Displacement is the New Translation

By Kenneth Goldsmith


Odd things appear. Things that I don’t understand. Things that I didn’t ask for. Things that I find ugly, strange, baffling, offensive. I don’t know how they got there.

Translation is the ultimate humanist gesture. Polite and reasonable, it is an overly cautious bridge builder. Always asking for permission, it begs for understanding and friendship. It is optimistic yet provisional, pinning all hopes on a harmonious outcome. In the end, it always fails, for the discourse it sets forth is inevitably off-register; translation is an approximation of discourse.

Displacement is rude and insistent, an unwashed party crasher – uninvited, poorly behaved, and refusing to leave. Displacement revels in disjunction, imposing its meaning, agenda, and mores on whatever situation it encounters. Not wishing to placate, it is uncompromi-sing, knowing full well that through stubborn insistence, it will ultimately prevail. Displacement has all the time in the world. Beyond morals, self-appointed, and taking possession because it must, displacement acts simply – and simply acts.

Globalization engenders displacement. People are displaced, objects are displaced, language is displaced. In a global circulatory system, components are interchangeable; there is no time and certainly not enough energy for understanding. Instead, there is begrudging acceptance and a blinkered lack of understanding, ultimately giving way to acceptance. Nobody seems to notice anymore. Translation is outdated. Advertising signs in ballparks remain in their native languages, addressing a far-flung televised, webcast audience; bypassing the local for the global, embracing the unseen, the unknown, the elsewhere.

Displacement is modernism for the twenty-first century, a child of montage, psychogeography, and the objet-trouvé.

Unlike much modernism, displacement doesn’t move toward disjunction, it trucks in wholes. Schooled in Photoshop and reared in cut-and-paste, the world is now our desktop. Drop-and-drag architecture: pick up something and plunk it somewhere; it soon becomes natural. Displacement is Duchamp for architecture. Frank Gehry is a master of architectural displacement; Bilbao, a fantasy displaced off a CAD screen, soon becomes a beloved Basque landmark. Automated recontextualization. Email the plans in, 3D print them elsewhere. Displacement answers to no one, mostly because there’s no one on the other end to take the call. Displacement is magical realism without the magic.

Displacement never explains itself, never apologizes. In 2010 at Columbia University’s “Rethinking Poetics” conference, poet Mónica de la Torre, in the middle of her presentation, broke out, full on, for ten minutes entirely in Spanish, leaving all those who pay lip service to multilingualism and diversity angry because they couldn’t understand what she was saying. De la Torre thereafter resumed her talk in English, never mentioning her intervention. No symbols where none intended. Comprehension is optional; displacement is concretely demonstrative.

Translation is quaint, a boutique pursuit from a lost world; displacement is brutal fact. Translation is slow food: a good meal with friends, in a warm environment. Displacement is not being able to read the menu in fluorescent-lit refractivity that appeared out of nowhere onto Main Street. Translation is the faux-nostalgia for the LP; displacement is the torrent-laced MP3: shattered, embodied and disembodied. Displacement is a four-dimensional object, at once expanding and contracting, unified while exploding, devouring everything in its sight.

Odd things appear. Things that I don’t understand. Things that I didn’t ask for. Things that I find ugly, strange, baffling, offensive. I don’t know how they got there. They were dropped unbeknownst to me in my midst. How long have they been here? They are under my dining room table. I kick them when I stretch my leg and then only notice them. I don’t move them, generally they can’t be moved so I live with them. I learn to accept them, even though I might not understand them. But eventually, I grow accustomed to them. I stop seeing them. They blend in. I move around them. I tame them by giving them a name, domesticate them by giving them a home. Placate them by giving them a use. Eventually, they become mine.