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The Life and Purpose of Text

February 14, 2012

In Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Task of the Translator” there are seemingly incompatible elements.  His notions of afterlife and Pure Language seem most contradictory, with afterlife proposing instability as a component of text, and Pure Language requiring absolute stability from that same text.  However, these concepts not only cohere, but their collaborative function allows a complex picture of how the reader understands, and effects, the original text.

The initial goal is to reinforce potential gaps in Benjamin’s argument for Pure Language using Frege’s argument for the senses and thoughts as the source of meaning.  Frege’s argument will not be used to correct errors in that of Benjamin, but to fill potential gaps.  After this, a second section will detail Benjamin’s explanation of the concepts life and afterlife.  Like the argument for Pure Language, the concepts of life and afterlife contain vagueness.  But unlike the argument for Pure Language, there is no underlying analytic structure to life and afterlife.  This stems from the very different mode of existence inherent to these terms (this too will be explained).  Because of this the ambiguities contained by life and afterlife in “The Task of the Translator” will be explored through other texts that reach similar conclusions; notably those of Derrida and an earlier essay by Benjamin.  Neither of these bears the degree of similarity in content and structure that Frege’s sense does to Pure Language.  Instead, their similar but conflicting conclusions can be used to explore the reasons for, and consequences of, Benjamin’s idea of life and afterlife.

Following the framing of these two concepts, we will be left with two seemingly incompatible ideas from the same author, in the same essay.  The argument for the Pure Language requires a metaphysical realm (here the prefix ‘meta’ is used in its root sense, meaning ‘beyond’ or ‘outside’), stabilized by independence from any one speaker or language.  The afterlife of a work appears to contradict this, suggesting that the meaning of a piece, and the words that compose it, do not entail a single correct “meaning”.  These seemingly contrary ideas can work together in a manner that, although not explicit in “The Task of the Translator”, is complaint with (and perhaps required by) its contents.  As these concepts are merged, the differences between Benjamin and Frege or Derrida will become dramatic; the similarities they shared in leadings premises take each to radically different conclusions.  By following a path so similar to that of his near-contemporaries, he will reach a conclusion bearing remarkably classical intuitions.  Specifically view mimics the combination of rigid truth and interpretive/interactive flexibility Moses Maimonides gave “the books of the prophets” (Maimonides 166).

The consequences of this picture on the interpretation of literary works will be explored. Many of the above concepts were proposed with a broader scope than the literary, with Maimonides being the exception in his narrower focus.  Benjamin’s argument for Pure Language requires a preservation of natural language whose literal composition does not change with time; though not limited to text, it best fits the requirement.  Frege’s argument for sense is built on the spoken examples, but its conclusion applies to text.  Inversely, Benjamin’s concept of life and afterlife can be applied to any piece of art, and perhaps anything that exists in a culture over a period of time.  However, certain objects that exist only as reproduction fail as evidence for life.  For reasons that will become clear as the argument takes place, these components can only be collectively used to address the written word.  Furthermore, the argument does not propose (or even allow) a universal standard for what constitutes “the Literary”.  Instead, the argument predicts what properties a text and its reception possess that lead to the attention and esteem necessary to maintain a relationship to the universality of Pure Language, despite the loss of control over its history and purpose of an afterlife existence.  Benjamin calls “potentially eternal afterlife” this requires “fame” (“The Task of the Translator” 71).  In the case of the written text, a piece in this state could just as easily be called ‘literary cannon’.

Pure Language and the Sense: The Metaphysical Stabilizers of Language

The argument for Pure Language made in “The Task of the Translator” proceeds in three parts, each with its own assumptions and clerical goals.  Only two of these components are needed at this stage: (1) translation is not a transmitting function, and (2) translation serves to express the reciprocal relationship between languages.  These compound premises lead to the following conclusion:

All suprahistorical kinship of languages rests in the intention underlying each language as a whole – an intention which no single language can attain by itself but which is realized only by the totality of their intentions supplementing each other: pure language. (“Translator” 74)

Within the original essay, there is an additional premise situated between the two stated above.  This premise states that the translation of a work is “not so much from its life as from its afterlife” (“Translator” 71).  Although necessary to the larger goal of the essay, this premise does not support the argument for Pure Language.  Instead it acts as foreshadowing; only becoming clear later in the essay.  I address this because the withholding this premise could appear a bad-faith manipulation of the original text, intended to support notions that Pure Language and afterlife appear in some way at odds with each other.  However, the compartmentalization of these concepts has no effect on their compatibility.  To include vague uses of ‘afterlife’ in the argument for Pure Language would not prove compatibility, and full integration of the premises would only affect clarity, increasing the likelihood error through needless complexity.

The argument for Pure Language begins with the claim that it is not productive to consider the receiver during criticism.  Statements relying upon the presupposition of the existence of a reader assert only that such an individual might exist.  The presupposition of this individual was already inherent to the work of art, and therefore the assertion brings nothing new (“Translator” 69).  It is important to be clear what Benjamin is doing here.  He is not claiming that the reader is irrelevant to the work or its reception, but that the reader is so naturally bound with the work that criticism framed by the analysis of this relation yields nothing.  Because the initial work-reader relationship is not an interaction of two distinct entities, the relationship cannot be one of information transmission. A translation can be no more communicative than the original (here and in following uses, the ‘original’ text is the literal collection of words composing a text), therefore the goal of translation cannot be to transmit the literal information of the original.  What then, is the goal of translation?

It is here metaphysical elements enter the theory.  The exact nature of this realm is not made explicit in Benjamin’s essay, but the function the argument demands of this realm is highly  similar (perhaps equivalent) to that of the metaphysical realm Gottlob Frege proposed in “On Sense and Nominatum”.  To be clear, Benjamin does not hold identical views to those Frege held 30 years before.  But, the methodology and structure of their arguments is remarkably similar considering the divergence of their views following this stage.  But, where Benjamin gives the reader an abstract construction on an analytic framework, Frege gives only an explicit account of this framework.  Where Benjamin leaves ambiguity or gaps, Frege’s framework can be used to begin reconstruction.

In Benjamin’s argument, the purpose of a word (or collection of words) is not the thing it names, and the thing received by reader reflects this.  The reader does not simply acquire the literal information content of the piece.  Frege reaches this conclusion through analytic exploration of similar intuitions, also concluding that the meaning of words cannot simply be the thing they name (Frege 217).  He does by showing this view is problematic for statements of identity (i.e. statements asserting two things are identical).  Frege uses Venus as his example (221).  When Venus is in the east, it is the last celestial body to fade before the sun; the Greeks called it Phosphorus, the Morning Star.  When in the west, it is the first visible celestial body at sunset; they then called it Hesperus, the Evening Star.  In fact, both of these stars are Venus.  If the meaning of ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ is the thing they refer to (Venus), than the statement ‘Hesperus is Phosphorus’ means nothing more than ‘Venus is Venus’, a trivial statement.  If we are to avoid this triviality, words cannot simply point to the thing they name.

Where Frege used synonymy, Benjamin used translation, but both came to the same conclusion: words do more than point to corresponding things in the world.  Not only this, but the word does not point to corresponding thoughts in the mind either.  Benjamin does not offer an explicit reason why this cannot be the case, but his larger conclusion requires it be so.  This leaves only Frege’s argument, but the similarities of the propositions preceding and following this step suggests Benjamin has followed the same path.  For Frege, the fact the language functions is in itself strong evidence that meanings are not in the head of the individual.  When a person speaks of Hesperus, we can say that they are correct or incorrect.  This only happens because the listener knows which object the speaker refers to with ‘Hesperus’.  This would be obvious if the word pointed directly at its corresponding thing, but we have already seen this is not the case.  If meaning was instead in the mind of the speaker, we would lose this capacity to identify falsity.  All uses of language, spoken sincerely, would be ‘true’ for the meaning in the speakers mind.  This intuition, though not made explicit, can be found in Benjamin’s essay.  In both pieces, words express something beyond the thoughts of their speakers, but they do not simply refer to their corresponding thing in the world.  In other words, words refer to something neither physical nor mental.

Here the two begin their divergence.  Although the similarities are still strong, the larger differences between their conclusions have subtle roots here.  Most of these differences stem from restrictions Frege places upon his solution which are not shared by Benjamin.  Frege’s solution is that words have a sense.  The name references a sense, which in turn references an actual thing.  The sense is not possessed by any person, but can be accessed by anyone at any time.  Because of this, it resides neither in the minds of people nor in the physical world.  There must be a separate metaphysical realm in which these ‘senses’ exist.  Pictured as such, the problem of identity Frege began with is solved, ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ become two different senses with the same referent, the planet Venus.

Instead of using the potential triviality of identity statements, Benjamin points to the potential triviality of translation.  Because the reader’s involvement with a text is not simply the transmission of information, translation, which requires reading, cannot simply be the re-writing of literal meaning in a new language.  But, translated or original, texts clearly do something. Or to put it in Benjamin’s words, both of these texts have a purpose.  Furthermore, both appear to serve the same purpose.  This purpose is Pure Language, the  metaphysical constant all languages aspire towards.  Although made clearer in Frege, Pure Language and sense both require a metaphysical existence, outside the mind and physical world, where they might be both accessible through thought language, but beyond the control and complete understanding of either.

Following this Frege and Benjamin set off on entirely different projects, and differences in theory increase quickly.  Although Frege’s focus on the singular word may not seem analogous to Benjamin’s focus on the entire text, this is not the cause of their divergence.  Frege’s analytic commitments require step by step building, beginning with the smallest components and fewest assumptions.  In a later essay, “The Thought”, Frege proposes that sentences possess a sense just as words do; the sense of a sentence is called the thought (cite), but its function and manner of existence is the same.  The differences begin actually begin in the end.  Frege’s overarching project is to use the name/sense/thing distinction as the building blocks for a logically perfect language.  Because of this, the sense is prohibited from being illogical, or even false.  Benjamin does not share this goal, and indeed makes no mention of such things.  Unlike Frege, Benjamin accepts that by placing Pure Language in a third realm he has lost the ability to be certain of its characteristics.  Benjamin can only investigate the effects of Pure Language on the tangible.  Understandably this leads to very different conclusions.

To return focus to Benjamin; how is it that Pure Language should be regarded going forward?  In summary: The relationship between language and its purpose lies beyond the realm of human comprehension, in a distinct metaphysical realm.  This purpose is Pure Language.  Translation evidences this by reflecting not the literal content of a piece, but its relation to Pure Language.  The original and the translation are not alike because they express the same literal meaning, but because they express the same relationship to pure language.  Through the act of translation (rather, good translation) this relationship is brought to light.

Life, Afterlife, Control

The notion of the life and afterlife of the work is also of much importance to a complete picture of “The Task of the Translator”.  Afterlife does not share the logical roots of Pure Language, and this section will not proceed as rigidly as the last.  Unlike Pure Language, the concept ‘afterlife’ proposes a manner in which to view the history of a work.  It does not argue that the world exists or functions in any particular way; it instead seeks only to describe the way a members of a culture view themselves and their creations.

To make a semantic distinction:  In Benjamin’s terminology, an object has both ‘history’ and ‘purpose’.  ‘History’ is history in Benjamin’s terminology, but it can be seen as containing one kind of ‘meaning’.  This is the meaning found by receivers: the interpretations of a text at different times.  These interpretations become part of a things history, in addition to the more factual record typically regarded as such.  History can be written or remembered, in addition to persisting through less tangible social constructs.  ‘Purpose’ is also similar to ‘meaning’, but to a different connotation than expressed above.  The purpose is the end of the object, or in other words, the target outcome implicit to the object, which it is meant to attain.  A person has a purpose (i.e. a person’s life means something), but purpose is not limited to sentient things, or their creations.  Because the word ‘meaning’ could intend either ‘history’ or ‘purpose’ it will be avoided here, as it is in Benjamin’s text.

It is also beneficial to disregard notions that life and afterlife are equivalent to biological life and death.  A living person can be their afterlife just as an inanimate object could be in its life.  Furthermore, connotations of nothingness and decay possessed by afterlife should be dismissed.  Though some of similarities to these connotations will emerge, they are reached independently.  For now, give the word only its denotation: “that which comes after life”.

Despite all the particular word uses, Benjamin states that “the idea of life and afterlife in works of art should be regarded with an entirely unmetaphorical objectivity…  The range of life must be determined by history rather than by nature, least of all by such tenuous factors as sensation and soul” (“Translator” 71).  Although the “idea of life and afterlife” proposed here is very different from the traditional view on these concepts, Benjamin’s choice of words is not accidental.  He is proposing an entirely different way of determining what constitutes life and afterlife, which will replace the current use.  This life is determined by history, not biological or spiritual events.  In this view, an object is in its life if it maintains control of its own history.  An object enters begins its afterlife when it ceases to craft a history of its own, and instead becomes a “setting for history” (“Translator” 71).

Unfortunately, Benjamin’s discussion of these concepts in “The Task of the Translator” says little beyond this.  Exactly what entails a “loss of history” is unclear, as are the properties of a thing in its afterlife.  Is an afterlife object unchanging, or could a receiver seize control of its history and change it?  Or, as implied by the phrase “setting for history”, do things in their afterlife become the background on which living things realize themselves?  If so, can things return from this background, hence regaining life?

Insight can be found in Benjamin’s earlier work.  In “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” he expresses similar views, centered on the manner in which reproduction changes the nature of art.  In this essay, he states the “authenticity of a thing is all that is transmissible in it from its origins on, ranging from its physical duration to the historical testimony relating to it” (“The Work of Art” 22).  Here a clear distinction is made between the original work of art (its “physical duration”) and its history.  Benjamin is concerned about the manner in which reproduction affects this relationship.  The reproduction of a work removes the “here and now” of the original (“The Work of Art” 21), and replaces historical testimony.  Instead of memory serving as history, the reproduction becomes history, losing its impact on the viewer by becoming quantifiable and tangible.  Considering this, it is easy to see why Benjamin offers no explicit transition point into the afterlife.  Whether or not a piece is reproduced, and how long the potential reproduction takes to disperse, affects the lifespan of the piece.  As a singular entity it maintains its own history, existing in the “here and now” and only entering the control of others as a “historical testimony” to something they witnessed.  Following sufficient reproduction testimony is unnecessary.  The piece itself enters the control of others, to be shared and acted upon through rampant interpretation, becoming history.

The notion of severance from the original, and that critics and readers possess control over the text, are similar to concepts proposed by Derrida.  However, the goal here differs from the earlier incorporation of Frege.  Frege brought potential clarification through an analytic argument with like content.  Derrida’s argumentative structure is no more formal than Benjamin’s, and his conclusions, though similar in appearance, are quite different.  Clarity here is found through comparison.  The ideas proposed by Derrida at first seem to mimic the ambiguous afterlife, but they have very different implications.

Derrida also believes the written piece enters an altered life after its reception.  Texts hide “from the first comer” and can take centuries to reveal their truth (Dissemination 1697).  Even after centuries of reading, perception of the text is not set.  To engage in criticism is to “embroider” the text, “to follow the given thread” (Dissemination 1697).  Like Benjamin, Derrida proposes that meaning is not stable after creation, and is controlled by the receiver.  Unlike Benjamin, Derrida regards this as an embellishment.  The text is first released with its truth obscured, and through reception a culture will unearth and add to this truth.  Further support for this view is found in “Signature Event Context”, where Derrida points out that the written word becomes detached from its source after its creation.  When a work is written, it is written for a reader absent at the time of writing, and will in turn be read in the absence of the author (Signature 6-7).  Even if the author is present, this does not allow certainty, as the written word lacks the here-and-now tether to its creator that speech and gesture possess (“Limited inc a b c” 30-31).  If the work is detached from its original context, it must possess its own force, its own ‘life’.  The receiver of the text not only deciphers, but adds to its meaning, “reconstituting [the text] too as an organism, indefinitely regenerating its own tissue behind the cutting trace” (Dissemination 1697).  Like Benjamin, the receiver shapes meaning in the text.  But Derrida does not give the receiver the freedom of control Benjamin does.  For Derrida, the receiver must follow a course allowed by the text.  It determined by text itself, and its nature as an independent entity that never fully yield its agency.  Benjamin believes that this agency can be taken from a text, beginning its afterlife.  The receivers control the history of the object by halting its development and building new history upon it.  This process requires that the piece retain no agency.

All this considered, what may we say of afterlife?  It is the state of an object that no longer controls its own history, and instead has the history of others played out upon it.  Development is not impossible for a thing in its afterlife, but the thing itself does not have agency in this process, and the development would come as added history, not purpose.  The technological reproduction of a piece is not explicitly required to be an afterlife object, but it appears to expedite the process.  Finally, there is no explicit reason to forbid the return to life from afterlife, but the framing of the concepts suggests this is quite rare.

The Literary and the Holy

Despite being framed independently in the introduction, the unification of afterlife and Pure Language, as well as the way these ideas merge to offer a picture of the Literary, will happen at once.  With the pieces in place it is easier to provide a clear description of the function and consequences of these components.

Pure Language is the purpose of all language.  Its existence is metaphysical, and necessarily beyond comprehension.  All texts exist as expression of Pure Meaning.  The text is alive as long as it continues to serve this purpose.  With the reception of the text, interpretation begins.  Soon the text ceases to exert force upon the audience, who have obscured its purpose and agency by building their own history over it.  Here the text begins its afterlife, it can remain here indefinitely.

Because translation can only occur after reception, it must take place during the afterlife of the text.  The translator may than engage in good translation or bad translation.  Bad translation looks to the literal meanings of the words in the text, and the history that has been built upon them.  It attempts simply to re-write these things in a new language.  Good translation revives the text, momentarily allowing it to serve its purpose.  The translator allows the text to exert force on him or her, and is thus provided a glimpse of the way the text relates to Pure Language.  Their task is to capture this relationship in a new language, while gaining new insights into Pure Language.  These emerge from their unavoidably flawed attempt to capture this relationship in a language with different properties than their own.  By looking at both texts, original and translated, the translator can gain a greater understanding still, as no one language or text can capture the whole of Pure Language.

The solution to the seeming opposition of Afterlife and Pure Language can be seen already.  The meaning of a text in its afterlife is unstable, but this is not truly the meaning of the text.  It is only an account of the history of that text.  This history is not only separate from Pure Language, but an obstruction of it.  A work only expresses Pure Language while in its life, at which time the meaning of the text is fixed to Pure Language itself.

Considering these things, the works regarded as “literary” and “canonical” are in an extended state of afterlife.  The ample historical body accompanying these works ensures their purpose remains obscured.  However, their persistence over time and cross-language demand will lead to increased translation and re-translation.  These text exist in a peculiar manner: their purpose is the most obscured, but their insight into Pure Language is potentially greatest.

There is one final, cryptic passage that warrants attention.  The final sentence of the essay states, “The interlinear version of the Scriptures is the prototype or ideal of all translation” (“Translator” 82).  Little is said of scripture and the divine through this essay, but there are several brief mentions.  Although he does not identify it as such, Benjamin’s faith requires that Pure Language be a creation of God.  It is beyond human comprehension, and presumably more similar to God than we can understand.  The obscure language of Scripture, which stems from its inherent Divinity, maintains its life through resistance to reception.  Pictured thus, Benjamin’s picture of language becomes an expanded version of Moses Maimonides explanation of how Scripture should be read. For Maimonides, like Benjamin, the word lacks an “inner meaning” (169) but through study allows that “the truth sometimes flashes out at us” (167).


Propositional Account

Benjamin’s Argument for pure language

1)      Art is not concerned with the response of the reader/viewer/listener.

2)      The essential quality of a work of art is not the statement or the imparting of information.  [From p1]

3)      Translation is a mode of representation.

4)      Good translation cannot be a transmitting function.  [from p2, p3]

5)      The Translatability of linguistic creations should be considered even if men cannot translate them (i.e. do not speak the language).  [from p4]

6)      Life: The state of existing with a history of on objects own.

7)      A work that has been assimilated into a culture through reception has lost its life, and begun its afterlife.  [from p6]

8)      Translation requires reception.

9)      The translation is not of the original, but of the afterlife (i.e. reception – not as an isolated event, but as constitutive as the initial creation).  [from p7, p8]

10)  The relationship between life and purpose lies just beyond understanding.

11)  That which lies beyond understanding is sought in a higher sphere. [from 10]

12)  The relationship between the life of language and it’s purpose is to be found on a higher sphere. [from p10, p11]

13)  Languages are, a priori, interrelated in what they want to express.

14)  Translation serves the purpose of expressing the center reciprocal relationship between languages.  [From p3, p4, p12, p13]

15)  No lone thing can express a relationship.

16)  Pure Language can only be found where the intention of multiple languages supplement each other.  I.e. Translation.

∴ all suprahistorical kinship of languages rests in the intention underlying each language as a whole – and intention which no single language can attain by itself but which is realized only by the totality of their intentions supplementing each other: pure language

Frege’s argument for ‘sense’

1)      ‘a=a’ is analytic and a priori.

2)      ‘a’ and ‘b’ are different names for the same object.

3)       ‘a=b’ = ‘a=a’, and is analytic and a priori. [from p1, p2]

4)      ‘a’ and ‘b’ designate  differently. [From p2]

5)      ‘a’ and ‘b’ can posses both a referent and a sense.  The referent is the thing in the world, the sense is the meaning of the name. [From p2, p4]

6)      “The sense of a proper name is known is grasped by everyone who knows the language.”

7)      No individual possesses the sense.

8)      Each sign has a definite sense. [From p1]

9)      Each sense may have multiple signs. [From p4]

10)  In different languages, the same sense is possessed by different expressions. [From p9, p10]

The sense exists outside the physical, mental, or social realm.  It is possessed by no one, but accessible to everyone. [From p6, p7, p10]


Sources Cited

Benjamin, Walter.  “The Task of the Translator.”  Illuminations.  Ed. Hannah Arendt.  Trans. Harry Zohn.  New York: Shocken Books.  Print.

—. “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.” The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media.  Ed. Michael Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Levin.  Trans. Edmond Jephcott and Harry Zohn.  Cambridge:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.  Print.

Derrida, Jacques.  Dissemination. Leitch 1697-1734.

—.  “Limited inc a b c…”  Limited Inc.  Trans. Samuel Weber.  Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988.  Print.

—.  “Signature Event Context.” Limited Inc.  Trans. Samuel Weber.  Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988.  Print.

Frege, Gottlob.  “On Sense and Nominatum.”  Trans. Herbert Feigl.  Martinich 217-229.

—.  “The Thought: a Logical Inquiry.”  Trans. P.T. Geach.  Martinich 36-49.

Leitch, Vencent B., et al. ed.  The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed.  New York: Norton & Company, 2010. Print

Maimonides, Moses.  “The Guide to the Perplexed.”  Trans Schlomo Pines.  Leitch 165-177.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2012 7:42 pm

    My Applied Concepts in Merchandising class is literally every class I’ve ever taken combined into one. What a waste of my time.

  2. March 4, 2012 5:49 am

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  1. the most essential distinction: being content or being contentious « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

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