In the Penal Colony with Kafka and Foucault

Sayeth Michel Foucault:

The body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration. Genealogy, as an analysis of descent, is thus situated within the articulation of the body and history. Its task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’ s destruction of the body. (Foucault, 2010, p. 83)

In Franz Kafka’s The Penal Colony, the officer describes the parts of the ‘apparatus’, “Thus, the lowest part is called the bed. the top part is the engraver, and the suspended part here in the middle is the harrow” (Kafka, 1971, p. 142). The harrow is the inscriber of the ‘surface of events’ on the body. The Officer explains, “‘The condemned man has to have the law he has transgressed inscribed by the harrow on his body. This man here, for instance’ – the officer indicated the man – ‘will be inscribed with: HONOR THY SUPERIORS!’ (Kafka, 1971, p. 144)”

Ah, so is it the descent of humanity to be condemned to have the sentence totally imprinted by his history of disrespect in the case of this man on his body like a tattoo, or worse, the destruction of the body through the dissociation of the skin? Is this the service for which genealogy is ascribed?

Oh, but there is more to this monstrous inveiglement than just a scribing pen. Explain on Sir, “‘You see,’ the officer continued; ‘needles in many positions, but always in pairs. Each long one has a short one next to it. It’s the long one that writes, and the short one squirts water to wash off the blood, so that the writing is a1ways clearly legible. The mixture of water and blood is conducted into these little runnels, and finally flows into this principal runnel, which feeds the drainage pipe into the pit here.’”(Kafka, 1971, p. 147).

Now you see, genealogy does what it says, it is traced by language and dissolved by ideas that wash away into a pit. Ideas that had been in so much service to the individual before, but alas are inconsequential once he has expired.

Loathe are we to return to Foucault’s Order of Things for a moment to understand that the officer and his visiting dignitary are from separate epistemse. Behold the conversation between officer and gentleman: “‘Sit down, I’ll show you a few; from this distance you’ll be able to have quite a good view.’ He showed him the first page. The traveller would have liked to say something complimentary, but all he saw were labyrinthine crisscrossing lines that covered the paper so thickly that it was hard to see any white space at all. ‘Read it,’ said the officer. ‘I can’t,’ said the traveller. ‘But it’s perfectly clear,’ said the officer. ‘It’s very artful,’ said the traveller evasively/but I’m afraid I can’t decipher it’” (Kafka, 1971, pp. 148-149). You see, there is no illusion of a substantial unity here, there is no understanding between the officer and gentleman. The body and its history that the officer explains with his diagrams is inarticulate now, it has become an archaic which the officer desperately wants the gentleman to understand.

The descent of the human into the genealogical pit of history writ on the body but the mind must not hear it, nor see, it but feel it as if it were a part of him…Alas it is now…Listen once again to the officer, “Nothing more happens, but the man begins to decipher the script, he purses his lips as if he were listening. As you’ve seen, it’s not easy to decipher the script with one’s eyes; our man deciphers it with his wounds” (Kafka, 1971, p. 150).

Hear Foucault once again:

Genealogy does not resemble the evolution of a species and does not map the destiny of a people. On the contrary, to follow the complex course of descent is to maintain passing events in their proper dispersion; it is to identify the accidents, the minute deviations-or conversely, the complete reversals-the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculation s that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us; it is to discover that truth or being does not lie at the root of what we know and what we are, but the exteriority of accidents. (Foucault, 2010, p. 81)

Oh, the pain the man must endure who is affianced to this ‘apparatus’. He must learn the minute deviations of the pens, the complete reversals, and even the errors of this cantankerous machine to understand that which is happening to him and the reason for his suffering. He has no other way of knowing his fate than what has been writ on his skin which he must see with his mind. At what point does it become clear to him? The officer is unequivocal, after six hours. Thus, we are not to easily discover what genealogy purports to find. We must suffer through the interminable analysis to discover, perhaps at our own wits end, that which has been written for our descent on our deconstructing body.


Foucault, M. (2010). Nietzsche, Genealogy, History. In P. Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault Reader (pp. 76-100).

Kafka, F. (1971). In The Penal Colony. In N. M. Glatzer (Ed.), Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories (pp. 140-167). New York: Schocken Books.