Preface to the Chinese Translation of The Hypothetical Mandarin

This summer I wrote a preface to the Chinese translation of The Hypothetical Mandarin. I figure it will never see the light in English unless I put it online, so I’m putting it here. One thing I noticed is that beginning with the second paragraph my sentences begin to reflect an awareness that my translator is going to have to get them into Chinese. I also am more candid than I usually am about what I was trying to do in the book. 

The translation of one’s work is an opportunity to think about the activity of one’s own writing practice, to face up to the particularities of one’s style and to acknowledge, or feel apologetic for, the difficulty of one’s prose. Somehow the task of translating work into another language—in which one confronts the fact that one’s work has created difficult labor for someone else—clarifies the value of the choices one makes.

At first therefore I am tempted to apologize, both to the reader, and to the translator, Yuan Jian, for the unusual and perhaps difficult style of this book. But, perhaps because I am an unusual and difficult person, I have decided that apologizing would be a mistake. After all, the book was intended to be unusual in English as well. I do not want to write like anyone else. Indeed, part of my goal as a writer is to write in a prose style that has an active force in the work, that makes readers aware not only of a personality behind the writing and argument, but makes them wonder if in fact the argument might also be happening at the level of style itself.

Literary scholars take the idea that the argument of a work might happen in its style as a perfectly normal aspect of their work. I cannot imagine anyone disagreeing that the prose style of Jorge Luis Borges or Lu Xun or whoever has something to do with the content of the fiction or the essays they write. The same is true for literary criticism: no one will argue that Derrida’s prose style has nothing to do with his ideas.

Why then do most critics write as if their style had nothing to do with their ideas? Perhaps they are not ambitious enough. Perhaps they do not think of themselves as artists. I am not sure I am an artist, but I know that it is important to me to try to act like one. This means taking myself seriously—not because I am sure that my work is, finally, serious, but because I am sure that the ethical practice of writing begins with believing that writing can matter, that writing is itself a form of thought.

That is why I am especially grateful to Yuan Jian for all his work. As far as I can tell (my reading ability in Chinese is not very good, but I had a friend read me some of the work aloud, too) he has done a remarkable job capturing the feel of my writing in Chinese. If it sounds foreign to you, dear reader, do not worry—it is supposed to sound foreign, sometimes, to native speakers of English. Things that never sound foreign run the risk of being too familiar. They will therefore fail to break the habits, the common sense, of the reader’s eye and ear. But scholarship, like the work of art, should have as its most basic goals to break the habits and defeat the common sense of its audience.

I wrote the book partly to undermine the habit that Europeans and Americans have of thinking that the origin of their most important philosophical concepts lies entirely inside the national and cultural boundaries of the West. I show here that in the case of the development of sympathy, such an idea is simply untrue. I also show how the idea of China helped Europe “think” through and understand a variety of important ideas about modern life, including concepts of world history, religious syncretism, the relation between state and personal cruelty, between science and primitivism, and between the body and the self. In each of these cases the history of a European or American concept can be shown to rely on a certain version of China that did important cultural and philosophical work. This book is a history of that labor.

A certain version of China, yes. But not a version in relation to some true or actual China to which we should return. There is no real China. There are only ideas of China. Chinese people also have those ideas, which we can easily see if we compare some of the common ways in which we describe the language Americans call “mandarin Chinese”: 普通话,汉语,国语,中文. The first of these relates universality to the nation ; the second describes an ethnic principle; the third a Taiwanese resistance, via ambiguity (which 国?), to the mainland; the fourth a tribute to the classical conception of Chinese centrality. None of these names the actual or real Chinese language; each of them expresses an idea of that language. Which one we choose depends on what we want to do. This use reflects competing notions of Chineseness, both in greater China and abroad. We need more work that would help us understand how the ideas of China work.

*  *  *

These remarks on the idea of China may help the reader understand how I feel about the great deal of contemporary anxiety, in China, about the very problem this book treats as a wholly European event: the highly publicized incidents of deliberate cruelty or terrifying indifference, epitomized on the Chinese web by the scandalous video of a woman stepping on the head of a cat, and the equally scandalous incident of Xiao Yueyue, who was ignored by 18 passers-by after being hit by a car. Isn’t it true, you might wonder, that the Chinese are indifferent to the suffering of others? Weren’t the Europeans right after all?

No. As I argue throughout this book, the focus on individual cruelty was a European strategy for managing the strange relationship, in modernity, between the state and the individual. The reporting of incidents of individual cruelty or indifference by European residents of Africa, Latin America, or East or South Asia, served at least partly to justify acts of state violence that would rectify individual activity. We see the balance between state, or macro-level cruelty, and individual, micro-level cruelty today in the stunning moral innocence that American citizens accord to the US military, despite the fact that significant civilian casualties are the inevitable result of the US war on “terror” and its use of unmanned drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen. Meanwhile a single suicide bomber who kills an equal number of civilians is considered by most Americans to be a moral monster. The killing of civilians by the US drones (Americans do not call it “murder,” even though everyone knows that such casualties always happen) is thus a state-level response, an act of rectification, to the murder of American civilians by terrorists operating, more or less as individuals, outside the state model.

The point is not that both terrorism and drone killings are cruel, or that both are innocent. It is to understand that the entire concept of sympathy (and its counterpart, cruelty) is, here as elsewhere, the site of intense social and philosophical activity designed to adjudicate the relationship between the individual and the state. This does not mean that cruelty (or sympathy) do not exist; it simply means that both concepts operate inside a general field of meaning in which one of their major social functions is to resolve debates in a seemingly unrelated arena of human life, namely the difference between governments and people.

What this suggests is that the mass consumption and distribution of images of cruelty is almost always a screen for something that is happening elsewhere, at the state level. This does not absolve individuals of the responsibility to care for other beings, to help strangers in need if they can, and so on. People must still do their best to be decent to one another, and we must all encourage each other be as decent as we can be. But it does mean that the hysteria inside China about recent videos of cruelty or indifference ought to consider the ways in which state-level behavior might shape the possibilities of individual action. We all know that some of the people who walked by Xiao Yueyue were afraid of being sued, afraid of being caught up in some sort of scam that would leave them destitute or in jail. This is a state problem. It cannot be solved by individuals, because individual action only happens in a state context. A state with a strong and uncorrupt legal system makes it easier for people to do the right thing. A good state makes doing the right thing obvious, even simple… so that we slowly begin to treat each other better without even noticing that we are doing so. The allegedly internal process whereby someone stops to help a hurt child on the street is fundamentally external and contextual. We can solve the problem by attacking the internal issues (encouraging people to become more caring, e.g.) or we can solve it by resolving the external ones. These are both valuable approaches. Things go wrong when we believe that the only solution is internal, or when the outcry focused on exclusively internal rationales (people are monsters, etc.) conceals the possibility of external, state-level solutions to the problem, or causes of it. Nobody, even the people who walked by that little girl, wants to live in a world where people walk by hurt children. The question is how we can make that possible. We must begin by thinking well about the relationship between social structures and individual choice, and recognizing that we together can work to change the structures that govern us.

(I notice that I have said nothing about the woman who stepped on the cat. She is obviously just an idiot. When I am trying especially hard to be a good person, I have sympathy for her as well; it must be a very sad kind of person who thinks that killing a cat for fun is a good idea.)

*  *  *

The idea for this book came to me in a flash. I had spent, in 2003, several weeks reading material in the Cornell University library, which has a large collection of American documents about China, mostly dating from the nineteenth century. I did not have a specific project in mind at the time; I just thought I should do some reading, building a foundation of knowledge that might prove useful later on. A couple years later, I was working on an essay on Bertrand Russell (this became chapter five) and saw a sentence there describing the alleged indifference of the Chinese to the suffering of others. I have seen this before, I thought. I returned to the Cornell materials, which included reports of the surgeries done by Peter Parker in Canton in the 1830s and 40s. There I found a sentence that describes the silence of the Chinese surgical patient (now in chapter three). Between those two sentences came the first vision of the entire book.

Originally I had something like 13 chapters. As I wrote some of the weaker ideas fell by the wayside. Others were combined into one chapter (as with Pearl Buck and Georges Bataille, now chapter six). Part of what happens as I write is that I discover the full line of my main idea. This idea is not, finally, the same idea that I had when I started writing. The process of writing the book changes thought. (If it did not, you would spend two years with the same idea you started with: how depressing!) As the main line became clearer, and the structure of the book emerged from the chaos of the drafts and pages, I eventually chose to write the chapters you have here. To say more would, in the cases where I could think of more to say, have been to simply repeat myself. Instead it seemed important to end the book without exactly ending it. That is why, after the three possible endings I suggest, I conclude with a section that opens the work towards new horizons. In English I wrote the final sentence with a rhythm that deliberately made the reader feel as though there should be another sentence afterwards. I wanted the reader to feel that writing that sentence would be up to him or her; that the book, even as it closed a set of arguments, opened others. One of the richest possibilities was, at the time, the idea of sympaesthetics, the idea that we needed to have as sophisticated an account of the ways emotions work as we do of the ways that literature does. I myself have written no sentences in that direction, but the idea still seems interesting to me.

But of course at some level the newest sentences of The Hypothetical Mandarin belong to this translation, which extends into a new language the ideas I originally had in mine. It would be crazy to think that the ideas were not changed by the translation. You would have to have a very bad theory of language to imagine so. So I am thrilled that the ideas have changed, and can only hope that whatever changes Yuan Jian has introduced here will not only breathe new life into some old ideas, but also direct the reader to places in my own thought that are in need of clarification, extension, or revision. A translation is an interpretation and an act of dialogue. Yuan Jian has begun that dialogue in Chinese; I hope that you, the reader, will continue it.

State College, Pennsylvania / Summer 2012