“Of Excluded Middles and Fine Lines”

A response to Michael Cronin, “Hand Over Fist?”

Doug Robinson

“Debates are possible,” Cronin writes, “on the assumption that the participants are not slaves to positionality (class, race, gender) and that we are not simply repeating preordained institutional scripts. If that was the case then an on-line translation colloquium would be void of meaning.” Agreed. Unfortunately, he goes on: “It would appear to me, however, that in two different but related ways, Anthony Pym and Douglas Robinson may in fact foreclose the very debate that they want us to begin.” I hope not!

And I really don’t think that’s the case. I won’t answer for Pym — I’m sure he has plenty to say for himself — except to say that I really don’t think he is a slave to positionality either. And I want to keep this response brief, in the hope that people will read it and the debate will continue. (I’m uncomfortably aware of the obstacles my long response to Pym’s response to me might have thrown in the reader’s path.)

So let me just address a single point in Cronin’s paper: this notion that I’m somehow involved in the project of “the erasure of the subject,” which, I’d agree with him, “can in fact be a deeply reactionary move and lead to a depoliticisation of the translation process.” This is not my project, though I’m aware that I might have given that impression — especially since (a) I don’t address it on the main screen of my paper (invisible.html), only on a secondary one (logology.html), and (b) even there I don’t explore the full ramifications of the middle ground I’m trying to mark out — I do that in the book, and may quote from that briefly below). This is a fine line I’ve been trying to walk in my work since The Translator’s Turn , where the “erasure of the subject” move would have been what I called “ideosomatics” and the “resistance” move would have been idiosomatics. In this new book, which I excerpted for the Barcelona colloquium, I’m using Jacques Derrida’s notion of spectrality or “the logic of the ghost” (from Specters of Marx ) to defeat or at least distance the dualism according to which we either  have total control over our actions (the rationalist subject that Pym seems to be positing) or  we have no control at all, no subjectivity, no intentionality, no will, no power to resist ideological regulation (the “erasure of the subject” that Cronin is attributing to me). One of the things I find so fascinating about the literature on spirit-channeling is that it does precisely posit a middle ground between those two extremes: the channel is “taken over” by another voice, and  retains control over whether to channel, how to channel, etc. As Derrida predicts, the ghost is at once present and absent, visible and invisible, heard and silent, inside and outside, self and other. The channel becomes a vehicle of an external power-source — a spirit, an ideology, an economic “invisible hand” — and also retains (to some extent) the power to shut that voice down, to resist, to refuse.

This fine line figures in the “Invisible Hand” material in the logology screen, where I trace four logological levels (the term is Kenneth Burke’s), either of the secularization of spirit-channeling from the speaking of a monotheistic god down through economic forces, or of (imaginary, postulated) levels of power in a polytheistic universe. Level 1 is God; level 2 is gods and goddesses (plural, but still powerful); level 3 is channeled spirits of the dead (plural and far less powerful than gods or goddesses, but still able to make contact and convey vital information to living humans); level 4 is remembered or imagined spirits of the dead (plural and powerful only through the human imagination).

In my exploration of these levels in ideological terms, level 1 becomes naive rationalism, the notion that the rational subject controls his (not her) destiny; level 2 becomes more realistic rationalism (in fact I assume that this is where Pym would want to be situated), which recognizes the plurality of rationalist selves and postulates the need for interventions of power (hidden-hand economic theories: intrigues and cabals, government legislation and enforcement, ruling-class theories, etc.; external  power); level 3, the one I’m interested in, postulates a high degree of ideological control of subjects from within, but still recognizes that subjects play active roles in society and never surrender entirely to that control; level 4, then, would be the erasure of the subject that Cronin attributes to me, where in place of subjects we have mere automata, or (to modify Foucault’s term) subject-functions.

Now I thought I had this stuff on-line, but I’ve just been searching through the colloquium pages connected to my “basic” paper and can’t find it; I must have written it after I created the “invisible hands” hypertext for Sean, a month and a half ago. Either that or I just neglected to include it. In any case, the logological formulation that most clearly addresses Cronin’s objection to my approach is the one most relevant to my invisible-hand theories, and I want to quote (this time from the book, which is still very much in progress, sometimes regress):

1. Rational-agent explanations, Smith’s liberal ideal: each agent is master of his or her actional realm, and possesses sufficient knowledge of other such realms to make and carry out decisions for the adequate control of his or her own. Larger event-structures are the product of collective decision-making, which entails rational conversation among individual rational agents, moving eventually toward consensus or majority rule. Wherever rational agents are outvoted by their peers, they are not to be thought of as “surrendering” their will to the collective; rather, they make a rational decision to go along with the majority, because they have determined that it is in their best interests to do so. There is never, in other words, a surrender of will or intentionality to external forces. There are only different fully sovereign expressions of rational intentionality.

2. Conspiracy and ruling-class theories, including hidden-hand explanations: each agent is rational and strives for knowledge-based control, but the plurality of such agents makes total control impossible. More powerful agents, those with better social, financial, and intellectual backing, will therefore tend to rule over less powerful ones. Social Darwinism: the socioeconomic survival of the fittest. Powerful cliques too will conflict, generating a constant jockeying and intriguing for control. When power is wielded overtly, various despotic formations result. When power is wielded covertly, hidden-hand theories come into play.

3. Invisible-hand theories: agents are disaggregated, fragmentary, self-divided. Each agent may see itself as functioning rationally, but in fact is constantly being surprised by ideas and impulses arising out of its own unconscious or semiconscious thought processes and behavior chains. Sometimes the best solutions to difficult problems emerge from a prolonged state of confusion, from stumbling and groping about. Opposed forces within the agent will vie for control over an action, and sometimes the force that sees itself in control will be forced to yield to other internal forces. This model applies both to individual humans and to groups: the decision-making process that leads to the creation of a single translation, for example, will be divided and conflicted whether the translating agent is a single individual or a group of individuals (translator(s), expert helper(s), editor(s), project manager(s), end-user(s), etc.). Neither the individual nor the group should be imagined as any more rationally organized or directed than the other. To the extent that rationalist models remain dominant in such a process, any potential awareness of the disaggregated nature of decision-making must be repressed and reexplained as the product of rationalist consensus or the like. Indeed rationalist and other ideologies should be regarded as disaggregated forces at work within the agent.

4. Posthumanist death-of-the-self theories: any talk of agency or selfhood is a mere semantic echo of once-dominant but now phantomatic ideologies. Agents, in the sense of subjective forces (individuals or groups) that perform actions with intentionality, do not exist; we merely act as if they did.

Here endeth the quote.

My idea, in other words, is to carve out a precarious theoretical niche between conspiracy theories and death-of-the-self or erasure-of-the-subject theories, positing both a high degree of internal/external control and subjectivity, intentionality, the individual’s power to act-and, as Cronin says, to resist. Some measure of freedom, in other words, in an ocean of ideological overdetermination. It’s a hard theoretical case to make, especially in a field of dualisms that want to exclude all such middles by shunting all freedom-arguments over to the rational-liberalism side and all regulation-arguments over to the erasure-of-the-subject side. But it’s a case I’ve been trying to make, with varying success, for about ten years now, not only in The Translator’s Turn and Translation and Taboo but Ring Lardner and the Other and No Less a Man as well.