Kafka as a Populist: Re-reading "In the Penal Colony"
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Kafka as a Populist: Re-reading "In the Penal Colony"


Peculiarity Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony " has almost always been read as the description of a barbaric machine of torture. Yet the first sentence of the story, "It's a peculiar kind of apparatus,"1 uttered by the officer, does not direct attention to the apparatus itself but to its peculiarity. For the voyager who listens to the officer describing the apparatus, the latter is certainly peculiar as an instrument of torture and execution, but it is also peculiar for the officer in the sense that it belongs to a particular culture which has created it and supported its functioning. The peculiarity extends beyond the machine to the notion of justice of which the apparatus is an integral part. The story contraposes the two notions of peculiarity in order to stage a conflict between two cultures, one represented by the liberal, humanitarian voyager and the other embodied in the traditional justice of the officer. From the viewpoint of liberal humanitarianism, the apparatus is peculiar because of its barbarism and must be eradicated. But from the perspective of a community in which traditions are still alive, the apparatus' peculiarity lies in the fact that it is part of a cultural system "peculiar to" a specific community. The story thus presents two modes of justice opposed to each other in the struggle to determine the fate of the apparatus.

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