Empire and the Regime of Unilateral Translation

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It has always seemed rather symptomatic of a critical, yet largely untheorized, problem in the new praxis of the multitudes that the intellectual project bearing that name, the journal Multitudes, should be undertaken in a single, national-and formerly imperial-language. Certainly, the interesting role of French in relation to global English as both a codification of the division of labor within the putative unity of the West-particularly in relation to the crucial redemptive role ascribed to the aesthetic in the wake of the collapse of the ethical-and the relative autonomy of French vis-à-vis English combined with the intimate proximity between the two (allowing for much faster translation flows between the two languages) must be taken into account in judging the practical effects of this means of communication for the multitudes. From this point of departure, it might be possible to construct a genealogy of the role of the French language as it constitutes something approaching a theoretically-critical meta-language of ostensibly global proportions.

In their collective opus, Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (hereafter abbreviated H&N) recognize that one of the important problems of today’s political struggles are their inability to articulate beyond immediate local concern (except by immediately jumping to a global plane). « There is, » they write, « no common language of struggles that could ‘translate’ the particular language of each into a cosmopolitan language…This points toward an important political task: to construct a new common language…Perhaps this needs to be a new type of communication that functions not on the basis of resemblances but on the basis of differences. »[[Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University, 2000), 57. As true as this may be, not all difference is the same, and we would have to be very careful in our analysis to specify precisely how this difference occurs. H&N seem to be aware of what is at stake in this problem when they remind us that, even as communication needs to be rethought on the basis of difference, « control over linguistic sense and meaning and the networks of communication becomes an ever more central issue for political struggle. »[[Empire, 404.

Accepting the premise advanced by Empire that networks of language constitute a crucial site for the multitudes in the struggle against global Empire, this brief essay explores how the problems of address within the text call forth, or pre-figure, a certain mode of address by critical intellectuals from the non-West. In this sense, both « Empire » and its critics-in this case, the reception of the text by intellectuals in Taiwan-form a fascinating instance of « co-figuration » that demands the attention of those who find in the notion of the multitude a conceptual mobility adequate to the exposure of non-subjective sovereignty and the diagonal lines of flight from capital.

The relation between Taiwan and the conceptual framework deployed by H&N in Empire is hardly fortuitous. To a large extent, H&N’s theorization of the historical development of sovereignty provides a cogent way to understand Taiwan’s long term, anomalous situation and its position within the U.S.-centered global Empire.[[Cf. Jon Solomon, « Taiwan Incorporated: a survey of biopolitics in the sovereign police’s Pacific Theater of Operations, » in Traces: a multilingual series of cultural theory, Vol. 3. (forthcoming, 2003). The redefinition accomplished by H&N of internationalism, dispensing with the limiting framework of political subjectivities based on the normativity of the nation-state without falling into the samson-esque pathos of anarchism or the compensatory catharsis of a so-called « global soul, » is surely one of the enduring contributions of their work. Unfortunately, the critical import of this global, non-(inter)national perspective is often undermined, in Empire, by the absence of a thorough critique of American nationalism. I will not dwell on the reasons why H&N underestimate the importance of this critique, as it is completely conceivable-and indeed imperative-to articulate the growing dialectic between Empire and nationalism within the framework already deployed by Empire. Needless to say, nationalism has never been fundamentally opposed to imperialism, and it is surely within this history that the amalgam of US Imperial Nationalism ought to be understood.

The Taiwanese edition of Empire is prefaced by not one but five essays varying in length from two to approximately twenty pages. The battery of authors solicited to preface the work for readers with access to Chinese on the Taiwanese market is evidently designed to create the representation of a national intelligentsia.[[Pressed for space, I can only list these authors in a note: Wan-ch’ang Hsiao, a politician who formerly held the post of premier; Hsing-ch’ing Wang, a senior journalist and leading liberal critic; Hui-lin Wu, an economist from a government think tank; Yi-chung Ch’en, a defender of « orthodox » leftism from the Academia Sinica (a state-sponsored research center); and Kuan-hsing Chen, a university professor who is also a leading thinker and promoter of academic Cultural Studies, social movements, and pan-asian internationalism. The unusually large number of prefatory introductions by local intellectuals immediately suggests the complex politics of knowledge that accompany the economy, indeed war, of translation (often unilateral) between central and peripheral nationalized languages such as English and Chinese. Needless to say, the complement to this economy of translation (and silence) across the boundary between center and periphery (or again, between West and non-West) is an assumption of the translated text’s heterogeneous opacity in contrast to the homogeneous clarity of « original » communication in the national language. Hence, each of the prefaces takes upon itself the task of « introduction, » devoting more or less time to the process of distillation of Empire’s main arguments. By the time the chronologically-inclined reader has gone through four of these introductions and prepares, once again, to begin yet another, this time by Kuan-hsing Chen, it is virtually impossible not to recall that Chen, years ago in the preface to a Chinese translation of an English-language work on cultural imperialism, qualified the prefatory operation in terms of « disinfection and sterilization. »

There is at this postcolonial conjuncture little to be gained from questioning the latent premise of social pathology and normalization inscribed into such metaphors. Rather, it is more fruitful to read the tirelessly « introductory » quality of this battery of prefaces as the performance of an incantatory repetition done, somewhat as Starhawk has taught, in order to cast the circle. Significantly, the casting of a powerful, tautegorical circle is not performed in order to allow unprecedented mutation and multiplication of the fecund discourses deployed by Empire, but rather to protect the power of the older tautology, nationalism, that runs a continuous cycle between market, territory, blood, and language. The position of the intellectual as privileged guardian of the secret of this circle is well known. Indeed, the question of the empowerment figures prominently in two of the text’s most strident critics, Chen and Wang.
The primary problem that really captures our attention in this limited space here is rather how the prefaces work within the construction of a homolingual mode of address that binds readers and authors in a pact of homogeneous translation. The first, and certainly most obvious, clue to understanding this construction concerns the deployment of the authorial voice, particularly the use of the first person pronoun, including fascinating shifts between singular and plural that we cannot discuss in detail here. Each of the authors, except one whose « we » is implicitly left to an « orthodox » leftism of class analysis, poses the question of how « we » should read Empire. It is not difficult to show that the referent behind the ubiquitous use of « we » is assumed to be the particular, limited community circumscribed by the proper name « Taiwan. »

Language, of course, inevitably becomes a central concern for the prefatory authors. Kuan-hsing Chen refers, without further explanation, to the difference between an « English-language world » and a « Chinese linguistic context. » In reference to the theoretical dispositive of the text and the historical narrative concerning the development of immanentism as a motor of political liberation, Chen observes: « As far as those people living in Chinese-language areas are concerned, although we can comprehend this history intellectually, we are not very capable of experientially incorporating the corporeal and affective content of secularization and its historical transformation… Since we cannot incorporate the historical experience of Euro-American secularization, it is impossible to understand the specificity of Euro-American modernity. »[[Empire, 30. Chen makes a similar argument, based on collective historical experience, about why Europeans cannot understand how the moral constantly impinges upon the public in the United States. Undoubtedly, there is a certain truth in these kinds of highly precipitate formulations. Baudrillard essentially makes the same argument concerning the impossibility of understanding across the Atlantic. What is alarming about these kinds of formulations is not the tendency towards cultural essentialism, which is precisely what gives them their imaginary force, but rather the implicit relation between experience and textuality that guarantees the meaning of certain enunciations will be more transparent for members of the same community. A classic strategy of enunciative desti-nation, in which the object of address is known in advance and pre-figures the meaning of address.

Undoubtedly, the most thoughtful engagement with the text comes from Kuan-hsing Chen, whose reading is attentive not only to the histories of colonialism, imperialism and the Cold War that have impeded or deformed the emergence of local as well as truly international struggles of liberation, but which also recognizes the truly innovative aspects in the text’s identification of a new, non-anthropological figure for bioplitical struggle. However, Chen’s overall evaluation of the text is negative. One of the most serious charges that Chen lays against the authors of Empire concerns their inability to articulate a serious critique of US nationalism. In the aftermath of September 11, Chen concludes that this crucial absence reveals critical flaws in the political disposition of the text as a whole, flaws which become most apparent in the « fiercely hollowed-out » account of the constitution of the multitudes.
In the penultimate section of Chen’s preface, devoted to a discussion of the multitudes, Chen resumes the essential novelty of the concept, both in relation to the advent of immaterial production and in relation to the essentially non-liberative concept of a people. Significantly, Chen mentions that, « in a Chinese linguistic field, it is difficult to find a precise translation for the term, »[[Empire, 36. preferring to leave the term in English, untranslated. He does explain, however, that the term is equivalent to the term « subaltern, » essentially referring to groups that are « weak » (ruo) in a sense relative to the momentum and mobility (shi) of the dominant. Note that the Chinese translators of H&N’s work simply rely on the conventional Sinic term qunzhong that has long served as a conventional equivalent for the « mass. » Certainly, Chen’s refusal to translate the term as « qunzhong-mass » must be seen in light of his recognition of the difference the term « multitudes » marks in relation to the previous political trio of mass, class, and people. We must stress, however, that our concern here is not to determine whether or not Chen has properly understood « the Concept, » but rather to grasp the field of relations in which bodies become knowledgeable. From this perspective, the fact that Chen leaves the term untranslated is not simply orthogonal, it is also actively anti-diagonal, for it effectively interdicts the emergence of a new term, and hence a new articulatory subjectivity, from emerging in Chinese.
For Chen, the constitution of the field of meaning and the dispersal of bodies within it is unquestionably conditioned by historical experience. Of course, Chen has already posited an immanent connection between historical understanding and the present constitution of community-particularly in its linguistico-cultural specificity. Although we must reject the conceptual premises of this argument, it still must be treated in terms of its corporeal opacity. In order to grasp the relations at work here, it is necessary to refer to Chen at length:
« Even if we construe Empire as a diaolgue within leftist thought, we still must see: if historical experience has proved that the unfolding of capitalism and the movements of the working class in different regions throughout the world possess different attributes, the erasure of different historical layers would result not only in a loss of explanatory power, but also a loss of the possibility of discovering both real points of articulation and the principles of the new articulations: by the same token, the Euro-American historical locus that constitutes Empire cannot be separated from the multitude [this term is always in English in the original. The multitude is immanent to Euro-America/postmodernity. If one cannot grasp the specific attributes of the multitude in different regions, the linkages of the multitude as it becomes an anti-imperial subject could only operate in a serpentine-like fashion. This fiercely hollowed-out tendency leaves a reading of the overall theoretical account finally washed out. The fact that the book ends with a discussion of militants in the movements shows that the authors clearly see that the anti-imperial revolutionary movements must pass through linkage, articulation, and organization, and it is precisely here that we return to the problem of historicity: the articulatory subject of the movement does not exist in a vacuum and can no longer accept unified commands issued by the anti-imperial headquarters. If trans-regional linkage is to become possible, the discovery of a common enemy is but a point of departure, the democratic form is but a mediation. If the work of organization is to unleash the desire for liberation, it cannot be de-linked from the knowledges of specific local histories and cultures. This is what I call the necessity of an uninterrupted dialectic between the new internationalism and localism. To the extent that the positions of globalism, its enunciative position, manifest a posture of anti-Empire, it is difficult to empower [in English in the original the subject of resistance immanent to history. »[[Diguo, 39-40.
Considerations of length force us to condense and economize. Clearly, the unsurpassable horizon of historical experience is understood by Chen in a conventional, hermeneutic fashion: community and language are the suppositories of sedimentary accumulation over time. However, since Chen’s whole notion of political meaning is completely relative, based on a calculus of relative positionality and momentum, it is pointless to construe these remarks as simple cultural essentialism. In fact, Chen’s position is quite the opposite, emphasizing absolute motility in the present. The true import of Chen’s position, combining the essentialism of common historical experience with the non-essentialism of radically relative positionality, is rather to be found in the constitution of an unequal linguistic barrier that distinguishes the supposed unities of Chinese and English. The problem of how the communication of the multitudes will create linkages across the debris of subjectivities bound to the violence of national language created in the wake of capital’s deterritorializing advance throughout the supposedly « open » space made by the creation of a line dividing the lawful comity of nations-the West, from the lawlessness of the Rest, is irreducible to the historico-theoretical account of sovereignty and immanence in Empire and its various translation-mutations. From this point of view, we see that Chen’s inability to translate the term « multitude » is primarily performative, and in this sense, not the indication of a negative lack, but rather a positive refusal. Readers of H&N will certainly recognize in this refusal the operation of a political action whose meaning extends to, or really circumambulates, the central problem of transformation in Empire/Empire.
The problem, however, is that this central problem itself can only be perceived as such from the other side of the unilateral regime of translation between Chinese and central, imperial languages (primarily English, but certainly including, in a manner that remains to be specified, French and Italian, for instance). The relation between English and the languages of Taiwan (mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, aboriginal, etc…) is a relation of unilateral translation. Of course, languages are ‘freely’ translated into each other, although it hardly requires a statistical analysis to know that the overwhelming direction of translation is structured by a market that promotes flows of data from Chinese into English and flows of comprehensive technology from English into Chinese. The sense of these flows produce very different kinds of subjectivities. The subjectivities produced in English remain virtually autonomous of what is said in Chinese, while English becomes not just a means of social production, but also the only means of social recognition for Chinese in global Empire. Hence the matrix of difference and control needs to be transformed. Just as H&N say, this means « Knowledge has to become linguistic action and philosophy has to become a real reappropriation of knowledge. »[[Empire, 404. This reappropriation, however, cannot simply be thought along the lines of difference without considering how bodies become knowledgeable in asymmetrical ways under the regime of unilateral translation. Readers of Empire will of course remember that H&N carefully reject theories of biopower that are purely intellectual (taking aim primarily at Italian and French writings from the 1990s) because they overlook the corporeal aspects of social production. In response to these overly intellectualized accounts of biopolitics that focus « almost exclusively on the horizon of language and communication »[[Empire, 29. and hence ignore somatic affect, H&N elaborate the crucial aspects of immaterial labor, particularly the production and manipulation of affects, that will lead to a powerful recognition of the new figure of the collective biopolitical body. In a disciplinary process of language-learning, which necessarily comprises a moment of translation, we could see a subjective technology that defeats the distinction between body and intellect, per se.
It should be clear now that the crucial absence in Empire of a critique of US imperial nationalism is intrinsically related to the biopolitics of language, particularly the regime of translation instituted by global English. What we might simply call the « technologically-assisted amplification of English voice »-provided we understand the word « technology » primarily in terms of subjective formation in the displacement of the political-is one of the most important lacunas for the multitudes in H&N’s work, all the more salient given the fact that H&N’s biopolitical dispositive ought to have led them beyond this lacuna in the first place. Minimally, this would mean that one has to change the notion of address implicitly codified into disciplinary divisions of knowledge within the Human Sciences. The fact that H&N’s work appears in English is not, to borrow their terms, « superstructural, external to production. » Since the end of the Second World War, English serves as the model of complete translatability.[[Cf. « The Technique of the Modern Political Myths, » the penultimate chapter of Ernst Cassirer’s posthumous English work, The Myth of the State (1946), in which the history of rationality against myth that forms the construction of the political in the West is finally grounded in the untranslatability of mythically-oriented Nazi Deutsch and the implicit, full transparency of rational English. However, disciplines that specialize in theoretical production about global issues-we know these disciplines occur in French as well as in English (and here we express some reserve as to the division of labor between the two)-this global theory, then, does not take responsibility, in the Derridean sense of being response-able, for the way this kind of intervention is disseminated into other languages. Ultimately the unilateral privilege enjoyed by English (with its French reserve, or preserve, of radical theory) can only be maintained by institutional discipline that overlooks the need both to engage in the dialogic process of translation, refraction, and retranslation and to not confuse this dialogic process with the construction of a world.
Is it necessary, as H&N think, to create a new « common language » based on the singularity of translation as a mode of social production? If the answer is undoubtedly yes, does this mean that we can dismiss the need also to resituate the site of unilaterality away from theories of difference, and, perhaps even singularity? Otherwise, how can we ever distinguish between « common language » and doctrine? This project minimally means that English cannot be relied upon as a site of commonality and the exteriority of, or exceptionalism granted to, the position of the translator must be reworked. Unless we disrupt the poles of relative positionality visible only when Empire is translated from the central language into the peripheral one (and then subsequently « retranslated, » as we do now, back into the circuits of the central language network), two related results are predictable: on the one hand, Chen’s position will only find expression in the spirals of third world identity politics and/or Chinese linguistico-cultural nationalism; on the other hand, H&N’s global framework will only communicate, in the unilateral regime of translation, the bio-affective form of a directive from the self-styled Party Central of the Imperial Avant-Garde.

Solomon Jon

Maître de conférences à Shanghai Jiaotong University. Il est le traducteur en chinois de La Communauté désœuvrée de Jean-Luc Nancy et le co-éditeur de Translation, Biopolitics, Colonial Difference (Hong Kong University Press, 2006). Il est membre du comité de rédaction de plusieurs revues, dont Multitudes et Traces (États-Unis, Japon, Chine, Corée).