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Splinters: May 2021 – sallies into the here & now

This month: Lin Shu, author of the Quixote...
The jargon of identity...
Whoever owns the youth: a Reader (Part One)...
On not saying goodbye.
Scandal-mongering and the media

Splinters collective
1 May 2021, 9.30am
Splinters
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Theo Inglis. All rights reserved.

Books.jpg
Books. | Author's image.

Lin Shu, author of the Quixote
by Christos Tombras

The task that Lin Shu had set himself, back in the 1920’s, was to translate Cervantes’ Don Quixote into Classical Chinese. The difficulties were considerable, and Lin Shu dedicated to the task a lot of effort. Apart from the original Spanish text, he consulted two or three different English translations, and employed the help of a number of other Chinese scholars better versed than him in European literature.

I say “better versed”, but we need to read that as a massive understatement. You see, Lin Shu did not speak Spanish. He did not speak English either. In fact, he did not speak any European language at all. Evidently this was not an obstacle for him, because in his life Lin Shu completed and published the translation of more than 180 foreign literary works in classical Chinese. In fact he is considered today to be one of the most influential translators in Chinese history. His work is viewed as respectful, innovative, and imaginative. His translation of David Copperfield, for example, has been praised as the work of a different, and perhaps a better writer than Dickens.

*

Reading about these translating efforts, it is impossible not to be reminded of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, of which I wrote last year. The namesake fictitious twentieth century French writer, you may recall, wanted to re-write Cervantes’ Don Quixote in seventeenth century Spanish. The fact that at the outset of his task he, Pierre Menard, did not speak Spanish at all, was not enough of a deterrent. Moreover, he did not intend to copy Cervantes. He wanted, in effect, to newly re-cast the work as if it was the product of a twentieth century Frenchman writing in Cervantes’ Spanish, a technique that Borges described as the technique of deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution.

*

How did Lin Shu do it? These are his own words, as reported by Wikipedia.

“I have no foreign languages. I cannot pass for a translator without the aid of several gentlemen, who interpret the texts for me. They interpret, and I write down what they interpret. They stop, and I put down my pen. 6,000 words can be produced after a mere four hours' labour. I am most fortunate to have my error-plagued, rough translations kindly accepted by the learned.”

Very kindly indeed. As the Guardian writes, this year marks the 405th anniversary of Cervantes’ death, and the Instituto Cervantes in Shanghai has decided to honour the originality of Lin Shu’s translation of the Quixote by re-translating, in true Borgesian fashion, the whole text into Spanish.

It will be Lin Shu’s book.

*

This past February much confusion and uproar was caused when it was announced that the young acclaimed author Marieke Lukas Rijneveld would be the translator of Amanda Gorman’s poetry into Dutch. Amanda Gorman is the young Black poet whose recital of "The Hill We Climb" was a highlight of Joe Biden’s inauguration in January. Within days of the announcement critical voices started asking questions. Why was it so difficult for the Dutch publisher, they said, to find a translator who would, like Gorman, be a “spoken-word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black”? It did not matter that it was Gorman herself who had chosen Rijneveld, “as a fellow young writer who had also come to fame early”. Critics were unwilling to see it this way, the result being that Rijneveld, also unwilling to participate in such debate, promptly withdrew from the project.

Some days later, a very similar situation was played out again when the Catalan publisher of Gorman’s poetry announced that the translator to whom they had already assigned the job, Victor Orbiols, had been removed because he did not fit the “profile”, of “a woman, young, activist and preferably Black”. These were qualities that Victor Orbiols, a 60-year old Catalan writer and translator, obviously lacked.

*

In January 2020 a major controversy was sparked in America in connection to American Dirt, a book about Mexican migrants, written by Jeanine Cummins. All pre-publication reviews were enthusiastic to say the least and the book was set to be the biggest book of the season even before it came out.

Cue appearances of the writer with Oprah, interviews in all major networks and a major book tour announced to coincide with the roll out.

And then it transpired that even though Cummins was writing about Mexican immigrants, she herself was not a Mexican, or an immigrant. Suddenly the discussion shifted. It was no longer a question of a book and its merits, and became a question about who has the right to write what.

*

This is how Borges brings his story about Pierre Menard to an end.

“Menard has (perhaps unwittingly) enriched the slow and rudimentary art of reading by means of a new technique – the technique of deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution. That technique, requiring infinite patience and concentration, encourages us to read the Odyssey as though it came after the Aeneid, to read Mme. Henri Bachelier's Le jardin du Centaure as though it were written by Mme. Henri Bachelier. This technique fills the calmest books with adventure. Attributing the Imitatio Christi to Louis Ferdinand Céline or James Joyce – is that not sufficient renovation of those faint spiritual admonitions?”

It’s difficult not to pause in awe as we realise how much things have changed in the decades since Borges wrote these lines. One can say that the idea of fallacious attribution is out-of-vogue today – but that would be an understatement of epic proportions, if you allow me the pun.

The fact of the matter appears to be that no-one seems to agree any more on who has the right to write what and about what.

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The jargon of identity
by Samir Gandesha

Mural
Mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco. | Victor Arnautoff. All rights reserved.

It could be argued that contemporary identity politics on right and left responds to what Mark Fisher calls the “slow cancellation of the future,” with a zealous, quasi-religious search for meaning that places critical reason in question.

To understand such a search we might look at Theodor W. Adorno's critique of Martin Heidegger’s “jargon of authenticity.” Adorno argues that the impulse towards authenticity reveals a desire for an elusive form of concreteness in a world increasingly governed by the rule of abstraction.

The young Nietzsche, in On “Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense”, discusses ideal abstractions as a way of conceptualising a given object by extracting the most general predicates of particular examples of that object. And this act of extraction is precisely an act of abstraction.

Adorno suggests that Heidegger’s thought responds in this context to the need generated by a discipline of philosophy that has come to displace the question of the what with that of the how. It has displaced fundamental questions such as the nature of justice or the good life with questions of how philosophical language is itself possible.

Adorno's critique is especially resonant today insofar as he was writing in the context of the West German Wirtschaftswunder or "economic miracle" that saw the country in addition to Japan challenge the global economic dominance of the US. The vaunted Wirtschaftswunder was forerunner to the neo-liberalism that has become hegemonic since the mid-1970s, first in the Anglo-American world and later globally. This was called “ordo-liberalism.”

Ordo-liberalism, according to Werner Bonefeld, aims at a harmonious social order constituted by a free economy or ORDO meaning cosmos. This, Bonefeld explains, is “an essential correspondence, some consonance and adequacy between the presumed essence of Man, the freedom to compete, on the one hand, and the world, the structure of being, on the other. ORDO ‘accords with reason’ in that it combines the nature of man with the social structure.”

The West German social market economy was premised upon the idea that its participants were not (potentially) rebellious workers but rather “entrepreneurs of themselves” (Foucault) who accepted and indeed internalized the rules of the (capitalist) game rather than struggling against them through acts of solidarity. Ordo-liberalism, therefore, created an order in which workers became ever more isolated from one another – an order in which abstraction ruled.

Adorno argues that, in his very attempt to move beyond the abstractions of philosophy, Heidegger re-inscribes such abstraction: he places the existential experience of the unity of time, past, present and future, above a materialist understanding of history. Like Kierkegaard and Husserl before him, Heidegger’s drive towards the concrete misfires and the subject is thrown back on itself in its utter abstractness.

Contemporary identity politics can be seen as responding to the deepening spread of this logic of abstraction in terms of an attempt to grasp the concrete through a recourse to the immediacy of experience untempered by critical reflection. The common denominator, here, on the right and the left is a kind of intellectual anti-intellectualism.

A case could be made that in the return of collective forms of identity there is a certain sort of appeal to supposedly irreducible and singular modes of historical being: a nostalgic view of America when it was “great,” a restoration of the Caliphate in Turkey, Modi's dream of Hindutva and so forth.

Can a very different yet parallel logic be discerned on the left – one that fundamentally short-circuits what Hegel called the critical labour of the negative?

As I’ve noted elsewhere, a certain left-wing authoritarian claim to authenticity can be seen at work within the art world. For example, it can be discerned in the successful campaign to have Communist artist and friend of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Victor Arnautoff’s Washington Mural in San Francisco covered over because it was said to be too deeply upsetting to the Indigenous and African communities it depicts. It is present as well in Hannah Black’s demand that Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till simply entitled Open Casket (2017) be destroyed because the former had no “right” to black suffering.

In other words, as an answer to the domination of the abstract, we see recourse to the criteria of authentic/inauthentic, rather than true/false. (The latter criteria, of course, could be said to only perpetuate the rule of abstraction.) This means that the artwork in its sensuous materiality is placed beyond the purview of experience and rational adjudication, which is to say, criticism. Insofar as the criterion of “authenticity” supplants that of truth, the question of the “who” of the artist displaces the questions of the “what” and the “how” of the objectivity of the artwork itself.

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Whoever owns the youth: a Reader (Part One).
by Leonie Rushforth

Test question.
Test question. | Screenshot: Twitter.

A IS FOR ANTI-ASIAN

A worried Korean American woman recently posted a screenshot of a classroom test her 12 year old sister had sat in school. Multiple choice Q3, reproduced in the image above, offers 3 answers to the question: Which one of these Chinese NORMS is TRUE?

The lesson here is not simply the description of violence designed to frighten children, it is in itself a form of violence.

AND A IS FOR ABSENCE AND BEING AFRAID

A US Department of Education survey published in late March 2021 revealed that 15% of Asian American students were attending school in person full-time in January. That is compared with 49% of white students, 33% of Latino students and 28% of Black students.

B IS FOR BATLEY AND FOR BOMBS

Meanwhile in Batley, UK, schoolchildren in a recent RE lesson on blasphemy were shown the Charlie Hebdo cartoon of the prophet Mohammed wearing a turban designed to look like a bomb. National media showed angry parents gathering outside the school to protest and reported that the teacher concerned was in hiding in fear of his life. Some papers reported the same cartoon had been shown by a different teacher the week before, without protests, and quoted other parents questioning why there was suddenly ‘a fuss’. No one suggested the second appearance of the cartoon in a classroom might feel to an anxious parent like normalization.

Robert Jenrick, the Tory communities secretary, said: “This is a country based on free speech and teachers should be able to tackle difficult and controversial issues in the classroom – and issues should not be censored.”

C IS FOR CRITICAL RACE THEORY

Women and Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, speaking in the House of Commons during Black History Month in October 2020 said there was no place in British classrooms for critical race theory, more often referred to in the UK as institutional racism, and that any teacher presenting white privilege as fact would be breaking the law.

It was voted the year’s best speech on the influential website ConservativeHome.

D IS FOR ‘DEFENSE’

IMG_1781.jpeg
Israel Defense Forces. | Screenshot:Twitter.

E IS FOR ENDORSEMENT

‘Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organizations that take extreme political stances on matters. This is the case even if the material itself is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organization.’ UK Department for Education, September 2020

Examples cited by the Department include ‘a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections.’

F IS FOR THE FUTURE

‘Each generation has the responsibility to teach and train the next generation. You know if we win a few elections, we're still going to be losing unless we win the hearts and minds of our children. This is the battle. Hitler was right on one thing. He said, “Whoever has the youth has the future”. Our children are being propagandized.’

Mary Miller, entering US Congress as a new Republican Congresswoman, January 2021

G IS FOR ‘GET INVOLVED’

‘The Left continues its relentless attack on America’s founding principles – but we can stop them. Run for your school board or city council. Join a local commission. Get involved in your communities. We ALL must do our part to protect and champion American values.’ Mike Pompeo on Twitter

H IS FOR HISTORICAL FACTS

Publisher Pearson has paused distribution of 2 GCSE textbooks on conflict in the Middle East following a report by 2 academics, which found that hundreds of changes to text, maps, photographs and timelines had been made to the 2020-21 edition, leading to the distortion of historical fact in favour of Israel. The changes were made following an intervention by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the organization UK Lawyers for Israel.

I IS FOR INTIFADA IN ‘P IS FOR PALESTINE’

A few years ago in 2017, a New York bookshop stocking a popular children’s book ‘P is for Palestine’ was targeted by Zionists demanding removal of the book from its shelves. It removed the book and issued the following apology:

"We regret that we did not fully appreciate the political or communal ramifications of the children's book ‘P is for Palestine’ by Dr Golbarg Bashi, nor did we anticipate the pain and distress it has caused in our community. We now understand these much better. We oppose terrorism or other forms of violence perpetrated against Israeli civilians during the intifada or thereafter. Any impression from the book to the contrary is not our view. We support Israel's right to exist. We do not endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS)."

In 2014 3,800 Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli strikes on Gaza.

Letter I is for Intifada, defined in the book by a father speaking to his daughter as ‘rising up for what is right’.

J IS FOR A JUST WAY

Debbie Reese, curriculum specialist, speaking to the US National School Boards Association about the teaching of American history: ‘I’d like to see more schools – and more states – mandating that Native curriculum be brought to their students. Montana’s ‘Indian Education for All’ is one example of a state that is educating students in a just way. There’s no excuse for anybody not knowing the names of the Native Nations, whose homeland they stand on, and where the peoples of those nations are today. If school boards asked their pre-k through 12th-grade teachers to begin every lesson on Native peoples with present tense verbs, it could make a difference for all students and people in the school community. Eventually, we won’t have to remind people that we’re here.’

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On not saying goodbye
by Iain Galbraith

1024px-ScotusMinoriten.JPG
Duns Scotus's sarcophagous: "Scotland brought me forth. England sustained me. France taught me. Cologne holds me." | Wikicommons/ www.franziskaner-minoriten.de. Some rights reserved.

Sometimes it seems not a week has passed since an old friend of mine sat at my kitchen table recounting the loss he had sustained. Before I tell the story let me dwell briefly on "sustain". Could it mean keeping your loss in mind? Or keeping hold of what we have lost? Usually it characterizes the sustainer as an endurer, one who grits his or her teeth in the face of affliction and keeps going, someone compelled to submit to distress, woe-begone.

The word itself, from Latin sub + tenere, suggests what happens when loss is sustained: we hold it down. This is an attitude of unbearably private, inconsolable grief. The loss has nowhere else to go. Time stands still. In the years of Covid and Grenfell how sick one gets of public statements of the "hopes and prayers" type, with public figures "reaching out" to "share" a grief that touches their hearts like water on wax! For all their professed empathy, in the very next sentence they are "rolling out" and "ramping up" as if there were no tomorrow. But perhaps I should not be so cynical. For some, there is really is no tomorrow.

The loss sustained by my friend has remained in my mind. It is unforgettable. While bereavements accumulate as one gets older and may elide, his remains clear-cut, apparently resistant to the subtle workings of oblivion. However, this may have less to do with the story itself than with how he got up from the table after telling it and left my flat without saying "goodbye". At the time I felt irritated, shocked even. And for years I felt unaccountably tied to him and to what he had told me. I had listened as a friend should. So why did I feel burdened? Later I asked myself: why do we mark the beginning of an absence so clearly by "taking leave"? Is it to give that absence a comprehensible shape? A contracted and controllable shape? To create a before and after, in other words a past, helping us to maintain a sustainable distance? By not saying goodbye, my friend had somehow turned his loss into my own. Perhaps his burden grew lighter.

For several decades, so he told me, Sheila (not her real name), an accountant in a tax-office, had walked past Duns Scotus's final resting place in Cologne twice a day – on her way to work and home in the afternoon. Her flat, built with paper-thin walls immediately after the war, had belonged to her mother, the only child of her grandmother (the men had died in the wars), and Sheila, another only child, had inherited it. Sheila had left Cologne only on three occasions. As a child during the war she had been evacuated to an isolated "home" in the Eiffel. On the other two occasions, in 1963 and 1976, she went on holiday abroad. Her first holiday took her to Duns, in the Scottish borders. She wanted to see where this famous medieval philosopher from Scotland, buried, some said alive, only a couple of hundred yards from her flat, had come from. Perhaps she would discover why he had come to Cologne.

In Duns nearly everything is the same as in Cologne, she said. The buildings point to the sky, pavements are raised above the road, there are shops, an ancient church, and people look no different from the folk in Cologne. There is no sign of the philosopher. (The cairn and statue were raised shortly after her visit.) I took a bus out of the village and found a pig-farm. I had never seen pigs before. Actually, I had never been in a village before. They are different from Cologne in having ends. You walk and it finishes. I like that.

Two years later she travels to a warmer place where the men stand smoking in groups and the women hurry by. Often they turn after passing each other and speak while walking backwards. It's a town by the sea. You can reach the end by walking for three-quarters of an hour. The road disappears at the horizon beyond the end. She returns to Cologne and buys a television.

In her flat the sitting-room is almost bare. There is a television and a small shelf on the wall above the table where we sit and drink tea. On the shelf is the tea cosy she bought in Duns, salt and pepper, a photograph of me, her son, a telephone and three books. One of the books is about Duns Scotus. She often took me to see his coffin when I was small. The others are a bible, and a telephone directory. She will die in 2005.

I have never visited her grave but I have, in the meantime, twice been to see Duns Scotus's sarcophagus in Cologne. His bones rest in peace in the Minoritenkirche, not far from the main train station, a few minutes from the Rhein. According to Duns Scotus "there is nothing of time but an instant". You walk and it finishes. All this is happening now.

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Scandal-mongering and the media
by Rosemary Bechler

New John Leiws store
The new John Lewis store in Birmingham, UK, 2015. | Wikicommons/Bs0u10e01. Some rights reserved.

John Bercow, former Speaker of the House of Commons was on BBC Radio 4 this bank holiday morning, giving his opinions on the scandal enshrouding the Prime Minister. His main concern was the attack on the “sanctity of scrutiny” in Britain’s Parliament and “the opportunities for holding the government to account, irrespective of what turns up in the polls.”

Jonathan Freedland had devoted his Guardian column to something similar on Friday, under the heading, Scandal upon scandal: the charge sheet that should have felled Johnson years ago. He begins with why the Downing St. refurbishment is a scandal, but moves swiftly on to previous scandals. These include:

– “The post-Grenfell fire safety bill… that threatens ordinary leaseholders with financial ruin… saddling them with the cost of ridding their homes of potentially lethal cladding…”,

– “A coronavirus death toll of 127,500 that remains the highest in Europe, alongside the deepest economic slump in the G7… delaying lockdowns… seeding Covid in nursing homes… decision to keep the borders open…”,

– “The VIP lane for ministers’ pals when the PPE contracts were being doled out… the staggering sum of £37bn committed to a test-and-trace programme that never really worked”…,

– “ The failure to sack Robert Jenrick… Priti Patel… Gavin Williamson… The appointment of Gavin Williamson…”,

– “Johnson’s Brexit protocol that put a border down the Irish sea, even after he’d vowed never to put a border down the Irish sea…”,

– Johnson’s “illegal suspension of parliament, overturned as a violation of fundamental democratic practice by unanimous verdict of the supreme court…”,

– “The lies that led to that moment: the £350m on the side of the bus…”,

– “ His racist musings…”,

– “His firings from the Tory frontbench and the Times newspaper, both times for lying…”.

Interestingly, Freedland has some criticisms too for a system that supports such behaviour:

– “Johnson decides when and whether to investigate himself, making him judge and jury in his own case…”,

– “Not much better is an opposition party that was walloped by him in 2019 and struggles to lay a glove on him now.”

What grabs my attention here is that, faced with such a cornucopeia of potential scandals, Boris Johnson, the Labour Party and the BBC have all chosen to concentrate on the Downing Street refurbishment.

I can quite understand why Boris Johnson made this choice, especially given the fact that all he has had to say so far to funnel controversy in that direction is that he is not going to say anything. Furore! The BBC choice is harder to assess, but must be linked to their strange notion of balance, and may have something to do with their other decision to charge around the country asking “But does anybody really care?” often eliciting the music hall response, ”as long as I’m not paying for it”.

Bercow has really answered this – there are democratic decisions and points of principle that cannot afford to depend on public opinion at any given time in any self-respecting democracy. But on the other hand this should never be taken as an excuse for further disempowering ‘the people’ or keeping them in a benighted state. As we see acutely in this pandemic as never before, people deserve but are far from getting, the highest and best levels of information and wide-ranging UK debate.

As for the main opposition party, I can only concur with Freedland that this is a systemic failure of a democratic system.

But what a different and altogether more accountable and democratic country we would surely be had the Opposition and the BBC picked almost any of the other scandals to major on. Freedland in closing includes the British electorate in his roll-call of systemic failure. But I think these journalists should be looking more closely instead at their own profession.

For example, had the fourth estate ever asked what “the staggering sum of £37bn” to Serco and consultants (which we are paying for) was actually being spent on, given that the mis-named “NHS” test-and-trace programme had “never really worked” – wouldn’t that have given the people more to get their teeth into, and choices to be made that will be important to our grandchildren? Mightn’t we have found out rather more about the plans in store for a world-beating global Britain and its brand new National Health Security Agency? On world press freedom day, we have also to ask, is the fourth estate doing anything like a decent job in embellishing democracies old and new in this glittering new digital age of ours?

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