will discuss here the idea of public space in relation
to the concept of so-called cultural translation. This
concept has been deployed recently (at the end of the
eighties and in the nineties) within the postmodern -
and especially postcolonial - reflexion to solve some of
its most challenging problems, like the problem of
universality in culture, or the problem of emancipation
in the social and political space which we consider to
be historically - to use Ernesto Laclau' term - beyond
us begin with a very concrete vision concerning the
political and cultural future of the European Union.
In his latest book published this year in Germany, French
philosopher and post-Marxist Etienne Balibar tackles
the problem of a common European culture.
He argues that we cannot say yet what shape such a European
culture would take: whether it would be a mechanical
sum of the national cultures of the EU-members or, more
universalistically, a kind of amalgam charged with completely
there is something we already know: a common European
culture - just like European democracy - needs a common
European public space. And consequently, in order to
function, this common public space needs a common language.
What language should it be? English cannot take this
role, as Balibar believes. For it is both more and less
than a common European language. It is on the one side
a global means of communication, which has countless
different forms, and on the other it is the national
language of particular nation states.
'European language' is not a code but rather a permanently
changing system of different linguistic customs, which
are constantly involved in the process of meeting each
other, in other words: It is a translation (
) it is
the reality of social translation practices."
a nation is always a language community, than Europe
can be imagined, according to this idea, only as a kind
of translation community. Of course, here we immediately
face the next problem: If a national language - as we
all have experienced it in our education, which is always
already national, both in its idea and its institutional
practice has this quality to build and reproduce a
nation (to provide the nation with its identity), then
what is the social or political quality of translation
does not give us the answer to what new kind of political
community the European Union should be developed into.
Instead he suggests a new cultural revolution, which
he expects to solve this problem. This revolution should
begin by abandoning the still dominant concept of education
based on Humboldt's philosophy of language, which ascribes
the crucial role in the process of nation building to
language. Balibar's counter concept - that of the European
language as translation - is not simply a utopia. Balibar
finds it already practically realized, in fact on two
levels: The first is that of the European intellectual
elite in the tradition of rootless, exiled writers and
intellectuals such as Heine, Joyce, Canetti, Conrad,
etc.; the second is the level of different migrants
who occupy the lowest position in the hierarchy of the
European labour market. However, the largest and still
dominant middle-level - that of the monolingual national
school systems - still hasn't been seriously contested
by the concept of translation, emphasizes Balibar.
is particularly interesting about Balibar's vision of
the new European public space being generated out of
the concept of translation, is that he ascribes a genuine
political - actually an emancipatory effect to it.
believes that the concept of translation provides a
model for a new practice of a global exchange of information,
which gives us an opportunity to oppose globalisation
through new forms of cultural resistance and which is
capable of building a kind of counter power beyond hegemonic
identitarian logic, beyond, as Balibar puts it, "the
national language culture".
this point, let me raise the crucial question: how does
translation actually liberate, emancipate, how does
it bring about a "positive" social change?
answering this question I will concentrate on the models
of translation, which charge the notion of translation
with an emancipatory potentiality and a subversive political
and cultural effectiveness in a more direct way. There
are basically two models of this kind. I will call them
the dialectical and the transgressional.
first belongs to the intellectual tradition of the Frankfurt
school and its theoretical reception of psychoanalysis.
is well known that Habermas presents psychoanalysis
as paradigmatic example of a communicative practice,
which has an emancipatory effect. In Erkenntnis
und Interesse he understands repression (Verdrδngung),
one of the most important psychoanalytic concepts, according
to the so-called "excommunication model".
Under the pressure of given social norms some symbols
are expelled or isolated from the sphere of public communication,
for instance those which symbolize, to use a classical
example, erotic feelings of the male child towards his
mother. Habermas also describes the excommunication
of these symbols as a privatisation of their meaning.
The psychoanalytic notion of repression finally becomes
a kind of repressive production of a private language.
task of psychoanalysis is thus to retranslate this private
language used pathologically by patients into the "public
language". In Traumdeutung Freud himself defines the interpretations offered by
psychoanalysis as "translations from a foreign
mode of expression into the one which is known to us".
helps the patients to read the crippled, amputated,
corrupted text of their private language and translate
this distorted mode of expression into the mode of expression
of public communication. However, this also should have
an emancipatory effect. The therapy emancipates the
recollections of the patients that have been blocked
by their illness, so that they become able to reconstruct
their own life history, which means that they become
able to reflect the process of their own formation.
has, of course, a social consequence: a sick man who
has been excluded from the community due to his illness,
comes out of the ghetto of his private language and
becomes a member of the community again, which is always
already a language community or a community generated
through the communication.
the whole process of this reintegration of the excluded
both the return of the excluded symbolical content
into the sphere of public communication and the return
of the excluded individual into the community using
the old Hegelian term of "self-reflexion"
(Selbstreflexion). He identifies this self-reflexion
explicitly with translation: "Translation of the
unconscious into the conscious". It is only (self-)
reflexion as translation that can ultimately sublate
the process of self-reflexion ultimately produces is
transparency: on the one hand, the transparency of one's
own individual existence and on the other, of society
as a whole. Rational transparency is therefore conditio
sine qua non of the public space.
act of self-reflexion as translation is precisely what
brings about the emancipation - the rational reappropriation
of one's own alienated self, which has been repressed
as a result of a mental disorder and in that way made
non-transparent and opaque.
this concept of public space is a genuine dialectical
process. Therefore it has also its own agent, which
can be imagined only in dialectical terms - as the subject
who reappropriates his or her alienated substance.
so-called postmodern and postcolonial discourse, the
concept of translation and its political meaning has
been defined completely differently.
the way we understand historical space and the political
problems that dominate this space has radically changed.
Instead of Habermasian public space, which had its fixed
political function within the nation-state, being the
very essence of its democratic character as well as
a normative generator for the democratic improvement
of the broader, international political community, which
can be imagined only in Kantian terms of a world progressing
and perfecting itself towards the eternal peace, what
we have to deal with in the new postmodern space is
an endless political play of different identities, which
are almost entirely culturally defined.
the historical space shaped only by the mutual relations
of these identities there is no more room for a subject
of history or political change, there is no common public
space that could be understood according to any kind
of universalist logic, there is no fundament of society,
such as the well known Marxist material, economic base
of the social whole, there is no grand narrative of
a universal emancipation, etc.
this context the idea of a public space has also been
transformed. Public space no longer occupies a central
position within society, neither on the level of the
nation-state, nor on the supra- or international level.
When we talk about the importance of public space in
our societies or when we talk about the so-called world
public sphere , we use the term of public space only
in a descriptive way. In reality we cannot ascribe any
essential political meaningto it. Public space, both
in the national as well as in the international context,
is not the site of political change as it once in
a very profound way - used to be. This happens not because
the public space has become somehow weak or because
it has simply lost its importance and political meaning.
It is the very idea of political changethat has disappeared
from our political and historical horizon. It is the
concept of political change we cannot talk about any
more, not simply the loss of the political meaning of
of political change which has become unimaginable
we are talking now of cultural subversion. If public
space should still have some political meaning in that
sense, than it can be defined only in terms of cultural
subversion. However, this is not the old notion of public
space, which used to play the central role in the democratic
reproduction of the old modernist, enlightened, transparent
circumstance also applies to the so-called postcolonial
condition. However, in contrast to Habermas and his
late modernist vision of the social role of public space,
the notion of translation in postcolonial theory is
not directly connected to the concept of public space.
It is now the so-called third space, which plays the
political and social role of public space in a completely
different way. The third space is the space of hybridity,
the space of as Homi Bhabha writes in The
Location of Culture subversion, transgression,
blasphemy, heresy etc. He believes that hybridity
and cultural translation, which he regards as a synonym
for hybridity is in itself politically subversive.
is also the space, where all binary divisions and antagonisms,
typical for modernist political concepts, including
the old opposition between theory and politics, do not
work any more.
of the old dialectical concept of negation, Bhabha talks
about negotiation or translation as the only possible
way to transform the world and bring about something
politically new. In his view, an emancipatory extension
of politics is possible only in the field of cultural
production: "Forms of popular rebellion and mobilization
are often most subversive and transgressive when they
are created through oppositional cultural
the postcolonial concept of cultural translation, public
space loses its autonomous political status. It disappears
as an independent political factor being swallowed by
an enlarged sphere of culture, which has become the
exclusive site of political change. What we are here
dealing with is "the pervasive hegemony of culture
itself as an untranscendable horizon."
feminist philosopher Judith Butler uses Bhabha's concept
of cultural translation to solve one of the most traumatic
problems of postmodern political thought the problem
Butler there is no culture that could claim universal
validity. However, this does not mean that there is
nothing universal in the way we experience our world
today. As she sees it, universality has become the problem
of cross-cultural translation. Butler explains it in
a way similar to the Habermasian "excommunication
model". The effect of universality is produced
by the dynamics of exclusion/inclusion processes.
formula is: Universality can be articulated only in
response to its own excluded outside. What has been
excluded from the existing concept of universality puts
this concept from its own outside under pressure,
for it wants to be accepted and included into the concept.
However, this couldn't happen unless the concept itself
has changed as far as necessary to include the excluded.
This pressure finally leads to a rearticulation of the
existing concept of universality. The process by which
the excluded within universality is readmitted into
the term is what Butler calls translation. Cultural
translation as a "return of the excluded"
is the only promoter of today's democracy. It pushes
its limits, brings about social change and opens new
spaces of emancipation. It does so through the subversive
practices which change everyday social relations.
emphasize again: the way social change is brought about
here is not dialectical. It is transgressive instead.
It doesn't happen as result of clashes between social
antagonisms respectively through the process of negation,
but through a never-ending transgression of the existing
social and cultural limits, through non-violent, democratic,
model describes precisely how the postmodern concept
of public space operates. The fact is that we do not
even need this concept as a separate political agency
understanding of political change has been exposed to
the criticism which is articulated under similar premises
of postmodern and/or postcolonial reflexion and which
operates with the notion of translation as well.
I refer to here is Gayatri Spivak's concept of "strategic
me explaine her concept very briefly: Spivak knows very
well that by means of today's theoretical reflexion
we can radically deconstruct almost every possible identity
and easily disclose its essentialism as being simply
imagined, constructed, etc. However, the politics proper
still works with these essential identities such as
nation for instance as if it does not know they are
only our illusions.
if we want to bring about some real political change,
Spivak suggests I quote "a strategic use of
positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political
is the reason why the concept of "strategic essentialism"
should be understood as a kind of translation too. For
the historical situation we live in articulates itself
in two different languages: that of postmodern anti-essentialist
theory and that of a parallel, old essentialist political
practice. Spivaks concept of "strategic essentialism"
simply admits that there is no direct correspondence
between these two languages they cannot be sublated
in an old dialectical way by a third universal term
which could operate as a dialectical unity of both.
Therefore, the only possible way of a communication
between between them is a kind of translation.
that point I still see a need for the old political
agency of the public space as a site of translation
between, let's say, an actual act of cultural subversion
and old-fashioned power politics. For nations in the
political form of nation-state and its national public
space still exist at least within the political reality
we are dealing with. "Nation-states are to geopolitics
as letters are to an alphabetical articulation,"
writes Spivak. She finds the nation-state still "a
good abstract category for transnational discrimination",
which articulates and makes comprehensible actual power
relations. The existing world order is still articulated
as a system of nation-states.
the solution to the problem brought about by globalization
cannot be found within the single nation state. Therefore
we need something that Spivak calls "transnational
this is the way to deal with our historical situation
in both languages: that of theoretical, anti-essentialist
deconstruction and that of old-fashioned essentialist
power politics. This is the reason why we should also
undestand the notion of "transnational literacy"
as a kind of translation. It suggests that the public
space we are addressing and (re)producing in to use
one example of special interest here our anti-globalization
protests and actions is always already a space of translation.