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The Pit of Babel
or: The Society that Mistook Culture for Politics
Translation: Aileen Derieg
What are you
This insight is derived from a different
question: How has translation – this relatively insignificant term from
linguistic and literary practice – had such an important societal and
emancipatory role ascribed to it today? Something strange has happened in the
course of answering this question. The concept of society has been lost, or
rather it dissolved into a different concept, that of culture. What used to be
society has now become culture. The fate of the concept of translation mirrors
this process of transformation like a kind of symptom.
In the beginning, in its purely literary
form, translation was given a clear social significance: this was found in its
task, as defined by Humboldt, of forming the national cultural community.
Thereafter we find translation as a kind of terminus
technicus in a comprehensive project of social emancipation, conceived
within the framework of a social criticism respectively inspired by Marxism or
psychoanalysis. In the form of "cultural translation" it ultimately
became the concept of a new transnational culture and as such also a model of
From this perspective of the history of the
term, there is no point in talking about the social significance of
translation, as though this were one of its – more or less important –
characteristics. Translation is no more social today than it was in Humboldt's
day. Then it was national. Now it is cultural, which means both transnational
and transsocial. "Nation", "society", "culture"
are not epochal attributions in a diachronic sense in this context, but rather
paradigms, which only tell us today how much more translations should be than
translations. What is the basis of the national, social or cultural added value
of the translation concept, which can no longer be traced back to the facticity
of multilinguality? The paradigms form a kind of perspective, a view from the
Tower of Babel, which changes again and again in historical time. In one of
these perspectives – from the view of culture – we have perceived the blueprint
of today's "post-emancipatory" emancipation, yet not as an added
value of translation, but rather as this – cultural – translation itself. As
though emancipation were not the landscape that could be seen from the Tower of
Babel, but instead the tower itself.
"Every translation is an
indeterminate, endless task," wrote Friedrich Schlegel1.
As such, it conforms perfectly to the notion of a postmodern and postcolonial
emancipation. It relates to the old ideal of revolutionary politics in the same
way as Benjamin's translation relates to the original, namely as its cultural
afterlife. It remains quietly in the background, authorizes no ideological
content and no social agents and takes no responsibility for reality. Since
there is no longer any stable original today that it could betray and no
authoritative instance that could hold it accountable for its infidelity, it
may constantly invoke its immaculate innocence. As an expression of a virtually
ideal imperfection, the concept of translation thus best conforms to the needs
of postmodern emancipation politics, which have long since canceled the
occupation of old centers of power – especially the nation-state – from their
strategic program. Since these politics no longer need to fear any fateful
defeat and can be a little victorious everywhere, they can always feel superior
to even the worst reality and one of their greatest enemies, nationalism. They
can always find a blasphemous poem, a heretical play, an iconoclastic
exhibition or a transgressive performance that has successfully subverted the
respective nationalism. The real victims of these nationalisms, the millions of
people dead and exiled, are left to the rigid and essentialist identities
believed to have been overcome, and their political and militaristic
institutions, in the final consequence this nation-state or another.
The anti-nationalism of postcolonial theory
is notorious. In an emphatic sense it is also expressed in the concept of
cultural translation, which not only represents a normative counterpoint to
nationalistic identification, but also challenges its political practice – by
constructing a radically hybrid space, in which every claim to a pure,
essential identity principally becomes impossible. The main problem of an
emancipation project of this kind has already been named several times: it no
longer happens in any real place, in which the hybrid identities conceived by
postcolonial theory as absolutely singular could be politically articulated. It
lacks a political form that could turn its cultural mission into concrete
historical reality. In short, it lacks a state, and this can still only be a
nation-state. Yet exactly this is what postcolonial theory wants nothing to do
with. For this reason, no matter how loudly anti-nationalism is expressed culturally, politically it necessarily
remains silent. It is specifically in this depoliticization that the sharpest
critics see the ultimate downfall of postcolonial theory and its emancipation
project2. Instead of fostering it, they hinder what
is regarded as the most important political task of our time – the articulation
of completely inclusive and egalitarian political principles, which are
specific to the special situation in which they are declared, yet nevertheless
transcend their immediate cultural environment.
In the world of late capitalism, culture is
thought to have finally lost the autonomous status that it once enjoyed
alongside other areas of societal life. Fredric Jameson, one of the most famous
theoreticians and critics of postmodernism and who propounded this diagnosis,
wants us to imagine this dissolution of the autonomous sphere of culture not as
a mere disappearance or extinction, but rather as a kind of explosion: culture
expands throughout the entire area of society to a point where we could say
that our entire societal life – from economic value to state power all the way
to the structure of our psyche itself – has become "cultural" in a
sense that has not yet been reflected3.
Dispensing with a separate, clearly delimitable and easily localizable sphere
has not resulted in any disadvantage for culture, according to Jameson. On the
contrary, in its omnipresence it has achieved a dominant position in society.
In its own way, it permeates postmodern society just like "religion in the
Middle Ages, philosophy in Germany of the early nineteenth century, or natural
sciences in Great Britain of the Victorian age"4.
The general culturalization of the whole of
societal life is not only an objective fact of the postmodern world. It has also
become a symptom of reflection. Critics of British Cultural Studies, such as
Francis Mulhern, for example, refer to a similar phenomenon in cultural theory5. Here too, culture has become the
authority of a discourse on social conditions, specifically thanks to a
peculiarity of Cultural Studies that distinguishes it from other theories or
sociologies of culture: the peculiarity of postulating its analytical object,
culture, as its subject. This self-referentiality of culture, its manner of
speaking of itself, is what Mulhern calls "metaculture": the
discourse in which culture, regardless of how it is defined, makes itself the
object of its own reflection in its generality and in reference to the
conditions of its existence. In the ability to generate a metacultural
discourse, Cultural Studies resemble, according to Mulhern, the old cultural
criticism, the tradition of which they sought to overcome: both regarded
culture as the neglected truth of a society that has, for its part, succumbed
to politics. What the old cultural critique and Cultural Studies most
essentially have in common, however, is found in their utopian impulse to
resolve the tension in the relationship between politics and culture. Mulhern
warns that this attempt ends in a culturalist dissolution of politics itself:
culturalization is understood as a form of depoliticization.
Gayatri Spivak formulates a similar
criticism of Cultural Studies, in which she refers directly to Jameson's theory
of the explosive expansion of culture into every sphere of postmodern society.
"Recoding a change in capital relations as a cultural change," writes
Spivak, "is a terrible symptom of Cultural Studies and especially of
Feminist Studies. Everything has been made into culture. I hope the reader will
notice the difference between this statement and Jameson's."6 The difference, of course, is in the word
"made". For Jameson, on the one hand, everything has
"become" culture. For Spivak culturalization is not a social fact,
but rather a symptom of Jameson's methodology, which declares everything as
culture. What Jameson regards as culture – in the form of its heterogeneity and
its relativism – is for Spivak only one culture, specifically the dominant
western culture7. Similarly to Aijaz Ahmad,
she accuses Jameson of universalizing his own – particular – cultural
experience. This criticism implicitly applies to Butler's and Bhabha's concept
of cultural translation or hybridity as well. The position from which culture
is no longer regarded as an essentialist totality, unified and homogeneous in
itself, but rather as an endless process of cross-cultural translation
(Butler), is for Spivak only one particular – but privileged – position, namely
that of the dominant culture.
In her theoretical approach, Spivak remains
true to the dualism of politics and culture. This is especially evident in her
concept of "strategic essentialism". This is based on her recognition
of the political inadequacy of critical thinking: although we can easily
completely deconstruct an essentialist identity in theory, it still continues
to function smoothly at the level of political practice, as though it had never
heard of its "merely imaginary" character. Conscious political
engagement cannot simply disregard this simple, yet often forgotten truth, as
Spivak knows, because aside from the language of theory there is also another
language or another texuality: that of politics, whose terms – such as that of
the nation-state – cannot simply be replaced with cultural terms. Yet she
considers communication between these two languages principally possible; it is
to be taken for granted that this can only be imagined as precise translation
work. However, this kind of translation could certainly have emancipatory
effects. Nevertheless, we must not confuse Spivak's concept of translation with
Bhabha's concept of cultural translation. For him the language of culture has
become the universal language of all human experience, for which reason it can
also no longer be (re-) translated into another language, such as that of
politics. Specifically as the language of culture, it is already the language
of politics and emancipation.
Ernesto Laclau's political theory is also
What this means is that society no longer has a foundation and that it
circulates in its political being around the empty place of the universal. In
Laclau's view this empty place is occupied by hegemony. For Bhabha and Butler
it is (re-) articulated through the process of cultural translation, through
which emancipation also takes place. This sheds a new light on the metaphor of
the Tower of Babel, the crash of which, as we all know, caused the need for
translation. Is it not the consequence that after the "death of the
grounding", there is no longer any foundation in the place of the
collapsed tower? How can one translate, if there is nothing left to build on?
One obviously translates "groundlessly". In fact, one digs the pit of
Babel. "Some progress must be made," writes Kafka. And emancipation too,
To conclude by illustrating the dangers of
an emancipation that has become the untranslatable language of culture, we call
to mind a famous psychiatric case of "cultural translation":
Dr. P., one of Oliver Sacks' patients, had
developed a strange symptom – he mistook his wife for his hat9. Whenever he wanted to put on his hat, he
reached for his wife. Due to an illness of his brain, Dr. P. had lost the
capacity of visual perception, or more precisely the ability to see certain
things. Yet while he overlooked faces and scenes, for example, his
visualization of various abstract schemata remained intact or became even more
clearly focused. Despite his illness, Sacks' patient, who was a teacher in a
music school, was able to continue working almost normally in his profession.
In everyday life, on the other hand, or at home, he could no longer do anything
without translating his actions into some song. So he sang all the time – songs
of eating, songs of getting dressed and undressed, songs of washing, songs of
everything possible. For him, all the places where images had been were taken
over by music. Yet Dr. P. was not at all unhappy. He even maintained that he
had never felt better.
What music was for Dr. P. – the universal
language of life – is what culture has become for the highly developed,
postmodern societies of the west. Here too, people are no longer able to do
anything without translating it into culture. Thus they not only have their
culture of eating, culture of sleeping, culture of clothing, culture of shopping
or body culture, they also have, first and foremost, what they believe to be a
continuously progressing – democratic! – political culture, which even now
promises to rid the world of all social conflicts in the near future.
Poor Dr. P. also had a hobby. He was not
only a talented singer, but also a talented painter. His paintings, which were
initially naturalistic and realistic, in time became increasingly more
abstract, even wholly geometrical or cubist.
Sacks discussed this phenomenon with Dr.
P.'s wife and pointed out to her the growing absurdity of her husband's most
recent works. For Sacks these paintings were nothing more than a bunch of
chaotic lines and spots of color thrown together without any kind of logic.
"Oh, you doctors are such philistines,"
she cried. "Don't you see his artistic
Of course, what was actually progressing
was not the art, but rather the illness, noted Sacks.
Perhaps we should remember the fate of poor
Dr. P., when we celebrate the next cultural victory – a heretical novel or a
subversive play – over rigid nationalism. It could, in fact, be the case that
we have just experienced the progress of our political pathology.
What was actually the illness that caused the relentless progression, misinterpreted as art, of the unfortunate Dr. P.'s suffering? Oliver Sacks tells us that too: it was the complete breakdown of the left side of his field of vision. The man had become blind on the left.
/ By courtesy of the
publisher. An earlier version of the present text was published in German in:
1Schlegel, in: Patrick Primavesi, Kommentar, Übersetzung, Theater in Walter Benjamins frühen Schriften, Basel; Frankfurt am Main: Stroemfeld, 1998, p. 123.
2 Peter Hallward, Absolutely Postcolonial: Writing between Singular and Specific, Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 2001, p. 128.
3 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London; New York: Verso, 1991, p. 48.
4 Terry Eagleton, The Idea of Culture, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000, p. 126.
5 Francis Mulhern, Culture/Metaculture, London; New York: Routledge, 2000, p. 156 and XIV.
6 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, Cambridge, Massachusets; London, England: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 412.
7 Ibid., p. 315 f.
8 Oliver Marchart, „Gesellschaft ohne Grund: Laclaus politische Theorie des Post-Fundationalismus“, in. Ernesto Laclau, Emanzipation und Differenz, Wien: Turia und Kant, 2002, p. 7-19.
9 Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, London: Picador, 1985, p. 23-41, especially 14.
Aileen Derieg (translation)
other languagesThe Pit of Babel Der Schacht von Babel