Monday, January 16, 2012
Horned Puffins yes! Snow, no!
My heart leaped when I saw that again, this year, horned puffins were hanging out in Admiralty Bay. What is it with me about puffins? I took a lot of pleasure in watching eighteen beautiful graceful swans swimming in Lake Washington last month. But seeing puffins-- not beautiful at all, maybe even a bit comically grotesque-- gives me more of a charge. As they did last year, they swam in formation, back and forth, back and forth, giving an impression of avian discipline.
As for my "thought-provoking" reading-- at 8:30 this morning I opened one of the books I'd brought with me-- Jacques Ranciere's The Politics of Aesthetics-- and began with the translator's Preface, subtitled "The Reconfiguration of Meaning." (Yeah, I always read front and backmatter: you never know what gems you might find in the proper margins of the main text.) In his Preface, translator Gabriel Rockhill discusses a subject Ranciere has been working away at for some time. I talked about one aspect of the subject, the aspect I call the problem of intelligibility, in my WisCon 32 GoH speech. I'm also intensely interested in another aspect of the subject (which I wrote about in my essay "Old Pictures: the Discursive Instability of Feminist SF"), discursive instability. Rockhill introduces the subject by way of talking about translation in general as well as his translation of Ranciere's text in particular.
"Translation," he writes, "is not simply a form of mediation between two distinct languages. It is a relational reconfiguration of meaning via a logic of signification that is rendered possible by a socio-historical situaiton. This process can, in fact, take place within a single language, which does not however mean that understanding itself is an act of translation or that we are condemned to endlessly paraphrasing our original ideas. An alternate logic of signification can actually use the same words to mean something entirely different because it determines the very structure of meaning, the horizon of what is qualified as language, the modus operandi of words and sentences, the entire network that defines the process of signification."
It was in "Old Pictures" that I talked about how meanings and connotation of certain words and phrases can shift significantly over a period of decades. Lately I've been thinking a lot about just how radical a shift I can see in my own "logic of signification," as Rockhill (and Ranciere) puts it, from, say, the 1970s through today. It's the "horizon" Rockhill gestures to in that passage that is what each of us who write are perhaps most concerned with. Most of the time we aren't as acutely conscious of our "logic of signification" as we are of that horizon.
Over the last year I've had occasion to read numerous letters (I wrote many and many) and journals from the 1980s, and have been increasingly becoming conscious of feeling as though I need, in a sense, to translate them to the self that I am today-- and of suspecting that much that they are saying is now, crazy as this may sound, unintelligible to me. Would it be possible for me, with effort, to reacquire meanings that now elude me? More interesting for me, perhaps, is another question that's occurred to me because of this shocking gap (that person who wrote all those words, after all, was in a sense-- certainly in legal terms-- me): can any historian read documents produced even a generation or two before and ever fully, richly, understand them as they would have been understood at the time of production?
It's probably not surprising that I'm already finding some of these concerns running through my novel in progress.
Now it's time to go back to my cabin make a vegeatble soup with lots of garlic, ginger, and red pepper. I'm ravenous, and the building I'm visiting to use its wifi is frigid. (My fingers and nose are frozen!)