Problems of Translation

Nathan of <a href=”http://un-cannyontology.blogspot.com/2009/11/ubersetzung.html”>An Un-canny Ontology</a>, responding to the same posts by Levi Bryant that I cited in <a href=”http://steveshaviro.tumblr.com/post/255685503″>my Tumblr workblog</a>, asks the question: “What exactly happens during translation? What is translation? And why do some things get translated and others do not?” After mulling over this question for some time, Nathan concludes “that objects predict, expect, or anticipate other objects – they recognize potential.”
Now, I am not sure that this is the right answer — or, at the very least, I would argue that it isn’t all of the answer. Nathan makes this claim because, for instance, “for leafs [sic] to translate photons of light into complex sugars, they must recognize the photons of light as photons of light.” I suppose this is true in a sense: leaves will not — cannot — translate just anything into complex sugars. But I don’t see why “recognition” has to be the precondition. If anything, I’d say that the leaf’s “recognition” of the photon is a consequence of, rather than a precondition for, its “translation” of light into sugar. Re-cognition, and indeed any form of cognition, always comes afterwards; it is the error of cogntivists (which we human beings, unavoidably misunderstanding ourselves, tend to be much of the time) to think that cognition is a ground of action, when actually it is a result of action.
I think that the source of this problem, in Nathan’s account, is the following. He says that ” objects first and foremost recognize each other,” precisely because — here paraphrasing Levi, and also to an extent Graham Harman — “objects translate each other, they change each other without encountering each other directly.” But as I’ve said before, my biggest disagreement with both Levi and Graham is that, for me, objects do encounter each other directly. (Whitehead’s actual entities are a bit like Leibniz’s monads, but actual entities touch each other directly, as monads do not. Cf. also Gabriel Tarde, who posits monads that — unlike Leibniz’s — interact with one another directly).
Levi puts it this way:
One of Harman’s core claims is that objects withdraw from one another or never directly encounter one another. This is the Kantian moment in Harman’s ontology. Where Kant holds that we never have direct access to the thing-in-itself, emphasizing the relationship between mind and thing-in-itself, Harman generalizes this thesis to allrelations between things, regardless of whether or not humans are involved. This is precisely why Harman’s ontology, despite being an ontological realism is also anepistemological anti-realism. In my own ontology, I refer to this general feature of things with the concept of “translation”. As Gadamer (and Quine) taught us, every translation is a transformation.  (from this post)
I largely agree with this (as I’ve said before, here and here). I think that it is precisely right to generalize what Kant says about the mind’s encounter with external reality to all interactions between/among objects. However: unlike Levi, I am unwilling to equate Kant’s argument for the cognitive inaccessibility to the thing-in-itself with the thesis that “objects never directly encounter one another.” This is because contact or encounter cannot be reduced to cognitive access. In Kant’s account, we are affected by things-in-themselves, even though we can never know them. This is indeed the source of one of the most-remarked problems with Kant’s thought: he seems to be saying that, in some sense, things-in-themselves cause our perceptions of them, even though he explicitly says that causality is merely phenomenal (i.e. merely produced by the way our minds organize our sensations). There are two ways to resolve this dilemma. One is Hegel’s and Zizek’s way, which absolutizes Mind or Spirit or Subject, by saying that even the inaccessibility of things-in-themselves is in fact posited by the Mind in the first place. Obviously, I find this undesirable. The other alternative — or, more precisely, the move in the opposite direction — consists in distinguishing the way things affect other things from “causality” understood as a Transcendental Category (i.e. roughly, as a form of cognition). Causality, as a cognitive category, isn’t adequate to describe the way that the mind is non-cognitively affected by things-in-themselves. Or — to make the speculative realist generalization — causality, as a cognitive category, isn’t adequate to describe the way that an object affects, or is affected by, another object.This is one way of describing Whitehead’s distinction between “causal efficacy” (what I am calling non-cognitive affectivity) and “presentational immediacy” (which, for Whitehead, means the type of causal connection discussed by Hume and by Kant).
So I agree with Levi and Graham that an object never cognitively grasps any other object in its entirety. (This is what Levi calls epistemological anti-realism). But I disagree with their move of equating this cognitive inaccessibility with the claim that objects never directly encounter one another. My non-vicarious version of ontological realism consists in claiming that objects do directly encounter (or affect) one another — only they do so non-cognitively. This is precisely why our ontology can be realist, even when our epistemology is confessedly anti-realist. The translation that happens in every encounter between objects — i.e. when, in Whitehead’s terms, one object prehends another object — is a direct, but non-cognitive, encounter (in Whitehead’s terms, it is a process of feeling, in which an “actual entity” determines itself by making a “decision” about how it will feel that which moves it to feel. An object functions for another object, Whitehead says, as a “lure for feeling”).
[I know that Levi and Graham won’t agree with my account here, and probably Nathan won’t either. But none of this would have come clear to me — to the extent that it has come clear — if not for my puzzling over what they wrote].

Nathan of An Un-canny Ontology, responding to the same posts by Levi Bryant that I cited in my Tumblr workblog, asks the question: “What exactly happens during translation? What is translation? And why do some things get translated and others do not?” After mulling over this question for some time, Nathan concludes “that objects predict, expect, or anticipate other objects – they recognize potential.”

Now, I am not sure that this is the right answer — or, at the very least, I would argue that it isn’t all of the answer. Nathan makes this claim because, for instance, “for leafs [sic] to translate photons of light into complex sugars, they must recognize the photons of light as photons of light.” I suppose this is true in a sense: leaves will not — cannot — translate just anything into complex sugars. But I don’t see why “recognition” has to be the precondition. If anything, I’d say that the leaf’s “recognition” of the photon is a consequence of, rather than a precondition for, its “translation” of light into sugar. Re-cognition, and indeed any form of cognition, always comes afterwards; it is the error of cogntivists (which we human beings, unavoidably misunderstanding ourselves, tend to be much of the time) to think that cognition is a ground of action, when actually it is a result of action.

I think that the source of this problem, in Nathan’s account, is the following. He says that ” objects first and foremost recognize each other,” precisely because — here paraphrasing Levi, and also to an extent Graham Harman — “objects translate each other, they change each other without encountering each other directly.” But as I’ve said before, my biggest disagreement with both Levi and Graham is that, for me, objects do encounter each other directly. (Whitehead’s actual entities are a bit like Leibniz’s monads, but actual entities touch each other directly, as monads do not. Cf. also Gabriel Tarde, who posits monads that — unlike Leibniz’s — interact with one another directly).

Levi puts it this way:

One of Harman’s core claims is that objects withdraw from one another or never directly encounter one another. This is the Kantian moment in Harman’s ontology. Where Kant holds that we never have direct access to the thing-in-itself, emphasizing the relationship between mind and thing-in-itself, Harman generalizes this thesis to all relations between things, regardless of whether or not humans are involved. This is precisely why Harman’s ontology, despite being an ontological realism is also an epistemological anti-realism. In my own ontology, I refer to this general feature of things with the concept of “translation”. As Gadamer (and Quine) taught us, every translation is a transformation.  (from this post)

I largely agree with this (as I’ve said before, here and here). I think that it is precisely right to generalize what Kant says about the mind’s encounter with external reality to all interactions between/among objects. However: unlike Levi, I am unwilling to equate Kant’s argument for the cognitive inaccessibility to the thing-in-itself with the thesis that “objects never directly encounter one another.” This is because contact or encounter cannot be reduced to cognitive access. In Kant’s account, we are affected by things-in-themselves, even though we can never know them. This is indeed the source of one of the most-remarked problems with Kant’s thought: he seems to be saying that, in some sense, things-in-themselves cause our perceptions of them, even though he explicitly says that causality is merely phenomenal (i.e. merely produced by the way our minds organize our sensations). There are two ways to resolve this dilemma. One is Hegel’s and Zizek’s way, which absolutizes Mind or Spirit or Subject, by saying that even the inaccessibility of things-in-themselves is in fact posited by the Mind in the first place. Obviously, I find this undesirable. The other alternative — or, more precisely, the move in the opposite direction — consists in distinguishing the way things affect other things from “causality” understood as a Transcendental Category (i.e. roughly, as a form of cognition). Causality, as a cognitive category, isn’t adequate to describe the way that the mind is non-cognitively affected by things-in-themselves. Or — to make the speculative realist generalization — causality, as a cognitive category, isn’t adequate to describe the way that an object affects, or is affected by, another object.This is one way of describing Whitehead’s distinction between “causal efficacy” (what I am calling non-cognitive affectivity) and “presentational immediacy” (which, for Whitehead, means the type of causal connection discussed by Hume and by Kant).

So I agree with Levi and Graham that an object never cognitively grasps any other object in its entirety. (This is what Levi calls epistemological anti-realism). But I disagree with their move of equating this cognitive inaccessibility with the claim that objects never directly encounter one another. My non-vicarious version of ontological realism consists in claiming that objects do directly encounter (or affect) one another — only they do so non-cognitively. This is precisely why our ontology can be realist, even when our epistemology is confessedly anti-realist. The translation that happens in every encounter between objects — i.e. when, in Whitehead’s terms, one object prehends another object — is a direct, but non-cognitive, encounter (in Whitehead’s terms, it is a process of feeling, in which an “actual entity” determines itself by making a “decision” about how it will feel that which moves it to feel. An object functions for another object, Whitehead says, as a “lure for feeling”).

[I know that Levi and Graham won’t agree with my account here, and probably Nathan won’t either. But none of this would have come clear to me — to the extent that it has come clear — if not for my puzzling over what they wrote].

8 Responses to “Problems of Translation”

  1. glen says:

    Great post!

    I believe what Nathan has referred to as potential (perhaps Aristotlean) correlates with what Whitehead called intensity. Intensity is not given, however, ie it is not a quality of an object, but manifest through the concrescence of an actual occasion. It only appears as a quality through the process of cognition whereby an image of the process-event is mapped (and back-formed or future-formed) with ‘recognised’ qualities.

    On a tangent, Bourdieu retains this notion of ‘recognition’ in his class-based account of the judgement of taste. One section of my PhD took him to task similar to the way you point out the affective dimension of relationality.

  2. Naxos says:

    Hi Steve,

    I like your posts because they are making a huge difference in respect with the things that Levi & Harmen are trying to embrace for their objectual sake. I have not read any Whitehead and as a bourdieuan i´m rejecting Latour´s preconceived impostures. But your whiteheadian point of view makes a lot of sense to me if i take it in respect with Gregory Bateson´s work, which is also very interesting and profound speaking about processes and differences. For example, like i have said elsewhere: regarding to what Levi constantly refrains about “a difference that makes a difference”, which is a phrase that is meant to be endorsed to Bateson as well, and that is becoming pretty popular in online culture, this difference that makes a difference is of course not an object but, in Bateson´s view: “a bit of information”. Here the idea of ‘a bit’ is referring to a minimal data that passes through a circuit of differenciation that leads to different processes given between systems and their assemblages. So regarding to this notion, we only can have access in our experience to the correspondent idea of things and objects, not merely to the things and objects themselves. In other words, we can only have access to their proper “transformations, impacts and forces” as Bateson puts it, and only experiment the difference that passes through this circuit of differenciation.

    Bateson`s deutero-learning points out to the different levels of experiencing environments so to get adapted not by taking into account the objects itself and their problems, but their ‘class’ or their ‘type’. In this respect, he follows Alfred Korzybski´s views on the relation between abstractions and language, where all we can understand is deferred from reality because the latter is always indirect to itself: to this point, the class or type of problems that we experiment through the different environments is always more in ‘quantity’ than the class or the type of problems that we have already learnt, and this is how the differential circuit gets into differential patterns and intensities that are meant to be ‘equalized’ -i like to say, ‘ionized’- so to be embodied in our experience.

    To my mind there is no way that recognition may be determinant because the impacts and the forces or events that imply the process are always in their course despite the translation that is meant in things or in objects. Processes do not have as their main objective the recognition of the difference that they make because this difference is already eventual ans is already happening. Any recognition or translation would be, if so, an effect or mere consequence of the process that occurs to form, deform, and transform objectual entities so to animate them as a fact. So considering this batesionian point of view, there could be not any sort of causation. So to endorse the question that objects do encounter each other in a very direct way, i dig that this encounter should be understood as a collutio, an eventual collision of differences that affects ‘the being’ of those objects in their transformational-differential process, but this is never to signify that this encounter would not affect the cognitive relation that we have about them even if we do not have access to their objectual existence.

  3. […] of further points. Over at the Pinnochio Theory, Shaviro riffs on Nate’s post and my own, writing: I think that the source of this problem, in Nathan’s account, is the following. He says that ” […]

  4. kvond says:

    Shaviro: “This is indeed the source of one of the most-remarked problems with Kant’s thought: he seems to be saying that, in some sense, things-in-themselves cause our perceptions of them, even though he explicitly says that causality is merely phenomenal (i.e. merely produced by the way our minds organize our sensations).”

    Kvond: Interestingly, the king of the cause, Spinoza, also has this discrepency. In book one of the Ethics he says that ANY concept of order in Nature is an imaginary one, but then goes onto posit that the order and connection of things and ideas is the same (the cornerstone of this philosophy). This has often be attributed to an inconsistency or change of mind, but instead it is a leveraging point of philosophical importance. And your second solution to the dilemma is actually the reason why Spinoza must be read with the skepticism towards scientific knowledge (and towards human knowledge in general). At best, intutions of God, or true ideas can be causally provoked, but insofar as they are about things external to us, they are inadequate.

    There is also one very strong factor which divides Levi and Harman on the mediation of causation, and that is intention. Whereas Harman finds that the very mechanism of causation is grounded in intentionality (impossible without it), Levi finds this impossible (without connected the dots and rejected Harman’s causation out of hand). For Harman all things must have intentionality in order to interact, for Levi only a few things do:

    “I am pretty uncomfortable with Nate’s talk of objects “knowing” each other and “recognizing” each other as I think this implies a degree of intentionality (in the phenomenological sense) that only belongs to a subset of objects (humans, many animals, certain computer systems perhaps, social systems), not all objects.”

    So, in a sense, only Harman’s theory is the only truly mediated one. It is the intentionality buried in the heart of every object that “buffers” it. Levi’s loose position of non-interaction is actually better served by your resolution of the question of direct influence, once Harman’s intentionality has been taken out of the equation.

  5. Craig says:

    Does this theory account for why I translated the Civil War poems written in German by the German-American who commanded the regiment in which my great great grandfather served? I would have been reluctant to translate the poems without a specific request that I do so from someone in a position of authority. But I acted on my own authority as my great great grandfather was the last soldier to die while under that poet general’s command. I don’t know what the law says, but I feel not only entitled to translate and publish those poems, but in some ways obligated to do so. Those poems, it seems, are an integral part of who I am.

  6. Kay says:

    This is because contact or encounter cannot be reduced to cognitive access.

    But cognitive access isn’t something special – or it is but we don’t know why?

    One can safe the idea of “recognition” by avoiding mentalist terms and describe it directly in the form of information processing i.e. using abstract machines. This makes also sense in the case of photosynthesis and the selection of photons out of a spectrum. It doesn’t require intentionality quite literally but it is still purposeful as-if ( replacing intentional creation by evolution which is creation-as-if ). In that case it is the photosynthetic machine which is the result of a prior action. The gap between “original” cognition and re-cognition can be replaced by the gap between two machines.

    I do think the true reason for de-coupling cognition from the things is not that there is a chain of translations and layers and distortions and bad engineering by the dear Lord but simply that there is no way to construct a translation in which photons, the retina and nerve cells are inputs/switches/channels and qualia, impressions or sensations are the output. This just doesn’t work conceptually.

    BTW for Levi the mind does not only have no transparent access to the things in the world but it hasn’t any such access to itself. Everything has to be routed through a layer of sub- or rather non-consciousness. Special privileges for the human ( or his own ) mind are absent in this position.

  7. Kay says:

    Bateson as well, and that is becoming pretty popular in online culture, this difference that makes a difference is of course not an object but, in Bateson´s view: “a bit of information”.

    Bateson ended up with the medieval, alchemist distinction between Pleroma and Creatura leaned from C.G.Jung and not everyone is glad about the anti-physicalist and anti-realist turn of the second generation of cyberneticists who slowly returned to Hegel and avoided informatics and information theory. The latter became a very interesting beast after physicists took it seriously in the last two decades. Pleroma and Creatura do now look like Quantum and Shannon information which are part of physics again.

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