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  • A Treacherous SubjectAn Introduction
  • Richard Block (bio) and Michael du Plessis (bio)


Betrayal Is a Treacherous Subject

There are as many ways of telling a story of betrayal as there are points from which to tell it. Let’s begin with a beginning, perhaps not quite the very beginning, but a beginning nonetheless—which, as beginning, then inevitably involves an ending. In other words, let’s begin with Babel. We will begin with the beginning of multiplicity, the differences of and in languages, the betrayal of God’s distance by human hubris (itself repeating a motif from Eden), and the end, seemingly, of a common or universal language. Jacques Derrida observed via Voltaire the duplicity of the word Babel quite some time ago:

I do not know why it is said in Genesis that Babel signifies confusion, for Ba signifies father in the Oriental tongues, and Bel signifies God; Babel signifies the city of God, the holy city. The Ancients gave this name to all their capitals. [End Page 1] But it is incontestable that Babel means confusion, either because the architects were confounded after having raised their work up to eighty-one thousand Jewish feet, or because the tongues were then confounded....

(Voltaire, “Babel” in his Dictionnaire philosophique, quoted in Derrida 1985, 166)

Derrida continues to tease out the intricacies of this treacherous name, since Babel can mean both “city of God” and “confusion” and can serve simultaneously as a proper name and a generic noun:

The city would bear the name of God the father and of the father of the city that is called confusion. God, the God, would have marked with his patronym a communal space, that city where understanding is no longer possible. And understanding is no longer possible when there are only proper names, and understanding is no longer possible when there are no longer proper names.

(1985, 167)

At the convergence-divergence of these oppositions (proper/generic, divine/human, error/truth, comprehension/misunderstanding, fidelity/betrayal), lies, of course, the question of fidelity (one that appears impossible) in translation. Not surprisingly perhaps, the discussion of Babel makes way, in Derrida’s essay, for a faithful reading of Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator,” the gist of which, if it can be summarized or translated, is that translation can only translate its own betrayal to both its original language and its target language, but that this betrayal speaks to and of that which otherwise cannot be communicated in language—language itself as pure as transmission, its un-selfsame essence as the medium of media, as transmissibility as such. (After all, there is no theory of the sign that would not also be a theory of the betrayal of the sign or a theory of the lie.)

If betrayal is, in a sense, the essence of language—to betray that which (communication, understanding) language nevertheless transports or transposes, hands over or hands down—one might wonder about betrayal’s links to Latin, since “betrayal” comes from the Latin tradere, one might say, colloquially, to hand over, an origin it shares with “tradition,” which likewise comes from tradere, which one might render here, colloquially, as handing down—and it is this activity, a handing, whether over or down, in Latin, that betrayal shares with tradition.1 All of which may very well let us [End Page 2] recall what Derrida has written on a much later occasion about an unbreakable tradition of Latin, for the very name and notion of “literature” hand down an unavoidable Latinity:

Literature is a Latin word. This belonging has never been simple: it is a belonging that travels, emigrates, works, and is translated. The Latin filiation is exported and bastardized beyond its boundaries and affinities but always within the vicinity of its borders. And it does not travel under just any condition. It does not use just any vehicle or figure of transportation. Whatever the diversity of our mother idioms here, when we say literature, if it can be supposed that we understand each other, we speak and make ourselves understood on the basis of a Latin root, in the constraining hospitality or the violent reception of a...


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