Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Translation ~ Politics 1

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Translation ~ Politics 1

Article excerpt

To Lance, with thanks

This article must confess to a spirit of diffidence. Its goal is simply to take up and, perhaps, verify a suggestion by Jacques Rancière: to occupy the "very interval between . . . two terms" in order to open "the possibility of appealing from one to the other."2 Politics and equality are so proximate in Rancière's philosophy as to be synonymous, and yet the egalitarian substance of his politics hangs on a second, more discreet term: the "style of politics as emancipation"3 that is to say translation.

Where equality has obvious political implications, translation's politics are less conspicuous, muted even, but beginning with the fable-history of Joseph Jacotot's accidental epiphany in Le Maître ignorant, the concept of translation reappears throughout Rancière's writings as the activity of equality par excellence. "The activity of thinking" he writes, "is primarily an activity of translation, and . . . anyone is capable of making a translation."4 To think is to translate, and translating is egalitarian. Equality for Rancière is not in question. His is an enviable political philosophy for which equality is not the endpoint but a presupposition, not a thesis to be argued but a founding tenet. Politics is simply "that activity which turns on equality as its principle."5 Posited in this way, as a given that more or less compels the reader to suspend any relativization, equality scarcely seems like a promising conceptual foundation for the kind of specific politics Rancière imagines.6 However, it is through the concept of translation that the direct equation of politics and equality can carry the elegant paradox of a politics that is both universal and idiomatic. In many ways, translation represents the principle that underpins egalitarian politics, the praxis that confirms it, and the style that disseminates its authority.

Jacotot stumbles across his enlightened pedagogy of intellectual emancipation thanks to the efforts of his Flemish students, who circumvent the need for instruction when they appropriate knowledge for themselves through the spontaneous activity of translation.7 The obvious pedagogic resonance of Le Maître ignorant continues to provoke education-related discussions, and commentators rightly describe Jacotot's radical ideology of equality as the foundation for Rancière's emancipatory politics.8 Crucially, however, although it is a particular literary activity that makes Jacotot's story possible, translation has remained unaccountably peripheral to our understanding of Rancière's political philosophy.9 The metonymic function of translation, I argue, facilitates Rancière's fabular style, but also encompasses an active labour-a labour of literature and of politics. Insisting on translation as a central component of Rancièrean politics is an obliquely paradoxical endeavour, however, since it is precisely the marginal role of translation that marks it as the indispensable site of egalitarian politics. In the spirit of "intellectual adventure,"10 then, this paper undertakes to think, or rather "rethink"11 Rancière's concepts of politics and translation, each in terms of the other. In this exchange, translation, like equality, is both self-evident and controversial.

Rancière's preoccupation with literature is inescapable in this process of (re)translation. Literary politics for Rancière involves breaking out of the textual altogether by engaging each of the senses in the "redistribution of the perceptible." Seeing hidden partitions, speaking the "miscount," and hearing "mute speech" each constitutes a way of imagining a type of equality. By extension, translation-as a form of literature-has the capacity to rearrange political topographies. In mapping translation and politics onto one another, I therefore deliberately mirror the three-layered configuration Rancière describes as the "manners in which [literature] labours to develop the landscape of the visible."12 In what follows, I pursue Rancière's sensory analogy through three intersecting "modes" of translation: its pedagogical style, its political economy, and its literary poetics. …

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