from Kafka’s "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk":-Slavoj Zizek, "Living in the End Times"She does not bring to her public – the people – any deep spiritual content; what she produces is the difference between the people’s “utter silence” and their silence “as such”, marked as silence by way of its opposition to her. (Žižek 2010b: 367)
The second and inverse form of idiocy is that of those who fully identify with commonsense, who are wholly in favor of the 'big Other' of appearance. In a long series of figures-- beginning with the Greek Chorus in the role of canned laughter or canned crying, always ready to comment on the action with some commonplace wisdom-- one should mention the classic "stupid" partners of the great detectives: Holmes' Watson, Poirot's Hastings. These figures do not only serve as a foil for the detective's greatness; indeed, in one of the novels, Poirot tells Hastings that he is indispensable to the detective work: immersed in common sense, Hastings reacts to the scene of the crime the way the murderer who wanted to erase the traces of his act expected the public to react; it is then only by including in his analysis this expected reaction of the 'big Other' that the great detective can solve the crime. The greatness of Kafka resides (among other things) in his unique ability to present the first figure of idiocy in the guise of the second figure, as something normal and conventional (recall the extravagantly 'idiotic' reasoning in the long debate between the priest and Josef K. which follows the parable on the Door of the Law). "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk" is Kafka's very last story, written immediately prior to his death, and so could be considered as Kafka's testament, his last word (while writing it, he knew he was dying). Is "Josephine" then the allegory of the fate of Kafka-the-artist himself? Yes and no. When Kafka was writing the story, he had already lost his voice due to an inflamed throat (moreover, he was, like Freud, tone-deaf as regards music). Even more important is the fact that while at the story's end Josephine disappears, Kafka himself wanted to disappear, to erase all traces after his death (recall his order to Max Brod to burn all his manuscripts). But the true surprise is that what we get in the story is not the expected existential anguish mixed with slimy eroticism-- it is, rather, a simple story of Josephine, the singing mouse, and her relation to the mice people (the translation of Volk as "folk" introduces a totally unwarranted populist dimension). Although Josephine is widely admired, the narrator (an anonymous "I") casts doubt on the quality of her singing:So is it singing at all? Is it not perhaps just piping? And piping is something we all know about, it is the real artistic accomplishment of our people, or rather no mere accomplishment but a characteristic expression of our life. We all pipe, but of course no one dreams of making out that our piping is an art, we pipe without thinking of it, indeed without noticing it, and there are even many among us who are quite unaware that piping is one of our characteristics. So if it were true that Josephine does not sing but only pipes and perhaps, as it seems to me at least, hardly rises above the level of our usual piping-- yet, perhaps her strength is not even quite equal to our usual piping, whereas an ordinary farmhand can keep it up effortlessly all day long, besides doing his work-- if that were all true, then indeed Josephine's alleged vocal skill might be disproved, but that would merely clear the ground for the real riddle which needs solving, the enormous influence she has.As the narrator puts it, "this piping of hers is no piping"-- a line which cannot but recall Magritte's famous painting, so that one can imagine a painting of Josephine piping with the title: "This is not piping." The first topic of the story is the enigma of Josephine's voice: if there is nothing special about it, why does it generate such admiration? What is "in her voice more than voice itself"? As Malden Dolar has observed, her meaningless piping (a song deprived of meaning, that is, reduced to the object-voice) functions like Marcel Duchamp's urinoir-- it is an art object not because of any material properties, but only because Josephine occupies the place of the artist-- in herself, she is exactly the same as all "ordinary" members of the people. Here, singing is thus the "art of minimal difference"-- what differentiates her voice from other's voices is of a purely formal nature In other words, Josephine is a purely differential marker; she does not bring to her public-- the people-- any deep spiritual content; what she produces is the difference between the people's "utter silence" and their silence "as such," marked as silence by way of its opposition to her singing. Why, then, if Josephine's voice is the same as all the others', is she needed, why do the people listen to her? Her piping-singing is a pure pretext-- ultimately, the people gather for the sake of gathering:Since piping is one of our thoughtless habits, one might think that people would pipe in Josephine's audience too; her art makes us feel happy and when we are happy we pipe; but her audience never pipes, it sits in mouse-like stillness; as if we had become partakers in the peace we long for, from which our own piping at the very least holds us back, we make no sound. Is it her singing that enchants us or is it not rather the solemn stillness enclosing her frail little voice?The last line reiterates the key point: what matters is not her voice as such, but the "solen stillness," the moment of peace, of withdrawal from hard work, that (listening to) her voice brings about. Here the sociopolitical content becomes relevant: the miec people lead harsh and tense lives, difficult to bear, their existence is always precarious and threatened, and the very precarious character of Josephine's piping functions as a stand-in for the precarious existence of the entire mice people:Our life is very uneasy, every day brings surprises, apprehensions, hopes, and terrors, so that it would be impossible for a single individual to bear it all did he not always have by day and night the support of his fellows; but even so it often becomes very difficult; frequently as many as a thousand shoulders are trembling under a burden that was really meant only for one pair... This piping, which rises up where everyone is pledged to silence, comes almost like a message from the whole people to each individual; Josephine's thin piping amidst grave decisions is almost like our people's precarious existence amidst the tumult of a hostile world. Josephine exerts herself, a mere nothing in voice, a mere nothing in execution, she asserts herself and gets across to us; it does us good to think of that.Josephine "is thus the vehicle for the collectivity's affirmation of itself: she reflects their collective identity back to them"; she is needed because "only the intervention of art and the theme of the great artist could make it possible to grasp the essential anonymity of the people, who have no feeling for art, no reverence for the artist." In other words, Josephine "causes [the people] to assemble in silence-- would this be possible without her? She constitutes the necessary element of exteriority that alone permits immanence to come into being. This brings us to the logic of the exception constitutive of the order of universality: Josephine is the heterogeneous One through which the homogeneous All of the people is posited (perceives itself) as such.
Here, however, we see why the mouse community is not a hierarchic community with a Master, but a radically egalitarian "communist" community: Josephine is not venerated as a charismatic Mistress or Genius, her public is fully aware that she is just one of them. So the logic is not even that of a Leader who, with her exceptional position, establishes and guarantees the equality of her subjects (who are equal in their shared identification with their Leader)-- Josephine herself has to dissolve her special position into this equality. This brings us to the central part of Kafka's story, the detailed, often comical description of the way Josephine and her public, the people, relate to each other. Precisely because the people are aware that Josephine's function is just to assemble them, they treat her with egalitarian indifference; when she "demands special privileges (exception from physical labour) as a compensation for her labor or indeed as a recognition of her unique distinction and her irreplaceable service to the community, her request is denied.For a long time back, perhaps since the very beginning of her artistic career, Josephine has been fighting for exemption from all daily work on account of her singing: she should be relieved of all responsibility for earning her daily bread and being involved in the daily struggle for existence, which-- apparently-- should be transferred on her behalf to the people as a whole. A facile enthusiast-- and there have been such-- might argue that from the mere unusualness of this demand, from the spiritual attitude needed to frame such a demand, that it has an inner justification. But our people draw other conclusions and quietly refuse it. Nor do they trouble much about disapproving the assumptions on which it is based. Josephine argues, for instance, that the strain of working is bad for her voice, that the strain of working is of course nothing to the strain of singing, but it prevents her from being able to rest sufficiently after singing and to recuperate for more singing, she has to exhaust her strength completely and yet, in these circumstances, can never rise to the peak of her abilities. The people listen to her arguments and pay no attention. Our people, so easily moved, sometimes cannot be moved at all. Their refusal is sometimes so decided that even Josephine is taken aback, she appears to submit, does her proper share of work, sings as best she can, but all only for a time, then with renewed strength-- for this purpose her strength seems inexhaustible-- she takes up the fight again.That is why, when Josephine disappears, narcissistically counting on the fact that her absence will cause the people to miss her, imagining how they will mourn her (like a child who, not feeling loved enough, runs away from home, hoping that his parents will miss him and desperately look for him), she totally miscalculates her position:She is a small episode in the eternal history of our people, and the people will get over the loss of her. Not that it will be easy for us; how can our gatherings take place in utter silence? Still, were they not silent even when Josephine was present? Was her actual piping notably louder and more alive than the memory of it all will be? Was it even in her lifetime more than a simple memory? Was it not rather because Josephine's singing was already past losing in this way that our people in their wisdom prized it so highly?... So perhaps we shall not miss so very much after all, while Josephine, redeemed from the earthly sorrows which to her thinking lay in wait for all chosen spirits, will happily lose herself in the numberless throng of the heroes of our people, and soon, since we are no historians, will rise to the heights of redemption and be forgotten like all her brothers.Frederick Jameson was right to read "Josephine" as Kafka's sociopolitical utopia, his vision of a radically egalitarian communist society-- with the singular exception that Kafka, for whom humans are forever marked by Superego guilt, was able to imagine a utopian society only amongst animals.
He who hears music, feels his solitude peopled at once.