It seems that over the past few decades, the hypothesis that postmodern thought has led us to an essential dead end has caught on in certain political, intellectual, and artistic circles. Be it the incessant grumbling about deconstruction (“maybe you should construct something as well?”), or the assumption that the break in the chain of signifiers—essentially, the detachment of signifiers (i.e. words) from signified (i.e. things)—has necessarily led to the degradation of all communication into meaningless babble; these are sentiments, or more accurately put, anxieties, that I too sometimes share. And yet, postmodern and post-structuralist thought has been written, read, and shelfed in countless libraries, and the earth spins on. Even in the postmodern era (post-postmodern era?) we continue to wake up, read, even write—God forbid!—every day. But the specter of a crisis of signification perseveres, threatening intellectual paralysis.
Taking this into account, Yehouda Shenhav’s two new books should, first and foremost, be understood through the lens of their doubly emancipatory potential. Together, these books should be read as the summation of an intellectual, literary, and political project firmly rooted in postmodern and postcolonial theory while also attempting to “take action in the world.” The two books, Laborers and Actors in Translation: From the Individual Turn to a Bi-National Translation and A Story that Begins with an Arab’s Eyebrows: Translation in Dialogue with Elias Khoury, published months apart, are distinctly tied together, thematically as well as intellectually. Not only do these books offer a model for bi-national and anti-colonial action in translation, they also offer a model for the extraction of practical practices from postmodern theory. In an event celebrating the publication of Laborers and Actors in Translation, Shenhav called this intellectual paradigm “Radical Positivism”: a mode of critical-pragmatic thinking that points out problems while offering alternatives, and then goes even further by attempting to actualize them. In this sense, the two books complete each other and converge into a single project: the first offers criticism of an existing phenomenon and proposes an alternative model, while the second recounts a specific realization of this model.