Odradek and the rethinking of political method in the work of art

Newman, Michael. 2017. 'Odradek and the rethinking of political method in the work of art'. In: 4th Biennial Conference of the International Walter Benjamin Society. Worcester College, University of Oxford, United Kingdom 24-27 Sept 2017. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

While creating a large-scale transparency from a story by Kafka, Odradek, Táboritská 8, Prague, 18 July 1994, the artist Jeff Wall in his text ‘Gestus’ (1984) draws on Brecht's concept of gestus, which was concerned with freezing the action into a tableau vivant in order to cause the audience to reflect on the characters' and their own positions in economic and social relations. I propose to complicate this by considering the discussions between Benjamin, Brecht and Adorno around Kafka. In ‘Notes on Kafka’ (1953), Adorno writes, ‘The zone in which it is impossible to die is also the no-man’s-land between man and thing: within it meet Odradek.’ (Prisms). Adorno also remarks in that essay, ‘what would truly be history…has not yet begun’ (p.257). If Odradek is seen as outmoded, then it might also be thought of in relation to Benjamin’s conception of the Surrealist object.
In the discussions Benjamin had with Brecht in the summer of 1934, Brecht was critical of Kafka’s ‘mystification’, and said that ‘Kafka’s outlook is that of a man caught under the wheels. Odradek is characteristic of this outlook…’ Benjamin makes what Brecht calls this ‘mystification’ into a positive quality of Kafka’s stories, which have the form of parables, but without the law or doctrine that would allow their decipherment. According to Hamacher gesture for Benjamin occupies a ‘cloudy spot’ of opacity and impossibility’. In Kafka, according to Benjamin, there is Umkehr, glossed by Weber as ‘“inversion,” reversal, or also, turnabout’. To work instrumentally towards the opening that Kafka gestures towards, would be to reinstitute precisely the continuum it interrupts. Odradek is the site of a displacement between different conceptions of art at a point where history hangs in the balance.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


critical theory, gesture, politics

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5 August 2017Accepted
8 September 2017Published

Event Location:

Worcester College, University of Oxford, United Kingdom

Date range:

24-27 Sept 2017

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Date Deposited:

29 Sep 2017 16:05

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 16:36



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