Last week I posted an announcement of a presentation on Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator” by star deconstructionist critic J. Hillis Miller, and since I loved hearing him talk, I’m posting a brief report. Miller is a remarkably lucid speaker, capable of expressing even the most complex concepts with clarity and communicable understanding. Unfortunately, he spent most of this presentation speaking not about his own views on Benjamin but those of his late colleague Paul de Man. De Man famously lectured on Benjamin at Cornell in 1983, and a transcript of this lecture appears in the posthumous collection of de Man’s writings The Resistance to Theory. This lecture contains de Man’s famous suggestion that we read the “Aufgabe” (task) of the title in the sense of “aufgeben” (to give up) – an idea de Man borrowed from Benjamin scholar Carol Jacobs’s 1975 essay “The Monstrosity of Tranlsation.”
De Man lectured on Benjamin at Yale the same year as his Cornell talk, and the two presentations apparently differ significantly enough that Miller is now planning to publish de Man’s notes for the Yale lecture. Miller had been so taken with this lecture when he first heard it that he asked de Man for a copy he could read, whereupon de Man handed him the spiral notebook containing his notes for the talk – which is still in Miller’s possession. These lecture notes will obviously be a must-read for de Man fans everywhere when they come out next year. I personally, though, would rather listen to J. Hillis Miller’s ideas about Walter Benjamin than Paul de Man’s; in fact, a few pages of my book Foreign Words are devoted to debunking him. Miller, too, pointed out various weaknesses in de Man’s argument – for instance, he sets up the ideas of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Geoffrey Hartman in such a way that he can easily tear them down in the course of his lecture, making them “fall guys” (Miller’s term) for all humanistic/messianic/phenomenological readings of Benjamin. Well, sorry, deconstructionists, but these are exactly the sorts of terms in which Benjamin himself was thinking, so why not read his work that way?
I did ask Miller in the Q&A what he himself would focus on if he were teaching Benjamin’s essay, and he replied that for him the most interesting part is Benjamin’s discussion of “pure language” (die reine Sprache). I couldn’t agree more. This is a huge topic, since there’s so much confusion as to what Benjamin actually means by the term. Miller’s understanding of it is based on thinking about Benjamin’s use of the word “meinen” in the essay to mean “mean” in the sense of “point to.” Miller didn’t call this “intentionality,” but that’s the term I’d use for it (borrowing from G.E.M. Anscombe’s writings on Wittgenstein, whom she translated). In fact, in the universe of Benjamin’s essay, the mode of intentionality is what defines and differentiates languages from one another. Each language has its own individual characteristics, but all languages point to the world of things and ideas, which lies outside them. This mediation (it’s still me talking, not Miller) takes the form of pointing. Pure language, on the other hand, no longer entails mediation of any sort. What is said is what is.
So you might think this pure language sounds pretty handy. I bet you’d like to have some of it around the house for your own use. Well, you’re out of luck, because at this point it exists only as potentiality. For Benjamin, pure language is a form, not an actual active language: it is the intersection of all the world’s individual, human languages – making it, in a sense, post-human. It doesn’t exist yet in actuality, but it will some day, eventually, in the messianically distant future (pace de Man) when the borders separating all the languages of the world from one another have become so blurry that they all merge into one. Translators are the ones doing the blurring, in case you were wondering.
Critical theorist Emily Apter, who was sitting in the audience at Miller’s talk, asked a question about translations from this pure language, but I think the very question misses the point: pure language exists in a post-translation sphere; once it exists, translation will no longer be either necessary or possible. Gayatri Spivak was in the audience as well, but unfortunately she didn’t participate in the discussion, though I’d have loved to know what she was thinking. Apparently a podcast of the talk itself will be made available in the coming days, and I promise to post a link here. Don’t expect to be able to hear the Q&A though: Miller rambled around the auditorium while answering questions, so much of what he said may well not have found its way into the microphone.