Will Self’s “Kafka’s Wound”

I wish that something had miraculously shown up in my inbox or Twitter feed that suited the category of “new digital writing.” Alas, nothing did. Instead, I located a digital essay by Will Self titled “Kafka’s Wound.” [Edited to add that I had forgotten that this had been one of the first examples Joe had offered of digital work.  :

falling ]

In this longform (8200 word) essay, Sef brings his reading of Kafka to life through a web of associations.

I do not think it is necessary to read the entire text of his essay to get a feel for the work he is doing of editorial, historical, and creative connotation. Interestingly, the London Review of Books sponsored this project, which took 14 weeks and many people’s labor to make. The explanation for the essay states that the goal was to use “digital technology to loosen and enhance the structure of the essay,” and it certainly does that. Although Self wrote the main body of the essay, “much of the additional content was researched or created by over 70 others,” presented in various forms including music, digital media, videos, photography, and drama.

Screenshot 2014-05-06 16.51.34

The user interface permits readers to open and close bubbles to the right side of the essay. There is also a freeform navigation web menu at the top of the page for readers who want to browse through the the material that way. I found that more compelling than reading the entire essay straight through. The various supplemental–and yet that’s not quite the right word–elements of the digital essay actually served as entry points into Self’s rather heavy prose.

The very reason I respect this piece of work–the quality and expansiveness of it–are the very reasons I also nearly chose something else to share here. It is really overwhelming to see such a massive undertaking so beautifully pulled off. Overwhelming in an admiration sort of way. Also in a holy-smokes-I-couldn’t-ever-create-something-of-that-scale way.


4 thoughts on “Will Self’s “Kafka’s Wound””

  1. Janel,

    I remember having a similar reaction to yours when Joe first showed us this digital essay: it was either at in-service at the beginning of the Fall 2013 semester or at the beginning of this seminar. Regardless, I found myself immediately idolizing the form, remarking that it was probably the zenith of what I thought I could expect from digital aesthetics.

    And then there was a moment of fear where I thought, “Holy shit, I hope Joe doesn’t expect us to be able to create something like this for OUR digital essays!”

    Obviously, he isn’t expecting that (thanks, Joe!), but I’m not sure it would even be possible without an expansive collaboration network like Self had. And not even on a content level but also on a functional level—I can only imagine how many people had to work on creating the site itself, what the coding looks like.

    Maybe it’s not as mythical as I assume it to be, but I’m responding as someone who could barely manipulate HTML on MySpace back when that was “cool.”

    But anyway, a final thought: I think you’re absolutely right in saying that perhaps the essay’s greatest value is NOT reading it in any kind of straightforward way but to instead click around and create our own system of meaning, almost as if this were a digital version of Walter Benjamin’s “Arcades Project.”

  2. Janel,

    I really love this piece – and I also like how you question the use of “supplemental” to describe the elements outside the written text’s main body.

    I think that this essay, while it works as an essay, works as an archive of various media. As an archive, I think it’s possible to bypass the essay entirely depending on a user’s purpose in accessing the text – the text can become supplemental. I think the essay resists this use, as each type of post whether it’s labeled essay or gallery will bring you to the text, but who lets the internet tell them what to do?

    Self’s work grants the reader a great deal of control over their reading experience that I find to be especially fascinating. Thanks for bringing this text back to our attention – I think that after nearly 14 weeks of work in digital writing, I have a much greater appreciation for what the piece accomplishes.


  3. Great example, Janel.

    What I love the most about this essay (digital archive? website? text? maybe we need to re-examine our definitions of all of the above) is how it really takes advantage of its particular digital affordances. It is all the more exciting for being so unlike a traditional print essay. Unlike my own digital essay (and I’m sure this resonates with a lot of people in our class given the strict academic guidelines of what we are generally called upon to write in our classes), which suffers from being too much like a traditional print essay.

    Of course, Chris rightly points out that we don’t have any where near the resources needed for this kind of work. But how cool would it be if we did? What would we even do?!

  4. Hey, everyone,

    The resources needed for this sort of project really are daunting. It seems to me to position the author as more of a film director (auteur) than as a writer in the conventional sense. (Although Self has clearly spent a lot of time at the keyboard himself.)


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