Thursday, November 29, 2007

Lost in Translation

One of the books I found at Magus (for $1!) is Destabilizing Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates. I bought it for Spivak's article, "The Politics of Translation," about which I knew nothing; but for a buck, it was worth a shot (also excited about art critic Griselda Pollock's "Painting, Feminism, History.")

So I read it. I think it's important.

"How does the translator attend to the specificity of the language she translates? There is a way in which the rhetorical nature of every language disrupts its logical systematicity. If we emphasize the logical at the expense of these rhetorical interferences, we remain safe. 'Safety' is the appropriate term here, because we are talking of risks, of violence to the translating medium." (178)

Spivak is talking about a number of things here. Spivak clarifies what she means when contrasting logic and rhetoric: "Post-structuralism has shown some of us a staging of the agent within a three-tiered notion of language (as rhetoric, logic, silence)." (179) Though Spivak doesn't engage directly in discussion silence, she has a clear interest in retaining (or emulating?) rhetoric. Being faithful to precise meaning (logic) may (does) destroy the rhetoric that gives a piece its intimacy (by breaking it's systematicity). However, adhering to rhetoric is dangerous, as one might do violence to the logic of the text (and one's reputation).

The danger brings us to Spivak's second theme: the crisis. Though she doesn't dwell on the possibility, I think the central motivation behind Spivak's conception of a good translation is one of not managing crises. Being safe is always being complicit. The translator (of Third-World texts) has to behave dangerously, both for the sake of the text and for those who are invariably represented by the translation (because all texts represent, even when they are not intending to), because a lot is at steak.

The generality of the first quotation above led me to believe Spivak covertly meant this article to be not only about literal (and literary) translation. Spivak makes this clear when she talks about "Translation in General," and Toni Morrison's Beloved. The details will be forgone here; it is principally important that Spivak is talking about, in some instances, translating form English to English, or translations in which no language is involved, or translation itself is resisted.

Which is where I come in. As usual, I'm going to take writing on a very serious subject (the lingering effects of colonialism and the current effects of multi-national capitalism), and apply it to music. After all, in a very real sense, music fits the post-structural conception of language. Indeed, a great deal of the music-theoretical literature is on justifying the rhetorical in terms of the logical, and the most often cited example of John Cage's avant-gardism is 4'33", in which not a note is played (though this piece is never, to my knowledge, analyzed). Much of music theory, one might say, is about being safe: about effacing the rhetorical in favor of logic.

So this article finds its way into two of mine. The most apt is my paper on aesthetics. Spivak serves to understand the margin, and to understand all music as in some ways marginalized. I must be careful not to degenerate into discipline hating.

Secondly, I can work this into the end of my paper on minimalism, as an alternative to the distrust of metaphoric depth and penetration.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Dangerous Magus

The problem with a good used bookstore is that it costs me the same to shop there as it does to shop at any other book store. I could go to the U book store and get two good books for $30, and feel like I just tossed too much money at something I won't read for quite a while, or I could go to Magus--you know, just on the way to the bus, as something fun to do for a few seconds--and spend the same $30. The problem is now I've got 8 new (old) books to read when I can't even finish the stuff I've already got going. At least I knocked off one of the books from my list: No longer need bell hooks' Resisting Representation.

Maybe I can weave some of it into the queue.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Via Reddit

Thanks Erik, for wising me to reddit.

There seem to be (to simplify) three positions re: gay rights. It's not an issue, it's an issue, and it's not an issue. At least the Anglicans have made it to phase two.

Edit: Just read this in "9 Chickweed Lane": "Good work is taken for granted. That leaves us with little else to celebrate than the bungled and criminal." Unrelated to the above.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


I may have thought up a way to expand my paper on philosophy and music. The paper ends (awkwardly) by suggesting that John Cage's work (and that of others) exists in the margin between music and non-music, and that this margin of undefinability is created by the (often gendered) reification of "true" music. (I don't spend enough time discussing the positive, that is to say generative, side of this process. I think I give the impression that I am damning the entire enlightenment tradition, but it is important to note that it is through that tradition that the margin can be created. Apologist?)

I would like to take some time to refine this position. I may have inadvertently implied that Cage's habitation of the margin is a result of his status in the avant-garde. Were this the case, composers from Schoenberg to Lachenmann would sit in this same place.

But I don't think that works. What I'd like to do is use the writings of Schoenberg to establish his debt to Hegelian thought as well as the 19th century German organicists, such as Goethe (articles have been written on this, so I won't need to do too much original reading, which will ease some of my burden). I'd also like to spend some time with Adorno's "Vers une musique informelle" to distinguish between the late Darmstaat serialists, whose debt is to Hegel and Marx, and Cage. Is it problematic here merely to point at debt as evidence? I think so. Especially since Cage's debt is supposedly to Zen Buddhism, the genealogy of which is utterly foreign to me.

So I think what will be important is to read the texts from Adorno and Schoenberg as what they are: source texts. That is to say that their influences, for lack of a better word, are certainly important, in so far as they are tangible, but it is more important to see where they stand in their work itself. I may have to talk to Dr Durand about connections between Lachenmann and Adorno; I don't remember seeing them clearly.

The main point though is to partially recapitulate Peter Burger, who distinguishes between three avant-gardes. I don't want to be so general (and indeed haven't the time to do the necessary work), but I do hope to point at the danger of generality by positioning each of these composers, all of whom are on the edge of music, in different places in regard to institutional validation.

Thursday, November 1, 2007


Returning to an earlier post about Spivak and Agawu: When our guest speaker talked about Agawu's book, he said Agawu was making use of Spivak's "strategic essentialism" in order to establish a politics of the same in which music, on a global scale, is defined by the immanence of tone. Leaving aside for the moment what tone is, and why it is could be said to define music without also incorporating speech and lonely trees, I'd like to comment a bit on what I see as Agawu's misuse of Spivak.

Because of Spivak's intellectual debt to Derridian deconstruction, I think it's unlikely that she would deploy strategic essentialism to buttress or even quarantine a concept. Agawu's claim seems to be that, since we have to have a working definition of music in order to study it in a cross-cultural context, we need to chose a solid definition that will serve our strategic ends. For Agawu, those ends are the disruption of Western (or Northern) aesthetic hegemony. Whether it is possible for a metropolitan scholar, even one from the third-world intellectual diaspora, to accomplish this--whether it is indeed even possible to think the non-Western in the context of late capitalism--doesn't seem to be questioned. But again, I digress.

My understanding of "strategic essentialism" is from Spivak's phrase: "One cannot help but essentialize, but one must essentialize strategically." (I don't know the book or the page, but I'm pretty sure that's close to verbatim) When Spivak says this, she's coming, according to her, directly from Derrida. Derrida, something of a defeatist, but in an empowering way, has also claimed that narrative is inescapable, and that feminism is another form of phallocentrism. What s/he is pointing at here, I believe, is the impossibility of beginning (without a ground). Because knowledge is abyssal, because it does not stand on firm ground but instead only upon knowledge, there must be those "facts" which we implicitly take to be true. And in order for our discourse to be both critical and mutable, we must take these essentials on implicitly, but be able to undermine them when confronting them. So reifying tone as the essential quality to all music is precisely not what Spivak is advocating. On the contrary, what she's saying is that when we say "music," the implication of tone already exists: stating it outright does nothing to clear this up (unless it is done critically) but does do much to reify the term, preventing it from being mutable. In short, Agawu takes the fluid term (the catachrestic term) "music," and makes it rigid, erecting it as the center for his new hegemony. It is, it seems to me, the opposite of a deconstruction.