“Desks, whether Adolf Hitler’s or Erich Honecker’s, take up a good deal of the little space in the exhibition. Whoever hopes to make objects speak, let him please explain what these desks tell us.”(Jens Bisky, “Gilded Despondency: The German Historical Museum and its Image of History,” in: Süddeutsche Zeitung, Nr. 161, July 15/16, 2006) “This desk, of course, was beyond all comparison with the so-called American writing-desk which turned up at auction sales in Europe. For example, it had a hundred compartments at different sizes, in which the President of the Union himself could have found a fitting place for each of his state documents; there was also a regulator at one side and by turning a handle you could produce the most complicated combination and permutations of the compartments to please yourself and suit your requirements.”(Franz Kafka, The Man Who Disappeared) “My desk at the office was certainly never tidy, but now it is littered with a chaotic pile of papers and files; I may just know the things that lie on top, but lower down I suspect nothing but horrors.”(Franz Kafka, Letter to Felice Bauer)
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Until the rise of digital media, the writing desk was a significant reference point for over three centuries of history.  More than a symbol or an abstract model of history, the desk served as an organizational tool for real historical action, and as the origin or nexus of sources that constitute, to a large extent, the historical record of the modern administrative state. The desk is the place where human history, media history, and institutional history meet.  It is the place of the creation, registration, and distribution of information, the place of the application of institutional rules and norms, and thus the place where experts process data to constitute, order, and control populations, groups, and individuals.

No other modern author has grasped the significance of the desk so radically and consequentially as the Prague jurist and social insurance expert Franz Kafka (1883-1924). The countless desks that populate his stories are not only meaningful elements of a fictional plot. Each desk refers, be it as a model, image, or figure, to the writing process that creates the fictional world to which they belong. At first glance, the American mechanical desk seems to represent a surprising anticipation of digital media that are capable of storing and variably organizing the multitude of files belonging to an American President. A second or third look discovers that Kafka has provided in the image of this desk a precise model for his literary practice. His unique writing project combines the techniques of the “bureau” – in its double meaning as an office and a desk – with the techniques of poetry to produce a fantastic system of files and signs, a wild administration of texts driven by citation, allusion and echo, a new order for the words, images, sounds, and gestures of the past and present. With expert precision, Kafka anticipates, transgresses and transcends the fatal logic of those desks that are exhibited today in Berlin.

As in today’s hypermedia, where the surface of a screen accesses a hidden database, Kafka’s writing practice is organized along the line of difference between surface and depth.  Thus the image of his own disorderly desk in Prague constitutes an essential contrast to the perfectly ordered regulation of the American desk.  The allusive potential of his image-ciphers establishes an echo-room that extends well beyond the authoritative calculation of the writer.  Hence “our” digital media make possible the liberation of the printed text’s dynamic logic of reference from its medially bound linearity.  Still, to quote Derrida’s comment on Joyce, standing next to Kafka’s “hyper-mnemonic machine of the 1000th generation,” our digital nexus will resemble “a bricolage of pre-historical children’s toys.”  The Virtual Kafka-Bureau draws the methodological consequences of this medial constellation: the virtual space of database and hypertext will neither reconstruct nor speak for Kafka’s writing desk.  Instead, it will open a completely new point of entry to Kafka’s literature and its medial logic.