‘TRANS-’: THE PURE PROBLEM OF COMPARISON

            An increasingly present tendency within the task of comparison—a task that can be taken as the fundamental imperative of critical, interpretative work in the humanities—has been the promise of ‘trans‑’ and all the different nouns to which it can be prefixed, as well as the many different categories within which this promise is felt: social, sexual, political, cultural, to name a few, that already encompass and allude to the kind of vast range that this increasingly mobile prefix commands. The extensive reach of this word across experiences on one hand, and intellectual fields of study on the other, indicates the need of an age to express and know itself within a movement that seeks to create new alternatives out of pre-existing forms of knowledge and living. This reach more than anything else suggests the common ground on which ‘trans-’ has made its way into the disparate realms that now elicit its promise: the promise that what is new to our histories may take its place alongside, as well as within, those histories. The question I wish to raise about this promise concerns the extent to which ‘trans-’, by becoming transfixed into the noun that so quickly follows its utterance, has in effect fallen prey to that most radical of fallacies: that the naming of what is new is not the arrival of something new, but rather the form in which the necessity of a criticism of a confining past has all too often been expressed in the form of a project of overcoming that past. In effect, a new identity, another subjectivity has displaced the question that prompted and demanded an answer: the question that insists that ‘trans-’ produces an identifiable result.

            The danger of absorbing the movement initiated by ‘trans-’ into whatever noun it precedes can first be understood from the practice of translation. Embedded in this word and history is a practice that would overcome the singularity of its original text, and do so from the conviction that what is intended by the original can be communicated in some form or another through a language foreign to the singularity of the original. Here, the danger lies in the social, historical, political and institutional forces that will make the translated work stand in the place of the original. This point can be clarified by asking: how many more times will the translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh be read against its original expression, and to what extent will the translation then become the reality of that work? In this example, the questions posed by translating disappear into their outcome, and the singularity of experience within which such an epic first sees light becomes the experience that belongs to the language of not just another nation but of another time. The question of this temporal aspect is magnified in the West’s recurrent and cyclical desire to continue translating Homer but does so without changing the intention that activates translation: an authenticity to the language of the age in which the translation occurs—and the greater the canonicity attributed to a work, the greater the demand for this authenticity.

            The promise of ‘trans-’ allows for the possibility of another time and place for authenticity. Here, it is perhaps Walter Benjamin’s question about authenticity as defining an era that is most pertinent. If ‘trans-’ is to name something, then what it names is what it is absorbed into through a crossing over. ‘Trans‑’ assumes a reality that is already formed and given by what it is has moved away from. In the case of the trans-disciplinary, an example of this renewed authenticity can be discerned as the contours of several disciplines are held in place as the reference points and limits that precipitate a new conjugation. By this means, pieces of knowledge (disciplines) are realigned to produce a knowledge and experience that they cannot produce alone. The preceding reference to Benjamin has its greatest effect here and can be discerned by asking: to what extent does the opening to a trans-disciplinarity (or for that matter other realities introduced under the aegis of ‘trans-’) still draw on a disciplinary authenticity (which it first accepts and then limits) as the condition of a new understanding or reality? Such a trans-disciplinarity then repeats precisely what it would reject, in order to police its claim to have produced whatever knowledge is identified in the name that follows upon the ‘trans-’. This claim rests upon a continuing exercise of comparison between what was (the historic disciplines) and what they are overcome by. An overcoming made in the name of something new that those disciplines could not realize. Their failure to include, foresee, or even entertain this new possibility then becomes the rationale for its authenticity.

            The historical logic that the force of this use of ‘trans-’ repeats is one that sees not only visions of progress (in the sense of overcoming), but also a realignment of the task of comparison away from a simple binary option as a different or third possibility. While this realignment can be a necessary and important introduction of what has been previously an excluded or denied presence, there is also the danger that the terms and conditions in which it is realized can exclude the critical position from which this realignment first emerges. There is also a consequence to be considered: the new formation will maintain, unchanged, the conditions and practices of what it is responding to in order to reify them in a way that establishes a real existence for them rather than a merely ideological existence. In this respect, the disciplinary definitions that precede a trans-discipline practice must have their limit affirmed if there is to be a space in which this trans-discipline practice will be able to operate. In the case of translation, this limit can be understood by the authenticity attributed to a work in its original language—that is the origin’s limit—but as Benjamin remarked, the translation also has a limit that prevents its translation (or claim to significance as a subsequent practice). Here, the limit originally ascribed to the original continues to operate as what guarantees that the translation has significance, but as the history of translation confirms, this significance has a temporal limit since its meaningfulness remains in force, as already noted, only within its own historical context. There is thus, in translation, a recognition that what follows the act of crossing over into a different configuration of language not only remains tied to the reality of its starting point, but seeks to sustain this as a valid practice by being repeated over and over again—hence the absorption of translation into that historical process of seeking yet another foundation in the present for a past that remains incomparable throughout each attempt to find an adequate comparison or expression in the present—a language of the present for a language already confined to the past.

            The historical relation just outlined with respect to translation has all the constraints of every attempt to establish the modern as the result and driving force of our history. ‘Trans‑’ is one instance in which this history is now expressed the form of limits that define past forms of knowledge (not to mention the limits of past translations) and stimulate the desire for a ‘crossing over.’ The danger introduced by this desire is that the critical impulse that first emerges with ‘trans‑’ is blunted in an imitation and repetition of the limit that has safeguarded—in the case of the trans-disciplinary model—the means by which forms of knowledge or experience are given the right to claim a space and time of their own. Through this results the critical moment wherein this right and its claim are absorbed into a subject. It is this moment the ‘trans-’ opens, but does so most forcefully as a critical position in which no subject is at stake. Here, the pure problem of comparison emerges: pure in the sense that like this critical moment, the act of comparison is not reducible to a subject or an object, nor is it immediately subsumed into another alternative—into a hybridity that preserves each of its cultivars, into a third ‘reality’—all of which sustain a mediation of one limited form of knowledge or experience with another in the hope that an always less limited (but still limited) result will emerge. What this means is that what appears as this critical moment is not simply a critique of a knowledge or experience that is seen to be outdated or harmful to the present, but also a resistance to the repeated act of forming alternatives that differ only in content, in the name that follows the ubiquitous ‘trans‑.’

            The question of how to think this critical moment and its embeddedness within the act of comparison still remains. And, above all else, it is a question of what still remains even when the movement introduced by ‘trans-’ is overcome in the name of one experience or another. Here, the task of criticism is to preserve what may be called the pure problem of comparison, that is, why comparison also resists precisely what it invites: that the limit of the compared may be overcome in what it is to be compared. The resistance to such resolution is where the critical intervenes, not as a denial of what went before, but as the moment that neither past nor future can overcome since both owe their significance to this moment of difference which alone has the power to confer significance as the leave taking of a limit, the leave-taking of a ‘trans-’ that has as yet no name as its suffix but which is powerless to prevent the revenge of the limit it momentarily—and only momentarily—suspends.

David S. Ferris
University of Colorado at Boulder

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