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Piper, Kafka, and the Literary Machine

Der Grundsatz, nach dem ich entscheide, ist: Die Schuld ist immer zweifellos. (Kafka, "In der Strafkolonie")

As I turned the final page of Andrew Piper's thought-provoking last chapter in his book Enumerations (2018), I found myself struck by the suggestions that he conveyed. Clearly drawing from a reimagining of Kafka's short story "In der Strafkolonie" (1919) —of which the author makes no secret whatsoever— Piper devotes that chapter to a peculiar experiment. He submits his work to the scrutiny of his own machinery in the same way the protagonist of the novella submits himself to the whims of his own creation —an intricate, punitive machine that kills by inscribing the condemned person's sentence onto their body— and ultimately meets his demise.

This parallel is not serendipitous. Piper, much like the Kafkaesque protagonist, does show a new practice in his field. To him, this new practice means that scholars should be more implicated in their own computational works, referring to an original idea of what "to be implicated" with one's own research and analysis means, namely "being folded into something [...] an expression of interwovenness, but also something to come" (Piper 2018, 178). This emphasises the need to immerse oneself in the techniques and technologies used to understand and analyse literary works, as it leads to a deeper understanding. This involvement in scholarship also requires acknowledging one's agency in the process and recognising the impact of personal perspectives, which ultimately highlights the significance of truly articulating a critical field.

The term "enumerations" in Piper's work goes beyond the allure of automating analytical processes on a large scale. It delves into a deeper connection within our field, as he points out "what data allows us to do is assess ourselves" (Piper 2018, 179). It is a call for a balanced approach to literary studies, one that respects both the richness of traditional analysis and the innovations brought forth by digital methods. Piper challenges us to consider how these tools can enhance, rather than overshadow, our understanding of literature and the field. As readers, we are left to ponder the implications of Piper's reference to the spirit of Kafka's narrative. What does it mean to analyse literature in an era overflowing with data? How do we balance the quantitative with the qualitative, the digital with the humanistic? Piper does not provide easy answers, but he opens a door to a realm of inquiry that is as fascinating as it is complex, as individual as it is communitarian. Like Kafka's story, the parallel serves as a reminder of the paradoxes that accompany our quest for knowledge through the machines we built ourselves.

Reference list

Piper, Andre. 2018. Enumerations. Data and Literary Studies. Chicago, IL: CUP.

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