A horrific form of industrialised punishment

In The Penal Colony - Franz Kafka

I found this to be a little different to some of the other works of Kafka that I had read because there was actually some dialogue between the characters, despite the characters simply being described as 'The Explorer', 'The Soldier' and 'The Condemned Man'. As such, while the characters had a voice, they did not necessarily have a name, which in one sense deprives them of an identity as such, but also gives them a somewhat generalistic identity. These are not characters that we can come close to or relate to, something that a name allows us, but rather characters that we stand aloof from while looking at other aspects of the story.

The two things that struck me from this short story is the nature of crime and punishment, and the nature of industrialisation. There is also an aspect of language, which works on the principle of one person's punishment is another person's torture, yet the definition of torture is manipulated so that the actions that are being performed does not amount to torture because, well, torture is barbaric and we are a civilised people therefore we do not practice torture. We have actually seen this in recent years with the use of waterboarding (or simulated drowning) in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba (though it is technically a part of the United States). There is some debate as to whether waterboarding is torture, and some have described this as enhanced interrogation techniques. My position is, and always will be, that waterboarding is the extraction of information through duress, and any information extracted that way is going to be dubious at best. My other concern is that if such practices are not defined as torture, that means that in time police departments will be able to use such techniques on subjects with impunity.

The reason I raise the above is because this is an example of a manipulation of language to support what could be considered a barbaric act. The use of the word torture brings to mind what is in effect a criminal act, but by shifting the definition of such an action from torture to enhanced interrogation techniques, it removes the criminality from people's minds. The same is the case with the term Prisoner of War: by changing the definition of a captive from POW to enemy combatant (which is in effect the same thing) the belief is that we can escape the confines of the Geneva Convention (which is the same when it comes to having an endless war on terror, which is in effect a war on a noun, because by making the war endless, these combatants, who are not POWs, can be locked up indefinitely).

This brings me to the idea of crime and punishment. What we have in this story is a penal colony located somewhere in the tropics. No doubt this could be in reference to some of Germany's possessions in Africa, or to the North of Australia. Germany came in rather late amongst the colonial powers, which suggests that at the time their colonies were probably still used to house prisoners, much like early colonial Australia. The thing about sending prisoners to the colonies was that the motherland (or fatherland, in the case of Germany) could establish these colonies using rather undesirable people. In fact most of the early Australian colonists were convicts (some of them being members of the political left that were agitating a more representative form of government). The other thing with sending prisoners to colonies, as is suggested here, is you could use them for experimentation.

This is where the machine comes in because, to me, the machine represents the horror of industrialisation, and the fact that the people who are using this machine are doing so with impunity. This is not your ordinary colony because it is clear that despite it being inhabited, it is far enough away from the fatherland that things can be done with impunity. The only person who actually stumbles across this is the explorer

, and in the end he manages to escape so obviously the crimes within the colony are not going to remain hidden, or so I believe

(show spoiler)

. Yet, what the machine represents in an elaborate form of punishment. As I have suggested above it is not torture because, well, as is suggested, Europeans have not practised torture since the middle ages. What it is is a sophisticated form of punishment that is designed to let the subject know that what he (or she, though I suspect that the population of the colony are all males) did was wrong. Since it is also a form of capital punishment, the subject simply will not be able to commit that particular offence (or in fact anything) ever again.


Source: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1006266106