Monday, July 27, 2009

UPDATE: Replying to Reader Responses (Pt. 2)

UPDATED 28 July, 2009

As I mentioned in the last two posts, I had to write a book review for my coursework at the European Graduate School. I am very grateful to Vincent van Gerven Oei who also read my review and joined in the discussion. Below I present my response to him:


You very much flatter me in reading these words, thank you. And thank you also for encouraging further discussion, I will do my best.

Yes, translation presents a host of concerns; but I suspect that translation is fundamentally the task that is at-hand if we are to discuss community, politics, or selfhood. There is a wonderful poem by Wendell Berry that nicely emphasizes why I think that translation is the fundamental task at work in ethical engagement. The poem, "The Country of Marriage," has this singularly wonder-full line: "you are the path that leads always into the dark." I can think of no better way to discuss a loving, long-term, committed relationship. There is this myth (or perhaps fervent/fever dream) that what works in one language will work in any language. This is the lesson of that Bill Murray movie, Lost in Translation, isn't it? That, no matter how long we live or share our love with someone, what isn't irrecoverably lost in translation between us all? Surely, love is the path that leads always into the dark.

When I introduce the Chinese and Japanese examples what I am introducing (and thank you for pointing out where this isn't clear) a case where it is not only possible to discuss the world in a non-metaphysically-dependent manner, but there are many successful examples of how this is possible. I certainly don't want the reader to surrender to a "call to the exotic;" and, of course, Heidegger warns against this in his discussion of "Ister."

You are right and do my argument a great service by pointing out that it is possible to ask a direct question in Japanese. But we cannot understate how irregular it would be to announce 何だ! (nanda!) Of course, nanda is not Subject-Object-Verb (UPDATE: Japanese is, as Vincent points-out perhaps THE S-O-V language) because always already present in the utterance is an assumption of both a subject and an object. "Nanda!" is a performative utterance, not an ontological position to start from. Not only are the subject and object assumed but the expression is of disbelief at what is assumed to be an implicit moral order. One cannot say "Nanda!" and not simultaneously be reacting in a moral manner. The same is true in Chinese wherein one asks, "how do you cook it?" when referring to something that is unfamiliar. What we see in both languages is the residue of an a-metaphysical worldview: to be a person is to fundamentally be a moral entity. And we see this expressed in all host of manners, whether it's pedagogy, the arrangement of rocks in a garden, one's penmanship, or Shinto practice. We are accustomed to clearly partitioning grammatical rules from moral rules, but these two are not capable of being conceptualized as separate in the Classical views of East Asia. Simply stated: "to be" is "to be a moral entity." Without this assumed interrelatedness, "Nanda!" is only as intelligible as discussing an American football bat.

I think that I may have not expressed clearly what I said in my discussion about the development of "thing" and "happy." If you review my statement the operative phrase is that the Western particulate view was not a privileged worldview until after the Medieval and Modern eras. I should have better articulated that although we may foreground a particular worldview or orientation this does not by any means negate the fact that there is another orientation in the background.

In the Western world(s), while we see implicit calls for interrelatedness in words like "thing" and "happy" prior to the medieval and modern eras, what we know to be true in living in these languages today is that "thing" refers to a particular object and happiness is no longer a process of manifesting a project but is the result of drinking Coca-Cola (just kidding). This shift to objectifying, and here I think I understand Heidegger's overall trajectory, was within a shifting conceptualization of man's place in the world. We may privilege a worldview where all relationships are externalized (symbolized best by the love contract - also called marriage), but we all are familiar with the pain of dissolving a relationship such as a marriage.

The contract is a technology that was developed in response to the social order of the medieval period. The contract was supposed to state a priori what the nature of our relationship would be and thus secure the integrity of the two parties. The thinking has been that if we are both able to enter into this relationship as separate individuals, when we dissolve the contract we can both walk away as the individuals we were before the contract was enacted. But, as we can probably all attest to, to dissolve a marriage is not to simply sever something "out there" but to lose a part of myself. We are both lessened by the experience.

Again, this is not an unfamiliar experience and is not an insight from our contemporary moment because this is precisely what John Donne referred to in his Meditation XVII (1623):

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

But today, at least in the U.S., we don't hear too many calls for this sort of interrelatedness and it is certainly not what is present when the U.S. (and probably the rest of the European Community) talk to East Asian nations about human rights. Human rights, as developed in the Western traditions are primarily ways of delimiting space and establishing property rights over these spaces. For these rights to even exist there must be something upon which these rights could hang, an identity. For these rights to exist for eternity the identity must be fixed as well. Of course here we begin to see that fixed identity is not only problematic, but would irrecoverably reduce any notion of interbeing as described in the Donne poem.

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