On Survivors, Translation and Their Next: A Conversation Between Walid Sadek and Nadia Bou Ali

Much like Sadek’s other interventions since the proclaimed end of the Lebanese “civil war,” his allegorical sensibility throughout this interview inhabits the unnerving proximity of transitoriness and eternity. One of the fundamental questions raised by Sadek is the specific nature of an openness to a world struck by the historical violence and structural dislocations of capitalist modernity. This is because sectarianism – another of Sadek’s key themes – is both a symptom of capitalist relations and something from which the figure of the survivor emerges; sectarianism is imbued with guilt-saturated relations in the face of guiltless commodity relations that have overtaken Lebanese society along with others around the globe.

The following interview is published in conjunction with Sadek’s text “When Next We Meet, On the Figure of the Non-posthumous Survivor,” published in the current issue of ARTMargins Print.

Nadia Bou Ali: There is an intriguing link made by Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The Task of the Translator”, between image theory and translation. Benjamin writes: “No translation would be possible if it strove for likeness to the original.”(Benjamin, Walter, “The Task of the Translator” in Illuminations (NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), pp. 69-82.) Further, Benjamin argues that unlike art, translation does not claim permanence for its product. Rather, in translation the original is made to elevate itself higher, into pure form. I am struck by the similarity between Benjamin’s theory of translation as the movement towards pure language and your theory of the non-posthumous survivor. For both seem to share a distrust in a hoped for future and in historicity as well. This is why I propose that surviving and translation instantiate similar propositions about time.

Walid Sadek: As a first response, I propose that we briefly consider the theological meaning of “likeness to the original”. In the very interesting writings of the Byzantine iconophile and theologian Patriarch Nikephoros (b. 806 – 815 exiled – d. 828), likeness is not “to” the original but “toward” the original. In other words, the icon is in a reciprocal relation with the archetype (God), but only following the en-imaging (or as it is usually referred to, the incarnation) of God in Christ. The historical reality of God incarnated in Christ does not warrant the making of formal likenesses of Christ based on formal resemblance or imitation. Rather, the en-imaging or incarnation of Christ calls on the icon to be towards the archetype and exist in a relation of likeness towards God.(The works of Charles Barber and of the eminent philosopher Marie-José Mondzain are key references. See Barber, Charles, “Form and Likeness” in Figure and Likeness: On the Limits of Representation in Byzantine Iconoclasm, Princeton University Press, 2002, pp. 107-171 and Mondzain, Marie-José, (translated by Rico Franses) Image, Icon, Economy, Stanford University Press, 2005.) This concise reference to Byzantine visual theology allows us to regain the core of your question and propose that the icon as survivor is an icon expelled or in the least estranged to such a reciprocity. The icon is therefore in search of another relation, a relation of reciprocity, outside the possibility of an existing archetype. Perhaps, such an icon as survivor enters its political life and comes to gather an aesthetic outside a theological economy.

NBA: The essential point to be garnered here is a proposed shift from relations of likeness to relations of reciprocity outside the possibility of an existing archetype. I also see this shift conceptualized in terms of “redemption contra conversion”, whereby the latter stands in contrast to the former by its submersion in duplication. The convert, as Derrida understands her, is one constituted by mourning: namely by the recognition of her subjectivity as one constituted through a second death of the subject.(Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret, (USA: Chicago University Press, 2008)) For Benjamin, on the other hand, redemption is necessarily collective and his notion of the messianic is a gesture towards a dimension already at work in profane life.(Sami Khatib, « The Messianic Without Messianism », Anthropology & Materialism [Online], 1 | 2013, Online since 15 October 2013, connection on 09 December 2014. URL : http://am.revues.org/159. Khatib’s reading of Benjamin works against Derrida’s reading of the notion of messianism. For Derrida, Benjamin’s messianic is about an irreducible otherness while for Khatib it is about an inaccessible and intensive relation. Khatib reads Benjamin’s messianism beyond theology proper and as being “about ‘something’ that exceeds the domains of scientific knowledge, religious beliefs, and political ideologies. This ‘something’does not allude to a radical alterity or a mystical secret but bears witness to a lack. An incompleteness that prevents the order of the profane from ultimately being closed as a self totalizing sphere.”) Redemption is “openness towards the past that can give rise to a future, which is not a continuation of the past.”(Sami Khatib, « The Messianic Without Messianism », Anthropology & Materialism [Online], 1 | 2013) And so, while the convert lives a false redemption, one that is from the past, the truly redeemed or non-posthumous survivor as you call it, lives a true redemption for the past.

WS: To understand the survivor as a convert who has lost his belief in the reference or who has lost the reference against his continued belief in it, is to understand him in the position of he who has lost but lives nevertheless, namely he who posthumously survives. This is a prevalent conception of the survivor as one wounded and marked for life by a loss that cannot be imagined differently. Such surviving cannot be sustained if it is always, and only symptomatically, tied to the event of loss. What needs to be elaborated, especially for societies undergoing the logic of protracted civil war, is the figure of a non-posthumous survivor. This is a difficult proposition for it is contrary to a prevalent and dominant literature on surviving or over-living which continues to foreground the logic of individual trauma elevated to the level of socio-political historiography. An added difficulty is the conceptualization and celebration of surviving as brute or mere living. Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim has argued against such celebration, in which he sees a speciously radical historical relativism that calls for the survivor to live no matter how! Important to note in passing that Bettelheim does not slip into the elevation of surviving into a morality of the elect, namely in to a morality of those who were chosen to survive in order to tell and witness. What he proposes instead is the guilt of the survivor as interminable, and as a necessary reminder that cautions against a repetition of past deeds.(Bettelheim, Bruno, “Surviving” in Surviving and Other Essays (N.Y: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), pp. 24-314.) My work thus far, recognizing the difficulty of this terrain, attempts to elaborate a figure of a non-posthumous survivor by proposing that the “negative” is not the notional absence of a presence. The negative is a substance that needs to be addressed in its own temporality that is not merely the empty time of waiting for the return of presence.

NBA: To understand a text as original, according to Derrida, one needs to understand its surviving structure.(Derrida, Jacques, “Des Tours de Babel” in Psyche, Inventions of the Other, Volume 1 (USA: Stanford University Press, 2007), pp. 192-225, translated by Joseph F. Graham) Survival in translation exceeds biological life and death. In other words, to survive, there must be translation. If translation, as Benjamin writes, is like a ripening, and for Derrida it is a survival, then there is only growth. I suggest, following Paul de Man, that the original does not exist, just like the amphora for Benjamin does not exist, either. Therefore, there is of course no “likeness to”. . Rather, it is the open reciprocity without an archetype that is most interesting. Could this be a relationship outside of dialectics? Is it that of the sublime? I think of Žižek, for whom the notion of the subject “is the name for inner distance, of the substance towards itself, it is the name for an empty place from which the substance can perceive itself as alien.”(Žižek, Slavoj, The Sublime Object of Ideology, (London: Verso, 1989) p.226) If the possibility of the subject relies on a substance that does not manage to constitute itself fully, can we therefore say that there is survival because there are no survivors? Or are you suggesting the opposite? In other words, how can we begin from the position of the negative? And is the negative an absence of presence or is it more? Isit excess? A supplement? A trace?

WS: Derrida’s proposition that survival exceeds biological life and death is very interesting as it is also quizzical. Surely, the conceptualization of survival is in line with the word’s etymology and suggests that a survivor is an over-liver, one who lives in spite of what should have been his certain death. Yet, to stay with Derrida’s proposition is to risk bracketing yet again the survivor within the structure of a loss, a traumatic loss, to be explicit. Exceeding biological life and death opens unto ghosts and the ghostly, unto re-enacting events and symptomatic repetitions. This is certainly a compelling theory, as it is also dominant in post-WWII literature as it is also prevalent in Lebanese post civil-war art. But my interest lies in theorizing a surviving that is a tense, and at times paradoxical, interaction of proximity with and distance from the event of loss. Such a theory could allow for a notion of a livable survivability, a growth that probably requires that we consider other forms of subjectivity to follow the above-mentioned proposition by Žižek. To address your last question, survivability in and through the negative demands that we reconcile ourselves with the excess of an unwelcome knowledge to be borne without reliance on the anchoring assumptions of a philosophy of presence.

NBA: In surviving, as in the messianic, we cannot assume that we are dealing with something familiar. This distance that you articulate as “a tense and at times paradoxical interaction of proximity with and distance from the event of loss” is a theory of time waiting to unfold. Do you wish to dissociate the appearance of something from its spectrality? For that would be the only way for it to reconcile with your call to bear the negative “without the anchoring assumptions of a philosophy of presence.” In other words, it seems to me that what you suggest is not about recovering the souls of the dead. This, of course, is in line with your text “Mourning in the Presence of the Corpse”(Sadek, Walid, “Mourning in the Presence of the Corpse” in Third Text, number 117, July, volume 26, issue 4, 2012, pp. 479-489.) which includes a parable of a king who had to carry a corpse across a burial ground but failed repeatedly until he was nonplussed by the riddle posed by the voice inhabiting the corpse. I think that the interplay between speech acts and silence is of an utmost importance in that text. The ghost after all is a speaking voice in a mute corpse. The king wins the bet once he stops speaking back, speaking to, speaking with the corpse. Speaking of the corpse is a different matter- as is speaking of survival.

WS: I agree with you that the parable of the King and the Corpse is pivotal.(Zimmer, Heinrich, The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul’s Conquest of Evil, 2nd ed. Joseph Campbell (ed.), Bollingen Series 11 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1956), pp. 202-235.) For what it proposes is that to be with corpse one must enter into the temporality of soliloquy. To be with corpse, namely with the excessive object of absence, one must exit the vocal and audible key of sociality and enter into the lengthy time of searching for another sociality in which absence is a substantial and necessary component.

NBA: We must therefore distinguish between the temporality of lingering in the presence of the corpse and that of waiting with specters. Writing post 1989, Derrida(Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx, The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning & the New International, (London: Routledge, 2006).) attempts to argue for a social critique in the absence of revolutionary politics that acknowledges the shortcomings of the “shift from the messianic-spectral to the apocalyptic-embodied”,(Postone, Moishe, “Specters of Marx” in History and Theory Vol. 37 no. 3, 1988, pp. 370-87.) or in other words the shift from revolution to party politics and state structure. For Derrida, a non-presentist politics of spectrality is both responsible to the dead in the past and to those unborn in the future. Spectrality is a straining forward toward the event, as it is also a waiting without expectations. Derrida’s messianicity calls on the interruption of the ordinary course of things, in the here and now. It is essentially about Justice. The examination of what is just or justice means a constant rethinking of responsibility, and of re-politicization. Derrida proposes messianicity without messianism: “No future, no time-to- come, no other, no event worthy of a name, no revolution.”(Jacques Derrida, “Marx and Sons” in Ghostly Demarcations (London: Verso, 1999), p.251.) For Derrida spectrality is reserved for a relationship with otherness. Benjamin, however, proposes the messianic as that which “prevents the closure of capitalist real-history.”(Khatib, “Messianic Without Messianism,” p.1.) As opposed to Derrida’s, Benjamin’s messianicity is not spectral but dialectical. It intervenes in homogenous empty time. It is made possible by the revolutionary class in history. How is the non-posthumous survivor in your work different from the specter?

WS: It seems to me that Derrida’s project is fundamentally ethical. After the end of history, the task becomes one of otherness. In that regard he joins the work of Emmanuel Levinas. I suppose that my work on mourning in the presence of the corpse is a call to linger with the object after death. In other words, it is a call to see not the after effects of an event but rather what we have done as historical subjects. Here I recall the words of Prince Aeneas upon taking one last look at burning Troy with his old decrepit father on his shoulders: “I had lost, and I knew it”.(Virgil, The Aeneid, translated by Frederick Ahl, Oxford University Press, 2007, Book II, line 804.) With Aeneas, there is no straining forward towards the event as Derrida proposes. The event will not have happened. Rather, there is recognition of the event and its consequences, a desire to linger with the corpse and an intense soliloquizing to keep us busy. But to remain with the corpse could lead us towards the ethical and it is for this reason that I have come lately to propose the figure of a non-posthumous survivor. For with such a figure, the knowledge that is born by historical figures finds a space-time to act again within history.

NBA: To return to Benjamin’s “Task of the Translator”, Benjamin proposes in that essay that history is a translation. One that disarticulates the original and opens unto a pure language, or, dare I say, an image that is entirely freed from the illusion of meaning. So, translation reveals the eternally bottomless depth of language, its internal destructive kernel.

WS: When we posit that disarticulation must rely on a pure language, it seems to me that we are still maintaining the presence of an authority, that of pure language or a ‘pure’ image – an archetype perhaps. If so, then disarticulation is a practice of subversion and as such is still complicit with extending the life of that authority. For disarticulation to reach and become a practice in the “bottomless depth of language” it must critique its own alleged subversive subtext. I have in an earlier paper approached this challenge by considering rumor as a field where such non-subversive work can take place.(Sadek, W., “A Matter of Words”, in Parachute #108, October 2002, pp. 34-49.)

NBA: There is no doubt that disarticulation is complicit with extending the life of an authority. I see that as a shortcoming of the philosophical project of Romanticism in which Benjamin does partake. I think the non-subversive work is possible and that it is the true function of translation. The work of language in translation is ultimately a political act. It wrestles with the notion of the singularity of the event and it brings us back to the issue of presence and absence. The pursuit of the untranslatable is the death of commodity language and the pursuit of pure language. It can only come about in an act of divine violence; an act that I suspect only the survivor can carry out.

WS: Thinking through the work I have done on rumors, I would propose that translation, or the non-posthumous survivor, live not after the death of language or of time, but rather within close proximity with, formlessness. In other words, if translation raises the possibility of a death of language it is only in as far as it signals the unfounded claims of a particular use of language and/or a particular use and deployment of time. It is precisely at this point that the political question arises: What is the politics of rumors, of formlessness and of a living after the allegedly un-representable catastrophe?

NBA: The interesting thing is that translation signals the unfounded claims of language and time yet it cannot but exist through them. In other words, translation is moved by the desire for total translatability. Now you make me think: is the untranslatable the survivor? To unpack this further let me say that every translation has to presume an untranslatable, a constant element that is recognizable in any tongue and yet is always left behind. Thinking of translation is in a sense thinking of those that look unto you from the past, those whom you cannot speak to.

WS: Perhaps they can be spoken with but only through soliloquy.

NBA: With regards to the question of politics: Who is addressed by a translation? Who can hear the wayward language of translation? Are we in a sense addressing shipwrecks? Is there for translation anything else besides more shipwrecks?

WS: Perhaps so but only as long as shipwrecks is what we launch with.

Beirut, February 2015


Much like Sadek’s other interventions since the proclaimed end of the Lebanese “civil war,” his allegorical sensibility throughout this interview inhabits the unnerving proximity of transitoriness and eternity. One of the fundamental questions raised by Sadek is the specific nature of an openness to a world struck by the historical violence and structural dislocations of capitalist modernity. This is because sectarianism – another of Sadek’s key themes – is both a symptom of capitalist relations and something from which the figure of the survivor emerges; sectarianism is imbued with guilt-saturated relations in the face of guiltless commodity relations that have overtaken Lebanese society along with others around the globe.

According to Sadek, the “historical figure of the non-posthumous survivor” gradually “makes manifest the dream-work of civil war officially over.”(Walid Sadek, “The Impregnated Witness,” ARTMargins, 4.2. (2015), pp. 3-13.) In presenting his analysis of war as analogous to Freud’s analysis of dreams, Sadek is interested in the figure of the post-humous survivor in as far as it makes manifest the hidden wishes of “civil war.” This figure acts as a “screen flickering with the truth that is still operative but severely prohibited.” It embodies an eternal present in which the unconscious wishes of a society meet elements of the withheld Real. He thus posits this figure as distinct from that of the post-traumatic subject, and as something different from the three figures – victim, perpetrator, and beneficiary – that are characteristic of human rights discourse. Sadek’s figure, who does not speak nor make things easily available, punctures the stale temporality of eternal repetition characteristic of sectarianism, the law that suspends law in the name of preserving it. This figure punctures sequential time with images of a present in which witnesses and survivors inhabit a “liveable living” and loss is transformed into knowledge. Sadek’s allegorical prose articulates the non-posthumous survivor as a form of “creaturely life,” an uncanny figure, a surplus that demands and resists the symbolic order.(Eric Santner, On Creaturely Life, (USA: University of Chicago Press, 2006).) This creaturely figure is summoned into being by translation and the failures inherent in translation, a matter that I engage Sadek with in the following conversation.

Sadek’s figure of the witness can be read in relation to Benjamin’s staring angel who fixes a vision of history that is nightmarish and mythical. In true Benjaminian spirit, Sadek promises that the true disaster is yet to come: it is the disaster-to-come that will suspend the visions of subjects who are bound to social norms that foreclose other futures. In our conversation, Sadek alludes to guilt as the ground from which the survivor’s freedom becomes possible: by swallowing their words and entering a kind of soliloquy, the witnesses of which he speaks recede from the symbolic order and hail another order of signification.

In yet another allegorical allusion, Sadek extends his figure of the survivor to that of what he calls “the impregnated witness.” Through the figure of St. John of Patmos, Sadek counters the image of history as one of dissolution and lost energies. St. John as a witness is presented as a figure of agitation, of perpetual intensification. His forever-impregnated figure is not one that over-lives—sur-vivre, in the manner of Derrida—but one that is undead. This undead posthumous survivor bears witness to the destructive force of human history. St John only bears witness when he swallows his words: “he becomes wordless when he is full of words,” according to Sadek.(Walid Sadek, “The Impregnated Witness.”) Yet this loss of words is not a real loss. It does not signify a loss of meaning; rather it signifies a second order of signification, a not-yet or yet-to-be. So the metaphor of witnessing (which relates to vision) changes entirely into a discursive expression of what is essentially not discursive but is instead historical. The event to which St John bears witness makes him (or his witnessing) into the event. It points to St John’s own limits: his flesh and bone which are now the site of, or now carry, his swallowed words. There is a sense of immediacy, of creatureliness, of flesh and bone, in the impregnated witness of which Sadek speaks. This immediacy is embodied in the fact that the swallowed words taste of nothing but themselves. The present to which the survivor/witness looks is one in which these very words would no longer be of use. It is a present for which memory has no use, and in which existing social relations are countered by a freedom that emerges from the knowledge garnered by witnessing.

A point that Sadek doesn’t broach, either in his ARTMargins essay or in our conversation here in ARTMargins Online, is that this combination of witness and survivor, once reduced to the flesh and bone that harbors soliloquy, must labor to be this neighborly combination. Survivors are not reformed citizens or utopian subjects; rather, they inhabit a distance between neighbors and creatures. Sadek’s interventions into the protractedness of civil war recognize those elements of freedom that already exist by providing us with the plural of things singular: when next we meet is now.

Nadia Bou Ali


Walid Sadek is an artist, writer, and faculty member in the Department of Fine Arts and Art History at the American University of Beirut. His work investigates the legacies of the Lebanese Civil War and endeavors to structure a theory for a postwar society disinclined to resume normative living. His essays have appeared in Third Text, Art Journal, Parachute, and Camera Austria.

Nadia Bou Ali is a faculty member in the Civilisation Studies Program at the American University of Beirut. She is an intellectual historian of modern Arab thought. Bou Ali is currently working on a book regarding the relationship between liberal thought, nationalism, and language making in the nineteenth-century.

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