By Michael Wells
Luis de Miranda’s “Being & Neonness” is a slim volume of philosophy and cultural history published this spring by MIT Press. The new English version, which I translated from the original French, first published in Paris in 2012, was revised and adapted by Luis.
Luis and I connected online in 2017 via a post in TransNet, a forum for members of the Chartered Institute of Linguist’s translation division. Luis had been looking for translators for another of his books, Who Killed the Poet? and had already found Tina Kover for the English version. However, he sent me L’être et le néon and asked if I would like to translate it, with the caveat that he wanted a sample translation first. He liked my sample, so I embarked on translating the whole text, some 40,000 words. Luis is multilingual and was writing a doctoral thesis in English on the “French” notion of “esprit de corps” at the University of Edinburgh, so it was an unusual, but refreshing and stimulating experience to send my draft translations to the author, have him provide feedback and to produce a close collaborative text.
I’ve been working as a translator and interpreter for over thirty years. My work has mainly been focused on international relations, humanitarian action, business and technology, with a more recent foray into horticulture. However, I read French literature and philosophy at university and have always been curious about big questions like Why? What Is This All About? and What Does It All Mean?
In between translating my bread-and-butter texts, I spent many a happy hour in the British Library researching quotations from Being & Neonness and reading the authors Luis cited. Sometimes this involved detective work, such as a reference to a 1927 Frankfurter Zeitung article in German by Siegfried Kracauer that was tracked down and PDFed to me by a helpful librarian in the University of Paderborn, Germany.
A big question for any translator — and any writer for that matter — is who you are writing/translating for. One of my clients often stipulates that they want a translation to read as fluidly as possible rather than sticking religiously to the original. Conversely, my legal-financial clients would take a dim view of that for an international bank guarantee.
There are some great books about what translation is and does. One of my favorites is the magisterial “Is that a fish in your ear, translation and the meaning of everything” by David Bellos, which gives an impressive panorama of the interlingual worlds in which I live. Another, more specifically devoted to literary translation, is also an MIT title. Mark Polizzotti’s “Sympathy for the Traitor” came out in 2018, just as I was finishing the first draft of Being & Neonness. Polizzotti poses the question of readership, “A translation is not a mirror image, but a work unto itself. Its audience is the target-language reader, and it is to that reader that the translation must speak.” In Being & Neonness we hope to have produced a text that will appeal to general readers of the New York Times, the London Review of Books and to academics and students with a more professional interest.
To mark the publication of Being & Neonness and to explain why I felt this book was worth translating and why I think it is worth reading, here are ten questions I put to Luis and his illuminating answers!
1. The title “Being & Neonness” plays on the title of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1943 “Being and Nothingness”, one of the seminal works of French existentialism. Your title also plays on Boris Vian’s satirical “The Letter and the Neon”. What is the relationship between these titles and how might they speak to a 21st century reader?
One evening, as I was walking along the quayside by the Louvre in Paris, I was stopped in my tracks by the neon sign of a fast food restaurant. It contained words in letters of light that symbolized globalization in a perhaps unintentionally humorous way: food specialties from all over the world: crepes, kebab, pizza, coffee, tea and cake.
The contrast with the solemnity of the Louvre and the historic monuments that surrounded me, such as the ancient Pont-Neuf, was striking. Philosophy often starts with astonishment. The title L’être et le néon came to my mind as a pun. I thought it would be a good title and I might have subconsciously remembered Vian’s novel Froth on the Daydream (L’écume des jours), which I had read as a teenager, with its reference to a certain Jean-Sol Partre and his The Letter and the Neon (La Lettre et le Néon), as opposed to the real Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’être et le néant, his Being and Nothingness. I felt quite alone in those days, back in 2011; living in Paris was starting to feel like a dead end, a nauseous repetition without much novelty, nothingness. I started researching the history of neon, and a few months later began giving a weekly seminar in the medieval basement of the Café des Fous, a bar in the St-Germain des Près neighborhood. I would read drafts of the book, accompanied by guest artists. The book does, indeed, have references to Sartre and Vian, who can both be regarded as existentialists, although they had very different personalities. Being & Neonness is mildly impregnated with the poetry of Vian’s novels and songs, and also, moderately, with the philosophical mindset of Sartre, Heidegger, Kierkegaard and other existentialists. In it there is also a sort of reckless, sketchy prolegomena to a new philosophy, which I call “crealectics”; the genealogy of crealectics is partly affiliated with existentialism. In my view, the latter is still very influential in the 21st century, as the implicit philosophy of postmodernism.
2. Neon lights seem emblematic of American culture in the 20th century, yet it was a Frenchman, Claude George, who invented the technology in Paris and first patented it in the US in 1915. How do you understand the role of neon in American and global culture in the intervening hundred years?
Americans transformed neon into a popular icon. In its first years in Paris, neon lights were luxurious, decorative objects or flourishes of techno-artistry, which the Futurists used from the early days. However, in my view, the United States in the 20th century was about the standardization of everything, including the standardization of the mind. Take the American Psychiatric Association’s handbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, now in its fifth edition, known as the DSM-5. It is an attempt to standardize the most singular human features and transform them into universal symptoms. Among its other facets, my idea is to present neon as a metaphor for reductionist descriptions of human identity. But the book cannot be summarized into an elevator pitch. Or if I had to, I would say that “This book is the elevator pitch of a book to come on crealectics, which might only be written in a decade from now.”
3. “Being & Neonness” has what followers of Sartre might describe as an “authenticity” or “commitment” vis-à-vis a politics of engagement. How political was your intention for this book?
Recently, an Emeritus professor colleague at a London university wrote saying that I tend to be “campaigning” in my essays. That’s true. So many aspects of contemporary western societies seem outrageous to me, I find it hard to remain artificially neutral. Moreover, this is probably a French tradition of essay writing, in which it would seem naïve not to be engaged. As Sartre said, “we are involved” (“nous sommes embarqués”). Intellectuals are not out of this world even if we’d like to be. There is a tendency in analytic philosophy to write as if an individual could be totally apolitical, without social determinism, but this is because analytic philosophy is another product of the impossible attempt to standardize everything, even thought itself. Nevertheless, Being & Neonness is not a political pamphlet; it combines philosophy, poetry and literature in a form of cosmological politics that is not reducible to a standard genre. I believe that thinking is the way to forge societal change.
4. You Quote Alfred North Whitehead’s 1929 “Process and Reality” and His Conceptualization of the Modern Sense of “Creativity”. You Also Use the Neologisms “Creal” and “Crealectics”. What Do These Terms Mean and Why Did You Create New Ones?
The Creal — in French Créel — is a portmanteau neologism I proposed back in 2008 in my novel Paridaiza — which is currently being translated into English by Tina Kover and will be published by Snuggly Books in 2020. It is, of course, a combination of creation and real. I call Creal the primum mobileof my process philosophy, it is an infinite realm of potentialities. Crealectics is the study or understanding of their actualization, it is an ongoing theory of worldmaking. There are already a few exploratory texts accessible online, like my chapter On the concept of Creal: The Politico-Ethical horizon of a Creative Absolute. And in Being & Neonness I present a simple creal cosmology. Indeed, Whitehead’s Creativity, Bergson’s Life, Deleuze’s Difference, Heraclitus’ Logos, Hegel’s Spirit, Aristotle’s Prime Mover, or the Chinese Tao are all other names for what I call the Creal. I hope that calling it Creal makes it more intuitively understandable for philosophical minds, especially since the problem of the Real is one of the most important philosophical questions of all times. Crealectics is also distinct from analytics and dialectics. These I believe are three distinct modes of understanding. The decisions and organization of our world today tend to be too analytical. Why? These are ideas that I develop in more detail in Being & Neonness, with a style that I hope to be crealectical rather than analytical or dialectical. What is a crealectical style? Well, I guess one has to read the book to feel the answer.
5. You Mention the Situationists and Their Heirs, the Psychogeographers. What Is the Role of Place in General, and Paris in Particular, in “Being & Neonness”?
Being & Neonness can be seen as a psychogeography of Paris and its ideal of co-creative freedom. It has been compared to Henri Lefebvre’s book on “The Production of Space”. My book is a narrative non-fiction work, which follows a narrator through the streets of Paris and out in the world. Geographical space is itself a conceptual environment, an imaginary trigger. The book tries to manifest in its very form the non-dualism of the philosophy it develops. I would recommend people read it in the subway, in a café, on a street bench, perhaps using like I did some serendipity games inspired by the Situationists and the Lettrists. For example, if you’re in Paris take the Number 29 bus that goes from the Saint-Lazare railway station to the Porte de Montempoivre. Take it right to the end of the line. I love that bus route because it traverses the heart of Paris and because if you unpick its destination you get mon tempo ivre, which translates as “my drunken tempo”. This is the tempo of Being & Neonness.
6. Philosophy and Metaphysics Invariably Circle Around Our Understanding of the Physical World. What Is the Cosmology You Describe in “Being & Neonness”?
I will not attempt here to summarize the Creal cosmology in the book. Let’s just say that it is a henology, a discourse about the One and the Many. In a way, I am a pre-Socratic, which makes me very ancient indeed. I am not particularly happy with the way astrophysicists seem to monopolize the cosmological discourse today, perhaps since Einstein met Bergson one hundred years ago. You don’t need a doctorate in physics or mathematics to speculate about the ultimate truth of the universe. My Creal cosmology is logical even if it is not mathematical. I describe the universe as a love affair between Multiplicity and Unity. This cosmology is made of bits of the entire history of philosophy, I suppose, even thinkers such as Plotinus or Proclus, Spinoza, Bergson, of course, and the others I already mentioned.
7. Neon Lighting Is a Visual Phenomenon for the Seeing Being. You Discuss the Futurist Manifesto “the Art of Noise”. What Is the Importance of Sound, Music and the Aural Environment in “Being & Neonness”?
One of the book’s themes is the expression of wonderment at our current dependence on the paradigm of sight. Look at all these faces staring into their smart phones. Think about it: even Plato’s myth of the cave is a tribute to light, with its metaphor of the sun and reflections. I refer to sound as harmony and in the broad sense of vibration, in the tradition developed by Pythagoras: there are those who count, and those who listen. Many authors, like Marshall McLuhan for example, have described our dependence on visual phenomena. The aural approach is one alternative, but I could also have spoken of touch, and other senses. More importantly, I believe that thought is a sense, perhaps it is the most subtle physical sense of all. The Greeks called it nous.
8. How Different Is the New English Version from the Original French Text You Published Back in 2012?
The spirit is the same, or shall I say the essence? But I believe this edition is much improved, partly because it was rewritten six years after the original, and partly because of the way it was produced. There was a first layer constituted by your excellent translation and my remarks as the translation unfolded. Then I went to Paris in the summer of 2018 and considered the result of our dialog as a draft again (a very good one), and I started cutting or expanding here and there. I was blessed with a translator who was wise enough to accept this rewriting of the translation by the author.
9. How did you find the MIT Press?
Very simply. I wrote an email to Roger Conover, then commissioning editor for books related to art. I did not know him but soon realized that he was a real publisher with flair and audacity, and they tend to be rare nowadays.
10. What Are You Working on at Present?
I have just finished “The Transnational Genealogy of Esprit de Corps”, a 600-page book that will be published in October by Edinburgh University Press. Now I am working both on crealectics and on another portmanteau concept, anthrobotics. An anthrobotic system is a more or less symbiotic assemblage of human agents and algorithmic machines. Most — but not all — of our contemporary situations are now algorithmic and therefore anthrobotic. At Örebro University I am thinking about the concept of anticipation in situations where it plays the role of a cause, whether imaginal, emotional, or analytic. Anticipation is a fundamental notion in artificial intelligence; how compatible is it with human forms of anticipation?
We’ll look forward to finding out! In the meantime, I hope to continue working with Luis, by translating another of his books, perhaps Ego Trip, The Art of Freedom in the Time of Automata (L’art d’être libres au temps des automates) or the intriguingly titled Peut-on jouir du capitalisme ? which might be translated as “Can Capitalism Make You Come?” Watch this space!
Luis de Miranda is a postdoctoral researcher in the Humanities Department at Örebro University and a philosophical counselor at the Philosophical Parlour in Sweden. He has published both nonfiction and fiction in France.