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Kafka’s The Metamorphosis
Sourit Bhattacharya

Kafka. Credit – Wikimedia Commons.

Derridean Blinking: Reason and Animality in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

“One day Gregor Samsa woke up from uneasy dreams and found himself transformed into a gigantic insect” – with this starts one of the most cited Kafka stories that runs for more than 70 pages detailing the way Gregor Samsa lives with this condition for two months and then dies. The story starts in medias res, and never bothers to reason the sequence that has brought this sudden transformation. This paper would try to read the way reason has been used here: both in deferral and repetition. Tracking Derrida and Agamben’s notion of reason and animality, it will investigate how the animal self has been projected, and what relation it posits with the author’s obsession with death.

Talking about reason, Derrida once pointed out the double edges of it: both the cause and the reason of being. It is the causal relationship that defines the moment of finality or destination in a relation. The reasonableness of the reason is never questioned. The ground of being thus remains unlocated, as the essence continues to be objectified in a cognizable manner (Derrida, 2004). It is this hidden question that Kafka seems to ask in his story, The Metamorphosis – the reasonableness of reason. Reason says that a man cannot be transformed into an insect: but what reason is this: a reason that dominates aggrandizing self-interest and rapacious instrumental rationality. It is the derivative structure of juridico-technological supremacy that has intertwined reason with rationality, intimating the idea of a system, and confining the notion of the rationale. 

The word ‘rationale’ derives from the 1660 Latin neuter rationālis, which meant a set of reasons for a course of action or belief.1 Rationale is not thus one form of reason, but the very grounding of reason itself. It inherits a set of reasons, suggesting a conflicting relation among them in defining the ground of a relation. This is precisely the equation with which the word reason came to be. It was Greek ‘logos’ from where words like ‘logic’ or ‘ratio’ came to be which suggested a particular system of knowledge and form of relation. In none of these words one form became dominant. Apart from reason-al relation, the system of logic or ratio was equally affected by the notion of representation or mutual reaction. It is only after establishing the widespread ideological supremacy of the ‘cogito’ and the concomitant colonial aggression that reason became a denominator of self-interest, later to be transformed into a crude instrumental rationality as industries progressed and machines developed. Max Weber has captured this moment with a ‘disenchantment’ which many saw as the signal of Kantian maturity, both philosophically and biologically.2 What remains suppressed here is the originary notion of the rationale, the system of conflicting claims. It is interesting to note that rationale also meant the liturgical vestment worn by the Christian Bishops – full clothing at some of the Catholic Churches. 3 This carries a sense of secrecy or distance that rationale inheres in. This is the secrecy, the distancing ground, the repetitive changes that rationale has in its conflictual claims within fundamental reasons. The Metamorphosis drives towards that. 

The story starts when Gregor Samsa has already become an insect. He wakes up in a rainy weather, to find that he is lying “on his tough, armoured back, and, raising his head a little, managed to see – sectioned off by a little crescent-shaped ridges into segments – the expanse of his arched, brown belly, atop which the coverlet perched, forever on the point of slipping off entirely. His numerous legs, pathetically frail, by contrast to the rest of him, waved feebly before his eyes”. And his customary reaction is: “all this getting up early is bound to take its effects. A man needs proper bed rest” (Kafka: 2007: 87). There is not a single moment of astonishment on the part of Gregor that he has become an insect. It seems he was meant to be one. He talks in his human language, which seems a hazy, loud, ‘blurting out’ of an animal to others. He tries hard to open the door as he realizes that he has no teeth with which he can swing the latch-key, nor does he know how to control his numerous legs. As he opens the door, and confronts the human beings, the immediate result is of the end of language. The chief clerk who came to know why Gregor had not reached the office on time forgets language, adopting another form of language, that of gestures of escape and release. Gregor’s mother screams and faints, while his father tries to shoo it away with a hissing sound. Gregor’s ‘disorientation’ literally disorients the others as they are emptied of speech, of the “I”, and temporally halted from penetrating the discourse of the speaking subject. It is this moment of distanciation of the self and a simultaneous play of different selves that the subject-ivity of the other journeys towards the pure language: the taking place of language itself. I will talk about it later on. 

For the time being, let us understand the form of reason and its execution here. Reason has been used to enhance the spectacle of disgust. The element of fear arises precisely from this nerve-shaking state of mind; the nauseating disgust at the abominable shape Gregor-cum-the creature has taken. The sense of disgust is penetrating since it is Gregor the human who has transformed into an abominable beast. This knowledge of devolution instigates the disgust, as does it augment the admiration as the human evolves into a saint, or a saint’s beast. Evolution is rooted in the rhetoric of reason. Reason must possess the capacity to discriminate, select the better, and advocate it. The idea of selection and betterment is purely relational. But the military and technological power display has manipulated the field of reason into a weapon of the dominator. It is not relation but power that defines selection. 

But one must remember that at the heart of ‘natural selection’ of the Darwinian evolution remains the consistent play of chances and co-incidents.4 In unmindfully reshaping the theory into a socially developing one, this ‘play’ has never been taken care of. Thus the animal always remains on the vertically lower state, whereas the nature of chance, the evidence of mutation is to juxtapose it with the human. Gregor suggests this possibility, nullified by the general understanding of reason by his family. Their fear, though they see he is not harmful, their disgust, though he covers himself up, their rejection, though he never demands attention, just feels dejected at times – all testify to their repulsion at the ‘creature’ and reassertion of the mastery of the self. It is this reason that constitutes humanity. It is this reason that never grants the chance of a change. In the same episteme, Gregor’s creatural ontology marks a change, adumbrates a possibility of adopting a newer knowledge, a new paradigm that reshapes the knowledge of humanity in a different way, conceding space thereby to the question of reasoning the reason. 

What kind of ontology is this? Is Gregor’s subject-hood denied in this? Is it a new form of animal subjectivity? What is interesting to note that Gregor has transformed into an insect, while retaining his human form of thinking: he slowly learns the things. He has transformed into a different self, or a completely new subject; he has to learn its ways. And Gregor does this. As Agamben noted in Infancy and History, the animal never learns a language, since it is already, always in language (Agamben, 1993). It is rather the humans who acquire language through a certain form of interpellation. It is this process of acquiring that has been focused here. But the story is not the description of human victory over the animal ways. It is where the entire knowledge is once again questioned to the ground. Gregor’s human being slowly passes over to an animal one, as he learns that a certain way of life, a certain food is his liking. He slowly understands his points of detachment from the human. Yet again, his human form of thinking retains, as he feels disappointed at not being able to help his family financially, or being deprived of the desired attention. Kafka writes beautifully here: 

Gregor spent his days and nights almost without sleeping. Sometimes he thought that the next time they opened the door he would take the business of the family in hand, just exactly as he had done before…but they were all inaccessible to him, and he was glad when they went away. And then he wasn’t in the mood to worry about the family, but instead was filled with rage at how they neglected him (Kafka: 130). 

It is this strange mixture of selves that bring up the notion of the rationale – the ground of being. Gregor, the creature, likes to crawl and hang from the ceiling, feels happy to lie under the sofa, even if the space is not enough; Gregor, the human, thinks in a manner that is reason per se – the reason that constitutes a family, the notion of duty, the development of self, and its relation with subjectivity. The last two things are more important since both of them affect and shape one another. The self tries to formulate a human rationality, a superior being, even if the predicament is that of a hybrid. This hybridity affects in turn its animal subjectivity as a consistent self-ish turn towards a singular existence remains in the hunt. 5

To unpack the thought, let us try to understand the relation between reason and animality. In the conventional understanding of reason as causal, destination-oriented, teleological, Animality is the binary opposition of humanity, and thus as always, secondary to the latter. In the Western philosophy, be it in Descartes, or Kant or Heidegger, the animal is conceded a space far beneath the humans. Though Heidegger goes deeper to announce a notion of ‘clearing’, an illumination possible in the world of animals, much superior in understanding than the humans, yet he also rejoins that the animal is determined by its immediacy of sense perception. It can never understand that a ‘world’ is there. It does not have that necessary ability to distantiate and see. Thus, in Heideggerian terms, the world ‘worlds’ only with the humans. 6 But for Derrida the notion of subject has an essential connection with the animal. In ‘Eating Well’, Derrida writes that the relation to self is marked by trace and difference. The singularity of the self or the question of ‘who’ in “who comes after the subject?” is not any form of individuality or a reduction to an atom, but a consistent division, where the self gets close to the other, conjoins with the nonsubjective. Focusing a relation of ‘effraction’, he defines the subject not as a mastery over the self, but as “finite experience of nonidentity to itself” (Derrida, 1995: 139). According to him, the animal belongs to that point where this nonidentity takes a concrete shape. The animal is ingrained within subjectivity. A reconstruction of the deconstructed self, that is deconstruction of ‘itself’, would bring this hidden issue in light. The animal is the aporia that marks the shift of the existential analytic, a form of ‘exception’ in the Agambenian vocabulary. The notion of ‘exappropriation’, that Derrida introduces here as a consistent development of the self by a simultaneous destability, has close connection with Agamben’s notion of the animal in The Open. It is appropriation and also a state of bypassing appropriation – and thus it’s not expropriation. It is a process which questions its own structure as it develops it. In The Open, Agamben contends that the animal is already there in language (Agamben, 2004). Its sheer belongingness to language which seems absurd, uncodifiable and a reduced form of communication is that of pure belonging. An animal takes birth in the taking place of language, in the realm of pure reason, the realm of ‘innocence’. This taking place is the moment of Voice in language. In Language and Death, Agamben extends this view that Voice with a capital ‘V’ designates the suspending zone between sound and the intention of meaning. Tracking Hegel and Heidegger, Agamben finds that there can never be any true meaning conveyed through the words spoken, since it intimates the sense of an ab-sence and focuses on the universal content. Voice is the in-betweenness that denominates a space of Unspeakability: it is the space of pure language, from where the ‘indicators of enunciation’ (personal pronouns) take the unalloyed being to an illusion of singular subjectivity through the introduction of the discourse of speaking subject (Agamben, 1991). It is this Unspeakability or the aporetic pause that marks the presence (pre-sense) of the animal. The animal belongs to that in-betweenness, the space of suspension – in Derridean terms, the space of the suspension of the cogito. That is why it is not the ‘I’, the thinking subject, the discursive space, that validates its being; on the other way round, the ‘I’ cannot assert its power over the being, since the being is always on the zone of suspension or undecidability, which reshapes the delimited space of the I and throws it into a perpetual play. So, for Derrida, the equation can never be ‘I think therefore I am’; rather it is thought thinks. This thought is the moment of Unspeakability or the ‘blinking’ that Derrida refers to in The Eyes of the University.7 It is the suspension which designates the animal subjectivity. It is the reason that questions the projection of reason itself. It is the animal, the reason of being. The equation now becomes: the animal that therefore I am (Derrida, 2008). 

In this story, the same thing takes place, as without any prior intimation, the author presents to us a transformed body. The relations with the humans demonstrate the reason playing its part. But the rationale comes from the other side. By getting metamorphosed into an insect, Gregor takes us to the suppressed version of reason: the rationale. Gregor’s retention of human self is also the impossibility of return to human form. While emptying Gregor’s room of furniture, his mother cries out: “I think it would be best if we try to leave the room in exactly the condition it was before, so that, if Gregor is returned to us, he will find everything unaltered” (Kafka: 119). But in the end, the sister, who took the sole responsibility of Gregor the creature, also comes to believe that, it is ‘a thing’ and must be ‘got rid of as soon as possible’ (Kafka: 139). It will never return. Return in both Derrida and Agamben is not possible. The speaking subject never returns or can return to the state of ‘innocence’, nor can the alterity mark the return of the repressed. The trace can never ensure any return. The animal is the taking place of language; once intercoursed into symbolic language, the purity remains a Sisyphean journey. If anything takes place with surety, it is the repetition, or the ‘travelling towards and through’ (Agamben, 1993: 53). The repetition never ends, as the subject is never formed in totality. Thus Gregor’s form remains that of a pure subject: a hybridity marked by repetitions and ambivalences, tensions and traces, form-ations and form-ings. Gregor’s hybridity thus is not of a human-cum-creature one, but that of fostering the pure notions of subjectivity: the animal subjectivity. His crawling, saliva, appetite – all mark a change yet incapable of disorienting the subjectivity. It is precisely why Gregor feels disoriented at his father’s hissing sound while shooing him away.8 It disorients both his animal self to the intolerability of the sound and the human self to the loss of subjectivity. It is this unbalanced, disproportionate and amorphous state that sets the ontology of this creature, an ontology that borders on the process of ‘pure’ reference to the animal, the investigation on the reason of being, the question of questioning per se that Gregor inheres. The position does not lie in drawing it as a conceptual apparatus and then discriminating upon it; rather the position is thoroughly Derridean or Agambenian, since it holds an ethic, a possibility, a responsibility, by highlighting the oppression that surface meaning of reason impinges on.

It is this moment that brings us closer to our third point of inquiry: the notion of death. How has Kafka defined death here? Why was the death? Has it been a death-as-such? As a month passed, Gregor understood that everybody had started some work, and his position as a possible return of the repressed slackened more and more, until one day he broke through the living room to listen to the tune of violin she would play the best. Gregor always wanted to get her admitted in a music school, despite their father’s prohibitions. That longing brought him back to the family union, prioritizing his chances of getting adopted in the family with more trust and affection. But his unhygienic state spoils the moment as the newly accommodated tenants accuse his father of keeping ‘dirt’ inside the house. Gregor could not retaliate, since his father never believed in the metamorphosis. Gregor thus had to ‘disappear’ again, this time without breath though.9 His tremendous sense of weakness and pain supported his renunciation of the world. Gregor dies in an equally unsentimental manner. 

Throughout the story, the author has used a tremendous economy of expression. The excess that Gregor had become had to be dealt with very carefully, and the way it has been incorporated suggests a huge role secrecy and avoidance play in managing the excess. The excess within Gregor can never be dealt as an excess, otherwise the relation would be that of inside and outside. There is also an outside of the outside – the extreme other which nullifies all possibilities of being and establishes instead the being of possibility. Death is one such being of possibility.10 Thus the excess within Gregor had to die; otherwise it could never be controlled. The excess cannot be controlled or tamed; it can only be displaced. Death is that displacement, which touches the being of possibility through its consistent displacing of itself. It is, according to Agamben, the potentiality: preserving without acting.11 It is the moment of pure experience. A supportive symbol here is that of the inscription of pain upon the body of Gregor, which his father has incurred. This torture remains the site of the father’s desire or hatred of the son. Added with it came the renunciation of food. Gregor symbolically announces a distanciation of life from death, a life that works in displacement, in claiming to find the being of the possibility. In death Gregor reaches to that. In Infancy and History, Agamben writes of death as the pure experience, an experience that is stripped off all its subjective or psychological associations, an experience that is autonomous, innate sphere of language, an experience that we submit to and that which touches our ‘innermost being’.12 When Gregor attempts to ‘disappear’, he reaches the moment of that purity, where the first disappearing works as a process – that process when the pure reference to the animal subjectivity amidst its amorphousness just started. In discussing ‘Dasein’, Heidegger also suggested its intimate relation with the possibility of dying – ‘dying as a non-relational, radically individualizing possibility because of its unavoidability and intrinsicality in life’ (cited in Mills, 2008). Gregor Samsa portrays that moment. Kafka’s obsession with death, thus, is not only a preparation for the Holocaust, as has been extensively written about. His obsession is also to touch the most ‘innermost nexus’ of experience, to enter the taking place of language itself, which has not penetrated the discourse of the subject as yet. It is to experience the in-fancy of language, the ability of the inability to speak.13 Gregor’s desperate measures to connect himself with the family underlie an equally austere effort at erasing himself out. The transformation here is not only a parable of human victimization in respect to rapid industrialization and instrumental rationality. It is rather a metaphoric journey to put light on the suppressed ground of reason, the reason of being, and trying to investigate the ‘irreducible opposites’ within self that render an animal subjectivity. The hybridity with its conflictual claims is a proof to that condition. It is a state that, like the exception or the aporia, brings back a pause to the systematic rise of the dominant, and shifts its course of progress. It is that moment which also predates the dominant in the binary, like the exception determines the field of the sovereign, which was constituted by the sovereign suspension of law. In that case, Gregor has already died as the story starts, which throws the claim that Kafka here renders the possibility, the ethics of the suppressed self, and suggests us to investigate properly before adopting a view seemingly reasonable. The story is a question on the reason of reason, the relation between animality and reason, and a possibility of ethical dimension experienced through the somewhat different notion of death. To conclude, the Derridean blinking here takes a little more time to reflect on the process of reflection itself. But as the eye opens, the story vanishes. 


1.This has been taken from Oxford English Dictionary. The same can be found in this link:, Date of Access, 14 December, 2011
2.In order to engage with the notion of maturity and civilization, see Kant. 1970, ‘What is Enlightenment?’, in H. S. Reiss (ed.) Kant: Political Writings, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press; the same process was lamented in Weber: “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations” (Weber. 2002, Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells, Penguin Books.)
3.Oxford English Dictionary. for further reference on the web, see, or, Date of Access 14 December, 2011
4.Darwin, Charles. 1959, ‘The origin of Species’, (Selections), Bios, 30:2, pp 67-72; the notion of chance and coincidences playing at length in the evolutionary rhetoric has been well-focused in Foucault’s dialogue on the biological formation of the body in the nineteenth century. For details, see Michel Foucault. 2009, Birth of Biopolitics: lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979, New York, Picador. 
5.To understand the notion of ‘creatural ontology’ and the problem of voice in ‘hybridity’, follow, Margot Norris. 2010, ‘Kafka’s Hybrids: Thinking Animals and Mirrored Humans’, in Kafka’s Creatures: Animals, Hybrids, and Other Fantastic Beings, ed. Mark Lucht and Donna Yarri, UK: Rowman and Littlefield Pub.
6.This is cited in the chapter, ‘The Suspended Substantive’, Leland de la Durantaye, 2009, Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction, Stanford, Stanford University Press, p. 327.
7.Derrida, ‘The Principle of Reason’, p. 154; Agamben also tries to understand what ‘thought’ meant in original, where he finds an association of ‘torment’ and ‘anguish’ with the word. Thought has a conflictual claim within. See, Agamben. 1999, The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, trans. Daniel Heller­Roazen, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press.
8.Kafka writes, “If only there hadn’t been those unbearable hissing sounds issuing from his father! They caused Gregor to lose all orientation”, ‘The Metamorphosis’, p. 105
9.The idea of disappearing is quite central in Kafka’s writings. It is not only the disappearing of the protagonist, but also of the entire system that works its inscrutable will in secrecy (The Trial, for instance). Here disappearing is two-fold: the disappearing of human self and that of a hybrid self. So the idea of death that the transformed body generates is also a metaphorical journey towards the pure self that the death of hybridity prognosticates.
10.The concept of the ‘outside’ is borrowed from Maurice Blanchot’s writing on Kafka. For a better understanding, consult, Foucault, Michel. 1989, Maurice Blanchot: The Thought from Outside, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman and Brian Massumi, Zone.
11.The notion of potentiality in Agamben is very important, since it outlines not the potency of action but the preservation of a certain force without acting out on it. It is the force that remains tied to the potential and is not destroyed in its transformation. It is the space of topological indeterminacy that ushers in a ‘politics of pure means’ For a better understanding, see Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999)
12.Agamben was highly influenced by Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘The Coming Philosophy’, where Benjamin defines the Experience as the systematic and pure continuum without any form of affectation. He acknowledges it in almost all his books, as he moves towards the politics of “Coming Community”. In Infancy and History, Agamben writes, “the individual as not already speaking, as having been and still being an infant – this is experience”, p. 50, italics in original
13.In Infancy and Language, Agamben goes deeper to understand the originary meaning of the word infancy. It derives from Latin in-fari, meaning unwilling to speak. It suggests that infancy is a state already always in language, like that of the animal, which ‘desists’ the entry into the Speaking discourse. Infancy and History, p.37


Agamben, Giorgio. 1991, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity, trans. Karen E. Pinkus & Michael Hardt, Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press.
Agamben, Giorgio. 1993, Infancy and History: Essays on the Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron, London, Verso.
Agamben, Giorgio. 2004, The Open: Man and Animal, trans Kevin Attell, Stanford, Stanford University Press.
Derrida, Jacques. 1995, “Eating Well” in Points…: Interviews 1974-1994, trans. Peggy Kamuf and others, Stanford, Stanford University Press.
Derrida, Jacques. 2004, The Eyes of the University: Right to Philosophy 2, Stanford, California, Stanford University Press; especially the chapter ‘Principle of Reason’.
Derrida, Jacques. 2008, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, New York, Fordham University Press.
Kafka, Franz. 2007, ‘The Metamorphosis’, in Metamorphosis and Other Stories, trans. Michael Hoffman, Penguin Books, London. All the citations have been taken from this book.
Mills, Catherine. 2008, The Philosophy of Agamben, Montreal’s and Kingston, McGill-Queens’ University Press.


Issue 41 (Jan-Feb 2012)

focus German Literature – Some Glimpses
  • Editorial
    • Charanjeet Kaur
  • Conversation
    • Vibha Surana: In Conversation with Charanjeet Kaur
  • The Creative Bent: Christopher Kloeble
    • Novel Excerpt: A Hidden man
    • Novel Excerpt: Amongst Loners
    • Short Fiction: In the Eye
  • Comment
    • Charanjeet Kaur: ‘Rilke’
    • Charanjeet Kaur: Trauma Literature
    • Mahesh Tarmale: “Alienation: Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theatre
    • Namrata Parmar: A Re-reading of Nietzsche’s Thoughts
    • Riddhi Sharma: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
  • Critical Commentary
    • Lydia Schäffer: Contemporary German Literature
    • Panchanan Dalai: Elie Wiesel’s Night
    • Pratibha Umashankar: Thomas Mann and Girish Karnad
    • Sourit Bhattacharya: Kafka’s The Metamorphosis
    • Vidya Bhole: The Metamorphosis - An Absurd Reality