Deleuze and Guattari: the subversive minor literature of Franz Kafka

Deleuze and Guattari: the subversive minor literature of Franz Kafka

"Kafka emphatically declares that a minor literature is much more able to work over its material.” - Deleuze and Guattari

Deleuze and Guattari (Right side)

The “Kafka: Toward a minor literature” was written in conjunct by Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze. French, they had already published the “Anti-Oedipus” when this study about the works of Kafka was published in 1975. Both of them dedicated themselves to philosophy, psychology and studies about art and politics.

In this second collaborative work they propose a new approach to Kafka’s works. This approach delineates a writing that contrasts with the major literature: that of the literary canon and habited by great masters. Deleuze and Guattari introduces us to what they call “minor literature”, a revolutionary way of writing that, as Kafka foresaw, puts this kind of creations beyond the realm of the classic works and the traditional literary criticism.

Kafka was born in a German speaking family while living in Prague. They were Jewish and there was an almost hostile relation between those who spoke German and those who spoke Czech. He spoke both but considered the German his mother tongue. It was in this environment where culture, territory and the politics collide that Kafka created his works. And it’s from these conflicts that Deleuze and Guattari draw their discussion about the minor literature as related to Kafka:

“A minor literature doesn't come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language. But the first characteristic of minor literature in any case is that in it language is affected with a high coefficient of deterritorialization. In this sense, Kafka marks the impasse that bars access to writing for the Jews of Prague and turns their literature into something impossible—the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German, the impossibility of writing otherwise.”
“The three characteristics of minor literature are the deterritorialization of language, the connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation. We might as well say that minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary conditions for every literature within the heart of what is called great (or established) literature.”

Deleuze and Guattari (Right side)

The minor literature positions itself beyond the formal criticism; it’s not a fix object in a category, but an expression machine:

“Only in this way can literature really become a collective machine of expression and really be able to treat and develop its contents. Kafka emphatically declares that a minor literature is much more able to work over its material.”

Taking Kafka’s German as an example, they defend that there are two ways of creating this machine:

“But there are only two ways to do this. One way is to artificially enrich this German, to swell it up through all the resources of symbolism, of oneirism, of esoteric sense, of a hidden signifier. But this attempt implies a desperate attempt at symbolic reterritorialization, based in archetypes, Kabbala, and alchemy, that accentuates its break from the people and will find its political result only in Zionism and such things as the "dream of Zion." Kafka will quickly choose the other way, or, rather, he will invent another way. He will opt for the German language of Prague as it is and in its very poverty. Go always farther in the direction of deterritorialization, to the point of sobriety. Since the language is arid, make it vibrate with a new intensity.”

Guattari and Deleuze see in James Joyce and Samuel Beckett the example of writers whose language allowed them to write in the same manner as Franz Kafka did with his German:

“That is the glory of this sort of minor literature—to be the revolutionary force for all literature. The utilization of English and of every language in Joyce. The utilization of English and French in Beckett. But the former never stops operating by exhilaration and overdetermination and brings about all sorts of worldwide reterritorializations. The other proceeds by dryness and sobriety, a willed poverty, pushing deterritorialization to such an extreme that nothing remains but intensities.”

Franz Kafka

However, you don’t have to write in German as a Czech nor in English as an Irish. Or, and this is my contribution, to write in Portuguese as a Brazilian to create the minor literature, your own machine. They believe it is possible to write minor literature even if you had the misfortune (and here it’s their adjective) of being born under a great language:

“What interests him even more is the possibility of making of his own language-assuming that it is unique, that it is a major language or has been—a minor utilization. To be a sort of stranger within his own language; this is the situation of Kafka's Great Swimmer.
To make use of the polylingualism of one's own language, to make a minor or intensive use of it, to oppose the oppressed quality of this language to its oppressive quality, to find points of nonculture or underdevelopment, linguistic Third World zones by which a language can escape, an animal enters into things, an assemblage comes into play.”

In this book Guattari and Deleuze invite you to subversion, but draws attention to the responsibility of the writer. To reproduce the status quo, even in unconscious ways, is not something the writer can abdicate after indulging in the conservative side of the language. To see literature beyond of what’s said is to evaluate how things are said, to bend the language or to deprive it of it’s familiarity, and those are choices that have to be considered by the writer.

Complement this Reading notes with the article about the Death of the Author as seen by Roland Barthes, the similarity of methods and theories between Barthes, Deleuze and Guattari is essential to understand the place of the critics and the relation between writer and literature.

Bibliography: DELEUZE, Gilles; GUATTARI, Félix – Kafka: Toward a minor literature. London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8166-1514-4. Translator of the quotations: Dana Polan