Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Post-Structuralist Critique of Kafka's 'Metamorphosis'

"Literary Theory Week" continues.  In my English 2600 class taught by Professor Albrecht-Crane at UVU, we began by reading the short story "The Metamorphosis" by Franz Kafka.  Then we applied every theory we discussed (one a week) to that short story.  Here is the third paper I had to write on the approach known as post-structuralism:

In contrast to the more traditional liberal humanist way of interpreting a novel which focuses on universal themes and morals seemingly implicit in the plot itself, the theory of post-structuralism—rather like structuralism—looks beyond plot and hones in on the actual structure of the language itself.  Unlike structuralism, however, post-structuralism is skeptical in finding any meaning at all, taking the ideas of structuralism one step further in revealing that if words are arbitrary, meaning itself must be also.  In an attempt to further examine the post-structuralist approach, I will first discuss some of its basic concepts as explained by Peter Barry and then apply post-structuralism to the short story “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka.
Barry, in the third edition of his book Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, begins his exploration of post-structuralism by first comparing it to structuralism because the former springs directly from the latter.  Structuralism, according to Barry, is more linguistically based while post-structuralism comes from philosophy—meaning that it embraces skepticism more fully (60-61).  Barry also reflects that while structuralists write in a more abstract and scientific way, post-structuralists fixate on etymology and write more emotively (61).  Post-structuralists, as Barry has noticed, are plagued with linguistic anxiety over the fact that meaning is just as arbitrary as our verbal constructs (62).  Essentially, post-structuralism follows through with the idea set forth by structuralists to such an extent that any attempt at finding “meaning” is thrown out the window.
Barry continues his explanation of post-structuralism by mentioning the philosopher Derrida and sharing some of his ideas.  As Barry relays, Derrida talks about a decentered universe because there are no “fixed points” or absolutes; everything is relative (65).  With this belief, as Derrida explains, a post-structuralist will deconstruct the text and find the unconscious, hidden meanings in the etymology of words (Barry 68).  Barry gives us an example involving the word “guest” which makes us think of the related word “host” which shares the same root as the word “hostility”—showing that the word “guest” can imply a certain “hostility” (68).  These sorts of contradictions or paradoxes are, as Barry states, the aim of a post-structuralist analysis (70).  In effect, post-structuralism uses these contradictions as proof that everything we know is completely relative and based on convention.
If a post-structuralist were to be reading Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” they would say the story exposes the concepts of “human” and “animal” to be arbitrary based on the contradiction in the sentence found on page 36:  “Was he an animal, that music could move him so?”  In traditional language conventions, we associate the word “animal” with words like “uncivilized” and “lowly,” yet here the text is clearly favoring “animal” by putting it in the place where “human” would be more logical.  Aren’t humans the civilized, superior ones that appreciate music and culture?  Yet here the text reverses the polarity of the common opposites “human” and “animal,” thus destabilizing the perceived certainty of the concepts in our language.
Another example of this destabilization in the text can be found on page 15 when the character of the father—a human—is said to be “hissing like a wild man.”  The verb “hissing” is one that conventionally makes reference to the sound certain reptiles or insects might make, not one typically associated with the word “father.”  A post-structuralist would use this as proof that all meaning is arbitrary.  There is no real “father” or “human” or “animal.”  All of these ideas exist and function solely within our own social and linguistic constructions.
So while structuralism also acknowledged that words are primarily unrelated to the real world, post-structuralism, as you can see here, takes that fundamental belief to its seemingly logical conclusion:  if the language we use to construct our world is arbitrary, so meaning must be as well.  All “meaning” we think we have found is completely man-made through our own language conventions and there is absolutely no certainty of anything.

Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 3rd Ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2009. Print. 

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Trans. and ed. Stanley Corngold. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. Print.

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