without considerable awkwardness. This is partly for the same reason that it’s weird to refer to “an essence [of something]” in English. Essences can be multifaceted, but they’re usually thought of as singular, which is why they don’t lend themselves to easy use with indefinite articles. But if we wanted to translate this ambiguity into English, we could exploit the somewhat analogous senses of the word “being.” Like “ein Wesen,” “a being” denotes a living thing. It implies “a living being” in much the same way that “ein Wesen” implies “ein Lebewesen.” But there are also contexts in which “being” can be used to mean something akin to essence. I love someone with “the whole of my being”; I protest against something with “every fiber of my being”; I know something or am touched “deep in the core of my being.” Involved in each case is all of and precisely that without which I would not be who or what I really am. “A being called Odradek” could thus be either a living being or the essence of such a being; either something that is, or that about it that makes it what it is.


Illustration by Wesley Clapp

My insistence on this ambiguity is likely to seem contrived or overwrought, but its pertinence is borne out by the story’s ensuing paragraphs, where the question of Odradek’s essence—what Odradek is—continually reimposes itself as Odradek slips out from each of the determinations that articulate him. We could name the genre of these paragraphs “hallucinogenic Aristotelianism,” since these would-be determinations follow the schema of Aristotelian ontology and its theory of causes, even as that schema is exposed as fundamentally unstable—errant rather than peripatetic.

For Aristotle, what something is has to do with why it is as it is. The answer to this question is in each case fourfold. To know why a thing is as it is, one needs to know its four “causes” (or “becauses,” as some English translators have suggested), which are collectively responsible for the thing’s being as it is. These are its “material cause” or substance, which is what underlies the thing and remains the same despite whatever changes the thing undergoes; its “formal cause” (aspect or species), which is the shape or design that in-forms the matter and shapes its outward appearance at any given moment; its “efficient cause,” which is what first gets the thing going and originally motivates it; and its “final cause,” the end or destiny that the thing is oriented towards, which is what it’s “good for,” the cause it promotes.

Some have claimed that the four causes derive from the realm of artistic or technical production and are therefore fundamentally inadequate to explain natural (as opposed to artificial) phenomena. Nevertheless Aristotle argues that the explanatory power of the four causes is ontologically unlimited. Though he posits a strong distinction between what exists by techné (art) and what by physis (nature), the difference between them consists not of the kind or number of their causes, but rather of their internal diversity: the efficient and final causes of an artificial thing like a bed differ from one another, but the origin of a human being is also its end. This is the meaning of Aristotle’s proposition that artificial things are not responsible for their own movement, whereas natural things move themselves.4

By attributing form, substance, origins, and ends to everything, Aristotle’s theory of causes might seem to invite confusion about the difference between art and nature (a danger abetted by his indiscriminate use of analogies that conflate the two). Aristotle insists, however, that it is precisely this confusion which philosophy dispels. Near the beginning of the Metaphysics, Aristotle tells a sort of origin myth about philosophy. In fact he tells it twice, and the variations between the two tellings suggest that in philosophy, too, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Following Plato, Aristotle argues that the origin of philosophizing (i.e. its efficient cause) is wondering. As in English, the Greek verb “to wonder” (θαυμάζειν) suggests both astonishment (“How wonderful!”) and curiosity (“I wonder why...”). To wonder at something is to ask why it is as it is, i.e. to desire to know its causes. Aristotle hints that wonder originates philosophy both historically and individually. Just as philosophy first began with people wondering at everyday perplexities and working their way towards greater and more remote mysteries (from questions about the moon, to questions about the sun and stars, all the way up to questions about the cosmos as a whole), so the philosophical life of each human being begins “from wondering if things are as they seem, such as the self-moving marvels, or about the reversals of the sun [i.e. the solstices] or the incommensurability of the diagonal [of a square with its side]...” (Metaphysics, 983a13-15). Where the first catalogue of wonders progressed along a scale of distance (from the lunar to the astral to the cosmic), this second catalogue progresses along a scale of abstractness (from mathematical astronomy to geometry, i.e. pure mathematics) and also—though this is less explicit—along a scale of maturity. The Greek phrase rendered in English as “self-moving marvels” is “τῶν θαυμάτων ταὐτόματα” (literally “automata of the wonders”) and likely refers to the mechanized puppets one would see at ancient toy theaters. We begin, then, by wondering about the animatronics of wonderland. The point is that philosophy comes to clarify the confusions of childhood, and the paradigmatic example of such confusion would be mistaking something manmade for something natural. Only a child could be so misguided as to call a machine an “automaton” (i.e. something that self-moves), and by the same token no philosopher could find in such machines much cause for wonder. Indeed what distinguishes the φιλόσοφός from the φιλόμυθος is that unlike the lover of myths, who abides within the experience of wonder without carrying it through to its proper end, the lover of wisdom wonders his way to knowledge, a state that Aristotle describes as wonder’s opposite: “for nothing would cause a geometer so much wonder as if the diagonal of a square turned out to be commensurable after all.” Of course, such wonder could only be the symptom of incipient madness—as would be the wonder of the mechanic, if his machine were all of a sudden to stand itself up and run off by its own power.

The narrator’s discussion of Odradek is shot through with considerations about these Aristotelian concepts. Even before the descriptions of Odradek(-the being)’s matter, form, and end, these concepts are foreshadowed in the discussion of Odradek(-the word)’s genesis. There, the narrator claims that each of the word’s conjectured genealogies fails to constitute a plausible etymology, since neither is able to locate an original sense (Sinn). It would seem therefore that genetic research is doomed to remain within the general domain of formal analysis. When the narrator pivots on the announcement of “a creature called Odradek” he reorients his discussion both in terms of subject matter and in terms of methodological principle: where the linguists looked to the word and sought to locate its sense in its origin, he will look to the thing and seek to locate its sense in its end. This doesn’t mean that the narrator’s investigation won’t be morphological, but rather that Odradek will be approached as the kind of thing whose form evinces its function. Not morphology, then, but phrenology: a formalism whose methodological utility is guaranteed by a presupposed instrumental logic that it simultaneously confirms. When Odradek appears in person, it will thus be in the character of a tool—exactly the sort of being whose essence lies in its final cause.

Nevertheless, if Odradek seems to resemble a tool, just what it is that really makes him one is less clear. True to the form of so many of Kafka’s texts, the closer the narrator inspects his object, the less it conforms to what it appeared to be on a more generic level of analysis. Thus, Odradek looks at first like a flat, star-shaped spool of thread, and this observation seems to find confirmation in the fact that he is indeed wound with thread. So far, so good: Odradek resembles a simple tool (for storing, moving, and dispensing thread), and looks ready for use. But then the thread becomes a problem. One would expect a handy spool of thread for sewing or spinning to be wound with thread of a single texture and color, wrapped neatly around the spool’s axis with one end free. But Odradek’s thread is “of the most diverse types and colors,” and isn’t so much wound around him as sort of tangled over him (“stripped off, knotted up, and matted together”), making him practically useless for any of the simple functions a spool of thread is designed for.

Indeed, Odradek is so impractical, so unready-to-hand, that he seems to lose the very quality that distinguishes him a work of artifice in the first place. In theory, this shouldn’t be surprising. It’s not so hard for us to imagine that when things we’ve crafted are broken beyond repair (when “tech” becomes “junk”) they’re already en route back to the state of nature from which they came. We even have terms to differentiate between the various ways in which artificial things can revert to the realm of nature (a process known today as “bioremediation”). But Odradek’s uselessness manifests itself in a distinctly pre-modern fashion. Instead of being a “broken down remnant,” Odradek features the fully-automatic functionality typical of an Aristotelian natural being. The mystifying little crank mechanism that only seems good for helping Odradek balance “upright as if on two legs” becomes the motor of Odradek’s self-propulsion and the basis for his (literal) evasiveness. The cartoon logic of these mutations (which is precisely not a meta-morph-osis) is recognizable enough. It’s as though a broken e-reader that had been relegated to a paperweight were to start reading the papers it lay atop. The gadget isn’t dysfunctional; in fact it functions unnaturally well. What appears as the machine’s deformity is the sign of its evolution.

Thus for his very uselessness, Odradek can erect and move himself as man-made technologies (like Aristotle’s puppets) can only feign to do. He thus occupies an uncomfortable position with regards the traditional ménage à trois of nature, artifice, and man. On this schema, mankind distinguishes itself from the animal kingdom in particular and from the realm of brute nature in general through its exercise of technical reasoning—not just the ability to use tools, but the power of mind that enables mankind in the first place to experience the world as a sphere that can be articulated and manipulated. Many would readily subscribe to this schema or to one of its variations, and others (here I’m thinking of particular strains within the environmental and animal-rights movements, in which mankind is made to bear the burden of a sacred charge) support it indirectly, despite the avowed intentions of their discourses. It would be going too far to say that Odradek “unsettles” this schema. At best one could say that he has one foot on the inside and one on the outside, but that doesn’t mean he has a foot in the door. To be sure, Odradek gestures at the conditions of “settling” in general, but he doesn’t hold the door open; he breezes in and out unobserved, but he doesn’t pick any locks. I imagine him slipping, like a leaf, through the door’s cat flap (“Look what the cat dragged in”).

In this context, I read Odradek’s laughter as the call of Artificer-man’s conscience or as his anxiety dream. Mocking the narrator’s baby-talk interrogation, Odradek pronounces an unrecognizable word (the noun/name “o/Odradek”) and a bureaucratically formulated non-address (Unbestimmter Wohnsitz: “undetermined residence”). And then he laughs, “but it is only the kind of laughter that has no lungs behind it. It sounds rather like the rustling of fallen leaves.” As a figure, lungless laughter splits the human between artifice and nature. On the one hand, it suggests a laughter that is forced, false, mechanical and therefore lacking the spontaneity of an authentic, living affective response; on the other hand, it suggests the laughter of a sick body, a body so undone in its physicality that it can’t even muster the strength to express the most spontaneous of reflexes. A robotic laugh or a tubercular laugh—either one would be the sound of death: the first, the death inflicted on nature by the violence of man’s artifice; the second, the death inflicted on man by the indomitable nature within himself. The ensuing figure suggests that the second of the two deaths resonates more strongly in the narrator’s ear. Deciduous leaves is a classical trope for the death of a generation, and one that has been used since Homer to naturalize those deaths that from a human perspective seem unnatural, untimely, or violent. The figure anticipates the mortal threat that Odradek will come to pose to the narrator’s progeny (“Am I to suppose, then, that he will always be rolling down the stairs, with ends of thread trailing after him, right before the feet of my children, and my children’s children?”), but it also suggests a link between this danger and the sly operations of figurative language. If Odradek endangers the survival of the patronym, he also threatens to efface that violence through a process of retroactive naturalization, replacing the life of the patronym with the afterlife of a dead metaphor.

The father’s “care” is thus linked to a certain anxiety. In fact, this strikes me as not a bad translation of the title: “The Anxiety of the Patriarch.” The double genitive is decisive here—not only the anxiety that the patriarch experiences, but also the anxiety that experiences the patriarch as its object. If anxiety saturates the family man through and through, it is because the provenance of this anxiety is the patriarch himself. His cares concern, of course, the well-being of the family, but they specifically concern the survival of his lineage, the immortality of the patronym across an unlimited succession of family men. But since the condition of continuous succession is exposure to interruption and corruption, the patronym is doomed by virtue of the very structure that makes it possible. Odradek alludes to the unity of this ineradicable exposure, which both conditions the patriarch’s identity and guarantees the mortality of his legacy, with the insurmountable vulnerability of man’s position over and above nature by means of art. As a family and as a species, the house of man lives under a threat from “within,” one which operates at every level of transmission, beginning with the genetic code. Odradek is the deathly art of man’s natural life, the being that recalls the family man to the intolerable fact that the danger of fraying, tangling, dreading, and grafting is inextricable from the promise of spinning out and sewing a continuous lineage.

If Odradek embodies the irremediable vulnerability and corruptibility inherent to the movement of paternity, we can be sure that the real culprit is a woman. The fact that he resembles a spool of thread—a synecdoche for the traditionally feminine handicraft of sewing and metonym for the conspicuously absent mother—would suggest as much. Nevertheless, probably to avoid the pitfalls of Freudianism, a number of prominent theoretical and critical readings downplay questions about Odradek and gender.5 Most of these interpretations proceed along the lines of inquiry sketched by Walter Benjamin and Theodore Adorno, whose heated conversations about Kafka in the 1930s have proven widely influential, and for whom commodity fetishism was generally more fundamental than mother fetishism. But one need not resort to psychoanalysis in order to recognize Odradek’s femininity. In an early version of the “Sewing Kit” chapter of his Berlin Childhood around 1900, Benjamin named Odradek in connection with his childhood fascination with his mother’s spools of thread, whose sealed axial-holes his little fingers would penetrate with unutterable ecstasy. To be sure, Benjamin was careful to distance his prepubescent pleasures from the cares of Kafka’s family man (“the head of one of those ambiguous [i.e. sexually differentiated] families”), and one must also wonder just why it was that he ended up deleting those sentences in the course of his revisions. Nevertheless, Benjamin’s text provides strong testimony to the link between Odradek and sexual difference. Odradek’s hermaphroditism, which is both grammatical and morphological (it/she/he has a protruding crank where an axial hole should mb), reinforces this association.

For a joint theory of sexuality and technology that could help account for the link between Odradek’s femininity and his tool-being, one could look to the thought of Emmanuel Levinas. In addition to having the (arguable) benefit of being avowedly anti-psychoanalyic, Levinas’s discourse lends itself to being brought in conversation with the story by virtue of its emphasis on the home. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas names the home as the central figure for the centripetal movement of “interiority.” Both a site and an activity, the home (or “dwelling”) makes labor and instrumentality in general possible as its founding implement. The home offers refuge from the “faceless” “bad infinity” of the natural elements (which Levinas—unconsciously echoing Kafka—repeatedly describes as an “anonymous rustling”), which thus allows nature to become workable and appropriable as the furniture [meubles] of life—what Levinas calls “economic existence” (“economy”: from the Greek oikos, “household”; and nomos, “law”). Decisively for us, Levinas associates the essential quality of the home, its atmosphere of welcome, with the femininity of the Woman [La Femme], the veritable homemaker, whose hospitality and eroticism prefigure the vertical epiphany of the absolutely Other and the prosperous eternity of fecundity.

In this light, Odradek’s very elusiveness attests to his alliance with the feminine. Indeed Levinas’s description of the incomprehensibility of the Other’s face is more than a little reminiscent of the family man’s description of Odradek: “The face resists possession, resists my powers. In its epiphany, in expression, the sensible, still graspable, turns into total resistance to the grasp.” As the harbinger of the absolutely Other, Odradek would be ungraspable because he is the cornerstone of the domicile, the technology of the hearth itself (not a home appliance but the appliance of the home). And if we were to follow Levinas’s schema all the way through, we could re-interpret Odradek’s uselessness in radically ethical terms: if Odradek seems unfit for anything in particular, it’s not for reason of the Kantian prohibition of treating rational beings merely as means to ends, but because Odradek is the condition of doing good in the first place. On this reading, Odradek would be a good-for-nothing because s/he is Goodness incarnate.

But affiliating Odradek with the feminine home (and identifying him, accordingly, as the common origin of prosperity, fecundity, and goodness) brings Odradek’s threatening facelessness into all the more stark relief. One would like for the malevolent force that Odradek represents to have broken in upon the home from without. That way, the risk he poses to one’s children could at least in principle have been kept at bay. One would like, in short, for Odradek to have been a home-invader, a hostage-taker, a terrorist, anything but what he is: the essence of the home itself. Levinas erects a labyrinth of distinctions in an attempt to lock-out the negativity of the principle his thought is founded upon.6 I suspect that Kafka’s family man knows that the effort would be in vain. This is perhaps what lurks beneath the ambivalent utterance with which he closes the story: “He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.” Not painful per se, but “almost painful.” What is there, then, that mitigates or outweighs the simple pain of knowing that the most advanced security systems will be helpless to secure one’s legacy against destruction? It is not, as Adorno would have it7, the premonition that Odradek harbors the promise of overcoming the logic of patriarchy at long last, but rather the intolerable certainty that without the risk of eco-catastrophe, there could never have been a house or home, a today or tomorrow (and tomorrow and tomorrow) in the first place.


1Some say that the word “drone” stems from the Old English dran, dræn (“male honeybee”), after the Proto-Germanic dran- (“an insect, drone”) and Proto-Indo-European dʰrēn- (“bee, drone, hornet”). Others trace it to the Proto-Indo-European *dʰer- (“to roar, hum, drone”). While it could be the case that our euphemism for pilotless aircrafts owes its existence to the chain of successive metaphors springing from the (still active) sense of “male bee,” it is nevertheless interesting to note that the distinguishing characteristic of every “drone,” be it a thing or a sound, noun or verb, is its non-functionality. As an indolent bee, a social parasite, or an uncommunicative noise, a “drone” is (a) good-for-nothing. If the reader protests that male-bees and drones of other varieties are, in fact, good for something, and that their fault rather lies in their being good for one thing and one thing only, then the question becomes: by force of what prohibitions and by virtue of what values does something with a function—be it monomaniacal, monotone, etc.—get rounded down, discounted, censored, and thus disvalued for being virtually as-good-as-nothing?

2The text’s heteroglossia includes: the technical languages of linguistics (die Bildung des Wortes) and engineering (description of das Gebilde), the idioms of familiarity (“wie heißt du denn?“) and formality (“Unbestimmter Wohnsitz“), the styles of poetry (wie das Rascheln in gefallenen Blättern...), philosophy (“alles, was stirbt...eine Art Ziel”), bourgeois ideology (eine Art Tätigkeit), the Bible (meiner Kinder und Kinderskinder), and sober psychological self-reflection (die Vorstellung...).

3I strongly encourage those interested in the infamous debates over the meaning of the term “Odradek”—debates that first broke out (on this side of the text) with Max Brod’s interpretation in 1922 and that rage still—to read Werner Hamacher’s untouchable essay “The Gesture in the Name: On Benjamin and Kafka,” available in his book Premises.

4Aristotle announces this proposition at the head of his discussion of the four (be)causes in Book 2 of the Physics.

5I’m thinking in particular of Judith Butler’s and Giorgio Agamben’s interpretations, available in Giving an Account of Oneself and Parting Ways (Butler) and Stanzas (Agamben; the reader should be warned that, much like Odradek, Agamben’s interpretation is almost prohibitively elusive—suffice it to note that the fragmentary style of his writing and thought owes much to that of the late Adorno). For a (Lacanian) psychoanalytic interpretation that comes remarkably close to articulating the para-Levinasian dimension that I identify in the story, see Slavoj Žižek’s The Parallax View.

6And thus his house is haunted. With audible nervousness, Levinas insists that “[t]hose silent comings and goings of the feminine being whose footsteps reverberate the secret depths of being are not the turbid mystery of the animal and feline presence whose strange ambiguity Baudelaire likes to evoke.” Animals (as opposed to men) and poetry (as opposed to prose) are the most obvious of the many figures that disquiet the edifice of Totality and Infinity.

7In a famous letter to Benjamin (dated 17 December 1934), Adorno wrote:

If [Odradek’s] origin lies with the father of the house, does he not then precisely represent the anxious concern and danger for the latter, does he not anticipate precisely the overcoming of the creaturely state of guilt, and is not this concern [Sorge]—truly a case of Heidegger put right side up—the secret key, indeed the most indubitable promise of hope, precisely through the overcoming of the house itself? Certainly, as the other face of the world of things, Odradek is a sign of distortion—but precisely as such he is also a motif of transcendence, namely of the ultimate limit and of the reconciliation of the organic and the inorganic, or of the overcoming of death: Odradek “lives on” [überlebt: “survives”]. Expressed in another way, it is only to a life that it perverted in thingly form that an escape from the overall context of nature is promised...