GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

January 8, 2020

Design, Imitation, and the Transfer Translation

Filed under: GA — adam @ 2:25 pm

Where do opinions, ideas, beliefs and arguments stand within the production system of modern life? Everyone has ideas, opinions and beliefs, and everyone makes arguments all the time, but through what process of mechanism can one imagine all this mental machinery being translated into institutional modifications that would be recognized by their possessors as realizations of the intentions manifested in them? For that matter, where do ideas, beliefs, and so on come from? Anyone could point to books one has read, education received, events that led to revelations, influences by parents and media, but where do all those sources come from? Once the Enlightenment fantasy of a conversation among equals being directly translated into the creation of social relations is dismissed, we can’t do better than invoking Plato’s cave metaphor in describing ideas, beliefs, opinions and arguments—they are descriptions of shadows playing on a wall. Then again, what would make what I’m doing here any different?

Social practices are commensurable with each other as practices, and, so, if we set aside terms derivative of the metalanguage of literacy like “ideas,” “beliefs,” “opinions” and “arguments,” and think of speaking, writing, listening and reading as practices, we can speak of media practices that might be converted into or made interoperable with other media practices. A practice is something that one or some do, that can be done again and be the same thing. A practice is a doing in the middle of things that are happening. Part of the practice, then, is marking the difference between what you are doing and what is happening. So, if your saying or doing (your saying as doing) can be iterated by others in such a way that others can say it’s the same thing, well, you can’t guarantee specific results, but you can distinguish the ordering of your practices from a world of events that, as far as anyone can tell, are just happening.

The most elementary understanding of knowing is that it is being able to say that two things are, or the same thing at different times, or to different participants, is, the same; insofar as things are parts of other things, this means that knowledge is being able to say that the proportions of the ingredients comprising the parts of one part are the same as the ingredients comprising the whole. In other words, that a sample is the same (in some respect) as the population it is selected from. Selecting a sample by doing something is a practice, that may or may not be the same as a system of practices it self-selects from. Nothing is lost if we say that a sample is a translation of the population, or the whole—the whole being nothing more than all of the actual and possible translations of it (in collections, new arrangements, measurements, etc.). A translation produces something in one medium that is the same as some original in another medium. So, all social practices are translations of all the other translations, with the question always being, what makes it a translation, or the same, in this new medium as all the others. When people gather into a disciplinary space, it is to answer this question.

This now returns us to the “transfer translation” Marcel Jousse found at the basis of the “oral style”—while Jousse is not completely clear about this, the transfer translation seems to be the written residue of the most repeated and most broadly applicable, the most embedded in rituals and other practices, of the oral traditions of a community—the parts of the oral tradition that must be preserved and therefore cannot be allowed to dissipate with the loss of or diminishing intelligibility of the language in which they have been articulated. Since these central discourses have been transferred into a new medium, with different idioms, much of the original is lost, so ascertaining the identity of the translation is the most important of social practices. Let’s say that in the original God “breathes” life into humans, but Gods don’t “breath” in the target language—maybe God “gives birth” to humans in that language. Now we have two origin narratives, the difference is noticeable and problematic, and therefore must be reconciled. All our ideas, beliefs, opinions and arguments are the effluvia of these efforts at reconciliation.

We begin with the assumption of sameness and commensurability because doing so is a precondition of the maintenance of linguistic presence and then we create original cultural forms by showing that the new form is the same as the old. This happens because showing it’s the same requires that we generate the idiom within which the repeated form will indeed be a repetition of the form previously embedded within another idiom. This is a way of saying we always assume order, continuity and centeredness. It is also the case that translation is a form of language learning, insofar as we learn a new idiom, or how to use a new word, by treating it as synonymous with ones we are familiar with while also guessing at its proper use in each new context until the responses of other tell us we’ve got it right. Keep in mind the way Google learned to translate—at first, word for word synonymous translations produced laughably bad results; then, drawing upon previous translations of the same words, phrases and sentences produced seamless results. That search process, for humans, involves trial and error, as we have to find idioms that fit an entire field of discourse in the target language.

I have mentioned on occasion that discourses on racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., are really just “superstructures” erected over anti-discrimination law, which makes it ridiculous to argue over what these words “really mean,” and I’ll return to that now because it’s a good example of translation as a fundamental cultural practice. Liberalism declares all members of a polity to be “equal”—equal in relation to the state, but in relation to the state as form of centralizing power directed at demolishing formal differences, one after another. To align yourself with the state is to point to a difference to be demolished. This is what counts as being a good person. That this is really not about equality in any possible sense is clear from the fact, intrinsic to such a demand, that you or others like you be given power over those now benefiting from the difference under attack. One form of hierarchy is being replaced by another. So far, this is all familiar enough. But in applying liberal law, or anti-discrimination law, all kinds of distinctions and decisions need to be made: what actually counts as a violation of the law? We need model events, narratives, to make sense of this, like those involving fat Southern sheriffs harassing innocent black people. These stories are translations of the practices involved in enforcing the law, and they are reproduced, refined, and modified as necessary by legal institutions, journalists, politicians, schools, and so on. Broader sociological, anthropological and political concepts are generated to supplement these stories, to make the accounts of differences and attempts to eliminate them as consistent as possible. You can’t argue about these concepts and stories without participating in the practice of translation that produced them—which is why, again, it’s pointless to argue about them.

Now, we can propose, “logically,” the abolition of liberalism, thereby getting directly to the heart of the problem. But this can’t work without a network of practices generating the translative practices that would plug such an argument into narratives and supplementary concepts. And such practices are excluded by the ones already in place. The system of practices and the translations they generate needs to be exposed; but whose “need” is this, what imperative demands it, and from within what set of practices can this exposure be effected? If we want to think in the long term, this becomes a question of which disciplines to infiltrate and how. I would suggest that transdisciplinary practices of meta-translation can be summed up on the problem of design, which is a way of constraining translative practices. To engage in design, of a block, a neighborhood, a city, an institution, a network of institutions, is to think in terms of how the work of all the different disciplines would be translated into each other and into the design as a whole.

We can think very productively about design in terms of mimesis and deferral. If we know that a certain social arrangement regularly leads to certain rivalries, and those rivalries lead to conflicts which disrupt the ends for which participants engage in that activity, then, rather than talk to the individuals (or “types” of individuals) commonly led into those rivalries, and “explaining” to them why they are really wrong to distrust each other, that it would be better if they worked together, and so on, we would simply redesign the social arrangement so as to avoid the emergence of those rivalries. Of course, another arrangement might lead to other rivalries—we’re talking about a complex business here, in which various disciplinary spaces would need to participate. But framing, from the start, every problem as, in essence, a design problem, directs attention towards media, technology, and capital (the power to command the disciplines), rather than ephemera like opinions, beliefs, principles, opinions, policies and so on. The question we pose is, what deployment of media, technology and capital might render a particular conflict irrelevant? We don’t want to resolve the conflict itself, we don’t want to reconcile the parties, we don’t want to hear them out, we don’t want dialogue, we don’t want to take sides, etc.—we want to render the conflict unintelligible, like an argument over the proper way to arrange the sacrificial animal on an altar in some archaic community would be unintelligible to us now. All conflicts, actual and potential, are to be transformed into means of providing informed feedback to duly appointed authorities.

All practices, then, are to be translated into design practices. The media, technology, capital and power that have gone into producing a certain practice (of, say, conducting an ongoing debate) are included in the practice as part of its idiom. This is not a question of pacification—mimetic practices and practices of deferral are represented all along the line. New forms of mimesis, of modeling our behavior on others, must be proposed for each element of the design. You can imitate someone in such a way as to shrink the object you learn from him to notice and desire, so that there is only enough for one of you; or you can imitate another so as to enlarge the object so it can be shared. The latter is easier if we openly acknowledge that we are modeling our behavior on others, which we all know but will all reject for those practices we take to be most distinctive to us. It may be easier to openly acknowledge our unpayable mimetic debts to others if we learn to treat our own practices as design problems, which would naturally involve studying models and distinguishing what is usable and what is not, including what we are already using and misusing. Our transfer translations of design hypotheses would generate stories and supplementary concepts, like any transfer translation, but they would be stories of anthropomorphized beings engaged in translating the “human” into a current set of practices.

Engaging in full scale design requires power and capital, which excludes those who are not privileged actors within the liberal order. But every institution within the liberal order has a non-liberal purpose (liberalism has no purposes that is not parasitic on non-liberal institutions and practices) and insofar as public discourse is part of a post-liberal political practice, rather than offering up our opinions, beliefs, principles, and so on in pointless back and forths with those of others, we can present designs in the form of thought experiments that would eliminate the problem caused by liberalism by making liberalism impossible or irrelevant. There may not be any need to be explicitly anti-liberal—one could be ingenious enough to even propose voting systems that make voting irrelevant. These would be thought experiments that would re-formalize the differences and hierarchies that have been demolished, and would displace statements with practices (would insist every statement generate a practice to be part of the game). Whatever organizational form post-liberal politics eventually takes, it will be predicated upon presenting hypothetical designs, large and small, as demonstrations of the capacity to embark upon transformative design practices.

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