Shelves: literary-criticism Emily Apter problematizes the notion of world literature, as an academic discipline and literary trend as complacent with the neo-liberal capitalist ideology which needs to reinvigorate itself in order for it not to be politically ineffectual. Questioning the worldliness in world literature, Apter invokes untranslatability, both linguistic and socio-historic of various geo-political paradigms to counter a unipolar discourse on the same. Arguing against the provincialization of culture and the Emily Apter problematizes the notion of world literature, as an academic discipline and literary trend as complacent with the neo-liberal capitalist ideology which needs to reinvigorate itself in order for it not to be politically ineffectual. Jul 14, Thirthankar rated it really liked it This is more like a collection of individual papers and articles, but it problematises any simplistic acceptance of world literature throughout. It is not so much against world literature, as such, but a much needed apprehension when being swept by and into the field, particularly in the context of its current associations with North-American curriculums.
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History had stubbornly refused to end. Violent conflict had ceased to be something that happens — from the American perspective — far away, seen only on television. Now it could irrupt, had irrupted, in the homeland. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, questions of translation took on an urgency.
Many of the debates are based on deep, perhaps irreconcilable contradictions inherent in studying a field so vast and heterogeneous. The discipline of Comparative Literature has traditionally placed an emphasis on the study of works in the original language: translation is no substitute for close reading of the actual texts. When upstart courses in World Literature began to proliferate in the s, sacrificing depth for breadth with their eclectic surveys of texts chosen to represent as many literatures as possible — and read, moreover, in translation by undergraduates — many comparatists treated them with disdain as a superficial vulgarisation of their area of expertise.
This gave ammunition to those colleagues in single-language literature departments, who tended to view the whole notion of Comparative Literature as suspect, the domain of the dilettante and the dabbler. The process both exoticised other cultures and created a false sense of equivalence between them, fetishising the appearance of alterity while erasing difference.
Others objected to the commodification of literature for an elite market: the creation of an easily digestible World Literature canon, constructed by the academy, to attract a broader pool of fee-paying students.
Terror thrives on unbreachable difference, on exceptionalism, on the cultural and political monads that lie beyond the plausibility of dissensus and outside the possibility of the negotiable consensus. Strong stuff indeed.
The Translation Zone attempts to reconcile the extremes, not by finding a middle ground, but by taking both on board and playing them against each other. Not an attack but an implosion: the global financial crisis. The power of the Untranslatable lies in the nature of words as parts of a whole, as identified by the semotician Ferdinand de Saussure — that is, how they derive their meanings from their relationship to each other.
Truly understanding all the layers of meaning in a single word or phrase thus requires knowledge of its linguistic context. Apter uses the concept of Untranslatables to locate significant differences in thought that are conditioned by language and culture. To translate a lexicon of untranslatable terms: a quixotic endeavour, to say the least. We are probably safe in assuming that Apter, with her appreciation for the irreconcilable, relishes the antinomy.
Structured as an encyclopedia, it consists of around entries, each under its own headword: a word or phrase of both philosophical significance and linguistic specificity. The headwords are drawn from many European languages, and also from Hebrew and Arabic. If the word is foreign, an approximate synonym or two in French is supplied, then equivalent words in other European languages, and a list of related headwords.
The main article gives a careful treatment of its meanings, its history and philosophical valence, and finally a bibliography. Probably due to the scope and complexity of the material, the basis on which terms merit inclusion as headwords is not entirely clear: the English people gets one, with a discussion of its unusual pluralisation person and people—people and peoples and a second, more in-depth, section on its significance to American history and politics; whereas the German Volk is tucked in as a subsection to the larger entry on the French peuple, race, nation.
The Vocabulaire reveals ambiguities and nuances that differentiate philosophically important words of approximate equivalence in a variety of languages. Its format emphasises its linguistic pluralism: although the text is in French, its multilingual structure demonstrates that there is no definitive version of a given concept, but a ripple of related ideological phenomena, subtly or strikingly distinct as the case may be, that are shaped and coloured by their linguistic and cultural contexts.
Apter is sensitive to the costs involved in globalisation, the papering-over of difference and the generalisations that — intentionally or not — privilege dominant languages, literatures and cultures.
Apter discusses the politics of borders and checkpoints, with a special focus on Israel-Palestine; performative activism and politically-charged graphic art; concepts of the universal and the particular in various branches of continental philosophy; the practice and theory of ownership, intellectual property and the commons; and the relative ontological status of individual human beings, inanimate objects, ideas, and human and nonhuman collectivities.
Even when Apter talks about literature, it is usually at one or two removes. Often, the real object of her attention is the theoretical exegesis of a work, rather than the work itself. It is a hectic journey through such a wilfully eclectic range of intellectual terrains that it is sometimes unclear how we came to be discussing the point in hand, and for what purpose.
The density of the prose does not make it any easier to follow the thread. It is no small feat to write a gloss that is more opaque than the quotation from Jacques Derrida it is intended to explicate.
What saves the book from entropy is the central concept of the Untranslatable. Apter uses the idea to break down generalisations, and the tendency to submerge inconvenient details in overarching theory.
Her criticism here is a little uneven. It is understandable that Apter finds Moretti hard to pin down, because he works in several very different modes. Some of his work is guilty of an uncritical enthusiasm for the scientific method empirical testing of hypotheses, quantified data models in a field to which it is poorly suited. But that is certainly not true of The Novel.
By working with many scholars of individual national literatures, Moretti provides an example of literary collaboration that, while not exhaustive in scope, goes some way towards justifying World Literature as a project that does not have to sacrifice either breadth or depth.
At a mundane linguistic level, untranslatability is a familiar phenomenon. Modern English has absorbed such a large number of words from other languages that those derived from its Anglo-Saxon base are a minority, outnumbered by borrowings from French alone. It is startling to realise that when we talk about God or the gods, we are using a word that was, initially, considered sufficiently untranslatable that the Germanic ancestor of the English language had to borrow it from a non-Indo-European linguistic substratum about which we know little — perhaps the same language from which we derive folk, another word without a convincing Indo-European etymology.
Following the Vocabulaire, the words and terms Apter picks out as Untranslatables are usually charged with philosophical, political or aesthetic meaning. It is tempting to characterise this as simply trying to have her cake and eat it. But much of what is valuable in her work depends on the creative use of these tensions. It is as if the critique of literature and other cultures from a position of political commitment is political action in and of itself.
This brings us back to the question of what is at stake, politically, in Comparative Literature. Translation as a kind of leveraging of language, causes the university, and the entire world, to pivot, eventually if incrementally, on its axis. While the political sphere in Western democracies has been narrowing to a technocratic set of choices in submission to the markets, supposedly radical and subversive theories have sprung up everywhere in the humanities, full of grand political ambition, but with no possibility of having a meaningful effect on the material circumstances of the various groups whose interests they are intended to champion.
The thinking appears to run something like: 1. Critique hegemonic power 2. The implications of the linguistic turn — if justified — for political activism are profound: if the world is created by language and culture, then judicious interventions that affect how we use language can have real political impact. But this puts the cart of ideology before the horse of material circumstance. So Apter is not alone in mistaking politically-minded cultural critique for politics itself.
But it is surprising that she does so. She seems sympathetic to the emergent philosophical currents of speculative realism, quoting several of its leading figures Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux and Ray Brassier. The project of speculative realism is a controversial one.
Its basic insight, however — the decentering of discourse — is a useful corrective to the hubristic claims made for any project of emancipatory politics based in literary theory. The contradictory traditions that make themselves felt in Against World Literature are divided by a fault line that goes far deeper than any quarrel between comparatists. Various and varied positions with a universalist tendency Hegel, Marx, Badiou have, throughout modernity, been in tension with the hermeneutic tradition Heidegger, Gadamer and its legacy in poststructuralism Derrida, Deleuze.
It seems a safe bet to assume that no literary theory, however adroit, will be up to the task. The idea of untranslatability has a double-edged significance in the Australian context. For Australian literature, the lack of a language barrier is both a blessing and a curse. In theory, Australian writing has access to the enormous market of the Anglophone world. In practice, with certain celebrated exceptions, traffic tends to flow the other way. Another ambivalent aspect of translation and untranslatability Apter highlights is the relationship between dominant languages and those with a small or shrinking base of speakers.
Two centuries of repression, land grabs, ethnic cleansing, genocidal violence and kidnapping have taken a heavy toll on the indigenous peoples of Australia. Enforced monolingualism and social disruption have resulted in the loss of many languages. So it was drummed into our heads that English was the only language we had to learn. No such legal protections exist in Australia.
The idea of a national literature effectively drafts literature to fulfill a patriotic duty, to confer cultural prestige on its country of origin.
The texts become not merely parts of a whole, but instantiations of an essence, a hypothesised ideal of which each work is but an imperfect avatar. But what kind of Australia is represented by an almost purely English-language literary culture? The inclusion of a few works written in English by Aboriginal writers, though welcome, does not ameliorate the monolingual basis of the national literature, or the fact that a literature has been established atop linguistic erasure in a nation founded on the fiction of terra nullius.
Viewed in this way, World Literature becomes a national competition: the literary equivalent of the World Cup. This cannot be achieved at the level of literary studies. The linguistic conditions in which indigenous national literatures are able to thrive — both in translation and, more crucially, untranslated — are a long way off, and can only be achieved with the goodwill of a society that has not only come to terms with its past, but is willing to act to redeem its future.
Words of respect and regret come cheap. Can we imagine a national curriculum that recognises the plurality of nations and reverses their suppression? One which would include the teaching of the local languages of each area as subjects taught to all schoolchildren? It seems fanciful, given our current political climate and the attitudes of much of the public.
But such a future would allow Australian Literatures to represent not just a historically shallow tributary of global Anglophone culture, but a unique network of traditions that combine the internationalism of a continent mostly populated by immigrants with deep roots to land and peoples.
Against World Literature by Emily Apter
New York: Verso, ISBN: The major achievement of this volume is in revealing the power of that fear, and in demonstrating that we ignore the fact of cultural and linguistic untranslatability at our peril. Her central thesis is that prevailing paradigms in the humanities neglect aspects of incommensurability and, importantly, untranslatability between literatures and cultures. These topoi, around which her central argument struggles to cohere, range from the politics of check-points and geo-political borders to theologies of translation, periodisation and intellectual property ownership. In foregrounding that which does not easily traverse language boundaries, Apter puts herself in the rather unfashionable position of arguing that a translation is no substitute for the original. Taking translation failure as an unavoidable fact, she sees it not as a technical problem to overcome, but rather as a useful way of identifying significant differences in philosophical thought between languages and cultures.
Quand même: Against World Literature by Emily Apter
History had stubbornly refused to end. Violent conflict had ceased to be something that happens — from the American perspective — far away, seen only on television. Now it could irrupt, had irrupted, in the homeland. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, questions of translation took on an urgency. Many of the debates are based on deep, perhaps irreconcilable contradictions inherent in studying a field so vast and heterogeneous.