Boris Buden: In your book Philosophy in Cultural Theory, you tackled the concept of translation within the area of tension (what Germans would call Spannungsfeld) between two poles of contemporary theorizing – as a form of theoretical generality typical of theory construction in much of the field of contemporary cultural studies. But let us go one step further and ask: isn’t this area of tension between philosophy and cultural theory itself a product of a translation between them? Roman Jacobson was talking about a translatability of one form of artistic expression into another, for instance, a verbal art into music, dance, cinema, etc. He called it “intersemiotic transposition”, a translation of one system of signs into another. Why not then talk about a sort of interdisciplinary transposition of philosophy into cultural theory and vice versa? In your book, this mutual translatability between the two disciplines is an effect of critical reflection: it is philosophy that makes a critical self-reflection of cultural theory possible; and it is only on the ground of cultural theory that philosophy can critically reflect on itself as a cultural form. Is it also possible to understand translation itself as a methodological form of critical reflection? At its best!
One of the main things, for me, which makes the confrontation between the critical post-Hegelian philosophical tradition and Anglo-American cultural theory productive is that they share a certain anti-disciplinary impulse, which imparts to them a powerful transdisciplinary, rather than an interdisciplinary, dimension. This is why they are able to function well as mediums of translation. But their translational functions are not best understood in terms of “intersemiotic transposition”. Rather, they require a more constructivist conception of translation. This is what I am trying to get at when I speak of translation as a mode of production of theoretical generality, or of a translational model of theoretical generality. The primary productive mechanism here is a form of cross-cultural or comparative cultural study that is committed to the transformation (rather than mere ‘application’) of basic concepts in the process of the expansion of their range of reference to new circumstances – indeed, tendentially, to the empirical totality.
I am trading here on a distinction between generality (the Germans would say Allgemeinheit) and universality (Universalität), the terms of which become relativized, dialectically, as soon as they are subjected to a thoroughgoing historical understanding. For strict universality is always ultimately hypothetical in these domains. Nonetheless, it must still be projected in order for general concepts to enter into cognitively productive relationships of various kinds with the new situations to which they are applied. A kind of ‘reduction to conceptuality’ is required at a certain moment in the process of theoretical understanding, but things do not end there because philosophical concepts are not best understood as more general varieties of scientific concepts, but rather as means of interpretation, elements for the transformation of experience. Each new interpretative context thus adds something to the concept. I used the idea of translation as a way of thinking about the relationship between concepts and new sites of interpretation, in order to stress the two-way character of the process: the fact that the ‘host language’ (here, philosophy) is changed by the experience. In this respect, following Walter Benjamin, I use the idea of translation in a way that both emphasizes and valorizes ‘foreignization’.
However, I’m not sure that the ‘domestication’ of translation by philosophy is the best way of describing this, since it is in its foreignizing effects that translation tends to most philosophically productive – as a form of defamiliarization that generates a need for conceptual construction. The problem with the image of a “passage to philosophy” is that it suggests that one day you might actually arrive, at which point you could presumably discard your translational ladder, so to speak. Derrida didn’t mean that, of course, on the contrary. For him, philosophy was itself an infinite self-deferral – hence its translational character. But do you need a “passage to” infinite self-deferral? Haven’t you always already arrived? Translation is not so much a “passage to philosophy”, perhaps, as a stimulus to philosophizing, as a critical reflective activity. This was one of the effects of the so-called ‘linguistic turn’: an emphasis on philosophy as an activity, rather than a doctrine, a set of positions or results. That distinction is already philosophically active in Hegel, of course, although he had a more classical – which is to say – optimistic view about the kind of experience such philosophical activity produces.
We can certainly think of translation as a philosophical concept, but as such it remains in the early stages of its construction – not least because the relationship between its cultural, its disciplinary and its more strictly linguistic senses is only just beginning to be explored. And the fact that this enquiry is itself increasingly in a single language – English – is as problematic as it is enabling.
One of the things that the idea of translation as a philosophical concept does is raise the general question of what it means for a concept to function philosophically. Each model of philosophy has a different answer to this question. To treat translation as a philosophical concept is in many ways not so surprising. After all, a lot of people still view 20th-century philosophy primarily in terms of a variety of ‘linguistic turns’. If philosophy is essentially – even in part – philosophy of language, or if it sets out from problems of meaning of one sort or another, then one would expect translation to be a central issue – rather more than it has been in fact, outside of the later Wittgensteinian tradition, where it appears in a fairly conventional anthropological form.
This is one of the connections between Anglo-American philosophy and the British tradition of cultural theory, of course: the anthropological problematic. It links Wittgenstein to Raymond Williams. It is very much a phenomenon of the period immediately after World War II: decolonization found its first theoretical reflex within the colonial powers in a generalization of the anthropological problematic. It was there that translation became a concept of general theoretical import. The shift to structuralism (driven from within the anthropological problematic) changed the dynamics of this relation, since it provided an ‘ontology for decolonization’ (as Levinas put it) by maintaining multiple cultures on a single plane of significance. But the relation of this single plane to the multiplicity of cultures remained a translational issue. Afterwards, with so-called ‘poststructuralism’, there was a return to the problematic of multiplicities and encounters. In many ways, Derrida’s later works – with their focus on the gift, hospitality, etc – underline a continuity here with pre-structuralist anthropology. In a way, he viewed issues raised by the post-1989 dynamics of globalization from the standpoint of the anthropology of the colonial period, albeit with philosophically ‘updated’ methodological tools: as a generalization of the problem of the singularity of ‘encounter’.
You say that I understand modernism’s translatability in terms of “a transcendental (prior to every translation), abstractly universal temporal formalism”. But this is not quite right, or at least it can be misleading. It’s true that I understand it as having a transcendental status, in the sense that it is a transcendental-logical condition of possibility of each instance, but this does not make it ‘prior to’ all instances; but only to each individual one, individually. There are methodological issues here about the relationship of transcendental method to historical ontology, which go far beyond Kant’s own horizon. Certain particular instances are the actual, historical conditions of the possibility of the transcendental form, which is a formal representation of their generality. This generality may be retroactively posited as a condition of each of them individually. Furthermore, though, what is ontologically peculiar about capitalist societies is that various of the social forms that function transcendentally – and hence abstractly – also exist ‘concretely’, or have a concrete dimension. There are ‘concrete’ or ‘real’ or ‘actual’ abstractions’. This notion was developed paradigmatically by Marx in his analysis of the value-form (using Hegel’s logic). My claim is that it has much wider application. I am still working on this (see my essay, ‘The Reproach of Abstraction’, in Radical Philosophy 127, September/October 2004, for example). My own paradigm case is the temporal formalism of the modern. This does not negate its transcendental role in establishing the possibility of translation; nor, alternatively, does it negate the need for translation. But it does complicate the relationship between them. The difficulty – as always – is in how to think certain historical processes philosophically – that is, in the full significance of their disjunctive unity – without regressing to an a priori philosophy of history, on the one hand, or empiricism on the other.
So, with regard to the question of whether the purely abstract level of the translatability of “modernism” is the only possible way to experience it in its global sense: the answer is emphatically ‘no’. Not only is it not the only way, it is not even a way, by itself. We only experience the ‘purely abstract’ level as a concretely particular ‘pure abstraction’, and hence as a local manifestation. There are plenty of local manifestations of the ‘purely abstractly’ global; they are not less local for that. That is the ‘bad abstraction’ of the global: it appears in direct empirical forms. A better philosophical understanding of “modernism in its global sense” would seek to grasp its global extent distributionally, as the unity of its historical ensemble. The transcendental level of its ‘pure formalism’ mediates its individual instances, transforming their meaning: ‘globalizing’ them, so to speak, as individual instances. The broader the field of instances, the deeper our (contradictory) experience of the pure formalism will be.
So, no, it is not only a philosophical reflection that provides the experience of global modernity. The philosophical reflection aims to give explicit conceptual shape and presentation to a structure of experience that is socio-historically immanent. In one sense, yes, this takes the form of an abstract knowledge; but in another sense it can further concretize the knowledge implicit in the social experience, by rendering explicit the multiplicity of its determinations in a way that can be returned to practice. “Philosophy” takes two forms here: a distinctive – conceptually ‘pure’ and ‘abstract’ – discourse and an immanent transformation of experience. But they are connected. The first form is the product of philosophical work on materials that are necessarily in part non-philosophical. I don’t believe in ‘self-sufficient’ philosophy. “Translation’ is one way of thinking the relations of the philosophical to the non-philosophical, as the ‘purification’ or ‘distillation’ of the relations internal to the non-philosophical itself. The bureaucrats are the purveyors of bad abstractions. But this is an ineliminable element of the practices of abstraction through which we are constituted as subjects by the social forms of capital.
The rhetorical point of Kant’s antinomy of the blind and the empty, was that neither (intuitions alone, nor concepts alone) is possible. So yes, culture without philosophy (in the sense of reflection on its universality) would be blind; and philosophy without culture (in the sense of lived relations and practices of universality) would be empty. But neither situation is possible, since then there would be neither ‘culture’ nor ‘philosophy’ – which is possible, of course!