Saturday, March 29, 2008

Translation: for the profoundest of freedoms

Ever since Michel Foucault wrote Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison [Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison], his thoughtful readers, I think, have been on guard. In the work, he shines the light not on dungeons of the dark ages but on the penitentiaries of the Enlightenment and of modernism. Modern prisons use light—the lights are always on for the guards in the guardtowers. And this keeps the imprisoned imprisoned. Let’s be very very clear, however, that although Foucault distanced himself from structuralism, he did not want to be known as a postmodernist. And, a self-described “Nietzschean,” Foucault claimed: “I don't write for an audience; I write for users, not readers.”

That little biography is just to say this: Foucault disliked light, not because it enlightened, but precisely because it did and therefore, he thought, it imprisoned. So, I think, we all should be as suspicious that Foucault did not go far enough. Light is not useful to any user, or to any guard in a tower for that matter, unless it shines within.

As Richard Rhodes and I have talked in blogs and emails, there’s something that needs to come to light. I have asserted or at least inferred that he does not take into account the personal in language and its translation. At least, that’s how he’s heard it. Which says volumes. In fact, I did snipe back in my comment that replied to his initial comment in my last blog. He didn’t say it there, but actually our agreement is most profoundly shared in the personal.

So let me define what I mean by personal. And along the way, let me define what I mean by define. And by ambiguity, parable, postmodernism, literature, linguistics, translation, feminism, and rhetoric, and all the other terms we bandy about.

And let me turn to a brilliant English phrase that Elizabeth Cady Stanton endorsed and repeated, one that Thomas Jefferson probably penned. It’s this:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”

There’s incredible humility here. Implicit in the statement is dependency on the Other, in “we,” which is not just “I.” And there are other pluralities: “these” “truths.” The verb “hold” is what lovers do and what a mother does—how much more personal an action is there? But “self” gets at autonomy, and “evidence” at light. So whatever is “self-evident” here gets birthed from persons together who find a personal stake in not just “The Truth” as Aristotle might want to understand it but also in varieties of difference. The arbitrator and the agency are of, by, and for persons.

And yet, I think, we all should be as suspicious that Cady Stanton and Jefferson did not go far enough. Truths are not useful to any of us holders of truths unless they shine them within.

Are we talking about politics? Postmodern philosophy? Literature? Linguistics?

Yes. Nature does not determine our categories however it might, at first glance, constrain them. When we are insiders of a language, or native speakers, then there are differences in the nature that we hold to be within the same category. Perhaps even the category of “self-evident” truths. When we are outsiders, or non-native speakers, the differences in nature are more visible to us because we have not yet learned, or even care to learn, how to hold them as the same.

“Whenever two or three are gathered together…,” then there is the possibility of different variants or “allo”s being held together as an emic unit. There is psychological reality on the inside; there is belief. This is Pike talk. It’s why the light of logic and math and formalism and even pure generative semantics is not enough. It cannot just be shined in the prison yard.

Everyone of you reading this understands that there is insider language in this post. Either you’re familiar with the categories of unity-of-differences I am holding with a few certain readers, or you are not familiar with them. Whether you’ve patiently read this far also says something about you. Why should you care? That’s what I mean by personal.

So let me move from Pike to Charlotte Hogg and Nancy Mairs and Jacqueline Jones Royster and Cheryl Glenn. From tagmemic linguistics to feminist rhetorics. The careful precise delineation of difference, whether of Nathan’s and Jesus’s parables or of varieties of ambiguities is important only insofar as there’s some insider stake in these categories. For a religious lay person or scholar or for a linguist, perhaps, the distinctions may be huge. And the religious and the linguistic types might seem more interested in translation. The literature types might seem interested in other things. African American scholars seem interested in their thing. Feminist scholars seem interested in their own concerns. Whose got the light to shine down on the others?

If I take Jesus’s parable of the woman finding the Greek silver coin by turning on the light and sweeping the house as allegory, then the literary qualities might distinguish the parable from Nathan’s. The light of literature is not enough. It cannot just be shined in the prison yard. But if we take the woman as being God, or at least as saying something about God to us, then our body feels as much as David’s and Bathesheba’s and Uriah’s did. There is talk in various directions, and light inside, and change.

The important question for me, and important for translation too I think, is whether we can talk to one another. Which means there's deep listening to the other person. Jacqueline Jones Royster has much to say about talking with the other, and about being talked about (in her “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own”). The key to learning another’s language (and, yes, to Using the Others’ languages Mr. Foucault) is the acknowledgment of the subjective. It’s starting with our bodies, our selves. It’s letting light shine within, and not insisting always and only on my categories or even my group’s categories. What Rich is saying to me and me to him is not just the fun “smite” that wins us a Lingy (although there may be some of that as seen by Lingamish). Our corrective talk is most effective when either one of us shines it within. There is hope for the profoundest of freedoms. To me, Rich has genuine care, and not just for the clearest of categories and ideas in language.


Richard A. Rhodes said...

You've hit upon a key point that we have been dancing around for some time -- shared vocabulary. Or maybe better, a shared vocabulary of concepts.

We can only really talk to one another when we have mutual confidence that each knows what the other is saying, modulo the need to factor in what it is that each values, both absolutely and relatively.

The notion that you label ambiguity and I label vagueness is a good example. It took us several rounds to get to where we understood one another referentially. Then it took (me, at least) several rounds to see why anyone would think that vagueness (a.k.a ambiguity) is something that one would want to foster. (I'll go back to the UN translators who say that the hardest thing about their job is to avoid cleaning up the lies and vaguenesses in what they are translating.)

It isn't until you point to Clinton's hairsplitting, that I'm reminded that there are times when some vagueness might be helpful, because the most egregious part of the law is that it is set up as if it could cover everything unambiguously and thereby it allows for the perpetration of legal injustices on a regular basis. Both Clinton and Starr were wrong. OJ is guilty. And the pobrecita in Hillcrest Knolls should be allowed a variance.

As for Foucault, I understand his concern about too much light. As a profound introvert, I appreciate the need for privacy. But I don't believe the analogy works. Light is imprisoning only when we have something to hide. Foucault didn't have to luxury of a Savior and the promise that, even when everything will be brought out into the light (Lk. 12:2-3), those who trust in Jesus will not be ashamed (Rom. 9:33 quoting Isaiah.)

Finally, let me say something about why disciplines have something to say to one another. (I'm not buying the metaphor of shining light DOWN on others.) Just as there are different tools for best accomplishing particular tasks, particular epistemologies give us better and deeper understandings of particular phenomena (including ourselves). Sure, you can pound a nail in with a screwdriver if you want, but give me a hammer any day -- or nowadays make that a nail gun.

And (my apologies to Lingamish) I had totally missed that your and my struggles to understand one another got us a Lingy.

J. K. Gayle said...

Yep. Shared (concept of) vocabulary it is. Rich, we sound like Richard Rorty now (which isn't all bad, except I think Rorty isn't a very good Rortian because he threw out Jesus -- the baby, the man, his teachings, and his methods -- with the bathwater of Christianity; and just plugged his ears as he did it! He plugged the bathtub afterwards too. Too bad.)

I do have confidence that you know what you're saying. Am thrilled that you're gaining some of that confidence in me. Yes, with passion but with much more distance than you have, I agree: "the pobrecita in Hillcrest Knolls should be allowed a variance."

What I was saying about Foucault, is that his observations of prison and light and enlightenment neglects "If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" Introverted (like you and me) or extroverted, we individuals do have privacy within us that no guard and no prison light can shine into. Theirs can only be a shining DOWN on the other. There is tremendous individual responsibility, then, to shine light into ourselves long before some day "when everything will be brought out into the light."

I'm all for better tools, Rich. So please understand that I'm saying NOT shine the light DOWN on but rather: the light that I have, I can shine that within myself. Aristotle may be content with a hammer or a nail gun. But Kenneth Pike requires multiple tools--and another friendly human being--in his monolingual demonstration. It's more like the very humble who confess on national tv that they require an extreme makeover home edition style: they receive a little grace, perhaps a vacation at Disneyworld for a week for the whole family--while demolition crews and architects and interior designers and construction crews team up, yes with nail guns too, and with so much more, to make life much safer and a little better for the willing family. (Oh, and sometimes the conventional tools get used in every unconventional ways--with the best results for the moment).

Our Lingy should really go to Kenneth Burke, who's understanding of rhetoric (and other disciplines' vocabularies) was often focused, unconventionally, on "misunderstanding." (My guess is that Lingamish and Burke haven't shared much vocabulary. By default, "the winners are...")