Displacement is the New Translation

We asked American poet Kenneth Goldsmith to share his views on political art with us. Here’s what he has to say:

Digital culture might provide a parallel for the movement of bodies in meatspace. Massive migrations of population displace bodies in ways uncannily similar to the way data packets are distributed across the networks. We can think of porous borders, integration, and sanctioned immigration as translation, in the literary sense as well as the cultural. The other model — and the one that is more common — is displacement, which enacts and parallels modernist notions of radical disjunction. This model is jagged and rough, but is ultimately is the reality that most of us live with.

Translation is the ultimate humanist gesture. Polite and reasonable, it is an overly cautious bridge builder. Always asking for permission, it begs understanding and friendship. It is optimistic yet provisional, pinning all hopes on a harmonious outcome. In the end, it always fails, for the discourse it sets forth is inevitably off-register; translation is an approximation of discourse.

Displacement is rude and insistent, an unwashed party crasher — uninvited and poorly behaved — refuses to leave. Displacement revels in disjunction, imposing its meaning, agenda, and mores on whatever situation it encounters. Not wishing to placate, it is uncompromising, knowing full well that through stubborn insistence, it will ultimately prevail. Displacement has all the time in the world. Beyond morals, self-appointed, and taking possession because it must, displacement acts simply — and simply acts.

Globalization engenders displacement. People are displaced, objects are displaced, language is displaced. In a global circulatory system, components are interchangeable; there is no time — and certainly not enough energy — for understanding. Instead, there is begrudging acceptance and a blinkered lack of understanding, ultimately yielding to resignation. Nobody seems to notice anymore. Translation is outdated. Advertising signs in ballparks are presented in foreign languages, completely incomprehensible to the vast majority of the meatspace audience, addressing instead the far-flung televised, webcast audience; bypassing the local for the global, embracing the unseen, the unknown, the elsewhere.

Displacement is modernism for the twenty-first century, a child of montage, psychogeography, and the objet trouvé. Unlike much modernism, displacement doesn’t move toward disjunction; it trucks in wholes. Schooled in Photoshop and reared in cut-and-paste, the world is now our desktop. Drop-and-drag architecture: pick up something and plunk it somewhere; it soon becomes natural. Displacement is Duchamp for architecture. Frank Gehry is a master of architectural displacement; Bilbao — a fantasy displaced off a CAD screen — soon becomes a beloved Basque landmark. Automated recontextualization. Email the plans in — 3D print them elsewhere. Displacement answers to no one mostly because there’s no one on the other end to take the call. Displacement is magical realism without the magic.

Displacement never explains itself, never apologizes. In 2010 at Columbia University’s “Rethinking Poetics” conference, the Mexican-American poet Mónica de la Torre, in the middle of her presentation, broke out, full on, for ten minutes entirely in Spanish, leaving all those who pay lip service to multilingualism and diversity angry because they couldn’t understand what she was saying. De la Torre thereafter resumed her talk in English, never mentioning her intervention. No symbols where none intended. Comprehension is optional; displacement is concretely demonstrative.

Translation is quaint, a boutique pursuit from a lost world; displacement is brutal fact. Translation is slow food: a good meal with friends, in a warm environment; displacement is not being able to read the menu in fluorescent-lit refractivity that appeared out of nowhere onto Main Street. Translation is faux nostalgia for the LP; displacement is the torrent-laced MP3: shattered, embodied and disembodied. Displacement is a four-dimensional object, at one expanding and contracting, unified while exploding, devouring everything in its sight.

If art is in any way to be relevant, it must address such profound circumstances, head-on or obliquely, metaphorically or directly. Today, the networks and cultural production are one, modeled after and enabled by the digital.

Read more in this debate: Dickon Stone , Hans Nieswandt, Klaus Staeck.

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