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Sources and Translations

Author: joe

Monday, 08 November, 2010 - 22:31

- on the withdrawal of the text.

The task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect [intention] upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original. This is a feature of translation which basically differentiates it from the poet's work, because the effort of the latter is never directed at the language as such, at its totality, but solely and immediately at specific linguistic contextual aspects. Unlike a work of literature, translation does not find itself in the centre of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering, aiming at the single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one. Not only does the aim of translation differ from that of a literary work-it intends language as a whole, taking an individual work in an alien language as a point of departure - but it is a different effort altogether. The intention of the poet is spontaneous, primary, graphic; that of the translator is derivative, ultimate, ideational. For the great motif of integrating many tongues into one true language is at work. This language is one in which the independent sentences, works of literature, critical judgments, will never communicate - for they remain dependent on translation; but in it the languages themselves, supplemented and reconciled in their mode of signification, harmonize. If there is such a thing as a language of truth, the tensionless and even silent depository of the ultimate truth which all thought strives for, then this language of truth is - the true language. And this very language, whose divination and description is the only perfection a philosopher can hope for, is concealed in concentrated fashion in translations.
The Task of the Translator by Walter Benjamin

Re-reading this passage again recently for a lecture plan, I saw for the first time new significances in Benjamin's articulation of the work at stake in translation. The texts themselves - sources and translations - are split not only in their causal relationships as either originals and derivatives, but also in their modes. The original is the outcome of spontaneity, "primary, graphic", while the derived text is "utlimate, ideational". The existence of the original can be found, is specific, and tied to contexts, while the translation aims at "totality".

This essay is often read as an exploration of the angst of searching for the "intention' of the author - the author, who must later die at the hands of Barthes, even as Foucault stands by with Frankenstein's resuscitator. But I can't help but read these lines now with a different compiler at work in my brain. This "ultimate, ideational" text must appeal to a text we cannot access - written as it is in "pure language", the "language of truth". It is perhaps a writerly text, the reading that is written at every encounter with a reader. But perhaps it is also a withdrawn text, ready-to-hand, invisible.

Levy Bryant recently wrote an interesting discussion on what an object-oriented literary criticism would look like. Following his ontological plan of understanding objects as fundamentally split, he suggests that any given text is split between its local manifestation and its withdrawn and inaccessible dimensions.

Insofar as the virtual proper being of a text is necessarily withdrawn, this dimension of texts could only ever be sensed in traces indicating or suggesting another dimension at work in the manifest dimension of a text. Based on the "logic" of these traces, the literary critic might seek to form a "diagram" (always partial and incomplete) of the virtual text that haunts a manifest text.
Notes Towards an Object-Oriented Literary Criticism by Levy Bryant

Yet the withdrawn text that we cannot access is invisible only because it is ready-to-hand, zuhanden, in action, tooling and thinging, everywhere; meanwhile the manifest text we encounter is empty, present, vorhanden. The "true language" is everywhere, in action, at work. Our fixings of it, in sources and, vicariously, in translations, are brittle instances, frozen, delicate, unable to bear the demands we place on them.

Categories: text, translation, language, truth, Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, presence-at-hand, readiness-to-hand, source, original, writerly, author,
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Wikipedian Palimpsest

Author: joe

Tuesday, 17 February, 2009 - 22:19

Only those of us who like to live our lives inspecting the inner workings of the sphincters of camels will have failed to notice the sudden kerfuffle around Wikipedia Art - a project which is soon going to be so citable, the wikipedian deletionists will explode with reverberating feedback loops of infinitely regressing thought, their heads bursting as though they were apoplectic Victorian fathers confronted with Daguerreotypes of themselves masturbating.

I found the abundant discussions most interesting when they addressed questions about authenticity: did the artists mean to arouse delicate questions regarding epistemology and truth? Or was it a knowing, cynical ploy to generate buzz and 'notability' either to raise their commercial earning potential in other work, or to support tenure track academic careers? Did it matter if the latter was the case if the former ensued anyway? Does a work of art require an authentically artistic intention on the part of the creator in order to be an authentic piece of art?

On rhizome curt cloninger said something clever: "We are "policing" the "art-worthiness" of the piece here at rhizome the same way the wikipedians were policing its "encyclopedia-worthiness" there at wikipedia." We all work the work with our own discourses, our own knowledge practices, our own epistemes; we will always talk past each other.

Categories: wikipedia, art, net-art, authenticity, epistemology, truth, authorship,
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The Transitive Author

Author: joe

Sunday, 08 June, 2008 - 21:00

I've had (this isn't meant to sound as confessional as it does) Roland Barthes on my mind recently. Earlier in the year a student quoted some of him at me in an essay, and I'm afraid I don't think they really grappled with the sense of the text (note I'm not saying they 'interpreted it incorrectly'!) - it was more of a quote-shoe-in to tick the theory box. But the quote - a line I've often glanced over and left behind as I engage in the tmesis of excavating a Barthes text - has kept coming back to me in the form of the question I wrote on the student's paper - 'What do you think Barthes is getting at here?'

Barthes opens The Death of the Author with some introductory questions which help to frame his exercise - he wonders, when a writer writes, whose is the voice? A question that arises because, according to B., writing is 'the destruction of every voice [... writing ...] is the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the identity of the very body writing'. Fine. I love this, and the rest of the essay explores this counterintuitive insight so interestingly that it has made its way into every cultural studies curriculum that ever made a student's life misery. But I find myself returning to the start of the second paragraph - which our friend the student earlier quoted:

No doubt it has always been that way. As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins.
[The Death of the Author]

Leaving aside the discussion of the historicity of the 'idea of the author', and the Foucault debate, and all that, I'm persistently drawn to, and dwell on, that word: intransitively.

To narrate a fact intransitively is to narrate a fact no longer with a view to acting directly on reality.
To narrate a fact transitively is to narrate a fact with a view to acting directly on reality.
To speak transitively is to intend to act on reality.
Write with purpose, with an object.
A subject acting on an object.
To narrate a fact intransitively is to speak no longer with a view to acting directly on reality.
To speak intransitively is to speak without purpose, without object.
[Joe's head, a lot, recently]

Of course, I can understand that B. at this point heads off into his own particular intentional use of 'intransitively' - that is that 'the claim to decipher a text is ... quite futile'. Indeed, the entire business of dwelling on 'what Barthes is getting at' has a bottomless irony which peered into too long gets quite vertiginous. But I am a human being - indeed, I am an impure thinker - and when addressed by a speaker, even if it is across the sea of the 'starred text', the chasm of decades and the incommensurability of two different native tongues, I first reply: 'what do you mean?'

So the word 'intransitively' follows me around. The author speaks without intention in the way that the dead speak to the living - either through the reconstruction of the memories of the living, or in the cynical charlatanism of the medium/critic. But I read transitivity differently (as, I think Barthes would agree, is my right). To speak transitively is to intend to act on reality. To speak transitively is to not only want to change the world, but to attempt to do so. I saw a quote by Hunter S Thompson on, of all places, a Facebook profile, which captured that intention:

Although I don't feel that it is at all necessary to tell you how I feel about the principle of individuality, I know that I am going to have to spend the rest of my life expressing it one way or another, and I think that I'll accomplish more by expressing it on the keys of a typewriter than by letting it express itself in the sudden outbursts of frustrated violence.
[Apparently this comes from The Proud Highway]

But even when writing is not a valve for pent-up rage, who pretends to speak without the intention of changing the world? A dissertation I marked recently also indirectly stabbed at this idea: do documentaries effect social change? Of course it is an impossible question to answer, but it provokes the thought that the documentary form covers a spectrum of approaches - and the approach that pretends to 'reflect' reality, and offer an 'intransitive' factual window onto reality is only the most dishonest form.

A colleague of mine recently gave a seminar on his work. Trevor Hearing explores the documentary film form as a way of engaging in scholarly work - to use film-making both as a research tool, and as a way of communicating academic knowledge. It forces recognition of a dialectic between film and text - the practice of visual 'story-telling' versus the abstract, supposedly 'factual', textual form, and this reveals the hidden values of each. The very things that Trevor's films are made of are human actions and interactions and their interface with the documents, visual, textual, and filmic, that human beings by their very productive nature leave behind them.

But again, what Trevor's stimulating and fascinating work illuminates is the dishonesty of that peculiarly academic practice of writing papers in which the author 'disappears'. The stock comment to write on student essays is often 'try to write less subjectively - be more objective...' - or - 'try not to write in the first person...' what other perspective do we actually expect people to write from? Where is this mythical third person position whence the academic writes? In fact, the academic paper is a worked and reworked artefact, painstakingly laboured over by a human being, in a chair, with a tilting head, and a breathing, aching body. That disappearing 'I' is a fiction. If Trevor's film had so many edits as that supposedly free-standing, evidence-based, objective - intransitive - academic paper, the cuts would leap out of the screen and reek of manipulation. The emphasis on, not the disappearance of, the author is what makes Trevor's film so much more meaningful.

One of the strange ironies of knowledge is that the practices and the discourses are so often at odds with each other. Science stakes a claim to be a 'descriptive' practice - that is, its methods produce descriptions of the world - reflections if you will. This is at the heart of the scientific claim on truth - that language can be bent into a form that faithfully describes and corresponds to brute reality - that language can be made intransitive but faithful. Actually, the real products of sciences are the world-changing technologies that every minute break the human connection to the past. And these extensions of man are made precisely because that linguistic practice is so very transitive, so very laden with rhetorical, persuasive action, discursive power, intention. With our knowledge, constructed as it is from experience and language, we act irreversibly.

I seem to have used Barthes' Death of the Author to argue in favour of the reappearance of the author. Blimey. But then, he is dead.

Categories: barthes, author, post-structuralism, knowledge, transitive, intransitive, writing, truth, science,
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