ISSN: 1918-5901 (English) -- 1918-591X (Français)


2012: Volume 5, Numéro 1, pp. 75-94


Rhythm as Knowledge-Translation, Knowledge as Rhythm-Translation

Douglas Robinson

Lingnan University, Hong Kong

Texte intégral: PDF TDM: HTML PDF


The paper explores Henri Meschonnic’s conception of rhythm as a vehicle of subjectivization—but specifically of intersubjectization, and thus as a key channel of knowledge transfer or knowledge translation. Because we experience rhythm in time, knowledge-translation that comes to us as rhythm-as-intersubjectivization is experienced serially; because it is a phenomenology of body-becoming-mind, it is experienced kinesthetically-becoming-affectively-becoming-conatively, which is to say, in the model this paper develops, “icotically”—through the collective move toward the normativization of opinion as “truth” or “fact”. Key to knowledge-translation-as-rhythm is the ear, which is the icotic agent of the group in each individual, that which helps us hear style as truth. The first question for knowledge-translation, how many subjects it creates—one for each text (source and target)? one for each reader? one for each reading?—is superseded by the icotic take on subjectivization, which collectivizes it, meaning that the exact number is less important than the social entelechies in which subjects participate.

Keywords: Icosis; Knowledge Translation; Rhythm; Serial Semantics; Subjectivity


Cet article explore la conception du rythme comme un véhicule de subjectivité chez Henri Meschonnic. Il se penche plus particulièrement sur l’intersubjectivité comme une dimension-clé du transfert ou de l’interprétation des connaissances. Puisque nous expérimentons le rythme dans le temps, l’interprétation des connaissances qui se développent comme rythme-en-tant-qu’intersubjectivation est expérimenté en série; parce qu’il s’agit d’une phénoménologie du corps qui se transforme en pensée, il est expérimenté kinésthétiquement-devenant-affectivement-devenant-conativement. Le modèle de cet article se développe “icotiquement”—grâce à un mouvement collectif vers la normalisation des opinions comme “vérité” ou “fait”. L’oreille est la clé dans la conception de la traduction du savoir comme rythme, lequel est un agent icotique d’un groupe pour chaque individu, ce qui nous aide à écouter le style comme vérité. La première question de la traduction du savoir, combien de sujets crée-t-elle?—un pour chaque texte (source et objectif)? un pour chaque lecteur? un pour chaque lecture?—est supplantée par une approche icotique de la subjectivation, qui la collectivise, c’est-à-dire que le nombre exact est moins important que les principes sociaux auxquels les sujets adhèrent.

Mots-clés: Iconique; Interprétion des connaissances; Rythme; Sémantique en série; Subjectivité

In “The Meaning of Rhythm”, suggesting that “rhythm may provide us with an opportunity newly to understand the relation between language and the body”, Amittai Aviram (2002: 161) notes that the traditional view of rhythm as “the regular occurrence in time or space of a foregrounded event” has recently come under fire from several theorists, especially Julia Kristeva, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Charles Bernstein, and Henri Meschonnic. All of these thinkers, Aviram points out, rely heavily for their rethinking of rhythm on Emile Benveniste’s (1951) new look at the etymology of rhythm as derived from rheo “to flow”. Traditionally, according to Emile Boisacq (1916), rhythm is derived from the flow not of a river, say, but of a sea, and specifically of the pounding of waves on a shore. Obviously waves flow through water, and when that flow is interrupted by a slope of land rising up beneath it, waves crash rhythmically on the beach; but as Benveniste (1966; 1971) points out, the ancient Greeks never used the verb rheo of the sea. They also never used the noun rhuthmos of waves—or even, in the oldest texts, of what we now call “rhythm”. What the Greeks took to flow was specifically a river—and obviously a river has no rhythm. Boisacq’s authoritative etymology, Benveniste (1966) insists, is based on “pure invention”.

How then was rhuthmos used? Leucippus and Democritus use rhuthmos or rhusmos to mean something like “form” or “configuration”; Benveniste (1966: 283) proffers a long and detailed list of further examples, in all of which rhuthmos is “understood as the distinctive form, the characteristic arrangement of the parts in a whole”. But he also freely admits that the derivation of rhuthmos from rheo is quite accurate; the touching point between rhuthmos as form and rhuthmos as flow is that the ending -(th)mos is typically used not for static abstractions but for “the particular modality of its accomplishment as it is presented to the eyes” (Ibid: 285), so that rhuthmos “designates the form in the instant that it is assumed by what is moving, mobile and fluid, the form of that which does not have organic consistency; it fits the pattern of a fluid element, of a letter arbitrarily shaped, of a robe which one arranges at one’s will, of a particular state of character or mood. It is the form as improvised, momentary, changeable” (Ibid: 285-286). And as Aviram explains:

It is in the words of Socrates that this form or shape of a moving body is required to follow “measure” and order—in other words, to be metrical—so that in Plato the term occupies the exact point where the ancient and modern senses of the word overlap. After Plato, apparently, rhythm has meant increasingly what it means today. From the point of view of these post-Benveniste theorists, the conventional meaning of rhythm today is informed by measure, what Plato calls metron. These theorists wish to return us to the pre-Socratic sense, where, they believe, rhythm is closely bound up with subjectivity and discourse. (Aviram, 2002: 162)

Aviram (2002) is not a fan of this new radical approach, which is, he notes at some length, mired in historical and philosophical ironies:

  • The Benvenistean approach to rhythm, reaching back to a pre-Socratic meaning as “truer” or “more authentic” than the modern philosophical rigidifications imposed by Plato, is a Heideggerean move, stretched in the history of ideas between Hölderlin’s notion that “rhythm is the normality of the subject, and the caesura is the revelatory moment”, and Nietzsche’s insistence that rhythm/music is the Dionysiac, which “affords a break in the subjectivity of thought” (Aviram, 2002: 163). And if rhythm therefore plays the role of “philosophy” in this Heideggerean morality play, and the caesura plays the role of “the place of thinking the grounds of philosophy”, Aviram notes, “the break in thinking is still thinking. There is nothing outside thought. What would be the unthought of thinking about the unthought?” (Ibid).
  • What Plato means by rhuthmos is not what we mean by rhythm, which for Plato would have been complexly tied up with poetry=music=dance. “An attempt in modern times to connect the shape of a moving being with subjectivity”, Aviram (2002: 164) says, “presupposes a conception of subjectivity which attends that very semantic shift over history”.
  • Plato’s notion that a regulated beat in music will shape the citizenry in regulated ways is in fact the first modern bridge between rhythm and subjectivization. “Rhythm is not so much a sign of subjectivity, as it would be in Meschonnic, as subjectivity is a sign of rhythm” (Aviram, 2002: 164). This also means that rhythm and subjectivity become circular in their effects, mutually constitutive, to the point where it should, in theory, be impossible to stand far enough outside of rhythmically induced subjectivity to judge or determine the proper regulation of musical beats for the education of citizens in the Republic.

What does all this have to do with knowledge-translation? To begin to answer that question I want to take three key steps past Aviram’s useful formulations: rhythm is [1] intersubjective, [2] serial, and [3] experienced by the body-becoming-mind. Step (1) answers the question about the relevance of rhythm to knowledge-translation; steps (2) and (3) help refine it.

1. If rhythm subjectivizes, or if subjectivity rhythmicizes, each does so communicatively, which is to say intersubjectively/interrhythmically. Rhythm intersubjectivizes, in the sense of creating/channeling/interrupting/transforming subjectivities both within and between speaker and hearer; subjectivity interrhythmicizes, in the sense of insinuating its kinesic expressions into the turbulence of two or more bodies cross-communicating. Rhythm and subjectivity are thus both transfers, or translations; and to the extent that the (inter)subjectivity that is (inter)rhythmically transferred back and forth is a form or rhuthmos of knowledge, rhythm is a—some would argue the—primal channel of knowledge-transfer or knowledge-translation:

Lacoue-Labarthe is right that rhythm both shapes and breaks thought. But rhythm is the caesura of thought, as in poetry, precisely because rhythm goes on. A caesura in poetry only strengthens our anticipation of the rhythm that will return both to give forth and to disrupt the play of meaning in imagery. Poetry then does what all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, does: it makes sense of a world by representing it, but contains within it the signs that the world is not representation and thus cannot allow a representation to be found that is perfectly commensurate with it. The failure of knowledge is also its success, because it is what enables us to be free. (Aviram, 2002: 170)

If knowledge is not just cognitive information held in the mind but affective orientations held in the body, and above all affective-becoming-cognitive orientations-becoming-information channeled through the body-becoming-mind, rhythm is one of the main corporeal-becoming-mental organizations of knowledge; and if KT as knowledge-transfer or knowledge-translation is the movement of knowledge from one community of practice to another, the intersubjective nature of rhythm makes it a natural mediatory conduit between communities as between subjects.

2. Thinking knowledge-translation as rhythm temporalizes it, despatializes it—helps us remember that we live in time and so tend to process and internalize knowledge one rhythmic beat or caesura at a time. This would be what Henri Meschonnic (1970; 1981; 1982; 2001; 2002; 2003a; 2003b; 2005; 2007; 2011) calls “serial semantics”, his act of resistance to the logos as spatialized meaning, laid out like a map—or as spatialized rhythm, graspable at a glance:

-/ - / - / - / - /

One quick glimpse of this visual pattern has us muttering “iambic pentameter”. This spatialization of rhythm is in fact something like the conception that Aviram defends, somewhat problematically:

But if architecture is rhythmic, it is also spatial and still. In this, is architecture not unlike music and dance, which are never still but always moving? But the rhythm of music and dance also bring about a stillness as well. Although the body of the dancer moves in time, the beat remains the same. What does it mean to say that the beat remains “the same”? The anticipation of the beat, which stands in a stillness before us, matches the memory of the beat, which stands in a stillness around us, beneath us. It is only if, say, the tempo momentarily changes that the stillness is momentarily disrupted. Even if such a tempo forms part of a larger pattern that can be anticipated, then we return to stillness. Rhythm allows us to move with great energy but to remain still and serene all the while. (Aviram, 2002: 168)

Meschonnic—whose thought about rhythm I want to explore briefly here—would deny this, indignantly. The relative predictability of a regular rhythm is not a stillness; nor is our participation in that predictability. It is precisely because a regular beat can change that we cannot participate in a rhythm with serenity. Every regular beat is a confirmation of our expectations, but the fact that the phenomenology of music—of participation in rhythm—requires the repeated confirmation of expectations grounds it in insecurity, inserenity, in the fear of broken expectations.

All too often KT is understood a three-step process:

  1. Community of Practice 1 (CP1) possesses knowledge K
  2. CP1 effects a transfer (T) of K to CP2
  3. CP2 possesses K

The robotic ideals that have organized Western thought for a good thousand years tend to condition us to imagine (2) as instantaneous; Meschonnic’s rhythmicized serial semantics would suggest instead that the T in (2) is always in progress, always emerging out of our interactions, always structuring not only specific interactions with other CPs but our unceasing assimilation(s) to every CP to which we already belong. The T is (2) is the temporal rhythm of our own intersubjectivities, the emergence of our identities, intentionalities, interpretive acts, active cognitive processes out of interaction.

3. As Meschonnic also reminds us, rhythm is as much a bodily experience as it is a cognitive one; Meschonnic (2007; 2011) speaks of a “body-in-language continuum”. “The break in thinking”, Aviram (2002) says, “is still thinking”—but perhaps it is also more than thinking?

Rhythm as Knowledge-Translation: Meschonnic on the Subject

Meschonnic (1982) defines good translation, true translation, in terms of the poem, and the poem in terms of rhythm, and rhythm as the body language of the subject. The interesting questions raised by that definition are: what is the subject, and what is this body it apparently has that possesses or produces language-as-rhythm?

Meschonnic (1970; 1981; 2001; 2002; 2003a; 2003b; 2005) was primarily focused as a translator on the Hebrew Bible, the most authoritative text of which—the Masoretic—has the rhythmic accents marked in the text as performative indices, to guide its reciters in reading it aloud, much the way a modern actor will mark up his or her lines in a script for rhythmic, tonal, and other prosodic features. The Hebrew term for those accents that were added to the Biblical text by the Masoretes is te’amim; and as Meschonnic (2007; 2011) never tires of reminding us, the singular form of that word, ta’am, means literally “the taste in one’s mouth, flavour, flavour being the very reason for the act of saying, and it is first and foremost the meaning of orality. What comes from the mouth”. “When this goes through translation”, he writes elsewhere, “it has to be mouthable” (Meschonnic, 2011: 133). “To taamicize”, he adds, “is to oralize, in the sense where orality is no longer sound, it is subject, it is thus translating the power of a language, and no longer just what words say” (Ibid: 141). Hölderlinizing textual signals of rhythmic accent as taste or flavor or mouthable orality would seem to indicate a desire to find a way from textuality or discursivity to the source-reader bodies that savored the Hebrew Bible between two and three millennia ago, and thus to model a corporeal response to the “poem” for target readers today; but Meschonnic is not particularly forthcoming on the exact nature of the “body” whose rhythmic language he takes to be our primary indication of the textualized subject. He mostly seems inclined to invoke what he calls the “body-in-language continuum” as a general theoretical directionality, without actually theorizing it. Or, as he himself puts it, in describing the poem as “an invasion of the body and its power in language”: “not flesh, but maximum rhythmicization” (Ibid: 132). Or again:

By the voice, I mean orality. But no longer in the sense of the sign, where all we hear is sound opposed to meaning. In the continuum, orality is of the body-in-language. It is the subject we hear. The voice is of the subject passing from subject to subject. The voice makes the subject. Makes you subject. The subject makes itself in and through its voice. (Meschonnic, 2011: 136)

The voice as orality as “the subject we hear” is for Meschonnic not a phenomenology or psychology of reading but something actually in the text, or emerging from the text, which is, he says, “what a subject does to its language” (Meschonnic, 2011: 139). The circularity there is virtuous: the voice as subject is a text-effect that in effect says “I” to the reader as its “you”, and so subjectivizes the reader as someone who in turn (or perhaps simultaneously) subjectivizes the text. Circular intersubjectivization as omnidirectional knowledge-transfer as the interactive heart of any community of practice. “What we hear in it is not what it says but what it does” (Ibid: 137), and what it does is to turn us into the subjects that hear it and subjectivize it.

Rhythm for Meschonnic involves action, affect, and power, in a set temporal series or sequence that he often calls “movement”, and has the effect of regulating and intensifying meaning:

Thinking rhythm as the organization of the movement of speech … supposes a gesturing of meaning.

In other words, more than what a text says, it is what a text does that must be translated; more than the meaning, its power, its affect.

It is in the inseparation of affect and concept that meaning finds its power and invention.

Meaning depends on the movement of meaning.

The problem is a poetic problem, in the sense where in order to hear and make heard the action and the power of speech, and not only the meaning of what is said, we must trace back the serial nature of the entire text, the sequence of the all-rhythm. Power yields meaning. Meaning, without power, is the ghost of language.

To taamicize, is to oralize, in the sense where orality is no longer sound, it is subject, it is thus translating the power of a language, and no longer just what words say.
(Meschonnic, 2011: 64, 69, 120, 136, 141)

What Meschonnic is talking about here is [1] embodied discourse that is [2] serialized in time, which [3] readers experience kinesthetically as [4] the movement of other people’s bodies, which [5] tend phenomenologically to blur together with our own.

1. Meschonnic follows Benveniste in calling this kind of language “discourse”, but it is not the disembodied discursivity of poststructuralist theory, which, as Brian Massumi (2002: 2) puts it, may “make and unmake sense” but does not sense. It is discourse as fully human speaking, as conversation with an audience. For Meschonnic, the subject of the poem may not be physiologically embodied, but s/he is engaged in a performative scene that is in every way experienced through the body (introductory paragraph 3). Rhythm for Meschonnic is part of what Perelman (1982: 36-40) calls “techniques of presence”, the use of body language to stage meaning for an audience: to draw their attention to the things the speaker/writer considers most important, away from the things that are of secondary importance. Meschonnic (2011: 75) says that rhythm “dictates gesturing”, and gestures are for Perelman part of the rhetor’s presencing repertoire, along with facial expression, posture, and tonalization; the notion that rhythm comes first, conditions the other presencing instrumentalities, probably has a lot to do with the fact that Meschonnic’s source language, Biblical Hebrew, is an ancient language that mostly survives in written form (Meschonnic found the Zionist resuscitation of Biblical Hebrew as a spoken as well as written language in Israel as useful a guide to the Biblical source text as “current French” was to his target text—which is to say, of no use at all).

2. As I began to suggest in introductory paragraph (2), rhythm “serializes” the knowledge-transfer. What a text does, it does in time: “In order to hear and make heard the action and the power of speech, and not only the meaning of what is said, we must trace back the serial nature of the entire text, the sequence of the all-rhythm”. What is “serial” about a text, of course, is not the text itself, but the activity of reading it one word at a time, the reader’s eyes moving steadily across the line of print—and again, in the performative scene Meschonnic reconstructs, the mikra or reading-aloud of the Hebrew Bible by a reciter, that steady movement of eyes across the line of print being converted into a steady stream of rhythmic spoken (or, according to Buber (1993), shouted) words. The act of reading, silently or out loud, serializes the text as spatial artifact into a temporal sequence. And it is that sequence, always emerging out of the engagement of a reader with a text, that generates subjectivity—both the reader as reading subject and the writer as writing-becoming-read subject.

3. Since for Meschonnic this (2) serial/sequential emerging of rhythm-as-subjectivity-as-knowledge is part of (1) the body-in-language continuum, we might identify it as a sense of kinesis (movement) or kinesthesia—an experience that is had by living bodies. Gestures are kinetic, body movements as body language, but when we sense our own gestures they are kinesthetic; and presumably, since the gestures dictated by rhythm in a text are not visible to the physical eye, they are something we sense as well, another kinesthesia. And while technically “orality” or “mouthability” is an enteroceptive sense (perception of a body organ’s functioning from the inside), the fact that a spoken text moves through the mouth in time puts it in movement as well, yielding four (or five, depending on whether we consider rhythm and the movement of speech to be the same thing or two different things) important kinesthetic experiences that would appear for Meschonnic to be constitutive of poetic subjectivity: [a] rhythm, [b] the movement of speech, [c] the movement of meaning, [d] gestures, and [e] orality/mouthability.

4. [a] Kinesthesia is traditionally the sense of one’s own body moving, and the kinesthetic experiences in (3a-e) involve a sense of other people’s bodies moving—or, perhaps, of textuality as someone else’s mouthably rhythmic movement of speech and meaning that dictates gestures. [b] But since Meschonnic (2011: 35) explicitly theorizes subjectivity as “the pursuit of a subject striving to constitute itself through its activity, but where the activity of the subject is the activity by which another subject constitutes itself”, we should reframe (4a) as another’s-becoming-one’s-own mouthably rhythmic movement of speech and meaning that dictates gestures. [c] And since, up until the moment we pick up the source text and begin reading it, it is black marks on the page, nothing living, we should perhaps further add that (4a-b) is first [i] our own mouthably rhythmic/constitutive movement of speech and meaning; then, by the contagion of one subject’s activity constituting another’s, second [ii] the “subject of the poem”; then, finally, in a reconstituted “chronological” sequence, [iii] the poetic subject’s mouthably rhythmic movement of speech and meaning becoming our own.

Observations (1-4) about rhythm would thus stand as a kinesthetics of knowledge-translation.

5. [a] One of Meschonnic’s oft-repeated dicta is that rhythm conditions meaning; but he does not stop there. There is no direct line of force from the kinesthetics of rhythm to the cognitive formation of meaning or knowledge; the subjectivizing force he theorizes moves through affect and power as well. If we think of affect as the full range of emotions, beliefs, doubts, moods, and so on traditionally associated with it, and of power as conation—the power to move us to act—we get something like a kinesthetic-becoming-affective-becoming-conative-becoming-cognitive entelechy.

[b] As the Aristotelian term “entelechy” implies—not end-directedness, as the term is sometimes misunderstood, but “having an end within”—the key word in that sequence is “becoming”. Each separate item in the sequence is constantly in the process of becoming the next, even if in some actual cases it does not quite click into place, as it were. Performative subjectivity as this sort of (5a) complex entelechial becoming may not become cognitive, for example: conscious, analytical, self-aware. Many writers are not aware of their own subjectivity in writing, and many translators are not aware of their own in translating. Many writers and rewriters are not aware of writing for an audience. But there is still an entelechial movement toward becoming self-aware.

[c] By the same token, this (5a-b) articulated entelechial subjectivity may well be described as ethical even if no human being occupying one of the subject-positions is capable of conscious ethical choice. The fact that the entelechy is forever becoming-conative renders it becoming-ethical. Conation is directed or guided pressure to act, and thus participates in the social ecology of becoming-communal and becoming-normative.

[d] Finally, this (5a-c) performative construction of subjectivity would not work without the circulation of kinesthetic senses, affects, conations, and cognitions through the group, from self to other(s) and from other(s) to self, mine-becoming-yours-becoming-mine, his-becoming-hers-becoming-mine-becoming-yours, and so on: my kinesthetic awareness of your body language (including the rhythms in your voice) generating not only affects and conations in me but a sympathetic sense of your subjectivity as well; my tendency to experience your affect conatively, as pressure to conform to it, and to the group norms it represents. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1970) gives a fairly simple example of this circulation when he puts a 15-month-old toddler’s finger in his mouth and pretends to bite it, and the toddler opens its mouth, imitatively:

The fact is that its own mouth and teeth, as it feels them from the inside, are immediately, for it, an apparatus to bite with, and my jaw, as the baby sees it from the outside, is immediately, for it, capable of the same intentions. “Biting” has immediately, for it, an intersubjective significance. It perceives its intentions in its body, and my body with its own, and thereby my intentions in its own body. (Merleau-Ponty, 1970: 352)

Something like this event, which we now know to emerge out of the functioning of the mirror neurons, might be taken as a model for the kind of intersubjective mouthability that Meschonnic seems to want to theorize, and that I am rethinking here as rhythm-as-knowledge-translation.

More specifically, the culmination of that rethinking in (5d) is what I call “icosis”, from Greek eikos “truthy”: if ta eikota or “the probabilities” or “things that seem true” are a communal construct, then the social ecology by which opinions are collectively transmuted into (the appearance of) truth is the sociological baseline of all knowledge-translation.

Knowledge as Rhythm-Translation: Meschonnic on the Ear

First, then, there is the reader who reads silently; second comes the reader who reads aloud to others, and stages the reading corporeally, following the te’amim marked in the text, through gestures and prosody; third, obviously, comes the translator, who (for Meschonnic) reads both the text and the te’amim silently and constructs out of them something like the kinesthetic-becoming-affective-becoming-conative-becoming-cognitive intersubjectivization—the icosis of knowledge-translation—outlined in the previous section. That icosis is, roughly speaking, what Meschonnic calls “translating the poem”.

But now let us ask: how many rhythms-becoming-subjects of a source text and its translation are there? One, or two, or more? If a translator reads a source text as a poem, and constructs its rhythms and general orality as the body language of a single subject, and transfers that poem—rhythms and orality and subject and knowledge and all—to the target text, does the target text now have one subject, or two? If in Bakhtinian (1984) terms a novel has an overt narrative voice voicing both overt characters and (covertly) the author, would the translator of that novel stand in more or less the same relationship to the author as the author stands to the narrator? Or does the translation now have two authors? The recent move some translation scholars such as Baker (2006) are making to study the “narrativity” of translating—the translator as narrator—tends to take the slight “interpretive” shifts the translator makes while rendering the source text into the target language as “signs” of active story-telling; if Meschonnic wants to deny the human inevitability of that possibility, should we take that to mean that for him translators are no more than the not-quite-human instruments of the KT? Is it possible that for him there is only ever one subject in a translation, namely, the subject of the source text—because the translator’s task is to desubjectify himself or herself? Or is there some sense in which subjectivization is always intersubjectivization as KT as CP? Is the real problem in counting subjects our ideological inclination to individualize them—to isolate them in some artificial (but normative) way from the communities of practice out of which they emerge?

Rather than fretting about these matters in the abstract, let us look at an example, from English translations of Meschonnic:

Et le style, ce qu’on appelle ainsi, n’est que ce que le signe permet de penser de ce que fait ce qu’on appelle un poème, ou la littérature. Qu’on range à part de ce qu’on appelle le langage ordinaire. Non seulement à part, mais même on oppose communément le langage poétique au langage ordinaire. Comme un écart. (Meschonnic, 2007: 16)

And style, or what we call style, is only that which the sign allows us to think of what we call a poem or literature. Which we view separately from what we call ordinary language. Not only separately, but we even frequently set it against poetic language. Like a deviation. [Pier-Pascale Boulanger’s translation in (Meschonnic, 2011: 43)]

And style, what one calls style: what is it but whatever the sign permits one to think about whatever it is that makes the thing one calls a poem, or “literature”? Which one tends to stow in a separate bin from the bin called ordinary language. Not just a separate bin, in fact: one tends to regard poetic language as opposed to ordinary language. As a lapse. [The author’s translation]

The first thing one notices about Meschonnic’s syntax there is the series of embeddings, which have almost a house-that-Jack-built effect: “ce qu’on appelle . . . n’est que ce que . . . ce que fait ce qu’on appelle . . . ce qu’on appelle”. Especially that third one, “ce que fait ce qu’on appelle”, seems a bit baroque, and Boulanger has simplified it to “what we call”, rendering all three qu’on appelle embeddings identical in her English. The big change Boulanger has effected syntactically in that passage, however, is to pronominalize what she takes to be “ordinary language” in the next-to-last sentence, giving us “Not only separately, but we even frequently set it against poetic language”. Unfortunately, this rather makes hash of Meschonnic’s syntax: “a poem or literature [is what] we view separately from what we call ordinary language[, and] not only [do we view it—poetic language—]separately, but we even frequently set it against poetic language”. That is a fairly significant error, suggesting the kind of “hermeneutical” interpretation (and thus self-aggrandizing translator-subject) against which Meschonnic inveighs so violently; but it is not the kind of translation problem to which he would direct our primary attention.

The big problem with “Not only separately, but we even frequently set it against poetic language” for Meschonnic would be its stumbling rhythm. In fact, though Boulanger insists in her long introduction that she translated the book according to Meschonnic’s own method, she seems to be following the words in “Non seulement à part, mais même on oppose communément” rather than the rhythms, and thus in his terms translating the sign rather than the poem:

“Non” > “Not”
“seulement” > “only”
“à part” > “separately”
“mais” > “but”
“même on” > “we even”
“oppose communément” > “frequently set … against”

Her partial pronominalization of “le langage poétique au langage ordinaire” as “it against poetic language” introduces the syntactic-becoming-semantic confusion, of course; but rhythmically it also introduces a utilitarian flatness into the sentence, a Good News Bible sort of flatness, and that for Meschonnic is a worse failing in a translation than not making the right kind of sense. In fact, Meschonnic claims that rhythm is what makes a stretch of discourse make sense. Knowledge-transfer as rhythm-translation. So when following Meschonnic literally from “Non seulement à part” to “Not only separately”, Boulanger should be paying attention to the fact that “Non seulement” and “Not only” have different rhythms, as do “à part” and “separately”, and that those rhythms are going to have the effect of constructing meaning and therefore transferring knowledge differently. And when after the comma she reproduces “mais même on oppose communément” as “but we even frequently set”, she needs to feel the semantic effects of the rhythmic shifts (B = strong beat, b = weak beat):


One might think that the overwhelming problem one would face in rhythm-translating from French to English is that French words are all stressed on the final syllable, and English words distribute stress more complexly; but that is really only a problem if one insists on following the French source text more or less literally, as Boulanger does. And the crippling rhythmic problem in Boulanger’s translation there, the series of unstressed syllables divided by a pause (“separately, but we”), is not really a function of the different word-based stress patterns between the two languages. My rendition of that passage is not an exact reproduction of Meschonnic’s rhythm, but it manages the rhythmic transition through the pause in the middle in a similar way:


There “communément” is replaced semantically not with “frequently” but with the rhythmically punchier “tends to”, making it possible to reproduce “mais même on”, the first three syllables after the pause, rhythmically with “one tends to”; compare the rhythmic dropouts if one shifts to “one generally thinks” or “one usually thinks” or “one often thinks”. I have indicated the longer pause instigated by the colon with a double pipe; that longer pause seems to me to compensate for the dropping of the disjunctive “but”. I have also doubled the - B pattern leading up to that pause, with “separate bin, in fact”; my translation would stand rhythmically closer to Meschonnic’s original if I dropped “in fact”:


My “ear” tells me, though—and one of the questions I want to ask is what this “ear” is, and how it tells me things, and what it tells us as scholars of translation about the translator as (inter)subject—that the soft nasal [n] at the end of that first phrase, “separate bin”, is not strong enough to set up a good effective contrast; “in fact” is a much crisper rhythmic equivalent of “à part”. Also, of course, with “in fact” in the passage I have the same number of beats (one weak followed by four strong) as Meschonnic; I have simply shifted the pause one beat later.

Like the colon after “in fact”, too, the colon after “what one calls style” creates a longer pause that I think approximates the heavy beat on the second syllable of ainsi (try reading it with a comma there instead—feel how much weaker the rhythm is that way). Punctuation is in general a popular strategy for manipulating the rhythms of written text: cf. the way the comma after “poem” (replicating Meschonnic’s) helps organize the rhythm of that two-item list into a rethinking, putting quotation marks around “literature” retards our attack on lit- just long enough to approximate the lost definite article, and so on.

The complex organizing power rhythm has on semantics is especially clear in a phrase like this:


Note that I could have followed Meschonnic’s rhythm in “range à part” more closely, but again my ear tells me that that would have pushed me closer to the (to that same ear problematically) long series of unstressed syllables in Boulanger’s translation:


And in any case collocationally in English it seems odd to stow language (or restack language, reshelve language, put language away); the fact that we do not normally use that verb as a trope for categorization is almost certainly why Boulanger shifted metaphors from packing to looking. Once I had decided to stick with Meschonnic’s trope, I had to consider whether and how to naturalize the odd-sounding collocation; and when it occurred to me that we tend to collocate stowing with bins in English, it also became clear that bins would help me work with Meschonnic’s - B and - - B rhythmic patterns, even if I had to multiply them a little, by adding “from the bin”.

A similar slight proliferation of - B patterns proceeds from my unpacking of “one stows” to “one tends to stow”; more complicated and therefore more problematic (but also interesting) rhythmic reduplications or expansions can be found in the various moves from “que” to “whatever”, and “whatever it is that”, and “the thing”:


—that lived in the house that Jack built. Obviously the rhythm of that cumulative nursery rhyme has shaped my ear for the “natural” English rhythms there.

So, then, let us think about this “ear” of mine. In three goes: [1] the importance of the ear for “good” translation à la Meschonnic, [2] the nature of the ear, and [3] what the ear tells us about the translator’s (inter)subjectivity.

1. Obviously, without a good strong ear for the rhythms and other prosodic features of the target language, and a reasonably good ear for the source language, no translator could translate knowledge “well” as Meschonnic defines that process. (I am offering my own rendition not as an ipso facto “good” translation but as an example of the rhythm-based approach to translating that Meschonnic favours.) It is widely believed that the only translators who will have a good enough ear to translate knowledge “well” (for Meschonnic rhythmically) in that sense are native speakers of the target language, especially when the source text is literary or otherwise prosodically heightened. While that is not empirically true—I have read absolutely brilliant translations of poetry into English by native speakers of the source language—it is certainly true in the aggregate that native speakers of the target language are likelier to have a stronger ear for its rhythms and other prosodic features than nonnative speakers. It seems that long exposure to the icosis of language-learning in early childhood has an especially powerful shaping effect on (2) the icotic construct that we call the ear. It is almost certainly insufficient: many speakers of their own first language have a demonstrably weak ear for the rhythms of that language. Early, long, and intensive immersion in the icosis of language-learning must apparently be combined with an eager and sensuous and even loving attentiveness to that icosis, an intentionality, or at least a directedness, a kinesthetic-becoming-affective-becoming-conative-becoming-cognitive participation in that icosis. We are not bees. We help shape the ways in which we are collectively shaped.

2. So what is an “ear” for rhythm? In Meschonnic’s own terms, “an ear for rhythm” is a bit of a misnomer. It would have to be at least an ear and a mouth for rhythm—and most likely the two are in some way inseparate. As Boulanger’s Meschonnic writes:

The roles are reversed. It is the reversibility of listening. The encounter takes place in a moment where we relate to the infinite of history and to the infinite of meaning. A voice hearing its own history, a voice speaking its history is heard as a recitative. What we hear in it is not what it says but what it does. What it does to itself, to the one speaking it, and also what it does to the one hearing it. It transforms. It does what we do not know to be hearing. The work of listening is to recognize at certain moments, unpredictably, all we did not know we were hearing. The mouth to ear becomes the mouth to mouth.
The voice shows that it is with the mouth that we hear best. (Meschonnic, 2011: 137)

Even when we are reading silently, what the ear hears, the mouth tests; what the mouth voices, the ear tests. These are typically what we would want to call the mind’s ear and the mind’s mouth: we do not literally hear a voice when we read silently, and ever since Augustine reported his colleagues’ astonishment when they walked past Ambrose’s room and noticed that he was reading without moving his lips, we do not typically mumble aloud the words we are reading on the page. Sometimes we do, of course, especially when it is absolutely essential that our translation be what Meschonnic calls “mouthable”, as when translating nursery rhymes, or translating for a theatre production or film dubbers; but even there long experience in that kind of translation work tends to shift the testing from the physical mouth-and-ear to the mind’s mouth-and-ear. Recognizing that there is also a signal continuity between bodily hearing and mental hearing, and between the physical feel of sound being produced by the mouth and the mental feel of sound being produced by the mouth, we might want to say that our quarry in this section is “the body-becoming-mind’s mouth-and-ear for rhythm”. (Or should we go further, and include in the definition tapping feet, drumming fingers, bobbing heads, and the movements of dance? Is it possible to grandfather all that into to the “body” of “body-becoming-mind”?)

Incorporating some discoveries from (1), we can now suggest that while the body-becoming-mind’s mouth-and-ear for rhythm is in an important sense an icotic construct—built up through long and intense and sensuous (etc.) icotic interaction with other speakers of the language—it is specifically the kind of icotic construct that tests the validity or authenticity or “truthiness” of other icotic constructs, and thus a kind of icotic metaconstruct. Icosis, you will recall, is the socioecological process through which a community transforms individual-becoming-collective opinions into what come to feel like ontologically reliable realities and truths; the body-becoming-mind’s mouth-and-ear for rhythm is one of the semi-individualized quasi-collective “controls” or regulatory monitors of any given utterance’s proximity to icotic ideals for not only elegance and pith but actual truth, semantic and thus “ontological” reliability. (This is one sense in which one might be inclined to take Oscar Wilde’s (1969: 305) quip that “Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style” as a stylish truth.)

3. So if rhythm and other forms of mouthable orality are the body language of the subject in the source text, [a] are they not equally the body language of the subject in the target text? Think of the fact that my rhythmic choices in reproducing Meschonnic’s French rhythms emerged strongly out of my own cultural background in English: not only familiarity with “The House That Jack Built” and other such cumulative rhymes but a feel for the collocations of “stow” (with “bins” more strongly than with “language”). As the students of “the translator as narrator” would insist, it matters little how hard I work to reproduce Meschonnic’s rhythms as source-accurately and target-effectively as possible, I will always inevitably inflect my translations with my own icotic subjectivity—my own itericotic sense of the best possible English equivalence for his French originals.

By “icotic subjectivity” I mean that the “subject” that I call “I” is in large part a collective construct, the sedimentation out of socioecological solution of an identity collectively designated as individual, and as individually mine. By “in large part” in that previous sentence I mean that subjects are not merely passive receptacles of social conditions; we also contribute to the itericotic processes by which the group shapes us. By “itericotic” I mean that I inevitably—because icosis conditions me to do this—repeat or reiterate formations I have seen before, read before, and have seen and read specifically as contributions to icosis, so that what I am “expressing” iteratively is not just “myself” but the group; by Derrida’s (1988) non-principle of iterability, though, I inevitably introduce difference into each iteration, so that what I am “expressing” iteratively is not just the group but “myself”. The tensions between pressures to conform and tendencies to divagate that Derrida theorizes as iterability are the default interactive channel of icotic emergence.

And if the translator inevitably brings a separate subjectivity to a translation task, does that not also mean that [b] anybody picking up a text and reading it is a subject, brings his or her own itericotic subjectivity to its reading and understanding? This is the core insight of reader-response theory, of course, which emerges out of German phenomenology, and thus a directionality Meschonnic would want to disavow; but it seems inescapable to me. If the translated text as it leaves the translator’s hands seems to contain at least the source author’s voice and subjectivity and the translator’s voice and subjectivity, surely every target reader who picks it up will further inflect it with his or her own voice and subjectivity as well?

More, if “what [the voice] does to itself, to the one speaking it, and also what it does to the one hearing it” is that “it transforms”, should we not also conclude that [c] the subjectivity of “the poem” (say, the source text, though Meschonnic insists that the poem is both source and target) has a transformative effect on the subjectivity of the reader?

And if we take Meschonnic at his word that “more than what a text says, it is what a text does that must be translated” (2011: 69), does that not also mean that [d] the translator is a subject who should attempt to have a transformative effect on the target reader’s subjectivity that is similar to the one the source text had on the source reader’s subjectivity? If so, Meschonnic’s (2003a) attack on Nida’s dynamic equivalence as “behaviorist” is completely wrong-headed. Meschonnic here stands revealed as defending a theory of translating that is uncannily similar to Nida’s. (I take this juxtaposition to be not so much an attack on Meschonnic as an expansive celebration of Nida.) What is different about their two theories lies in the specific kind of transformative effect they want to have on their readers: Nida, who only ever admits in print to wanting to inform Bible readers about Christianity, does presumably want to convert them to Christianity, or to support those who have already converted; Meschonnic has no such desire. Meschonnic does say that “thinking means to work at transforming thinking” (2003b: 56), which is presumably a kind of conversion experience, but not conversion to an established set of beliefs. “Otherwise”, he goes on, “it is simply about maintaining order. Hence, thinking means acting on society or it is nothing. Meaning that thinking and ethics are one, and an ethics of language, against the cult of death whether in the name of a God or not, is the meaning of a human life” (Ibid)—getting in his jab at Nida’s religion (but also all religion) as a cult of death.

If we assume that Meschonnic (2007; 2011) wanted (as he claimed he wanted) to follow Saussure (2002; 2006) in the notion that “on language there can only be points of view”, the solution to these problems is easy, but maybe too easy: [4] on the subject there can only be points of view. On rhythm, and orality, and mouthability, and equivalence (dynamic and otherwise), and what the target reader needs and what the target reader wants and what effect any given translation will have on the target reader, there can only be points of view.

Meschonnic despised that kind of easy relativism, of course, but it does seem to be implied in the Saussurean principle he repeated so often—unless we add some complications (the new ones starting here with [5]):

  1. To translate knowledge well—for the target text to constitute a transfer of knowledge—the translator must have a good ear for rhythm.
  2. An ear for rhythm is actually the body-becoming-mind’s mouth-and-ear for rhythm as the icotic agent of the group in each individual.
  3. If rhythm is the body language of the subject, and (1-2) the translator has to be able to feel and produce rhythm in his or her whole body-becoming-mind, then the translator too brings subjectivity to the job of translating the rhythms of the poem that is the source text.
    1. The translator is “the subject” (if there has to be only one) of the target text in very much the same way that the source author is (construed as) “the subject” of the source text.
    2. Every target reader resubjectivizes the target text.
    3. The source text has a transformative effect on the subjectivities of its readers.
    4. The target text too has an effect on the subjectivities of its readers—and the translator should seek to manipulate it.
  4. On the subject, rhythm, orality, mouthability, and so on there can only be points of view.
  5. The subject, while a social fiction, is also a point of view (a way of seeing/reading or being seen/read).
  6. The fact that (5) subjects are points of view makes them flexible and mutable enough to split and merge, expand and shrink.
    1. The subject of an “I” may be impersonal; the subject of a “one” may be intensely personal. Benveniste and Meschonnic to the contrary, pronouns do not lock subjectivity in.
    2. Neither do the deictic pronouns and proadverbs Benveniste studies in “The Nature of Pronouns” (1966; 1971): “this”, “that”, “here”, “now”. If the source text’s subject-of-enunciation says “this French language that I am speaking right here and now”, all those deictics seem to Benveniste (and presumably to Meschonnic as well, though he says nothing on this head) to lock subjectivity into a single subject’s single momentary and localized event—but they really do not. All of them can be inhabited imaginatively by translators and other readers. It is possible for the reader of an English translation to reimagine reading in English as reading in French; and even to reimagine a French-speaker who claims in English translation to be speaking temporarily in English as someone speaking a foreign language.
  7. If we think (5-6) through Meschonnic’s body-in-language continuum, we might want to revise Saussure’s dictum about there being only points of view on language to say that “language is only heard by different mouths, and only voiced by different ears”. That adds the body language of the subject to the mix, obviously, and also grounds Saussure’s perspectivism performatively in the passage of time, or what Meschonnic calls “serial semantics”. Because we experience things in the body, we experience them in time; by contrast the visual metaphor in “point of view” tends to imply a tidy spatialization of that temporality.
  8. Thinking (7) icotically also complicates what seems like the too-easy relativism of perspectivism (it is all just perspective, so rhythm and the rest are mere gossamer images, like the shadows on Plato’s wall). If subjectivity is an icotic construct, it is not just that it takes a subject to recognize a subject; it takes a whole lot of subjects (a community of practice) to create a subject, and the social ecology of subjectivity by default makes subjects recognizable to each other.
  9. A series of expanding icotic rehearings/revoicings of (8) should remind us that the translator participates in many larger icotic processes as well:
    1. The translator shares at least one community of practice (and thus an icotic process) with the source author and at least one other with the target reader.
    2. It is not just that (3a) every translator resubjectivizes the source text and (3b) every target reader resubjectivizes the target text, or even that those resubjectivizations stand in complex relations of icotic mutuality with (3c-d) the transformative effects of all texts on the subjectivities of their readers; it is also that source-cultural icoses shape the mutual subjectivizations of the source author and translator in the reciprocal construction of the source text, and target-cultural icoses shape the mutual subjectivizations of the translator and the target reader in the reciprocal construction of the translation.
    3. The translator’s mediation between the source-cultural and target-cultural icoses is typically shaped by long icotic participation not merely in both of those cultures, but also in the interculture (inter-CP) of translators, interpreters, and other language mediators, both professional and amateur (domestic interpreting in bilingual or multilingual households, community interpreting, and so on).
    4. “Civilizational” icoses, sometimes large territorial civilizations like Europe and Asia, sometimes defined by empires (Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Ottoman, British, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, American, etc.) and their postcolonial aftermaths, including languages and language families, religions, economies, governmental structures, and so on, often guide the translator’s mediation between two language-based cultures within a single larger “civilizational” area.
    5. Icoses of “modernity”, often euphemized as “globalization”, exert a shaping icotic influence on translatorial mediations over even larger territorial and temporal spans.
    6. Pan-cultural icoses—often euphemized as “universals”—based on the fact that almost all humans have the same body structure, including evolutionary brain architecture, articulatory and sensory organs, shape and function of hands, upright stance, and so on, exert a powerful icotic influence on translatorial (and most other human) mediations everywhere.
      1. The fact that there is always considerable local variation does not change the fact that these pan-cultural similarities are organized icotically: icosis by definition engages with local variation, organizes impulses to smooth it out, but never entirely successfully.
      2. The fact that pan-cultural similarities exist does not change the fact of icosis either—does not make them “natural” universals. Icosis is the only plausible explanation for the four or five or forty-five “linguistic universals” that linguists (e.g., Chomsky, 1986; 2000; Greenberg, 1966; 1978; Mairal & Gil, 2006) claim to have found, for example.

What I have accomplished here may, however, be meretricious—may amount to nothing more than setting up “rhythm” and “knowledge-translation” as what Kenneth Burke would call “god-terms” for human communication. To the extent that the kind of communal (self-)regulation that I have called icosis is a kind of intersubjective ecology, it is the basis and prototype of, and organizing force behind, all knowledge-translation; and the fairly narrow type of knowledge-translation that involves finding equivalents in language B for phrases in language A would only be a special case of that. And to the extent that we follow Henri Meschonnic in taking rhythm as the default channel of all communication, and thus in my terms of all icosis, the specific problems of finding rhythms in language B that align somehow sequentially with the rhythms in a specific text in language A come to seem a rather paltry example of a process in which all of us are engaged virtually all the time.

Still, I suggest that what is at stake here is rather more than the “hermeneutical” reduction that Meschonnic (2007; 2011) complains of in Heidegger and his followers, “this generalized essentialization of language, or poetry, of germanity that put the whole of translating into understanding” (2011: 35). I am emphatically not putting the whole of knowledge-translating into icosis as social regulation. Rather, I am suggesting that thinking knowledge-transfer through rhythm, the body, and the subject, and thus through embodied intersubjectivity, helps us recognize the ways in which it is more than communication—more, say, than an electronic mailing list—and thinking it as knowledge-translation helps us put models of interlingual translation at the very explanatory core not only of knowledge management studies but of the sociology of human behavior in groups.


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About the Author

Douglas Robinson, Tong Tin Sun Chair Professor of English and Head of the English Department at Lingnan University, is the author of numerous books and articles on human communication, including The Translator’s Turn (1991), Translation and Taboo (1996), Western Translation Theory from Herodotus to Nietzsche (1997), Becoming a Translator (1997), Who Translates? (2001), Performative Linguistics (2003), Estrangement and the Somatics of Literature (2008), and Translation and the Problem of Sway (2011).

Citing this paper:

Robinson, Douglas. (2012). Rhythm as knowledge-translation, knowledge as rhythm-translation. Global Media Journal -- Canadian Edition, 5(1), 75-94.

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