Sunday, January 05, 2014

What is Odradek? : A Badiouan Perspective

One of Franz Kafka's strangest stories is a mere two pages long. It is called "The Worries of a Head of Household" ("Die Sorge des Hausvaters"), or sometimes "The Cares of a Family Man". It concerns an unusual being called Odradek, who appears to be without purpose, and whose very name has no identifiable meaning - at least none that can be readily deciphered.

"There are some who say the word Odradek comes from the Slavic and they look for its etymology there. There are others who say it's a germanic word, merely inflected by the Slavic. The doubt surrounding both versions forces on to conclude that neither is true, especially as neither is any help in finding a meaning for the word." (The Worries of a Head of Household, p. 211)

Nevertheless, we are told in no uncertain terms that the Odradek exists.

"Of course, no one would bother themselves with such questions, were it not that there is a real being called the Odradek." (The Worries of a Head of Household, p. 211)

We are drawn deeper into the mysterious world of Odradek - because despite the primacy of the narrator, the scales seem to tip ever so slightly in favour of the Odradek, making it very much Odradek's world - and we cannot help but begin to wonder: what is Odradek?

The paradox is that the Odradek is described as if it is an object, "a flat, star-shaped reel of thread" from which "a little rod emerges" and so on. We are also told that "the whole thing is able to stand upright as on two feet", which gives Odradek a hypothetical humanoid appearance.

Odradek's object-ness continues to be emphasised with further descriptions, but the mystery deepens when we are told that "the whole thing looks functionless, but after its fashion complete". It is an alien object, without apparent origin or purpose, yet disturbingly familiar. We, as human readers, would conclude that it might have been made by a human, and yet it escapes such an identity. In fact, it is entirely elusive. "There is not much more to be said about it, other than that Odradek is extraordinarily manoeuvrable and impossible to catch".

Odradek's elusiveness is a puzzle, and according to the narrator many have tried to discover the meaning of its name, perhaps hoping that the meaning of its name would thereby also clarify its origin, purpose, indeed its very existence *in reality* as an object-being. This in itself is not a great cause of concern for the narrator, but the plot thickens when the narrator's real concern is revealed: his anxiety that Odradek might outlive him.

"In vain I ask myself, what will happen to him. Can he die? Everything that dies has once had a sort of aim, a sort of activity, which has worn it out; this is not the case of Odradek. Will he therefore one day tumble down the stairs before the feet of my children and my children's children, trailing a line of thread after him? It's clear he does nobody any harm; but the notion that he might even outlive me is almost painful to me." (The Worries of a Head of Household, p. 212)

The question here is existential, and indeed it is about being. This led me to wonder how the strange question of Odradek can be addressed. This question, it appears, has intrigued many thinkers in the past, and various approaches have proved fruitful. Willi Goetschel surveys some of the approaches, and the most convincing, perhaps, is the Marxist approach. In this approach Odradek  represents a commodity made by someone (eg. a factory worker), yet which is nevertheless divorced from the worker. (Marx talks about the alienation of the worker from his work, and the anguish the narrator feels resembles this worker alienation. )

A Freudian approach casts Odradek as the return of a repressed memory in objective form, representing the unwanted memories of things we would like to forget.

Each of these interpretations have strengths, however they also have shortcomings. For instance, on the surface a Capitalist critique suffers from the fact that even though Odradek appears to be a useful object its purpose is in fact unknown. Nevertheless, if we take the appearance of Odradek to be a vision from the period of time beyond the narrator and his children and their children, when Odradek's origins (as a useful object created by a worker) are no longer traceable, then such an interpretation could still be consistent.

The Capitalist critique comes up against a further difficulty when the question of Odradek's being - as opposed to its object-ness - is raised. It is up to (for instance) the Freudian interpretation to explain the psychologising of the object by way of a repressed memory. Odradek thereby has a life force and therefore can attain its being qualities. It remains difficult to see how the Marxist approach can account for it on its own.

A different way of looking at Odradek would be to take a Badiouan perspective. If we begin by noting that Odradek is "impossible to catch" (even though Odradek is presented to us and indeed is available to the narrator for occasional interaction in his own house) we may say that Odradek exists at the level of presentation, but not at the level of the state of the situation. This may appear to be a contradiction, but in fact occurs in the case of what Badiou calls singular multiples.

A full explanation of a singular multiple would involve an understanding of set theory as well as a wider understanding of Badiou's philosophy. The fast track route is via an understanding of Badiou's view of a subject. Not everyone is a subject, and a subject can only emerge as a result of fidelity to an event. In the story the father may be considered a potential subject, because by marrying, having children, etc. and then deciding to be faithful to this event, he would be a subject and emerge as a father. It is this very subject-ness that is at stake in the story of Odradek, called "The Cares of a Father".

Related to the subject is the state of the situation, in this case the narrator's family life and supporting environment. Odradek is not part of the state of the narrator's family life. Nevertheless, he is part of the general background or milieu and therefore must be included in the general situation, which Badiou calls the presentation of the situation. This is what makes Odradek a singular multiple.

We may go one step further and suggest that Odradek appears to be something, or a being, that evokes the dissolution of the subject by potentially surviving the subject. This is the father's great anxiety, that his subject-ness, i.e. his purpose, will dissolve while Odradek "lives" on. Odradek's unravelling thread is a metaphor and mirror reflection of this dissolution. In this respect Odradek has the potential to be an evental site. What is yet lacking is an event and the possibility of fidelity to such an event. Currently, the only event is the father's reflection on Odradek and the resulting anxiety, which is the beginnings of his dissolution as a subject.

What about Badiou's doctrine of the void? Can Odradek be related to it? For Badiou the void is that which makes the being of a presented situation possible (in set theory it is the null set).

"The void is the 'suture' of being to presentation because it is the point through which a situation comes to be ... The void of a situation is simply what is not there, but what is necessary for anything to be there" (Infinite Thought, p. 12)

Yet when we recall Odradek as a being of "no fixed address" and one who is encountered, now here and now there, we find an uncanny similarity to the void:

"It would already be inexact to speak of this nothing as a point because it is neither local nor global, but scattered all over, nowhere and everywhere" (

Yet we know that Odradek cannot be that void because the void "is such that no encounter would authorize it to be held as presentable." We feel a hint of truth when considering that Odradek may be the crack in the fabric of reality that allows the narrator to perceive the nature of things and the limits of his being, even in his children and his children's children. Nevertheless, Odradek is not the void.

Lest we forget, the story emphasises that Odradek is a being, and as a being he has vaguely humanoid life-like qualities, such as the ability to stand, to respond intermittently, to move around, and to laugh, in addition to his more understandable object-like qualities.

It may be easier if we compared Odradek to another being in the story, namely the father. The father, as we have already indicated, is a potential subject and perhaps already a subject. On the other hand, Odradek is the opposite of what Badiou considers a subject, having no fidelity of any kind: no fixed address, no relationship with anyone, no purpose, and frankly no material effect ("he does nobody any harm") except for being there and getting around.

What, in Badiou's scheme of things, would be the opposite of a subject? Is it being, the multiplicity of multiplicities? The fact that Odradek is rather concrete and self-contained rather than the inconsistent multiplicity of being suggests not. Perhaps, then, there is no opposite to the subject, except simply the dissolution of the subject.

We have also already accepted that Odradek is a part of the situation, yet not part of the subject's family fidelity, and therefore Odradek is a potential evental site. We can therefore say that the dissolution of the subject is contained in the situation. Dissolution is inevitable - the father will pass away and so will his children, eventually; the subject will dissolve. Therefore Odradek is an evental site and is likely to survive the narrator.

Dissolution is a meta conception, and it would seem that Odradek is a kind of meta-being that nevertheless exists in the situation. This brings up the question, once more, of whether Odradek is somehow a representation of the void? We know that it is essentially impossible to present the void, and therefore must avoid that conclusion, but Odradek certainly permits the narrator to reflect on the limits of the subject, and is the source of his disquiet.


1. Badiou, Alain. Being and Event, Meditation Four. Ktismatics. 2008.
2. Badiou, Alain. Infinite Thought. Edited and Translated by Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens. London, Continuum. 2005.
3, Goetschel, Willi. Kafka's dis/Enchanted World. (originally from
4. Kafka, Franz. Metamorphosis and Other Stories. Translated by Michael Hofman. New York, Penguin Books. 2008.
5. Wikipedia editor. The Cares of a Family Man. Wikipedia.

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