There is a small party who are actually of this opinion and who try to show us that, if any law exists, it can only be this: The Law is whatever the nobles do. This party see everywhere only the arbitrary acts of the nobility, and reject the popular tradition, which according to them possesses only certain trifling and incidental advantages that do not offset its heavy drawbacks, for it gives the people a false, deceptive and over-confident security in confronting coming events.
—Kafka, “The Problem of Our Laws”
I am writing the material for this pamphlet in Dallas, Texas in July 2017 for distribution in Chicago. It is a quiet morning here. Just a slight rumbling from an approaching storm and the agitated growl of the neighbor’s guard dog upset by the thunder. I write in pen. On loose paper but will type this out later. Marking my place by hand. Places seem to matter in the face of the application of the laws. Places and dates. Commemorations, parades, and publications mark the anniversaries of past achievements and crushing defeats. To construct our connections with the past, we select the events we need: names, places, and dates. The records of resistance pile up, requiring unpacking.
Far from Dallas, two hundred years ago, Henry David Thoreau was born—one marker for our evolving beliefs regarding nature, isolation, and community.
1917 is marked as the year the accumulated rebellions resulted in the success of the “Russian Revolution.”
This summer in Dallas, ceremonies have been held to observe the year since a sniper gunned down people during a mass demonstration in protest of recent police shootings of unarmed civilians across the country. Six people including the gunman died in the event.
Many dates, various places, too many names. This week there have been many accounts of events in Detroit fifty years ago. Narrative and language fail in the face of that name. Ownership has now come down to the marker itself—too may slogans, buzzing, and noise—the battle for interpretation of the message. How to describe Detroit, 1967? Riot? Rebellion? Uprising? Sifting through the cinders, surveying the rubble drains meaning from the attempts at description.
The Sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. ‘Tis not the affair of a City, a County, a Province, or a Kingdom; but of a Continent — of at least one-eighth part of the habitable Globe. ‘Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end of time, by the proceedings now. Now is the seed-time of Continental union, faith and honour. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound would enlarge with the tree, and posterity read in it full grown characters.
In 1924 shortly after his death, Kafka’s friend and executor Max Brod found a letter from the writer. It began, “Dearest Max. ‘My last request: Everything I leave behind me . . . in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.’” Brod did not obey these wishes. In 1917 Kafka recorded the following in a small notebook:
They were given the choice of becoming kings or the kings’ messengers. As is the way with children, they all wanted to be messengers. That is why there are only messengers, racing through the world and, since there are no kings, calling out to each other the messages that have now become meaningless. They would gladly put an end to their miserable life, but they do not dare to do so because of their oath of loyalty.
Almost daily, I walk past a large, somewhat rundown house. The house is well protected—surrounded by a high chain-link fence topped by barbed wire and spikes. The gate to a long driveway is heavily locked and chained as well. The yard is rough, rocky, overgrown, and untended. Behind the fence, the house is protected by two guard dogs. When I first started passing the house I was greeted by two agitated and growling dogs—one large and tan and the other mostly black with patches of white fur. After the first encounters, I began to brace myself when approaching the fence so as not to be overly startled by their barking and growling. The dogs ran, jumped, and violently slammed themselves against the chain-link fence. While obviously sturdy, there was something about the ferocity of their actions that made me think they could break through the fence at any time. I reacted strongly to their fierce response, and I couldn’t ignore it. As the sidewalk is very close to a busy street, there are only two options when walking by the fence—close to growling dogs or tossed out into busy traffic.
After growing accustomed to the possibility of this animal encounter, things changed when I walked past and instead of being snarled at by both dogs, the black-and-white dog, alone, started walking with me along the sidewalk on the other side of the fence. He was not barking, and simply trotted alongside and quietly tried to engage me. Had the dog finally become accustomed to me and no longer felt threatened? Was he quieter when out by himself? Was it just the time of the day—a fluke? Although seemingly friendly, it did not seem wise to attempt to test his friendliness by extending my fingers though the fence to familiarize him with my scent or custom. Rather, I began to enjoy the habit of our encounter.
On another walk, three dogs approached—the same fierce, tan long-haired dog plus two black-and-white animals—one smaller and the other larger and growling. I discovered the source of the animal’s newfound amiability. It wasn’t a new attitude from the same dog I had before encountered but a puppy that hadn’t learned to respond fiercely, at least not when it was by itself. Repeated walks confirmed that the dog by itself greeted me warmly and walked alongside me across the distance while on the other side of the fence. But when all three dogs happen to be out together, all of them barked wildly, demonstrating their unhappiness and fear. Sometimes all the dogs appear to be asleep or inside and the walk is quiet and uneventful. Sometimes the threat is present, sometimes we simply pass one another in silence.
Misunderstanding the actions of our fellow humans comes at a great price. Consider how the smallest slight compels us to react. Should we consult others to justify our response? To test the quality of offense? Or simply wait to be caught executing the transgression? We will go to great lengths to avoid punishment. Some aspects of the law will continue to remain secret. The silent logic of the law makes the sting of regulation confusing—registered internally. Often in imperceptibly but accumulated ways. Does the dog comprehend why it is punished? Signs, language, words, and other actions contribute to an atmosphere and control and fear. The dog learns not to disobey. The intermingling of public display—the neglect, indifference, and slaughter—and the registration of the wound in private makes the interpretation of the law even more of a problem. Here is the difficulty of the animal.
Kierkegaard wanted a society, to refuse to read papers,
and that was not, friends, his worst idea.
Tiny Hardy, toward the end, refused to say anything,
a programme adopted early on by long Housman,
and Gottfried Benn
said:—We are using our own skins for wallpaper and we cannot win.
The attempt to make sense of past wounds and accumulated injuries ends in a familiar song: The echo of citizens from Detroit to Dallas for example. Anger, agitation and rage build – the cries of defiance loud but muffled. We chant these songs to ourselves until someone else hears. The right to speak, to sing does not guarantee the right to be heard. Written on walls and scrawled on signs, our words slice through the crowd but lack clarity. Hard to find a common language to speak.
Can’t have it, and this makes me angry.
I shall use my anger to build a bridge like that
Of Avignon, on which people may dance for the feeling
Of dancing on a bridge. I shall at last see my complete face
Reflected not in the water but in the worn stone floor of my bridge.
A chorus of curses gathers momentum and becomes a rallying cry for the builders of Ashbery’s bridge. Reaching over the river, we wait to cross before finally registering the depth of the insult. How is the distance measured?
This is the value of inscription. And its curse. It remains. It stares back and grips the throat of the singer until compliance is granted. The memory of barking dogs punctuates my writing, and I pause. Do they like shouting together? Throwing themselves against the fence, to feel the chain link bounce back? Together we dance, stomp—growl and pound on the stone floor—simply for that pleasure itself. Gathered together but drawing that inward pleasure derived from touch. The pleasure from song then conforms to preceding expressions found in the papers left behind by the most profligate among us. It becomes a struggle between the marks left on the stone mantle staring down at the crowd and the scattered papers left behind. The animals panned together on the fringes of the crowd offer no resistance.
This is why revolution must be borne on the backs of the masses. Inscribed, painted, etched into the skin bearing the marks of our suffering. We bear the pain of this inscription. Volunteer to be tortured by the name of our own making. We face the daily threat of capture—jailed for no reason. Becoming another number imprisoned by the silence of the law. We can’t immediately recognize these marks on the flesh. Not speaking, without resistance, the compliant prisoner yields to the writing machine. It is the same for the human animal and for other wretched creatures. First the fur must be removed, gathered, and collected for study. The marks themselves have been made by hand. The skin stretched against the walls we now stare at blankly waiting for release.
So if the first human language was song, it was song which was as natural to the human being, as appropriate to his organs and natural drives, as the nightingale’s song was natural to the nightingale, a creature which is, so to speak, a hovering lung—and that was . . . precisely our resounding language. Condillac, Rousseau, and others were half on the right track here in that they derive the meter and song of the oldest languages from the cry of sensation—and without doubt sensation did indeed enliven the first sounds and elevate them. But since from the mere sounds of sensation human language could never have arisen, though this song certainly was such a language, something more is still needed in order to produce this song – and that was precisely the naming of each creature in accordance with its own language. So there sang and resounded the whole of nature as an example, and the human being’s song was a concerto of all these voices, to the extent that his understanding needed them, his sensation grasped them, his organs were able to express them. Song was born, but neither a nightingale’s song nor Leibniz’s musical language nor a mere animals’ cry of sensation: an expression of the language of all creatures within the natural scale of the human voice!
While waiting for the birds to proclaim their song, I listen for a mistake. I would like to harmonize with the song outside my window but it is too distant, too vague. I begin to feel that I should know this song but that the language lacks logic and stings me. The invisible rule of law and its invisible hand. These birds are strangers to me, flaunting their confident song and not recording it in script. I try to understand this relationship through viewing the needs of the stranger. I don’t know that bird, or even the language of the law, yet both curse me daily. I am concerned that without drawing the line between what I know and what I am permitted to know, I will be unable to make another mark.
At the window, I hope to find the origin of that song yet it is too distant, still becoming. I will keep listening. Trying to find a way to mark this song in writing seduced by its refusal to be understood.
And now we ask, Comrades, if one regards events seriously and critically, was the vote cast by Ledebour, Haase and comrades on December 21st a step forward? Was it the act of deliverance which we were all awaiting with anguished hearts, for which the masses were languishing? No and no again! That vote, given that explanation, was a step forward and a step backward; it was another sweet delusion that things would turn out for the better, but the disillusionment behind it was inevitably all the more bitter.
And disillusionment followed hard on the heels of the deception. It is obvious that the vote against war credits, even if it were not botched completely by the pathetic explanation, did not exhaust all the opposition’s policies. It could have been merely the first step on a new road, a first perceptible signal which would have to be followed all along the line by a vigorous and consistent action in the spirit of the class struggle. What have we witnessed instead? Ledebour, Haase and comrades have since then rested on the laurels of their refusal of credits – they are leading an unreal existence.
There is an island in the ocean where in 1914 a few Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Germans lived. No cable reaches that island, and the British mail steamer comes but once in sixty days. In September it had not yet come, and the islanders were still talking about the latest newspaper which told about the approaching trial of Madame Caillaux for the shooting of Gaston Calmette. It was, therefore, with more than usual eagerness that the whole colony assembled at the quay on a day in mid-September to hear from the captain what the verdict had been. They learned that for over six weeks now those of them who were English and those of them who were French had been fighting in behalf of the sanctity of treaties against those of them who were Germans. For six strange weeks they had acted as if they were friends, when in fact they were enemies.
But their plight was not so different from that of most of the population of Europe. They had been mistaken for six weeks, on the continent the interval may have been only six days or six hours. There was an interval. There was a moment when the picture of Europe on which men were conducting their business as usual, did not in any way correspond to the Europe which was about to make a jumble of their lives. There was a time for each man when he was still adjusted to an environment that no longer existed. All over the world as late as July 25th men were making goods that they would not be able to ship, buying goods they would not be able to import, careers were being planned, enterprises contemplated, hopes and expectations entertained, all in the belief that the world as known was the world as it was. Men were writing books describing that world. They trusted the picture in their heads. And then over four years later, on a Thursday morning, came the news of an armistice, and people gave vent to their unutterable relief that the slaughter was over. Yet in the five days before the real armistice came, though the end of the war had been celebrated, several thousand young men died on the battlefields.
Looking back we can see how indirectly we know the environment in which nevertheless we live. We can see that the news of it comes to us now fast, now slowly; but that whatever we believe to be a true picture, we treat as if it were the environment itself. It is harder to remember that about the beliefs upon which we are now acting, but in respect to other peoples and other ages we flatter ourselves that it is easy to see when they were in deadly earnest about ludicrous pictures of the world. We insist, because of our superior hindsight, that the world as they needed to know it, and the world as they did know it, were often two quite contradictory things. We can see, too, that while they governed and fought, traded and reformed in the world as they imagined it to be, they produced results, or failed to produce any, in the world as it was. They started for the Indies and found America. They diagnosed evil and hanged old women. They thought they could grow rich by always selling and never buying. A caliph, obeying what he conceived to be the Will of Allah, burned the library at Alexandria.
The battle between logic and emotion endures. We sit in isolation marking each day with short entries into notebooks recording plans for defiance—acts against the rule of law. When we link arms and march through corridors releasing irrational bursts of ecstasy, the collective energy reverberates throughout the area. The image of a mass of individuals joined in common purpose captured in faded photographs hides a terrifying violence. This is the urge to create—to think deeply about our bodies and regret the lack of evidence for hope. Deep in the background of history paintings, lies a powdery surface. Dried pigment that no longer holds any responsibility for questions of causality or truth. Depending on the angle of vision, the records of identity have long become just another casualty of war—collections of names, numbers, faces.
Depending on the angle of vision, we will have to move the frame to accommodate the fullness of the unrelenting storm of history. We accidentally repeat what came before. The minor differences stand out at close distance. The chain link fence bows under pressure. This is the threat of the past. Details reach us in broken pieces. The totality of the unlicensed reproductions of these pictures fails. Beauty is an ugly thing. The long-forgotten sound of Goya’s breath:
Putrid though the god’s wishes
Are, we’ll plow through more mad more
Of this contiguous meat and market
Type thing, this headlong thrust into
The unknowable that we’d like to be able to call
The good life, mindful of the ways
Which prevent access to disguised places holding
Flashing bright creamy secrets, without
Wondering why the light’s burnt out,
Why the end always seems so near,
Or why the sweet taste of laughter cleanses.
Physical barriers serve their purpose. Each with their own vocabulary—brick walls, doors, windows, fences, stone, and glass. Inside and outside the sound of the voice. The penetration of language. Laughter in jail and barking in cages are both the same when never heard.
The colonial world is a world cut in two. The dividing line, the frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations. In the colonies it is the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted go-betweens, the spokesmen of the settler and his rule of oppression. In capitalist societies the educational system, whether lay or clerical, the structure of moral reflexes handed down from father to son, the exemplary honesty of workers who are given a medal after fifty years of good and loyal service, and the affection which springs from harmonious relations and good behavior—all these aesthetic expressions of respect for the established order serve to create around the exploited person an atmosphere of submission and of inhibition which lightens the task of policing considerably. In the capitalist countries a multitude of moral teachers, counselors and “bewilderers” separate the exploited from those in power. In the colonial countries, on the contrary, the policeman and the soldier, by their immediate presence and their frequent and direct action maintain contact with the native and advise him by means of rifle butts and napalm not to budge. It is obvious here that the agents of government speak the language of pure force. The intermediary does not lighten the oppression, nor seek to hide the domination; he shows them up and puts them into practice with the clear conscience of an upholder of the peace; yet he is the bringer of violence into the home and into the mind of the native.
Technically understood as a liquid, we rely upon glass as a solid barrier. Offices, mirrors, windows keeping the mob outside. They see a reflection yet are prevented from entry. This reflection offers no information. The large glass beckons. It holds itself as pure potential. A space for action. We wait for the call. The moment when injury can no longer be tolerated. The collected rage feeds on itself—voices, murmurings overheard. We will serve as witness to each other.
It is easier to forget what one has never heard. Better to remember the offhand, overheard comment. The force of whispered injury.
Is it better to let others settle the dispute? Or do we carry a responsibility to act in concert to battle injustice? What prompts the call to action? The overflow of conscience. How many stray dogs pass until we chose to rescue one from the pack?
It becomes a question of being heard. Of silence and registering the marks of resistance. And a question of the voice heard in silence. Will the words last? We leave behind records of these thoughts needed to continue in silence. Perseverance proves to be difficult in the face of the law and its secrets. Yet interpretation continues. Mostly in the form of scents. The intelligence found in scratching and aromas. We burrow down hoping to find an answer and only find the dirt piling up around our heads, filling our ears.
It becomes a question of closeness. And touching. What we call loyalty in our animals is mainly redeemed in contact. Reassuring us that we are not alone. Touch becomes a replacement for speech. We must simply trust that the silence does not represent a threat, it becomes a question of discernment. The animals’ instinct.
This act will be written on the skin, on the backs, of the disobedient. Each act is recorded and registered. In secret. The markings covered in fur. You will hope to read this over and over. Rhythmically repeating the instructions. No one taught you to read. The skill simply showed itself one silent day. Having been dormant, secret. This new discovery proved unruly. Leading to a kind of bitterness. Trying to be polite, you did not object to this new ability but smiled and silently repeated the words over and over—without breathing.
In public, in crowds, we constantly ask the same question: What does the animal want? Who will enforce the laws? When bodies are pressed together, words evaporate. The engine parts collide and the roar of the machines drown out the collected murmur. Only the collected weight of the mass gathered in the plaza marks the moment. The record of having ever been there.
Today I again walked past the dog behind the fence who was in a friendly mood but whimpering and lethargic. Was it the heat? The confinement? Boredom? I decided to call him Werther. He seemed so sad. I do not know if the dog is even male. The name just seemed to fit. My imposition of a name was meant to describe him, not limit his options. But I was aware that I had the ability to name him–not a reciprocal act. This linguistic act of power does not alter the dog’s place behind the fence. Or his sense of self. Most likely he had no idea I gave him a name. In our interactions, we have not directly addressed issues of power, loyalty, or obedience.
Walking away I wondered if the moment simply pointed to a problem of translation.
In January 1970, while creating the earthwork Partially Buried Woodshed, artist Robert Smithson indicates where he wants 20 truckloads of dirt piled on top of an abandoned outbuilding at what was then the east edge of the Kent Campus.
Behind Kent State’s Liquid Crystal Institute, a recently installed plaque marks the spot of a stone foundation, all that remains of an acclaimed—and controversial—work of art.
In January 1970, earthworks artist Robert Smithson came to Kent State to participate in a student-funded arts festival. His plan to create an earth sculpture on campus—a mud pour that would illustrate the law of gravity—fell through because of frigid weather. Smithson proposed another idea: to allow a building to exemplify entropy, the eventual exhaustion and collapse of any given system over time.
He chose an abandoned woodshed on a farm the university had acquired at the east edge of campus, and he and a group of students rented a backhoe to pile 20 truckloads of dirt up to and over part of its wooden roof until the center beam cracked—signaling the beginning of its collapse.
In a one-page handwritten document, the artist donated the work of art—which he named Partially Buried Woodshed and valued at $10,000—to the university, and he requested that nothing be altered or removed and any weathering be considered part of the work.
Kent State Professor Emeritus of Art Brinsley Tyrrell says Smithson told him he wanted the art “to acquire its own history.” Just months later, after the events of May 4, someone painted “May 4 Kent 70” on the shed’s lintel—linking the collapsing structure to that turbulent time.
The second of several large earthworks Smithson completed before he died in a private airplane crash in 1973, the Partially Buried Woodshed was both respected and scorned locally; some called it art, others an eyesore. An arsonist set it on fire in 1975, destroying the left side. As the campus expanded eastward, university administrators screened the shed from view with a grove of trees, but that didn’t deter the many art enthusiasts who came to see it.
Smithson’s artwork gained a wider audience. In 1980, museums around the world exhibited Robert Smithson Sculpture, which included large photographs of the Partially Buried Woodshed. (And his work still is exhibited internationally.)
By accident or intent, the Partially Buried Woodshed was torn down to its foundation in 1984. The School of Art Galleries mounted exhibitions to commemorate its creation in 1990 (20th anniversary) and in 2005 (35th anniversary); the latter included works others had created in response to it.
In his earthworks, Smithson questioned the idea that a work of art is frozen in time at the moment of completion. Today, although the physical remains of the Partially Buried Woodshed have almost vanished on campus, its concept continues to intrigue, inspire—and invite controversy.
A late afternoon walk past the house with the dogs behind the fence. Today the path had been broken by construction – the fence had been pushed back to accommodate repairs to the sidewalk and curb. The fragments of concrete and wooden support struts forced me to walk in the street. Trucks roared past and I considered turning back. The dogs must have been moved into the house. No friendly greeting from the sad, lonely creatures. I scratched a short note to them in the dirt and kept walking.
The Officer, however, had turned towards the machine. If earlier on it had already become clear that he understood the machine thoroughly, one might well get alarmed now at the way he handled it and how it obeyed. He only had to bring his hand near the harrow for it to rise and sink several times, until it had reached the correct position to make room for him. He only had to grasp the bed by the edges, and it already began to quiver. The stump of felt moved up to his mouth. One could see how the Officer really didn’t want to accept it, but his hesitation was only momentary—he immediately submitted and took it in. Everything was ready, except that the straps still hung down on the sides. But they were clearly unnecessary. The Officer did not have to be strapped down. When the Condemned Man saw the loose straps, he thought the execution would be incomplete unless they were fastened. He waved eagerly to the Soldier, and they ran over to strap in the Officer. The latter had already stuck out his foot to kick the crank designed to set the inscriber in motion. Then he saw the two men coming. So he pulled his foot back and let himself be strapped in. But now he could no longer reach the crank. Neither the Soldier nor the Condemned Man would find it, and the Traveler was determined not to touch it. But that was unnecessary. Hardly were the straps attached when the machine already started working. The bed quivered, the needles danced on his skin, and the harrow swung up and down. The Traveler had already been staring for some time before he remembered that a wheel in the inscriber was supposed to squeak. But everything was quiet, without the slightest audible hum.
Because of its silent working, the machine did not really attract attention.
The daily resistance. The reluctance to surrender. Waking to the pain but pushing it away. Pause for a moment and reflect on the number of times something exactly like this has taken place. Uneventfully, a brief moment. No heaven, movement. Just a quiet song—“Pleasures”:
The first look out of the window in the morning
The old book found again
Snow, the change of the seasons
Taking showers, swimming
Taking things in
I shall keep to myself.
I shall not repeat others’ comments about me.
*Additional texts taken from the writings of Thomas Paine, Rosa Luxemburg, Frantz Fanon, and John Ashbery.
Franz Kafka, “The Problem of Our Laws” in The Complete Stories, ed. Nahum Norbert Glatzer (New York: Schocken Books, 1988), 438.
 Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks, ed. Max Brod, trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins (Cambridge, Mass: Exact Change, 1991), 28.
 John Berryman, “Dream Song No. 53” in 77 Dream Songs: Poems, ed. Daniel Swift (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), 60.
 John Ashbery, “Wet Casements” in Selected Poems (New York: Viking, 1985), 225.
 J.G. Herfder “Treatise on the Origin of Language” Herder: Philosophical Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 104.
 Walter Lippman, “The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads” in Public Opinion (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, 1922), 3-5.
 “Buried Treasure,” Kent State Magazine, last modified March 14, 2016, http://www.kent.edu/magazine/shed.
 Franz Kafa, “In the Penal Colony,” in The Metamorphosis + In the Penal Colony, trans. Ian Johnston (Prague: e-artnow, 2013).
 Bertolt Brecht, “Pleasures,” in Poems: 1913-1956, ed. John Willet and Ralph Manheim (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 1987), 448.