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Against Supersessionist Thinking: Old and New, Jews and Postcolonialism, the Ghetto and Diaspora

  • Bryan Cheyette

This essay focuses on the liberatory possibilities and political and disciplinary difficulties of bringing together Jewish and postcolonial studies. It begins and ends with Adorno’s critique of “actionism” in order to see what is lost when the clarity and certainty of political action is privileged over scholarly nuance and complexity (“praxis” over “theory”). This loss is surveyed through a set of related binaries (supersessionism, foundationalism, and disciplinarity), which, it is contended, reduces critical thinking to polemic and makes it all but impossible to explore interconnected Jewish and postcolonial histories. The argument is illustrated with reference to postcolonial literature and by examining the disciplining of postcolonial and memory studies in relation to the Holocaust. A way out of the binary impasse, it is suggested, is to utilize as “traveling concepts” transcultural and transnational histories (such as “diaspora” and “ghetto”) that Jewish and postcolonial studies have in common.

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1 Goetschel, Willi and Quayson, Ato, “Introduction: Jewish Studies and Postcolonialism,” The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 3.1 (Winter 2015), 10 and throughout. See also Cheyette, Bryan, ed., Wasafiri 57 (Spring 2009), “Jewish/Postcolonial Diasporas,” 1–2 and throughout.

2 Katz, Ethan B., Leff, Lisa Moses, and Mandel, Maud S., eds., Colonialism and the Jews (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017), 1 and the Introduction.

3 Katz, Leff, and Mandel, Colonialism and the Jews, 1.

4 Katz, Leff, and Mandel, Colonialism and the Jews, 2.

5 Adorno, Theodor W., Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 273 and 259–88.

6 Adorno, Critical Models, 267. For the broader philosophical context of this debate, to which I am indebted, see Goetschel, Willi, “Theory-Praxis: Spinoza, Hess, Marx, and Adorno,” Bamidbar: Journal for Jewish Thought and Philosophy 2 (2013): 26 and 1628 .

7 Adorno, Critical Models, 273–74.

8 Adorno, Critical Models, 263.

9 Ibid., 271.

10 Goetschel and Quayson, “Introduction: Jewish Studies and Postcolonialism,” 3.

11 Goetschel and Quayson, “Introduction: Jewish Studies and Postcolonialism,” 3.

12 Quayson, Ato and Mufti, Aamir R., “The Predicaments of Postcolonial Thinking,” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 3.1 (Winter 2015), 143156 .

13 Cheyette, Bryan, “The Boy Singer Goes Global,” Times Literary Supplement 5477 (March 21, 2008): 2224 .

14 Quayson and Mufti, “The Predicaments of Postcolonial Thinking,” 152.

15 For Said’s rejection of the “new Jew” discourse, see Bryan Cheyette, , “A Glorious Achievement: Edward Said and the Last Jewish Intellectual,” in Tobias Döring and Mark Stein, eds., Edward Said’s Translocations: Essays in Secular Criticism (London: Routledge, 2012), 78–81 and chapter four.

16 Barghouti, Omar, BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011), chapter three. See also Feldman, David, ed., Boycotts: Past and Present (London: Palgrave, 2018).

17 Goetschel and Quayson, “Introduction: Jewish Studies and Postcolonialism,” 3.

18 Cheyette, Bryan, Diasporas of the Mind: Jewish and Postcolonial Writing and the Nightmare of History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), chapter one.

19 Caplan, Marc, How Strange the Change: Language, Temporality, and Narrative Form in Peripheral Modernism (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011); Casteel, Sarah, Calypso Jews: Jewishness in the Caribbean Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016); Gilroy, Paul, Between Camps: Race, Identity and Nationalism at the End of the Colour Line (London and New York: Penguin, 2000); Guttman, Anna, Writing Indians and Jews: Metaphorics of Jewishness in South Asian Literature (London and New York: Palgrave 2013); Hesse, Isabelle, The Politics of Jewishness: The Holocaust, Zionism, and Colonialism in Contemporary World Literature (London and New York: Bloomsbury 2016); Mufti, Aamir, Enlightenment in the Colony: The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007); Rothberg, Michael, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009); and Silverman, Maxim, Palimpsestic Memory: The Holocaust and Colonialism in French and Francophone Fiction and Film (Oxford: Berghahn, 2013). See also Quayson and Mufti, “The Predicaments of Postcolonial Thinking,” 152.

20 Goetschel and Quayson, “Introduction: Jewish Studies and Postcolonialism,” 6.

21 Mukherjee, Ankhi, What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and the Invention of the Canon (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014); Luckhurst, Roger and Marks, Peter, eds., Literature and the Contemporary: Fictions and Theories of the Present (London and New York: Routledge, 1999).

22 Quayson, Ato, Postcolonialism: Theory, Practice or Process? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000), 9 .

23 For the distinction between “extraverted” and “intraverted” colonialism, see Quayson, , “Comparative Postcolonialisms: Storytelling and Community in Sholem Aleichem and Chinua Achebe,” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 3.1 (Winter 2015): 59 and 5577 . See also Goetschel, , “Voices from the ‘Jewish Colony’: Sovereignty, Power, Secularization, and the Outside Within,” International Relations and Non-Western Thought: Imperialism, Colonialism and Investigations of Global Modernity, ed. Robbie Shilliam (London: Routledge, 2010), 6484 ; Heschel, Susannah, “Jewish Studies as Counterhistory,” Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism, eds. David Biale, Michael Galchinsky, and Susannah Heschel. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), chapter five.

24 For these distinctions see R. Soulen, Kendall, The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996).

25 For the origins of secular supersessionism see Kalmar, Ivan, “Arabizing the Bible: Racial Supersessionism in Nineteenth Century Christian Art and Biblical Criticism,” Orientalism Revisited: Art, Land and Voyage, ed. Ian Richard Netton (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), 176186 .

26 Agamben, Giorgio, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006); Agamben, Giorgio, The Mystery of Evil: Benedict XVI and the End of Days, trans. Adam Kotsko (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017); Badiou, Alain, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); Zizek, Slavoj, The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (London: Verso, 2009); Zizek, Slavoj, Living in the End of Times: Updated New Edition (London: Verso, 2011).

27 Shields, David, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (London and New York: Penguin, 2010).

28 Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove, 1963), 167 .

29 Non-European Sephardi Jewish history has been, until recently, excluded from this received account of a dominant white, Western Judeo-Christian tradition. For an early critique of this orthodoxy, see Grossman, Marshall, “The Violence of the Hyphen in Judeo-Christian,” Social Text 22 (Spring 1989): 115122 . A recent redress to this reduction can be found in Colonialism and the Jews, chapters two, five, seven, and eleven.

30 An exception to this rule is Gilroy’s Between Camps. See also Cheyette, Bryan and Marcus, Laura, eds., Modernity, Culture and “the Jew” (Cambridge: Polity; Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).

31 Chakravorty Spivak, Gayatri, Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 19 . See also Boyarin, Jonathan, Thinking in Jewish (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 172 .

32 Weber, Samuel, Institution and Interpretation (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 27 and chapter two.

33 Ibid., 32.

34 Mukherjee, What Is a Classic? Introduction.

35 For this argument in full see Cheyette, Diasporas of the Mind, chapter six. See also Eve, Martin, Literature against Criticism: University English and Contemporary Fiction in Conflict (London: Open, 2016).

36 Adorno, Critical Models, 172; and Quayson, Ato and Daswani, Girish, eds., “Introduction: Diaspora and Transnationalism,” A Companion to Diaspora and Transnationalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2013), 1619 .

37 Rushdie, Salman, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981–1991 (London, 1991), 20 .

38 Said, Edward W., The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (London, 2000), 208 and chapter thirty, which is a plea to end the impasse between “two communities of detached and uncommunicatingly separate suffering” in Israel/Palestine.

39 Arendt, Hannah, The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt, 1971), 102103 . I contrast such metaphorical thinking with binary thinking in Diasporas of the Mind throughout.

40 Rushdie, Salman, Grimus (London and New York: Penguin, 1975), 208 , 243.

41 Cheyette, Bryan, “Frantz Fanon and the Black-Jewish Imaginary,” Rereading “Black Skin White Masks,” ed. Maxim Silverman (New York and Manchester: Manchester University Press 2006), 7499 .

42 Rushdie, Grimus, 243.

43 Ibid.

44 Boyarin, Jonathan, Storm from Paradise: The Politics of Jewish Memory (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 82 and chapter five.

45 Rushdie, Salman, Shalimar the Clown (London: Jonathan Cape, 2005), 141 .

46 Ibid., 161.

47 Ibid., 20.

48 Ibid., 33.

49 Ibid., 27.

50 Ibid., 173.

51 Ibid., 170, 173.

52 Rushdie, Salman, The Moor’s Last Sigh (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995), 104 .

53 These readings are expanded in Cheyette, Diasporas of the Mind, 32–40, 255–64.

54 Whitehead, Anne, Memory (London and New York, Routledge: 2009), 78 .

55 For the late twentieth-century “memory boom” see Winter, Jay, Remembering War: The Great War and Historical Memory in the Twentieth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006); “Holocaust Boom” was coined by Frank Rich in the New York Times in April 1994, after the mass release of the film Schindler’s List and the opening of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. See

56 Samuel, Raphael, Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture (London: Verso, 2012).

57 Whitehead, Memory, 3.

58 Samuel, Theatres of Memory, xvii.

59 Auster, Paul, The Invention of Solitude (New York: Penguin, 1988), 149 .

60 Terdiman, Richard, Present Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993).

61 Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory, xiii.

62 Ibid., 107, 176.

63 Du Bois, W.E.B., “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto,” Jewish Life 6.7 (May 1952): 1415 .

64 Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony, 2–3.

65 Ibid., 2.

66 My argument with Mufti is precisely the shift from a comparative perspective of partition as part of the intertwined history of colonialism and anti-Semitism to a foundational focus on Israel/Palestine as the all-explaining anticolonial cause du jour. As he says in “The Predicaments of Postcolonial Thinking”: “My next book project . . . is something like a sequel to Enlightenment in the Colony. It’s called Edward Said in Jerusalem, and it brings the conceptual framework of the former book fully to the question of Palestine. I’m really asking, what is the significance of Palestine as historical experience for the practice of social, political, and cultural criticism at the present moment?” (151).

67 Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory, 3, 6.

68 Ibid., 136 and chapter five.

69 Ibid., 152.

70 Ibid., 136.

71 Ibid., 14. See also Silverman, Palimpsestic Memory, 20–22 and chapter one.

72 Mazower, Mark, Hitler’s Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe (London and New York: Allen Lane, 2008).

73 Améry, Jean, “The Birth of Man from the Spirit of Violence: Frantz Fanon the Revolutionary,” Wasafiri 44 (Spring 2005): 1318 .

74 Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory, 25, 137.

75 Ibid., 17, my emphasis.

76 Cheyette, Bryan, “Venetian Spaces: Old-New Literatures and the Ambivalent Uses of Jewish History,” Reading the ‘New’ Literatures in a Postcolonial Era, ed. Susheila Nasta (London: Boydell & Brewer, 2000), 5372 .

77 Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory, 18.

78 For the Holocaust as public discourse, see Cole, Tim, Selling the Holocaust: From Auschwitz to Schindler; How History Is Bought, Packaged and Sold (London and New York: Routledge, 1999).

79 “The Ethical Uncertainty of Primo Levi” in Cheyette and Marcus, Modernity, Culture and “the Jew,” chapter seventeen.

80 Delbo, Charlotte, Days and Memories, trans. Rosette C. Lamont (London: Malboro, 1985), 3 and 14 ; Delbo, Charlotte, Auschwitz and After, trans. Rosette C. Lamont (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), throughout.

81 Delbo, Days and Memories, 3.

82 Hutcheon, Linda, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), throughout.

83 Semprun, Jorge, Literature of Life, trans. Linda Coverdale (New York: Viking 1997), 161 and chapter six; Semprun, Jorge, The Long Voyage, trans. Richard Seaver (New York, 1964), throughout.

84 Levi, Primo, Moments of Reprieve, trans. Ruth Feldman (London and New York: Penguin, 1981), 11 .

85 Levi, Primo, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (London and New York: Abacus, 1986), 112 .

86 Ibid., 29 and 15–30.

87 Bal, Mieke, Travelling Concepts in the Humanities (Toronto, Canada: Toronto University Press, 2002).

88 Ibid., 39 and chapter one.

89 Cohen, Robin, Global Diasporas: An Introduction (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), chapter one.

90 Quayson and Daswani, “Introduction: Diaspora and Transnationalism,” 8–9.

91 Luckhurst and Marks, Literature and the Contemporary, 1.

92 Duneier, Mitchell, Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), chapter one.

93 Ibid., chapter four.

94 As Edward Said argues in “My Right of Return”: “when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is . . . a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices . . .” in Power, Politics and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said, ed. Gauri Viswanathan (New York: Pantheon, 2001), 445 and 443–58.

95 Adorno, Critical Models, 290.

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