The explorer seemed to have accepted merely out of politeness the Commandant’s invitation to witness the execution of a soldier condemned to death for disobedience and insulting behavior to a superior. [20]

Kafka’s story, “In the Penal Colony”, reverses the narrative of a technological intervention which, in the sphere of justice, renders discourse moot. The explorer in this tale happens upon the penal colony on the day of the last use of an infernal machine–on the day of its destruction and the death of its last remaining proponent. This ironic and perverse inversion acts to emphasize the cruelty of the dawning of an age where a synthesis of bureaucratic method and mechanical execution conspire to radically redefine the meaning and function of not just justice, but of the faculty of judgment itself. Language here­–in the machine, and the system of justice that radiates from it–has lost its rhetorical use; it cannot sustain dialog or dialectic. It confines itself to a unilateral deployment that preserves only the instrumentalized and performative functions of utterance. It can only accuse and punish. It can act, but it cannot communicate nor commune.

The figure of the explorer embodies a messianic fantasy of deliverance from the nightmare of an Asiatic despotism married to the fetishization of a cold, hyper-rational, mechanical efficiency. Here too, there is a reversal; the colonialist imaginary is inverted so that the colony becomes the origin of a machinic tyranny, and Europe figures as the strange source of a romantic Ludite-humanisim.

This colony is an island, and so is the officer, the explorer, the prisoner, and the machine. They are all isolated monads floating in a sea of indifference and disconnection. Each character is painfully aware of his singular status, his inability to persuade the others or even to communicate with them. The barriers are multiple fields of difference: language, authority, culture, nationality, status. And the machine has lost its audience and its creator; it exists in a field of blind inertial facticity. Even so, the machine draws a set of these monads into a temporary and precarious configuration around itself. It shapes a network, and as if possessed of an agency more complete than that of the people around it, it stages the events of its demise and erasure. This machinic will is somehow responsible for not only the end the juridical regime of which it is the center, but for the alteration of language: its instrumentalization. It takes, it seems, the presence of a machine to effect this cruel transformation. While the working of the machine on the body of the condemned models the direct transformation of people by technical activity, the sheer presence of the machine, the mere witness of its operations, has transformative properties as well. There is a contagion of automatic functioning that extends from the machine to those in its attendance.

“The lower one is called the ‘Bed,’ the upper one the ‘Designer,’ and this one here in the middle that moves up and down is called the ‘Harrow.’” ...

“As soon as the man is strapped down, the Bed is set in motion. It quivers in minute, very rapid vibrations, both from side to side and up and down. ... in our Bed the movements are all precisely calculated; you see, they have to correspond very exactly to the movements of the Harrow. And the Harrow is the instrument for the actual execution of the sentence.”

The apparatus of execution has a three part construction that consists of a controlling mechanism, the Designer, an inscribing mechanism, the Harrow, and a holding mechanism, the Bed. This familiar structure of automation symbolically presents the ontic division of existence into mind, body, and world, as well as the conditions of mechanical instrumentalization which depend on the externalization of human parts and faculties as prosthetics. In the body of this machine we have a head, and two hands, one writing, and one holding. Making consists of controlling the grasping and the transforming of the otherness of materiality; it requires exactly these parts: for controlling, grasping and transforming respectively. The story, showing that writing is structured in this way, just as is any other technology, threatens to expose the ideology of languages immateriality as a diaphanous disguise for the physicality of persuasion.

“He doesn’t know the sentence that has been passed on him?” “No,” said the officer again, pausing a moment as if to let the explorer elaborate his question, and then said: “There would be no point in telling him. He’ll learn it on his body.”

If language is then a matter of physical persuasion, talk is redundant and irrelevant. Is it a demand for efficiency, a principal that the machine supposedly brings with it, that guarantees that redundant gestures are not performed? Does the machine disqualify other criteria which might advocate for gestures motivated by play, compassion, or pleasure? Rule is provided here by the officer and not by the machine. It is his becoming machine, in what Mcluhan identifies as a narcissistic reincorporation of a misrecognized exterior image of the self, that forces this efficiency.[21]

My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted.

The captain came to me an hour ago, I wrote down his statement and appended the sentence to it. Then I had the man put in chains. That was all quite simple. If I had first called the man before me and interrogated him, things would have got into a confused tangle.

Judgment becomes mechanical as an avoidance of the confusion of accusation and defense, which would require the negotiation of opposed deployments of rhetoric. There can be no mechanical resolution of disputes and contested facts, of stories told from more than one perspective. In his allegiance to method, the officer adheres to a nominalization of justice that requires no judgment whatsoever. All that is required is to name the criminal and to name the crime. Justice consist in the perfunctory task of suturing one to the other inside the penal apparatus.

So there have to be lots and lots of flourishes around the actual script; the script itself runs around the body only in a narrow girdle; the rest of the body is reserved for the embellishments.

The machine is actually not efficient at all, but is in thrall to a very particular aesthetic, which demands of it a baroque ornamentation, as a way to align means and ends according to the strict rhythms of mechanical time. Temporal exactitude is what guides the art of the machine–not efficiency exactly, but speed and tempo. Machines make work for themselves in order to fill their time, and they make work for us as well.

... for he traveled only as an observer, with no intention at all of altering other people’s methods of administering justice.

The explorer traveled under this Startrekian prime directive, the refusal to interfere or change the other; and yet, in Kafka’s moral tale, his presence seems to catalyze the downfall of the machine. The disapproving gaze of the stranger is the condition under which the machine and its proponent dismantle themselves. He listens passively, yet unmoved, to the officer’s explanations. He, almost silently, simply refuses to assent; and this is enough to set the fall in motion.

This story, however, inverts the time and the space of the machine’s domination. “In The Penal Colony” portrays the machine already in decline, and at the very end of its reign, at the very periphery of the circuits of power. It is not hard to imagine that in that situation a small gesture could cause its demise. We can hardly imagine, though, that a small gesture in the present could collapse a system in its ascendancy, and at the height of its power. And neither can we imagine a place outside this regime from which we might come to intervene. At a time where there is a foreclosure of discursive possibilities, it might seem appealing to relinquish as well the faculties of scrutiny, and thereby forgo the anguish that their use will cause. Still, there remains the option, and perhaps even the obligation, to observe, as long as the fantasy of observation as resistance can be sustained. Otherwise, if another chance to speak with force comes, what will we say? And might there be something that observation will prompt us to do?


[20] All quotations from Franz Kafka, “In the Penal Colony,” The Complete Stories, Ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, New York, Schocken Books, 1971.

[21] Marshall Mcluhan, Understanding Media; The Extensions of Man, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2001, p.11.