Saturday, October 11, 2014

history without years

There’s a certain magical attachment in history to years. A year serves not only as an organizing principle, but also as a spell – it gathers around itself a host of connotations, and soon comes to stand for those connotations. Yet, what would history be like if you knocked out the years, days, weeks, centuries? How would we show, for instance, change? In one sense, philosophical history does just that – it rejects the mathematical symbols of chronology as accidents of historical structure. These are the crutches of the historian, according to the philosophical historian. Instead, a philosophical history will find its before-after structure in the actual substance of history. In the case of the most famous philosophical history, Hegel’s, a before and after, a movement, is only given by the conceptual figures that arise and interact in themselves. To introduce a date, here, is to introduce a limit on the movement of the absolute. A limit which, moreover, from the side of the absolute, seems to be merely a superstition, the result of a ceremony of labeling founded on the arbitrary.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

dictionary of untranslatables

Since the time I was knee high to a lexicographer, I have loved dictionaries and encyclopedias.  For Umberto Eco, these are two text-types that cast a giant shadow over all texts. In Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Eco makes much of both the opposition between the dictionary and the encyclopedia and their metamorphoses one into the other. A dictionary may seem like the simpler form – it consists, at the base, of an inventory of words in a language arranged in the order given by a writing system and attaching to each word a definition  – but of course, as Eco shows, this seeming simplicity disguises a host of complex ideological decisions. Eco gives the example of a dictionary that defines bull as an “adult male bovine animal” as opposed to tiger, which is defined as “a loarge tawny black striped Asiatic flesh-eating mammal related to cat”, to help us see that the decisions that go into what forms a definition never wholly correspond to the logic of one system. Eco goes back to Porphyry’s image of a tree in which the branches are the particular, the species,the  genera, etc. – which would imply branches from one trunk – to a broader forest in which hierarchies multiply, and in which definition becomes interpretation. That is to say, more shortly, that there is an art to definition. We move through a Porphyrian forest into deeper patches where the mere correlate, the definiens, becomes the object of the essayist’s attention. As Eco says, the dictionary is dissolved into a potetnially unordered and unrestricted galaxy of pieces of world knowledge. The dictionary thus becomes an encyclopedia because it was in fact a disguised encyclopedia.”.
Eco doesn’t use the word essay, but one could think of the equivalence embedded in the definition as an essay waiting to get out – or we could think of the essay as a definition that has put on fat. Except that the latter is true for only a certain restricted species of essays. I think of those essays as cowardly – for the truest essay must have the courage of its polyvocity, or, if you like, its contradictions.
We are getting somewhere, although it might look like we are taking a random path to nowhere. We are getting to the book entitled “Dictionary of untranslatables”, which is edited by Barbara Cassin and has quickly installed itself among the books that should be within easy reach of toilers in the humanities.
 There’s a review of the book by Michael Kinnucan  in Asymptote, the journal of translation.  This sums up the paradoxical book pretty thoroughly:
“In this it is astonishingly successful: comprehensive entries on hundreds of words, running to 1400 dense pages in the English edition, incorporating the work of 150 scholars in the original French and dozens more in the English translation—almost all entertaining and revealing, the few I was qualified to check strikingly complete and correct. Flipping through it I found myself increasingly fascinated by Cassin herself: how had the qualities of a Heideggerian-inflected scholar of the pre-Socratics come to coexist in one soul with such megalomania, and such a talent for generalship? For all its virtues, though, the Dictionary is haunted by a sort of joke at its own expense—a joke which accounts for much of its charm while implying that it is not perhaps quite what it thinks it is.” - See more at: 
The joke is, of course, double. On the one hand, the dictionary of untranslatables is itself translated, which seems to make the title invalid. And on the other hand, the very notion of a untranslatable seems to defy the equation at the center of the dictionary – that is, that a word equals its definition. Even if, with Eco, we grant definition a much broader space, we are still stuck with the fact that these terms can’t be exchanged, can’t be substituted, in the languages outside of which they are native.
There’s room for many dissertations here.
The dictionary is particularly strong on the Greeks, naturally. For instance, the entry on fate gives us a cluster of Greek words revolving around the concept. Here’s ker, meaning not just death but death as the shadow self:
In a famous scene in the Iliad, Zeus weighs the kêres of Achilles and of Hector ( 22.209ff. ); we do not know whether the two kêres are personified or not. Both are described as the “kêres of painful death,” that is, the destiny of death that each of the heroes has as his double, or phantom, or personal demon. What is curious is that they have a weight, and they can be weighed. Zeus places the two kêres on the scales, and Hector’s kêr drops and falls into the house of Hades. Apollo abandons the hero, and his fate is sealed.”
This has both the brutal realism of Greek thought and its gnomic peculiarity. From death as a certain weight to the throwweight of ballistic missiles, I can sketch a shaky line.  At some point on the line would be Rilke’s Eurydice, pregant with her own death.
Und ihr Gestorbensein 
erfüllte sie wie Fülle. 
|And her mortality
Filled her like a weight”
Which is of course not a translation at all – but doesn’t every translator go into the depths and come back with shadows?


Tuesday, October 07, 2014

short term patchwork long term disaster

John Quiggins at Crooked Timber has a post about the incoherence of the US' s Middle Eastern policy in which he writes that the US has only done one thing consistently in the Middle East, which is slavishly follow Israel's policy.
Nice as it would be to have some compressed and easily understood guide to US policy, I don't think this one is is. 
Actually, it is not just Israel that acts as a driver of US policy – although in actuality I think this is a two way driver, and that Israel does a lot of things that the US government wants them to do while pretending to condemn them or hold them at a distance – but Saudi Arabia. Why should the US, which is buddies with all the authoritarian Gulf states and calmly watched as the Saudis invaded bahrain and suppressed a democratic revolt, care about Assad? I mean, we have no real reason to overthrow Assad. It will actually make US policy much more difficult if Syria fragments. But the Saudis fear Iran, and thus want to damage their ally. That’s it. Similarly, when Pakistan illegally steals the technology and designs to build nuclear weapons, and are financed in this endeavor by the Saudis, we do… nothing. When Iran openly pursues nuclear power and, we presume, a nuclear weapon, we go apeshit.
If the US had taken a far sterner stance towards Saudi Arabia and had established a relationship with Iran in 1989, like Israel, at that time, was advocating, we would surely not have had 9/11, and there would surely be no ISIS.
I would define the US problem in the Middle East differently. Our patchwork of short term policy decisions reflect an unthought out long term framework that has long been broken. It isn’t just the Israel connection that is responsible for this. Rather, it is literally the politics of the oil companies which has brought us to this point.

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...