The appeal of the idiosyncratic

Preparations for teaching have brought me into contact with two new translations: Robert Alter’s rendering of Genesis and Joe Sachs’s version of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Though the underlying texts could not be more different in style and genre, I think that the impulse behind the two translations is similar: to cut through a translation tradition that has impeded understanding, but more than that, has rendered the texts in question boring.

It is a gesture that I find profoundly attractive, a kind of “Protestant principle” of translation. Part of the appeal is probably the individualism of it, which sits well with someone like me, since I flatter myself that I have “charted my own way” without accumulating an approved pedigree. More than that, though, I think the attraction of this kind of radical retranslation is the sense that it’s not just possible to say something new about some of the most commented-upon texts in the Western tradition, but to see them again for the first time.

Genesis, for instance, is obviously one of the most familiar texts in the world to me, and yet Alter’s translation made it feel brand-new. I can’t say I’ve studied Aristotle anywhere near as closely, but the contrast between Sachs’s translation and the jargon-laden near-nonsense I struggled to work through before could not be clearer. I now want to read every translation both authors have done of their respective body of texts — which is especially striking in the case of Sachs, since I’ve previously had no particular interest in Aristotle.

Do others know of similarly iconoclastic translations of other major works?

Defending the right to mediocrity

As many of the people involved in the inspiring protests in Wisconsin are teachers, and as teachers’ unions are the right-wing’s favorite target for union-bashing, the protests have inevitably brought attention to the increasingly toxic American discussion of education. A number of protesters and spokespeople have made arguments rooted in praise of teachers, focusing on their hard work and dedication to students. While this looks like an argument that would have popular appeal, I think  in the long term this kind of argument has had perverse and damaging effects. The more that teachers defend their profession with descriptions of noble self-sacrifice, the more people seem to believe that teachers’ self-sacrifice is a necessary condition of quality of children’s education; and then, of course, the way to improve education is to increase the suffering of teachers. This is, I think, part of the explanation of why, whenever politicians praise teachers, what they are actually saying is “let’s fire all the teachers and pay them less.”

On a slightly more general level, the moral defense of teachers is appealing because it fits with the model of education as salvation which is so popular in America (and increasingly so in the UK). This also probably means that it ends up reinforcing this model, which is unfortunate, because the model is damagingly individualist, in two ways. Continue reading “Defending the right to mediocrity”

A thought on OOO and Aristotle

I have been following Graham Harman’s blog of late, and one of his repeated refrains is that we must recover the Aristotelian concept of “substance” — the common dismissal of the concept among contemporary philosophers is short-sighted and doesn’t adequately reflect the richness, weirdness, and appeal of Aristotle’s notion of “substance.”

Fair enough! It does seem to be the case that many people who would reject a substance metaphysics, myself included, do not engage in detail with Aristotle’s development of the concept of “substance.” There may be a reason for that, however. People have been working through Aristotle’s thought for well over two milennia at this point, including many centuries when he was the single most dominant intellectual influence in both Europe and the Islamic world. Many of the greatest minds in history — Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas, etc. — basically devoted their lives to understanding and applying his philosophy.

If after all that work it turns out that we don’t understand the concept of substance, maybe it’s because it just doesn’t make sense. If people grappled with it for milennia and then the whole thing fell apart after the rise of modern science, maybe it’s because it’s not compatible with what science tells us about nature. It’s not like we just dug up some manuscripts of this guy named Aristotle a few weeks ago, after all. There’s been plenty of time to think things through, and on the question of “substance,” there’s an amazingly broad concensus that Aristotle’s concept is lacking. I don’t see why anyone needs to relitigate this.