Self-Fulfillment and Self Destruction, A Hunger Artist by Kafka and the Subject in Contemporary Capitalism

A Hunger Artist is a short story by Franz Kafka (1922) whose protagonist is a young circus performer who lives of the income of fasting performance. The spectacle consists of watching the artist trapped in a cage where he’s deprived of food for several days. The audience expects, on each exhibition, that the artist can defeat in days his previous achievement. His manager, however, does not allow the fasting to exceed 40 days, the maximum period to maintain the public’s attention according to his opinion. The artist, however, thinks he can fast for much longer. 

The struggle for survival requires routine death from this short story’s protagonist. Weakened, by the end of each performance, the artist is still dissatisfied, always wanting to stay fasting for longer. He even feels misunderstood and dislikes when the audience gets sensitive to what they see as his great suffering, since fasting for him is no sacrifice at all.

This short story is an interesting metaphor for thinking about contemporary capitalism’s subject. A Hunger Artist shows us an individual hostage to his work, and for whom, self fulfillment implies self-destruction of his vital forces.

This short story is an interesting metaphor for thinking about contemporary capitalism’s subject. A Hunger Artist shows us an individual hostage to his work, and for whom, self fulfillment implies self-destruction of his vital forces.

The culture of performance and productivity as a form of self fulfillment has never been more widespread than in the present time, communicated not only by corporate advertising, it often appears through the cultural industry as well as through institutional discourses promoting health and well being. But what does this self fulfillment consists of? In modern societies, it means employment. 

Just like the artist of hunger, who doesn’t have a name in the short story and whose only activity is fasting, the subjects in contemporary capitalism have their actions and identity reduced to the sphere of work, since professional activity captures all aspects of life. For the poor workers who travels long distances to their workplace, everyday life is about spending 9 hours working plus at least 3 to 4 hours on the way. The hours left are summed up in complete exhaustion when not absorbed by the constant hunt for education focused on the labor market, since it’s not enough work take from us half a day producing profit, we must constantly refine the technique of producing that profit, under the threat of being  exchanged for a desperate individual among the mass of unemployed workers.

At the end of each spectacle, the starving artist wished he could have spent more time fasting, just as the modern individual constantly lives with the feeling of guilt that, although exhausted, has not done enough. We often reproduce the term procrastinating, which means the postponement of a task, and we are taught all the time through tutorials and motivational messages  how to avoid being a procrastinator and how to produce more and more. Never reaching the resting point, we are competing against ourselves, and if we do not change this culture of destructive self fulfillment we will remain in this affliction until the collapse. 

In this society we are successful when properly educated for work and introduced to the market to sell our flesh, exhausting our strengths producing a profit that is not, and will not, be ours, since as black and poor subjects, this is the only social inclusion we should wish for.    We are hostages to the irrationality of the capitalist production mode, where the production of unlimited profit is possible only from the destruction, not only of our bodies but of nature, both perishable and modernly titled human resources and natural resources respectively. Human resources, the theme this text has addressed, has become homogenized around the figure of enterprise and profession, an unprecedented violence against the plural forms of subjectivity and human freedom. The Artist of Hunger, used as a metaphor, might help us to better illustrate our terrible condition.

By Thaís Fernandes – Social scientist, peripheric, grew at Grajaú, extreme south of São Paulo, Brasil and militant at Quilombo Invisível.

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