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Institute of Advanced Study

Professor Sinkwan Cheng

IAS Fellow at Hatfield College, Durham University (October – December 2012)

Over the past decade, Professor Sinkwan Cheng has been awarded six external fellowships and grants for her scholarly work (including a Rockefeller Fellowship, and a DAAD Fellowship). She is the editor of Law, Justice, and Power: Between Reason and Will (Stanford University Press). Contributors to this volume include Julia Kristeva, Slavoj Žižek, J. Hillis Miller, Alain Badiou, Nancy Fraser, and Ernesto Laclau. She has also published in MLN, Cardozo Law Review, American Journal of Semiotics, Law and Literature, and Literature and Psychology. Her article "Fremdwörter as 'The Jews of Language' and Adorno's Politics of Exile" was singled out as "superb" in the collection Adorno, Culture, and Feminism by the reader for Sage Press. In addition to her teaching experience in New York, Berlin, and Hong Kong, Professor Cheng has delivered lectures in five countries, and has given faculty seminars twice at Columbia University.

Professor Cheng is a referee for the Berlin Journal of Philosophy and the International Journal of the Asian Philosophical Association, an internal reviewer for the Journal of Translation Studies, and a member of the advisory board of (a): the Journal of culture and the Unconscious. She was formerly a member of the advisory board of American-Lacanian-Link, whose other members included Fredric Jameson, Russell Grigg, and Parveen Adams. In addition to her scholarly achievements, Professor Cheng is also a dedicated teacher. She was the recipient of an Excellence in Teaching Award in a campus-wide competition at SUNY Buffalo. 

Current Research Plan

Professor Cheng's research in recent years has focused on conceptual history, translation, and modernity. Her current project is entitled "Conceptual History, the Introduction of Linear Time into the Chinese Language, and Chinese Modernity". Drawing from Koselleck's Begriffsgeschichte, her project explores how and why China's linguistic revolutions took place alongside the country's quest for scientific, economic, and political modernity. When discussing the contributions made by translation of Western texts to China's modernization process, scholars have been focusing on content issues. They have overlooked how translation, through effecting changes in the Chinese language, has transformed the Chinese people's Weltanschauung at a fundamental level-only with that transformation did China become truly ready for modernity. For example, tenses did not exist in classical Chinese. But given the prominence of the temporal dimension in Western languages, time markers were gradually invented for the Chinese language as intellectuals engaged in translations of Western texts. These time markers brought a linear concept of time to Chinese society, and only with that new way of experiencing time could "the modern" become conceivable for the Chinese people. Professor Cheng will examine how the time consciousness gave the Chinese a new concept of the future and laid the path for China's modernization, and elaborate the subject at hand via an analysis of two waves of temporalization of the Chinese language. This topic about temporality, modernization, and language reform has special timely significance given the heated debates throughout East Asia as different countries feel the need to agree on a common adoption of either simplified or traditional characters in the age of globalization, digitalization, and the ever-changing relationship between China and Taiwan.


IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - Temporalization of Languages in Modernity and Transformations in Western Understanding of Politics’

5th November 2012, 17:30, Birley Room, Hatfield College

Socrates spoke against tragedy in the name of philosophy-politics (the ideal marriage of the two resulting in the Philosopher-King), yet it was politics which pronounced the death sentence on the philosopher Socrates. This did not deter the philosopher’s complete identification with his polis. By choosing death as an Athenian citizen (polítès) instead of a life uprooted from the polis and politics, the philosopher became, unbeknownst to himself, a tragic hero—the hero of an institution he had devoted his life to destroying. Yet it was as a tragic hero that Socrates lives a second life unto this day. Above all, it was by choosing death, by thus willy-nilly turning himself into a tragic hero,that Socrates the philosopher was able to bring about a better politics/polis to come.

Crossing disciplines, in other words, requires not just reading ideas alongside each other but also against each other, so that the strengths and limitations as well as the structure and grammar of each field of inquiry could emerge in a critical dialogue of mutual defamiliarization. This lecture will thus critically examine both the continuities and discontinuities between philosophy and politics via a close study of the gradual temporalization of the term “politics” in modern Europe and certain fundamental transformations in Western politics constituted by, and constitutive of, this temporalization . The transformations to be examined will include: from politics as identified with the polis and its politeia and institutions, to politics as activity and change; from politics as primarily concerning the eternal question of justice, to politics as strategic use of contingency in intrigues of power struggle; from politics as rooted in a unified polis, to politics as an ever-changing, ever-reshuffling of powers both internal and external to the state; and from the kinship between politics and philosophy, to the alliance between politics and game theory. 

Professor Cheng will then use this analysis to reassess a number of questions across a variety of disciplines, but limiting myself in this lecture to the tensions between philosophy and politics. Cases studied will include Heidegger’s Nazi involvement arising from his confusion of the temporalities of philosophy and politics, and Ezra Pound’s naïve fascism produced by a similar temporal confusion of aesthetics with politics. (In this connection, Benjamin’s call for “politicizing aesthetics” will be examined in a new light.) I will also discuss the different temporalities between the rule of law and the rule of man--two temporalities which have continued to co-inhabit liberal democracy. Perhaps of particular interest to academics in this discussion would be the tensions between the temporality of liberal democracy and the temporality of education which might be playing a role in the increasing withdrawal of state support for education in the West.