Contestable Confessions of the Untranslatable: A Worldmaking Project
Bachelor of Arts, Ryerson University, 2018
Presented to Ryerson University and York University
in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of
Master of Arts
in the joint program of
Communication and Culture
Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2020
© Lucy Wowk, 2020
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Contestable Confessions of the Untranslatable: A Worldmaking Project
Master of Arts, 2020
Communication and Culture
Ryerson University and York University
This research-creation project is an experimental translation of Claude Cahun’s book Aveux non avenus (1930), culminating in an artists’ book of image and text documenting the process. This approach suggests an alternative to biographization of the life and work of Cahun. It seeks to unpack how experimental translation, rooted in affect theory, might offer supplemental modes of interpretation and understanding that complicate, rather than render palatable, the complexity of a persons’ life/work. The emergent genre of female philosophical fiction is simultaneously engaged and interrogated—questions of categorization and transgression become central to the process. The arts-based methodology seeks to unpack and understand genre from the inside out. Ultimately, translation is framed as a metaphor for understanding, and worldmaking emerges as vital to processes of reading and writing.
This project would not be possible without Miranda Campbell. Her generosity, attentive care, patience, and sharp insights have shaped my work, and my way of being, for life. I will always be grateful for this. To Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof and Sylwia Chrostowksa for following this project through with diligence and expertise. To Kathleen Pirrie-Adams for guiding me towards theory, and supporting my initial work on Claude Cahun. To Cheryl Thompson, who has taught me so much about what it takes to produce good work. To Jeremy Shtern for pushing me in the right direction.
To the brilliant fiona kenney for all we have shared, and for being with me in the docs. To max cotter for re-igniting my passion, for sharing words, ideas, and late nights, and for their encouragement of unapologetic philosophical rambling. À toutes celles qui m’ont non seulement supportée patiemment dans mes interminables monologues, mais qui ont également offert leur soutien et une inspiration inestimable: Rosalie, Laura, Krystel, et Anouk. Je vous aime. To Lexi for listening patiently, to Mar for always being there, and to Nicole for sharing in the depths of beauty.
Table of Contents
Author’s Declaration for Electronic Submission of a Thesis ii
Table of Contents v
Chapter 1: Context 4
Chapter 2: Process 15
Against Interpretation 16
Fictocriticism as Affective Response 22
Application: Translation as Metaphor 28
Chapter 3: Reflections 37
Contestable Confessions is a creative writing and photographic project, taking the final form of an artist book, displayed in figure 1. The content represents my experience translating surrealist artist Claude Cahun’s 1930 book Aveux non avenus from French to English, from past to present, from their life to my own. Methods are drawn from arts-based research, considering aesthetics and affect within text, language, and image. The book contains fragments of poetry and prose, blending philosophy, fiction, and reality. My attempts at translation thus far have revealed the limitations of my own knowledge of language, forcing a confrontation of the beyond-language, which resides in the realm of affect. I often found myself relying more on intuition and sensation than structure or meaning. The process uncovers layers of unattainability—both linguistically and temporally, as I find my own personal identification with Cahun increasingly complicated. I wonder about the many junctures between Cahun, her writing, myself, and my own writing. This concept attempts to pay homage to Cahun’s lifetime of work, which is itself veiled in surrealism and performance, blurring art and artist, subject and object, text and image. The purpose of this project is twofold. First, it situates Claude Cahun’s work within the context of philosophical inquiry, extending the breadth of the emergent genre of female philosophical fiction beyond constraints of gender, genre, and time. Second, it puts into practice concepts of fictocriticism, and self-portraiture as embodied interpretation via affect theory. Ultimately, I will establish how translation functions as an entry-point into more affective interpretations, and how this might function as a metaphor for understanding. The methodology seeks to unpack and understand female philosophical fiction from the inside out. The embodiment of practice will be a case study of the genre itself.
Figure 1. Photographs of the physical copy of Contestable Confessions.
Translation has become my entry point to understanding and its limitations. Considering art as that which exceeds, the process of translation is necessarily always an excess, both serving to contain and expand an original text. Like writing about art, it can simultaneously extend and limit the work at hand. The process of an experimental performance of translation serves as my personal experiment in interpretation and creation. When reading or writing about a text or an image, one is continuously reanimating, deciphering, and re-articulating something new alongside the object of study. I wonder how putting this notion into practice might function as an extensive metaphor exploring the desire and limitations of knowing, the embodiment of thought, and the fundamental role of aesthetic work. Any imposition of analysis upon the works of another is, in some sense, a translation: that is, a mediation via the author’s perception. My arts-based methodology is a response to this difficulty. Understanding translation as an ethical position and model for interpretation, research, and artistic practice, I hope to offer alternative modes of engaging-with, through, and across texts and artworks. Can an experimental translation project offer alternatives to interpretation?
First, I provide context for the project. Situating the work within the larger framework of existing analysis of Cahun’s work, I justify the need for an alternative approach. The book as object is elaborated as a method for representing hybrid works, both in its imitation of the source text, and in its relevance as an entry point into worldmaking as a concept. Next, I explain my process, which engages in George Steiner’s translation theory, as well as Susan Sontag’s essay Against Interpretation. Steiner’s hermeneutic motion is set into motion, as I have taken liberties in executing his theory of translation in an experimental form. Passages from Contestable Confessions emerge and are unpacked in this second chapter, where I reflect on the possibility and impossibility of a faithful translation, and introduce translation as a metaphor for understanding. Fictocritisicm and affect come into play as alternative modes of interpretation that offer ways of understanding that remedy some of the tensions that arise when interpreting and translating works. The final chapter revisits the concept of female philosophical fiction, with doubt and introspection, taking apart each term forming the genre and reflecting upon their relevance to this project and broader theory.
Chapter 1: Context
My personal identification with Claude Cahun and her work has been a source propelling my academic career for the past three years. This project began as an entry point into her work, striving for something more intimate than description or analysis. My fascination with Cahun begins with identification, a desire or love of the work and her presence in the work. I see something of myself in her, perhaps a feeling of being out of time, outside of gender, of genre, or of stable identity. I first came across Cahun’s work in the second year of my undergraduate degree, in a visual studies course. I was immediately struck by her fiercely tenable, yet equivocal self-presentation. Cahun’s history is compelling: her story is one of resistance, passion, and contradiction. The story of my own project begins with this idealized image of Cahun, which is ghostly and irreducible—nothing but an impossible amalgamate of old photographs and words. Desire and self-recognition are at the core of this project. Cahun’s ambiguous self-depictions compel me to write about and through her. She embodies a refusal and multiplicity of identity, and her work is intricate, and expansive; it is crafted in a way that both represents and denies a ‘self’. The basis of this project is a relationship between myself and my own imaginary of who Claude Cahun might have been, or could be.
Cahun was named Lucy Schwob at birth in 1894. At the age of 15, she changed her name to Claude Cahun, shaved her head, and entered into a lifelong romantic relationship with her step sister, Marcel Moore, who was the daughter of Cahun’s step-mother. They met in their mid-teens and proceeded to form a collaborative partnership for the rest of their lives. Moore had also changed her name, from Suzanne Malherbe, to “Marcel Moore” and also shaved her head as they began their practice together. This partnership has included the production of images, performances, writings, and in later years, an active resistance to German occupation in Jersey, the island situated between England and France. This resistance was rooted in visual production: using design, they varied typefaces, paper types, and languages to create the illusion of multiple authors. Their activism resulted in imprisonment, eventually resulting in Cahun’s death in 1954. The blurring of identity, authorship, and the hybridity of genre in their work, as well as the merging of activism and art reflect an exemplary Surrealist ethos.
That being said, Claude Cahun’s body of work has been interpreted largely through her identity and biographical information. French historian François Leperlier is said to have rediscovered Cahun’s work in the late 1980s and early 1990s, publishing her biography in 1992. Biography is an important genre, and it is a valid approach, though it is not the only way to narrate life. Biographizing is an interpretation of the life of another, concretizing the living breathing wholeness into fixed form in language. Given Cahun’s own approach to self-presentation, in its ambiguity and hybridity, my own impulse is to treat her work with a similar tactic. I resist over-extending the biographical into the analysis of her work as it stands. Cahun’s works have historically been presented as one of the earliest examples of reclaiming the female gaze. She has also been accredited with bending gender beyond the constraints of her own social context and is frequently hailed as a queer feminist icon due to her powerful self-portraits featuring her defiant gaze and shaved head. Siobhan McGurk suggests that because of the parallels between Cahun’s artistic expression and contemporary understandings of gender and sexuality, many interpretations of Cahun’s work have functioned to produce a false narrative of gender in which she is anachronistically deemed an “exceptional visionary” predicting late 20th-century gender/queer theory. McGurk argues that Cahun’s work is, in fact, very much in line with Surrealist themes of the body, gender, and deconstruction of the self, and that the assumption that her work is most widely informed by her gender and sexuality is in fact a limiting notion. Tirza True Latimer has argued that Cahun’s entry into a canon of (female) photography has overshadowed her work as a writer. My project is intended as a partial response to these criticisms, as I shift away from the either/or of Cahun’s identity, and instead position my own multiplicity in relation to the possibility of hers.
This brief introduction into the world of Cahun provides a backdrop to my own project. Beginning with a desire to interpret Cahun’s work via my own writing practice, I end up in a place that reflects more broadly on the various ways we enter and are affected by the works of others, considering how desire and care might always be at the core. Cahun’s practice spans themes of desire, of selfhood, of otherness, of human existence in relation to death, of gender and belonging. These ontological questions become enacted, as she lives them out through muddled representations of herself, performing political resistance in this ever-deceiving mode of presence/absence.
My primary point of entry into Cahun’s world is her 1930 book Aveux non avenus, displayed in figure 2. Roughly translated, the title means ‘confessions that have not yet occurred’ and it has been described by Cahun herself as an anti-memoir. Cahun was inspired by her uncle, Marcel Schwob’s book “Imaginary Lives,” which also sits on the cusp between autobiography and fiction. Aveux non avenus contains fragments of poetry, prose, essays,
Figure 2. Photographs of Aveux non avenus by Claude Cahun.
and dialogues. It blurs philosophy, fiction, and reality, and is interspersed with collaged photographs made in collaboration with Marcel Moore. The text has already been officially translated to English by Susan de Muth in 2008 as “Disavowels”, though de Muth herself says the text is written in a way that is untranslatable. By attempting to translate this text with no expertise in translation, and with an awareness of its untranslatability, I intentionally explore and engage multiple layers of unattainability, blending the experiences of reading, interpreting, translating, and writing into a singular, yet multiple, cyclical process. This concept is an homage to Cahun’s lifetime of work, which is itself veiled in surrealism and performance, blurring art and artist, subject and object, text and image.
My project takes the final form of a book, mirroring Cahun’s original printed work. The book as format reflects themes of non-linearity, materiality, and co-presence, which are echoed in both the original content in Aveux non avenus and in the content of my translation. In Cahun’s text, this appears in the form of interspersed collage containing images of herself as well as handwritten text. Similarly, I include photographs of my own hands holding Aveux non avenus, along with images of my own hand-written translations. To understand the importance of the book as medium, I draw a connection between bookmaking and the concept of worldmaking. Worldmaking is defined by Lauren Berlant as: “much in the mode of dirty talk as of print-mediated representation, [it] is dispersed through incommensurate registers, by definition unrealizable as community or identity.” The concept of “worlding” or “worldmaking” has origins in affect theory and new materialism, and remains intentionally open-ended and vague. Like affect, worldmaking exists at the threshold of language: the incommunicable, the beyond-understanding, the unattainable, inarticulable. The common thread across the varied uses of the term is an opening up of the space between oneself and all that is outside oneself. My interest in worldmaking is understanding the making of a book as inhabiting and enacting theory: it is the ongoing and active production of the self in the world as it relates to others. The book becomes a materialization that conjoins its immaterial origin with its immaterial target: that is, the mind of the writer and the mind of the reader. The book functions within worldmaking as an anchor and propelling force, binding together that which is unrealizable and incommensurate with material presence.
The ‘artist book’, more specifically, has a position within Surrealism where collage, hybridity, book making, manipulation of text, font, and image, come together to reflect principles of fragmented identity. On the subject of Surrealism, André Breton writes: “there exists a spot in the mind from which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the high and the low, the communicable and the incommunicable will cease to appear contradictory.” Aveux non avenus confronts these tensions by blending reality and imagination, and I continue this lineage by combining past and present, the work Cahun and my own, translation and original. The artist book as an object lends itself well to this Surrealist ethos, because it allows for the haptic to emerge, pushing for narrative and non-narrative sequencing to co-exist. The haptic relates to a sense of touch, and is described by Maria Puig de la Bellacasa as holding “promises against the primacy of detached vision, of thinking and knowing that is “in touch” with materiality, touched and touching.” The book materializes both image and text on a single plane, and the sensorial becomes necessary. In its combination of visual and sensory elements, the artist book thus lends itself to the conjoining of sensory experience, where reading, seeing, and touching come together. Though I will not dwell on these written forms of inquiry, I think it is important to recognize the lineage of thought which precedes my own—and that art practices that include hybridity, writing, and book-making might be alternative entry points into this thought process.
Bringing together concepts of bookmaking with worldmaking, there is a parallel with Erin F. Pustarfi’s theorization of Cahun’s work, which she describes as “constructing worlds”. Pustarfi says: “The neutrality of [Cahun’s] identity is partially to have her work respected within the male-dominated field, yet she actively chose to identify herself within her own world, one in between female and male”. Though this may be an overstatement or oversimplification of Cahun’s gender, which remains unknown and impossible to understand, there is merit in acknowledging the book as historically male-dominated. The conflation of identity and practice is questionable, though useful, as Pustarfi puts forth the possibility of gender- and genre-bending in the production of alternative worlds. The book becomes a medium for the articulation of worlds. That being said, I resist the urge to place Cahun directly into the context of worldmaking. Instead, I place my own project within it. This is why I have chosen the project of experimental translation. I bring a part of Cahun’s world into my own, filtering it through my perception, in an attempt to enact worldmaking for myself. I engage in what Berlant and Stewart are gesturing towards when they describe worldmaking as a way of “living through, sensing out, of attuning oneself-to.” My final project reflects an intimacy that stems from material experience. Flipping through pages of Cahun’s Aveux non avenus for days, in dark bars, in parks, translating passages intuitively, by hand. The material underpins the experience, and the sensory is embedded in the text itself. The book is juncture point between people—public and private—a shared project of worldmaking. In the project of bookmaking, I also consider the design as integral in understanding intention and delivery of the sensory within the material.
Design and Imagery:
The format reflects the source of the text, Aveux non avenus, though its layout and organization is tinged by my own design sensibilities. The layout is designed with wide margins and minimal text, intended to enable the reader’s attunement to subtle shifts in language as the translations accumulate. The pacing, which shifts from aphoristic statements to more drawn out, sentimental narrative fragments, was produced intuitively. The result leads the reader through in a meandering; it is an entry-point into my own thought process. A 6”x8” softcover, the intention is for this to be held in the hand with a sense of intimacy in order to engage a haptic experience. Clean, minimal design and a simple typeface come together to enable a focus on the words, images and the readers’ own interpretation
Figure 3. Page 20 of Contestable Confessions, illustrating my hand touching Aveux non avenus.
Images included are stark, representing literal, momentary glimpses into my process. Showing only my hand holding the book (figure 3), the reader is transposed into my perspective. This style contrasts Cahun’s images, which are complex collages produced with Moore. Their complexity reflects the hybridity of the text. My choice to diverge is an interpretation that considers intention: where Cahun includes saturated layering, I pull back allowing for space to inhabit the reader’s mind and fill in gaps with their own perceptions. The similarity is in the resulting the lack of clarity: where she uses obfuscation with density, I move out of focus, an obfuscation that is absence rather than presence. Showing parts of the original text, sometimes visible and sometimes less so, I offer the reader the opportunity to compare the source text to my interpretative translations. By showing a glimpse of the original text, followed by a series of iterations, I gesture towards the multiplicity of meaning, while maintaining a sense of fixity in the original’s validity.
Figure 4. Handwritten passages in Contestable Confessions.
I begin to insert handwritten passages about halfway through the book (figure 4). This reminds the reader of the translation process and focuses attention towards the bodily act of writing by hand. Handwriting leaves physical traces etched onto a page. The flow of thoughts comes in a more liquid state than the mechanical act of typing. These images are interspersed amongst others as a reminder of my presence between the reader and the original text. Together, the form, format, images, and design function in the project of worldmaking, bringing the reader closer to the process in a way that is at once instinctive, subtle, and hopefully visceral.
Style and Genre:
One goal of this project is to interrogate genre itself. This will be taken up further in the third chapter, but as a preliminary framework, I am looking at hybrid genres and styles that enact worldmaking. When it comes to the style of writing, I return to the concept of worldmaking for context. Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects and her collaborative Hundreds with Lauren Berlant are both situated within this style—they are modes of writing which are fragmentary, interweaving the personal, private, public, and ethnographical. This style could be traced back through thinkers such as Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, as well as the French écriture feminine movement. I do not intend to flatten the parallels across the range of texts into a singular genre or form. Instead, they function to inform my choice of producing this project within a lineage that has not largely been established as coherent. I began with the intention to explore the idea of female philosophical fiction, which was an attempt at naming a history of style. An intentionally contestable combination of words/worlds, I first came across it on the back cover of Maria Fusco’s Legend of the Necessary Dreamer, where Chris Kraus described this book as “a new classic of female philosophical fiction.” My initial reaction, one of hesitation and skepticism, ignited a desire to delve deeper into my own disdain. The claim of such a genre suggests the potential for fluidity and hybridity of writing/reading, pushing one to ask such questions as: What is fiction-less philosophy? Can philosophy be without gender? What makes a fiction ‘female’? How might a term such as this be useful? Claude Cahun’s Aveux non avenus serves as a starting point for an inquiry into these questions and this newly named genre, as it blurs distinctions such as male/female, philosophy/fiction, reality/illusion, life/work. As such, it embodies what might be implied when one begins to unpack the term female philosophical fiction, and how this term might be a form of worldmaking.
The inclusion of the qualifier “female” calls for a reaction. It reminds me of my own lack of identification with the word and all it demands, and it represents a biological essentialism that can often be restrictive. A shift in understanding occurred when I read Andrea Long Chu’s controversial book Females, which has reconfigured my relationship to the word and all that stems from its burdens. Long Chu says: “To be female is to let someone else do your desiring for you, at your own expense. This means that femaleness, while it hurts only sometimes, is always bad for you [...] Everyone is female and everyone hates it.” By positioning ‘female’ as the default state for all of humanity, Long Chu decentralizes centuries of the ‘male’ subject of philosophy, history, and culture. This troubles us because it destabilizes: it presents the horror of owning one's desires as universal. That being said, I am pushing against the negative orientation of this claim. I consider the frustration of having one’s desire determined by others as a propelling force that can be oriented towards self-recognition, recognition of others, and ultimately, more empathetic being.
Cahun is said to have owned her desires, at once doing and undoing what it means to be female. Pustarfi says that Cahun’s ambiguous, androgynous presence is what enabled her to “create an identity and a world based on her own desires,” implicating a refusal of established signifiers of gender as a means of achieving and asserting desire. Cahun writes “Neuter is the only gender that invariably suits me.” Rescinding gender could therefore be understood as a means to write from both inside and outside the self. Like gender, writing can enact the dual process of concealing and unconcealing oneself, a simultaneous emptying and filling between an outside source and within. To take what is immaterial (thought/sensation), to translate into words with ink on paper or light on metal, which the reader must then translate back into their own world. The potential limitations to being female are obscured by the assertion of desiring alternative ways of being female, or being more generally. This is worldmaking. It implicates the ontological, phenomenological, existential, and it is an apt use of fiction. I say fiction in an open sense, that is, understanding that elements of fiction pervade all writing and reading, in that they must always pass through the imaginary. In “Writing, Life” Kathleen Stewart says: “a writer first composes the fiction of a world of writing and then turns it into a routine of the self”. This routine of self, which is composed in fictionalized writings about the world outside oneself, is in continuous motion between inside and outside worlds.
This turning inwards, towards a ‘self’, can be seen in the emergence of reflexivity, and positionality across the humanities and social sciences. Rooted in critical race, queer, and feminist theory, this can be seen as a response to an increasing demand for the personal to be accounted for in theory. According to auto-ethnographer Carol Grbich, these methods are found to emphasize the emotive, closing the gap between the reader and the researcher. Grbich associates these methods with the inner emotional world coming into contact with external contexts. She says that auto-ethnography permits more of the self to enter into the text, and that reflexivity allows for movement to occur between “insider to outsider positions”, thus better situating oneself, as writer and researcher, within the culture and broader context. Another response to an increasing demand for presence in research is the emergence of hybrid genres such as fictocriticism, auto-theory, auto-fiction, art writing, and site-writing. These forms have always existed, yet have gained traction as a newly identifiable styles. These methods combine theory, practice, fantasy, reality, desire, politics, and emotion in unexpected ways, and are often characterized by fragmented narratives, citational style, strong sense of emotivity and confessional tendencies. Using these hybrid genres, further informed by theories of affect and the everyday. My project situates itself within lineage of thought spanning from Cahun’s lifetime to my own. These genres share features of multiplicity that are echoed in Cahun’s work and life—a refusal of established genres and resistance toexisting aesthetic form.
Chapter 2: Process
I began the process flipping through the pages of Aveux non avenus, pausing to read passages which drew me in. Settling in to the project I sat at my computer with the book in front of me and I began typing, translating from the beginning of Aveux non avenus. I thought I would attempt to translate the entire book from cover to cover. After a few days it began to feel mechanical. The process shifted when I started to write by hand: it became visceral, physical, and intimate. I found myself enticed by a particular passage and immediately jotting down an initial translation. This felt like a more honest way to go about the translation. Seeing myself as a filter which the text is passing through requires a relinquishing of power to the sensorial and intuitive. I flip to a page that catches my eye, and begin to write. Again, and again. The result is a final text that echoes Cahun’s words with scattered, visceral, and materially-informed attention. The translating itself brought me to confront my own linguistic limitations. I am certain that some of my translations are not only experimental, but inaccurate. At times caught off guard by the conflicting feeling of ‘I understand’ but ‘I cannot put into words’. The bridge between these feelings became experimental and interpretive, loaded with affect.
This brings me to question: What is the relationship between translation and interpretation? The choice to root this project in translation comes from a desire to enter deeper into the work—to go beyond writing-about, and instead to access the text from the inside out. The result is a series of short texts that span translation strategies, performing and undoing the process in cyclical motion. Unpacking what I have done, which exists between interpretation, translation, and inspiration, I want to understand where translation and interpretation come together and come apart. I turn to George Steiner’s seminal text After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, which marks the beginnings of a distinctive philosophy of translation. His hermeneutic motion forms the basis of a large portion of subsequent translation theory. By unpacking his hermeneutic motion of translation, I seek inspiration for new forms of interpretation. This premise responds to Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, where she articulates the ways in which interpretations violate art due to its flattening and reduction of form and content. Using Steiner’s hermeneutics, I am trying to find ways to write about art that resist violation.
Ultimately, I propose that interpretation and translation co-exist in cyclical relation to one another—the place where they overlap and diverge functions as a mutually enforcing dynamic, which necessarily serves and violates art. Their distinction is a matter of degree which exists within the distance from the source to the copy. I will draw on Sontag’s essay Against Interpretation, using parallels between her critique of interpretation and Steiner’s excavation of translation. I compare my own process to those suggested by Steiner. Finally, I turn towards affect theory and fictocriticism as potential responses to the pitfalls of both interpretation and translation as acts of violation upon the work. I frequently turn back to my own practice, reflecting on how these theories come to life.
My process began with a resistance towards interpretation. I wanted to honour the work of Claude Cahun, to produce new writing of my own, and to question the fundamental relation between a source of inspiration and an artist’s practice. Hybrid forms like Cahun’s, especially, require the work of interpretation as they bend established categories of understanding. When it comes to female philosophical fiction there is a particular risk of misreading due to its intentional muddling of genre, which is why Sontag’s critique of interpretation is vital.
Considering the moment of encounter with a given work as sensory experience, Sontag’s argument is that the interpretation of a work reduces the work in an act of violation by ignoring the sensorial and divorcing content from form. Instead, Sontag says: “We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” Where Sontag states that the ability to “make us nervous” is a trait of “real art,” interpretation conversely serves to transform the work into something manageable and comfortable. This is not to say that there is no value in writing that provides descriptions of works for the purpose of accessibility, rather, it calls for alternative acts of interpretation that are “accurate, sharp, and loving.”
My response to the difficulties of interpretation leads to an internal reflection on the purpose of writing about any given work, text, or person. Sontag asks: “What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place?” Ethical interpretation must therefore function in relation to the work in a way that honours without glorification—but what does this look like, materially and formally? Sontag’s vague recommendations suggest a need for each instance of critique or interpretation to be a direct, sensorial, attuned response to the work. There is no possibility of an overarching set of qualities to an ethical interpretation, because each instance is unique. That being said, in my own process, I attempt to centre myself—my own words—in relation to Cahun’s in a way that elevates the original text by expanding its parts, while at the same time acknowledging that in doing so I have created a new work that is also separate from the original. Rather than render the text manageable, I lean in to its inherent discomfort and complicate it further. By obscuring and deviating from Cahun’s text, I avoid its glorification. I understand the role of interpreter as troublesome, folding the trouble into the text itself. I make use of translation theory as a tool to engage with a work from the inside out, resisting the temptation to either usurp or reduce the work to its parts, all the while acknowledging the complicity inherent in the violation of the original work. Furthermore, I try to at once articulate and question Sontag’s claim that “the task of interpretation is virtually one of translation.”
Like Sontag, George Steiner connects (and confounds) interpretation and translation. He draws attention to their etymological linkage: interpret comes from the Latin interpretari, which means to explain, to translate, and interpres is an agent or translator. Translation is rooted in the Latin translatio, composed of trans: “across” and ferre: "to carry" or "to bring”. Translatio is "a carrying across" or "a bringing across”. The origins of these words bring to mind the metaphor of movement across space and time: to carry meaning across an expanse, from one place, mind, or time, to another. Steiner claims that all reading, acting, and editing are processes of translation, of “language out of time.” The key distinction, for me, is the notion of change. Interpretation is understood as creating something new, apart from the original source, whereas translation implies a maintenance of the same. I simplify for my own distinctions: translation is a transference from one language to another, interpretation is a transference from one site to another, and understanding is the transference from one person to another via a shared, third material ‘thing’. That being said, these distinctions are muddy, at best. Extending translation’s conceptual reach into perception itself poses a number of difficulties, primarily the question of maintaining meaning/understanding as an ultimately valuable stability.
Cahun’s Aveux non avenus offers a rich site for engaging with these difficulties—evading stable meaning, interpretation, and translation. The choice to produce an experimental text that mirrors, translates, and interprets the work is a return to the sensorial, putting into practice Sontag’s focus on serving the work of art, rooting interpretation in the senses, and resisting the temptations to sever form from content. Cahun calls into question the ability to understand or to be understood, intentionally confusing the reader by interspersing deeply personal anecdotes with fairy tails and esoteric meanderings—making the fictional virtually indiscernible from the confessional. In engaging with her work, I have practiced a number of Steiner’s proposed models of translation in attempt to highlight and experience the limitations of translation/interpretation.
George Steiner’s After Babel marks the beginnings of a distinctive philosophy of translation. The first chapter is called Understanding as Translation, grounding translation in a lineage that goes deeper than hermeneutics, with a focus in communication itself. He claims that “inside or between languages, human communication equals translation,” equating the distinction between shared languages to the distinction between individual languages. This is a slippery claim, though its merit is that it pushes towards the murky space between individual and collective language, a fundamental question of human understanding. It is a question of degree, though I resist digression, what is important is that translation is used here is being extended into communication and understanding. Steiner says that every interpretation is to some extent a “finite mimesis”. To perceive a work via ones senses necessarily implicates appropriation: a duplicate of the object, or of the idea of the object, is created in the mind of the perceiver. He claims that a given reaction to a work produces “re-enactment of the artists’ original act of creation,” implying that visualizing the work is similar to the making itself. In my own project, I use mimicry explicitly, by reproducing Cahun’s words, internalizing them in their source and producing multiple translations, while increasingly infusing my own perceptions, I take this theory into practice.
Steiner distinguishes three classes of translation: transference, appropriation, and a third, unnamed, “Highest and Last Mode”. Drawing on Goethe, Steiner suggests that these phases/classes occur concurrently. In producing my translation, the first impulse was to strive for literalism: translating a single word at a time, maintaining fidelity to the original. This aligns with what he deems the “Highest and Last Mode” that seeks perfect similarity between the original text and the translation. Following this, I entered the phase of “appropriation through surrogate”, which Steiner calls “faithful but autonomous,” where I began with the literal translation and re-translate it, refining language in English to render it more comprehensible, and more pleasing. Finally, I enacted the phase of “transference” which is more faithful to the translation than to the original, it focuses beyond the literal and instead engages with what might be beneath the surface: a translation of meaning rather than essential language. In any interpretation, there is an attempt to balance meaning and language. Here, the sensorial (feeling, understanding) and the material (words on a page) contend with one another. I take this process a step further, allowing for an outpouring of versions of the original text to flow through me, as I add, subtract, extract, and improvise with my own thoughts that were incited by the text itself. The result is an intentional slippage—a merging of my own voice and Cahun’s, where the reader is left wondering where one ends and the other begins. To take these phases a step further, I wonder if by breaking past the literal stages of translation where fidelity propels intention, into another space run by intuition, there could be a looping back of sorts—a return to the what Steiner calls the ‘mimetic’—that is, to enter a space of creation itself that mirrors the initial writing, and therefore might result in a more insightful translation, one that prioritizes meaning/sensation over material/language. That being said, what is produced is always in a material and linguistic form, with the hope that the sensorial leaves behind its traces.
I will now turn to Steiner’s hermeneutic motion as both instructive of translation and interpretation. I discovered these elements about halfway through my translation project, and in reading them, realized that I had already been engaging with each phase, though in a mixed and cyclical manner. He outlines four elements of this motion as follows:
- Steiner insists that the first motion towards translation is an investment of belief, it ventures a leap that the transfer one is about to attempt “will not be void”. He says that “all understanding, and the demonstrative statement of understanding which is translation, starts with an act of trust”, which can “never be final”. This is an acknowledgement of the limitations of translation and understanding, which requires a trust that it is worthwhile to try, anyway. This is vulnerable because one must give in to the text in the investment of potential meaning.
Trust is always relational, as are understanding, interpretation, and translation. I want to linger on the feeling of vulnerability, suggesting this place of beginning as necessary for ethical engagement with art works, in general. This phase is affectual in the sense that it is precedes and succeeds action. This phase ignites the process of understanding with the desire to understand. Frequent moments of doubt in my work are usually followed by vulnerability, and finally, quelled with trust. Trust is a driving force in the desire to find meaning.
2. Incursive and Extractive
This phase aligns itself with Sontag’s problem of interpretation. Steiner describes the “incursive and extractive” as an act of aggression where the initial vulnerability of trust transforms itself into a desire to consume and reduce the ‘other’ (the text that represents the other). When confronted with the limitation of understanding, the reaction becomes extractive, seeking to invade the text, to “bring it home.” The trusting willingness to risk the loss of meaning is in tension with the frustrated desire to capture the entirety of meaning and transpose it into the target language. I understand this phase in relation to witnessing any beautiful object, and this feeling is heightened the longer you stay with a work. When met with something enticing—that is, something that you trust is rich in meaning—trust can quickly dissipate into a mode of deciphering, a desire to contain, to make last, to unpack the parts of the beautiful object as though in doing so some part of it might be kept. With text, I feel this most acutely when I read a line over again. Perhaps the first time you’ve read something beautiful it hits the senses. It might ignite within you the desire to read it over again. You might memorize the line, transcribing line by line into notebook or loose paper. The words might float through your mind as you fall asleep. It is yours, now. Is it? There is always the lingering sense that this thing, apart from you, is not yours and never will be. This is a source of frustration met with incursive, extractive desire.
Following the violence of extraction, though the text always remains outside of oneself, there is a copy created in one’s own mind which becomes internalized. Steiner argues that this incorporative phase is one in which the translator is transformed by the text. When one seeks the invasion and extraction of the text, one is transformed and at once transforms the text. By taking an art object in, by trusting in its meaning and the potential for its understanding, or by memorizing a line of text, I am transformed and though its autonomy remains it exists now twice, once inside and once outside of myself. It changes my inner world, inevitably altering what I might produce in the future.
4. Compensation or Restitution
Finally comes what Steiner deems the most important phase, where one engages in the “enactment of reciprocity in order to restore balance”. To address the imbalance, where one has “either taken too much or too little,” compensating with an ideal which is “faithful,” reaching for an “exchange without loss.” This phase recognizes the translator’s ultimate goal, which is to produce a ‘good’ translation. Where the incursive leans towards mutilation of the text, and the incorporative risks glorification of the text, this phase requires the translator to step back and adjust what has been produced with an awareness of their own imbalance. The final iteration of my own project attempts restitution by leaving traces of imbalance—instead of trying to correct those areas where I may have swayed towards harm or over-indulgence, I leave the multiple versions of my translations on the page for the reader to encounter and interpret anew.
Steiner concludes his hermeneutic motion by summarizing as follows: “Translation [is a] hermeneutic of trust (élancement), of penetration, of embodiment, and of restitution.” I suggest that the hermeneutics of translation, as outlined by Steiner, might offer an alternative to interpretive acts. Writing-about any thing or anyone. What is the use of a hermeneutics of translation? Hermeneutics is a theory of interpretation—in other words, Steiner is suggesting a more interpretive approach to translation. Taking this a step further, I propose an interpretive approach to translation as a site of reconfiguration of interpretation and hermeneutics, understanding these terms as interrelated. As with the process of translation, the moment a text enters one’s mind it is both altered and altering—an understanding of interpretation, once applied to translation, modifies both processes. This endless return might cancel itself out. Or, one could take the cyclicality as reflective of the hybrid genres I am most interested in exploring.
Fictocriticism as Affective Response
The problem of translation and interpretation, as articulated by Sontag and Steiner, is one that positions the writer as a mediator of meaning struggling between competing forces—their own intention, the communicability to an audience, and the work/author of an initial object/text. As with interpretation and translation, literary criticism must answer to both source and target ‘others’ while being mediated by a ‘self’. These negotiations happen mostly outside of language, or in the space occupied by what is in between the writer’s understanding of each language. To translate, a complex understanding of both the target and the source language is required, though the act itself is articulated in the minutia of acts of writing. The expansive understanding is crystallized in individual moments, passing through a liminal space that could be described as affect.
Similarly, literary criticism, which is a more specified form of interpretation, must position itself between the language of literature and the language of critique—these imagined distinctions perhaps more difficult to differentiate than in translation where each language is clearly discernible. This is why translation becomes useful as a tool to reflect upon literary criticism; it is a concentrated form of this difficult mediation. In Acts of Literature, Jacques Derrida calls for criticism that “belong(s) to literature while deforming its limits,” indicating that though there may be distinctions in genre, writing is writing. The imagined distinction of criticism from literature might usurp literature’s enchanting role, while undermining the critics own potential for writing on their own terms. Though not explicitly, Steiner, Sontag, and Derrida all gesture towards the affectual—a liminality where negotiations between language and feeling, or content and form, occur. Translation, interpretation, and the genre of literary criticism all struggle to find their footing between these opposing demands.
The emerging genre of fictocriticism offers a response to this problem by encompassing its own limitation. It is a form of criticism that acknowledges its own position within literature. In the words of fictocritical scholar Stephen Muecke, “The whole artifice of literary criticism was built up in order to do one thing really; to unmask the secrets of art. And the fiction was always there re-enchanting the world by put-on on the beautiful masks again and again.” Fictocriticism could be a response to Derrida’s call for criticism that takes part in its literary capacity, and it can also offer solace to the pitfalls of interpretation and translation. Muecke’s use of the word artifice is significant. Artifice is composed of art+facera, which means to make art. In this statement, Muecke provides a criticism of literary criticism itself, with the intonation of 'artifice' in its potential for negative deceit, though in doing so at once claims its role as an art form itself. To dismiss interpretation or critique as separate from making is to forget that there is always an art to writing. Fictocritism acknowledges within itself that all writing always contains an element of fiction, of artifice, of art making, whether intended or not.
Where Steiner’s hermeneutic motion is a process wherein one is continuously attempting to peel back layers of meaning, to get at an imagined core, only to be met with yet another layer of unattainability, fictocriticism allows for these contradictions to come to the forefront. These ideas of layering and contradiction can also be found in Cahun’s work, where the mask appears both literally and figuratively throughout her photographs and writing. The metaphor of the mask is useful in positioning any fixation of meaning as potentially unstable, while acknowledging the importance of its fixation. It can be an intentional presentation of self, while maintaining distance allowing for a presence that is veiled. This is why I turn to fictocriticism, a genre which embodies ideas of masking and multiplicity, as a potential response to the pitfalls of interpretation, translation, and criticism. Rooted in affect theory and auto-ethnography, fictocriticism is a rich emergent genre that informs my conceptualization of female philosophical fiction. My own work differs from fictocritritism in its insistence on process and affect, focusing on the making itself, rather than on what is made. By drawing from both the hermeneutic motion and fictocriticism, I suggest that intertwining these processes might work towards interpretation that is rooted in affect that finds itself outside the either/or of objectivity and subjectivity, or violation and glorification.
Affect implies something beyond emotion and sensation. The word directs us outside language, implicating the need to sense the world rather than simply decoding its elements into a concrete system. Affect theory originates in psychology, though has expanded in queer and feminist theories since the 1990s. Lauren Berlant says that affect is situated in concentrated forms in spaces that are corporeal, intimate, and shared, describing her own use of affect as “theory-in-practice.” In their work The Hundreds, Kathleen Stewart and Lauren Berlant, refocus theory towards practice in a writing process that resists reducing experience to theory. By writing scenes, and writing through living rather than describing, they are able to tap into writing that is affective, rather than purely textual. They write around the theory, developing a field of imaginaries that embody their perceptions via highly saturated, mundane, emotive scenes. Styles and fields such as queer phenomenology and écriture feminine offer similar responses, or counter-responses, to overly prescriptive and objective styles of writing and researching that are attributed to restrictive canons, while resisting the fall into self-indulgent sentimentalism. Auto-ethnographic and poetic methods demonstrate a desire for change in research, emphasizing the importance of emotions, feelings, self-reflection, and empathy. In the context of critique and interpretation via translation, I apply this lineage of thought in my use of Steiner’s hermeneutic motion. Trust, violation, embodiment, and restitution might be understood as recursive elements of both understanding and articulation, or the place where one’s inner world encounters another, outside world—this is inherently affectual and relational. Fictocriticism is rooted in affect and reflects these processes.
In her essay Fictocriticism, Affect, Mimesis: Engendering Differences, Anna Gibbs originates ‘fictocriticism’ in the aforementioned feminist writing practices that engage experimental, hybrid style. Combining the complexities of self-reflection and the necessity of clear articulation, Gibbs insists upon the importance of reversals, affect, and mimicry. Because all writing is a form of imitation—in the sense that it is learned by internalization and repetition—it becomes important to actively attune oneself to this process, alongside one’s felt responses. Fictocriticism is often fragmentary and resists the demand for a unification. By resisting closure, and insisting on the inclusion of parts that may not form a coherent whole, the result leaves space for interpretation. These ambiguities suggest a form of critical writing that responds to Sontag’s call for more feeling, allowing for that which is sensed to live within a more concrete critical style. Though an approach that emphasizes feeling could, one might argue, result in a purely sentimental text lacking substance, there is an insistence on maintaining a formal style that adheres to strict stylistic choices that assert themselves on their own terms. In translation, one becomes acutely attuned to the subtleties of someone else’s words. The distance between one language and another is useful as it opens mimicry to repetition with difference. Writing becomes re-writing, and it changes how words materialize. Translation is always an act of mimicry, in many senses, though it also makes use of difference: both difference and repetition take on new registers of intensity. Using the strategy of mimicry combined with reversals, affect, and deviations, I have tried to incorporate these tensions in my project by including iterations of translations and my own interpretations without discernment. The result is an intentional transparency to my own thought and process.
The expansive heterogeneity of the genre I have begun to describe risks an overextension—how can a genre be defined by its indefinite qualities? It is a matter of the feeling; when this style is encountered it is sensed. More exposure to a range of texts within this loose category accumulate to form a configuration of sorts, an amalgamation of understanding. This can likely be said of most categorizations, where the purpose becomes a willingness to capture an idea that can be quantified. Similar to the desire to unpack meaning in a text, or to affix an accurate translation, categorization of genre passes through stages of trust, extraction, embodiment, and restitution. These internal processes occur whether or not one is aware of them, and the attention paid produces some internal tensions, further propelling a desire to know, to be known, to understand and to be understood.
Fictocriticism offers alternatives to traditional translation theory and invites the possibility for expansive translation without sacrificing the importance of mutual understanding. The idea of mistranslation has been theorized as having the potential to be a rich site for the re-definition, innovation, and renovation of literatures. Translation scholar and writer Sergio Gabriel Waisman brings together ideas of mistranslation, misreadings, and what he calls “creative infidelities” that blur fiction and reality, suggesting that these modes all carry the power to shift existing limitations and create more expansively. These strategies of infidelity are apparent in queer theory—such as José Esteban Muños’ disidentification and Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick’s paranoid reading. Expansive, transgressive creation thus becomes a form of resistance that originates from the feeling of being outside of a canon, where the very act of engaging with a given field becomes performative.
These strategies evoke what Kathleen Stewart says when she describes writing as “a way of breathing into the noise, its highest pleasure like a deep breath exhaled”. There is a sense of desperation, of creation borne of need—though not to glorify struggle as imperative to making, rather, to suggest that genres such as fictocriticism make coherent certain strategies that straddle being at once inside and outside existing categorization as a mode of survival. Beyond the substance of this quote, I would like to make note of its beauty—the grace of the exhale is felt when one encounters the line of text. If you write, this sensation may be familiar. This is what I mean when claiming that female philosophical fiction is felt rather than defined: it is sensed rather than known. It is writing that does not shy away from sensorial pleasure at the risk of becoming ornamental. It positions itself as necessarily beautiful, bringing together sensibility and substance without compromising its own weight. Like fictocriticism, mistranslations, or experimental translation, hybrid writing engages a mode that accentuates the author’s simultaneous presence and absence within the text. The writer maintains the very honest tension that occurs when writing: that between the self as producer of a text, and the moment the text is released it becomes independent—a thing separate from the self. It allows the writer to give in to the breath out, to write expansively, beautifully, and seriously.
Aveux non avenus does something similar. Reading Cahun’s text, there is a sense of urgency, where the mundane ruptures with significance, and fairytales intersperse deep introspection. Scattered with fragmented collages of her own body and face, the book presents Cahun in parts that do not add up to a coherent whole, resisting categorization while at the same time insisting on the vitality of the text and image as a whole of its own. To write an anti-memoir is to make the choice to present oneself in a masked form. As much as one can overlap fiction and criticism, it is important to note that their independence remains, and that bringing together disparate genres only functions when there is an awareness and understanding of each genre’s autonomy. Similarly, in translation, the choice to deviate from the source text must be made explicit if it is to function effectively. The knowledge of each language (both target and source) must also remain in tact. For the purposes of my project, I make clear the intention to disturb translation’s demand for fidelity in order to unpack and understand it in a new way. In doing so, I bring in the genre of fictocriticism for its emphasis on mimicry, affect, and self-reflection. I extend this concept into female philosophical fiction as a practiced, performative interpretative act that continuously masks and unmasks its subject, object, and author.
Application: Translation as Metaphor
Met with the impossibility of an adequate interpretation or translation, I have turned to an affective response, using mimicry and the hermeneutic motion to perform a fictocritically inspired project, extending this method into a proposed genre of female philosophical fiction. Following intuition and trusting in the absorption, processing, and externalizing of Cahun’s words, the following demonstrates how this functions formally. I use multiple iterations, spacing, and digressions in an attempt to represent this experience on the page. Translation functions as a metaphor for the process of encountering, internalizing, and invariably repeating what is read.
Figure 5. The invisible adventure (I). Figure 6. The invisible adventure (II).
In some sections, my repetitive process is more obvious, such as in the opening text demonstrated in figure 5 and 6. It begins: “The invisible adventure” (figure 5). The second repetition includes a subheading “This is an invisible, indivisible adventure,” (figure 6) inserting my own linguistic impulse towards the sonic similarity as well as to the implication of the inseparability of myself from the project of translation.
Other subtle changes appear throughout the work, sometimes verging on more evident digressions. This can be seen on pages 40-41, displayed in figures 7 below, in Contestable Confessions. I begin with a simple line of Cahun’s, which in French reads: “Faiblesses / Je ne suis fidèle qu’à la seule douleur—et cela bien malgré moi.” This becomes: “Weaknesses: I am not faithful but to the only alone pain—and this well despite me.” The inclusion of the French negative, which reads uncomfortably in English, gestures towards the incompatibility between the two languages. ‘Seule’ in French means both ‘alone’ and ‘only’—though in the context of the sentence an initial reading might suggest that ‘only’ was intended, I make the choice to include both ‘only’ and ‘alone’ to reflect the possibility of multiple intention. The dual meaning ‘seule’ is highlighted, demonstrating the trouble of translation. Another iteration of this line reads: “Weaknesses: In spite of myself, I am most faithful to a singular sorrow.”
Figure 7. Weaknesses
An inversion of the sentence structure reads more smoothly in English—it feels right. Translating ‘seule’ to singular is also more accurate, as it indicates both the singular, being alone, and the only. Though ‘douleur’ can mean pain or sorrow, the sound of ‘singular sorrow’ reads more smoothly, mirroring the sonic repetition of ‘seule douleur’.
The inclusion of these multiples echoes Sontag’s sentiment that art renders one nervous. Rather than rectify the awkwardness between French and English in a single, final translation, I leave the multiple versions on the page, and take this a step further by introducing variations of how one might begin to correct or interpret the passage. I add flourishes of style and experimentation to highlight the agency of the translator (figure 8) Finally, I digress entirely with my own meandering thoughts on weakness, divulging my own failures in faithfulness and unfaithfulness. To the reader, these distinctions are unclear—one is left wondering: where is Cahun, and where is the translator?
Figure 8. My weaknesses are as follows.
The inclusion of a cut-off image preceding the translations, in figure 9, compels the reader to flip back to verify what was initially written in Aveux non avenus. Beneath this obscured image is a photograph I took of the notebook in which I initially produced these translations. Juxtaposing the initial text, my own handwriting, and the final printed product leaves behind a smooth, yet somewhat obscured, trace of my own experience. This also focuses on a notion of return and cyclicality, as the reader must flip back between pages if they become curious as to what preceded my digression, manifest in physical manipulation of the book object itself. If the reader understands French, there is perhaps an instinct to produce their own translation to compare with mine, producing an ongoing life to the text, where the reader becomes entangled with the making of meaning and extension of Cahun’s words beyond my writing.
Figure 9. Faiblesses.
I use pacing and space to alternate between voices throughout the book. This strategy is also in Cahun’s work, for example, in III E.D.M. she begins with a series of short, impactful poems, and then shifts to a longer, more didactic prose style. I reflect this by subtly changing the style throughout the multiple translations. On pages 11-13, illustrated in figure 10, the first two iterations of the passage take on a similar style to Cahun’s original paragraph formatting with lyrical prose. The third iteration takes a turn, reducing the text to its smallest parts. Cahun’s phrase “Dans un miroir étroit, montrer la partie pour le tout?” becomes “In a narrow mirror, showing a part for the whole?” The third iteration is: “Mirror: a part for the whole.”
Figure 10. Mirror: part for whole.
This initial mimicry, followed by a reduction of parts, expresses the feeling of reading too quickly, with a tendency to skip over words with voracious consumption. The meaning of the words themselves is also reflected, as the whole becomes reduced to parts via a process of mirroring, in content and in form. Another example in the same passage:“En attendant d’y voir clair, je veux me traquer, me débattre. Qui, se sentant armé contre soi, fût-ce des mots les plus vains, qui ne s’efforcerait, ne fût-ce que de mettre en plein dans le vide?” becomes “While waiting to see clearly, I want to hunt myself down, to debate and beat myself. Who, when feeling armed against the self, draws upon the most vain words, who wouldn’t endeavour, isn’t this the equivalent of putting oneself fully into the void?” Finally, it is reduced to:“Fight: find and face the impulse to do away with— The void?
Again, a reduction of the whole to smaller parts both diminishes and expands the possibility of meaning to be found in the initial text, and is perhaps more of a reflection of my own sentiment than what was intended. That being said, the very presence of my questionable decisions demonstrates what Cahun is getting at in her initial passage, which reads to me as the continuous inner battle one must confront in order to write. The desired effect in these repetitions is a sense of familiarity coupled with uneasiness. Repetition and variation together function to destabilize linguistic meaning just enough to let something else seep in—which I hope gestures towards the affectual. It highlights not only how slippery translation is, but also how delicate and precise language can be, when subtle shifts in form alter understanding and mood.
In another instance, a line is taken from Cahun’s text and repeated in variations to form a wider net of meaning. Her passage “I OWE YOU” has one line in particular that struck me: “Une volupté n’existe qu’autant qu’on est menacé de la perdre.” I begin by translating the entire entry in two iterations: “A sensuousness only exists insofar as we are threatened to lose it.” “Voluptuousness exists only as much as one is threatened with its loss.” Not satisfied with these initial attempts, I narrow in on the line and produce a series of versions. I translate the already English title “I OWE YOU” to “DEBTS” in order to indicate a shift in voice, and begin to untangle and experiment with this phrase. I play with the word choice, order, and structure. A few versions follow: “Is there beauty that does not leave?” “One’s ability to appreciate beauty exists in equal parts to one’s willingness to lose it.” “They could only appreciate happiness in the past tense. Realizing this might be a an issue at some point, they discuss.” “Opulence: an ornament to the threat of loss.”
Figure 11. Debts.
In these instances, I begin to diverge completely from the original text, as I am reminded of various scenes that represents the essence of what I understand to be meant by Cahun’s words: that is, the fragile relationship between what is good and what can be lost. The numerous versions indicate the multiplicity of this sentiment and allow the possibility for a reader to attach themself to the phrasing that might ring most true to their own feeling.
The concluding piece in Contestable Confessions comes from the middle of Aveux non avenus and illustrates the difficulties of wanting to be at once the same and different from an unnamed other. In my case, I am thinking of being different from Cahun, though my own intimacies bleed into the writing. At this point, I return to a mode that closely resembles the beginning of the text, where I offer more subtle shifts in language with each iteration. Cahun says: “J’exige (de toi, non plus de moi), j’ai soif de tout ce qui nest pas à portée de ma main,” which I translate to: “I ask (as little from you as from myself) I’m thirsty for all that is beyond my reach.” “I ask of little from you as I ask of myself. Thirsty for everything that is beyond my breadth: a horizon of faithful despair.”
Figure 10. The last page of Contestable Confessions.
Using multiple iterations and interpretations of a single passage materializes Steiner’s hermeneutic motion, where the selection of the passage reflects a trust in its meaning, the intentional divergence from the original to the target language are an act of violation, my own creative liberties and digressions incorporate the passage into my own world and understanding, and the final entity shows restitution by documenting the process in entirety. I suggest this process might occur cyclically in all interpretation, critique, and meaning making. By refusing to adhere to a particular mode, and including all versions in the final book, I gesture towards this ongoing process of give and take, error and restitution. This offers insight into how we might begin to understand works of art, and one another, in more empathetic, feeling, and meaningful ways. By becoming aware of the inherent violations (both to the self and to the other) when encountering that which is outside oneself, and neither giving in nor rejecting this process, there is a possibility for willful surrender and grace.
Ultimately, the process of translation has served me in uncovering the depths of interpretation and, by extension, understanding. Thinking through hybrid genres of writing, I begin to unpack the ways in which affective attention expand into alternative methods of interpretation that might resist violation or glorification. Mistranslation and creative infidelity function with, rather than against, Steiner’s hermeneutic motion, and the resulting female philosophical fictions call for further inquiry into the ways that translation, interpretation, and critical writing could be further informed by empathetic being.
Chapter 3: Reflections
My project is not a faithful translation, nor is it an interpretation. My passionate trust in the significance of Cahun’s words propelled me to devour and elevate Aveux non avenus. Inevitably and repeatedly betrayed by the impossibility of a complete understanding, let alone translation, I have been frustrated by the text, taking liberties in my multiple iterations that veer away from what might be considered an accurate reading. Looking over the original and my translations, and the writing I have done before this project, I know that this has changed my writing patterns and by extension, my sense of self. Returning with multiple edits, I have attempted restitution, to achieve some balance by including the errors, the deviance, the transgressions, and the bad parts in a messy bundle that persists, anyway. I am trying to make sense of interpretation, translation, and the ethics of (mis)understanding. For me, this has resulted in a deeper enquiry into the nature of aesthetics, art, and meaning. Having completed a final version of Contestable Confessions, I do not know if I have gotten any closer to understanding Aveux non avenus, or Cahun. I am still not certain about the significance of female philosophical fiction as a genre. However, the performance of translation, and the resulting artist book have lead me down new paths of inquiry that have merit of their own.
The risk of interpretation and of translation implicates ethics on a fundamental level: how does one approach another without falling into either glorification or violation? How can one find restitution or respite in the midst of shared incomprehensibility? For this final chapter, I return to female philosophical fiction as a mode of enquiry. I address the issues of genre/gender in attempt to further address my use of the term female philosophical fiction as inherently flawed. I reconsider the ethical implications of translation and interpretation in the broader context of translation theory by applying relational ethics. Finally, I return to the concept of worldmaking introduced in the first chapter as a means to have some restitution in the midst of these tensions.
I set out to situate Cahun’s written work within the wider sphere of philosophical enquiry, using the categorization of female philosophical fiction as a framework and method. Curious about hybrid genres and the necessity for more affective responses and interpretations of artworks and writing, in embodying this practice I begin to question the very nature of genre. Why do gender and genre matter to my project? This questions arises in what may have been my over-zealous attempt to name the category of female philosophical fiction. I have considered going back and erasing this term from the paper and project in entirety. In the spirit of what I have learned from the process of translation, instead, I take the opportunity to grapple with this flawed conceptualization, leaving traces of the trouble as evidence of the writing itself. This is a question of genre and gender. They overlap in unusual ways, and perhaps it is easier for me to begin to tackle the (unanswerable) question of gender via genre theory.
Jacques Derrida’s The Law of Genre is useful to begin to unpack naming conventions and their difficulties. In French, ‘genre’ means categorical style and gender. When I first read this text, my interpretation swayed repeatedly to the latter meaning. Regardless of Derrida’s intent, I was caught on this idea of the relationship between genre and gender, especially thinking of the differentiation of ‘women’s writing’. Because so much of the history of writing has been presented through the masculine neutral, to write as a woman (in spite of being a woman, because one is a woman, outside of being a woman) holds within it a sense of perpetual transgression. In the same way, any writing from the margin towards or within a centre requires a dual process of asserting personal strength and surrendering elements of self. To write within genres established prior to one’s entry into them is to write through and outside oneself. Here, I am thinking about the way that identity is concealed and revealed through writing. My draw to Cahun’s work is rooted in my identification with her use of both genre and gender, this inescapability of the two established categories that she insisted upon blurring in her life and work.
Gender and genre are a question of content and form. The content is the singular, or the individual, and the form is the wider frame within one works, or the categories that are established and projected. Content without form, or form without content would independently fold inward. Each is empty without the other, or becomes an endless self-referential system. Content requires external meaning in order to sustain itself, just as genre requires specific texts (continually re-defining genre) to have any grounding or meaning. There is no whole except that which is made by parts, and there is no part if not for the whole. This interdependency means that, as Derrida claims, genres are not to be ‘mixed’ persay, because each utterance implicates and therefore takes part in defining the law of the genre. For female philosophical fiction, hybridity functions in a similar manner, using the intentional mixing of genres to form new categories that outstrip their predecessors. The transgressions and affect become cemented in their outputs, but the life of the author lives on as a continual questioning of this fixity. When a writer is dead, their configuration of works is left behind open to uninterrupted interpretations.
Derrida describes a similar contradictory process of non-closure, non-fulfillment, possibility and impossibility, inclusion and elusion—drawing attention to the ways in which texts and genres co-relate in circular, contradictory ways, remaining open to the possibility of re-definition for what can be included/excluded under a set of circumstances. The margin of existence between a specific text and the genre(s) which it participates provides an opening (or an excess) which functions to define/re-define taxonomies. This contradiction, for Derrida, is a question of form, style, and content, whereas for those writing from the margin towards or within the centre live (or embody) this contradiction. It is lived rather than explained or articulated. Cahun both expands and contracts existing genre by naming the book an anti-memoir. Working with her text, I have attempted to do something similar. Moving beyond the category of translation into experimental interpretive translation, my impulse was to further develop a female philosophical fiction. The result leaves me unconvinced, and instead I consider the process itself to have been a lived female philosophical fiction—understanding the fluidity of genre and hybridity as more valuable than the categorization of a final piece. Female philosophical fiction describes a process that is always experienced and can be accessed by any individual partaking in making that is founded upon, and aware of its own, lived contradictions.
That being said, self-referentiality risks collapse without the firm border of an outer categorization. Cahun could not write an anti-memoir were there no memoir, just as her fluid gender experiments would not hold true without the existence of an imposed gender. My work relies on the fixed idea that translation is possible, even with the difficulties that arise suggesting the impossibility of an accurate translation. The autonomy of female philosophical fiction might fall prey to its reliance on its opposite (existing categorizations and the history of philosophy/writing), though I am pushing towards an autonomy of making that, in its position as being lived rather than material, is able to continuously evade fixed taxonomies. I further this point in understanding Cahun’s life and work as a female philosophical fiction in entirety—her transgressive writing is mirrored by her life as I imagine it, which, even when reading documented remnants, remains elusive to interpretation. Images of Cahun, often interpreted as gender-bending, were nonetheless an intentional construction on the part of herself and her creative partner Marcel Moore. The narrative left behind is veiled in performance and fiction. My interpretation of her life may not be accurate, but it is meaningful nonetheless.
Striving for accuracy in interpretation and translation feels akin to write from a fixed point of selfhood while at the same time acknowledging the impossibility of inscribing oneself adequately within a given genre or gender. The shared etymological root of genre and gender is genus, indicating type or class, and also birth—these systems serve as an origin point, a place to begin. Beginning with established genre and gender, and understanding their weight as fixed yet fluid, one begins to enact processes of change. The relationship between genre and gender is complex and has, of course, been theorized extensively.
My line of thought follows a long history of feminist scholarship. Particularly, in one of the earliest forays of the complexities of gender and language, Hélène Cixous’ Laugh of Medusa tackles this question, calling for woman to “write her self”. Cixous says that “[i]t is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing” because it “can never be theorized, enclosed, coded” though “it will always surpass the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system.” This moment of excess, where the writer surpasses the system in which they write, is key in my understanding of female philosophical fiction. Because the act of definition and categorization relies on an existing masculine-centred system, qualifying any genre is to inscribe it within this lineage. Cixous says that, in coming against this limitation, “it is time for her to dislocate this “within,” to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it hers, containing it, taking it in her own mouth, biting the tongue with her very own teeth to invent for herself a language to get inside of.” This visceral, bodily description echoes with affect. The adoption of affect in queer and feminist theory aligns with the demand for using this excess: that is, the excess produced by working within systems made by (and for) others, to one’s advantage. The sensation, described in language, is evoked for the reader—if, and only if, they are able to identify and be in tune with the writing Cixous has left on the page.
The unattainability of any fixed gender criteria, as with genre, can serve as a mode to work towards better worlds, together, and in difference. Using hybrid genres of writing or making can be seen in this way as an entry/exit point from this state of enclosure. Because Cahun’s diverse body of work embodies contradiction and asserts desire for being otherwise, the hybridity that I have experienced in this performance of translation embraces a subjectivity that is unwilling to cohere to a fixed position. My own complicated relationship with gender—as I identify with my ‘female’ assignment despite and perhaps because of an internal desire for neutrality—becomes implicated. My identification with Cahun has more to do with the excess, that of her which is ‘outside’ the female, as it does with her expression of definable gender itself. If one cannot escape ‘being female’, an alternative might be to neutralize it to the point of disintegration, while allowing for its shell to remain. Cixous says: “Such a woman poet could desire only by breaking the codes that negate her,” but to break a code it must first be acknowledged. In the same way that gender and identity have come to be understood as performative, the expressiveness involved must always contend with its limitation. Female philosophical fiction is the embodied response to making, the sense that has lived on and with others, in worlds built by others, within genres established by others.
In the words of Derrida, “Every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text; there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging.” I might extend this sentiment in claiming that every being participates in one or several beings, there is no genderless being; there is always a gender and genders, yet such participation never amounts to belonging. The space that arises between belonging and participation is rife with possibility. The limitations of genre and gender stabilize the desire to be otherwise. To be ‘female’ is ultimately a question of being—the desire to escape this particular type of being, or to transcend it, is rooted in the fundamental human desire to be a self that is acknowledged within a system populated with others. It is to participate in the making of category, with a careful balance between individual agency and collective formations.
A key element driving this paper and project is the exploration of alternate modes of philosophical inquiry that are lived rather than written. If the history of philosophy is grounded in written works, a canon which prioritizes European white men, how might we begin to expand this genre into other modes of engagement? Contemporary art practices are have rich philosophical underpinnings, yet remain within the category of ‘art’ rather than ‘philosophy’. Claude Cahun’s photographs and writing have not been written about in terms of their philosophical merit, though her explorations are reflective of key themes of the nature of being, language, and identity. My own inquiry into her world has consisted of experimental translation with the goal of interpreting the work in an ethical and all-encompassing manner. Using the word philosophy is intentionally evocative: it seeks to position the philosophical as something more tangibly lived than written. That being said, I will try to write about this. To do so, I mediate on my experience of translation through the lens of relational ethics. How can we read and write in ways that embody the relational as foundational? My interjection in translation theory is philosophical: it demands we pay attention to the relational ethics of translation. The following is my attempt at articulating the philosophical experience I have had while entering into the field of translation scholarship.
The problems of translation are not new. Its difficulties are rooted in the inherent risk involved in attempting to carry meaning across fields. Translation scholarship spans linguistics, philosophy, cultural studies, politics, and literary theory. I am not a translation scholar, and this area of interest only emerged once I had the initial impulse to produce a text rooted in experimental translation. My brief encounter with the field leads me to re-assess the ways that I read and encounter the world. Translation consists of both equivalency and transformation: this is the contradiction at the core of the issues that arise when we begin to contemplate translation. Translation is a repetition contingent upon difference. It is a meeting place of subjectivity and objectivity.
A dominant strand of translation studies focuses on pragmatics and objectivity, viewing translation as a mechanical skill rather than an art form. Broadly speaking, there is a division in translation studies between the more empiric, instrumental orientation and the hermeneutics of literary studies and cultural studies. There is certainly a place for strict, precise, empiric translation standards, though this is outside the breadth of my project. I am more interested in the philosophical vein of translation scholarship that insists upon its ethical merit. Translation is situated in relation to the original author in a way that represents a concentrated version of the “encounter of the individual with the Other in its starkest form: mutual incomprehensibility.” Philosopher Paul Ricoeur similarly brings together hermeneutics and phenomenology in his insistence upon translation as an ethical paradigm. He says that by striving for an accurate translation, while accepting the reality of its impossibility, the translator demonstrates an imbalance intrinsic to all human relations. This tension, for Ricoeur, produces a “paradigm for tolerance” in that it requires an acceptance and forgiveness of that which is outside oneself despite its resistance to assimilation.
The goal is, of course, always a reconciliation of the incomprehensible with the comprehensible—the achievement of mutual understanding. Confronting this tension in the execution of my project has not been comfortable. I have found some respite in pushing the incomprehensible to its limit. Progressively dissolving any semblance to Cahun’s original text while leaving traces of its dissolution is a simultaneous assertion and rejection of reconcilable differences. This mirrors the sensation of an unattainable desire to know Cahun more intimately, which is a more precise form of relational ethics—that is, understanding the limitations of accessing and relating to another person’s inner world.
Translation, in this way, manifests the complexities of relational ethics. This imperative of an examination of relational ethics came through my own process of translation, with the driving question: What does an ethics of translation look like? Is a translation relational? For Derrida, there may not be a possibility for any philosophy or ethics of translation, though he also claims that using these terms together necessarily implicates “a philosophy of the word […] ethics of the word.” Here there is an equivalence of ‘translation' and the ‘word’, which, like Steiner, positions—or perhaps conflates—translation with communication itself. Translation happens in and through language, where the borders of two separate languages meet in the mind of the translator. Translation functions here as a metaphor for fundamental modes of understanding—understanding as the place where borders meet, where one encounters that which is outside oneself.
Postcolonial scholarship takes translation studies a step further, indicating the role of the translator as one that mediates cultures, and in doing so has the power to either disrupt or maintain existing hierarchy. Gayarti Spivak says that translation is the “most intimate act of readings,” and the right to translate, to be intimate with a text, is one that must be earned. Again, the ethical implications become apparent and even more vital when considering the distance between a source and target text. The greater the distance between the two, the more is required in the translator’s transposition of meaning. When the translator is loyal to a target, for example, there is a risk of reducing and flattening the significance of the source. When the translator is more loyal to the source, there is the risk of missing cues of expression in the target. This is ultimately a question of respect and reciprocity.
In my case, time, geography, and language all come in to play. Cahun’s 1930s French differs greatly from my own comprehension of French in a contemporary Canadian setting. Having grown up in a dominant French-language environment, though English has always been my first language, this distance is not new to me, and perhaps the difficulty of being understood and understanding has become a place of familiarity. To adequately compensate for this distance would require a much deeper understanding. My acknowledgement of these limitations serves as a propelling force in trying, anyway. The subjectivity in the final work compensates for what may be lacking in accuracy or precision—focusing on the intimacy of reading and writing as most important, ethically. If the goal were to produce a ‘faithful’ translation, my approach would have sought an equivalency founded in rigorous linguistic and historical study. I would have attempted to erase my own presence from the text, instead giving in to an imagined purity of what is on the page. There is value in these approaches—there is something compelling about giving oneself up to the task of translation as pure passing-through, as a door through which the text might pass from one world to another. As with the genre of biography versus autobiography, working with an author to translate their text versus working with a text whose author is dead, implicate different types of ethics. Beyond the complexity of any attempt at reconciling the space between me/you or here/there or me/not me, translation demands a circuitous opening and closing of these distances.
The intimacy required of a translator with the source text consists of a making “familiar” of the foreign for the reader. This recalls Steiner’s incorporative phase of the hermeneutic motion, and Sontag’s demand for more feeling in interpretation. Overcoming of distance between oneself and the source text in the attempt to “make familiar”, Ricoeur argues, results in an internalization in which one makes the text their own. In this process, one comes to understand oneself in a new light. It can be a “self-understanding by means of understanding others”. The metaphor of translation as an intimate form of knowing another (and oneself) suggests that we seek these concentrated forms—where the limitation of understanding becomes most apparent—in order to turn back and re-assess the less tangible, more fleeting, nebulous, abstract experiences of encountering another person. also insists on the personal aspect of translation, stating that “It is simple miming of the responsibility to the trace of the other in the self.” In following this train of thought I experience a return to my initial impulse that has been driven by my own identification with Cahun—finding a trace of her within myself. This is a place that is saturated with affect, preceding and succeeding the making.
To introduce the idea of relational ethics to translation theory is in line with my interest in affect and fictocriticism. Returning to the genre of fictocriticism, in its fragmentary self-critical style, one can begin to see how the relational and the affective emerge and become central to this mode of writing. It is a mode that asks as much of the writer as the reader, leveraging the space in between as a way to forge the relational element to intellectual exchange through writing. Though not explicitly discussed, Ricoeur, Derrida, and Spivak all implicate the relational as central to an ethics of translation/interpretation. Attempting to transcend not only the disparate gap between my own position and that of Cahun’s when writing, but also the inability to work directly with the author. The difficulty in becoming aware of these tensions ignites imagination and acceptance—acknowledgement of the limitations of ethical relationality. An awareness of, even a pushing towards, a given limitation can be productive if it is done carefully. In research, more broadly, there is an “infinite responsibility of the Self for the Other,” because proximity implies “simultaneous closeness and distance, [thus] [t]he Other can be approached but is never reached. This ambiguity leads to infinite responsibility.” Here ambiguity becomes productive if it is leveraged as responsibility in dialogue with surrender. This is why my project incorporates its own flaws, staying with the troublesome reality of the relationship between translator and author.
This leads me to the question: Are affect-driven, embodied, caring attempts at translation and interpretation necessarily feminine? At the foundation of my inclusion of the word “female” is ultimately an attempt to expand the feminine as an inherent trait that expands rather than limits genre/gender. Understanding ethics as relational can be seen as restorative balance, in Steiner’s hermeneutic sense, residing in the space made by an excess: the feeling left when existing ethics is not enough, or discounts one’s own experience. To ignore the relational, the ethical, is to be willfully blind to the actuality of the situation. As beings living with and amongst others, everything is relational and everything implicates ethics. The ‘turn’ in theory and research towards relation and ethics indicates a desire for a restitution of balance and order in practice.
Care ethicist Nel Noddings’ states that ““care” is a state of mental suffering or of engrossment: to care is to be in a burdened mental state, one of anxiety, fear, or solicitude about something or someone,” a burden largely historically shouldered by the most vulnerable, often occupying the position of the ‘female’. I say this with hesitation in flattening the myriad differentiations of individualized experiences of all that this position has meant and comes to mean, including the intersections of countless systems of oppression. Broadening out the burden of care as characteristic of womanhood is only useful only insofar as it can be used as a tool for re-establishing traits associated with this generalized subject-position as necessary to ethical being. Not only has Noddings introduced the concept of care ethics, but she also situates the specificity of relational ethics as ontologically founded, insisting that the recognition of encounter between humans elicits an “affective response as a basic fact of human existence.” This is at the root of my ongoing inquiry into this genre of female philosophical fiction as fluid, contradictory, multiple, and embodied, yet always ethically grounded in relation. There is a connection between the hybridity of genre and gender as a mode of philosophical inquiry that persists regardless of its membership to established category. Understanding this as a burden is useful because it is felt and lived. Care ethics has been described as “feeling with” the other.” This is fundamental to translation and interpretation. Reading and re-writing Cahun’s text, a sensation emerges that is akin to “feeling with,” absorbing, internalizing, and rephrasing her words as my own is relationally bound.
This question of relational ethics has emerged in my process of creation as vital to interpretation and translation. In exploring the philosophical underpinnings of this work, I continue to find words insufficient. Postmodern and feminist thought have largely sought to destabilize and deconstruct existing systems of understanding, though in doing so inevitably restructures and re-stabilizes new categories of thought and understanding. Rather than formalizing these processes as endlessly fixating themselves anew, this serves as a reminder of the cyclical movement of the abstract and the concrete: a relationship that is in constant motion, though at once crystallizes at fixed points. The place where the fluidity remains is always a place of excess, at the threshold of language itself, in a realm that might be named as affective. I argue that translation also exists within this realm, which renders it useful as a metaphor for understanding. The translator must perpetually shift between these modes of self/other and language/thought. Translation scholar Sneja Gunew has written compellingly about the relationship between affect and translation, describing affect as “excessive”. This concept has also been articulated in critical theory and aesthetics: Jean-Francois Lyotard says that art “arbours within it an excess, a rapture, a potential of associations that overflows all the determinations of its perception and production.” The concept of ‘excess’ can be used to begin to understand what I’m circling around in writing, this unnamable sensation that propels us to write, to consume works, to know others. A desire to concretize the seemingly endless hybridity. The meeting place holds within it the possibility for change, for worldmaking to occur.
My inclusion of the term fiction in this configuration is tightly bound to the concept of worldmaking introduced in the first chapter. It is intended as a reminder that these engagements with texts and being rely on imagination, in the same way that translation requires an imaginative leap of faith in the potential for meaning to be achieved. Translation can be used as a tool for understanding both self and other, and in this process there is always an element of the fictional. It is the excess between self and other, between text and interpretation. Using the term fiction evokes imagination and the ‘untrue’, but it also refers to the speculative potential in understanding one another.
The fiction of translation is the adherence to the belief that language can be multiple, and that we can speak to one another across cultural and linguistic spheres. Translation scholar Judith Wordsworth describes Gertrude Stein’s fictional translations—highlighting the way that her experimental translation elucidate the paradox inherent in any translation. By opposing the idea of translation as accurate or true in her use of fiction, Woodsworth suggests that Stein echoes her own inclusion of fictitious translations in her fictitious autobiography function to appropriate in a “construction of her identity as a writer, and ultimately in her struggle for self-preservation.” She says that “the use of translation as a fiction reflects both the hybrid voice she adopted and the hybrid space she inhabited.” In Woodsworth’s reading of Stein, hybridity of identity is read into the hybridity of text, using fiction and translation as writing tools for asserting a presence that insists upon its multiplicity and refuses fixation. These dualities of gender and genre can also be seen in Cahun’s work, and in my own project. It describes a certain impulse to write one’s identity using style and form, rather than strictly narrative or content, that is reflective of a sense of self. Rather than write a linear memoir, Cahun wrote a fragmentary ‘anti-memoir’. Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas similarly plays with the genre of autobiography in order to describe herself from the perspective of someone else—creating distance and blurring reality and fiction. What interests me most about these methods of bending genre and gender is the ways in which writing can be used to structurally and stylistically reflect open-ended identities. Veiling lived experience in fiction is effectively a tactic for self-preservation and self-articulation, inscribing identity in modes that are open-ended yet filled with affect that can be interpreted given adequate attention and identification.
Claude Cahun’s work has already been interpreted, Aveux non avenus has already been translated. My project has sought alternatives that are founded on relational ethics. To justify this approach, I have used female philosophical fiction as a method to interpret, understand, and translate in a way that acknowledges the fictional, and personal, as necessary to writing. At its foundation, my resistance to biographical and interpretive projects that have analyzed Cahun’s body of work is this failure to address a risk of violation. From the moment of her “rediscovery” by François Leperlier in the late 1980s, her presence in the world has been in the hands of others. François Leperlier wrote a biography of Cahun. A biography is ultimately interpretation and reduction of a life into a fixed narrative. Telling someone else’s story can be useful, especially when we return to the past to unearth significant voices. This project of rediscovery and retelling is vital to worldmaking, it is vital that we find alternatives to the stories that have been told. That being said, Aveux non avenus is an anti-memoir, and all remaining photographs of Cahun are laden with performance and mixed representations of self. For my own ethical framework, I have interpreted this as an invitation into her hybrid world of fiction/reality, an opportunity engage with this configuration of a past life in new and alternative ways. Regardless of their intent, rediscoveries of past figures is always a form of worldmaking: it is to tell and re-tell the past in order to create a more liveable present, and future. As with translation and interpretation, the risk of violation or glorification are always present in the stories we tell.
The emergence of fictocriticism is one solution to this dilemma. As Muecke describes, the relationship between literary criticism and art is one of ongoing masking and unmasking. Similarly, my attempts at negotiating with the ‘female’ and the ‘philosophical’ as categories strive to undermine while asserting the importance of these fixed fields. These engagements push under the skin. They are rife with discomfort. The instability of writing as process, which requires affixing affect in language, requires an element of the fictional. Jacques Rancière says that “fiction is that by which the ‘as far as’ is exceeded,” describing this excess as not an “illusion that consoles in the face of reality” but a “capacity that life has, among the humblest and most common people, to be carried beyond itself in order to take care of itself.” In similar manner that art and affect are described within the realm of ‘excess’, fiction produces a gap between perceived reality and projected desire. The insistence upon care in relational ethics fills a gap between what has been written and what hopes of reconciliation hinge on one’s ability to acknowledge self and other.
The process of worldmaking exists in a realm of excess; it is an answer to the problem of distance that remains open to interpretation, yet holds within it the hope for alternative reality. Worldmaking has been defined as: “a process of constructing shared worlds through symbolic practices that intertwine the creative, ethical, and intellectual in the act of making meaning from the multiple and dynamic resources at hand.” Scholars and writers like Kathleen Stewart and Lauren Berlant circle around the term rather than define it. They evoke the resources at hand—their lived experiences, readings, and observations—conveying them in the symbolic practice of writing, in order to intertwine their own creative, ethical, and intellectual impulses into the fixed format of a book. The question of ‘fiction’ and ‘reality’ becomes less pressing, as the world they construct with language and thought speaks truth for itself: it stands on its own terms. Rather than relating the fictional to the ‘untrue’, I am suggesting that worldmaking is a type of truth telling that refuses to privilege a particular way of telling. Fiction’s latin root can be traced to fingere, which means to form—to write is to form from the mind, to take that which is abstract and render it concretely. Mixing fiction and philosophy, or fiction and biography, results in an entanglement of the real and the imagined that mirrors what is actually felt and thought in one’s mind before it must be articulated in reality. Worldmaking can be conscious or unconscious; it is a way of articulating an attentive “encounter between self and other, between dream and reality, between public and private, or between memory and desire.” It is always happening, and our engagement with it relies on material worlds, sifted through subjectivity, only to be re-articulated in material form anew.
Imposing this theory onto Aveux non avenus feels inadequate, though there are parallels in the way Cahun interweaves myth, prose, poetry, and memoir into a hybrid world. The process of experimental translation has limited itself to the resources I have at hand, including all that I have read and seen, culminating in a final hybrid piece that integrates fiction and reality. I have begun to construct a world which incapsulates my experience of reading Cahun. I attempt to represent the process of reading in writing. This document is a world of its own, in the same way that this paper spins out, folds back in on itself, and pushes outside. Fiction writing creates its own worlds, and so do we when we choose to engage meaningfully with language, and with one another. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, and in the process of making worlds together we leverage the affectual—the excess, that which cannot be put into language—to form a material lived experience that better reflect ourselves.
Ultimately, my performance of translation has enacted these practices of attentive, careful, worldmaking. When the object produces a world of its own, open-ended, multiple, hybrid, and rife with affect, the hope is that it continues to be read, re-read, and mis-read. Where my project began with interpersonal intimacy—my identification with and desire to know Claude Cahun through their work—it comes back around again to this idea. In our shared worlds, identity is so often articulated through gender and genre. The worldmaking I work towards articulates itself in through modes while resisting them. Meaning is produced in the excess space between language and thought—a space filled with affect, that can only be perceived when one’s sense are attuned, gracious, and intuitive. Applying relational care ethics to translation, interpretation, and critique leverages this space. The drive and duty to work towards better worlds must persist.
Claude Cahun’s position in contemporary discourse rests on an image of her formulated by those who have unearthed her words and photographs. Her searing gaze, her gender ambiguity, and her radical performativity echo what we might hope to find in the past: a flickering reflection of ourselves. Any biography inevitably falls short, though it has served in solidifying Cahun’s continued presence in the world. My approach to getting closer to Cahun also inevitably falls short—it is one thing to attempt to know someone in the flesh, and it is another to get under the skin of someone who lived and died nearly a century ago. As restitution to this inescapable bind, translation has allowed me to internalize her words, permitting them to become something else, offering my time and energy to re-integrating her book into my own practice, and in doing so hopefully allow them to live on. The hybridity of Aveux non avenus lead me down the paths of fictocriticism and worldmaking, contemporary attempts at rectifying the split in objectivity and subjectivity. The pitfalls of translation are within this tangle, as the role of the translator must shoulder the responsibility of accuracy of interpretation, which exists at the crux of self and other. The standard of faithful translation must persist, though my own experimentation highlights the margin of error as well as the potential that exists in more fluid and subjective translation.
My own doubts and reflections have been articulated, and I am left now with more questions than answers. Through context, process, and reflection, I have deviated from my original intentions of uncovering and developing female philosophical fiction. Turning to affect theory and relational ethics, I am now most interested in how translation might uncover new modes of understanding. In translation, I have found myself internalizing the words of Cahun and reconfiguring them on the page in my own words. Similarly, writing this paper has felt like an internalization of the words of others to be reconfigured and articulated anew.
In 2018, I wrote a preliminary description of what would later become this project as an application to a writing workshop on desire and politics. To summarize, I wrote: I want to fall in love with a ghost. At the time, this was perhaps an indulgent attempt at drawing attention to poetic mystery. As this project is coming to a close, the phrase comes to mind again, this time as a more serious experiment in ethics. Consider Cahun as ghostly—a distant figure haunting the present in an ever growing imagined form of accumulated interpretations of her work. Love and desire underpin my work. In Making Art at the End of the World, Natalie Loveless compares eros and agape as distinct words describing ways of loving. She pushes against the alignment of agape, which is an unconditional, God-like love, as an ethical framework for research, focusing in instead on the often disparaged eros—the more volatile, conditional, selfish, desiring love—as necessary for an ethical framework, arguing that its very conditionality and situated-ness allow for “the messy conditions of being in love.” This love is “driven and non-innocent” because it is a “story that is never told; it is always in the process of unfolding, and therefore always in need of new ways of accounting and rendering accountable.” To orient one’s love towards a ghost, I have realized, engages both agape and eros. The eros as a propelling force towards the object, and the agape is there to catch the fall that comes with the ultimate unattainability of possession. In research, as in love, the push and pull force us forwards, back, and forth again. In translation, the process engenders trust, fall, risk, and unattainability, yet forces a completion of the task. It is a matter of doing it, anyway.
In my use of the term female philosophical fiction, I brought these questions to the forefront: What is fiction-less philosophy? Can philosophy be without gender? What makes a fiction “female”? How might such at term be useful? The course of this paper has strayed from these questions, and perhaps I have uncovered their irrelevance. Philosophy does not exist without fiction—facere is to make tangible, and philosophy exists in order to begin to articulate the inarticulate, to find meaning beneath the surface. I have sought a return to my imagination of its origin, that is, a living breathing awareness of that which is felt and not said. Philosophy is a genre solidified by one gender, but lived by all. To be female is something I still may not understand, or necessarily want to, but regardless its material implications remain. Philosophy might exist apart from gender, but its genre is inscribed with male dominant structures. Turning towards affect helps in this respect, as a largely female-dominant field, affect theory branches off from philosophy to attempt to contend with the outside-language, outside-gender.
Translation has emerged in my project as a metaphor for understanding. The experience of translation has expanded the way that I read, write, and relate to the world. Contestable Confessions records traces of this process, which I have come to articulate as ‘writing reading’. I have attempted to capture my experience of reading in writing. My impulse to translate Cahun’s text is rooted in a desire to unpack and peel back the layers of meaning and selfhood—and what it means to read and to write. I have wondered: How does one approach another without falling into either glorification or violation? How can one find restitution or respite in the midst of shared incomprehensibility? Why do gender and genre matter to my project? What does an ethics of translation look like? These questions remain as propelling forces in my ongoing work. In the case of this particular project, transparency and self awareness have helped to mitigate the pitfalls of interpretative glorification and violation. The inevitability of misunderstanding remains at the core of the project, and is met with an invitation to multiple understanding. Gender and genre remain as fixed points that can be circled around with fervour and doubt. Ethics, especially as it relates to relation and care, reveals itself as a fundamental field I hope to further engage with in future projects. This paper has been difficult to write—as it attempts to unpack and interpret a work that intentionally resists interpretation. My experience has functioned not only in translation, but also in understanding, writing, making, and knowing myself and others. It has revealed a new way for me to engage with works that goes beyond, yet not against, interpretation.
To conclude these meandering thoughts, I end near where I began, in considering what propels work to be made. Art transcends interpretation—it is the excess beyond language, or the affectual, which, when leveraged, is a tool that can be grasped towards transcending bounds of identity. The only adequate response is to attempt to capture the excess with ones’ own perception, and to re-articulate in various iterations of creation. It is felt and it is lived, rather than articulated. How can writing be alive? Its merit is to go beyond understanding and towards the production of creation itself in the mind of the recipient. Good philosophy, like good art, propels countless configurations and truths. It is a matter of finding something abstract within the concrete and something concrete within the abstract: an eternal motion like that of the self encountering the world and others, which requires continual trust, acknowledgement of the violence inherent this encounter, the willingness to change and be changed, and recursive attempts at a restitution of balance.
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