“No one but you could gain admittance”


From Republics of Letters:

In Kafka’s parable “Before the Law” we see, quite famously, that the story’s protagonist (known only as “the man from the country”) is forced to wait before the gate of law for his whole life. The gatekeeper, whose only purpose seems to be to bar the man’s way, keeps him sitting on a stool just before the gate. As the man is dying from old age, he has this well-known exchange with the gatekeeper:

“Everyone strives to attain the Law,” answers the man, “how does it come about, then, that in all these years no one has come seeking admittance but me?” The doorkeeper . . . bellows in his ear: “No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

We see here a famous parable that epitomizes our relationship to the law and thereby to politics more generally. Although Kafka does not mention justice here, it seems to underlie the concept of law described here. Justice is what is promised by law; its possibility is what keeps us obedient, patient, and hopeful. In the face of the law, the man from the country spends his life (just as we in turn spend our lives) waiting for a justice that never arrives. He is rendered an obedient subject, subordinate to and reflective of an absolute, sovereign authority in whose name he continues to wait.

Yet, while it never arrives, the idea of justice does not seem to leave the practice of law itself unaffected. Indeed, the law can itself be said to be a product of our expectation for justice. Although the man from the country never gets “access” to law in its perfect and fullest sense (a law infused with justice, we could call this Law, with a capital L), it permeates and regulates his life nonetheless. The gatekeeper is effectively a lawmaker to the man from the country; he does not allow him entry, and he exercises authority over him, even as the basis of his power lies in what happens beyond the gate. It is his own (purported) access to and relationship with Law that makes the gatekeeper a figure to be reckoned with. The respect and deference that the man from the country displays to him are due to this imagined connection.

Kafka’s novels and parables put us in a strange stance vis-à-vis the law, justice, and sovereignty. By revealing the law as a kind of messiah (or, more accurately—as we will see below—by showing us that law’s messianism saves us by denying us access to its fullest phantasmic expression), Kafka is ushering us into another reading, another form of waiting. In this version we come to know that we are not waiting for anything at all or, rather, that what we wait for has, in a sense, already arrived. We find that the life we are living, the justice that we seek, can be found only “here” in the world that we occupy (with a concomitant alternative political practice as well).

I will contend with this other reading by examining the works of Jacques Derrida and Walter Benjamin in conjunction (or “constellation,” to use Benjamin’s own term) with one another and with Kafka too. Derrida, I will argue, holds an ambivalent position as being partway between Benjamin’s position and that of more conventional thinkers on the subject (i.e., those who wait in the expectation of redemption, of justice itself). At the end of this article I will consider how a justice that has been revealed as empty, as unavailable and unobtainable, can yet help to produce or reveal something like justice in our world, how even if—or especially when—the sovereign has been stripped of its function of producing and promising law and justice for us, we can produce these concepts for ourselves. More accurately, we find that justice and the democratic practices that we seek are in fact already here; our act of waiting is what has made those practices possible in the first place, but it is not until we realize that we wait in vain that they may finally become legible to us.