Scenic Design Practices: The Transfer Translation of Events into Scenes
We know that something happens because what happens leaves a mark—a sign, some residue, information, difference, data, etc. The happening, which is to say the event, cannot be experienced as such—no matter much in the flow you are, you are noting things, naming things, making distinctions, giving some form to the event. At the same time, we know that there is more to the event than can be formalized—we can know this because the formalization could have gone otherwise, which means there were possibilities latent in the event that went unrealized. You are remembering the event already as it is taking place, which means you are giving form to an iteration of the event within the event itself, an iteration that you spread over a field of practice, and that is constitutive of the event itself.
An event emerges within a scene—it sets in motion the dissolution of a scene. A scene has everyone positioned in relation to each other so as to elicit imperatives from the scene’s center. Even if it’s just a few people having a casual conversation, they’re all trying to determine “what needs to be said next.” What you find to say will sustain, enhance, disturb, disrupt, etc., the scene. But whatever is said initiates the dissolution of the scene, one way or another. The imperative from the center keeps changing as it has been heeded in various ways, rendered in some part moot in another part more urgent. The imperative is always some version of “remove or bracket any interference with the imperative coming from the center.” Trying to clear the channel to the center initiates the dissolution of the scene, but is also why the scene can only be reconfigured, never dissolved—even utter destruction preserves the remnants of a scene on other scenes. And the scene is never completely set because it represents an ongoing formalization that never excludes the possibility that its formalization will have been revised with the next gesture.
At a more concrete level, the history of design shows a continuing response to events. The spread and growing knowledge of infectious diseases, the “discovery” of neuroses, and the trauma of World War One led to an emphasis on transparent, “clean,” uncluttered, forms of architecture and design. This is a clear case of events being translated into scenes. One out of many ways of formalizing the consequences of the war, the influenza outbreak, and the rise of psychotherapy for the Western middle class was selected and promoted over others. The ancient scenes of masses of slaves constructing giant buildings, temples, dams, fighting wars and so on were a translation of the event of formation of the gigantic empires. In either case, a center is served, whether it be the divinized power of the emperor or the model of disciplinary power which came to qualify one to rule in modernity. Styles in art, thinking and writing are equally the result of scenic design practices translating events.
Marcel Jousse’s concept of the “transfer translation” refers to the translation of sacred books into currently used languages, which inevitably led to discrepancies in scripture simply due to differences in idioms across languages. The pedagogical practices of memorizing and disseminating scripture, then, come to include commentary and stories that reconcile these discrepancies. I’m translating Jousse’s concept to apply to the situation where competing formalizations of events both reference and repel each other. The event makes itself known by producing such competing possibilities, which must get reconciled sufficiently for the minimal consistency required for the design of scenes. A particular way of occupying the center, of filling the seat of power, will need translation practices capable of translating any formalization that might redound to the advantage of a competitor.
We live in a liberal, capitalist order—the two are interdependent, but not identical. The liberal subject is the capitalized subject, who has been discounted (and participates by discounting himself) against expected future earnings. If you imagine what you expect to be “worth” 10 years from now, 20 years, 30 years, etc., you can put a “value” on all your present “investments”—and then you can decide between different investments based on their respective expected earnings. From a strictly capitalist standpoint, this would be calculated monetarily, but even the most successfully capitalized subject wants something other than and irreducible to money. Money and power are for something, even if just the recognition from others that you have them. The other things one might want—home, family, intellectual accomplishment, community responsibilities, sex, love, and so on—rely upon the extent to which one has capitalized oneself, and add to one’s capital value if successfully attained, but will nevertheless come into conflict with the needs of capitalization. So, the liberal and capitalist subjectivities have to be reconciled through translation practices, and pretty much everything mass produced under liberal capitalism offers some kind of translation. The center in a liberal capitalist order is issuing the imperative to produce these translations, as a condition of the continuance of that order. For narratives to succeed, they must be able to translate unsuccessful monetary capitalization into successful moral capitalization.
But there is a mode of scenicity and eventness that comes into existence with capitalism while remaining incommensurate with it. This mode is equally dependent upon the algorithmic logic of capitalism, in the sense that it conceptualizes the present as a bundle of future possibilities whose relative probabilities are continually readjusted not only with each act but with each calculation. It might be possible to go back to a lot of presumably antiquated social arrangements, but there’s no going back on this. A social order that has completely replaced capitalism and removed all residues of its existence—money, debt, law, rights, etc.—would still be algorithmic. It would replace capitalism by being more consistently algorithmic. Industry, run according to its own scientific and technological imperatives, would still involve deciding whether to carry out one project or another, allocate resources in one way or another, based on anticipated outcomes, which would be projected further into the future and more expansively in space the more the logic of this order (let’s say, to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities) becomes its exclusive logic and knowledge becomes more precise and therefore the consequences of transformation more predictable. You might not fire a bunch of people because doing so would raise the value of the firm as discounted against expected earnings, but whoever is in charge would decide that these specific people are no longer necessary for the continuation of the project because he knows exactly how much energy, time and labor are necessary for its completion.
The difference is that, since capital is power, the capitalist tries to realize those expected future earnings by using his capital to eliminate obstacles to its realization—whether these be the success of competitors or social demands that might introduce unpredictable value drops along the way and would therefore undermine present valuation. Politicians must be funded and bribed, social movements must be supported so as to provide the government the power it needs to eliminate potentially frustrating intermediate layers of authority, competitors must be undersold, or their supply chains sabotaged, etc. “Predictability” would have to take on another form in the post-liberal capitalist order—it would have to be replaced by the “reliability” of all of those intermediate layers of authority, because whatever you want all the automated machinery and the algorithms running the machinery to do, they can only do it if the people needed to run it are “distributed” properly. I’m assuming here that, contrary to many dystopian scenarios, more automation will give people more to do—not only interfering with the algorithms and reshaping them, but attending to all those relationships, capacities and activities that people often rightfully say they are too busy to cultivate under capitalism.
What would ensue is much more granular forms of sensing, assessing, measuring and responding. These forms would be embodied in practices, which is to say, doing what you are doing only continually more so so that you can ascertain that you are indeed doing that along with everyone else doing what they’re doing. Let’s say you “take a walk”—that’s a practice. Taking a walk is different than running, different than walking to get some place, maybe even different than “strolling.” You can take a walk in a desultory, haphazard manner, or you can make your practice of taking a walk more precise, more demonstrable in terms of an end built into it. Not that there’s anything wrong with the “desultory”—desultoriness can become a practice as well, a kind of play aimed at discovering which initiatives might turn into practices undiscoverable otherwise. The relation between the rigorous and the desultory can itself be the subject of a practice. This is another way of talking about the enactment of the meaning of words—if you want to know if you are “courageous” or “resilient,” you need to construct a practice in order to find out whether you’re sampling those words. If you transform “taking a walk” into a practice, all kinds of things come into view—you start to notice things about different routes, different paces, the relationship between your muscles, between nutrition and exercise, between your walking and other forms of physical exertion, and so on. You produce more and more samples for yourself to take as proxies for some constantly redefined population, and you are offering yourself as a sample for those at higher levels or responsibility who can now notice how the community is designed with an eye towards making it more suitable for those “taking walks.” This is the imperative coming from the post-liberal capitalist center, and it’s an imperative we can hear and partially obey, while constructing practices revealing the obstructions within the liberal capitalist order to the creation of a realm of practice.
The imperatives of this, iterative, center, is what takes us beyond the sacrificial center. Capitalism retains the Big Scene, that is, the assumption that the entire social order, and ultimately the entire world, can be treated as a scene upon which coherent actors make exchanges as part of the distribution from the center. On the Big Scene we will never be done with money, capital, debt, exemplary victims and the apocalyptic struggle against tyranny. The iterative center produces an articulation of practices and hypotheses; the Big Scene generates narratives which, for the most part, fantasize some component of the liberal imaginary triumphing over some compulsion to self-capitalize. So, the work of scenic design is the translation of events designed into narrative form into the terms of a possible practice. There is nothing utopian in the practice—we can always work on perfecting some practice, even under difficult conditions. The practice of translation formalizes the event of the iterative center against the liberal-capitalist formalization of the event.
Everything we do or that happens to us (every event) can be part of a practice of capitalization (scenic design aimed at capturing value)—getting better at something, improving appearance, making friends, learning things, etc., can all increase our value by indicating the possibility of greater future earnings. I give some “credit” to capitalism because I acknowledge that it may be impossible to prove that people might do things worth doing which they otherwise wouldn’t have in the hope of capitalizing them. Even more, taking a strict anti-capitalist position counter-productively places nominal or fantasized opposition to capital over the work of leveraging power differently even under capital. I can agree with capital that any present practice will be pulverized, with greater precision and temporal reach, into signs of possible futurities. This is where power lies in the post-sacrificial order—this is what the center commands. To paraphrase Marx, the capitalist world presents itself most directly as a collection of (scenic design) practices given to capitalization; the practice of translation involves bringing those practices to the edge of meaning and over, to the point where capitalization subverts the practice. That will be the point at which power is detached from responsibility, capacities are not being maximized and needs met, and therefore where words don’t mean the same thing over successive iterations. (How people talk about things and represent them, how they preserve and embed meaning over time provides the means of “measurement” that must replace money in assessing and revising practices of distribution.) Presenting those successive iterations is the entry into the translation practice, because in taking charge of the loss of meaning you match up whatever power you have with the responsibility to the center implicit in the formalization upon which even the rottenest institution depends, and you relay the center’s demand that you be supplied with what you need to enhance your capacity to start auditing unmet needs and wasted capacities across the board. Then your translation becomes a sample of the kind of translation others have to complete.