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MC5.3 Translingual Concepts

Translingual Concepts: Word, Metaphor and Image

Coordination: Rudolf G. Wagner


Concepts and ideas are not identical with a given word. They might show up and are dealt with on many different platforms. These might verbalize them in terms, descriptions, or metaphor. (The sources used in Lovejoy’s "Great Chain of Being" (1936) are a fine example.) They might visualize them in allegorical or symbolical form as in a cartoon, a religious of political painting, or an abstract graphic representation of a relationship as in a mind map. And they might realize them through silent action, through practice. In the latter, they are "discussed" by doing or not doing something, or by doing it differently. (Writing a sonata in 2 movements; placing a dead cow in formalin into an art museum; not going to vote). None of these platforms is able to do full justice to the concept or idea, its range and its change over time and space. They all fall short. The awareness of this deficiency in all cultures shows up in the efforts to link these platforms for mutual enhancement. Plato explains the managing of the state by talking about steering a ship; Chinese commentators try to verbalize in abstract terms the insights supposedly underlying the lyrics of the Book of Poetry; a cartoon will come with words, a silent film comes with a narrator, or uses short texts. The concepts and ideas as well as all their "platforms" are in constant flux and motion. Those, which are not, whither - and die.

Like all elements of culture, these platforms define and redefine themselves in a process of transcultural exchange. This is true for words as much as images and practices. Such exchanges come with large differences in intensity over time and between cultural foci. Scholars of conceptual history in the wake of Koselleck have made great contributions by focusing on one platform – words –, one language – German –, one place – the German states – and one time – the "Sattelzeit" of the late 18th century. (Brunner/ Conze/Koselleck, 1972–1997) This focus came with a price. It reduced conceptual history to that of key terms, discounted the very tight link between late 18th century authors in the German states and discussions in Scotland and France by erecting a high wall around individual languages and claiming their untranslatability, and it remained utterly oblivious of the larger transcultural exchanges with the world. One of the group, Blumenberg, eventually acknowledged "metaphorology" as a "genuine platform" for conceptual articulation and discussion (Blumenberg, 1999), while others started mapping the history of certain metaphorical expressions (Demandt, 1978; Peil, 1983). No systematical survey and analysis of the different platforms and their interaction was undertaken, and their important contributions remain marred by their staying as a matter of course within a nation state default mode (Peil) or one that expanded this to a "Europe", which had been artificially homogenized and streamlined into a continuous and cohesive whole (Demandt).

The project will take on the vast challenge of addressing these two problems – one the neglect of the dynamics of the interaction of the different platforms of articulating and handling concepts and ideas, the other that of creating a nation state internalism which flies in the face of the normality and importance of transculturality in all features of culture.



Rudolf G. Wagner