No consideration of the tattoo as a literary form—or, conversely, of literary forms as tattoos—would be complete without a consideration of what the act of inscription implies. And I can think of no more forceful an example of inscription than that which appears in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”—that story which, despite its fugue-like and visceral images, is continually given short shrift for Kafka’s more popular works, like The Metamorphosis. The blog On Violence has pointed out that the word count of the Wikipedia article for The Metamorphosis is at least several thousand greater than that of “In the Penal Colony,” and while it’s difficult to gauge cultural attention with any empirical precision, it’s safe to say that the fable of Gregor Samsa has been promulgated more extensively. This isn’t inexplicable—Kafka’s novella is a genius commentary on the displacement of the artist (or the unit-like, separate “self” set adrift) in a capitalistic world; Samsa’s inexplicable transition into the body of an insect severs the connection of body and soul to ask how our physical, perceivable forms and their functions craft identity, how they allow—or prevent—survival. The shadow of commerce looms even larger than the concern prompted by such a radical bodily transformation: within the first few pages of The Metamorphosis, Samsa worries that his new existence as an arthropod will affect his job. The humor is so embedded, so thoroughly dark, that the absurdity of the situation is treated as another obstruction to mechanistic fulfillment: if he’s going to be late for work, it hardly makes a difference whether he’s fallen ill or turned into a bug.
These readings are reductive, and obviously just a few of the plethora the text allows. But if The Metamorphosis looks at the artist’s station in society and what happens when the differences between art and capital become pronounced (each having ostensibly divergent goals), “In the Penal Colony” looks at this in the context of the artist’s relationship to his or her own craft. More specifically, the craft of writing in relation to the writer—but writing more as an action than as a mode of artistic performance: i.e. the action of inscribing, of modifying the material of the self and the world for communicative or otherwise informative purposes. What Kafka describes in “In the Penal Colony” is the journey of a “travelling researcher” to a penitentiary somewhere in the nameless tropics, where he witnesses the exhibition of an absurd but intricate execution machine: one that, were we to believe the officer spouting its praises, performs the dual service of educating as well as eradicating those subjected to it. The condemned are placed face-down on a harrow that inscribes the law they have violated into their backs, which it does repeatedly over several hours until blood loss and exhaustion bring death. The rationale for the machine’s existence is primarily aesthetic and secondarily moral. The officer responsible for the device finds in it a sort of metaphysical, self-justifying beauty (though he’s unable to persuade the researcher into relativism): it may be of historical interest to note that Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto—that welding-together of technology, morality, and fascism into aesthetic imperative—was published in 1909, five years before Kafka wrote “In the Penal Colony.”
The story seems to present two major avenues by which to reconsider the act of writing: the significance of the machine itself, and the officer’s dedication to the machine. I’ll start with the former—with Kafka’s conflation of an execution apparatus with what basically amounts to a “press” of sorts, a contrivance that inscribes writing on a material (which is, in this case, the human body). David Foster Wallace, in his 1998 Harper’s article “Laughing with Kafka,” writes that in “In the Penal Colony” Kafka “conceives description as punishment and torture as edification and the ultimate critic as a needled harrow whose coup de grace is a spike through the forehead.” In the story, description is, as Wallace claims, synonymous with punishment: the researcher’s interrogation of the officer reveals that the condemned man—the one brought out to demonstrate the harrow’s function—has yet no knowledge of his sentence. The act of writing, the officer seems to believe, will deliver this knowledge; there is no ethical or epistemological gulf between what the man knows of his own guilt and the crimes he is accused of, as his punishment will deliver these things to him. And neither is there any issue of cruelty; the officer’s rhetoric repeatedly emphasizes the punishment as a corrective means, which is no small irony given that anyone subjected to it ultimately dies. “‘Our sentence doesn’t sound particularly severe,’” the officer says at one point. “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 gestured at the condemned man—‘will be inscribed with: Respect your commanding officer!’” But he will leave behind nothing but an obedient corpse.
If the human being placed under the harrow in “In the Penal Colony” can be read as a sort of stand-in for the writer-figure, then Kafka’s outlook on authorial gain isn’t an optimistic one: the summation of the writing act is only achieved by the death of the author. This isn’t to say that death and true understanding (inasmuch as the completion of a writing act is understanding) are the same thing, though that interpretation is available. Death, rather, is the cost of true understanding given the limitations of the human body, which can only withstand being sliced with a needle so many times—and which certainly cannot withstand, as Wallace notes, a crescendo in which the forehead—the skull, the brain, the site of intellectual and creative generation—is pierced through with a spike. The imagistic associations the story uses to describe writing are relentlessly violent: the pen as a needle turned against the self, the skin of the body as paper, the act of writing an act of both artistic modification and self-harm.
It would be possible to argue, though, that this isn’t as much a description of writing as a description of reading, for it is the convict who is handed down his “sentence” this way. So much of the machine’s function, though cloaked in the grandiose speech of the officer as being intended for the cultivation of both the prisoner and the colony, is in the service of the officer’s ideals that the researcher might be read in the scene as one detached from the romance of received ideas: he’s an inheritor of a different lineage, a more advanced and civilized and Western one (on which, of course, Kafka is making no small pun), and so can resist with some confidence whatever attractions the harrow might hold. He’s external to that cycle of dissemination and digestion, which begins with the selection of a sentence and ends with its fatal inscription of the body. He reads nothing in the scene but chaos and barbarity. If we want to preserve the interpretation of the machine as more representative of writing than reading, then maybe the officer—the dispenser of sentences—is instead a muse, a font spurting out directives to be followed in all their bloody turmoil. The harrow then becomes an apparatus of communication, the means through which comprehension is passed from inspiration to recorder, from one person to another. That this apparatus which facilitates reading, on this interpretation, bears a remarkable similarity to the act of writing itself would seem to say that the nature of that communication and of its consequences, whether from writer to page or from page to reader, are the same: sacrifice and destruction.
But for what, and of what? Kafka doesn’t leave us any clues, perhaps keeping his story a grim delineation of the costs involved in artistic practice. The sacrifice is either of the self in an effort to achieve the creation of the text, or an effort to understand it; either circumstance culminates in death. Before death, though, there’s an eclipsed but present understanding. “But how quiet the man comes to be in the sixth hour!” the officer exclaims, describing the execution process in detail:
‘The very dimmest of them begins to understand. You see it in their eyes. From there it starts to spread. A sight that might seduce one to take one’s place under the harrow as well. 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.’
Understanding and deciphering: this is what “the script,” which is carved into the skin and thereby learned, works to encourage. The assumption is that what any author undergoes when creating a work is a process of learning that happens through the infliction of wounds. There is no material gap between the antenna that broadcasts semantic content and its listeners. There is no space between the text and the reader, or the creator: the act of bringing words into the world is equivalent to the act of acquiring them, as both necessitate the alteration of one’s own self, one’s own skin skin. I want to move away from Wallace’s contextualization of the harrow’s final blow as being the “ultimate critic,” and instead offer a reading that locates this segment as the pinnacle of the writing act: a death of the author that is both physical—in the sense that, as in Kafka’s story, the author dies—and literary, the eradication of the author as a separate component from the text, one charged with catalyzing and summoning it, though the text also disappears when the body does. In “In the Penal Colony,” the officer describes the harrow’s movement as that of “writing”; its purpose is clearly oriented toward formulating statements available, at least hypothetically, for interpretation. It’s not simply an object meant to conjure pain—although this, doubtlessly, is part of the education it provides. And the condemned man’s back is delineated as the page, as a space for text to inhabit, with comparable clarity. Once the harrow has “completed the first phase of writing on the man’s back,” the officer says, “the cotton-wool roll comes down and slowly turns the body on to its side, to offer clean space to the harrow.” There’s even a third component introduced by the harrow into the equation of writing and reading: that of repetition. “‘At the same time, the raw parts already inscribed are pressed against the cotton wool; its special finish immediately staunches the bleeding, and prepares the surface for a deepening of the writing.’” Like a tattoo being re-inked, multiple drafts of the same text are written, each scraping out more flesh and moving closer to that center, the heart.
But, as I mentioned before, there are two ways to view the harrow as the embodiment of the author’s textual directive—that of the machine as generally representative of the writing process, or of the officer’s specific relationship to the machine. These two inevitably create another category, that of their interaction, but considering the fervor of the machine’s steward (or should I say its author?) yields some intriguing results. So much of “In the Penal Colony” consists of the officer pleading with the researcher to accept the validity of this method of execution, pleading which is done mostly in vain; the researcher doesn’t consent to report back positively or even neutrally of the machine to the commandant, the shrouded figure who sent him. The officer thinks that the researcher has been sent by the commandant to render a negative verdict on the harrow so that he can dispose of it while referencing the opinion of a disinterested third party as justification. (That the harrow and the officer receive a sentence of sorts, despite their purported statuses as allocators of sentences, seems to comment more on the relationship between the writer and the critic than Wallace’s vision of the harrow’s spike as the “ultimate critic.”) After a moment of furious exchange, in which the researcher becomes more entrenched in his opposition to the harrow and the officer more exasperated, the story reaches a hinge at which violence is certain. But this violence is not inflicted on the condemned man nor, as some might have guessed—and as I definitely predicted—on the researcher. It is instead transformed into the story’s final and most striking example of authorial self-infliction, of the consummation of the creator and the created: the officer, aware that the harrow’s days are numbered, places himself under its needle. Self-destruction is again the last, and arguably only, action the author can take to fulfill and perpetuate his work—which in the officer’s case is not the “script” etched into the skin but the machine that does the etching.
Kafka’s technique embeds dashes of mordant philosophy into what seems to be declarative, description-focused prose. In one of his many monologues prior to his suicide, the officer says, “‘At least the machine is still working and speaking for itself. It speaks for itself, even if it’s all alone in the valley. And, at the end, the body still lurches with the same unfathomably gentle fall into the pit, even if there are no longer, as there were then, hundreds of flies collected round the pit.’” In other words: the harrow that inscribes, which can mean nothing more than the suffering of its subjects, is all that is constant. It is as autonomous and self-fulfilling as the text it produces; it can exist even without human life. And whether or not there are viewers—critics or readers, who are compared here to the flies swarming above the place of the bodies’ disposal—to witness the act of self-mutilation that counts as writing, “the body still lurches,” dead, into the abyss. One can write, and the misery will be the same with or without an audience; one will invariably fall into the pit. That this fall, which more than quietly echoes Genesis, is “unfathomably gentle” is either a microscopic measure of clemency or a heightening of the fundamental morbidity of the situation.
What does all this bear on a literary conceptualization of the tattoo? For one, it offers another paradigm for writing—another binding of the writer and the materials appropriated by writing. But it also proposes another way to think about authorship and, more particularly, its unavoidable cessation. The self and the text, being material, already contain within them the possibility of infinity: unacted upon by external forces, each could exist in perpetuity. But until we enter an era where immortality is achievable for both person and page, it’s safe to say that their eventual deaths are certain. Assuming this commonsense notion—that books, like their writers, will die—it’s easy to move toward an idea of the tattoo as the physical union of author and authored, which will (barring intentional removal or a loss of limbs) only be erased when the body and the text scrawled on it cease to exist. It matters not whether or not one sees the tattoo as on the skin or in the skin: the two are one and the same. The chronology of the conventional tattoo differs from Kafka’s harrow, however; for Kafka’s officer, the act of writing usually happens to be “complete” around the time of death, whereas most tattoos are “complete” when first installed and then fade until their erasure by death. But this fading is as much a process of forging as writing is a process of forging—it, too, continually modifies the text. Shelley Jackson’s work Skin, which launched in 2003, depends on the bodies of thousands of volunteers for its existence; only their deaths expunge its words from the world. Interested parties emailed Jackson, who assigned them words of a story to tattoo on their bodies. The text would exist nowhere else, even if incomplete, and Jackson referred to her project’s participants as “words”: “They are not understood as carriers or agents of the words they bear, but as their embodiments,” she said. “As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died.” Though in Kafka’s story the text imposes itself on the body, willed or otherwise, when the body vanishes, it vanishes too.
The story, besides linking the body with the text it produces, also irreversibly links pain with the production of that text—no foreign notion to the inked among us. And it also positions the text in a location that advertises its centrality to the self: visible on the skin, it is read as an act of speech is heard. In this way, the harrow is a tool with which to educate bystanders in addition to supposedly educating the condemned himself. And tattoos, likewise, are posted messages, signs that keep on signifying even if unseen, even if their wearers only encounter them in a bathroom mirror. Understood this way, inscriptions are modifiers that both modify and become inseparable from what they’re modifying. In “The Building of the Temple,” from Kafka’s Parables and Paradoxes, inscriptions on the stones used to build an otherwise perfect house of worship tarnish it: “an eternity outlasting the temple, the clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands, or rather the entries of barbaric mountain dwellers.” These engravings so majorly mar the temple, which “came into being the way a temple should,” that they keep it perpetually steps from the ideal it had almost achieved. Read in the context of “In the Penal Colony,” this parable might be interpreted as an exoneration of non- or pre-textual materials, of the page, the body, and anything else that can find a form—as the temple does—without resorting to text (although the parable itself relies on text for its transference). A similar moment of inscription-as-architecture can be found at the end of the story, when the researcher is about to depart; he finds an epitaph prophesizing the messianic return of the commandant, who has been buried in the floor of the tea-house—prompting the question of who, in this penitentiary, is really serving who. “‘It is prophesied that after a certain number of years, the commandant will rise again, and from these premises here, lead his followers on to the reconquest of the colony,” the inscription reads in part. “Believe and be patient!’”
Believe and be patient; undergo what amounts to surgery in the service of art; accept your fate at the bottom of the pit after having written. The story’s projection is a dismal one. But it is not isolated. Borges, in his 1951 essay “Kafka and his Precursors,” makes claims similar to those of Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” both about how texts are communicated and how they engage with the canon. “Kafka’s idiosyncrasy is present in each of these writings, to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had not written, we would not perceive it; that is to say, it would not exist,” Borges writes, this idiosyncrasy being something on view over a span of seemingly disconnected works—which inform each other the way “individual” authors come to sway each other’s histories and biases. “The fact is that each writer creates [emphasis in original] his precursors,” Borges continues. “His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.” Cf. Eliot— “His significance [the poet’s, the artist’s], his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists”—of whose claim Borges’s is an inversion: the author is unable to be pulled from the past, but the author recreates that past. The tattoo, the harrow’s inscription, encodes the past onto the writer’s body: a new object inhabiting a new space that will inescapably alter the text it carries.
For some poststructuralist critics, like Barthes, the text can—and should—exist away from the body, in some other arena, the reason being that “good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.” He continues, in his essay “The Death of the Author” from the late 1960s, to argue that writing “is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away; the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.” This dissociation becomes harder to practice, though, when the text and its creator are placed in such close proximity that they end up connected, or conflated—as with the officer in “In the Penal Colony,” or anyone who willingly gets a tattoo, where the projective output of writing is turned inward toward the self. Contra Kafka, on Barthe’s account the text, via its nature as such, outlasts the body, or at least formally supersedes it: when we encounter the letters on the page we have already encountered them in a detached, liberated form. This might even hold for text that is housed on the very body that conjured it. Barthes goes on to say that in order “to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth [of the author’s primacy]: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” Kafka’s work in “In the Penal Colony” would be a literalized extrapolation of this sentiment; it wouldn’t be quite the same, though, because both author and text disappear simultaneously in the story. For Barthes, the death of the author allows “the birth of the reader,” allows the text to be gotten at in a different temporal location: the author’s job is to “nourish” the work in some before, whereas the text exists in an after, a post-author phase. Foucault charts the author’s own relationship with demolition and self-removal in his 1969 lecture “What is an Author?”:
Our culture has metamorphosed this idea of narrative, or writing, as something designed to ward off death. Writing has become linked to sacrifice, even to the sacrifice of life: it is now a voluntary effacement that does not need to be represented in books, since it is brought about in the writer’s very existence. The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author’s murderer, as in the cases of Flaubert, Proust, and Kafka. That is not all, however: this relationship between writing and death is also manifested in the effacement of the writing subject’s individual characteristics. Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing.
Deviating from Barthe’s statements, Foucault claims that “criticism and philosophy took note of the disappearance—or death—of the author some time ago,” and instead finds trouble in the notions that seem to have taken up the privileged author-position: conventional ideas about a) “the work” and b) “writing” [écriture]. He argues that doing away with the writer altogether and proposing to study “the work itself” solves nothing: “The word work and the unity that it designates are probably as problematic as the status of the author’s individuality,” and the generalized notion of writing appears “to transpose the empirical characteristics of the author into a transcendental anonymity.” In either case, we haven’t moved closer to an acceptable substitute for a philosophy of textual analysis that accounts for the author. The connection between the author and the text might be tenuous—as it often seems to be—but it is no less tenuous, Foucault states, to claim to be able to do away with such a notion, as the New Critics might.
With “In the Penal Colony,” however, one could say that Kafka took the idea of authorial death and made it both literal and abstract: literal in that the death of the author is a physical death, and abstract in that the harrow administering text (whether or not it’s piloted by a person) is, at the moment of inscription, personless—it is functioning as a system of signification tied to nothing and no one. The literary vision of the tattoo acknowledges this paradoxical independence-dependence relationship that the text has with its human author, and how its lastingness is at distinct times enabled, disabled, and unaffected by the text-body. In any case, as with Kafka’s story, the idea of the text fundamentally outlasting its human progenitors, or at least depending on their destruction to furnish the materials of its existence, takes on an almost mythological aura: the tattooed text, in the colony as in life, lives out a dual existence as both word and symbol. It communicates as well as demarcates. It sometimes even tyrannizes. Joy Division’s “Colony,” from their 1980 album Closer, ends with the following lines: “God in his wisdom made you understand / In this colony, in this colony, in this colony, in this colony.” In a confine where a faceless commandant is revered, where a death-machine is enshrined in near-theological glory, where it makes no difference whether or not those executed know what they have been accused of, it’s clear that every procedure is in the service of a textual ideal—one like scripture, one even willing to appropriate human lives. And this text is a corrective, a law that asserts itself via the body. Thankfully, the practice of tattooing is far more symbiotic, though writing and the self are still—as they were for Kafka—irrevocably intertwined.