Theses Doctoral

A Handful of World: The Figure of the Hand in Franz Kafka's Writings

Inbal, Dalia

This dissertation examines the figure of the hand in Kafka’s literary, professional and personal writings and ties that figure to the contemporary contexts of (1) industrial labor, (2) the statistical, depersonalized perspective on the subject and its body in the modern social and insurance state, and (3) the exacerbation of these conditions during World War One. I show that hands occur in Kafka’s oeuvre wherever the subject’s identity, agency, and physical integrity is under negotiation. The first chapter analyzes Kafka’s novel Der Verschollene. It links the figure of the hand with the contexts of manual labor and industrial work practices, especially Taylorism, and shows that hands emerge when there is a tension between the worker viewed as an individual and the worker as part of the larger machinery of production. The second chapter describes Kafka’s professional background and his responsibilities at the Bohemian Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute, thereby providing the biographical context for Kafka’s use of the hand trope. It traces the origins of social accident insurance and its inherent tension between two opposing views on the subject--the subject as impersonal part of a collective versus the subject as an individual. The chapter then provides a close reading of one of Kafka’s office writings, an illustrated report about how to prevent work accidents and in particular hand injuries. This text reveals that, even in the professional context, Kafka uses the hand as a metonymy of the threatened body, both of the worker and of its administrator. The third chapter examines the novel Der Proceß as an illustration of the abstract and anonymous worldview dominant in the insurance state, which threatens not only the blue-collar worker but also the white collar employee. Hands appear as random and arbitrary signs of an incomprehensible court system and are at the same time used by the protagonist to establish connections to the court and “grasp” his situation. In addition, the hand represents the writing and creating hand; by connecting the dimension of writing with the figure of the hand as primary political trope in Der Proceß, Kafka shows that the private and public are inseparable. The fourth chapter shows how the short but paradigmatic text “Meine zwei Hände begannen einen Kampf” draws together themes of blue-collar manual labor, white-collar responsibility and authorship by imagining a violent battle between the narrator’s left and right hand, a display of violence that should be read in the context of World War One. In his position at the insurance institute, Kafka was responsible for wounded veterans and traces of his work with amputations and prosthetics show clearly in his later texts. The dissertation will conclude with a brief analysis of “Ein Bericht Für eine Akademie” to show that the hand is the quintessentially human body part that encapsulates the violence and crises that the modern subject has to undergo in order to be a member of (human) society.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Germanic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Anderson, Mark
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 3, 2016