Altermodernity and the Ethics of Translation
Michael Larson
Point Park University

This paper intersects themes from Paul Ricoeur with the work of Nicolas Bourriaud on the ethics of translation. Bourriaud's conception of "altermodernity" involves an aesthetic of wandering and translation. Translation becomes an ethical theme in Bourriaud's work as he develops a rethinking of contemporary subjectivity in his work The Radicant. Bourriaud emphasizes a spirit of open communication through which meaning and subjectivity are neither lost to the wind nor bound by stable positions and traditions. This spirit is expressed in an ethic of translation where, as Ricoeur indicates, "its happiness" lies in an opening of relation even though "absolute translation" is itself impossible. Considering the reflections of Bourriaud and Ricoeur on this theme opens possibilities for ethical and aesthetic dispositions that allow for the construction of meaning and a tactics of identification while avoiding the dead ends of essentialism and relativism.

This essay explores the ethics of translation by intersecting themes from Paul Ricoeur's late writings on relationality and translation with the work of art theorist Nicolas Bourriaud. Bourriaud has coined the term "altermodernity" to describe the current emergence of practices of subjectivity and relationality in art and culture that demonstrate a break from the themes of post-modernity, re-imagining possible futures and new perspectives on the present. This alter-modernity is not a return to essentialism or a thinking of destinies. It rather involves taking the precariousness and ungrounding of things as a source of positivity, seeking to take up the modernist ethos of creation from a constitutively inauthentic position.

In the course of this work, Bourriaud has also developed a philosophy of "radicant" subjectivity that maintains the place of the uncanny in becoming. It is a conceptualizing of existence between the chaotic fluidity of the rhizomic thought of Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze and a more stable sense of orientation. To be radicant is to be able to actively make one's place in the world, in relation with others, without being bound in place. It is a subjectivity of wandering and contingency inspired from the "attitude of modernity" that Michel Foucault associates with Charles Baudelaire. Foucault associates this attitude with a respect for the realities of the present and a will to imagine how these realities might be otherwise -- that is, how our perceived limits may be transgressed. This entails not only a relation to the world, but an active relation to oneself: one creates oneself as a sort of aesthetic practice. Bourriaud situates this ethos within a constitutively relational understanding of art and politics. He notes that "[m]odern art has led to a creative ethics, rebellious to the norm, whose first imperative can be formulated as follows: make your life a work of art" (2009a, 17 (my translation)). However, the ethics that Bourriaud posits as appropriate to rethinking modernity is constitutively relational, rather than messianic or heroic (as with some modernist visions of subjectivity). His notion of relational aesthetics generally involves the construction of spaces and events allowing for new and uncanny modes of communication and being-together, opening potential space for critique and creativity.

Bourriaud's thinking of altermodernity resists teleological and essentialist designations. Radicant subjectivity involves putting down roots without being bound by them. Taking our situations as precarious and contingent, without visions of closure or stable origins, means being at home in a world where home is not static and secure. The type of ethics that Bourriaud associates with altermodernity is thus an "ethics of translation" that emphasizes that our relations are not between identical subjects in a strictly definable environment.

The manner in which Bourriaud elaborates this ethics of translation relates strongly to Paul Ricoeur's work on translation, but this connection is not made by Bourriaud himself. It is my contention that making this connection by bringing Ricoeur's work into discussion with that of Bourriaud will allow us to get a deeper appreciation of the sense of the ethicality of Bourriaud's radicant thinking of altermodernity. This translative effort of engaging Ricoeur's thinking in the context of Bourriaud's work is an effort well-suited to the manner in which each author conceives of subjectivity and communication.

So let us consider then what we mean by "altermodernity." Bourriaud defines altermodernity "as that moment when it became possible for us to produce something that made sense starting from an assumed heterochrony, that is, from a vision of human history as constituted from multiple temporalities, disdaining the nostalgia for the avant-garde and indeed for any era -- a positive vision of chaos and complexity" (2009b, 13). As such, "altermodernity... is a matter of replacing the question of origin with that of destination. 'Where should we go?' That is the modern question par excellence" (2009c, 40). It is significant here that the idea of a "destination" remains in question for us: it is not decided, but remains to-come. The question of modernity remains constitutively open.

In his works collected in Relational Aesthetics, Bourriaud had already begun to diagnose the problems of postmodernism that he would go on to confront with his concept of the altermodern. There, he characterizes postmodernity by two dominant attitudes, the first being early postmodernity's sense of loss, of living in an age after the grand narratives and the ideal of progress associated with modernity. The second attitude grows out of the first and consists in a proliferation of essences via postmodern multiculturalism. In his essay "Relational Form" he criticizes Jean-François Lyotard for "half-bemoaning" the loss of grand narratives in architecture and "condemning" architects in the post-modern period to merely creating "minor modifications". Bourriaud, however, asks if this supposed "condemnation" can rather be taken as a "chance." He writes, "This 'chance' can be summed up in just a few words: learning to inhabit the world in a better way, instead of trying to construct it based on a preconceived idea of historical evolution" (2002, 13). Rather than approaching the turn from universalism as a loss or a "condemnation," might we not be better served by approaching this turn as the presentation of an opportunity? While Lyotard gives us the imperative to "wage war on totality" and implores us to "be witnesses to the unpresentable" (1996, 437), Bourriaud takes subjectivity and representation outside of this dialectical scheme: "[i]t is not modernity that is dead, but its idealistic and teleological version" (2002, 13). Altermodernity is thus a re-opening of possibilities, or of the positive imagination associated with modernity, but in a context of contemporaneity that is unbound from an essentialist notion of roots and a pre-given endpoint.

In "waging war on totality" and questing for closure, we might see the impossibility of the grand narrative that has hovered over the postmodern era and been felt as a mark of loss under which we have lived; we might see the "sublime unrepresentable." This was the messianic dream of triumphal modernism lingering as a memory in the unconscious of postmodernity; as a loss, it had cast a shadow over our constitution of meaning [1]. This phase of postmodernity constitutes a work of mourning, but it is a work left incomplete. Unable or unwilling to free ourselves from these lost dreams, we postmoderns lingered in the impossibility of our accomplishment. We had not managed to move on from the object of loss.

But what hold must the phantoms of origin and closure have upon us [2]? Losing the dream of authentic closure need not bind us to thinking of meaning and creation as simply fallen and lacking in positivity. Thinking our share in this world outside of these shadows requires a different ontological and relational vantage point.

Although the postmoderns called for a rejection of the dialectical construct of totality, manifestations of essentialism found their way back into postmodernism in the form of a proliferation of essences through an ethics of multiculturalism. Rather than accepting the precarious contingency of co-existence as the constitutive ground for making sense of our world, some under the banner of multiculturalism opted to see necessity burst into myriad pieces -- a world of differing essentialist identities and proper roots.

In place of the multicultural ethics of postmodernism, Bourriaud promotes an ethics of translation. He finds that "translation may represent that 'basic ethical effort' that has been mistakenly associated with recognition of the other as such. For translation always implies adapting the meaning of a proposition, enabling it to pass from one code to another, which implies a mastery of both languages but also implies that neither is self-evident." He insists that "every translation is inevitably incomplete" (2009c, 30). Radicant subjectivity itself involves what Bourriaud calls "precarious enrootings" whereby the subject comes into contact with new locations and strangers. Each of these "enrootings" involves an effort of translation. This conception of subjectivity involves continued movement and displacement. For Bourriaud, there is subjectivity (just as there is meaning in our communication), "but one that is not reducible to a stable, closed, and self-contained identity... it is movement that ultimately permits the formation of an identity" (55). Again, this thinking comes quite close in certain respects to the work of Ricoeur.

Richard Kearney, who writes the introduction to Ricoeur's work On Translation, states that the self, for Ricoeur, is "an engaged self that only finds itself after it has traversed the field of foreignness and returned to itself again, altered and enlarged... othered" (2007, 153). This "othering" can be read as an ethical and aesthetic approach to co-existence. Kearney also sees in Ricoeur's thought that "the question of human identity, or more exactly the answer to the question 'who are you?', always entails translation between the self and others both within the self and outside the self" (Kearney 2006, xix). For each, subjectivity and translation are intimately intertwined, and for each, meaning is necessarily unfinished. For Ricoeur, the identity of a self is not to be found in an image of the Same, and neither is the meaning of translation to be found in a pure and objective rendering. The work of translation, like the work of mourning, involves being able to move away from the object of loss.

Movement is important for the ethics of translation, and is imperative to Bourriaud's conception of altermodernity, which emphasizes an aesthetic of wandering, referencing Baudelaire on modern subjectivity. For Bourriaud, this aesthetic is what remains as a positive mark of that model of modernism after the dreams of infinite progress and the essentialist visions of humankind's destiny have passed on. It is not a matter of reviving the dandy or the flâneur as they were in the time of Baudelaire; the wanderer is not a specific type. She is neither bound by an origin nor locked on a pre-determined path; instead, she crosses borders and comes into contact with strangers, and if she returns, she does not return identical to who she was before.

Not held in judgment by an idealized notion of static identity and authenticity, the wanderer is free to make of herself something she was neither born nor destined to be, or to make her home in constellation with others without binding or being bound by them. In this context, translation becomes the means of rethinking ethicality for a radicant understanding of subjectivity. As Bourriaud explains, "[t]o be radicant means setting one's roots in motion, staging them in heterogeneous contexts and formats, denying them the power to completely define one's identity, translating ideas, transcoding images, transplanting behaviors, exchanging rather than imposing" (2009c, 22). This ethics is even made an imperative: as Bourriaud writes in The Radicant, "we must reach the stage of translation" (28). To consider what this ethics entails and how it is integral to this conception of modern subjectivity will require some ontological considerations. Linking up with the "ontological paradigm" of translation put forward by Paul Ricoeur in the essays of On Translation allows us to develop the sort of aesthetic disposition that this worldview entails.

Pathways between Ricoeur's and Bourriaud's work open when considering the sources that inform their respective approaches to an ethic of translation. The title of one such work to which Ricoeur makes frequent reference is Antoine Berman's L'Épreuve de l'étranger, a title which implies a struggle and a test in the experience with a stranger, a struggle which is oppositional to the proper and prohibits the same from enclosing upon itself. Berman's title expresses the ontology of translation and the ethical disposition appropriate to it, an ontological position similar to that expressed by Jean-Luc Nancy in that the proper is constitutively improper, or inauthentic. In other words, there is no pure sense of, or enclosure of meaning in, existence. The struggle of this experience of the foreign is not indicative of a state that could be sublimated under a third, or ideal, mode of communication. The struggle of the experience is constitutive. The experience of relationality uproots the would-be isolated subject from its (supposedly) proper place.

In "Translation as Challenge and Source of Happiness," Ricoeur's thinking is contextualized around Berman's title, "the test of the foreign." He posits translation as a "work of mourning" relating to Walter Benjamin's "messianic expectation" regarding translation (Ricoeur 2006, 16). Benjamin's essay "The Task of the Translator" invokes the ideal of translation as a desire for the one true language, a unity in which translation would be unnecessary. Here, the act of translation is a necessity that would ideally be overcome. But, as Benjamin writes, "all translation is only a somewhat provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of languages. An instant and final rather than a temporary and provisional solution of this foreignness remains out of the reach of mankind, at any rate, it eludes direct attempt" (1969, 75). In the task of the translator, "the great motif of integrating many tongues into one true language is at work". Yet, "this language is one in which [we] will never communicate -- for [sentences, literature, judgments] remain dependent on translation; but in it the languages themselves, supplemented and reconciled in their mode of signification, harmonize" (77). This pure or "true" language, which is impossible for us to live in, is still that which lies behind translation for Benjamin, that which underlies communication.

But is such a "pure" language actually the desire of communication? It would seem for Benjamin that relationality is only driven by an impulse to transcend the space between and achieve closure with the other, or to have our communication consecrated by an outside authority. This conception of relationality is intertwined with the mythology of a "true" language that would bridge all differences, and this conception of ontology is entrenched in the modernist ethos. However, conceiving of ontology otherwise, via the ontological paradigm of translation in Ricoeur, will help us to understand Bourriaud's altermodern ethics of translation.

This ethos expresses the disposition to openness and sharing found in the relational ontology of Jean-Luc Nancy. Nancy asserts that "relation happens only in the withdrawal of what would unite or necessarily communicate me to others and to myself, in the withdrawal of the continuity of the being of existence, without which there would be no singularity but only being's immanence to itself" that would constitute an enclosed stasis devoid of living relation and movement (Nancy 1993, 69). Nancy's thinking orients (or perhaps disorients) the sense of being as being-exposed in the spacing of a world between us. Being-with-others is the primordial condition of our existence; there is no being-in-the-world apart from this being in common. However, our being in common, for Nancy, is never a fused unity or communion in some external truth. The space between us is open to communication, futurity and decision.

There is no sense to a subject before co-existence. In fact, there is no place for a thinking of a before in this regard. Emphasizing a point from Heidegger's ontology in Being and Time, Nancy emphasizes that being is constitutively being-with-others. The solitary existence of the cogito, of isolated consciousness, has no sense and can only be the thought experiment of one who exists as being-with-others. Nor can there any sense to a static essence apart from the movements and acts of singular, existing beings. The spacing of our world is shared and distributed between these beings: it is the spacing of translation.

Such a relational ontology is complemented by Ricoeur when he insists we must "give up the ideal of the perfect translation" and claims that "this renunciation alone makes it possible to live" (2006, 8). To reject the neurotic impulse for closure is to embrace the risk and precariousness that comes with the "test of foreign." For Ricoeur, "the practice of translation remains a risky operation," but openness to the share of co-existence necessarily involves risk (33). For Ricoeur, "the self is not grounded within itself, but linked to otherness... in a manner that precludes totalization" (Venema 2000, 151). As such, there is no possibility of a totally secured identity or a guaranteed meaning in our becoming. The act of speaking, even speaking to oneself in one's own primary language, is an act of translation: "[t]o speak is already to translate" (Kearney 2007, 150). In speaking, we open ourselves to a realm where meaning cannot close upon itself and cannot locate itself within a perfect order of the same.

The goal of totality implies completion, but this implies a form of stasis. Ricoeur's ethics of translation aims towards a form of relation that is open and in movement, i.e. an ethics that is responsive to life and is full of life itself.

Benjamin references Rudolf Pannwitz, who claims that "the basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue" (Benjamin 1969, 81). This notion is consistent with Berman's claim that a "bad translation" is one that carries out a systematic negation of the strangeness of the foreign work (1992, 5).

So how might we think of the space shared out between us in the encounter of translation without being subsumed by the foreign and without seeking to dominate the other? How can the experience of relationality and communication be kept open? The ethics of translation emphasizes a precariousness and movement in making sense of our world. (Why should a world and an existence that are contingent and in motion be assigned a meaning or an ethics that is determined and static?) To grasp too hard is to lose the sense of translation. For Berman, "the ethical aim of translating is by its very nature opposed to this injunction: The essence of translation is to be an opening, a dialogue, a cross-breeding, a decentering. Translation is 'a putting in touch with,' or it is nothing" (4); it opposes the dominance of one side over another; it is relation without sublation.

Ricoeur continues this emphasis when he suggests that Benjamin's "nostalgia for the original language" gives no help to the practice of translation (2006, 16). From an ontological perspective in which there is no place for a "proper" origin or an identifying essence given in advance, we open ourselves to a relation involving risk, precariousness and wandering. We become who we are in our translation between ourselves, across borders and into new contexts of cultural and aesthetic constellations. The form of hospitality suited to this thinking of modernity is not an austere reverence in the presence of the other, as if we could know him as an in-itself in advance, and thus as if we could know ourselves in distinction; rather, the form of hospitality suited to the ethics of translation, suited to our radicant subjectivity, is a welcoming which takes neither oneself nor the stranger as given. The two are not ineffably foreign because the opening of communication is an opening of new paths of relationality.

We do not meet in a pure presence and we do we commune in a pure share of Truth. Yet, after we cross paths we may not take ourselves for exactly who we were prior to our encounter. The sharing of existence implies risks and uncertainties. It is not a matter of taking in the other with respect to an orienting theme or identifying mark, but of opening to the fact that relationality is constitutively abandoned (without recourse to an essential truth) and exposed (opened to a world with others). There is no unity hiding behind our encounters, nor any script by which our communication should make sense. To live in a world after the death of grand narratives is not to languish in the void, but to take the precariousness and openness of existence as an opening of possibility. Let us not be strangled by our roots, but lift them up in moving in a world that remains full of life.

If the attitude of modernity is to envision our present otherwise, then Nicolas Bourriaud's thematic of altermodernity conceptualizes just such an attitude. Within the complex lines of thought that have made up modernism, there is an aesthetic of working to navigate a world that is uncertain, discontinuous and ruptured. This approach to modernity remains important for us. Bourriaud terms our emerging era "alter-modern," for we have been broken from traditional "ties that bind." Precariousness, wandering and translation are marks of the alter-modern landscape. Purity and destiny no longer make sense for us [3]; alter-modernity is an-other-modernity, taking up from the points left to the side of the predominant idealizations of modernism. Rethinking modernity and subjectivity as an ongoing translation does not leave us without place or modes of identity, but it also does not bind us to them.

Wandering and exile are prominent themes of contemporaneity, and thus of altermodern aesthetics, but the radicant subject is not simply cast into the negative on the underside of the dialectic. For the radicant subject, Wandering and exile take on a positive openness of exploration, encounters and creation [4]. The would-be void of meaning becomes an opening for making sense of our being in common.

Precariousness, contingency and constitutive inauthenticity are marks of the altermodern. If modernity was always about making sense of a precarious and uncertain world, then altermodernity involves a multiplicity of subtler negotiations. The positivity of contingency connects to an ethic of translation. Of course, as Ricoeur insists, "there is no absolute criterion of what would count as a good translation" (2006, 34): it happens when those who share in the encounter allow themselves to be affected by the experience, rather than conquering or yielding.

An ethics that might respond to the living and be of support to life cannot seek to impose determination upon contingency nor hope to divide reality into more or less true components that would filter our communication. As Ricoeur has shown us, there is no "pre-lapsarian" unity to be sought before Babel, no "third" by which we might assimilate our dialogues, no pure image of the Same by which to govern meaning. For Ricoeur, "a language that is full of life" is one that accepts the loss of perfection, for what is gained is life itself, life in an altermodern time (25). The political task par excellence, then, is to keep open the space of relation and decision, a politics of "what cannot be finished" (Nancy 1993, 80). To keep open the space of communication, we must be on guard against attempts to bind ourselves to an origin, a telos or a point of sublimation by taking up an ethics of translation, to create a world that cannot be finished [5].


[1] It may be interesting to consider parallels with Nietzsche's remarks in The Gay Science, sec. 108, regarding the death of God.

[2] A reader asked me if our origins still have implications for our how or where we wander, for how we practice translation. I would have to insist that they absolutely do. We use our "facticity" or our formative experiences as the materials for creation, and it is likely unavoiadable that they affect who we are and the types of choices we are presented with. That said, what we do with them, how we relate to them, and how we put them to work is an open issue.

[3] They certainly, however, remain prominent and dangerous themes of reactionary political discourse.

[4] Of course, neither the bourgeois privilege of the post-collegiate backpacker nor, more importantly, the forced "wanderings" of many in exile -- of refugees and the dispossessed -- are a form of liberation. The plights of those in exile are frequently, as I take it, the results of the acts of others to define by notions of essentialism, purity, destiny and other forms of enclosed thinking. Ultimately, I believe the same sorts of notions which bind people into static identities are the same notions which inevitably make others into cast-offs. I do not at all intend to lessen the plight of those forced to move and be "not at home," but I do find the "ethics of translation" here to be a means of partially addressing problems which add to the burden of exile. By undoing the attachment to the roots that doubly burden those forced to wander (i.e. by doing so when those "strangers" they may encounter see them as outsider, foreigner, alien, etc.), the ethics of translation can open alternative conceptualizations that engender hospitality and welcoming.

[5] I would like to thank those who have kindly provided such helpful commentary in their reviews, which I have taken into serious consideration.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. 1969. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Shocken Books.

Berman, Antoine. 1992. The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany. Trans. Stefan Heyvaert. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. 2009a. Formes de vie: l'art moderne et l'invention de soi. Paris: Denoël.

-----, ed. 2009b. Altermodern. London: Tate Publishing.

-----. 2009c. The Radicant. Trans. James Gussen and Lili Porten. New York: Sternberg Press.

-----. 2002. Relational Aesthetics. Trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods. Dijon: Les Presses du Réel.

Kearney, Richard. 2007. "Paul Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Translation." Research in Phenomenology 37: 147-159.

-----. 2006. "Ricoeur's Philosophy of Translation." On Translation. Paul Ricoeur. New York: Routledge. vii-xx.

Lyotard, Jean- François. 1996. "What is Postmodernism?" The Continental Philosophy Reader. Eds. Richard Kearney and Mara Rainwater. New York: Routledge. 428-437.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. 1993. The Experience of Freedom. Trans. Bridget McDonald. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Ricoeur, Paul. 2006. On Translation. Trans. Eileen Brennan. New York: Routledge.

Venema, Henry Isaac. 2000. Identifying Selfhood: Imagination, Narrative, and Hermeneutics in the Thought of Paul Ricoeur. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.


Michael Larson has an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Toledo (Ohio). Currently he teaches at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.