Anthony Pym


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On Jacques Derrida, Spectres de Marx, Paris: Galilée, 1993.

Anthony Pym

    'Ça commence à faire long, Monsieur Derrida,´ or so said Le Monde at the time: as long and heavy and boring as the OJ trial, and as directionless, as devoid of final judgement, and yet just as passionnant, as intensely rich in playing the cords of contradiction, justice, injustice, the recherche of what happened but may not have happened. I read it as an intensely personal book, full of the first person that is yet rarely there: a self-reflection, by Derrida, on the death of any certainty from the past, but I suspect on a physical death as well. Long, heavy, because the text is in mourning; it is the mourning of a loss; it can only look backwards.

    The dedication to Chris Hani announces an impossible attempt at involvement, annihilated by immediate and forceful contradiction (to mourn the death of a communist murdered by communists, in the dawn of liberation from Apartheid, of which we hear little more). Yet mark the real desire for substance: 'La vie d´un homme.. sera toujours plus qu'un paradigme et autre chose qu'un symbole.' And this later becomes the sole substance of a deconstructionist ethics: 'Une pensée déconstructrice, celle qui m'importe ici (to the first person of this text) a toujours (not to my knowledge!) rappelé à l'irréductibilité de l'affirmation et donc de la promesse, comme à l'indéconstructibilité d'une certaine idée de la justice...' (147). And in the corresponding footnote, an angry distinction between law and justice, the latter more a matter of 'la propriété de la vie´, where the law is no longer sure.

    La vie d'un homme, undeconstructable, substance, and this at key points in a text on ghosts, the spectres of the past that haunt the present, that tell us where to go, and of which we have more than one reason to doubt.

    Derrida mentions translation little more than twice in the text (plus passages on use and exchange value at the end, which I don't suppose anyone else wants to relate to translation):

    pp. 42-47. On the many possible translations of 'The time is out of joint': organizing disorganizing translations, but analyzed, surprisingly, linguistically, in a way that many of us would venture to attempt. Conclusion, though: the translations are 'out of joint', since the time(s) of translation itself is 'out of joint'. Hence: 'la signature de la Chose Shakespeare: autoriser chacune des traductions, les rendre possibles et intelligibles sans jamais s'y réduire.' (47) Question then of whether, according to what is just, there can be responsibility to this Chose Shakespeare in such a dijointed time. (The question seems to go unanswered: there are no dead bodies lying around.)

    p. 65. Similar disjunctions within Marx, reported to have said 'One thing's for sure, I'm not a marxist': 'Marx *vivait mal* cette disjonction des injonction en lui, et qu'elles fussent *intraduisibles* les unes dans les autres'. But then, adds Derrida, absolute translatability between systems would render 'l'injonction, l'héritage et l'avenir, en un mot l'autre, impossibles'. So the disjunction is productive, and it is reached, twice, through reference to translation.

    Features of this view of translation (leaving aside all it owes to Benjamin):
    - The Chose Shakespeare, this great text in the past, still looms over all the translators, is still accorded authority, if not as an original then as the text of all possible translations. This inferiorisation of translations is, I'm afraid, a constant in Derrida. Translators don't bring gain; they just pick up the pieces; or get them wrong and have to be corrected by the philosophe (cf. pharmacy). - The disjointedness is constantly mal vecu, se lo pasa mal, an unhappy state; by extension, since the analogies are being exploited, the position of the translator allows few pleasures, certainly no jouissance: translators must, it seems, vivre mal their disjointedness. This is not quite a constant in Derrida, but it certainly is in this text. - The word 'avenir', future, smuggled into the second passage above is one of the few occasions dijointedness might actually lead somewhere. Yet this future is never, here, any more than a working through of the past, the other. The subject, particularly here the translating subject, would seem to have no investment in that future, which remains external.

    That is, no becoming is placed in this subjectivity. The only substance is that of the person that lives and dies; it is beyond deconstruction and thus the basis for a deconstructive ethics. Thus, without becoming, we effectively reduce the subject either to that substance or to the process of mourning that can only reflect on the passing of substance. Ethics cannot be of the future but of (cyclical?) life and death.

    Mourning, hopefully, is long but not ever. Its function is surely to deliver the subject from the past. Like psychoanalysis, it lasts its time, but in order to cure. This book, which certainly lasts its time, might function well only if, once the mourning is over, we can live well and happily in disjointed times, and create a mode of becoming what, from within subjectivity, connects with a future that is not entirely other.

    By extension, the translation analogies might yet mark out an inhabitable space, hopefully liberated from those great texts of the penumbrous past.

    Read the book if you will. But sooner or later we have to snap out of it.



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