Q&A: Ira Allen and Anita Chari on Walter Benjamin (Part 2)

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 1 ran on Friday, November 13.

Technically speaking, what was the most difficult part of the production?

ANITA CHARI: When we’ve been talking about it, we’ve both ended up describing this work as operatic. I think that speaks to some of the difficulty of it, which is just that we are operating to produce a single object on multiple different levels. I mean, we have a text, a translation of a text, a musical composition’s score that is also a translation, and then we have musicians who are interpreting all these translations. And then we had to put it on the web and sync it up, of course. And make it be in the right format—if it is Adobe Flash or mp4, what’s the correct ultimate format for this and that, etc.

IRA ALLEN: I think that’s one of the things about digital humanities projects that everybody who does digital humanities knows, and that everybody who doesn’t sort of knows and that’s why they don’t do it . . . which is, it’s always actually kind of a huge hassle upfront, and then you work it out and find your way into things. One of the difficulties is that this is a prototype for our larger project translating more of these radio shows, which means that we are doing it all on a shoestring for now—like really a shoestring, with some donated time from the studio. More or less, almost donated . . .

AC: Well, I mean, I paid for it.

IA: So, you paid for the studio time, I paid for the animation, I mean, out of our own pockets. Because this is how you do things to start. And then I think about making it as fully operatic as it could be, which would be really awesome. Boy, having another $60,000 would sure help.


AC: Yeah, to be able to fully design it.

IA: Absolutely!

AC: Because design, the conceptual relevance of design, is something we kind of came to the edge of, and then once you start looking into the depths of how design can drive conceptual significance, you see that you can only go so far given constraints of capacity, time and money. Which is also to say how much further it can go. These translations aren’t a finished project. Also, I wouldn’t say it was difficult, but I think moving fluidly from the philosophical translation that you worked out, and then having that in my awareness and also trying to communicate that to another musician, and then, you know, having this other level of score that we needed to enact . . . it’s a broader band of conceptual production; we had to pool our awarenesses of as we were treating it, and that was a challenge but also what was so cool about it.

IA: Yeah. Because you had the German text, you had my text in English, you had your own sense of what’s important about it that requires translation, and you had Carol Genetti’s musical sensibilities to negotiate. That is a lot! I think one of the things I’m looking forward to in the next piece, which should be better funded, is to sort of move around with design possibilities more. The next one we have in mind, “The Mississippi Flood of 1927,” lends itself even more to the operatic; it’s about one of the greatest floods in the history of the U.S., seen by an alienated German Jew in part through a Mississippi man’s recounting of the loss of his brother. Bottom-line, I think having a bigger budget, especially to bring someone aboard to help with the video side of things, will be very helpful. Essentially, it’s what you were saying before—we have our own limits as people in our disciplinary silos, even if we’re pretty broad. We’re all autodidacts, of course. Everybody with a PhD is an autodidact; you can always pick up some other things. But to really take something to the next level, you need bigger collaborations with more good people.

What do you hope people learn from this project?

AC: Personally, one thing I hope people learn from this project is how much broader a scope we really have as theorists, philosophers, and rhetoricians—people doing theory, especially—how much more scope for creativity and production that we have, much more than most people tend to use, and how relevant our sensory capacities are in our work. That’s one thing I’m interested in.

IA: I feel like they will. I felt like I learned a lot of that working with you on the project. I am pretty logomaniacal. I think there are advantages to that, of course, but it’s not enough. I didn’t have as full of a view of the embodied possibilities of the project when we started working on it, and that was one of things that, for me, opened up in the challenge of collaboration. Collaboration in a strong sense is the challenge of letting go of your vision to work with somebody else’s vision, to be in the world with other people, which is tough. We are sort of trained to be people with intensely, if not monomaniacal, certainly coherent individual visions. Part of effective collaboration, part of digital humanities collaboration especially, multimodal collaboration, is sustaining a dissolution of the coherence of one’s own elaborate collection of concepts and understandings of things—it’s about sustaining that temporary incoherence that is part of conversation with somebody else who’s coming from a different worldview, who lives in a different lifeworld, apprehends a different world. I think some of the affective charge of the piece also speaks to that, which was really one of Benjamin’s deep concerns.

AC: Absolutely. I think the issue of collaboration that you brought up really gets at something I learned, that we both learned . . . how rich it can be to dwell in the conflict of collaboration.

IA: ’Cause yeah. We had some conflicts!

AC: Yeah and really recognizing the otherness of someone else’s process and vision, and yet also how that otherness works as part of a shared theoretical process . . . because ultimately, that became super generative for our theory. You came up with aspects of this that I never would have conceptualized, and then same thing with my music reshaping your concepts, vice versa. I think we discovered how important collaboration is and that what it means can be something much more than just sitting and writing together.

IA: I’m really grateful for the chance to do this interview because it gives us an opportunity to have that space to talk about it. I love what you just said, that collaboration isn’t just sitting and writing together. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with sitting and writing together—that’s how we wrote the article—but what it can mean is something much more intensive, and, I want to say, dialectically generative. It’s generative on the basis of actual oppositions and contradictions lived across different concrete media, and the exposing of the work through those contradictions, and the making of some kind of temporary unity out of them. It’s this process that makes products in the world, makes any newness, such newness as emerges, emerge at all.

AC: Totally.

IA: Just one more thing, then. I want to touch on the content because we didn’t talk about much about this, and it’s one of the things that I thought you did really interestingly, in the way you did the translation. Obviously, it’s called “True Stories about Dogs,” right? So, true stories about this animal that represents for us humans one of the absolutely central sort of lines or zones of indistinction between animal and human. It’s the dog, and Benjamin mentions the horse as kind of the only other thing that is as much a zone of indistinction (though as a cat companion I don’t know if that’s exactly true). Anyway, one of the things this particular text is useful for—and this is a piece of political theory Benjamin was offering to children, but still is theory ultimately—is seeing and feeling how it is possible to think through that zone of indistinction. So, you think about Agamben in The Open, and he’s looking at how, essentially, the rhetorical production of “the human” is centrally implicated in most of the things that we think of as inhumanity, barbarism and awfulness in late modernity, etc. And what Benjamin does in this piece is to trace out a “dog” that moves from thoroughly defamiliarized to barbarically “animal” to so very “human” in the class-struggle comraderie of brave Médor that the dog serves as a barometer for humanity—if he’s in solidarity with you, you’re properly human in some way. There’s a very intense motion into and through the idea of “dog” as a zone of indistinction in the ongoing production of ideas of “the human.” And what I think your sound translation does amazingly well is to place in dialogue something like “humanity” and “animality” without trying to find any kind of resolutive distinction. There’s no effort in the sound pieces to say “and this ultimately is what the dog is”; to the contrary, there’s an effort to say “this zone of indistinction is something we have to attend to,” and that’s something I hope people engage with in this piece and take away from it. Attending wholeheartedly to that zone of indistinction is an affect-rich experience and it’s crucial . . . it’s attending to that which is crucial to us becoming a version of whatever exactly we are that’s really livable.

AC: I think that is totally right.

What plans are there for production of other works by Benjamin?

IA: This is the first, and we hope to produce all of the radio shows for children in multimodal translation. We’re in the process of applying for digital humanities grants, which should give us the capital to produce a somewhat larger next version with the “Mississippi Flood” piece (which is obviously only ever more relevant today). After that, we should be moving toward multimodal translations with production values as high as popular electronic media, but still with this aim of dialectical education, with the aims Benjamin had for the children’s radio shows. We each have our own separate other projects, of course, as does our other collaborator, Rob Ryder at Illinois, but these translations are a going concern. Ultimately, I’d like to see us producing versions that are simultaneously attractive and disquieting to popular media, translations that can get picked up by The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, so on—maybe in cooperation with a university press. It’s frustrating to have to talk about money all the time, but the bottom-line is, you need resources to do massive collaborative projects, and that’s where this project’s going over the long haul. Next up, though, is “The Mississippi Flood of 1927.”

AC: And I would add to that some shorter-term ideas for this piece in particular include doing some kind of live performance of the work and ideally a kind of discussion of it alongside. The idea is to remain in a trajectory of transforming the discourses and the kinds of platforms that we use to connect our bodies to theory. And then the other thing we’ve been talking about is the possibility of an installation of sorts, which we don’t have specific plans for, but which could be a really interesting thing in conjunction with another of the multimodal translations.

IA: We should note, too, that we were grateful for and also impressed by the openness of Theory & Event and the Johns Hopkins University Press to this project. I think both JHUP and Theory & Event are a bit ahead of the curve in terms of readiness to think through what it’s going to mean—and it’s going to continue ever more to mean ever more—to produce electronic scholarship and digital humanities research that’s rigorously peer-reviewed and intensely multi-modal. That’s been a really great experience for us, and we’re grateful.

AC: Yeah, it’s wonderful to be that supported in this project. . And I think it points to a place where there’s something that is happening at a deeper level in terms of transforming the constraints we work with in academia when we do work like this. That’s a very promising thing, for us and for anyone who wants to do creative scholarship in academia.

IA: Yeah. Absolutely!

AC: Cool.