Interpretation as Performance

‘You’ve often heard me say – perhaps too often – that poetry is what is lost in translation. It is also what is lost in interpretation.’ This is Frost, according to Louis Untermeyer (Robert Frost: A Backward Look). So why interpret? Why translate?

Here is Wittgenstein, in a letter to Paul Engelmann:

‘[I]f only you do not try to utter what is unutterable then nothing gets lost. But the unutterable will be – unutterably – contained in what has been uttered.’

Here is Wittgenstein again, in a letter to Ludwig Picker:

‘I once meant to include […] a sentence which is not in fact there now but which I will write out for you here. What I meant to write then was this. My work consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one.’

And here is Guy Debord in Critique de la séparation:

‘The sectors of a city…are decipherable, but the personal meaning they have for us is incommunicable, as is the secrecy of private life in general, regarding which we possess nothing but pitiful documents.’

So what is lost is fugitive in the way that the connotative is, that qualia are fugitive. It runs away with the writer, leading him into alleyways in which what happens simply can’t be spoken of or said. And it runs away from the reader, leaving him with alleyways in which something unknown presumably must have happened, in which what is possible is either happening or may be going to happen but is possibly not the same set of experiences but another. In which talking about what is visible, publicly available, is at once necessary and rather beside the point. In which interpretation and/or translation is in one sense like Tennyson’s views on love. In which it’s better to try and fail than never to try in the first place. ‘In place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art,’ as Sontag puts it in Against Interpretation, as though undressing a virgin text for which undressing itself is the point:

‘A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces
An airline ticket to romantic places
Still my heart has wings
These foolish things remind me of you.’

(Billie Holliday: These Foolish Things)

However, there is another aspect which concerns both the nature and the ownership of those alleyways (or cigarette or airline ticket; or stockings, in the version by Ella Fitzgerald, or whatever) and how they come about. And it isn’t at all about applying (say) Rachel Whiteread’s approach to the negative space of what’s not there or can’t be reached. As though the artwork or the poem had, by definition, to be about containment or capture (or its failure) within form, or about apparent form and content and about the transcendence either of the structure as Platonic form or of what’s within some ‘visible’ structure as the content that goes beyond obvious ‘content’ and which is something that cannot be grasped. This is one version (the wrong one) of Wittgenstein’s view that ‘An aphorism doesn’t need to be true,’ that ‘it should go beyond truth. It should, as it were, go beyond it with one satz.

And so here, as an alternative, is Simondon (L’individuation psychique et collective à la lumiere des notions de Forme, Information, Potentiel et Métastabilité). What’s important, in this view of how things work, is ‘to know about the individual through individuation’, not the other way around. Moreover:

‘In the process of individuation the living human being is both the actor and the theatre. His becoming is a permanent individuation, or rather a series of bouts of individuation that proceed from one state of temporary equilibrium to another.’

All of which is probably the other and very much better sense of Wittgenstein’s assertion. Or as the Bible puts it (John, I: 14)  language is being created as a living thing:

‘And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us […] full of grace and truth.’

(Significantly the title of Paolo Virno’s Quando il verbo si fa carne. Linguaggio e natura umana  turns ‘word’ back into ‘verb’, into individuation and the process of becoming.)

And as Dickinson puts it also:

‘A Word that breathes distinctly 
Has not the power to die 
 Cohesive as the Spirit 
 It may expire if He – 
‘Made Flesh and dwelt among us’ 
 Could condescension be 
Like this consent of Language
This loved Philology.’

Or as de Gregori puts it in La storia siamo noi:

Well history doesn’t really stop outside some great front door
History enters into the rooms and burns them up
[…] it’s us, these waves upon the sea
this noise that breaks the silence,
History: that’s us, it’s us that write the letters,
it’s us for whom there’s all to win and all to lose.

Or as unknown Greek demonstrators interviewed by the Observer put it:

‘When they killed Alexis, everyone felt it could have been any of us, so we made it all of us.
‘Above all, this revolt was an assertion of dignity and a statement of presence. Of all the slogans, our most important was We are here.
‘This uprising has given people who were never part of our movement a new understanding of what it means to be who they are.’

Now what’s important, of course, is to avoid any slippage whatsoever either into mere aspiration or nostalgia or into assertions of bogus causality or (worse still) deterministic cynicism.

‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad,’ according to Philip Larkin. So don’t be a parent yourself. A dystopic reading of Darwin and an abject determinism in which people are as separate and as imperviously solid as atoms used to be and humanity is envisaged as a collection of disparate individuals through whom faults are passed on down through the generations and to whom accrete further faults, apparently through mutation. The group has ceased to exist. So too has the individual, except as the consequence of the actions of individual others who are themselves the consequence of individual others in an infinite recursion in which subjectivity is kept all too firmly offstage. Whoever the actor may be, in other words, he is never ever the speaker. So choose childlessness instead.

And here too are The Who in 1971 (Won’t Get Fooled Again from Who’s Next) rejecting transcendent ideals (and rejecting music as exemplary act, as though it were blowing up bridges) in favour of a cynicism as corrosive as that of Larkin (or New Labour) about a history to which they have allowed themselves no access and so can provide no answer:

‘The change, it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the fold, that’s all
And the world looks just the same
And history ain’t changed
There’s nothing in the streets
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the parting on the left
Are now parting on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight.’

Because what Simondon offers is useful. Because the trick in the dynamic and aspectual approach to History of which he is a part is to substitute for what is fugitive and/or omitted the idea of a surplus, of something that’s not included, which always exceeds the taking: ‘The concept does not exhaust the thing conceived,’ according to Adorno (Negative Dialectics). Except that in this context the interpretable meaning of a poem, say, which is in no way subsumable under the rubric of concept, constitutes itself. It is brought into being not by the writer, not by the reader nor even in the interstitial space between the two as though it were something subordinate, but as performance: as language acting in the theatre of writer, poem and reader (because performative language always performs that trick of bringing into being, or it attempts to) and, simultaneously, as writer, reader and poem acting in the theatre of language, inherited and to come. And it always leaves something behind.


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