Tyrone Williams

Tolerance, Translation, and Ecstacy

A Future

“God brought things into being in order that the divine goodness might be communicated to creatures, and be represented by them; and because the divine goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, God produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting in one in the representation of divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifest and divided; and hence the whole universe together participates in the divine goodness more perfectly and represents it better than any single creature whatever.” Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1:47:1

“…all suprahistorical kinship of languages rests in the intention underlying each language as a whole—an intention, however, which no single language can attain by itself but which is realized only by the totality of their intentions supplementing each other: pure language.”
Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”

In this passage from the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas insists that the “whole” of creation “participates in the divine goodness more perfectly” than any “single creature whatever.” The partiality of creation is not a flaw since “goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifest and divided.” The potential amorality of this proposition is precluded by both an appeal to recto ratio, which follows “eternal law,” and the formal—not manifest—models for behavior exemplified by certain members of the animal kingdom. Nonetheless, Aquinas, an apologist for Christian ethics during an age of increased intolerance by the church and laity toward ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, cannot completely ignore the philosophical foundations for tolerance in regard to the hierarchical and egalitarian map of creation. Already implicit in the comparatives “more perfectly” and “better,” degrees (but also kinds) of goodness can be attributed to and discerned in certain types of animal and human behavior. And because the good, qualitatively and quantitatively, is apparently immutable, if not omnipotent, certain types of animal and human behavior—specifically, animal and human sexuality—can be dismissed less as intrinsically evil than as abusive, the consequence of corrupted “natures,” already implied by “degrees” of the good in humans and animals. Only recto ratio is both “natural” and incorruptible. Thus, Aquinas’s concept of “human nature” suggests a bifurcated and graduated scale of goodness: uncorrupted good (recto ratio) and corrupted goods (e.g., postlapsarian heterosexual acts “redeemed” by monogamous constraints). Consequently, heterosexual promiscuity, consequence of an already corrupted good, serves as a formal condition for an analysis of homosexual acts, which can only be condemned, within this comparative and logical method, on the basis of their being more corrupt than heterosexual promiscuity. While the latter can hypothetically promote the good via procreation, however illegitimate, homosexual acts, even if monogamous, cannot serve as a form of procreation, thus precluding the promotion of the good. Theologically, the monogamous foreclosure of the good is more abusive than the promiscuous promotion of the good; philosophically, however, homosexual monogamy is a “better” alternative than heterosexual promiscuity since, for the state, political and social order is of the utmost concern. This alternative would seem to follow from Aquinas’s repeated concern for the welfare of orphans and single mothers, a concern both humane in general and philosophical in particular (i.e., the social and political disorder embodied in the categories “orphan” and “single mother”). However, Aquinas explicitly condemns homosexual acts as “more” sinful than heterosexual promiscuity; here, the theologian trumps the philosopher. Thus, Aquinas’s discourse on homosexuality is, in effect, both a concession to and a rejection of popular sentiment of the period insofar as two views of the subject may be gleaned from his remarks, one explicit (homosexual acts are sinful because they do not promote the good), one implicit (homosexual acts do not promote social disorder via illegitimate children and single mothers).

However problematic such formulations presented for Aquinas and other medieval Christian scholars, the human predicament—both animal and divine—implicitly called for moderation in all spheres of life. And if moderation in behavior was not exactly a homology for tolerance in belief, it certainly seemed to logically preclude certain kinds of intolerance. For unlike the scholarly concern with degrees of goodness, types of sin, and the consequent relation between behavior and belief, intolerance elides the problem of belief and hypostatizes behavior, conflating and treating both as one. Observation orients reason, and the consequences of erecting knowledge on the basis of what can be observed by the naked or prostheticized eye constitutes in toto what we might, for convenience’s sake, simply call the history of Western modernity, understood as positivism, up to the 19th century.

Despite the power this orientation continues to hold over various spheres of Western cultures, the concern with belief, with motivation, has never been entirely conflated with, or successfully linked to, behavior. Moreover, as the divide between belief and behavior widened during the partial secularization of Western states, mechanistic metaphors for the body and mind gave way to the return of, and fascination with, doppelgangers, doubles, and twins, facilitating the development of psychology as a field of scientific investigation, a development which posed a particular threat to the hegemony philosophy and theology had heretofore enjoyed in all matters related to human belief and behavior. Consequently, and increasingly, the problem of how to ascertain the nature of the relation between “inner” and “outer” spheres—in short, the problem of other minds vis-a-vis the origin of human society—became a problem of translation, literally and figuratively. To the degree translation depends on reconciling “inner” meaning with “outer” rhetoric, inner “thought” with outer “act,” it presupposes the possibility, if not inevitability, of inaccuracies and mistakes. Our willingness to read and accept in good faith not only translated works but also all modes of oral and written communication depends on certain degrees of tolerance. It would not be going too far to say that translation, given its foundation in the possibility of inaccuracy and mistake, presupposes tolerance, not only for a putative addresser but also for both the addressee and the medium. As we know, the inability to tolerate inaccuracies and mistakes can paralyze oneself during, say, the dissertation process, during the writing of an academic book, or during the writing of an essay for a class. Outside the academic division, however, the tolerance for inaccuracies and mistakes tends to drop significantly (which is not to minimize or erase the history of academic intolerance even within the spectral realm of “ideas”), presumably because the stakes in the “real world” are perceived to be greater than those in the ivory tower. And because the stakes are perceived to be so great, inaccuracies and mistakes tend to get conflated into the theologically overloaded term, error.

Even though the word error never appears as such in “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin’s presuppositions and elisions in his essay demonstrate that errors of translation presuppose the possibility of a final translation. Indeed, one can easily imagine the Tower of Babel looming behind Benjamin’s rhetoric as an allegory for the condition for the possibility of translation. The relationship he establishes between an original work and its translation is homologous to the relationship Aquinas establishes between divine good and created goods. Dispelling the philological superstition that the “kinship” of world languages implies their “likeness” to one another, Benjamin insists that kinship resides only in the separate and different “intentions” of languages. Collectively, these intentions comprise “pure language.” Since languages are constantly disappearing, altering, or coming into being, any given language can only gesture toward the pure language from which it derives. Thus, “… any translation of a work originating in a specific stage of linguistic history represents, in regard to a specific aspect of its content, translation into all other languages.”1 However, “bad” translations attempt to reproduce the “meaning” of the original language. In doing so, bad translations render themselves superfluous clones in relation to the original languages. On the other hand, “good” translations reproduce the “intention” of the original language and, in doing so, “echo” the intended effect or signification of the original. This “echo” constitutes what Benjamin calls the “afterlife” of the original. I need to stress that the life and afterlife of the original work are not metaphors for Benjamin; he means life and afterlife in their most literal senses. Thus, Benjamin’s use of “intention” refers less to the “motive” of a biological creature than it does to a living force of necessity within language itself. The consequences of this linguistic animism are numerous. As his reading of Marx, for example, demonstrates, the hermeneutics of interpretation retains, for Benjamin, its theological sense of unveiling or uncovering. Thus, “bad” translations are no longer simply “bad.” They perforce constitute the error of occultation, simulacra that perform a kind of identity theft, gesturing neither to pure language nor to the original. Here, error is always a mode of mimicry which, like ventriloquism, collapses time and space. Unlike “good” translations that uphold the rigorous distinctions between themselves and the originals, bad translations literally confuse things, conflate differences, erasing specific histories and cultures. Bad translations are thus a mode of intolerance, an inability or unwillingness to accept, in general, differentiation.

Benjamin’s intolerance for the intolerance that bad translations enact is founded on his general concern for the erasure of cultures and histories by modernity. Thus he treats translation the way he treats mechanical reproduction: a necessity that is itself an index of historical change as political progress and cultural decline. This narrative of simultaneous ascent and descent orients Benjamin’s entire theory of translation. Bad translations are errant translations because they betray the afterlife of an original language that has either died, however extant, or has disappeared into oblivion. Otherwise, there is no reason a bad translation, having aborted the afterlife of the original, cannot itself be translated with reference to the original language. But even if the original language has vanished from history, leaving only a bad translation as its stillborn afterlife, cannot that bad translation still be translated? And if translated well, that is, as an echo of the intention of the original bad translation, is that not a good translation? However “bad” the afterlife of the original bad translation, or even the afterlife of the original itself, either or both may be redeemed in the future by a “good” translation. In short, Benjamin’s failure to consider the implicit radicality in innumerable, promiscuous translations of a translation or original betrays his attachment to, his nostalgia for, the original, extant, dead or vanished. Yet his own analysis of the impassable temporal barrier between the original and its translation entails the most radical modes of tolerance since no one can ever say when the “best,” much less the “”last,” translation of a translation or an original will occur. Benjamin arrests this promiscuous indeterminacy at the end of his essay when he offers “Holy Scripture” as the template for all translation: pure language as the beginning and end of all languages.

Not only does Benjamin rein in the potentially promiscuous afterlife of an original. He also limits the originals that qualify for translation when he writes that only “certain works” have the “essential feature” of “translatability.” Although we might presume that bad translations would be among those works that don’t measure up for translation, this enigmatic qualification is never spelled out. At this point in the essay we find ourselves amidst the occult, perhaps because “translatability” is less an “essential feature” of “certain works” than the product of historical forces fused into a mode of necessity for a future reader no author or work can ever foresee or predetermine. In other words, just as all creation partakes of the good and collectively mimics the divine good, an implication Aquinas must circumvent by appealing to the necessity of corruptibility, so too all “originals,” because they partake of pure language, are theoretically translatable. Indeed, for Aquinas and Benjamin, we must translate ad infinitum, not in spite but because of the risk of error, for it is only through the transformations translation performs on an original that its error-free afterlife is even possible. That error-free future afterlife is only possible because the original’s birth is simultaneously its separation from God, from pure language. The original is born in error, and just as original sin must be translated into a good toward the divine good, so too the sin of the original must be translated into its afterlife toward pure language. For both, then, translation demands tolerance and intolerance. Intolerance must expel, bracket or neutralize error because it presupposes narration toward the social, the cultural or the political, good, a towarding always, however, vulnerable to error. At the same time this vulnerability to error demands tolerance at each moment and point along its trajectory toward the good since error, the original condition, is inescapable. Translation is indebted to tolerance and intolerance—tolerance for the possibility, intolerance for the manifestation, of error.

In evoking the possible and the manifest, we have returned to Aquinas and the problem of condition and behavior: sexuality and sexual acts. His dilemma is also a problem of translation, not only how to apply moral norms to animal behavior and translate animal behavior into normative mores, but also how to translate scholastic insights into canon law while calibrating canon law vis-à-vis scholarly research. It is not mere coincidence that medieval interest in the challenges of translation in its specific and general modes coincides with the obsession with “error” in all its permutations (rhetorical, grammatical, moral, social, theological, etc.), permutations often seen not as homologies but as linked to one another in a causal chain. In relation to these necessarily incomplete but potent concepts of translation and error, which led to calls for both tolerance (for example, Aquinas’ attempt to synthesize Aristotelian philosophy and Catholic theology) and intolerance (for example, the Inquisition), I want to uphold the radicality implicit in Aquinas’ insight regarding the intrinsic, if modulated, goodness suffusing what he calls creation, a radicality which exceeds its theological origins and parameters. In other words, Aquinas’ rhetoric on legitimate procreation as always oriented toward the future determined by the good opens up the possibility of retaining and affirming what this theological move must displace: an illegitimate future no longer necessarily determined by the good, an illegitimate future “for” which radical modes of toleration—not faith—will have been the offspring of an equally radical ethos. This illegitimate future is homologous with Benjamin’s “bad” translations.

At first glance, this emphasis on the future of illegitimacy, an illegitimate future, hardly seems radical since the recuperation of illegitimacy for legitimate ends is a central motif in theological narratives. One might hear variations on this thesis on any given Friday, Saturday or Sunday in a house of worship. Yet it is precisely the radicalism within this narrative that accounts for its rise and suppression as various “heresies.” Because this radicalism is prior to its recuperation at the “end” of the narrative, it is also the a priori condition for the narrative as such. Put another way, it is precisely when the possibility of the illegitimate everywhere present and yet always to come as the legitimate—in short, the narrative of recuperation—appears on the horizon of Western history that tolerance enters the rhetoric of politicians, theologians and philosophers as a way to manage, by liberal accommodation, its potentially disruptive effects. This is why tolerance gives rise to, and the uses of toleration arise from, the Enlightenment as religious pluralism even as cultural differences initiate the identity politics of Western modernity.

In the most general sense, then, the concept of tolerance is inseparable from crisis management, itself a kind of translation. At least as early as the Edict of Toleration (311 A.D.) issued by Galerius, Roman magistrates, having failed to exterminate the Christian pestilence, deployed Latin magnanimity as legal and ethical cover for a kind of Cold War détente: “wherefore, for our indulgence, they ought to pray to their God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the republic may continue uninjured on every side, and that they may continue to live securely in their homes.” While it is true that almost all the pre-Enlightenment discussions of tolerance concerned the possibility, desirability, or limits of religious dissent. Political dissent increasingly became a concern of Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Hume, Locke and Kant. Ten years ago the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights was amended by a short statement on “Tolerance and Diversity: A Vision for the 21st Century,” signed by Mary Robinson and Nelson Mandela less than a week before September 11, 2001. I need remind only some of you that Xavier’s president, Michael Graham, issued a similar call for tolerance when he, in the context of the April 2001 riot in Cincinnati, chose “diversity” as the inaugural theme for the first Academic Day, held on September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks on that Tuesday morning occurred three months to the day after the execution of Timothy McVeigh, architect of what had been, six years earlier, the most deadly terrorist attack on U.S. soil. South of the border, exactly twenty-eight years earlier, on September 11, 1973, Chilean president Salvador Allende committed “suicide” during a military coup widely believed to have been orchestrated, in part, by the CIA. In linking the literary-philosophical histories of tolerance in the West with these traumatic consequences of intolerance that occurred on a specific date, thus conjuring up the “uncanny” in both its psychoanalytic and political modes, I am pointing toward a problem of translation—for example, between signification and rhetoric—as a problem of knowledge. And the problem of knowledge is, here, a problem of temporality, how we envision what is to come: the future as fulfillment of prophecy punctuated by significant dates read as signs, or a future as the unknown, the indeterminate, the impossible which never arrives. This second interpretation is implicit in Aquinas’s vision of a universe whose every part is not only “necessary” but also “good” even if the rhetoric and explicit thesis of the Summa Theologiae endorses only the first interpretation. This first interpretation, like Galerius’ edict, is a mode of what I will call liberal tolerance.

What are some of the presumptions of liberal tolerance as traditionally understood? First, prior to the Enlightenment, religion, like politics, is a public concern however private its tenets or practices. Thus Galerius issues a public decree permitting Christians to practice their faith “in their homes.” Moreover, the sphere of politics within the West presupposes some degree of secularization: hence the church-state alliance. A second presumption of liberal tolerance is that the religious or political entity being tolerated is a quantitative or qualitative minority: the former generally applies to political groups, the latter to religious groups. Finally, while liberal tolerance presupposes a conflict between political or religious belief systems, those being tolerated are generally presumed to be in error (religious minorities) or simply mistaken (political groups). Given the above, I will not have recourse to what I call “soft” tolerance, that “I’m Okay-You’re Okay” drivel so American in its circumvention of conflict based on real, intractable differences.

So let me approach the issue from a perspective alluded to above: the problem of tolerance as a problem of knowledge and temporality. If the conundrum of tolerance is due to problems of knowledge and temporality, then the subjunctive mood, the conditional voice, might very well be the articulation of more radical modes of tolerance: I might be okay, you might be okay.  Might could be understood here as a future possibility unlimited by present probabilities, a future until—not for—the “end” of time. Here, then, radical tolerance presupposes an ideal norm which is not a world of tolerable beliefs and creeds but rather an interminable suspending of belief, poised among stereotypes and clichés, which is to say, between fundamentalism and ecumenicalism. It is a twilight zone which must—I repeat, must—appear as indifference even though this mode of tolerance is radically differential since it affirms the temporal limits between “now” and “then,” to say nothing of “here” and “there.” This mode of tolerance is not deferred belief, a moment of suspension in anticipation of signs—for example, dates—that signal the advent of the apocalypse, the advent or return of a messianic era, religious or political. And though this mode of radical tolerance is the creed of the agnostic, it remains haunted by a spectral Gnosticism, a determinate theism. However distant from belief, however far “away” or “thrown,” this mode of tolerance remains in orbit around history, which is to say, around belief, around intolerance. Not that belief and intolerance are synonyms but that belief is the condition for the possibility of both intolerance and liberal tolerance. Radical tolerance, however, is mercurial, agnostic, though it never escapes the centripetal pull of belief and intolerance. Radical tolerance offers no predicates for evaluating belief, past, present or future, it cannot judge. Radical tolerance thus mimics the cynic, though it is far from cynicism. Given the above, radical tolerance is often understood as somehow worse than intolerance, prejudice, and bigotry since those beliefs, however fueled by fear or paranoia, at least seem more “alive,” more passionate, more “real,” than the steady-state humdrum of indifference falsely but understandably associated with radical tolerance. Because radical tolerance, strictly speaking, cannot be disambiguated, it can never be the foundation of an ethos, of a relationship to others, be they animal, mineral or flora—even though, like all modes of tolerance and intolerance, it is absolutely inconceivable without ethics. Thus radical tolerance can easily be mistaken for a kind of bad faith, a bad translation of ethical and moral responsibility. It must embrace this risk.

What, then, is radical tolerance? It is first and last a philosophical, ethical, and aesthetic relationship to a future always to come. To put it in quasi-theological terms, it is the promulgation and defense of the good everywhere present but yet to come. It can be glimpsed in the most ordinary of relationships, that which, for example, imbues a parent with the unconditional care of its offspring, however conditioned by subjective and objective interests. It is the mode of tolerance Aquinas displays when he maintains the distinction between philosophy and theology (for example, the universe as possibly infinite vs. the universe as necessarily finite) even if, in the end, both disciplines remain supervened by teleology. Radical tolerance is unending patience, unqualified love.

Consider the ecstatic aestheticism of the 19th c. British Romantic poet John Keats, an aestheticism encapsulated in what he called negative capability. Negative capability goes beyond all concepts of the good, beyond, that is, teleology in general. In a letter to his brothers, Keats, who admired Shakespeare as the quintessential “Man of Achievement,” proffers negative capability as the sine qua non of “genius”: “At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In another letter Keats suggests that this quality distinguishes the poet from the philosopher because it renders the former simultaneously poetic and unpoetic: “poetical character… has no self—it is everything and nothing—it has no character and enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—it has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet… A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no identity, he is continually filling some other body.” Keats’s evacuation of the poetical “self” is Aquinas’s creation writ human. Keats’s rhetoric encompasses Aquinas’ good in an aesthetic of creativity which supervenes both creation and procreation. Yet because the poet is also “the most unpoetical of anything in existence,” Keats’s poet is also Benjamin’s translator who, “outside facing the wooded ridge,” is dragged into “the language forest.” Benjamin distinguishes “The Task of the Translator” from that of the poet whose “intention is spontaneous, primary, graphic” while “that of the translator is derivative, ultimate, ideational.” The radical receptivity and ceaseless movement at the center of negative capability calls into question the rigidity of these demarcations. For Keats, the poet may be as much a translator as he is a creator; he stands both outside and in the middle of the language forest as he mimics the translator shuttling back and forth between languages.

The issue here is not whether Keats himself ever lived up to his standards, how well he did or did not read Shakespeare. The “state of mind” implicit in his rhetoric entails tolerance in its most radical, and I would say, agonistic forms of doubt and uncertainty, especially in the face of implacable knowledge: September 11th, for example, whatever the year. Implicit in Keats’s negative capability, implicit in Aquinas’s creation, in Benjamin’s pure language, tolerance is radically ateleological. It presupposes no eventual resolution of doubt and conflict into absolute knowledge or social and cultural harmony. It presupposes no determinate scientific, religious, or political ends.

But if one is not seeking knowledge or understanding, why then inhabit others? Why invoke the ecstatic? Why a leap if not a leap of faith? For Keats, aesthetic pleasure, the pleasures of forms, various and different, is the beginning and end of this pursuit. The intrinsic pleasures of inhabiting, however imaginatively, multiple manifolds are central to Keats’s sense of the purpose, the end, if you will, of negative capability. What does any of this have to do with radical tolerance? Is there an aesthetic of ecstasy at the core of these modes of tolerance?

There is a tension in the terms Keats uses in these letters, specifically between the “Man of Achievement” and negative capability. The former seems to be premised on an active agent creating and forging objects while the latter appears to demand passivity, a refusal of agency. Indeed, in the two letters I cited above, Keats delineates these two strains of his thinking when he affirms those capable of “being in uncertainties, doubts, Mysteries, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” as well as those “continually filling some other body.” In these separate tendencies we see Keats’s radical fusion of perception and imagination in the service of the ecstatic. Still, were we to translate Keats’s entire project into a mode of civility founded on an ethos, it would appear to depend less on the decidedly non-ecstatic notion of liberal tolerance, traditionally understood, than it would on a kind of radical pseudo- or faux-sympathy. This is neither pre-20th century sympathy, which depends on a transcendental moral sense, nor 20th-21st century sympathy understood as an affective or ethical faculty. Radical tolerance cannot be boxed in by the absolute. To circumvent the universal/accidental dialectics of theology and philosophy, it must fall short of the absolute while remaining a step ahead of mere contingency, open to a future it cannot orient in advance. That is, radical modes of tolerance will always be subject to intolerance and—not but—will never become a form of intolerance only to the extent they remain open to a future no matter what happens before “then”—which, like the last translation, never arrives.

Since I began by linking this radical mode of tolerance to Aquinas’s sense of divine totality as absolutely and relatively good and to Benjamin’s theory of translation supervened by pure language, I cannot claim that radical tolerance is some kind of exorbitant loophole that allows one to completely escape the theological grounds that orient, for example, Aquinas’ interpretations of human sexuality vis-a-vis “nature” or Benjamin’s distinctions between “bad” and “good” translations. Although the future, by definition, never arrives, radical tolerance would still seem to be dependent on the hope for social or cultural goods, however deferred. How long, then, is long enough? How much must we tolerate before we decide enough is enough and become intolerant with, as we say, a clear conscience? Is the difference between liberal and radical tolerance merely a matter of dates and eternity? Again: radical tolerance cannot answer to a date—September 11, 1973 or September 11, 2001. To do so, to limit it to a date or dates, is to concede in advance that what was once deemed tolerance was, in fact, the hedging of bets, the most traditional and liberal enactment of this term: I’m Okay-You’re Okay until. Not even all-out war can justify the shift from radical tolerance to liberal tolerance, much less intolerance since, within just the brief history of the 20th century, allies became enemies became allies became enemies and so forth, illustrating that not even nationalist or cultural enmity that leads to the slaughter of thousands or millions is sufficient as the limit-case of tolerance. Little wonder, then, that to the extent ideology falters against the expediency of politics as usual or the bulwark of economic utilitarianism which renders cultural differences and social conflicts impotent, if not moot, radical tolerance stands toe-to-toe with intolerance only on the contested fields of religious belief and human sexuality. And as we know, the former supervenes the latter with various degrees of tolerance, tolerance until, since what is at stake is the—not a—future.

Sexuality and religion are of universal concern because they together justify “life” and war “now” and/or “later.” For example, revenge is mine, saith the Lord, and so peaceful co-existence “now” is possible. Conversely, I come not to bring peace but to divide brother from brother; war must be waged until the end of time. Both positions, pacifist and militant, entail procreation as the end of sexuality. As long as we continue to repopulate the planet, we can continue to kill or be killed in the name of a father. And in order to assure the “right” kinds of procreation, sexuality must be patrolled by every institution of human society. Thus the universal taboo against incest, for example, is inextricable from the accretion of power in every imaginable form: social, political, cultural, etc. It explains why, as one example among many, homosexual practices are tolerated in Greek and Roman antiquity as well as in many indigenous cultures so long as they do not interfere with—indeed, functions as practice for—the reproduction of heteronormative power. The critical function of women, of mothers, of female sexuality, is obvious here. Some biologists tell us that promiscuity is hardwired into males as a kind of instinct for self-preservation. Hence girls and women that refuse to serve the community, the family, the state, etc. represent the highest form of threat, not to human existence per se, but to patrilineal hegemony. This is why the problem of heterosexual promiscuity and homosexual relations are so often linked in Christian, Judaic, and Islamic traditions. Aside from problems of lineage and survival, human sexuality raises the specter of choice and consent in relation to custom and law, one reason the medievalists in particular were concerned with, fascinated by, both bestiaries and bestiality. I said above that radical tolerance cannot answer to dates, to war as vengeance or provocation. Tolerance, however radical, does answer to choice and consent because, in the end, tolerance melds choice and consent: one chooses, consents to, a future one, by definition, will never live to see. This is why those difficult questions delineated above might answer to, could answer to, the problem of choice and consent. But in normal parlance the problem of choice and consent is generally tied to religion and human sexuality. Having dealt with the former to some extent, let’s consider what might be understood as the very limit of all modes of tolerance, a sexual practice mentioned in the Summa Theologiae: bestiality.

Strictly speaking, within the parameters of U.S. law, bestiality is rape since no animal can consent to sexual relations with a human being. But since the law presupposes not just sentience but also the ability to “reason” for participants in a sexual relation, voluntary or not, one might well wonder if an animal could be raped. Consent, in American jurisprudence, implies sentience, and sentience, applicable to animals and humans, is a necessary but insufficient condition for consent. Only human adolescents—after a determined age—can make “reasonable” choices. In this context bestiality, as a form of intra-species sexual trespassing, serves as the limit-case, the endpoint, of that spectrum of tolerable sexual practices since no animal, no matter how old, can make reasonable choices, can consent to sexual relations with a human being. At the other end, so to speak, of this spectrum is sado-masochism, precisely because it too conjures up that ghostly concept of “consent.” I qualify consent with these nebulous terms—conjure, ghost—because, in truth, we still do not know what “reasonable choice” or “consent” might mean in the context of these specific sexual practices. In other words, the moment we choose a radical mode of tolerance we recognize it is we, not “them,” who may be mistaken, may be, one day, in error. Thus, unlike the choice to be intolerant or liberally tolerant, the choice to be radically tolerant can only be made, never justified. The unknown future can never serve as a predicate for the present. Or vice versa. On the other hand, intolerance, like liberal tolerance, can always be justified; its future is known, preconceived, if never assured. Thus intolerance is literally a pre-emptive strike, a refusal of translation (and the risk of error it entails). Liberal tolerance is détente, a peace treaty, a willingness to translate and thus assume the risk of mistake, perhaps even of error. Radical tolerance remains open to peace and to war and is willing to not only translate but also be translated into the good, a good, or no good, an afterlife indefinitely deferred. Only on this condition is radical tolerance not, in the end, a veil for radical intolerance.

In the possible absence, then, of either an absolute or contingent good, why endorse radical tolerance? What good could possibly come of it if no good, however hoped for, can ever arrive once and for all time? The only answer to this question is another question, a cliché laden with radical possibility: who—or what—knows? One will have had to open oneself to the ecstatic pleasures of the universe as it unfolds within the purview of our modes of knowledge, however partial, however partisan. In invoking the future anterior, I want to designate the impossible “time” to which radical tolerance belongs, a time both “then” (past) and “then” (future) but still at odds with the timelessness of religious eschatology or philosophical teleology. One will have had to—the tense of negative capability. One will have had to—not for the sake of knowledge per se but for the sake of an aesthetic ecstasy. Nailed to an ethos, radical tolerance will have turned ecstatically toward the blank face of what I have been calling a future.

Which is to also say, a future everywhere present but yet to come. Which is to say, the canny but radical experiences of many teachers every day. These are teachers who teach their disciplines because they love them, find pleasure in them, and if they have faith, religious or secular, it is a faith without an object, without an end in sight. Sufficient to the day would be the pleasures thereof. Regardless of the rhetoric of any academy, secular or religious, or any discipline, vocational or liberal, students, in the best of cases, in the most tolerant of environments, experience a toleration so radical, so ateleological, that they—along with parents and legislators—often find it intolerable. That is to say, they refuse the responsibility of translation, which can take a lifetime to accomplish. For academics, at our most tolerant, teach with incomplete knowledge, indefinite ends. Worse, say some, though better, I say, we do not always know what we are saying, how or if we are being heard and, most importantly, what results from the things we say in and outside the classroom. Not even our students know what they are learning, and when they do it is rarely what we believe we are teaching. Like it or not, everything we say and do remains open to a future we—students, parents, and legislators—can never know, can never determine, a future that may have already—who or what knows?—exceeded the human adventure.

Other September 11 events: This year on September 11, India will mark the 105th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi launching the modern nonviolent resistance movement. On September 11, 1990, Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack was assassinated in Guatemala City after being stalked for two weeks prior to her death by a U.S.-backed military death squad in retaliation for her work to expose and document the destruction of rural indigenous communities by U.S.-backed state forces and allied paramilitary groups. On September 11, 1993, in the midst of the U.S.-backed coup in Haiti, Antoine Izméry was dragged out of a church by coup forces and murdered in broad daylight. He had been commemorating a massacre of parishioners at the Saint-Jean Bosco Church that had occurred five years earlier on September 11, 1988.


1. Important differences aside, this idea of translation resonates with Bakhtin’s relationship between heteroglossia and dialogics and Saussure’s langue and parole distinctions. Fred Evans’ notion of a “multivoiced” world is another version of this concept.


Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Brian Davies and Brian Leftow (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflection, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1969).

Fred Evans, “The Clamour of Voices: Neda, Barack and Social Philosophy,” forthcoming in Canadian Journal of Continental Philosophy, 2013.

Editors’ Notes

Tyrone Williams

Tyrone Williams Tyrone Williams teaches literature and theory at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of three books of poetry, c.c. (Krupskaya Books, 2002), On Spec (Omnidawn Publishing, 2008) and The Hero Project of the Century (The Backwaters Press, 2009). A prose eulogy is forthcoming from Hooke Press in 2011. He has completed a manuscript of poetry commissioned by Atelos Books. Further information about his work is available on his website: http://home.earthlink.net/~suspend/