Translating Odo Marquard

I’ve been wondering what to do with this blog for some time. Most of my long-form scholarly stuff ends up on my page, and most of my time goes toward producing long-form scholarly stuff. Well, that and everything else: teaching, walking the dog, drinking coffee and so on. 

But lately I’ve been doing some translations in my free time, mostly bringing over from the German essays by my favorite under-read philosopher, Odo Marquard. Marquard is an interesting thinker and writer. His short, witty essays cover a wide range of topics from aesthetics to the history of ideas. He already has two books translated into English: Farewell to Matters of Principle and In Defense of the Accidental. They’re both excellent; you should read them. 

I’m working on Skepsis in der Moderne, which was the last volume Marquard published before he passed away. I’m glad to finally have something to put on this blog, and very glad to possibly introduce Marquard to a wider English-language audience. Here’s the first essay: 

How Political Must an Author [Schriftsteller] Be?

Human beings—so wrote Aristotle—are political creatures. Authors are human beings. So, authors are political creatures as well. They can and must, therefore, be political like all human beings, indeed neither less nor more political than all other human beings.

Authors need—as do all human beings—life experience, in order to exist and for their profession. And politics is an essential field of human life experience, from which one will, if one wishes to be a human being and an author, stay only so far away as from other fields of human life experience: the scientific, the religious, the erotic, and so forth. It belongs to human beings and to authors to traverse the political field and to participate in it by means of their composition [Gestaltung; art, arrangement, forming].

Surely though, it does not follow from this that authors have a special status and advantageous constitution respecting the political. They are not in any especially important political position [politische Eigtenlichkeitsposition]; and wherever they claim this, they misunderstand their relationship to the political. The authors are not those who—in contrast to the rest of humanity—are privy to the actual political roadmap of the world, through some kind of special revelation. They are not those who—as the real guardians of what is politically correct, politically reasonable or good—must tell other people what kinds of political things they may and should do or think. Authors have no such special revelation; therefore they are not able to establish any political tribunal which they can somehow escape, because it is intended only for the others. Authors do not even enjoy a special competence or ability to express themselves in the domain of politics: their aptitude for sensitive political situations, and their passionate political discourses, are as a rule inexpert and, to say the least, narrow. When they express themselves politically, the expressions don’t constitute some political-priestly announcement, ex cathedra, of the world-spirit; rather, they are in themselves expressions that can be politically prudent and productive or—especially when authors preen themselves and seek after the feeling of being important—politically unwise and counterproductive. Political expressions from authors, as from all other citizens, are capable of stupidity, and therefore disputable; and that they are criticized, is therefore normal and no insult to the inherent dignity of an author, no act of grand impiety.

In political affairs—and here I will get right to the point—authors are average citizens: humans, like you and me. They have political positions. But, I repeat, they do not have any special and intrinsic political standing [Eigentlichkeitsposition]. No one should lament that those with political power don’t listen enough to the authors. Only when authors express sagacious policy in a politically savvy way, should anyone listen to them and do what they say. And this not because they are authors, but because they have uttered something wise, which they by no means always do. That in the field of the political evil will only cease when those with political power are wise authors, and the wise authors are invested with political power: this variant of Plato’s Philosophy-King state is just as erroneous as Plato’s Philosophy-King state itself, which more than any other opens itself to the danger that political power becomes callow, or naïveté becomes politically powerful.

Human beings—so wrote Aristotle—are political creatures. Authors are human beings. So, authors are political creatures as well. They can and must, therefore, be political like all human beings. That is, neither more nor less political than all other human beings.

New Blog Post on Arizona’s “Right To Discriminate” Bill, SB 1062

I recently cowrote a piece (with my colleague Dave Morris) on Arizona SB 1062, which reads the bill as part of an effort by conservatives to redefine secularism along fundamentalist Protestant lines. The piece is over at Kritik, the blog for the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at UIUC. Read it if you’re inclined, and drop me a message here or respond on Kritik if you’re so moved.