intermediary's lodge

THE fixer or drugman, an auxiliary interpreter essential to both journalists and soldiers in hostile terrain, is at the heart of a network of relationships and transfers. In the Middle Ages as today, it embodies the need for otherness.

Published at a time when the departure of American troops from Afghanistan links its subject to burning news, this audacious book leads a connected investigation between the Middle Ages and the contemporary era, medieval literature and history, around the figure of the fixeran interpreter-arranger essential to both journalists and troops in hostile territory, a character also well known from medieval travel stories in the Orient.

From the Middle Ages to the contemporary

To try to grasp the connection between the Middle Ages and today's world, Zrinka Stahuljak, of Croatian origin and today professor of French literature UCLA Los Angeles, starts from his personal experience. During the war in the former Yugoslavia, the young woman speaking several European languages ​​was herself a fixer, interpreter and facilitator of the stay and exchanges of Western journalists or observers.

In this essay, she questions the definition, legal conditions and working conditions of fixers, essential during conflicts, in order to bring these most often invisible people out of the shadows, intermediaries useful but considered negligible, so little considered that no law protects them once the conflict is over. The reflector turned towards the fixers shows them all the more vulnerable as their activity which is not a profession makes them ambivalent, suspect from all sides.

During his investigation, Stahuljak constantly puts the medieval and contemporary worlds in tension through frequent back and forths and questions that embrace both worlds. His method is above all engaged history, a way of combining historical knowledge, concepts and contemporary questions, to interweave an ethical and political statement with the analysis of social sciences and the historical thread which constitutes the framework of the book.

Despite a sustained and educational argument, it is in no way an academic work by and for medievalists, but an essay with a contemporary scope which uses the medieval world and its stories as an anchor point, ground and example. The historian who seeks the usual rigor and method of his discipline risks being disappointed. conversely, as an essay that summons the past to think and act in the present, Stahuljak's book keeps its promises: by discussing the function and status of fixers in two worlds brought together by this intriguing figure, it allows us to grasp the ambivalence that persists facing these essential mediators, and its injustice.

Directories, guides and bodyguards

If the word fixer, commonly used today, was imported in the 1970s from English where to fix means to arrange, the book shows that the activity is old. In medieval French, there are numerous terms to designate those who practice it: dragoman, dragoman, drugeman, targuman, turceman, intermediaryto give only the most frequent forms, whose equivalents are found in other medieval languages ​​and which abound in literature, travel stories, and medieval chronicles.

Zrinka Stahuljak meets them during trips to the Holy Land, in the Orient, with missionaries, diplomats, explorers, merchants. Today, during conflicts, both foreign journalists and troops or diplomats use these local multifunctional auxiliaries who, beyond their work as translators, are their eyes and ears, thanks to their knowledge of the field. They serve as a telephone directory, guide, even bodyguards; they ensure the details of their itineraries, take care of their accommodation in a safe place, meetings with administrations or local people; they provide information and contacts as much as food or necessary equipment in a perilous environment.

However, by the role they play, they are extremely exposed as the dramatic fate shows, not reservedbut rather happened to former aides and employees of Western states in Afghanistan once again dominated by the Taliban, which they have most often been unable to leave, despite numerous promises.

By shifting the focus from translation, supposedly transparent, to the other functions of fixers allowing them to be described as fundamental actors in mediation and communication between different cultures, the author defines the fixer as a device at the heart of a network of relationships and translationstranspositions or transfers.

At the same time, Stahuljak shows that, if we consider it as a functionsimple technical relay, pure medium erased, invisible and devoid of agency, defined by his absolute loyalty, the fixer is an autonomous organizer-mediator with agency, a fundamental capacity to act: he intervenes in conflict situations and makes decisions.

Ethics towards fixers

By bringing the fixers out of the shadow of this untenable tension, the book carries a strong thesis, nourished by the renewed news of the indefinite status of Afghan aid to Western states: if the fixer-device risks his life to save hundreds of others, his own is a life that does not matter to its employers or clients.

His subjectivity is forgotten. She will never be of value to her employers, because the fixer is a deeply ambivalent figure, suspected on all sides of being able to betray, according to the old adage traduttore-tradittoreand because the debt owed to him who saved multiple lives by risking his own, is one that there is no way to repay.

On this basis, the author asks inevitable questions in terms of ethics, that of an ethics of fixers and towards fixers which also touch on questions of politics and economics. The discussion, based in the tension between two temporalities, advances through conceptual reflections around the question of the gift and the contract defining the function of the fixer; of the modern theory of translation which removes man and the body from the intermediary and only considers it in terms of textuality and intertextuality; of the idea of ​​the actor as a network, as contingency.

It is supported by numerous medieval texts, novels from XIIe century Raymond Lulle, Riccoldo de Monte Croce, or late crusade features. Marco Polo is a major reference in the book: his figure becomes the example of the ideal fixer, the cultivated Western man who works for himself and masters languages; merchant, he also raises the question of the relationship between the fixer and money and its conversion into travel.

We meet intermediaries in love, like Brangien in Tristan and Yseult; missionaries using guide-fixers; reflections on their function in various crusade treaties. The author mobilizes her medievalist culture at the same time as contemporary thought (of Walter Benjamin Derrida and Bruno Latour) in order to develop a thought which poses all the problems of the subject, from ethics to the question of the economy, and in particular that of fidelity: who must a fixer be faithful, and what does his loyalty mean??

An essential figure

As a counterpoint to the self-sacrifice of the fixer, the travelers emphasize the need to fill him with eateries (small daily and obligatory donations) and courtesies (sincere, generous and courteous thanks for service) in addition to the fixed salary, without which he risks treason, in the medieval East. Courtesy is then understood as monized recognition of the unmentionable debt of the intermediary link (p. 129).

The last chapter takes a further step, explaining that fixers are fundamental to conquest and to building an empire, because without intermediaries and without communication, there is no administration, therefore no colonization or imperial expansion. This is how the Duchy of Burgundy XVe century presents itself, for the author, as the fixing state par excellence, held together by its network of intermediaries and cultural, its libraries.

If the idea is more easily defensible in philosophical terms than in historical terms, equating the intermediaries of the state to the fixers, so essential during any conquest and for any administration, this chapter brings back to the heart of the argument an immense question, present implicitly throughout the book : the current problem of rejecting the intermediary to constitute oneself as a subject. The author borrows from Alain de Libera the idea of ​​Master Eckhart concerning radical conversion, which by humility excludes any intermediary to establish a direct link with God (p. 90) an essential step, in Libera's argument, towards the modern subject, from subjectivity to subjectivity.

In today's horizontalized world, stripped of transcendence, refusing mediation easily leads to the refusal of dialogue and otherness: without an intermediary, says Stahuljak, the only acceptable position is his; we are outside the possibility of communication (p. 29). This rejection of mediation goes hand in hand with a conception of time which embodies the cult of immediacy, as it unfolds in an increasingly divided public space.

Thus, the praise of the fixer as an indispensable figure carries a philosophical and political statement of the need for mediation in civil society, necessary to maintain social peace (p. 11). We understand that the author understands herself, a person and a medievalist, as an indispensable mediator between Europe and the Americas, France and the Balkans, history and literature, the Middle Ages and the present.

This touching and sometimes disconcerting little book, which weaves together personal threads, historical threads and essential reflections on and in the contemporary world, sometimes advances through bravery. By asserting more than it demonstrates in the manner of historians, Zrinka Stahuljak's essay is as much a matter of political philosophy as of connected history: if it does not convince all its pages, it fascinates and makes us think, both for the Middle Ages and for the contemporary world. .