As I mentioned in one the most recent articles, I was feeling odd never to have dedicated a full article to the fascinating machine invented by Franz Kafka in his short story In the Penal Colony (1919). This machine is probably the most famous torturing apparatus of the history of literature; even Le Marquis de Sade does not seem to have created such an elaborated piece of equipment (see previous article). The plot introduces a character visiting a penal colony in which he is invited to attend an execution of a disobeying soldier. The entire first half of the story involves the executioner officer who presents the dreadful apparatus to the visitor with great enthusiasm for this machine that was invented by his former master. The device is divided into three parts, the bed below, the inscriber above and, in the middle, the harrow. The latter is composed of multiple needles that draw a pattern on the back of the convict’s body. The pattern is specific to the sentence attributed to the condemned person and, for this reason, it needs to be first set-up in the inscriber. Once the machine is operating the pattern is inscribed in the body of the convict for hours. The latter does not know his sentence and has therefore to learn it in his very flesh. When the visitor disapprove of this execution, the officer frees the prisoner and takes his place on the machine, he then dies in horrific pain when the latter dysfunctions.
Several things are fascinating in this text. One of them consists in the very detailed description of the a execution apparatus itself. I feel compelled to transcript most of the numerous excerpts of this description here:
“The needles are arranged as in a harrow, and the whole thing is driven like a harrow, although it stays in one place and is, in principle, much more artistic. [...] So, here is the Bed, as I said. The whole thing is completely covered with a layer of cotton wool, the purpose of which you’ll find out in a moment. The condemned man is laid out on his stomach on this cotton wool—naked, of course. There are straps for the hands here, for the feet here, and for the throat here, to tie him in securely. At the head of the Bed here, where the man, as I have mentioned, first lies face down, is this small protruding lump of felt, which can easily be adjusted so that it presses right into the man’s mouth. Its purpose is to prevent him screaming and biting his tongue to pieces. Of course, the man has to let the felt in his mouth—otherwise the straps around his throat will break his neck.”
“Both the Bed and the Inscriber have their own electric batteries. The Bed needs them for itself, and the Inscriber for the Harrow. As soon as the man is strapped in securely, the Bed is set in motion. It quivers with tiny, very rapid oscillations from side to side and up and down simultaneously. You will have seen similar devices in mental hospitals. Only with our Bed all movements are precisely calibrated, for they must be meticulously coordinated with the movements of the Harrow. But it’s the Harrow which has the job of actually carrying out the sentence.”
“The law which a condemned man has violated is inscribed on his body with the Harrow. This Condemned Man, for example,” and the Officer pointed to the man, “will have inscribed on his body, ‘Honour your superiors!’”
“As you see, the shape of the Harrow corresponds to the shape of a man. This is the harrow for the upper body, and here are the harrows for the legs. This small cutter is the only one designated for the head.”
“When the man is lying on the Bed and it starts quivering, the Harrow sinks onto the body. It positions itself automatically in such a way that it touches the body only lightly with the needle tips. Once the machine is set in position, this steel cable tightens up immediately into a rod. And now the performance begins. Someone who is not an initiate sees no external difference among the punishments. The Harrow seems to do its work uniformly. As it quivers, it sticks the tips of its needles into the body, which is also vibrating from the movement of the bed. Now, to enable someone to check on how the sentence is being carried out, the Harrow is made of glass. That gave rise to certain technical difficulties with fastening the needles in it securely, but after several attempts we were successful. We didn’t spare any efforts. And now, as the inscription is made on the body, everyone can see through the glass.”
“two sorts of needles in a multiple arrangement. Each long needle has a short one next to it. The long one inscribes, and the short one squirts water out to wash away the blood and keep the inscription always clear. The bloody water is then channeled here into small grooves and finally flows into these main gutters, and their outlet pipe takes it to the pit.”
“There in the Inscriber is the mechanism which determines the movement of the Harrow, and this mechanism is arranged according to the diagram on which the sentence is set down.”
The Harrow is starting to write. When it’s finished with the first part of the script on the man’s back, the layer of cotton wool rolls and turns the body slowly onto its side to give the Harrow a new area. Meanwhile those parts lacerated by the inscription are lying on the cotton wool which, because it has been specially treated, immediately stops the bleeding and prepares the script for a further deepening. Here, as the body continues to rotate, prongs on the edge of the Harrow then pull the cotton wool from the wounds, throw it into the pit, and the Harrow goes to work again. In this way it keeps making the inscription deeper for twelve hours. For the first six hours the condemned man goes on living almost as before. He suffers nothing but pain. After two hours, the felt is removed, for at that point the man has no more energy for screaming. Here at the head of the Bed warm rice pudding is put in this electrically heated bowl. From this the man, if he feels like it, can help himself to what he can lap up with his tongue. No one passes up this opportunity. I don’t know of a single one, and I have had a lot of experience. He first loses his pleasure in eating around the sixth hour. I usually kneel down at this point and observe the phenomenon. The man rarely swallows the last bit. He merely turns it around in his mouth and spits it into the pit. When he does that, I have to lean aside or else he’ll get me in the face. But how quiet the man becomes around the sixth hour! The most stupid of them begins to understand. It starts around the eyes and spreads out from there. A look that could tempt one to lie down with him under the Harrow. Nothing else happens. The man simply begins to decipher the inscription. He purses his lips, as if he is listening. You’ve seen that it is not easy to figure out the inscription with your eyes, but our man deciphers it with his wounds. True, it takes a lot of work. It requires six hours to complete. But then the Harrow spits all of him out and throws him into the pit, where he splashes down into the bloody water and cotton wool. Then the judgment is over, and we, the Soldier and I, quickly bury him.”
Such a description reveals the subtleties of the design itself. The care that is put in accomplishing the machinist functions of the apparatus and the discourse to introduce them makes us recall those of an architect presenting his/her design. The hurtful characteristics of the design and the ethical issues generated by them are not considered while the lubricated cogs of a machinist design that precisely accomplish the function that was thought by the designer is the primordial and obsessive object of fascination here. The architect creates his diagrams while thinking of the way the latter will affect the bodies it subjugates. Once materialized, he will then observe it obsessively to confront his diagram and its effectuation. The more he will be satisfied by the realization of his plans the more he will be comparable to Kafka’s executioner and the absolute transcendence he embodies. And, just like him, if his design is disapproved, he might himself subjugate his own body to his diagram in a sort of practice in which he is both sadist and masochist simultaneously.
What about this sentence inscribed in our bodies? Isn’t it the inscription of the norm that Judith Butler evokes (see previous article) when she quotes The Penal Colony? Recalling Kafka’s Trial (published later, but written simultaneously) might be helpful here. In it, K. dies without knowing what he was accused of. Would the Penal Colony machine have executed him, he would have had the opportunity to “experiences it on his own body”. Maybe his long slog in the labyrinthine administration of the judiciary institution can be compared to the numerous needles slowly inscribing his sentence in his body to the final stab that eventually kills him. The novel is indeed highly corporal and we could interpret it this way, the power of institutions and the architectures that embody them capture the bodies and do not leave them intact.
I apologize for the mind peregrination this last paragraph constitutes, sometimes an intuition needs more time to be formulated and articulated vividly.
For another interpretation of the Penal Colony machine and its simultaneous semiotic and physical punishment, you can read A Thousand Machines by Gerald Raunig (see previous article).