The Way Out: Kant and Kafka on Nature and History

McAuliffe, Sam. 2017. 'The Way Out: Kant and Kafka on Nature and History'. In: American Comparative Literature Association Annual Meeting. Utrecht University, Netherlands. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

This paper juxtaposes two distinct yet related engagements with a process of transformation that is, for a certain conception of the subject of reason, constitutive: the process by which this subject is said to instantiate itself by setting itself at an interval from the sphere of merely natural life, staking its capacity for self-determination on the crossing of this threshold. In both cases the presentation of this transformation passes through the question of fiction.
In his ‘Conjectures on the Beginning of Human History’ (1786) Kant imagines the scene whereby the human being would first “extend beyond the limits to which all animals are confined”. This transition implies a certain violence, directed inwards, imposed on the self by the self, making it both agent and recipient of a process that secures and threatens in the same stroke.
All this is also the concern of Kafka’s ‘Report to an Academy’ (1917). Its narrator speaks as a unique creature, an ape who, through a singular act of will, has set to work upon himself so as to become human of his own accord. The report presents a singular narrative of transformation, recalling a span of experience that, in a single unbroken trajectory, passes across two otherwise incommensurable spheres, nature and history, having found “the way out” from one to the other. Yet as Kafka shows, this process, whilst irreversible, remains firmly tied to its point of departure, and this exposes the subject to a series of unintended consequences.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Visual Cultures


9 July 2017Completed

Event Location:

Utrecht University, Netherlands

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

21 Dec 2017 11:58

Last Modified:

01 Aug 2018 13:34


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