The experience of translating

Seamus Heany once said that the best part about translating is that you get to finish something you didn’t have to start. It’s a strange feeling, though, finishing up something for someone else — and not only that, finishing something that is always necessarily secondary and supplemental to that work by someone else. It is supplemental in the full Derridean sense, insofar as a mistranslation can become a “dangerous supplement” whose incorrect rendering replaces and obliterates the author’s original meaning.

That’s not where my anxiety lies as a translator of Agamben, however. Agamben is not a “difficult” author to translate in the same way that, for instance, Laruelle is. His writing style is smooth and straightforward, and he very rarely places a lot of emphasis on the specific resources of the Italian language (in the way that Derrida could be said to push French to the limit, or Heidegger German). My anxiety is less dramatic — I worry I’m going to make some dumb, low-level error. Nothing that obscures or distorts Agamben’s meaning, just the kind of thing that makes me look like an idiot.

There are errors of that kind in my published translations. They’re not huge, but they bother me. The worst is when I simply transcribed the Italian word “due” instead of translating it as “two.” It’s surprising in a way that something like that doesn’t happen more. When I run a spellcheck over my translation work, I notice how my spelling has been strangely influenced by Italian, and more generally how the quality of my typing deteriorates when I’m doing the relatively mechanical work of translating rather than producing material in my own name. Most of that comes out in spellcheck or at the various stages of editing and revising (whether I’m pressing friends into service or responding to the press’s copy editor). I comfort myself that some Agamben translations have more such errors than mine, and I have yet to find a translation that has none.

The worst part with Agamben isn’t the translation as such, but the vast apparatus of citations. For every source he cites, I must determine whether an English translation is extant. If so, the press requires that I base my quotations on that translation, though I must often “triangulate” between the English, the original text, and Agamben’s provided translations. Sometimes I must supply formal citations where the text lacks them (above all in classical references), and just for the sake of thoroughness, I have also taken up the habit of supplying macrons and breathings in Greek citations where the text lacks them. Agamben also loves to cite untranslated Latin, sometimes a paragraph at a time, and I must often provide my own translation in a concession to the monolingualism of the other.

Tracking down these sources is extremely time-consuming and often frustrating. The method I’ve developed is to put quotes in boldface in my draft. If it’s a long quote from a text I know to be translated, I’ll often simply put “quote” at that point in the text. If it’s a short quote, I’ll usually do a rough rendering of Agamben’s Italian just for my own convenience in tracking it down later. Then I go back after I have a full draft and fill in the quotations. Every time I do a translation I consider whether there’s any way around leaving them for the end, and I’ve decided it’s unfortunately the only way to go — tracking down quotations and translating are two fundamentally different tasks, and switching back and forth hurts the quality of both.

Better to stay “in the zone” of translating, I say, so as to get a full draft as quickly as possible. And sometimes I can really, really be “in the zone.” Those days can be satisfying, albeit in the weird way that intensive data entry is satisfying. I feel like I’ve accomplished a feat, but I weirdly don’t have anything to show for it. This is not to say that I don’t benefit from doing these translations. I get paid, and I also get the credibility of an “expert” on Agamben (or on certain texts of his), with the invitations to speak and write that go along with that. But at the end of the day, the person who really has “something to show” for my work is Agamben, who is after all the author of the text.

The best I can hope for is to be invisible, not to draw undue attention to myself through mistakes or overly aggressive translation choices. My fondest hope is that my translation will “hold up” after three or four close readings, at which point anyone wishing to go further would have to turn to the original Italian in any case. My nightmare, of course, is that I’ll wind up one of those accursed translators everyone hates (like the poor guy who did Adorno’s Negative Dialectics) or that one of my translation choices will later be regarded as having set back the scholarship by a generation (like the translation of Freud’s Trieb as “instinct”). I’ve probably already avoided the former, and the latter seems intrinsically unlikely given Agamben’s writing style.

And yet, and yet… I’ve woken up in the middle of the night, panicked at some translation error I’ve surely made. The feel of those incidents is not like a social anxiety dream (like where one shows up naked to school), but like one of those “work dreams” — the kind where you’re waiting tables and discover you’ve completely neglected one for an hour. That’s what it is, at the end of the day: a job. It’s a relatively cool job, one that helps me keep on top of my language skills, but it’s still a job.

Show your support! Agamben and empty political gestures

There is a quote from Varro that Agamben uses in the essay “Notes on Gesture” (included in both Infancy and History and Means Without End):

“For a person can make [facere] something and not act [agere] it, as a poet makes [facit] a play and does not act it [agere also means ‘to recite’], and on the other hand the actor acts [agit] it and does not make it, and so a play is made [fit] by the poet, not acted, and is acted [agitur] by the actor, not made. On the other hand, the imperator [the magistrate invested with supreme power] in that he is said to carry on [gerere] affairs, in this neither makes [facit] nor acts [agit] but carries on [gerit], that is, assumes and supports [sustinet], a meaning transferred from those who carry burdens [onera gerunt], because they support them” (Varro, 6.77)

In this early essay, what is at stake is finding some third kind of human action beyond the Aristotelian dichotomy of poiesis and praxis. For Agamben, what both of these modes of action share is their reference to some end or goal — the produced object in poiesis and the action itself in praxis — and the sphere of gerere or “gesture” seems, by contrast, to be a “pure means” without any reference to an end or goal.

In Opus Dei, the exact same quote appears with a completely different valence. Instead of pointing toward something hopeful or redemptive, it forms a part of the “archeology of office or duty” that separates the subject from his or her actions, rendering anything like ethical experience radically impossible. This is part of a broader pattern where figures and concepts that appeared to be the “good guys” in earlier writings take on a sinister edge in the Homo Sacer series (the most striking example being potentiality) — a trend that I don’t know quite what to do with.

What interests me here is the connection between the sphere of gesture and the notion of “supporting” something. In contemporary political circles, “support” has emerged as a key category — we “support” troops, politicians, parties, policies, causes. When we are asked to take some concrete action (donating money, signing a petition, voting), it is sometimes directly equated with “supporting” the political entity in question, but more often it is a means of showing one’s “support.” Taken in itself, “support” does not issue in any external action or result, and any such action or result is merely a way of demonstrating or pointing toward “support.”

In other words, the central political act of “supporting” belongs to the sphere of pure gesture, divorced from poiesis or praxis. Indeed, it seems to colonize the spheres of political poiesis and praxis themselves. Legislation is crafted in order to signal support for a key priority or constituency, even and especially when it has no chance of becoming law. The House of Representatives in recent years has reduced the act of legislation to an empty gesture, signalling again and again their “support” for a repeal of Obamacare. And is there not a sense that even in activist circles, one engages in activism primarily to show “support” for a cause, or even “support” for the very idea of activism itself? It’s not unimaginable that someone could view themselves as “supporting” true activism to such an extent that they refuse to participate in any activity that falls short of that lofty ideal.

Our moral standing is reduced to what we “support.” We are good or bad people, in the eyes of whichever circle we choose, based on whether we hold the correct opinions or not, “support” the appropriate causes or not. When we seek to create moral and political change, we are always working on the level of opinions — using persuasion to get someone to switch their “support” over to our cause. We often make vague reference to the idea that changing hearts and minds will lead to some concrete change, but that’s not really where our passionate engagement is. In any case, such persuasion is of course very rare, so that engagement with other viewpoints seems to function primarily to confirm the rightness of the causes we “support,” to affirm our political and moral rectitude.

Our actions — or rather, our lack thereof — show that we believe very deeply in this sphere of “support,” of pure, empty gesture.

Book review: The Figure of This World by Mathew Abbott

I just finished reading The Figure of This World: Agamben and the Question of Political Ontology by Mathew Abbott (Amazon link). I’ve linked approvingly before to Abbott’s work characterizing Agamben’s project as one of “political ontology,” and this book easily meets and exceeds my expectations based on that small preview. It is a brilliant reading and systematization of Agamben’s work that extends beyond Agamben himself to argue that the problem of political ontology can serve as a common ground between Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and hence between analytic and continental philosophy.

Much of the first half of the book is taken up with laying out Agamben’s project and bringing it into contact with his primary sources, Heidegger and Benjamin. Abbott’s focus throughout is on the sheer givenness of Being as a unique and ungraspable “fact” that both grounds and ungrounds all human projects. The wager of political ontology, in Abbott’s view, is that this uncanny fact does not simply consign us to despair, but rather provides the basis for a positive political vision.

Having established his basic point of view, Abbott proceeds to contrast Agamben with Levinas and Nietzsche. These chapters were, for me, the most satisfying in the book, particularly the latter — ever since I first read Homo Sacer, I was struck by repeated points of contact between Agamben and Nietzsche, particularly Genealogy of Morals, but I’ve never stopped to dig further. Now I don’t have to!

The final chapters move beyond Agamben to stage a confrontation between Wittgenstein and Heidegger, using the Wittgenstein’s “picture theory” and Heidegger’s “world-picture” as a point of contact between the two. Abbott makes a case for the basic continuity of Wittgenstein’s work, claiming to find throughout a close parallel with Heidegger’s question of Being (as Abbott has laid it out previously). He claims that reading the two thinkers together can help us to overcome their respective deficits and to see that both analytic and continental philosophy originated out of the attempt to struggle with the same problems.

In the end, Abbott brings it all back to Agamben, taking the unexpected tack of introducing entire new topics (such as Marxism) in the final pages rather than concluding. For me, this section felt less convincing than the rest of the book, as Abbott seemed almost pressed for time. I have very serious questions about his formulation of Agamben’s “solution,” namely that we should recognize the exceptionality of the everyday — but it could be a matter of wording rather than substance.

Whatever my reservations, however, it seems clear to me that this text will stand as required reading for all Agamben scholars. Unfortunately, we may need to establish full communism to give everyone adequate access to it, because it’s one of those crazy $100 academic “hardcovers” (i.e., a shoddily produced “permabound” book reminiscent of the novels distributed in American public schools). I don’t understand why academic publishers seem so dedicated to the task of preventing people from reading important academic work.

Update on Agamben reading group

The Bay Area Public School has posted an announcement with details. The first session will be on Monday, June 30th, at 4pm, in downtown Oakland, and we will be reading up to page 34 in Agamben’s Infancy and History.

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Bay area reading group over early Agamben texts

I’ve posted before about the possibility of a reading group this summer through the Bay Area Public School. The details are still being finalized, but I wanted to give an update for those who would like to participate. I’m planning to start with Agamben’s Infancy and History, which is readily available in a Verso edition (and may be available in PDF form through various sources). I hope to start on Monday afternoon, June 30, and meet each Monday up through August 4, for a total of six sessions. Exact time and location to be determined.

For the first session (June 30), I’d like to do up through pg. 34 of the text, then through pg. 72 for the second (July 7). That will take us up to the end of the first major essay of the book. If you can’t get ahold of the book in time for the first session, it’s no problem — you can just catch up with the reading and show up for the second. After the first couple weeks, we can play it by ear as to the exact pace and where we go if and when we finish Infancy and History. (The most likely candidate for an additional book is Language and Death, but it seems to be on the verge of going out of print, so we may have to pick something else.)

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“Focus is life”: The mysticism of Five-Hour Energy

Five-Hour Energy is one of those products that exists near the back of all of our cultural consciousnesses, at the boundary between “real” products and obvious scams. We might map out that space as bounded on the more legitimate-seeming side by anti-oxidants and on the more scam-like side by the Atkins diet. I’m inclined to push it more toward the Atkins end of things. The round number seems very suspicious to me, for instance — how can they possibly know, amid all the wide variety in human physiology, that the energy boost will last that precise length of time? Further, how can such a product possibly fail to cause cancer?

Their advertising has generally fallen within certain predictable bounds. Do you feel too tired to work out? Take Five-Hour Energy. Do you feel worn out in the afternoons at work? Take Five-Hour Energy to avoid That 2:30 Feeling. The most adventurous they got was a self-mocking campaign in which an adventuring young man mastered dozens of skills within the five-hour window, with a little time to spare.

Lately, though, their ads have taken on a more mystical tone (unfortunately these ads don’t seem to be available on YouTube). Instead of giving you energy or motivation, they’re providing you with focus. They describe focus in terms that would not be unfamiliar to readers of The Cloud of Unknowing, concluding with the enthusiastic declaration: “Focus is life!”

It’s disconcerting to be told that an energy drink is the pathway to a meaningful, centered life, but here we are. It reminds me on one level of Zizek’s critique of “Western Buddhism,” whereby the spirituality of the Eastern world is instrumentalized to help workers cope with the stress of their jobs. While his focus on Buddhism is probably disproportionate, the basic point remains — think of what yoga has become in the US, for instance.

What’s misleading in Zizek’s stance, however, is the implication that supplementing work with spirituality is something new. Agamben’s description of the monastic workday in The Highest Poverty reminds us that there has always been a “zone of indistinction” between work and spirituality in the Christian tradition (and I assume the monks suffering from accedia would have appreciated a bottle or two of Five-Hour Energy). Leaving aside the obvious references to the “Protestant ethic,” we find the same overlap in Marxism, where productive labor is put forth as “the chief end of man.”

In other words, the problem with Five-Hour Energy’s claim that an energy drink meant to help you through the workday is also a mystical experience isn’t that it debases spirituality — it’s that they’re fundamentally on the right track. That really is how our culture thinks about work, even in its most radical self-critique. It’s a Hegelian-Zizekian “infinite judgment,” like “the Spirit is a bone” — “Marxism is a Five-Hour Energy commercial.”

Agamben events at Northwestern

On the 15th anniversary of Giorgio Agamben’s Northwestern lectures the Paul of Tarsus Interdisciplinary Working Group presents with support from the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, the Program in Critical Theory, and the German department.

Friday, April 18, 12.30-3pm, Kaplan seminar room (Kresge 2-380)

Alessia Ricciardi – The Highest Poverty as Form of Life: Agamben’s Franciscanism and the Contemporary

Virgil W. Brower – “High Use”: Martin Luther as a hidden protagonist in Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer series

Wednesday, April 23, 2-3.30pm, German seminar room (Kresge 2-500)

Samuel Weber (in conversation with Peter Fenves and Anthony C. Adler, Yonsei University) – Politics of Singularity: Ontology, Theology, Economy


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