Kafka’s The Trial: Vulgarity and The Law

In Kafka’s The Trial, there is a sense of vulgarity that exists beneath the sublime surface of the legal proceedings that take place throughout the novel. A preliminary glimpse of this vulgarity, of the ‘Real’ that exists beneath the Symbolic, is the assault of the woman who runs the apartment that doubles as the courtroom. The assault happens during Josef K’s first hearing, displaying an immediate sense of something lecherous and pornographic beneath the austere nature of the court. This foreshadows in some ways the dissolving of the court’s literature as having been a Sublime Object, K. takes these texts to be of great import and highly relevant to not only his case but the Law in general. However, when he returns to the apartment, he discovers in what he presumes to be a law book an ‘indecent picture.’  Hence, an object revered here upon closer inspection has been found to be nothing but explicitly vulgar, “It’s by people like this I’m supposed to be judged.”  The assumption K. qua Subject makes of the Big Other is that his desires are prohibited in so much as they are out of reach in the Symbolic realm. The Big Other whilst obscuring its desire (what is K. charged with?) does reveal its own mirroring nature, at times displaying through acts (like the assault of the washerwoman) K.’s own desires. Does the assault of the washerwoman by a law student not reflect K.’s own assault upon Fräulein Bürstner in the first chapter?  It is K.’s attempts to obey the Big Other which display its constructed nature, which in a sense displays its inexistence. The Big Other exists in so far as the Subject requires it for themselves to exist as Subjects, hence why K.’s expectations of the Law fall short but the Law comes to reflect him in a way he is unable to perceive in himself e.g. the libidinal, the vulgar. 

            When K. meets with Titorelli the courtroom painter, the Law as a Symbolic structure is more evident here than anywhere else in the novel. One of the portraits Titorelli is commissioned to paint works as a useful analogy of the Law and the Big Other. K. is hesitant to identify the portrait as that of a judge: “That’s a judge of course,’ K. had almost blurted out, but he restrained himself for a moment and went up to the picture as if he wanted to study the details.’  This restraint is the Subject struggling to identify the Big Other when personified. Although we already know that K.’s expectations of the Law have been mismatched since the first hearing and the uncovering of the pornography, here there is still a dissonance in what constitutes ‘justice.’ K. notes that the figure of Justice in the portrait should not be running, for “the scales will waver and there’s no possibility of a correct judgement.”  It is as if when faced with the very nature of the Law, which the Subject presumes to speak and desire for him, K. is unable to recognise its radical alterity to himself, in spite of the fact that he feels the need to comply to this Big Other. The construction of the Big Other is drawn out again when K. assumes Titorelli has met the subject of the portrait, only to be corrected: “I’ve seen neither the figure nor the chair, all that’s invention, I was simply told what I had to paint.”  “All that’s invention” works as an excellent symptom on the painter’s behalf, giving one the chance to glimpse at the truth of the Law, that its authority is constructed by the Subject’s presumptions of the Big Other and by its own inaccessibility: “You see, the lowest judges […] have no authority to pronounce final acquittal; this authority is vested only in the highest court, which is inaccessible to you, to me, and to everybody.”  I argue the cementing of the relation between the Subject and the Big Other in The Trial is best represented in Titorelli’s afterthought: “How things look up there we don’t know and, I should add, we don’t want to know.”


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