Poetry’s Intrinsic Ontology of Change
Plasticity, Translation and the Work of Catherine Malabou
The fragmentation of deconstruction can feel liberating, a rush of loosed energy. But it can also feel untethered, endless; panic inducing. While it allows for each of us and our writing to be multiple, it also prevents us from ever feeling grounded. Plasticity as a driving method in translation allows for the destruction and explosion of the original text as well as its complete rebuilding into something new, forging pathways into the poem and making way for the next poem. It is this dual experience of deconstruction that Nietzsche invokes in The Untimely Meditations. There he writes:
To determine this degree, and therewith the boundary at which the past has to be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present, one would have to know exactly how great the plastic power of a man, a people, a culture is: I mean by plastic power the capacity to develop out of oneself in one’s own way, to transform and incorporate into oneself what is past and foreign, to heal wounds, to replace what has been lost, to recreate broken molds.
My own curiosity about where language goes after fragmentation began with a conversation with Catherine Malabou. It was August of 2017 and we were in Switzerland, walking together down a steep hill in the cool of the morning sunshine. We were halfway through the month-long session at the European Graduate School, and the days had been cold and snowy. Earlier that week there had been a goat festival on our only day off, and the bells on the animals’ necks woke us all up early after spending a night drinking beer and caramel shots in Saas-Fee’s only bar. That morning we had finished another session of Malabou’s seminar on the history of the symbol – a session, as was usual for me, that I took to be all about language. Which meant that, as we walked, I spoke about how her theories seemed to speak to literature, how I wanted to apply them to my own work; how that meant applying her theory to the production of texts. Which meant mainly, in terms of my own writing, the translation of poetry. She was enthusiastic.
Malabou’s enthusiasm was because she felt this kind of work could, and should, change how we view art and the making of art. I also came to see that a plastic understanding of translation changes the meaning of authorship in drastic, radical, anti-authoritarian ways.
Nietzsche’s concept of plasticity is at the heart of Malabou’s philosophy of the symbolic. There is one key word upon which they both rely: “recreate.” In my own work I find that language is always changing me as much as I change it – that it is recreating me as I rework and reshape it. This is as much a feeling as it is a philosophy. Still, translation, under Nietzsche-cum-Malabou’s plastic paradigm, is itself an act of re-creation. It is always making something out of something, not something out of nothing.
It would be natural to blend plasticity here with what seem to be similar terms like elasticity or flexibility. But plastic, in Malabou’s sense, means more than just malleability. Plasticity is subject to real destruction and real change, something that Malabou clarifies in her book The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic. There she defines plasticity in Hegelian terms, as “a capacity to receive form and a capacity to produce form.” She has examined the plastic powers of our brains while working with neuroscientists, merging the humanities and sciences in distinct and politically potent ways. She has learned from neuroscientists about neuroplasticity, the idea that our brain never stops changing, that it is much more open to being altered, even into old age, than we once believed. If, she reasons, our brains have this plastic power, then so does our language. The word, the sign, and the symbol do not emerge from some otherworldly place, but are made new by previous iterations of themselves. The brain adapts to change and also changes what happens next. Each time we carry out an activity it is repeated but also altered by the differences within the experience. The translation holds the experience of the original as well as the next poem within it.
Building on this concept of Malabou’s, I would argue that artistic practice is itself always plastic. It is why an artist is always writing the same poem or painting the same painting throughout her entire life. Such repetition is at the core of plasticity – which is not to say that repetition means sameness. There is always a chance for change in the spaces of the repetition. Or perhaps it can be said this way: in artistic practice the gesture is always the same but the results of the gesture change.
Even the most banal understanding of translation sees repetition as inherent to it, as a remaking which is the same but different. Translation is always the same but always different. Writing is always the same but always different. This isn’t a curse if we allow ourselves a new understanding of what repetition actually is.
This is certainly what I find as a poet and translator of poetry; repetition is a fundamental tool in my practice. Language itself is a series of repetitions and patterns and essentially the only way language makes itself communicable across boundaries. If each poem we write, then, is the same gesture, it means that translation mimics that very action. And this means that translation, despite being a repetition, creates something new each time the poem is rewritten.
In a recent article entitled “Repetition, Revenge, Plasticity” Malabou goes into further detail on the plastic and the repetitive as a way of breaking free from our fear of finitude – in my case, from the fear of a final, definitive, or perfect translation. The plastic makes and unmakes all at once, she argues, it accepts change as its ontology. If this is right, if change is the ontology of language, then this changes our concept not only of translation, but of “the original” as well. In her essay, Malabou examines the superhuman and our primordial desire to overcome time through immortality and permanence. To remove immortality or permanence from the equation means the text is no longer seeking to overcome time, which means that no version is after complete mastery. Malabou writes, thinking with Nietzsche:
…instead of thinking of repetition as the return of the same—that “most abysmal thought”—he [the ubermensch]learns to recognize the space for difference it opens. That is, he learns to affirm what is repeated, thus transforming repetition itself. Instead of passively bearing what happens, one can desire it, plastically.
That is, one can see repetition as an opportunity for destruction and recreation; for change and even newness.
There are a few recent books that lay bare this plastic concept of translation. A particularly strong example of these is Subsister by Uljana Wolf, which was translated from the German by Sophie Seita. This book presents readers with both English and German versions of the text, and it is often unclear which is intended to be read as an original. Even more, both sets of poems include words from the other language. Sometimes three or four versions of a poem are presented as it moves between the two languages. One of my favorite of these blendings is “CAN YOU SHOW ME ON SE MAPPE.” It reads:
we wanted to lean over this phrase like a charted city, to make
a point, create a mouthspace, myth of hear or say: hier, in this
net of tongues, one path was well-sprung, a mistake, mys-
tique. lingua franca stuck on our foreheads, almost touch-
ing and already legend: you are here, ich bin wer, a game of
routes, but whatever we said the words did not arrive.
Oftentimes I am unsure which language I am reading as I read this book. Suddenly I feel German words naturally in my mouth, their meaning as clear as day. In the introduction to the book Yoko Tawada writes that Wolf and Seita “leave the gaps intact.” Gaps imply movement, like faults in the earth. They are the space where the change is happening. This space is also the space where the destruction and rebuilding of plasticity occurs.
I’ve recently worked on some different poetry translation projects with plasticity as my theoretical grounding. One is a book of contemporary Italian poetry by Vito Bonito. These are short, difficult poems in the lineage of Giovanni Pascoli and the hermeneutic poets, but also of Werner Herzog and Harmony Korine. Certainly working on this translation under a plastic motor scheme was a choice I made – but it was also how the language demanded to be written. I was repeating but also making something new. With Bonito’s poems I was trying to find a way to make his powerful language exert a similar force through my own language.
Even more, the act of translating made space for me to write, because the work I translated not only changed the original poem forever, but the work itself also changed me. It was an ongoing process of changing each other. Canadian poet Erín Moure speaks of something similar to this phenomenon in her book of translations and reflections, O Resplandor. There she writes:
I can’t believe I lost the translation I was working on in the field… I wish I could reconstitute the translation, because one poem teaches me the path of the next, and I want to go on.
Like Moure, each poem I translate creates pathways to new poems of my own and translating Bonito has affected my own poetry deeply. Let me give an example; first of translation. Here is a poem from his book Soffiati via paralleled by my translation.
scendono le bambine di neve
scendono in luce perpetua
lo sai nessuna manina
ci tiene la tua
lo sai c’è chi muore per noie fiorisce sugli occhi la bua
le bambine di neve
la pelle a sonagli
è un mantello di fame
they come down the snow babies
they come down in perpetual light
you know no little hand
you know that there’s who dies for us
and flowers on the eyes the boo-boo
they come down blind
the snow babies
the skin with a rattle
is a coat of hunger
It isn’t that the poems are exactly the same. My translation is one step, it is an attempt to create a new iteration of a given form. I take his language in and destroy it with my own notions of what the poems is. And then I make it anew. Plasticity is both the destructive explosion of the original poem and the recreation. However, it must be noted that the recreation, like the original poem itself, is not final. Mine is one in an endless chain of poems to be destroyed and made: none of the versions of the poems can overcome mortality and live into permanence with a fixed meaning.
I see that by being with his poems my own language grows. Translation made space for me to write. Here is one of my own poems in which the effect recreating Bonito’s poems has had on me is, I think, quite evident:
unused flesh gets glossy
like a photo with a timestamp
glowing orange in one corner
yr feet round and red
glide across the floor
This poem, written after having spent time with Bonito’s poems, picks up not only his forms but his imagery and some of his themes. I find myself grateful for this; his poems have made real material changes within my own language. If we understand this with plasticity in mind then the work of translation I have done on his poems is not pointing back to some intangible “original,” it is pointing forward, outward; the translation is leading to the very material, very real, next poem.
Translation, when we are able to look at it and practice it plastically, is a deeper reflection on what language is and what it potentially can be. It is for this reason that plasticity lies at the center of the future of writing and translation. A plastic relationship with language changes our relationship to literature by changing our relationship to time. By changing our relationship to time a shift in our relationship to the originary, the primordial, is initiated: the forces at work in the symbolic exchange of language itself and the motivations for which we attempt to reach the other through language begin to shift. Plastic translation can be a new grounding not just for translation but for writing as a whole, it can help to construct a writing that does not produce such discrete boundaries between the roles of poet and translator. Both are artists making something from something.
Understanding translation, poetry, art, in this way would mean operating from a feminist conception of mastery, authorship, and originality. And yet it would still be one which allows for the solidification and defense of identity and voice – something that deconstruction has, historically, had a difficult time defending.
On that morning walk through Saas-Fee after her seminar Catherine Malabou, through her willingness to collaboratively discuss these ideas as they change and to change with them, proved that she took plasticity seriously in practice as well as in theory. Translating and writing plastically is just such a practice of collaboration, one that entails a letting go of complete authorship. It is in this way that Malabou’s writings have forever changed how I understand not only my work as a translator, but also as a teacher who attempts to help other writers feel the excitement of poetry, to make tangible the joy at a text being formed, deformed, reformed innumerable times by each us. The reader/translator changes the text and is changed by it. Every poem is both lyrical and experimental, tearing with the past but also keeping some of its sharp, jagged pieces for the next iteration.
Allison Grimaldi-Donahue is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Words Without Borders, Electric Literature, The Brooklyn Rail, BOMB and other journals. She is a PhD candidate at the European Graduate School and she teaches at John Cabot University, Rome. This essay is adapted from a talk given at Smith College’s Art of Translation Symposium in March of 2018.
Bonito, Vito M. Soffiati via. Il Ponte Del Sale. 2015.
Derrida, Jacques. The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. trans. Kauf and Ronell. University of Nebraska Press. 1988.
Donahue, Allison Grimaldi. Body to Mineral. Publication Studio Vancouver. 2016.
Malabou, Catherine The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic, trans. Lisabeth During. Routledge. 2005.
Malabou, Catherine “Repetition, Revenge, Plasticity” e-flux journal, Online, February 2018
Malabou, Catherine.Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction trans. Carolyn Shread.Columbia University Press. 2009.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Untimely Meditations. trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge University Press. 1997.
Wolf, Ulijana. trans. Sophie Setia. Subsisters: Selected Poems. Belladonna. 2017.