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The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Mannheim University
There are at least two very substantial problems that currently concern literary studies. The first emerges from the widely held impression that the position of literary theory has recently undergone a fundamental change, whose nature no one seems to be able to specify exactly.1 At best, a vague impression can be identified — namely, that the perennial game of replacing an old paradigm with a new one that surpasses it has somehow come to an end.2 One senses that peculiar, even strangely apocalyptical questions have become prevalent in the realm of literary theory: who is ready to turn off the lights and finally close the door now? Or is there another round to be played after this one, a theory after the end of theory? Is it possible that the very nature of theory has itself changed? The other problem that concerns literary studies lies in the following question: what does it mean to do justice to the poetic dimension of literature? And more specifically, what does it mean to do these things justice within the framework of a scholarly discipline or a theory? If we are primarily interested in the poetic dimension of literature, then what is the place of this poetic element within scholarship — or within public discourse about literature? The lack of a satisfying answer to this question has earned literary studies a scathing accusation — that they are a secondary undertaking when compared with the primary one represented by the phenomena themselves. Why should anyone consult the critics to see what Goethe said if the answers can be found in Goethe’s own texts,
The term literary theory will be used in order to name a genre which was invented by the Russian Formalists in the early twentieth century and which tries to justify the conviction that literary studies, while dealing with textual fictions, are able to produce (the academically valuable currency of) knowledge. Cf. Christian Kohlross, Literaturtheorie und Pragmatismus oder die Frage nach den Gründen des philologischen Wissens (2007: 1–19). 2 Twenty years after Paul de Man’s “The Resistance to Theory” (1986 ) a number of books have been published dealing with the aftermath or even the end of theory, for instance: Herman Rapaport’s The Theory Mess (2001), Jean Michel Rabaté’s The Future of Theory (2002), Terry Eagleton’s After Theory (2003), Ivan Callus and Stefan Herbrechter’s Post-Theory, Culture, Criticism (2004).
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texts that are more beautiful, elegant, moving, and indeed simply better than those of the scholars?3 Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator” (1996 ) — and this is my main point here — provides some strategies that allow us to take up both problems. Benjamin’s essay claims to discuss translation, yet certainly not translation in the generally accepted meaning of the word. It is exceedingly difficult to imagine what gain a professional translator — even one of literary texts — might secure from Benjamin’s theses about the meaning and goal of translation. No translators would ever be well-served if they were told that the idea that directs and controls their actions was that of a “pure language — which no longer means or expresses anything” (Benjamin 1996 : 261). And I shudder to imagine what Benjamin’s translations of Baudelaire would look like, how incomprehensible they would be, if he had held to his own theory while making them, a theory that so brusquely releases translations from the obligation of any “reproduction of the sense” (Benjamin 1996 : 259) of the original text.
If “The Task of the Translator” does not discuss translation, then what does it discuss? My answer is that it discusses the faculty of understanding, and more precisely: the understanding of an other — of another person, of another text, and/or of cultural phenomena as translations. Translation is — and Benjamin says this very explicitly — “a form” (1996 : 254); and I would add that it is the faculty of understanding that is contained within this form. What does it mean for the understanding to exist in the form of a translation? I believe that the two of them together are a theory; more precisely, they are a theory of translation. And if one were to ask about the main subject of “The Task of the Translator,” I would answer: it is a
Within the scholarly world, the usual reply to this question is: because the answers cannot be found so easily in Goethe, or in Proust or Joyce, for that matter; these writers keep what they have to say carefully hidden within their texts, so that critics are needed to bring the deeply buried meanings back to light. Yet whoever reads works by Kittler, Agamben or Peter Szondi, whoever reads Walter Benjamin or Jacques Derrida, notices one thing rather quickly: their texts are hardly any easier to understand than the more “literary” ones mentioned above. On the contrary, their texts are just as much in need of interpretation as the texts and objects that they themselves discuss. In other words, and contrary to what they claim to be, literary studies can hardly be said to fulfill the function of deciphering and demystifying texts.
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general theory of understanding in the form of a theory of translation.4 Yet I should use the plural here for the sake of precision, and say rather: in the form of theories of translation. Thus, when Benjamin writes, “Not only does the intention of a translation address or differ from that of a literary work [Dichtung5] — namely a language as a whole, taking an individual work in an alien language as a point of departure” (1996 : 259), it is quite acceptable to replace the concept of translation with that of the theory of translation; this substitution allows us to follow the intention behind Benjamin’s doctrine of translation somewhat more easily, an intention that (in my opinion) is not focused on communication but rather on supplementing language. Such a substitution makes it evident that Benjamin’s text not only allows one to think of the work of art as being composed in an “original” language (Objektsprache, i.e., the language which is to be translated), but also allows one to think of the work of art’s theory as being composed in a “secondary” language (Subjektsprache, i.e., the language into which the original is to be translated). Theory and object are thus juxtaposed like two foreign languages, languages that can, however, be translated into each other. And when one reads further on in the same paragraph that translation lies “midway between poetry and theory” (ibid.), then this assertion can, in my view, be translated as follows: a general theory of the understanding qua translation theory lies between poetry and doctrine — between a realm of fictions and a system of convictions.
I have spoken of a general theory of understanding in the form of a theory of translation. I shall, in a moment, discuss what exactly this form looks like in Benjamin. First, however, one question must be attended to: to what extent can Benjamin’s theory illuminate the present uprising against the secondary world of literary studies (an uprising, incidentally, that is taking place under a more than merely economic sign)? To what extent can it shed light on the peculiar agonies concerning theory that have befallen this secondary world?
By contrast, in the aftermath of Derrida’s “Des tours de Babel” (1998 ), Paul de Man’s “Conclusions: Walter Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator” (1986), and Bettine Menke’s Sprachfiguren: Name, Allegorie, Bild nach Benjamin (1991), Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” has been interpreted as if it repudiated or even overcame the need for understanding. 5 Benjamin 1992: 58.
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My first suspicion here is that such a general theory of understanding in the form of a theory of translation is in fact based upon a certain need.6 For its part, this need may have resulted from a realization of the recurrence of the unvarying theory dynamics and is therefore directed at a theory that does not let itself be filed away under such a dynamics, a theory that achieves something different, something more than the mere introduction of yet another new observational paradigm. When this need articulates itself — that is, when it does so in Benjamin’s writing, it can be stated as follows: no new understanding of the original is necessary (or, such an understanding is always necessary), but rather a new understanding of theory. This new understanding of theory provides us with a general theory of understanding not in the form of a translation but rather in the form of a translation theory that (in contrast to a simple translation) specifies the conditions that must be fulfilled in order for the utterances of one’s own language to be seen as synonymous with those of a foreign language. Thus, like Donald Davidson after him,7 Benjamin had come to the conclusion that translation must be fused with the interpretational theory of translation in order to avoid infinite regresses, and that the language into which one translates and the metalanguage that specifies how this translation is to be interpreted must in fact be one and the same language. Yet what Benjamin considers a metalanguage is different from his own language: it is not a single, particularly distinctive metalanguage (and least of all a particularly distinctive theory-language), but rather all those other languages that bind together — in what Benjamin calls “the way of meaning” (1996 : 257)8 — both the “original” language that is to be translated and the “secondary” language into which one translates. Benjamin thus attributes the function of a metalanguage that is always already understood to a language that is purified of all content.9 And this
6 And this need is quite different from the need for translation which became crucial in the aftermath of Babel and has been discussed in Emmanuel Lévinas, “Totalité et Infini: Essai sur l’Exteriorité” (1971 : 38), Derrida, “Des tours de Babel” (1998: 219), and Hans Jost Frey’s “Die Sprache und die Sprachen in Benjamins Übersetzungstheorie” (2001: 156). 7 Cf. Davidson’s essay “Radical Interpretation” (1973). 8 The German expression is “die Art des Meinens” (1992: 56). 9 A language purified of content is, for example, (instrumental) music. It can be understood even if there is no specific content to be pinpointed and even if it is impossible to clarify what exactly has been understood or what it means to understand: not words or actions, but music. Another example is the idea of logic, where not a specific content but the abstract form determines our understanding. The transition Benjamin has had in mind, from a plurality of languages into one pure language, is thus a process of purification.
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is precisely why we are not dealing with conventional translation in Benjamin, i.e., the translation of a foreign language into one’s own language, but rather with translation into all possible languages. In other words, the primary issue here is the act of understanding. Why is this idea of a fusion of translation-theory with interpretationtheory so important? Nothing could answer this question better than a brief look at literary theory, which is so often occupied with an incessant changing of paradigms. For from the perspective of a general theory of understanding in the form of a theory of translation, this changing of paradigms emerges as a changing of languages, languages into which the field of literary studies translates the phenomena with which it deals — though it carries out these translations without having an adequate understanding of its very own language. For literary studies’ notorious reference to a metalanguage (whether phenomenological, psychoanalytic, or something else entirely) says nothing about what we must do in order to understand such a metalanguage — or, more precisely, such a language of translation. In other words, literary theorists now suddenly find themselves in exactly the same foundational difficulty that once lead to the end of metaphysics, because the search for an ever-changing metaobserver falls victim to the logic of self-consciousness. In other words, it falls victim to the logic of an infinite regress. And a fusion of the language of translation with interpretational theory — as recommended by both Benjamin and Davidson — seems to be a reliable remedy against precisely this infinite regress of foundation (and hence of substantiation). Yet how does one bring about such a fusion? The strategy of both Benjamin’s and Davidson’s theories of understanding — theories that, at first glance, seem remarkably different from one another — is to assume that it is something objective that brings about such a fusion. In the case of Benjamin, this objective element is the totality of all languages, while in Davidson it is the objectiveness of the empirical realm. What occurs in this fusion is a certain self-supplementing or even a synthesis of sorts, yet it is never a repetition or replication — Benjamin and Davidson both strongly stress this point. Such a theory owes its explicative power not to the abstraction of a metalanguage but rather to the linguistic or phenomenal world in which translation takes place. This world specifies how the theory is to be understood. Yet since the original belongs to this world more than anything else does, it is first and foremost the original that determines how the translation is to be interpreted. And such a reversal of the usual direction
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of interpretation has two interesting consequences: on the one hand, literary theory indicates how literature is to be understood; yet on the other hand, literature specifies how its own theory is to be understood. Benjamin provides the following citation by Rudolf Pannwitz: “The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. . . . He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language” (1996 : 262). It is hard to imagine what it would mean for the language of literary studies if it decided to make the task of the translator — as put forth by Pannwitz and Benjamin — its own. Yet I admit that this claim is slightly exaggerated and that such a situation is, of course, conceivable. It would simply mean thinking of literary studies’ own secondary actions (secondary because derived from the phenomena that precede them) as originary ones, as a kind of revolt against being relegated into a secondary world. How exactly is it possible to bind one’s own theoretical language not to other theories (as has been the case up until now) but rather to the world itself, to the world which this language of theory takes up, and thus also to the objects of this world? This seems to be the fundamental question here.
I would now like to take this thought process one step further by taking a somewhat closer look at the form of Benjamin’s theory of translation.10 The first thing that catches the eye is that Benjamin speaks about a theory that develops something that most theories usually have the greatest difficulties in taking up, namely: understanding the subjectivity of perspectives, understanding the how behind the things of the world (in one way or another). Benjamin manages to gain access to this subjective element — which is a part of the objective world — through what he names “the way of meaning”: “In the words Brot and pain [the German and the French for “bread” – C. K.], what is meant is the same, but the way of meaning it is not” (1996 : 257). The situation here is exactly the same as that of Frege’s example of the “morning star” and “evening star”: the object to which the words refer is the same, yet the way in which the objects are called out of the world (i.e., the mode of linguistic
This theory is, incidentally, no metatheory, and also no theory of meta-translation, but rather a theory whose demands of other theories also apply to itself.
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access) is different.11 And when Benjamin calls upon us to focus on the way of meaning more than on what is meant in conducting our translations, he is simply saying that we should pay more attention to the way in which something is linguistically understood, and from there proceed to find an equivalent for this way of meaning in our own language — this is how I would translate Benjamin’s text, in any case. It does not follow that we should simply repeat what a literary text (for example) says, except in different and perhaps clearer words. In any case, such a restating of the text would not be possible since the poetic nature of a literary text is constituted by the fact that what is meant cannot be separated from the way of meaning, since the content cannot be separated from the representation. Thus, it is our task not to decipher the text, but rather to cipher it differently — not entirely differently or in an utterly free manner, but rather in such a way as to supplement the original’s own mode of ciphering so that the “echo of the original” (1996 : 258) is produced. What is here significant for the literary study’s conception of itself is the fact that the ways of meaning in which something appears as something are attributed by Benjamin to no specific language, whether the language of nature or the language of the things of this world. For in a certain sense, it is against our own backdrop as interpreters that things and objects, including the things of nature, stand out. Indeed, what good would it do to have a general theory of understanding that does not know what to make of things, gestures, premonitions, and character traits, but only knows how to deal with what dictionaries and grammar books have already produced and thus established as language? “‘To read what was never written.’ Such reading,” Benjamin tells us at the end of his short piece entitled “On the Mimetic Faculty,” “is the most ancient: reading prior to all languages, from entrails, the stars, or dances” (1999 : 722). Indeed, whoever follows these instructions is capable of reading into faces long before he or she is capable of deciphering anything that is actually written down. This something that can be read in faces, dances, stars, and even in our entrails, these various modes in which reality appears, can be interpreted in the same way as a language — or rather, they themselves constitute a certain language, a language of nature, of things, or even of being. Modern linguists make little of this language, as do many contemporary philosophers of language (above all those who work within the analytic tradition), yet disregarding it is a luxury that a general theory of understanding simply cannot afford. Even a language such as
Frege 1892: 28ff.
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this must be capable of carrying out translations. Indeed, it is literature that makes this necessity abundantly clear. For understanding literature means more than merely understanding language; it means understanding the world in its manifold modes of appearance. And as the disciplines of aesthetics and literary studies have demonstrated time and again, this content of art cannot be analyzed via any positivistic method, but must rather be considered in a speculative mode, always mediated through the way of meaning — in my opinion, this is exactly what the literary critic Walter Benjamin teaches us, for he asserts that the way of meaning “supplements itself in each of the two languages from which the words [Brot and pain] are derived; to be more specific, the way of meaning in them is supplemented in relation to what is meant” (1996 : 257). Such a translation, which ultimately aims at an isomorphism between meaning and what is meant, and for which Benjamin has invented the conceptual symbol of pure language, obviously presupposes a conception of meaning that extends beyond what we generally understand under the rubric of linguistic meaning. For this conception of meaning must not only be able to contain linguistic ways of meaning, i.e. the linguistic modes in which we experience reality, but also the ways in which reality appears to us. Only when this extension of the concept of meaning has been achieved (and it seems to me that this is one of the most culturally explosive theses of the language philosopher Benjamin) can literary studies hope to explore hitherto uncharted realms of reality — realms to which, incidentally, poetry has long had access. What might such a general concept of meaning look like? Benjamin’s answer to this is entirely pragmatic: “If translation is a form, translatability must be an essential feature of certain works” (1996 : 254). Benjamin continues his argument in the following paragraph: “Translatability is an essential quality of certain works, which is not to say that it is essential for the works themselves that they be translated; it means, rather, that a specific significance [Bedeutung] inherent in the original manifests itself in its translatability” (ibidem). This, however, means that a certain dimension of meaning — or “significance” — first manifests itself within the translation. Something of what and how the original signifies is first revealed in the moment of translation and not a single moment before. That is to say: the original alone does not determine its own meaning. It is the translation that first makes the original what it is. I cite Benjamin once again: “It is evident that no translation, however good it may be, can have any significance with regards to the original” (ibidem). Indeed, it would be appropriate to add the following note here: every
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cultural phenomenon, every work of literature, manages well enough without its theoretical translation. “Nonetheless,” writes Benjamin, the translation “does stand in the closest relationship to the original by virtue of the original’s translatability; in fact, this connection is all the closer since it is no longer of importance to the original. We may call this connection a natural one, or, more specifically, a vital one. Just as the manifestations of life are intimately connected with the phenomenon of life without being of importance to it, a translation issues from the original” (ibidem). This, however, means that just as an individual life, together with everything that it brings forth, can manage well enough without the concept of the phenomenon of life (which as a general concept actually has an indifferent attitude towards an individual life), so too is individual life dependent on that concept — not with regard to the simple fact of its existence, but rather very much with regard to its significance.12 What it means to be an individual life can only be specified with regard to a universal that pertains to it but that is nevertheless different from it. It is in precisely this respect that the relationship between an individual life and the phenomenon of life is analogous to that between the translation and the original. And this ultimately means that the original becomes a concrete signifier only through its translation (it may still have meaning or significance independent of its translation, but this would be of a hermetic variety). The original is only the concept, the rule that specifies how language is to be used. Understanding this original, however, means being able to apply the concept, the rule. It is in this way that meaning arises. Thus, meanings are, as far as their recognizability is concerned,13 no longer something given, and they are also no longer something that can be tracked down and deciphered in an investigative fashion. Rather, it is their application that first shows what they consist of. What the original says first appears in the act of translation. The translation is thus not a derivative of the original, and certainly not a copy of the original in another medium, language, or terminology; rather it is its realization or potentiation. Translations are, to use Benjamin’s words, “manifestations of life.” And now the following pragmatic maxim is valid — not with regard to
So what the original says will become explicit in the act of translation. Cf. Thomas Dörr, Kritik und Übersetzung: Die Praxis der Reproduktion im Frühwerk Walter Benjamins (1988: 120). 13 And this is the point where Benjamin moves beyond the first sentence of his essay on translation, a sentence that is postulated as a problem that concerns all of the essay’s subsequent sentences.
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the genesis of the translation but certainly with regard to its semantic content — namely that the translation has precedence over its original.14
The far-reaching consequences that this view of translation has for contemporary literary studies have been anticipated by Benjamin himself. The first consists of the fact that the afterlife of works of art “in succeeding generations” (1996 : 255) now appears as a history of their reception, a history that takes place within the translations.15 According to Benjamin, it is in these translations that “the life of the original attains its latest, continually renewed, and most complete unfolding” (1996 : 255). If this is so — and herein lies the second consequence — then the endlessness of art’s progression towards perfection is documented in the endless event of interpretation. Traditional hermeneutic theories considered the endless nature of interpretation to be a symptom of the imperfection of the methods of literary analysis. In Benjamin’s writings, by contrast, it is rather a symptom of an infinite process of perfection, in which an increasing amount of the work’s potential will be updated. Some questions still remain: where does this lead us? And what lies at the end of such a process of perfection? Benjamin’s answer to this is: pure language. But what is pure language? What does it consist of? My answer is that it consists of all the ways in which something can be understood. This, however, does not amount to pure arbitrariness of perspectives. Translations show how something can be understood within the medium of language. And a translation is, per se, bound to the language of the original. The original must confirm those aspects of its own existence that the translation brings to light. This confirmation can only be obtained within the many languages that supplement and clarify each other. It cannot be obtained from outside these languages or by means of an observer who is an adherent of a certain theory, and it certainly cannot be acquired through a so-called “neuAlexander Gelley provides a further discussion of what he calls the “primordial expressivity of which man’s language (post-Babelic language) is only a weak reflection” (2007: 26). 15 This historical dimension of any translation has been explored in Steinberg 1996. See also Derrida’s use of translation as a word whose meaning is not far removed from that of “tradition” in Edmund Husserl’s “Origin of Geometry”: An Introduction.
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tral” observer. Neither is speaking only one specific language — or not speaking any languages at all — a good condition for the drawing up of a translation handbook that would consist entirely of pure forms. Rather, one must learn as many languages as possible. But since nobody can speak all languages, the production of such an ideal translation handbook remains a utopia, a utopia that is in fact the goal of all those translations that constantly supplement each other. This, however, ultimately means that theory is — as pure or true language — the virtual goal, and not the precondition of any cognition that arises from the perspective of literary studies. This also means that the question of what theory is can only be answered empirically. The answer to this question is revealed in each and every act of interpretation where the ways in which a foreign language conveys meaning are unfolded within one’s own language. One’s own language thus gives expression to the conditions under which each foreign language is able to signify something — it does not give expression to what is generally considered to be its meaning. Yet at that point where the conditions of meaning and meaning itself coincide, we are no longer dealing with a general theory of understanding as a theory of translation, but rather with a holy text (cf. Benjamin 1996 : 263) — and such a text needs no mediation. Theory’s ideal only exists here, here in the holy text — and thus at the point where it ceases to be theory. Therefore, it is only where it falls short of its ideal that theory remains what I believe it always already is in Benjamin, namely: theory after the end of theory.
Benjamin, Walter. 1992 . “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers.” Sprache und Geschichte: Philosophische Essays. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Stuttgart: Reclam, pp. 50–64. ———. 1996 . “The Task of the Translator.” Trans. Harry Zohn. Selected Writings. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, I: 253–63. ———. 1999 . “On the Mimetic Faculty.” Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927–1934. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 720–22. Callus, Ivan, and Stefan Herbrechter, eds. 2004. Post-Theory, Culture, Criticism. Amsterdam: Rodopi. Davidson, Donald. 1973. “Radical Interpretation.” Dialectica 27/3–4: 313– 28.
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Derrida, Jacques. 1978 . Edmund Husserl’s “Origin of Geometry”: An Introduction. Trans. John P. Leavey, Jr. New York: Hays; Hassocks: Harvester. ———. 1998. “Des tours de Babel.” Psyché: Inventions de l’autre. Nouv. ed. Augmentée. Paris: Galilée, pp. 203–35. English edition: Psyche: Inventions of the Other. Ed. Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth G. Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007–2008. Dörr, Thomas. 1988. Kritik und Übersetzung: Die Praxis der Reproduktion im Frühwerk Walter Benjamins. Gießen: Focus. Eagleton, Terry. 2003. After Theory. New York: Basic Books. Frege, Gottlob. 1892. “Über Sinn und Bedeutung.” Zeitschrift für Philosophie und philosophische Kritik 100: 25–50. Frey, Hans Jost. 2001. “Die Sprache und die Sprachen in Benjamins Übersetzungstheorie.” In Übersetzen: Walter Benjamin, ed. Christiaan L. Hart Nibbrig. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, pp. 147–58. Gelley, Alexander. 2007. “Epigones in the House of Language: Benjamin on Kraus.” Partial Answers 5/1: 17–32. Kohlross, Christian. 2007. Literaturtheorie und Pragmatismus oder die Frage nach den Gründen philologischen Wissens. Tübingen: Niemeyer. Lévinas, Emmanuel. 1971 . Totalité et infini: Essai sur l’exteriorité. The Hague: Nijhoff. Man, Paul de. 1986 . “The Resistance to Theory.” The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 3–20. ———. 1986. “Conclusions: Walter Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator.” The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 73–105. Menke, Bettine. 1991. Sprachfiguren: Name, Allegorie, Bild nach Benjamin. Munich: Wilhelm Fink. Rabaté, Jean-Michel. 2002. The Future of Theory. Oxford: Blackwell. Rapaport, Hermann. 2001. The Theory Mess: Deconstruction in Eclipse. New York: Columbia University Press. Steinberg, Michael P., ed. 1996. Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
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