Friday, May 22, 2015

Toward a General Hermeneutics

In the early nineteenth century Friedrich D. E. Schleiermacher rejected the specialized hermeneutics of medieval philosophy (that is, theological, juridical, and literary hermeneutics) and in their place proposed a general theory of interpretation established not upon genre-based dissimilitude but rather upon the linguistic and grammatical unity of all texts. This new general hermeneutics would no longer have textual elucidation as its focus. Instead, hermeneutics would become the art of understanding. But how can a reader best understand a text?

Because Schleiermacher saw texts as having their source within the minds of their authors, he maintained that understanding is possible only by way of re-experiencing the mental processes of the text’s author. By reversing the procedure of composition, the reader could begin with a fixed text and work his or her way back to the author’s original mental state from which that text derived. The reconstruction and reconstitution of the grammatical and psychological aspects of composition could then lead the reader to having an even better understanding of the text than the author himself or herself had.

In this way, Schleiermacher left room for an element of divination or intuition in the process so that the reconstruction was not purely logical or formal. Rather, both elements—the formal grammatical nature of the text as well as intuitive congeniality with the author—were necessary before we understand and thereby can interpret properly that which is written. Nevertheless, the principal goal of hermeneutics for Schleiermacher was not the understanding of the author’s psychology, but rather a more accurate excavation or presentation of the meaning of the text itself. Language—not psychology—remained central to his hermeneutic project.

We can leave aside the problematic question of whether or not it is actually possible to reconstruct another person’s thought processes, especially someone whom we have not ever met in person, and the even more demanding question of whether or not a spoken or written text is indeed the result of some inner mental experience. Regardless, we must still acknowledge the fact that although psychology and subjectivity were not his main concerns, Schleiermacher did indeed formulate his definition of a general hermeneutics upon the notion of a psychological subject. Dilthey, however, can help reorient our understanding of the human sciences as autonomous from the natural sciences and thereby leave open the possibility of the rejection of neutral, scientific objectivity altogether.

Wilhelm Dilthey proposed that understanding is an impossibility unless we begin upon the firm foundation of lived, concrete experience. He saw hermeneutics as the heart of the Geisteswissenschaften and did not distinguish among specific discipline-based hermeneutics. Like Schleiermacher, he, too, grouped together historical, literary, and artistic texts in order to arrive at a more general hermeneutics. Yet Dilthey’s legacy remains conflicted, torn between the Romantic notion of the possibility of a complete immersion in life and an abiding desire for objectively valid data.

Rejecting the methodology of the natural sciences as being divorced from the lived experience of human beings, he offered a more precise understanding of historical consciousness than previously developed. We can understand life only in terms of life itself, and cultural artifacts can be meaningful to us only if they illuminate the inner life of human beings. But just as Schleiermacher’s interest lay with the text and not the author’s personal psychology, Dilthey concerned himself with the socio-cultural and historical milieus of the author and not simply with the author’s individuality as such. This shared world is what binds reader, author, and text together into a unity of meaning.

Perhaps Dilthey’s greatest contribution to hermeneutics, however, is his understanding of the human being as being primarily historical. It is only by way of our detour through and reliance upon history that we can come to any kind of self-understanding. Moreover, the limits of history define what human beings are; that is, we can escape neither our own historical context nor the trajectory of history that has led up to this present moment. Such historical relativism necessitates continual self-reinterpretation. By broadening hermeneutics to include the historical context of the shared world, Dilthey allowed for the work to speak of the inner experience of the human being not just in terms of subject-object metaphysics. In this way, he prepared the course for Heidegger’s notion of the necessary historicity of human being and his rethinking of hermeneutics as a mode of Dasein’s being itself.

For a more thorough examination of the history and development of hermeneutics throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I recommend the following texts: Jean Grondin, Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. and ed. Joel Weinsheimer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994); Gayle L. Ormiston and Alan D. Schrift, eds, The Hermeneutic Tradition: From Ast to Ricoeur, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990); and Richard E. Palmer, Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer, ed. John Wild (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1969).

Friday, May 15, 2015

Memory of the Word

According to the myth of the origin of written language as told by Socrates in the Phaedrus, Theuth declares that written language, the materiality of the word, will make the Egyptians wiser by improving their memory. But Thamus instead insists that the technical gift of letters will, in fact, produce forgetting. When Egyptians rely solely on writing to remember, they are reminded from the outside with foreign signs and no longer trust the authentic memory emanating from within their souls. How could writing, as seen from this perspective, ever bring about an ethical relation?

We typically read most authors' work as running somewhat parallel to the narratives they write, acceding, for example, that the taste of the petite madeleine and the involuntary memory it evoked were as significant to Proust the man/author as they were to Marcel the narrator in the inarguably semi-autobiographical novel À la recherche du temps perdu. Yet as Maurice Blanchot reminds us, this moment that defines Marcel’s life becomes known to us solely through the narrative.

The memory is memorable because of the testament of the written word. Proust has translated any reality of the event into the textuality of his novel, and it is only by way of the novel that the event's reality is made accessible to us here and now. The self, then, becomes externalized—exteriorized—in writing, and that writing becomes the basis of the self’s own self-knowledge. The more removed we are from the event, the more we rely on the narrative as evidence of that event, so that the writing bears the event's reality in a way that “pure” memory or experience cannot.

Through the text’s materiality, selfhood finds itself expressed and described upon the page. But this exterior “selfhood,” in having nothing to say of the self, becomes other, an alter eclipsing the originary ego so much so that the “I” transcribed no longer speaks of the I who transcribes. Writing, then, phenomenologically establishes and maintains a distance between author and text, even when that text is “about” its author. Of course, we can argue that only one of those “selves” is “real,” defiantly asserting that the person who writes is “more real” than a character in a novel. But this is not how Blanchot understands the problem of writing.

Because writing, for Blanchot, exposes all of us (authors, readers, translators, interpreters) to the impersonal anonymity of (and in) language, our task of assigning “reality” to our experience is problematized by the ethical demands of writing itself. Can we declare with any confidence that the narrator who speaks through Wisława Szymborska’s poetry, for example, is any more real than Szymborska herself was? What criteria should we use to measure the degree of authenticity or veracity of one over the other? Having never met Szymborska in person nor conversed with her face to face, how could I have ever recognized the woman herself, the one who has a definite biography (born on a certain date in a specific location) even should I have had in my possession a recent photograph of her and a current address (when she was still living)?

Would it not be easier, we must ask, to instead recognize the narrative voice—what often gets reduced to “literary style”—of an unknown poem as being particularly Szymborska-esque than it would be to meet the actual author without questioning her identity? Blanchot would even go so far as to allege that writing exclusively expresses definitive reality, that the biological and biographical aspects are secondary to or derivative of the narratological (as found in the text itself). Blanchot stresses that all that we can possibly know of any author is what is (already) written about him or her. In his “The Experience of Proust,” for example, Blanchot articulates how the narrative voice not only undoes the man Marcel Proust but also establishes his authority through the text’s (as well as the author’s) deauthorization.

Similarly, Blanchot would want to point out that the only access we have to Socrates' critique of writing is through the written work; his denigration of written language is known only through the medium that actually preserves the memory of that denigration.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

All Time Top Visitors (Countries)

Thank you. Дякую. 谢谢。Thanks ever so. Спасибо. Danke. תודה./شكرا. Merci. Whatever Canadians say. شكرا.

I'm not sure when Blogger started tracking these visits, but I've had this account for several years now, though not as long as I've been blogging (since 1999).

I've lived in 3 of these countries, and I've visited 8 of them, so I'm glad to have made an impression! But if it were up to me, I'd erase all those silly lines dividing up this vast planet and make it so I didn't have to use my precious passport again. No borders. None. One world.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


I have to say that I really like using Scrivener for translation! I've been using this app for almost two years now, but only for writing, drafting work, both nonfiction (essays, a book) and fiction. With this new translation project, though, I decided to try it out for this purpose. It only took a few minutes to set up my view in a way that made sense to me, to my process.

I'm using v. 2.6 for Mac OS X.

In the left column you'll see how the project is divided into two folders–one for the Polish text and one for my English translation. Each page in the folder represents a chapter of the text.

For the main view, I'm using a divided screen with the Polish on the left and the English on the right. It's easy to scroll through each chapter on the screen with the mouse and from chapter to chapter using the navigation arrows in the top right corner of each screen. I find it helpful to be able to look at both texts/languages at the same time as if I were reading a bilingual book.

If I want to do a search and find all the instances of a word or phrase within the project, I can use ⌃⌥F (control-option-F) or the Search bar at the top right. This kind of global search functionality makes it possible to always check the usage of a word or how I've previously translated it. With ⌃⌥F as well as with ⌃⌥⌘S (control-option-command-S)–Scrivener's Text Statistics function–I can check the verbal density and word frequency of the text. This helps me to track important words in the source text as well as check the consistency of my translation.

I can't wait to have the time to transfer a translation project that I've been working on over the years to Scrivener. It's a book of poetry from Polish. The poet uses several key terms throughout the poems, repeating themes, terms, phrases. With the app, I'll be better able to track those repetitions and resonances–the essence of this volume of poetry.

Are there any other translators out there using Scrivener? What does your setup look like? What are your tricks for translating more efficiently with this app? Please feel free to comment.

The following image link below will take you to a landing page where you can check out the Mac version, read reviews, and generally be blown away with its features. If you do happen to buy a product, I get a small percentage of the sale through their affiliate program. Not only would it be great to have your support in this way, but I do think that this app is game changing for writers. And now for translators!

Buy Scrivener 2 for Mac OS X (Regular Licence)

Or you can buy Scrivener for Windows (Regular Licence).

Friday, May 1, 2015


"Beauty is just as vapid as its distinctions."

The recent translation of Anne Garréta's Sphinx, translated by Emma Ramadan and published by Deep Vellum, has got me thinking about apophasis, and not because the protagonist is writing an essay on the apophatic tradition. Rather, I'm trying to figure out what it is that I've missed here.

Apophasis is a rhetorical device in which a subject is brought up by denying that the subject is actually being brought up or that it's even possible to bring up the subject in the first place. Example #1: She is smart, not to mention pretty. The "not to mention" actually does mention what is being or shouldn't be mentioned. Example #2: I'm not going to argue with a stupid person. That very statement is belligerent. Example #3: It wouldn't be polite to talk about your bad taste in music. You get the point.

Sphinx is well written, albeit overwritten. Even the character's apophatic name–A***–seemed unnecessarily unwieldy. Why not a single letter? Or a symbol? I read the first 20 pages and felt like the language part of my brain was on fire. I concurred with the blistering critique of graduate school. The nightlife sounded sexy and exciting, reminding me of the time I used to know such haunts. But the next 100 pages I found to be tedious, pretentiously and unnecessarily erudite without much substance. Something was missing.

The reader's work was constantly narrated by the protagonist. I tired of the incessant narrativization, the talky voice that wouldn't shut up: "I was spared the exhaustion of searching and seizing. I was giving up a state of being…" (25). "I was discovering the rules as I went along, establishing what had always existed without any basic precepts" (27). "I had reached a limit, and after that came repetition and ennui" (29). "My eclecticism pushed me to ignore differences and transgress against exclusions…" (30). On and on this voice drones. I would have liked the option to remove all first-person pronouns from the text. Such a truly apophatic lipogram would have improved the story for me. And shorted the novel several pages.

At first, I did like the forced indeterminacy of the two main characters' sexes and genders. At times, I perceived them to be considerably more female; at other times, more male. Throughout the novel, both genders/sexes blurred into one another and crossed over the spectrum between male/female, masculine/feminine. After a few chapters, however, this came across more as a gimmick than anything else.

In the end, I'm not sure this novel succeeds in what it purportedly attempts: a troubling of gender and gendered identities. One truly troubling sentence stood out as a hesitation, a mistake, a misstep: "What was I, truly? A drag queen of intellection, a gigolo of enamoration" (87). Are not both of these examples male? My powers of imagination are perhaps too weak to overlook such obvious gendering, particularly in a novel that allegedly renders gender unnecessary.

And let's think through this last statement properly. Who really thinks or believes that an elision of gender/sex can or should be considered also feminist or queer? I didn't mention the unmentionable details of my lovers for the first few decades of my life, not because I was being experimental or cutting edge but rather because of something else altogether: the unmentionability and invisibility of queer sex. So do not call this a feminist or queer novel when something as important–despite, yes, the possibility that gender/sex may be entirely socially constructed–as gender/sex is not and (perhaps) cannot be mentioned in it. No, that is not how queer or feminist means what it means. Queer, if anything, is a radical politicization of gender/sex and its sexualities; feminist is not far behind. By not mentioning gender/sex in the novel, the author, in effect, renders it unmentionable or at least unimportant–the opposite of what queer and feminist works do.

If anything, this novel made me want to read more Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Judith Butler–writers who truly trouble gender/sex without making it/them disappear from view.