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Žižek on that fake interpreter

No doubt you’ve read all about the fake interpreter at Mandela’s memorial service: standing only metres away from some of the world’s leaders, people soon realised the man was signing nonsense, not language. The story then got stranger, as it was discovered that the interpreter suffers from mental illness and has a history of alleged violence.

I’m not sure what to make of it, or the weirdness of official responses and disappearances of the organisation that hired him. However, in seeking to make sense of things, I know not to rely on Slavoj Žižek. The Slovenian philosopher has used this case as a way to pen an article on… something.

In case you’re unaware of him, I recommend reading a 2007 article by Johann Hari on a titular film of the man. As Hari says in the New Statesman:

[Žižek] seemed to emerge fully formed from the wreckage of the former Yugoslavia with an eclectic magpie-philosophy, rapidly spewing out books and essays on everything from opera to the use of torture in the TV series 24. Zizek [sic] is the biggest box-office draw postmodernists have ever had, their best punch at the bestseller lists. The press fawns upon him; he has been called an “intellectual rock star”; and, according to a recent profile in the New Yorker, Slovenia has a “reputation disproportionately large for its size due to the work of Slavoj Zizek [sic]“.

However, all this stardom and fawning seems undeserved, assuming engagement with reality as a prerequisite for a public intellectual. Hari continues:

What does Slavoj Zizek believe? What does he argue for? Such obvious questions are considered vulgar among postmodernists. When you first look through the more than 50 books he has written, it is almost impossible to find an answer. It seems he seeks to splice Karl Marx with the notoriously incomprehensible French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, slathering on top an infinite number of pop-cultural references.

His defenders claim he is trying to stretch the scope of philosophy to cover the everyday flotsam that philosophers have hitherto ignored. But gradually, as you pore through Zizek’s words or watch his audiences, whose bemusement is caught on film, you discover that the complex manner in which he expresses himself does not imply that his thought is itself subtle or complex. In fact, he seeks to revive a murderous and discredited ideology [Leninism/Bolshevism].”

Even in a strangely favourable review of the film in (the otherwise excellent) Philosophy Now, Grant Bartley writes: [Žižek's] writing suffers from the common philosopher’s disease of confusing simplicity of expression with stupidity of thought.”

Not mincing words, Noam Chomsky recently said:

Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it.

Back to Žižek’s piece on the interpreter: I can’t make sense of it.

It begins in a clear way that outlines the situation of Thamsanqa Jantjie, the interpreter. But then Žižek goes on to indicate something about how Jantjie’s incomprehensible gestures were – or were not? – meaningful because everything being said was – or wasn’t? – meaningful. Here, have a look at what Žižek says:

Jantjie’s performance was not meaningless – precisely because it delivered no particular meaning (the gestures were meaningless), it directly rendered meaning as such – the pretence of meaning.

Later he says, without justification or evidence that:

Jantjie’s gesticulations generated such an uncanny effect once it became clear that they were meaningless: what he confronted us with was the truth about sign language translations for the deaf – it doesn’t really matter if there are any deaf people among the public who need the translation; the translator is there to make us, who do not understand sign language, feel good.

Why? Because we are displaying or performing… I think? I don’t really know. I think he’s trying to say that most of the memorial was a performance – from leaders paying respects, celebrities showing their human faces, etc. – but only Jantjie’s was the one that struck us, even though it was as meaningless as the rest of it.

OK. But, that’s barely even worthy of a Tweet, presuming that it is indeed Žižek’s point.

If we’re using Jantjie as a measure of comparison, then Žižek’s output is itself the embodiment of a meaningless performance people are tricked into believing is conveying significance. I say this as having tried numerous times to read his books, his articles and watch his lectures. He himself admits in the film Žižek! that it’s all a performance, one that he needs to keep up lest someone see the emperor’s nakedness.

I dislike comments asking “Why was this written?” but I hope I’ve shown that I’m asking this from a position where I’ve genuinely attempted to understand Žižek’s point. And, if what I think is his point is the one I highlighted above, I don’t see why it matters that much, could not have been said in a simpler way, or why it required an entire article do so – let alone that it’s buried amid assertions dressed to look like argument. All the veils of words he waves around his empty ideas make it difficult to realise that there is little substance beneath them; he is a self-admitted performer after all.

The fake interpeter, Mr Jantie, however, doesn’t have a fawning audience who are quick to assert that his meaningless gestures actually have substance: apparently you need a PhD to do that.

Try that next time, Mr Jantjie. It appears to work for Žižek.

UPDATED: To add Jantjie’s suffering from mental illness (it’s in the linked article but better put it here for clarity’s sake). HT to reader John Morales.

Comments

  1. says

    What he said could be boiled down to, “Say, didja ever stop to think that sign language interpreters aren’t there to interpret for the deaf, they’re there to make everybody feel right-on?”

    I suppose he couldn’t say it that way because it would sound too much like saying, “Say, didja ever stop to think that taxation is exactly like stealing?”

    • John Morales says

      From the link:

      And this brings us to the crux of the matter: are sign language translators for the deaf really meant for those who cannot hear the spoken word?

      Are subtitles in programs really meant for those who cannot hear the spoken word?

      (Are translated subtitles in foreign language programs really meant for those who do not understand the foreign language?)

      As an aside, it annoys me when he writes “us” when he should refer to ‘me’.

  2. says

    it doesn’t really matter if there are any deaf people among the public who need the translation

    If there aren’t deaf people among the public who need the translation, it doesn’t matter. If there are, it does. It should be assumed at such a large event that there will be.

  3. clamboy says

    “…the translator is there to make us, who do not understand sign language, feel good.” This is actually fairly spot-on. Sign language interpreters are sometimes hired, not because there has been a request for services, but because it is “the right thing to do,” meaning, “this will make us look good.” I am a nationally certified (since 2000) interpreter myself, and such is my experience.

    There is an interesting movement afoot in Seattle. The Seattle Men’s Chorus has, since 1989, employed the same American Sign Language “interpreter” in their concerts, despite numerous complaints from Deaf concert-goers (including some of the biggest big names in the Seattle Deaf community). Because of SMC’s refusal to even discuss the issue, there is a moveon.org petition to get him removed. I bring this up because it is similar to the Jantjie affair, but is almost more sinister: the person performing the interpreting services has (apparently) ingratiated himself quite a lot with the hearing supporters of SMC, and often is the time when attendees have said to me, “I don’t know any sign language, but I just looove how expressive he is!” He is there because the hearing people like what he does, and not because of the interpretation.

    Now, I should add that there is some nuance here. Having interpreters at large public events is important and, I think, should be automatic. Deaf people should not have to identify themselves as attendees prior to the event. There is the added benefit of spotlighting these accommodations and, of course, there ought to be description services available on a free app for blind persons.

    What needs also to be addressed is the subject of human rights. Mandela was not just a symbol, but an actual fighter for fundamental human rights, and the placement of Jantjie on that stage was a desecration of what Mandela fought for.

    • A Masked Avenger says

      Clamboy,

      I had similar thoughts to yours, but mine were speculation because I have no knowledge in this area. My thought was that while deaf people should indeed be accommodated automatically, for their benefit, I suspect that the people doing the accommodating can easily fall prey to acting more for their own benefit. This would easily show itself in things like hiring substandard interpreters because, well, they feel just as good about themselves if the interpreter were signing gibberish. Truly acting in the service of others is hard, and involves subordinating one’s own ego, among other things.

      Not to say that Žižek is actually making sense.

  4. vincentbm says

    Zizek’s point is not simply that most of the memorial was a performance.

    His point was that just as the world leaders hire sign language interpreters, not because they truly care about deaf people receiving the message, but because they want to communicate to the viewers in general that they care about the needs of the common and underprivileged in general, so was the entire memorial a performance aimed at showing the general viewer that they, the world leaders, care about the needs of the underprivileged, which is essentially what Mandela stands for in this context.

    In this circumstance, the meaninglessness of the interpreters signs could be said to communicate (make apparent) the reality that the world leaders do not, in fact care for the “poor, black South Africans” (or the common and underprivileged in general).

    Does that make help?

    • John Morales says

      vincentbm, your claim is only somewhat implausible, but it’s not the same as Žižek’s claim — so no, it’s not particularly helpful.

      His is an universal claim about sign language translations for the deaf while yours is a specific claim about the intent of those who employ incompetent sign translators for the deaf.

      Compare

      what he confronted us with was the truth about sign language translations for the deaf – it doesn’t really matter if there are any deaf people among the public who need the translation; the translator is there to make us, who do not understand sign language, feel good.

      with

      the meaninglessness of the interpreters signs could be said to communicate (make apparent) the reality that the world leaders do not, in fact care for the “poor, black South Africans”

      • M can help you with that. says

        I think what Žižek may be trying to say when he refers to the meaninglessness of “sign language translations” isn’t the meaningless of the translation itself so much as the meaninglessness of the choice to arrange for one. (It’s the act of having a translation that’s meaningless, not the content of the translation.) Quite possibly off the mark (though, as clamboy’s anecdote suggests, not unthinkable), and quite definitely garbled, but there may be a “there” there. Of course, I only read it that way because I’ve spent much more time than I’d like sifting through Žižek’s writing, which seems to be (once decoded) mostly a slurry of banality mixed with chunks of wrong and sprinkled with self-congratulatory attempts at provocation.

      • vincentbm says

        I see what you are saying if we only take into account that one quote from the article, but that doesn’t take into account the rest of the article, particularly the paragraph right above the quote you posted and the concluding paragraph. In the previous paragraph he states:

        “I remember how, in the first “free” elections in Slovenia in 1990, in a TV broadcast by one of the leftist parties, the politician delivering the message was accompanied by a sign language interpreter (a gentle young woman). We all knew that the true addressees of her translation were not the deaf but we, the ordinary voters: the true message was that the party stood for the marginalised and handicapped.”

        This is one specific example of how a sign language interpreter can be there to make the regular viewers feel good. Wouldn’t it make you feel good to know, or at least believe, that your nations leaders care about the underprivileged?

        Zizek thinks that this is precisely the way in which the sign language interpreter at the Mandela memorial was supposed to make the regular viewer feel good. The presence of a sign language interpreter was meant to communicate to the regular viewers that the organizers of the event, or the hosts, in this case the world leaders, care about the the underprivileged. Usually this is not obvious. Usually it appears as if the sign language interpreter is truly there to communicate the massage to the deaf. But in this case it became obvious that this was an insincere gesture since the sign language interpreter did not even speak sign language.

        From there, he claims that this one gesture did not simply communicate that the world leaders do not truly care about the deaf, but that they do not care about the underprivileged in general. Not only was the presence of the sign language interpreter an insincere gesture, but so was the entire memorial event. As he states in his conclusion:

        “And was this also not the truth about the whole of the Mandela memorial ceremony? All the crocodile tears of the dignitaries were a self-congratulatory exercise, and Jangtjie translated them into what they effectively were: nonsense. What the world leaders were celebrating was the successful postponement of the true crisis which will explode when poor, black South Africans effectively become a collective political agent. They were the Absent One to whom Jantjie was signalling, and his message was: the dignitaries really don’t care about you. Through his fake translation, Jantjie rendered palpable the fake of the entire ceremony.”

  5. vincentbm says

    Does that make sense or do you still think that Zizek is not making a coherent argument?

    I truly am interested. Many people would agree with you, but I often find Zizeks arguments to be quite interesting once pieced together. I also find the piecing together part to be interesting. I can appreciate that he doesn’t simply state, in a clear refined manner precisely what he is saying. His writing style reflects his philosophical perspective.

    Just as those philosophers who believe the world to be a very ordered place write in a very ordered, methodical way, so does Zizek write in a very fractured, disjointed and jarring manner.

    • John Morales says

      It’s a bullshit argument, as my quotation in 6.1 indicates.

      I can appreciate that he doesn’t simply state, in a clear refined manner precisely what he is saying. His writing style reflects his philosophical perspective.

      Then his philosophical perspective is cynicism based on purblind hasty generalisations.

      • vincentbm says

        Your quotation in 6.1 doesn’t address his argument (or maybe I don’t know what quote you are referring to?). I explained more clearly what his argument is after your quote in 6.1 and you haven’t addressed it.

        As for his writing style, its ok if you don’t like it. But just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it is incoherent.

        • John Morales says

          It’s not like it’s a complicated piece. Here:

          Paragraph 1: Something unexpected happened at the memorial ceremony for Nelson Mandela.

          Paragraph 2: People who know sign language saw that the interpreter was not providing interpretation.

          Paragraph 3: An inquiry discloses that the interpreter not providing interpretation was a qualified interpreter.

          Paragraph 4: The interpreter had a rap sheet.

          Paragraph 5: Summarises perceptions to this as being weird and miraculous-seeming, and the reaction as bemusement.

          Paragraph 6: States the major proposition he wishes to establish (the thesis, my emphasis):
          And this brings us to the crux of the matter: are sign language translators for the deaf really meant for those who cannot hear the spoken word?”

          Paragraph 7: Anecdote; this provides a second instance of his claim to perceiving a truth.

          Paragraph 8: He claims to have established the truth of his thesis (my emphasis): “Now we can see why Jantjie’s gesticulations generated such an uncanny effect once it became clear that they were meaningless: what he confronted us with was the truth about sign language translations for the deaf – it doesn’t really matter if there are any deaf people among the public who need the translation; the translator is there to make us, who do not understand sign language, feel good.

          Paragraph 9: He rhetorically confirms that his universal claim indeed applies to this particular.

          So his thesis is clear enough, given he has stated what it is and answered it unequivocally.

          (Given the nature of the premises and the substitution of assertion for inference, and without even considering the palpably counter-factual nature of the claim, I am still being kind by referring to it as “bullshit”)

          • vincentbm says

            I’m sorry John, but I honestly think that you are misinterpreting the article. I don’t think that the main point is that “the translator is there to make us, who do not understand sign language, feel good.” This is an empirical claim and trying to prove it would require a series of peer reviewed scientific enquiries.

            His main point, I think, is his final sentence:

            “Through his fake translation, Jantjie rendered palpable the fake of the entire ceremony.”

            Check out my response to Tauriq in #8 below. Hopefully that will make sense to you.

    • Tauriq Moosa says

      I can appreciate that he doesn’t simply state, in a clear refined manner precisely what he is saying.

      Rather an incredible thing to say. Why?

      His writing style reflects his philosophical perspective.

      So “poor” and “lacking in ability” then?

      • vincentbm says

        I’m not sure what you mean by “poor” and “lacking in ability”. Perhaps you could give a specific example from the essay that this blog refers to and cite specific reasons why is an instance of poor writing.

        But even if he is a bad writer, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t make valid or relevant arguments.

        • John Morales says

          It is true that just because he didn’t a make a valid or relevant argument in this instance that doesn’t mean he necessarily can never do so.

          (Perhaps you could give an example where he does, in fact, make a valid and relevant argument)

        • Tauriq Moosa says

          I’m not sure what you mean by “poor” and “lacking in ability”.

          As in his writing is poor and not very good. You indicated his writing is similar to his philosophical process; therefore, his process is poor and lacking in ability.

          Perhaps you could give a specific example from the essay that this blog refers to and cite specific reasons why is an instance of poor writing.

          Sure: From the SZ piece:

          Jantjie’s performance was not meaningless – precisely because it delivered no particular meaning (the gestures were meaningless), it directly rendered meaning as such – the pretence of meaning.

          But even if he is a bad writer, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t make valid or relevant arguments.

          I agree and that wasn’t my claim. As I wrote he doesn’t justify or provide evidence, but makes his assertions seem that way. And, presuming I teased out some aspect of what he was trying to communicate I don’t get why it was worthy of an article, couldn’t be done simpler, etc. etc.

          I didn’t claim his bad writing means he’s a bad thinker: the bad writing only hides that he is one. Even upon recognising his arguments – which always takes his defenders or critics to make clear to me, his “arguments” or “observations” are unimpressive and banal (and I’ve tried reading his books, his articles, read critiques, etc.)

  6. vincentbm says

    Ok I think I understand your and John’s perspective. He certainly does not make a rigorous philosophical argument in this essay, although I do feel like it is uncharitable to call it bullshit. Perhaps it is more appropriate to say that this essay is a series of observations or interpretations of the event. It could still be called an “argument”. It just is not a rigorous philosophical argument, nor is it invalid.

    I think what might be missing from this discussion is the acknowledgement that Zizek does not only see himself as a philosopher, but as a sort of psychoanalytical philosopher. He is not simply arguing that world leaders do not care about the underprivileged or about Mandela’s true mission to emancipate the poor black people of South Africa-although that is part of it.

    He is also giving his analysis of why “we”, or why “the media” has been so fascinated by this event.

    His analysis is that this event made it apparent that the entire memorial service was an insincere gesture, whose purpose was to make the average viewer believe that the world leaders care about the needs of the underprivileged, when in fact they do not.

    That is what he means when he says that “Jantjie’s performance was not meaningless – precisely because it delivered no particular meaning (the gestures were meaningless), it directly rendered meaning as such – the pretence of meaning.”

    It’s a difficult concept and I’m actually not sure how it could be stated more clearly. I suppose he could have just said that “it directly rendered the pretense of meaning.”

    Think of it as a symbol. For instance, it could be said that in Christianity the symbol of the cross directly renders the message of Christ (something like “for whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.)

    Jus as this symbol (or viewing the actual event take place) directly renders the message of Christ, so does, according to Zizek, this particular event of the fake interpreter directly render the reality that our world leaders do not care about the underprivileged.

    • John Morales says

      Fine, to be generously charitable, his piece directly renders the pretense of abductive reasoning, and your semiotic hermeneutics may be faithful to its essence.

    • Tauriq Moosa says

      Your patience with my (and John’s) general antagonism toward the piece is incredibly admirable. I wish every commenter who disagreed with my thesis was like you: I disagree thoroughly, but your attempt at remaining civil gives me hope for this species. I shall reply later, though I think John is stating my position better than I could.

  7. Rick Martinez says

    What the guy “translated” may even qualify as surrealist literature; an expert at another site re-translated what the bloke “translated” as follows: “You came in like a wrecking ball…freshly chopped to cut in a hot boil for around fifteen minutes put the onions add some chicken and boy, it will cook nicely psycho killer ….you say. fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, o, and run, run, run, run run, run away, o ho, o, ho, ho, ho, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay cook some rice put on on boiling water turned it off put the lid off help, I need somebody, help, I need somebody, help, just anybody, anybody.”

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