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The governing fantasy of this sort of translation is the fantasy of strict or rigid designation, a “widget” and an iPad being rigidly designated or, minimally, designable in all natural languages. We understand this fantasy of strictness or rigidity in two complementary though quite different senses. I say to my Nicaraguan partner, “Let’s make widgets,” and for him or her to understand me, my partner must first understand that what I am saying is, in fact, intentional and communicative speech, an expression with some sense to it and not just gibberish.

In this bare, stipulative sense, it is necessary that my partner grant that in my phrase there is sense, and that this sense is sufficiently independent of my “expression” and of the words themselves, that the sense of whatever it is that I’m saying, for instance “Let’s make widgets,” is transferable to Spanish. This bare double stipulation, that we are engaging in communicative, intentional expression, and that what is being expressed can be severed from whatever it is that expresses it, is necessarily true if there is to be translation, or so we believe. It is at any rate a condition for my seeking the services of a translator, whom I would not require if no communicative situation of this sort were stipulated or envisioned. (We could put it like this: for there to be translation, we have to agree, in some shared language, that there are “natural languages”—always more than one.)

Remark that this version of the widget-story has an important kinship to the stories that underwrite some theologies of translation, Pauline ones specifically: the severability, the circumcision, of letter from spirit is underwritten by, and in turn comes to underwrite, a tradition severing expression from content that may date to Socrates.

The second way in which we should understand the “strict” or “rigid” designation of the term “widget” is related to this theological strain, but derives most closely, of course, from Saul Kripke’s early work in what comes to be called modal semantics, where some linguistic unit, a name or a demonstrative, is said to be a rigid designator “if in every possible world it designates the same object.”3 In the world of the global factory we are in the presence of a highly simplified version of “identity across possible worlds”—perhaps, even, we are in the presence of the type or archetype of such identity across possible worlds. This is our ecology: the world of Mandarin or Spanish, the world of English, an object common to both, and two names, one in English, one in Mandarin or Spanish, designating that object.

But it could even be slightly different. Let’s say that there are no widgets in Nicaragua, and that there’s no name for a widget in Spanish. My translator will produce the object that I have handed him or her, show it to my partner, and describe its uses. My translator will then say in Spanish something like, “In English, this is called a widget, and Jacques proposes that we should make them.” “Widget” in the target language now means: “The object called ‘widget’ in English.” A description of the object might follow, its uses enumerated, and so on.

An ostensive act—showing the object—is linked to an act of naming (or rather to one explicit act that serves to designate the object) and to an implicit act of ostension, the metalinguistic designation “In English.” At this point, and perhaps to my distress, my Nicaraguan partner might possibly strike off on her own and do business with a Portuguese company, also perhaps lacking the word and object called in English a widget and in Spanish “The object called ‘widget’ in English.” She employs a Spanish-Portuguese translator, who will call the object he holds, in Portuguese, “The object called ‘The object called widget in English’ in Spanish,” and perhaps describe in Portuguese its uses, even its color and possible benefits, attending to the different uses that an object of that description might have in Portugal (where circumstances of culture, geography, or climate might dictate different uses for a widget than might seem appropriate, or even conceivable, in different circumstances, conditions, times, etc.).

The whole eventual, global edifice stands on two bases: on the regressive, metropolitan stipulation that in English the object is called a widget; and on the supposed commonality, the zero-degree of linguistic expression, in which ostension and designation are linked before translation and as the condition for translation, in English, in Spanish, in Portuguese, in Mandarin. . . (Explicit ostension, as regards the object I seek to designate; implicit or metalinguistic ostension, as regards my designating the language or the designation-practices in which I make that explicit designation.)

In the political economy of “possible worlds”-philosophy, what is designated by the notion of “possibility” is the universal of an index for value and of a naked anteriority in which such indexing may rigidly occur—the “real” time of the designated entity, of the potential commodity before, and as the condition of, its stepping into the market. Here, “possible” means “bearing ostensibly a value that is translatable across possible markets.” Whatever the term “widget” may be in Mandarin, and even if there is no term in Spanish or in Portuguese for the object my translator is holding, there is some sense, and beyond that sense some real thing, to which the English “widget” refers; and the Mandarin or Spanish for “widget” refers rigidly to that referential or baptismal moment, as does each subsequent translation.

3. Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 48. The bibliography regarding possible worlds, including possible worlds semantics, modal semantics and so-called Kripke semantics, is vast. A milestone, and among the most controversial works in the field, remains David Lewis’ On the Plurality of Worlds (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986). I take Lewis’ necessarily guarded allowance for the operation, “perhaps,” of “immanent universals exercising their characteristic privilege of repeated occurrence” (2) to be a way of securing the principle of translatability across possible worlds that I describe here. The bibliography on possible world semantics includes important contributions not only from the perspective of the philosophy of language, but also from psychoanalysts and political philosophers. See Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989); Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter (New York: Routledge, 1993), 187-223; Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005), 101-117. For an example of the contribution of critical theologians see Hent de Vries, Philosophy and the Turn to Religion, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 147-158. Only two aspects of the argument need concern us here: the bare indexicality of the scenario (the eventual, and necessary, description to another, my translator and then my partner, of the “widget’s” uses, qualities, value, and so on, stands on an act of ostension understood as such); and the universalizability of this primary act of ostension (it is the ground on which the possibility of translation stands). In the meta-world of possible worlds, a world is only a world when acts of ostension secure the designation of things in that world, whether they are subsisting or non-subsisting things.

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