The Contemporary Kafka

One of the most interesting sections of Chuck Klosterman’s book But What if We’re Wrong concerns the difficulty of predicting from what quarter the next alienated, genius will seem to suddenly appear, even though they’ve been around (and overlooked) for years. What does obscurity mean in the age of the internet?

We won’t have to go back and reinsert marginalized writers who were ignored by the establishment, because the establishment is now a multisphere collective; those marginalized writers will be recognized as they emerge, and their marginalized status will serve as a canonical advantage.

So what does that tell us about the Contemporary Kafka?

It tells us that Contemporary Kafka will need to be a person so profoundly marginalized that almost no one currently views his or her marginalization as a viable talking point.

Klosterman then asks what it means to actually be in a marginalized group. If we, the book-buying public, know about an under-represented community, how obscure can it really be?  A group may be highly marginalized, yet still be quite visible.

For example, if tomorrow’s writer of genius were toiling away in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro today, he or she would face many obstacles to fame, but would still find a receptive audience of some size. A lot of people might even seek out a book written by a writer from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, since, hey, that’s a pretty unique perspective!

But that’s not marginalized enough.

In order for there to be a Contemporary Kafka, there must exist some cohort which is so disdained, so overlooked, so far on the edge of society that a genius could still languish there in the 21st century. Their work would need to be actively ignored.

The uncomfortable, omnipresent reality within any conversation about representation is that the most underrepresented subcultures are the ones that don’t even enter into the conversation. They are, by definition, impossible to quantify. They are groups of people whom — right now, in the present tense — it is still acceptable to dislike or discount or ignore. They are groups who are not seen as needing protection or support, which makes them vulnerable to ridicule and attack. Who are they? As already stated in this paragraph, I am in no position to say. If I try, I can only be wrong. Any argument in their favor is an argument against my premise.

Still, the history of ideas tells us that there are many collections of current humans we do not currently humanize. They exist. So find them right now, inside your own head: Imagine a certain kind of person or a political faction or a religious sect or a sexual orientation or a social group you have no ethical problem disliking, to the point where you could safely ridicule it in public without fear of censure.

Whatever you imagined is the potential identity of the Contemporary Kafka. And if your fabricated answer seems especially improbable, it just means you might actually be close.