Phi Fic #1 “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka

Are we guilty from the first moment of life? Is the machine Franz Kafka devised not merely a metaphor for how we live our lives, but “actually here, all around…”? That’s what Kafka Tamura says in Kafka On the Shore by Haruki Murakami, and what Daniel says here in our discussion on In The Penal Colony by Franz Kafka when he cites our failing bodies, our internal machines, that “attrition occurs, cogs wear out.” We are the machine. Join us as we discuss this fascinating book and its mysterious meaning for all of us.

The first “official” episode of the new Phi Fic podcast! (What used to be the Partially Examined Life Not School Philosophical Fiction group, now gone public.)

Join Nathan Hanks, Cezary Baraniecki, Daniel St. Pierre, Laura Davis, and Mary Claire. This first episode was recorded a few weeks after a conversation we had about Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (which we also talk about a bit in the beginning). Worth mentioning: “Tarantino could do the adaptation,” the Salinger documentary is not recommended, The Trial by Franz Kafka, and PEL ep. #96: Oppenheimer.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for music.

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via

8 thoughts on “Phi Fic #1 “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka

      1. Okay. When I first read this entry, there was a link purporting to be to the new podcast, but it turned out to be a link to the old podcast.


  1. Haven’t listened yet, but I am planning on it soon. On the technical side, I think it would behoove you to lower the bitrate to bring down the file size since 244 Mb seems to be excessive.


  2. Hey Christopher,
    I am planning on bringing down the file size with a 16-bit rate. We should be getting smaller sizes in the coming episodes.



  3. G’day y’all,

    Very excited about this series, and will be eagerly anticipating each new episode. Thanks for all your efforts in putting this together for the benefit of less proactive people like me.

    In terms of the Kafka story, one thing that stood out to me as I read through was the evolution in the explorer’s attitude towards the colony’s systems of punishment. At the beginning of the story, the explorer is quite clearly opposed to this form of punishment, which is both unjust and inhumane by the standards of his more civilised society, and in deed he is considering whether or not to intervene and prevent the execution of the condemned man. However, as the Officer passionately outlines the virtues of this mode of punishment, I think that this conviction in the explorer begins to waver. In fact, he tells the Officer that he found his “conviction genuinely moving, even if it cannot deter me.” Then, when the Officer makes the ultimate sacrifice by giving his life to the machine, the explorer’s attitude changes further. He no longer wishes to intervene in the execution, and in fact is only dismayed when the execution is not performed properly. The explorer is “very upset” when the machine starts to fall apart and the execution is not able to be performed in the proper way – “This was not the torture the Officer wished to attain. It was murder, pure and simple.” Even this statement suggests that he had come to see the punishment device as performing something different, and superior, to murder.

    Afterwards, when the explorer goes to visit the Commandant’s grave, the supporters of the New Commandant’s regime find the inscription there ridiculous, but the explorer seems unable to share this point of view. He ignores them and sets sail, not before threatening both the Sailor and the Condemned Man with the rope (perhaps a reference to another form of capital punishment?).

    To my mind, the ‘beauty’ (if you can use that word) of the punishment system which inspired such zealotry in the Officer, and which eventually converted the explorer is that:

    1. Notions of pure guilt/innocence are preserved (cf. a liberal society where, as the officer explains, an accused will always be able to proffer explanations for their behaviour which muddy the water as to their guilt);

    2. The punishment system is able to send clear messages to society. This is exemplified by the fact that the Officer is able to read the messages inscribed the by the device while the explorer, being from a more civilised world, cannot. This has parallels with current times where there is a great deal of confusion about whether the apparatus of the criminal justice system, such as jails, are good or bad for society;

    3. As you all discussed, there is a certain technical and creative artistry in the punishment device, that may not be possible in the relative ‘confusion’ of a more civilised and liberal society.

    That’s not to say that the story, or this particular reading, is a defence of capital punishment. I see it more as a rumination on the changes the occur as society becomes more progressive, without advocating any particular view.

    Anyway, that’s enough on that. Thanks again for all your doing and looking forward to future episodes!


    1. Aslan, thanks for the feedback. Your thoughts on the ability/inability to read the inscribed sentences are very interesting…I’m going to have to go back through the story and think about that soon.


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