Q&A: Ira Allen and Anita Chari on Walter Benjamin

Earlier this year, the online journal Theory & Event published an essay which examined the work of Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish philosopher and cultural critic. The journal included a recreation of True Stories About Dogs, one of the many radio plays produced by Benjamin. Ira Allen, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the American University of Beirut, and Anita Chari, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Oregon, put together the project and shared some insight with us in this two-part post. Part 2 will run on Monday, November 16.

How did the article on audio production come about?

IRA ALLEN: The article is sort of two things. On the one hand, it’s an explanation on Benjamin’s own terms of why we need a certain way of translating Benjamin’s radio work. And, on the other, it’s a way of working out the meaning of a practical, creative project that we undertook from somewhat different starting-points. When I began pursuing multimodal translations of these radio pieces, I had one thing in mind—kind of a conservative idea of a soundscape with voicing of the full text laid over it. And then when Anita and I talked about working together, she came back with a completely different way of approaching the sound translation. And I was not on board at first with the direction she wanted to take that in. But, at the same time, we were working together and I trusted her to be seeing something that I wasn’t yet. Hashing out our different perspectives, we ended up with a view of multimodal translation that is much cooler and more interesting than my initial thinking had been. And we had to get that in writing as we went along, and then again afterward, to be sure that we really agreed.
ANITA CHARI: Well, my sense was that it was going to be a creative process, you know, in terms of how I would engage the idea of an audio translation of text, of Walter Benjamin of all people. I think we agreed on that right away. I remember our first conversation; I remember saying, “I’m not doing a soundtrack,” because that’s just not what I do, and I knew that that’s just not how I could’ve pursued it. So, I felt from the beginning that there was this question of how we could translate these transcripts for radio shows into a new form. And I started from there with my experience of doing these philosophical sorts of musical pieces.
IA: Too, I should add that the article itself had its source in a summer seminar on historiography that I did with a great group at the Rhetoric Society of America, and then in some stuff we wrote for a Digital Humanities grant application we’re working up along with Rob Ryder at University of Illinois at Chicago. So, from that perspective, what’s at stake is sort of a justification for why these radio pieces need a special multimodal translation, why it is not enough to do a normal text-translation. Too, and this is something we don’t really talk about in the article, but like Anita suggested, the sound translation meshes up pretty nicely with a larger sort of theoretical-practical project. Right?
AC: Yeah, for sure. For sure, in terms of just wanting to bring a different medium to philosophical flesh, and the idea of how the body plays into the process of thinking, and conceptuality, and the production of concepts—how we can understand concept production in a fully embodied and a truly dialogical way. So for me, what fascinates me, is the form of having voices create dialectics with one another.
IA: Yeah, and that’s one of the things I really like about the way the sound production came out. What the sound translation was doing, from my perspective, was inviting the reader of the text into an embodied experience that you come into through sound, but not exactly through the sound of words per se, and yet, an experience that is still fundamentally conceptual. So, how do you be conceptual in a way that is political theory properly so called, and yet is not directly words? That was one of the things I got really excited about with Anita’s work on this translation, and her larger project as well.
AC: Exactly: I think part of the invitation with Benjamin was really . . . it felt to me like an invitation to explore the sensory level of textuality, you know, and how sensation plays into philosophy’s production of concepts and into our processes of reading, too. This is something that I’ve been interested in as part of my broader project in political theory, to explore sensation and sense not only at the level of writing, but to think about embodiment within performative contexts of theory production. I’ve tried to incorporate sensory and movement exercises into presentations at conferences, which tend to favor purely verbal and narratological approaches to concepts, for example at the “Rethinking Political Concepts” conference at the Heyman Center in 2012, and at workshops that I teach for intellectuals, on integrating embodiment with conceptuality, and even at more traditional conferences, such as at the American Political Science Association Conference, which is always an adventure because this is still somewhat outside the realm of mainstream practice in academia.

Would you explain the importance of Benjamin’s work today?

IA: One of the most important things about Benjamin is that he gives us a way of apprehending the world that is meaningfully theoretical and is also fuller in some sense than a rigid set of statements. I mean, he invites us into a world suffused a little more with, I want to say, a child’s sensibility; I don’t want to say that just because we’re translating the radio shows for children, but also because of his own collecting practices over the course of his life, where he collected children’s books and toys, you know, or the way he approached the Arcades Project. Part of what makes Benjamin, if not unique, at least special among the Frankfurt School and fellow travelers is that, instead of just critiquing in more or less the same mode as what he critiques, he is trying to produce something that is different, and differently embodied, different physically in some way—and yet still quite critical.
AC: Yeah, he invites us into something that happens at a different rate, and using different faculties. I think, for him, there is so much more than just the words, and that to me is the rationality in his work. And that seems to come through especially in the work for children.
IA: It’s about more porosity between selves, too, right? Most of the children’s radio shows are written around quotations he’s assembled; there are little snippets of Scholastic commentary, but it’s a lot of quotations, stories, and there’s this sense that the boundaries between selves are more porous than maybe Adorno or somebody like that—and a lot of other thinkers from this era we still rely on today—can quite get with. For someone like Adorno, there is a critique of a certain kind of autonomous rational self. But there’s also a pretty intense clinging to it. And with Benjamin, you really get this sense in his work: there’s a greater fluidity, there’s this way of just gathering while everything flows (which is a Kenneth Burke thing, by the way).
AC: Yeah, I would absolutely agree with that. I think that while Adorno talks a certain talk—and not to pick on Adorno; it could be anybody—Benjamin really accesses this greater level of creativity in negotiating the medium. I think I can safely say that Adorno would have never written like a radio program about dogs. You know?
IA: Let’s talk a little about why Benjamin is important now, like what makes Benjamin important for political theorists right now. In some ways, our translations are kind of a funny choice—we’re translating children’s stories. I mean, I don’t agree that it is a funny choice, obviously; I think it’s an immensely practically correct choice. But a person could say, “So why is this important? What is this giving or doing for us that we don’t get elsewhere?”
AC: Well, I think the broader issue, like, so not only Benjamin as such, but the broader import of the multimodal issue and the relevance of crossing media for political theory today is that there’s a lot of stuff being written about senses, affect and different modalities that go beyond narrative, and communicate about political concepts and all of that. But I still don’t see much work yet really embodying the promise of the discourses of affect.
IA: It’s almost always still just more words. And I love words. I have no problem with that, exactly.
AC: It’s always more words, and there’s this impasse of an unspeakable . . . untouchable place there; the idea of moving beyond into the wordless . . . actually putting one’s body as a philosopher in the place of embodying a certain conceptual position, doesn’t seem to be done all that much, and I think Benjamin’s radio work invites that.
IA: One of the things that makes the children’s radio shows so different from most other work he did for radio is that they’re really also work on the radio, work on the medium. I mean, he did nearly a hundred radio appearances, but a lot those were just delivering a Vortrag, an absolutely normal piece of pre-digested academic discourse meant for an audience of adults—not strongly negotiations of radio as a medium, but something effectively the same as the various news articles he produced, which is interesting and part of his oeuvre, but not the thing that’s really driving us in this project. In the children’s radio shows, he’s consciously trying to negotiate the medium—that’s what we argue in the article, and though there’s no way to know for sure because we don’t have the actual recordings, his notes and reflections really support the idea. Part of what makes Benjamin important for us now, and especially in the children’s radio programs, is the effort to say, “Look, you have to be constantly negotiating the media in which you produce.” It’s not enough to just produce more words; that’s good, that’s part of the deal, we don’t stop doing that. But, we also have to be actively negotiating media of production in some way, and our effort is to do with the medium of our moment—web-hosted multimodal content—what Benjamin was doing with radio in his moment.
AC: Right! And I think we approach that negotiation from two sides, too. Because on the one hand, there’s the production side, you know, the translated words in juxtaposition with the sound pieces—a dialectical and clickable sound exploration in tandem with the text. And then, there’s the affect side; there’s the reading side, the idea that while people are reading, there is an unsettling retemporalizing of the reading process. It should feel different.
IA: I don’t think I told you this, but when we first talked about this, what I had in mind was . . . when I lived in Indiana during grad school, I had some friends who were jazz musicians (they still are), so I’d go to their shows and I’d bring along Hegel or Badiou or whatever I was reading, and when the band got in the pocket, then I’d start reading . . . like when they really hit it, I’d start reading to be shaped by and absorbed in their activity. That was a way of shaping my own reading that was immensely productive. I read Hegel way better listening to jazz in a club then I do when I sit . . . well, I mean, I read Hegel fine sitting in my living room, but they’re very different modes of reading, and I think that part of what we’re wanting to do in the project: offer something that’s bi- or multi-dimensionally absorbing, and so help readers essentially find ways into being absorbed by two different things at once—different attitudes toward resonances. If you can find your way into the text while being absorbed by the sound, if you can find your way into a simultaneous absorption by two different things, then the resonance between those two systems creates a different frequency altogether. And that’s part of what we were shooting for, at least at times.
AC: That makes me think of another critical theory point about the activity of consciousness—in terms of translation now, because all this seems to be about the fundamental activity of consciousness in the reception of a translated philosophical work. There’s this whole idea recurring throughout critical theory: that we are not receptive, or are not only receptive, when we are taking in concepts, that we are fundamentally active and creating the very reality which we purport to merely apprehend. In terms of translation, that means drawing attention to the activity of the reader in the process. It’s about fostering a collaborative co-creation of the translated work. Translation is not just about the translator.
IA: Yeah! The reader’s dialectical synthesis of opposing dimensions in the translation is in the best sense a determinate negation of the whole. That is to say, in synthesizing for herself in a way that’s ultimately productive of the piece for her—which is effectively all the piece that there is; it’s different pieces for different people—the reader is ideally negating the actual object that there now is. She ends up with her own synthesized version. I think maybe a virtue of our translation is that it helps to foreground this activity, which is of course always there any time you’re reading, and which is the reader’s central contribution to all translation. It’s a motion of thought that the reader’s responsible for.
AC: Yeah, which is part of the point. That it is happening all time, but that we need a heightened awareness of that—with respect to the translation itself just like with any other medium. That’s kind of critical leverage that the translation has.
IA: Which is exactly in line with Benjamin’s aims for a dialectical education. I mean, part of what he was trying to do, with the radio shows with children in particular, was something pedagogical; it’s something that’s about bringing to the fore an experience, a kind of responsibility for the production of experience, for negotiating the received, and that happens . . . you know, we’ve been talking about it all at the level of form in this conversation, but it happens equally at the level of content, if you think about the specific stories he’s telling about dogs . . . It’s about taking the familiar and rendering it strange, in order to foreground the way that ultimately one is always making the familiar for oneself, that the familiar is actually never entirely pre-made; it is being made in an ongoing way, and you’re doing it.

The second part of this interview will post on Monday, November 16 and focuses on the reproduction of True Stories About Dogs.