In the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s 1915 story The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa awakens not as a cockroach struggling to escape his bed but as an interpellated black man struggling to escape the Western hemisphere. I preface my interpretation with an admission that I offer the critical reader a conceit to rival Kafka’s own, the enduring weight of which has, in peculiarity of both interest and insight, propelled his writing from his century into ours. Consider the human Gregor according to what he becomes: a dark-carapaced, living symbol of decadent biology, hidden away from and by the dominant culture, victim of an original sentence, mere animal bereft of the speech act, an innocent much abused by his social relations. Even Gregor’s heterosomatic blood is brown. For blood is the site where all racism makes its nest in the biological episteme of 1915 . I contend that Gregor goes to sleep a white bourgeois “commercial traveler” and wakes up a lumpenproletarian black man (Kafka 75).
Subaltern, for he cannot speak to authority without “a persistent horrible twittering squeak behind it like an undertone, which [leaves] the words in their clear shape only for the first moment and then [rises] up reverberating around them to destroy their sense, so that one [can] not be sure one [has] heard them rightly” (77). Lumpen, too, for he cannot engage in industry, Gregor the cockroach reveals in relief the relationship of productivity to whiteness and of the parasitic to blackness. This fallen, racialized modality of being I term Homo vermes, the most maligned product of the anti-humanist racial apparatus, that physical arm of ideological racism which is a racism without a human face at all.
Interpellation as a method of metamorphosis: to the specific mechanism of his fictive, anti-humanist-by-other means interpellation of the body that enforces Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis, Kafka pays no textual attention. In the text Gregor simply wakes up on his fateful day and that is it. Gregor’s “hard, as it were armor-plated, back” as “he lift[s] his head a little [so] he [can] see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments…His numerous legs, which [are] pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, [wave] helplessly before his eyes” (Kafka 75). Gregor’s body, nearly dead, is also newly racialized, reborn under the domination of racism. There exist subtle hints in Kafka’s story which refer to the racial dimension as that which separates the real life of men from the fatal myth of cockroaches along racial, existential, and class grounds, which I examine in turn.
Upon his metamorphosis, Gregor develops a sort of rash on his carapice, an “itching place which [is] surrounded by many small white spots,” discolored manifestations of the racial apparatus imparted by whiteness onto a white man no longer white, “the nature of which he [can] not understand” (Kafka 76). I consider Kafka here at his most anti-racist and as one such thinker par excellence. In his story, the evaluative site of race assumes the form of a radical anti-humanism which he, desperate to impart to the reader the insidious effects on body and mind of the racial apparatus, equates to a dehumanizing force so enormously powerful it abolishes the whole charactery of human species-being.
Gregor Samsa, the man become less than nothing, is less than that if he is not the twentieth century’s prime conceit of the dehumanized person in literature. Here Kafka’s depiction ad absurdum of the descent of man from the racial to the carapacial exemplifies his understanding of contemporary anti-humanist and anti-Semitic propaganda , which advised white people that other people were subhuman or of a different species entirely. That such a radical interpellation could overcome a hard-working commercial bourgeois, a devoted employee who supports his whole family by his labor alone, whose material practices prior to metamorphosis repeat the demands of capital willingly and slavishly, whose family surname, a Hungarian derivation of the the Hebrew Shemu’el, means literally “the name of God,” reproofs interpretations of The Metamorphosis as an undifferentiated allegory for alienation. The “name of God” here does not refer to the ancient tribes of Israel whose descendants lived, like Kafka, in a diasporic state in Prague. It refers to a formerly white man failed by counterfeit humanism.
The Metamorphosis is not, then, a literary example of the process of alienation in a vacuum; it is not a springboard for discussing the concept of alienation in itself, for Kafka wrote the other majority of his ouvre in regards to alienation qua alienation. Such is why we still read even the isolated paragraphs of Kafka today, in which his left and right hands have a wrestling match, and men become sensuous, hunted beasts. Which striking image, plot twist, or characterization of the unfortunates in the narrative of Gregor Samsa beyond Kafka’s whispered lacuna of the racial could possibly alienate the well-adjusted, self-sufficient salesman prior to his transformation? Gregor’s metamorphosis is representative of alienation, but it is representative of a specific type of alienation coded primarily by the racial apparatus of which the ethnically Jewish Kafka was, beyond a doubt, all too well aware.
Racial anti-humanism is that theory of the human which denies all humanism owing to race. The carapacial is that subject-position which has fallen below the sunken threshold of mere, familiar racism, as deadly as it is. The carapacial is that ontological status below the most maligned victims of the most vicious racism imaginable. My argument that Gregor becomes a Western black man may meet with the counter-reply that he devolves from a Jew into a vermin of popular racist caricature and so contextualizes a commentary not on blackness but on the so-called Jewish problem from below. Criteria of the alienation of Homo vermes from the social and familial totality for both demographics at the time were, admittedly, similar in tone, and both were certainly thought of as subhuman, which criterial dehumanizations feature, I think, important exceptions in their discursive contours.
The Jewish and the black man alike were, by and large, despised in Kafka’s century. Jean-Paul Sartre writes in Anti-Semite and Jew that “there is a disgust for the Jew, just as there is a disgust for the Chinese or the Negro among certain people…it is not from the body that the sense of repulsion arises…rather it is something that enters the body from the mind. It is an involvement of the mind, but one so deep-seated and complete that it extends to the physiological realm” (11). But that involvement of the mind “only serves [the anti-Semite] as a pretext; elsewhere his counterpart will make use of the Negro or the man of yellow skin” (54). Although alternate translations of the term Kafka uses to describe Gregor Samsa, Ungeziefer, render forth the words insect, cockroach, and vermin differently—vermin may be insect, rats, or other pests—a rat does not have feelers, nor can a rat crawl on a ceiling how Gregor does in latter parts of the story. Neither does the black man as an object of racist criticism possess enough use-value to satisfy the anti-humanist racial apparatus (for he is always and obviously human, too): he must become ever lesser until he is something which even moral men may stomp upon beneath their feet, something so abject and carapacial no one in Gregor’s family cares about him once he plunges into physical grotesquery, something to be first looked after and then eventually discarded.
The viciousness of anti-humanism stretches throughout the centuries. Voltaire, the anti-Semitic idol of the Enlightenment, writes in his Philosophical Dictionary that “I have never been in Judea, thank God! And I never will go there… Frederick II, when he saw this detestable country, said, loudly enough to be distinctly heard, that Moses must have been very ill advised to conduct his tribe of lepers to such a place as that” (263-64). The premier derogatory stereotype of the Jewish persona contemporary to Kafka’s time was that of a rat—such an anti-humanist theme would later rage forth in the propaganda of the Nazis but is, in fact, much older a theme than Hitler’s doctrine— rather than a cockroach, while stereotypes of the black man in the margins have long riffed on elements of the pestilential and the insectal. Kafka admits he wrote of an Insekt. For instance, compare the brutalization apparent in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Prioress’ Tale,” in which Jews living in their isolated ghetto slit the throat of a Christian child, to the historical likes of Cotton Mather’s treatment of the human status of “The Negro Christianized” or his sermon on the state-ordered death of the slave Joseph Hanno he entitled Tremenda: The Dreadful Sound with Which the Wicked are to be Thunderstruck.
Discursive themes on black pestilence have a history in the West almost as long as that of the facts of anti-Semitic pogroms. It predominated even in the New World discourse of the seventeenth century, when Cotton Mather penned execution sermons like Tremenda in efforts to convert the condemned and “miserable African” before his summary hanging, while conflating via his fundamentalist religion the diseases spread by unplanned urban living prior to germ theory with the possession, if not its proprietary ownership, of black skin enslaved under the regime of whiteness.
The black and insectal appear in reaction even in the exploding bombs of anti-colonial discourse. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon offers a tantalizing image of the racial, in which Fanon, “little by little, putting out pseudopodia here and there, I secreted a race” (92). If Kafka wanted to write about an alienated Jew in Europe, he would have written about such a subject-position without insisting on its silence. Instead, Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis, a story about a white man become black who, in consequence of the anti-humanist racial apparatus, becomes inhuman and carapacial.
The prevailing ethno-racism of the social thought of Kafka’s brief life, were he to reflect it back on itself in the ethical mirror of literature, would have bade him write Gregor as a character who sniffs the air of his apartment with his large, furry nose and who literally squirrels away fresh cheese, if Gregor were merely the caricature of the socially problematic Jew in Kafka’s critical imagination—not as a character radically alienated by the racial, who naturally consumes a diet of the rotten and degenerated food his sister Grete scatters to the floor of his bedroom, whose epidermis is replaced entirely with his uncanny carapice (Kafka 95). Interpellated Gregor has feelers but has neither a tail, fur, whiskers, nor any teeth at all. He is a carapacial rendition of the final product of the dehumanizing, hierarchizing discourse of racism, an animal ontologically beneath the lowliest of mammals under the regime of Western racism, a black man whose subject-position is more subordinate than that of the Jew less than a decade after the conclusion of the Dreyfus Affair and within a year of the Great War, which eventually unfolded its various crimes against humanity into Hitler’s racial doctrine writ gigantic.
The carapacial hide that covers Gregor’s racialized body bears little of the historical assaults on the chosen people or the propagandistic, bitter taints of blood libel. What constitutes his body is a reflective criticism—the shining carapice of a cockroach is itself reflective of the racial gaze—of those who criticize the humanism of blackness from the standpoint of whiteness weaponized entirely against blackness, whose author is ethnically Jewish, but who does not take here in The Metamorphosis the specter of Jewishness in particular as his urgent object. For here Kafka writes urgently. How, and why, does Gregor Samsa, if not quite his subjectivity as his capacity for sentience is not immediately impacted by his metamorphosis, become a cockroach? Kafka provides no specific explanation. The answer to this riddle of the racial apparatus, I think, lies mid-way between Martin Heidegger, who published his Being and Time in 1927, thirteen years after the publication of The Metamorphosis, and the 1970 theory of interpellation put forth by Louis Althusser. Kafka read neither Heidegger nor Althusser as he wrote his story, of course, but he was not unaware of the themes they would bring up as to how the human agent is summoned to become the living form of its opposite.
Kafka’s story can be understood in the light of Heidegger’s investigations of “the call” and Althusser’s conception of material interpellation via ideology. Happy, normalized Gregor is called—interpellated ideologically and thus materially—into his overnight devolution from one life-form of existence to another. Below I examine the mechanism of his metamorphosis via two philosophical anti-humanists, one a Nazi and the other a Marxist, and posit the universal significance of that mechanism for Kafka’s engagement with the anti-humanist racial apparatus, that wicked arm of the ideological which continues to haunt our culture as much as it haunted Kafka’s. In The Metamorphosis, even the universal is problematized as descending from the racial to that which produces and reduces Homo sapiens to Homo vermes, in whose body a virulently racist episteme comes home to roost.
Being and Time seeks to interpret two axes of universal experience. It is not Gregor’s notion of time that is appealed to by the racial apparatus; for all his newly-grown limbs and abilities to crawl upon his ceiling and consume degenerated food, his time spent among the social remains a grinding constant for him, however much his apartment becomes prison-like as his body becomes heterosomatic. His time remains very much the time of the family, though his phenomenology slides downward into ignorance—he forgets even that the seasons pass in the world beyond his apartment. Rather, it is his very being that is called to become carapacial by the appeal of the racial apparatus. I iterate how, via Heidegger, one can understand Gregor’s position. He falls into being by being called as a white man into the insectoid nether-realm of a racist society. How some people experience the call—as though awakening with one’s face in a water basin—Gregor falls ontologically, his face become, toothlessly, quietly, a symbol of the anti-human whose every social relation denounces him.
Heidegger writes in Being and Time that the “call ‘says’ nothing which might be talked about,” and which “gives no information about events,” much how Kafka is silent about Gregor’s devolving mechanism, and which “points forward to Dasein’s potentiality-for-Being,” that is, being another species below even what the racists refer to as the lowest race, “and it does this as a call which comes from [the] uncanniness” of “thrown individualization” (325). Is this not Gregor’s real instantiation of the racial, thrown into being a cockroach, in his uncomfortable, uncanny carapice? Gregor did not study the hardy texts of existentialism to become a cockroach; nor did he proof the ancient Heraclitus against his thesis that all things exist in fluxual metamorphosis. But Heidegger continues:
When the call gives us a potentiality-for-being to understand, it does not give us one which is ideal and universal; it discloses it as that which has been currently individualized and which belongs to that particular Dasein… Whatever the ways in which conscience is experienced or interpreted, all our experiences ‘agree’ on this ‘Guilty!’. Because Dasein has falling as its kind of Being, the way Dasein gets interpreted is for the most inauthentically ‘oriented’ and does not reach the ‘essence’; for to Dasein the primordially appropriate ontological way of formulating questions remains alien… this ‘Guilty!’ turns up as a predicate for the ‘I am’” (326).
Enough ink has been spilled about the relationship between Kafka and affective guilt—his father has probably been written about more than any other father excepting the celestial father of Christianity. “’Being-guilty’ also has the signification of ‘being responsible for’—that is, being the cause or author of something, or even ‘being the occasion’ for something,” according to Heidegger (327). Gregor’s metamorphosis is Kafka’s occasion to discuss guilt but it is also an occasion to discuss something else.
Of more importance is his relationship with Homo vermes, those who come to be defined by not the affect of guilt but the very ontological status of being-guilty of being Homo vermes. Cockroaches, after all, are guilty of nothing: they act on the world solely according to their nature. But the nature of men is manifold, capable of every emotion, and capable likewise of every dehumanizing transformation. So, too, with those assaulted by the ideology of the hardcore racists like de Gobineau and his followers. The Metamorphosis can be understood not as offering a projection of universal doom to those called into racial hierarchy but as a universal state of being, Homo vermes, who are not taken as the subectal object of the hated Jew but rather as the black man. It is at once a place for all to fall into the uncanny inhuman and a specifically designed reservoir of those most hated by the hegemonic sphere of culture. “In uncanniness,” writes Heidegger, “Dasein stands together with itself primordially. Uncanniness brings this entity face to face with its undisguised nullity, which belongs to the possibility of its ownmost potentiality-for-Being” (333). Gregor becomes a nullity where previously he was a full man integrated into the social life of the industrial West. This generous interpretation of the family, the productive enemy of all uncanny individualism, also has its problematic, which even through Kafka does not deliver freedom to those haunted by blackness.
So-called existential freedom under the umbrage of race offers stranger miseries than are usual in the course of human life. “Freedom, however, is only in the choice of one possibility—that is, in tolerating one’s not having chosen the others and one’s not being able to choose them” (Heidegger 331). The call to the carapacial is not universalist in scope, according to Heidegger: it calls only the absolute minority. Of course, the most absolute minority is “that which is individualized,” that is, the individual who “has falling as its kind of Being” (326). Every man is potentially and thus universally such material for metamorphosis, and so every calling develops into the universal via particularity. Every person is potentially Homo vermes according to one’s particular regime of episteme, depending on which kind of persons it casts aside and which kind it lets live; but every person is not individually threatened by being called into such a state of being as Homo vermes in Kafka’s episteme.
This horror of being Homo vermes is reserved for the black man in Kafka. “’Making oneself responsible’ by breaking a law…can indeed also have the character of ‘coming to owe something to Others’. This does not happen merely through law-breaking as such, but rather through my having the responsibility for the Other’s becoming endangered in his existence, led astray, or even ruined” (Heidegger 327). A more complete ruin than that of Gregor Samsa has not been written about except perhaps for the ruin of Job. The specter of racism, which always already references the most inauthentic mode of being human (the racial misrecognition of biology) to which humanistic critique is completely opposed, does not threaten everyone, at least not in Kafka’s sense. It threatens the carapacial who once upon a time were racial. In short, the human being, as utterly human as any other example of the species, becomes utterly less than that once he is called into being an example of Homo vermes.
The absolute minority is the individual Gregor Samsa who falls—I might term this waking up—into another level of species-being. I shall say more of his race and carapace. Gregor the salesman is white, but Gregor the cockroach is not: he has fallen into being a black man, the lowest scale of being according to the racist evaluation of his time, whose missionary impact Kafka seeks to deflect and re-humanize from head to hue. That is, Gregor transforms from the white universal into the black particular, whose instance must necessarily exist in a state of guilt so profound he grows insectal feelers, the uncanny ability to crawl on ceilings, and the capacity to put like with like in his diet of consumption—a rotten body able only to enjoy rotten food. Human beings typically do no such thing no matter their race; nor should any of us, save the racists, ever live in such a state of guilt. Only interpellated Homo vermes can exist in such a state, and at that, only when imagined by an author consumed by the notion that race dehumanizes a man called by anti-humanist racial apparatus.
But Homo vermes here is an imaginary object. No human being is a vermin. Racists rarely know they operate in the realm of the imaginary, that Homo vermes offers hope for humanism even when Gregor’s abused, humiliated body flattens unto his death, when he dies unmourned in a story written onto paper by the anxious fingers of a Prague Jew writing of the black man as an epitomic object of humanist criticism, or when the failed strategies of racists aim to build a master race but only offer posterity a long and painful laughter. Racial hatred is as absolute and boundless as the human. For the racists who developed Nazism, Kafka could be hated twice; the problematic Jew thrice over; but the black man has been hated ad infinitum even by those who offered theories that rendered humanism solute and replied still in 1915: but, he, the human, is still the aspect of the “miserable African.”
Kafka’s racists hated the Jew who wrote of blackness and so indirectly produced, via the medium of Kafka’s agency, the narrativa exemplum of anti-racism that defined their own century, equal in misery as the plodding century which howled of the plight of Cotton Mather’s “miserable African.” Yet this newer pessimism was confined to the domain of the racist, whose thinking was also novel for all its destructive faults; for, I think, the first true racist was born alongside the first cosmopolitan (consider the sea-faring Portuguese entry into the slave trade). Kafka, anti-racist, prevails against the racial apparatus all the more hopefully because he disproves the critical field of racist attention as living on fallow soil. We see more of Kafka’s defense of Homo vermes in the light of Althusser’s long essay On the Reproduction of Capitalism now that the race-thinking Heidegger inverts himself.
For Althusser, every man, woman, and child alive and active in modern society is recruited by that ideology which reproduces the status quo—“the State”—which “recruits them all” to its immanent demands (190). The state is not co-incident with the figureheads of government. It is co-incident with the state of economy and culture which rules a particular society. In other terms, what nineteenth-century Marxists called false consciousness is consciousness itself defined by material practice imposed from birth onward by the directive, reproductive needs of how things always already are and need to keep on being. It is this form of consciousness which, for Althusser, “recruits them all” into being subjects. But Gregor is not recruited into the economistic mold of the state, which tells its workers what to do and when to do it. He is recruited into a debased subjectivity even while maintaining sentience of such, which apparatus tells the racialized worker how to labor (or, in this instance, how not to labor); and more importantly, how to perform that lacunic labor which compares a dignified man to a man who relinquishes all dignity of the self. “We,” writes Althusser, “know what that means: these apparatuses operate apparently ‘all by themselves,’ without recourse to violence. In fact, they function thanks to means other than violence, namely, on ideology, or rather, ideologization” (79). The status quo of which Althusser writes needs people to die quietly. One such ideologized person is Gregor, who becomes an instance of Homo vermes, a vermin incapable of any speech act in consequence of the racial apparatus.
Kafka’s observation proves true as it metamorphoses from the realm of pure idea to the realm of materiality, material repetition, and material embodiment of which the recruited Gregor is a short-lived example. “We shall go on to suggest ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way to ‘recruit’ subjects among individuals (it recruits them all) or ‘transforms’ individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) through the very precise operation that we call interpellation or hailing” (Althusser 190). If guilt becomes an Insekt then Homo vermes is personal false consciousness become blackness entirely assumed. “This is a strange phenomenon, after all, one that cannot be explained by ‘guilt feelings’ alone, despite the large numbers of people with ‘something on their consciences” (Althusser 191). Prior to Gregor’s racial guilt, who, as a former bourgeois white man, did not know he could interpolate into blackness, and so was never aware of a false consciousness which is not false at all, Gregor was only a white man engaged in labor. In fact, it seems Gregor did very little else but work for the capitalist system prior to his metamorphosis; and prior to this event, Gregor was not carapacial and was probably not even racial in the sense that he was blind to his whiteness by virtue of being white. I say more of Althusser’s theory of interpellation before I say more of Kafka’s most tragic and carapacial character.
In his essay on ideology, Louis Althusser, in explaining his theory of material interpellation, rarely concerns himself with false consciousness, for such is the orthodox form of the enslavement of the workers with which he takes especial issue. Neither does Kafka much concern himself with false consciousness, for he, like the later Althusser, understands that the concept of the human is at odds with theories of the racial, the biological misrecognition of man, and those dehumanizing theories of the carapacial which he depicts at their harshest materialization in The Metamorphosis. For Kafka, the metaphorical is material. False consciousness is as false as race—the black man under realism’s regime is never Homo vermes and is always as human as Kafka, as you, or as I—but it does offer local criticism of the gigantic monster of the racial apparatus, whose form of praxis is racial anti-humanism.
That a Nazi like Heidegger or a Marxist like Althusser offer a fresh locus of criticism for Kafka’s work, even from the standpoints of two opposing totalitarian tendencies, exclaims his righteous demonization of all that is racial and all that tends towards the monstrous and the carapacial, which, as evidenced by his story, are exactly identical in critical orientation. Kafka supports the universal as much as anti-humanist thought supports the merely particular. The racial apparatus is as “repulsive” and “bound to go on being repulsive ” as Gregor (Kafka 101). A well-adjusted man like Gregor should worry that he might become, in the course of one dark night of the soul, an “Insekt.” Materially successful by Kafka’s account, keen on his nuclear family, happily individual, Gregor awakens, via no recognizance of his own, in the being-toward-death of a cockroach who loses his job, who slaved for capital and family through his own will and becomes a parasite without will, who integrates the sin of knowledge into a wound in his back—a book could be written about the apple lodged into his carapice and the sort of horrible knowledge its imposition represents as it rots—who whistles through his jaw, for he no longer has access to the Logos which is universally constitutive of the human being.
Gregor is the first cockroach who has a neocortex but no tongue. He dies as black and fallen as the Fanoniansubject whose will to revolution is killed under colonialism. Fanon writes of the colonized subject that “in plain talk, he is reduced to the state of an animal. And consequently, when the colonist speaks of of the colonized he uses zoological terms. Allusion is made to the slithery movements…to the hordes, the stink, the swarming, the seething, and the gesticulations” (7). Kafka seems to have noticed such a process in his own time, writing of Gregor that “hardly was he down [from his formerly upright posture] when he experienced for the first time this morning a sense of physical comfort; his legs had firm ground under them; they were completely obedient, as he noted with joy; they even strove to carry him forward in whatever direction he chose; and he was inclined to believe that a final relief from all his sufferings was at hand” (89). If Gregor wakes up in the bed he has peacefully slept in all his life as a cockroach against whom society must be defended, so may anyone, for such caprice of the carapacial “final relief” informs Gregor with the knowledge of that insidious operation by which the awful genius of anti-humanism operates its racial apparatus.
…Gregor realized that the lack of of all direct human speech for the past two months together with the monotony of family life must have confused his mind, otherwise he could not account for the fact that he had quite earnestly looked forward to having his room emptied of furnishing. Did he really want his warm room, so comfortably fitted with old family furniture, to be turned into a naked den in which he would certainly be able to crawl unhampered in all directions but at the price of shedding simultaneously all recollection of his human background? (104)
The racial apparatus reduces everyone to Homo vermes not collectively but one by one. It reduces them all from a human background to a background that must not be spoken of in polite company, which reminds one of the rotten, the degenerate, and the dying whose death is not even a human sort of death.
I hope here to write the obituary of Homo vermes although Gregor’s death warrants no funeral. No one cares that he has died where in boyhood he used to sleep in peace—indeed, his family cared much more about Gregor when he paid all their bills. Kafka writes, “They had simply got used to [his employment], both the family and Gregor; the money was gratefully accepted and gladly given, but there was no special uprush of warm feeling” (98). Now that he is black and poor, no one fixes for him the final funereal suit which clothes the dead until they look as they were at their best in life, replete with rosy cheeks, meditative features, and business attire. Born Homo sapiens, Gregor exits this world Homo vermes, nuder and somehow more vulnerable than the day he was born. The Samsa family’s charwoman, a simple proletarian not much removed from economic slavery, sweeps away his carcass, now “completely flat and dry, as could only now be seen when it was no longer supported by the legs and nothing prevented one from looking closely at it,” as though his carapacial body were as ephemeral as his memory (Kafka 125). What use does the capitalist society of 1915 Europe, edging into the long race war whose end we refer to as World War Two, have for the racialized and the socially damned?
The West’s current multiculturalism, which is both historically nascent and yet already dissolves in its hopeful adolescence, is a long reaction to the parasitic specter of Kafka’s Homo vermes. Western thought thinks of black men and vermin as occupying the same ontological territory: one of “streaks of dirt stretched along the walls” and “here and there” “balls of dust and filth” (Kafka 114). It considers these categories of the anti-human under a dismal gaze that identifies eternally the black with the pestilential and announces that this foul identity is acceptable, required even, for the maintenance of the social whole. The West needs its cockroaches as upon a century it needed its slaves. Kafka writes, “The decision that [Gregor] must disappear was one that [Gregor] held to even more strongly than his sister…The first broadening of light in the world outside the window entered his consciousness once more. Then his head sank to the floor of its own accord and from his nostrils came the last faint flicker of his breath” (124). Gregor, worn down by the slow death of his metamorphosis, wants at last to die, and finally, quietly does. He can bear no longer his interpellation from a happy man into a hated brute, of living a grotesque rendition of social death, removed from all possibility of communication with those who formerly shared even his blood, of being called into being poor and black.
Western society, a fantastically brutal example of the battle between the human and the racial in which the racial is often victor, must be defended against the carapacial specter. I declare this warning admittedly as a white man who is recognized as such by our society and who has largely escaped the suicidal call of the racial apparatus. For, we in the West, whether we adhere to the liberal register or the fascist, continue to think in terms imposed by our defining history of anti-humanism. We who defend the liberal imperative reproduce these categories and their moral lots as a matter of course, whose real and active course of thought we tend to neglect because it often does not affect our bodies or our subject-positions. For even Gregor’s sister, Grete, who loved him deeply before his metamorphosis, winds up declaring to her family that Homo vermes, once her brother, so thoroughly dehumanized he crawls around in his own filth, is not a victim of larger circumstance, but a “creature” who “persecutes us” (122). Franz Kafka, whom the social theorist of Theodor Adorno once called “the solipsist without ipseity,” is a hero to match the villainy in his stories and, indeed, a hero to counter our own hypocritical villainy which calls the very victims of the hegemonic racial ideology of whiteness our persecutors in turn (237). We persecute those who have been persecuted when we say, “Look, a cockroach!”
We have failed to enact in practical terms our ideals of the essential equality of Homo sapiens. Our failure does not surprise me, for even the heirs of Hitler think of themselves as heroes of the social order. Fascism, I suspect, is the insectal answer to our failing liberalism. Everywhere, Homo vermes lives outside of our sight, and everywhere he lives within our borders: who cannot think of one’s neighbors as potentially harboring some miserable Gregor Samsa, right next to one’s own house, looking forlornly beyond his window at those who have abandoned him in his hour of need?
Western abuse of world history and subsequently of every individual living within its course, if by this point the West still has a course, is a moral lesson against our anti-humanism, which we continue to reproduce even in our most liberal praxes. No one loves Gregor at his most vulnerable. Those who should be kindest to him throw him away as though he were the same trash they fed him. Race is where the hopeless go to die; it is the ontological means by which they are disposed of. It is my hope, now that we know its embodied horrors from our feelings to his feelers, that anti-humanism is selfsame with the realm of the racial, and that its meanest imposition onto blackness is the carapacial imposition, finds its grave-site sooner rather than later, and, furthermore, that this deadly manner of thinking and acting alongside our fellow human beings is buried near wherever it was the devitalized Ungeziefer found his resting place, as the word “nigger” was buried, if Kafka ever did bury Gregor.
Adorno, Theodor. “In nuce.” Minima Moralia. Verso, 2005. 236-238.
Althusser, Louis. On the Reproduction of Capitalism. Verso, 2014. 74-191.
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Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Prioress’ Tale.” The Canterbury Tales. Penguin, 2003. 170-76.
Fanon, Frantz. “The Lived Experience of the Black Man.” Black Skin, White Masks. Grove Press, 2008. 89-119.
—. “On Violence.” The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press, 2004. 1-62.
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Haraway, Donna. “Universal Donors in a Vampire Culture: It’s All in the Family. Biological Kinship Categories in the Twentieth-Century United States.” Modest Witness @ Second Millennium. Routledge, 1997. 213-315.
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Herman, Arthur. “Afloat on the Wreckage: Arthur de Gobineau and Racial Pessimism.” The Idea of Decline in Western History. The Free Press, 1997. 53-60.
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Jeremy Brunger, originally from Tennessee, is a writer attending a graduate program at the University of Chicago. His interests trend toward the Marxian: how capital transforms us, abuses us, mocks us. His writing on philosophy and politics has been featured on Truthout, The Hampton Institute, and 3 AM Magazine and his poetry has appeared in the Chiron Review and Sibling Rivalry Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- See Donna Haraway’s article in which she delineates the genealogy of race-thinking according to a temporal, triadic conception of social thought, beginning with the thinking of the “blood,” passing through “population” theory, and ending with an account of the “genetic” cognizance of the human (219). Kafka wrote his story in 1912, three years prior to publication, but this period of writing is congruent with the “blood” episteme of contemporary social thought on race.↵
- Such propaganda was inspired to the last by the declinist racial theories of Arthur de Gobineau who, to his small credit, did not think such a degeneration as Samsa experiences was possible. For the anti-bourgeois de Gobineau, the differences between races—for him these differences were very real and world-historically meaningful—were permanent and immutable. The Inequality of Human Races explicitly denounces two progressive ideas: the improvement of the races towards equality, and the mutable nature of race. A minority race could not actually descend to the level of the insect even for this hardcore racist, albeit his curiously ill-informed observations made little impression on the half-educated racists of Kafka’s era, who took the theories of de Gobineau to their extreme logical conclusions. See Arthur Herman’s “Afloat on the Wreckage: Arthur de Gobineau and Racial Pessimism” in The Idea of Decline in Western History for Herman’s account of the nineteenth-century transition of race meaning lineage to race meaning biology.↵
- See Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, in which the infernal machine, a literal apparatus, inscribes one’s sin on one’s skin.↵
- See Michael Frasetto’s article “Medieval Attitudes Toward Muslims and Jews.” He writes, “In the thirteenth century, the blood libel emerged, which held that the Jews killed Christians and used their blood in Passover ceremonies. The notion that they were subhuman also developed. Jews were depicted in animal forms, with horns and tails, crooked noses, and were thought to give off a foul odor” (79). Black Death Europe, it seems, had no cockroaches, but plenty of rodents.↵
- See Berfosky’s New Yorker article on the difficulty of translating Kafka’s German “hazy focus” into English.↵
- Even the hyper-egalitarian Karl Marx, himself of Jewish origin, was not above referring to another man, Lassalle, as “the Jewish nigger” in private correspondence, a contrary apotheosis of race-thinking if ever there was one.↵
- See Mark Wiener’s chapter “Let Us Make a Tryal” from Black Trials: Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the End of Caste in which he examines the conflation of the black with the parasitic in the discourse of Cotton Mather.↵
- In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon has nothing to say about Kafka’s story but much, I imagine, to say about its outcomes regarding Hegelian recognition and the suicidal diminution imparted by racism. He does not often touch on the theme of anti-humanism and cannot be characterized as such a thinker; his criticism tends always to focus, like a rounded glass beneath the sun, on those most in agreement with him whose theories on race and Africa disagreed with his own. Hegel famously writes that Africa has no history; Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, hated Hegel’s dialectics, and yet Fanon synthesizes both in a clinical diagnosis of the racial apparatus. “The Lived Experience of the Black Man” even resembles the description of the concept of interpellation in Althusser: “Look! A Negro!” (89).↵
- See Michel Foucault’s Society Must be Defended!, his 1975-76 lecture on the development of racism in Europe and in particular his theory that the state requires the racial apparatus in order to go on functioning (254-58).↵