Panopticism and the Construction of Power in Franz Kafka's the Castle

By Corbella, Walter | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Panopticism and the Construction of Power in Franz Kafka's the Castle


Corbella, Walter, Papers on Language & Literature


  This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the
  individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest
  movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which
  an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and periphery, in
  which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous
  hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located,
  examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the
  dead--all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary
  mechanism.
  Michel Foucault--Discipline and Punish

In his "Panopticon; or, The Inspection House" (1791), Jeremy Bentham expounded his theories for the construction of an ideal prison system--the Panopticon--following a precise architectural model. (1) Bentham envisioned the Panopticon as consisting of a central watchtower surrounded by a circular row of cells permanently exposed to the unseen Inspector in his lodge. This prison would operate on the assumption that fear of being watched would lead the inmates not only to incorporate the rules but to regulate their own behavior as well. Bentham did not restrict his ideal to the building of a penitentiary-house, but extended its application to any of a number of institutions built under the same principles and with a similar purpose, "whether it be that of punishing the incorrigible, guarding the insane, reforming the vicious, confining the suspected, employing the idle, maintaining the helpless [...]" (Bentham 34, emphasis original). Nor did he limit his plans to a carceral structure or correctional facilities, either, but went even further by formulating a utopian vision of a Panopticon town as a self-sustaining unit of production that would include factories, schools, churches, and hospitals. Following utilitarian principles, Bentham sought to conflate a moral purpose with notions of productivity in a model whose final aims were "punishment, reformation and pecuniary economy" (Bentham 50). (2)

Written in 1922, and published posthumously in 1926, Franz Kafka's The Castle portrays a world seemingly controlled by whimsical leaders and absurd rules. As K., land-surveyor and unwelcome guest in the village near the Castle, endeavors to reach his goals--the Castle itself and the elusive Director Klamm--questions arise regarding the ultimate source of power, the means of rule-enforcement, and the terms of the relationship between villagers and officials in the prison-like world created by Kafka. Regardless of who or what is in control of the Castle, of the village, and of K.'s actions, the power structures are kept in place by the pervasive fear of a ubiquitous bureaucratic system and by the threat of a punishment that is seldom actually administered or experienced.

In his analysis of The Castle, Michael Lowy asks, "what if the Castle did not symbolize something else but was just a castle, that is to say the seat of an earthly authority?" (50). (3) Thus Lowy points to the need to produce interpretations of the novel that do not rely exclusively on symbolic or allegorical meanings. This article seeks to identify those structural elements that enable the construction and functioning of authority in the Castle, examining how it works rather than what it stands for. I maintain that Kafka's Castle operates on the basis of panoptic principles, relying on an authoritarian regime and permanent surveillance for the sake of individual discipline and social stability. Tracing the numerous parallels between the Castle and Bentham's Panopticon serves a twofold purpose. On the one hand, it reveals the organizing principles beneath the apparently haphazard and absurd structure of the Castle; on the other hand, it uncovers the contradictions and limitations intrinsic to the Benthamite carceral project.

The separation of the Castle-as-Panopticon from the village helps articulate two interrelated spaces--physical and mental--each reinforcing the other. …

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