Announcement: Future Agamben translations

I have been contracted by Stanford University Press for two further Agamben translations. The first is a pamphlet-length book entitled Pilate and Jesus, which I have promised to complete this summer. The second, and presumably more interesting to most, is the final volume of the Homo Sacer series, entitled The Use of Bodies, which I have promised to complete by the end of next summer.

I have received the text of The Use of Bodies, but I have not had time to read it as of yet. I plan to discuss it at length in my paper for the ACLA panel on the Homo Sacer series that I have organized with Virgil Brower. For now, I can say that its size is comparable to The Kingdom and the Glory, that Agamben disavows any claim to be “concluding” the series or making a decisive shift from the critical to the prescriptive, and that it promises an explicit engagement with Agamben’s debts to Debord, Foucault, and Heidegger.

Two questions on Heidegger translation conventions

  1. Dasein — the convention of leaving this term untranslated seems to be the single most consistent trait across all English translations of Heidegger. It does have the disadvantage that leaving foreign words untranslated can make them seem like mysterious occult terms, and it can also make it seem as though Heidegger virtually created this term. I wonder if translating Dasein as “the existing being” might have been a better idea, all things considered. It makes it clearer, for example, that Heidegger is using a common term in the region of “being” in a narrower terminological way. It’s admittedly clunky, but it’s also clunky to leave a German word constantly untranslated, particularly when you then also need to leave it in German in Heidegger’s quotes from previous philosophers who used the term more broadly.

  2. Germanic and Latinate synonyms — the convention of distinguishing a pair of Germanic and Latinate synonyms (zeitlich, temporale) by capitalizing the latter is probably the least bad option in many cases, but I wonder if enough of an effort was made to find and perhaps even coin synonyms. Obviously one wants to avoid the worst excesses of the first translation of the Contributions, but would “timely” and “temporal” be so hideous, for example? I’m at a disadvantage because I only really know philosophical German, but my understanding is that many of the terminological usages of “common” German words ring foreign for German readers as well.

These are small points, since anyone who wants to study Heidegger’s texts at a detailed level is going to need to read the German in any case. But what do you think?

Heidegger’s Verstehen

My students and I agree — Heidegger’s use of the term “understanding” (Verstehen) in sec. 31 of Being and Time seems very counter-intuitive. His “interpretation” (auslegung) seems to be closer to what we would commonly designate as “understanding,” insofar as it involves something like reflection. By contrast, “understanding” seems to be almost reducible to action, given that “understanding” has the structure of projection (entwerfen). This connection to action is reinforced by the implicit contrast between state-of-mind (Befindlichkeit), which is a more passive condition of “finding oneself” in a given mood and which is associated with Dasein’s “thrownness” (Geworfenheit). Having been thrown (state-of-mind), Dasein then has no choice but to throw itself (understanding).

This makes me wonder if Heidegger is leaning harder on the etymology of Verstehen than he explicitly lets on. The English translation “understanding” (which seems essentially unavoidable) does bring us the connection with “standing” that makes “understanding” a kind of Being-in — but what I wonder about is the ver-. I find ver- to be the German prefix that is most difficult to get a handle on, particularly insofar as it sometimes has a negative or privative meaning but also sometimes serves as an intensifier. Perhaps the common usage of would lean more heavily on the latter, insofar as “understanding” something means dwelling upon it in a more intense way than usual. But if Heidegger’s Verstehen is associated primarily with the kind of projecting or throwing of oneself that responds to a situation of thrownness, perhaps the ver- is meant to carry its negative connotation — Dasein finds itself in a situation in which it can’t just stand still, in which there is no secure place to stand.

If Dasein is always already in a state of Verstehen, then that would mean that its ground is always being cut out from under it, that part of the possibility of its Being that it has to be requires Dasein to constantly de-stand — it is always forced out of what it factually (tatsachlich) “is” into its factical possibilities. Or perhaps we can even hear the ambivalence of the prefix, insofar as Dasein’s “ground” is precisely the perpetually ungrounding possibility that weirdly serves as something like an “essence” for Dasein. Dasein very emphatically stands in a place where it cannot merely stand.

A Freud question

In his essay on “Fetischismus” (Studienausgabe, vol. III, pg. 383), Freud’s first example is a puzzling one:

Am merkwürdigsten erschien ein Fall, in dem ein junger Mann einen gweissen “Glanz auf der Nase” zur fetischistischen Bedingung erhoben hatte. Das fand seine überraschende Aufklärung durch die Tatsache, daß der Patient eine englische Kinderstube gehabt hatte, dann aber nach Deutschland gekommen war, wo er seine Muttersprache fast vollkommen vergaß. Der aus den ersten Kinderzeiten stammende Fetisch war nicht deutsch, sondern englisch zu lesen, der “Glanz auf der Nase” war eigentlich ein “Blick auf die Nase” (glance = Blick), die Nase war also der Fetisch, dem er übrigens nach seinem Belieben jenes besondere Glanzlicht verlieh, das andere nicht wahrnehmen konnten.

He seems to be citing it only because of the weirdness of the cross-linguistic pun — which surely is weird and interesting! And yet there are other weird things going on here. Does he have a fetish for… shiny noses? How could that have originated out of “glancing up the nose”? He never returns to this example, so I’m kind of lost at sea here. Any ideas?

A German question

What’s the deal with the final syllable of Bewusstsein, the German word for “consciousness”? It seems as though the more natural formation would be something like Bewusstenheit — I’m not aware of other words that substitute a -sein. Does anyone have any insight here, or any passages to cite where a German philosopher makes a big deal about it, etc.?

Yet another concept that is better expressed in German

This time around, it’s not a ridiculous compound, but a single word: “Blase.” It’s the word used to refer to a financial “bubble,” but it also has another meaning: “blister.” The advantages of “blister” over “bubble” for describing the financial phenomenon in question are manifold. A financial bubble sounds wholesome and fun, as though financiers are blowing soap bubbles in the park. Eventually they’ll pop, but why dwell on that? If we believed that there was a financial blister underway, by contrast, there’d be much less metaphorical incentive to let nature take its course — once it got to a certain point, it would need to be lanced in order to avoid an uncontrolled bursting that could lead to infection. Further, the metaphor of a blister is more evocative of the origin of the phenomenon, pointing as it does toward an excessive amount of friction, rubbing a part of the financial markets raw and causing it to become inflamed. A financial blister in the housing market, for instance, would not indicate that the housing market was doing especially well, but instead that an unsustainable amount of work is being demanded of it.

Anger’s Nonidentity / Occasion Against Universality

I recently looked back at Judith Butler’s response to her having been awarded a “prize” for writing in an especially non-commonsensical style. She observes that the recipients—or “targets,” as she aptly redescribes—of such a prize “have been restricted to scholars on the left whose work focuses on topics like sexuality, race, nationalism and the workings of capitalism.” This then raises “a serious question about the relation of language and politics: why are some of the most trenchant social criticisms often expressed through difficult and demanding language?” Read the rest of this entry »

Agamben translation updates

I recently answered copy-editing queries for The Highest Poverty. My next step will be to edit the proofs, which should be taken care of in the next six to eight weeks (i.e., by the end of the calendar year). Assuming everything stays on schedule, the production editor has estimated that the book will be released in April.

This week, I also submitted a completed manuscript of the translation of Opus Dei, which now must be approved either by Agamben or by his designated proxy. The original goal was to stagger the two books by a few months, with The Highest Poverty coming first (by Agamben’s request). If this step takes about the same amount of time as it did for The Highest Poverty, and if the other production steps follow suit, that’s what will happen.

It’s nice that I’m getting these Agamben translations off my desk for a few weeks, because that leaves me time to write my AAR presentation about Agamben and revise an article about Agamben that is going to be appearing in an edited volume about Agamben. Soon I should also be getting copy-edits back on an expanded version of my recent blog piece on Agamben, which will be appearing in a special issue of Political Theology devoted to Agamben. Then over the winter break, I’m planning to read some of the secondaries on Agamben to see if there are any major gaps in coverage that I could remedy with a book about Agamben.

Agamben Agamben Agamben. Agamben!

A strange coinage in Lacan

Yesterday in the Lacan reading group, we were puzzled by an apparent coinage in Seminar III. Speaking of Schreber’s disturbances of language, he says:

Here we go to the heart of the function of the sentence in itself, insofar as it does not necessarily carry its meaning wih it. I am thinking of this phenomenon of sentences that emerge in his asubjectivity as interrupted, leaving the sense in suspense. A sentence interrupted in the middle is auditivated [auditivée]. The rest is implied meaning. The interruption evokes a fall which, while it may be indeterminate over a wide range, cannot be just any old one. Here the symbolic chain is emphasized in its dimension of continuity. (English 100, French 115)

The translator’s note says, “The meaning is unclear, but the context would suggest it means ‘to make audible'” — but there was a general consensus that the context did not in fact seem to suggest that.

Any clue what’s going on here?

A proposal on foreign-language books

A consistent source of frustration for me is how difficult it is to find foreign-language books in the US — and how expensive they are when I do find them. I imagine much of the difficulty stems from shipping costs, but it seems like it would be relatively easy for some university press to arrange US-based reprints. In this day and age, they could even be print-on-demand titles.

Are there practical or legal obstacles to doing this?


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