The influence of French Theory - that conglomeration of postmodern thought which includes semiotic, deconstructive, psychoanalytical, and post-structural anthropological approaches to the analysis of art, politics, and culture - has had an overwhelming impact upon departments of literature and cultural studies in the United States, though it has not as yet similarly marked Jewish Studies. Yet, while the latter remains uncertain about or unconcerned with Theory - I use the uppercase T audible in literature department hallways - the reverse is not so true: postmodern French thought displays a remarkable, if eccentric, interest in matters Jewish. Every major contemporary French theorist has made some study of or pronouncement upon the Jews and their place in the West. This means that in literature and cultural studies, where the influence of French post-structuralist thinkers is so immense, with many of the most widely read works of Theory focusing on aspects of Jewish history and thought, a strange sort of "postmodern Jewish Studies" has become a central part of the scholarly discourse.
The texts shaping this discourse display three disturbing characteristics. First, Theory tends towards a surprising level of abstraction and reduction. Its treatments of Jewish history are marked by an extreme ahistoricism, with the details and specifics of Jewish life, thought, and culture glossed over or ignored in favor of reductive schema. In these works the Jews themselves become ethereal, reduced usually to a single philosophical principle or merely symbolic value that is put forth as their "essential nature." By contrast, in most other areas of study the influence of Theory has led to a deep skepticism concerning all essentialisms. Secondly, there is a lamentable lack of knowledge on the part of most theorists concerning Jews and Judaism. They simply do not know much about their subject. Moreover, these first two characteristics prepare the ground for a third problem: the reinscription of old ideological biases about Jews. Theorists are not sufficiently aware of the long history of discourse about Jews, and so, unable to critique their own ideas, they reimport timeworn baggage. Consequently, in what is supposed to be the intellectual cutting edge, we find Jewish stereotypes not only unquestioned but presented as critical analysis.
These problems are central to the work of three major theorists - Jean-Francois Lyotard, Julia Kristeva, and Rene Girard - though not limited to them. These highly influential thinkers have all written on Jewish subjects, and their work is representative of the serious flaws in analyses of the Jews and their history prevalent in Theory. Lyotard constructs a postmodern pseudo-Judaism that confirms his own political preferences at the expense of engaging real Jews and real Jewish culture. Kristeva's focus on a single psychological principle to explain all of religious history leads her to ignore basic and crucial details of that history, while her commitment to celebrating what has been repressed - common in much of Theory - comes dangerously close to condoning anti-Semitic impulses. Girard attempts to resuscitate orthodox Christianity as Theory, and this takes him out of the realm of scholarly debate and into the very one-sided realm of a medieval dogma that was never able to engage the Jews in honest dialogue. In what follows I present critical readings of each, focusing my discussion on their treatment of Jews and Judaism. Glossing the highly technical, and somewhat idiosyncratic language used by theorists, I hope to make their ideas accessible to those outside the guild.
The number of French theoretical treatments of Judaism is itself an interesting phenomenon, though not entirely surprising. First, there is of course a tradition of French intellectuals engaged with the Jewish Question, neither Emile Zola nor Jean-Paul Sartre needing to wait for postmodernity to take up the issue. Second, the uncomfortable question of French collaboration with the Nazis during World War II makes the place of the Jew in Europe an issue with deeply personal resonances for the French intellectual of good conscience. And in the case of Theory, philosophical stances as well as political ones are embroiled in this history. That is, French theory developed alongside the rise of European fascism, and the relationship between this thought and this history continues to be a pressing and tangled subject. The recent "French - Heidegger Affair" - those debates concerning the extent to which Heidegger's political choices affect the French philosophy he so profoundly influenced - is an illustration of the unease surrounding the possibility of Theory's implication in modem barbarity.(1) Third, French theory is an intellectual project critical of the philosophical heritage of the Enlightenment. This makes the Jews - whose entrance into modern European thought is inextricably bound to the history of the Enlightenment - a topic of necessary interest for the theorist. Michel Foucault is not the first or only thinker to note the connection between Aufklarung and Haskalah.(2) A fourth reason for Theory's interest in Jews, and the one that has received the most attention, is the influence of various Jewish thinkers upon French theory, from the Talmudically educated Emmanuel Levinas, to more marginal Jews such as Theodor Adorno and Jacques Derrida. Finally, French thought displays profound religious influences; French Catholicism makes itself felt in even heretical thinkers such as Georges Bataille. Because of this Catholic influence, we might be led to expect frequent considerations of questions involving theology and religious history.
While these reasons may account somewhat for the frequency of theoretical interest in Jewish issues, they do not explain the intellectual complacency and bias that mark much of this interest. This is not a productive situation, especially as Theory is often taken by American academics for a critical tool in the analysis of history and culture, and not as an occasionally flawed or biased facet of that history and culture. In addition, as literature departments have in recent years shifted their attention from purely textual concerns to political-cultural ones, emphasis has increased on those thinkers who deal with issues of power, violence, political barbarity, and the treatment of minorities - and the Jews are often the test case and central example in works by these thinkers. Yet Theory's intellectual sloppiness in this area reproduces past errors, and makes room for the return of racialist, anti-Semitic language. In order for the encounter of Theory and Jewish studies to be a useful one, the former must be approached critically and contextualized as part of a history of discourse about Jews and Judaism. Theory's own best tendencies - its resistance to idealism and essentialism, its attention to the way in which truths are culturally biased, and its probing of the politically and ideologically charged content of art, thought, and culture - must be doubled back on its own investigations about the Jews.
Lyotard: The Jews and "the jews"
Jean-Francois Lyotard has been instrumental in giving the term postmodernism its intellectual currency. He has also taken a serious interest in the status and nature of the Jews, giving them a central, if questionable, place in his conception of postmodernism. Lyotard concerns himself with what he sees as the genuinely unique character of the Jews and the difference between their tradition of thought and the thought of the Greco-Christian West. However, he defines this difference by looking beyond Judaism to its "idea." In ahistorical, theoretical - we can even say idealist - fashion, Lyotard abstracts a Jewish "essence," and sets it off with quotation marks, as we see in his book, Heidegger and "the jews."
Of the two subjects in this book's title, the second is by far the more important, and certainly the more conspicuous. The larger part of the book, which was written in response to the Heidegger affair, concerns an entity Lyotard calls "the jews" and its place within the metaphysical and psychic structures of the West. Heidegger is a secondary concern, confined to a few chapters. Thus, the real subject of Lyotard's treatise is an otherwise familiar term placed throughout his book in quotation marks and lower-case letters. Lyotard's term, as we will see, is very ambiguous. Although he makes his "jews" pivotal for his theoretical understanding of Judaism and anti-Semitism, the term reflects the necessities of his own philosophical position more than it does any real critical encounter with the religion or political history of the Jews. Lyotard repeatedly distinguishes between his "jews" and actual Jews, and with some justification. The term "jews" does not signify any traditional, halakhic Judaism; "jews" seem to participate in a general ethical stance or attitude, rather than some set of ritual requirements or moral strictures. Thus, both Jews and Gentiles can potentially be "jews."
Nevertheless, "jews" are central to Lyotard's theories about Jews. At many points in Lyotard's discussion, "jew" and Jew become interchangeable, as the difference between them diminishes or collapses entirely. In part this is because Lyotard obviously intends the defining characteristics of "jews" to echo what he understands to be key aspects of Judaism, such as the uniqueness of God, and the perceived connection between monotheism and ethics. Furthermore, the "jews" are repeatedly contrasted with Christians and pagans (neither of which bear quotation marks), while all of Lyotard's examples of "jews" are Jews.(3) And perhaps most indicative of the connection between the two, Lyotard argues that real anti-Semitism is a result of the West's antipathy towards "jews."
What Lyotard has done is to extract a Jewish "essence" - based mostly on a thin conception of Judaism he seems to have constructed from readings of Levinas, Derrida, Adorno, Kant, and, antithetically, Hegel - and to use this as the basis for the construction of his ideal postmodern "community." The result is a strange book. While at times rewarding, for example, in its perceptive critique of Heidegger, and its moving insights into Freudian concepts, its ultimate advocacy of "the jews" as postmodern good-guys is hardly flattering, since it (1) displays little concern for or knowledge of the intricacies of Jewish thought and history, (2) redefines Judaism along the lines of a nineteenth century universalist model without questioning the ideology behind such a redefinition, and (3) has little use for those Jews who do not fall within this model. Lyotard's "jews" are the people whose duty it is to remain in exile, spreading the word of Kant to the four corners of the world-making Lyotard sound like a kind of postmodern Hermann Cohen. This is an uninformed philosemitism, with its own questionable ideological baggage and political consequences.
"The jews" and the Other
The ambivalence of the distinction between "jews" and Jews is indicated at the book's start, when Lyotard presents us with the following explanation for his unorthodox typography:
I write "the jews" this way neither out of prudence nor lack of something better. I use lower case to indicate that I am not thinking of a nation. I make it plural to signify that it is neither a figure nor a political (Zionism), religious (Judaism), or philosophical (Jewish philosophy) subject that I put forward under this name. I use quotation marks to avoid confusing these "jews" with real Jews. What is most real about real Jews is that Europe, in any case, does not know what to do with them: Christians demand their conversion; monarchs expel them; republics assimilate them; Nazis exterminate them. "The jews" are the object of a dismissal with which Jews, in particular, are afflicted in reality.(4)
Here is a curious mixture of abstraction and specificity. Lyotard explains that we should not confuse the "jews" described in his book with real Jews. "The jews" are not to be taken as a political, religious, or philosophical entity. However, he also tells us that it is precisely real Jews who suffer the misfortunes of "the jews." What, then, is the difference?
According to Lyotard, "the jews" constitute the radical "other" in the West. I must pause here, however, and dispel some misunderstandings that have arisen from this proposition. Some of Lyotard's American commentators hear that "the jews" refers to otherness, and so take "the jews" to be Lyotard's shorthand for oppressed minorities everywhere, neglecting the direct connection Lyotard draws between "jews" and Jews. Such a misinterpretation is made particularly evident on the back cover of the English language edition of Lyotard's book, in a blurb which incorrectly informs us that Lyotard means his term "to represent the outsiders, the nonconformists: the artists, anarchists, blacks, homeless, Arabs, etc. - and the Jews." This advertisement perhaps appeals to the multicultural climate of the contemporary university, but it elides the direct relation that Lyotard establishes on the first page between "jews" and Jews. Alan Milchman and Alan Rosenberg make the same mistake in "The Unlearned Lessons of the Holocaust," an essay which enlists an extremely superficial reading of Lyotard and fellow theorist Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe in order to make the argument that there is "an indissoluble link between modernity and the Holocaust."(5) In the course of their essay, Milchman and Rosenberg argue that
Lyotard deliberately writes "the jews" in quotation marks and lower case to distinguish them from the real Jews, the followers of the Mosaic faith. For Lyotard, "the jews" are the embodiment of alterity, the Other, scorned as such, murdered as such, exterminated as such, who are sometimes real Jews, as in Nazi occupied Europe, and sometimes not. In Germany today, the Turks are "the jews"; in France, it is the Arabs; in Iran, it is the Bahai or emancipated women; in Hindu India, it is the Muslims and Sikhs; in China it is the students and "cosmopolitans."(6)
Milchman and Rosenberg have misrepresented Lyotard's argument; "the jews" may be an "Other" but not all "Others" are "jews." Rather, "the jews" have a great deal of specificity; they are not "Bahai" or "emancipated women." In fact, an examination of Lyotard's book indicates that "the jews" are modeled very closely upon Lyotard's notions of "the followers of the Mosaic faith." Lyotard defines the "jews," not by their alterity, but by a set of theoretical propositions that approximate a kind of Jewish monotheism and its ethical formulations, as I will now explain.
"The jews" and the Forgotten
From the start, Lyotard defines "the jews" as those who bear witness to what Lyotard calls "the Forgotten." This "Forgotten" functions a bit like a God concept - it is the "unnamable in the secret of names," that which cannot be represented - although Lyotard does not define it as such. Instead, he writes: "The Forgotten is not to be remembered for what it has been and what it is, because it has not been anything and is nothing, but must be remembered as something that never ceases to be forgotten. And this something is not a concept or a representation, but a 'fact,' a Factum [Kant's term]: namely, that one is obligated before the Law, in debt."(7) The Forgotten, that which is beyond concept and representation, is experienced as obligation "before the Law." The "jews" bear witness to what cannot be represented, what cannot be contained in (is "forgotten" by) any philosophical schema, and they do so through a sense of justice and ethical obligation.(8)
While this theoretical construction strongly resembles modem reformulations of Judaism such as those made by Hermann Cohen and Emmanuel Levinas, Lyotard does not appeal to Jewish scripture, tradition, or religious categories but instead grounds the Forgotten in Freud and Kant.(9) However, Lyotard does not explain how Freud's "unconscious affect" and Kant's "sublime" give rise to the "fact . . . that one is obligated before the Law." Theoretically, all of us experience, or can experience, primary repression and/or the sublime. Yet who, because of such experiences, says to him or herself: "I must now behave ethically, for I am indebted to the Law"? What would "the Law" even refer to in such a physiological or aesthetic context? In this "obligation before the Law," Lyotard wants to describe a kind of "listening," an ethical receptivity that is both prior to - and the basis of - ethics. He finds a model for this ethical space in his own version of "Jewish tradition" (that composite of remarks by Levinas, Hegel, Kant, Derrida, etc.). Yet Lyotard's translation of Jewish Law into secular, theoretical terms is not convincing: can one derive an ethical stance from Freudian psychology and Kantian aesthetics? Lyotard himself argues that a prescriptive stance cannot be derived from a denotative in our postmodern age.
Pagans, Christians, Jews, and "jews"
Whether this obligation works or not, it is the basis of "jewish" distinctiveness. According to Lyotard, the "jews" constitute a break with the pagan-Christian West. They are the unassimilable and unassimilating, refusing recourse to the shortcuts of Christian sacrifice and Greek dialectic in their devotion to the unrepresentable. Echoing an election theology (though of course he opposes such theologies), Lyotard describes them as a "people [that] is taken hostage by a voice that does not tell it anything, save that it . . . is, and that all representations and naming of it are forbidden." In their resistance to the forgetting of the Forgotten, "the jews" resist the West's "foundational thinking," its "will," its "accomplishments," its "obsession to dominate."(10) The "jews" defy systems (philosophical, political) in their devotion to what systems cannot contain. (We can see in this definition of "judaism" the strong hand of Derrida.) Moreover, Lyotard argues vociferously against the misuse of the term "Judeo-Christian," as he emphasizes an irreducible theological and historical difference between "jew" and Christian, between Jewish theology (a theology of the unrepresentable, of waiting) and Christian theology (which is incarnational, of preaching).
Even Heidegger's thought is seen as falling within a pagan-Christian tradition.(11) More than any other twentieth century philosopher, Heidegger tried to be attentive to what Western philosophy forgets, represses, leaves out. Yet he finally posits this unrepresentable as "Being," and so represents it: it is a form of idolatry. Heidegger tries to make the unrepresentable "signify"; he tells us how to experience "correct listening" to "Being." Thus, he creates "an 'aesthetics' of the memory of the Forgotten," thereby lapsing into a "pagan-Christian tradition" of "fetishes," "myth," "geopolitics," "geophilosophy" - he ties the Forgotten to "blood and earth."(12) Heidegger's "god is merely pagan-Christian, the god of bread, wine, earth, and blood."(13)
However, Lyotard does not only distinguish between "jew" and Christian. He also emphasizes the difference between "jew" and Jew. He insists, for example, that "jewish thought" is not to be taken for Jewish monotheism: "It is neither monotheism nor creationism that makes exceptional the thought of 'the jews.' The desire for the One-All excites the spirit of the most ancient Greeks no less than that of the metaphysicians and physicists."(14) Yet here Lyotard confuses Jewish monotheism with the "desire for the One-All," an identification with which many Jewish thinkers would disagree. After all, Jewish monotheism is hardly Platonic or Hegelian, or even Spinozan. Jewish monotheism resembles a "desire for the One-All" less than it does Lyotard's witnessing the Forgotten, a devotion to the uniquely unrepresentable and the burden of justice it lays upon us.
Yet Lyotard is so insistent that we not identify "jew" with Jew that at one point he even posits an inverse relationship between the two, arguing that "the Jews (without quotation marks) are not less, but rather more exposed than others (they are 'stiff-necked') to forgetting the unnamable. Every Jew is a bad 'jew,' a bad witness to what cannot be represented, just as all texts fail to reinscribe what has not been inscribed."(15) Jews are bad "jews" because, as for Heidegger, "the jew's" very witnessing of the unrepresentable puts him or her at the perpetual risk of attempting to represent it. This implies that, as "jews" are better Heideggerians than Heidegger, French deconstructionists are better "jews" than the Jews. And in fact Lyotard observes that the French are particularly sensitive to the Forgotten, because their literary tradition has for so long "testified to the fact that the real objective of literature . . . has always been to reveal, represent in words, what every representation misses, what is forgotten there." According to Lyotard, "it was France that found itself in charge of a thinking of the immemorial."(16) One could construe this to mean that the French post-structuralists are the new "jews" - a fascinating and rather Pauline placement of deconstruction, to be sure.
Such logic testifies less to any deconstructive perversity on Lyotard's part than to his distrust of rigid communities. Committed to a postmodern disdain for essentialized communities, Lyotard wants to attack Heidegger's notion of a people without quotation marks, a Volk bound by blood and soil. To Heidegger's people Lyotard opposes his "jews": "this nonpeople of survivors, Jews and non-Jews . . . whose Being-together depends not on the authenticity of any primary roots but on that singular debt of interminable anamnesis," and whose "only lot [is] the lot of forgetting neither that there is the Forgotten nor what horror the spirit is capable of in its headlong madness to make us forget that fact."(17) As central examples of such "jews," Lyotard promotes a short list of German-Jewish exiles: "In opposition to the [Heidegger's] return to this promised Germania: Freud, Benjamin, Adorno, Arendt, and Celan - these great non-German Germans, non-Jewish Jews - who not only question but betray the tradition, the mimesis, the immanence of the unfolding, and its root; whom emigration, dispersion, and the impossibility of integration make despair of any return; exhausted by the dual impotence of not changing and changing, of remaining German and becoming French, American; citizens for whom the city is not a village (as it is for Breton); expatriates obliged to judge because they are judged, without knowing from whence. . . . Expelled, doomed to exodus."(18)
Thus, we arrive at a reprise, perhaps more philosophically directed, of the usual arguments in favor of Jewish Diaspora culture over nationhood, Jewish rootlessness over rootedness, cosmopolitanism over provincialism, universalism over the particular. Exile becomes the Jewish ideal, and Jews are necessarily judged more harshly than others for failing to live up to this ideal: the "stiff-necked"Jews are "more exposed than others" to the failing of being insufficiently postmodern and exilic. It is telling that Lyotard, the proclaimer of postmodernity's ending of all grand narratives, should reinscribe here the very old narrative of the Wandering Jew.
Such arguments are common enough in French theory and elsewhere, and certainly imply at least an ambivalence concerning Zionism, and a strong fetishizing of Jewish exile. This stance is writ large in "Diaspora: Generation and Ground of Jewish Identity," an article by Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin that begins by critiquing Lyotard's Jewish abstractions only to champion them even more rigorously than Lyotard by giving them explicit political direction. The Boyarins call for the dismantling of Israel, and justify this through their notion of a Jewish "essence," which is, they maintain, thoroughly Diasporic. Despite their notable grounding in Jewish scholarship, the Boyarins' work is informed by the abstracting, essentializing, and ahistoricizing tendencies of Theory's "jewish studies." The Boyarins believe they have determined a true Judaism, which is devoid of both national and hegemonic aspirations, and which is revealed through a reading of traditional Jewish texts. They maintain that Zionism can only be a racist, warlike perversion of this "correct" Judaism. In this rather Manichean schema, historical context disappears. For instance, the Boyarins assert that antinational strains in the Talmud are the result of a conscious decision on the part of the rabbis to forgo political power so as never to oppress the "other."(19) This would have been a beautiful self-sacrificial gesture on the part of the rabbis, certainly. However, what is not mentioned in this argument is the existence of the Roman empire; some sort of calculated appeasement, or even lack of choice, may have been involved in this renunciation of Jewish hegemony. Furthermore, the Boyarins are so concerned with the "real, immanent danger" of Israel's becoming a Third Reich(20) that, when they "propose Diaspora as a theoretical and historical model to replace national self-determination,"(21) they are a bit quick to abstract away the problems faced throughout history by stateless Jews. Of those problems, which of course include the Holocaust, the Boyarins only note in passing: "We would certainly claim that there have been historical situations in which they [Diaspora conditions] obtained without success in this radically imperfect world."(22)
Kristeva: Abjection and the Jews
Julia Kristeva, who combines semiotic and psychoanalytical approaches in her work, has had a profound influence on contemporary feminist thought in France. She has also engaged in an analysis of anti-Semitism in her book, Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection. According to Kristeva's theories, and in contrast to Lyotard's, the alien irritant that disrupts systems is not Jewish but pagan.
Like Freud and many others, Julia Kristeva belongs to the school of thought that explains modern Jew-hatred as an atavistic pagan resentment of Judaism's imposition, through Christianity, of monotheism and moral law.(23) Though Kristeva draws on the psychoanalytical ideas of Jacques Lacan, an overly Hegelian conception of religious history, and Georges Bataille's theories concerning abjection, her religious history contains oversimplified conceptions of both Judaism and Christianity. But most problematic is Kristeva's concluding celebration of the very powers of horror which she argues are the cause of violent anti-Semitism. In this, she flirts with the anti-Jewish ideologies that blame Jewish monotheism for stifling the liberating energies of paganism.
As the title of her book indicates, Kristeva's analysis of religion centers on the religio-psychoanalytical term, "abjection." Indeed, according to Kristeva, a consideration of abjection must be the foundation of any analysis of religion. "Abjection accompanies all religious structurings," she notes, maintaining that "The various means of purifying the abject . . . make up the history of religions."(24) Furthermore, abjection is central not only to the study of religion but also to the arts; Kristeva sees the history of the sacred as culminating in art and literature. Literature in particular is portrayed by Kristeva as the most intense locus of the dynamics of abjection. "Contemporary literature," and most emblematically the anti-Semitic French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine (whose writings are analyzed in the second half of Kristeva's book), "becomes a substitute for the role formerly played by the sacred."(25)
What is abjection? On the simplest level, abjection is an encounter with a radical otherness, an alien element - the abject - that is yet constitutive of the self. More specifically, abjection is the terrifying encounter with the female element repressed within each human psyche. This feminine principle stems from the role that the mother plays in Kristeva's Lacanian schema of our psychic development. According to Kristeva, the infant uses the "symbolic realm" of language to break away from the nonsymbolic, or immanent, presence of the mother: "The abject confronts us . . . within our personal archeology, with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternalentity even before ex-isting outside of her, thanks to the autonomy of language. It is a violent, clumsy breaking away, with the constant risk of falling back under the sway of a power as securing as it is stifling. The difficulty a mother has in acknowledging (or being acknowledged by) the symbolic realm . . . is not such as to help the future subject leave the natural mansion. . . . In such close combat [between self and mother], the symbolic light that a third party, eventually the father, can contribute helps the future subject . . . in pursuing a reluctant struggle against what, having been the mother, will turn into an abject."(26)
Thus, the father and language together constitute a symbolic system that allows the individual to separate from the maternal presence - in effect, to become an individual. Language is selfhood, autonomy. Meanwhile, everything which reminds us of the maternal presence, which denies our autonomy as human subjects, which would reduce us to the physical - all this becomes linked with the abject ("what, having been the mother, will turn into an abject"). Abjection is, in the words of Kristeva's precursor Bataille, "the inability to assume with sufficient strength the imperative act of excluding abject things."(27) Abject things are those which symbolize our merely bodily and contingent nature: as examples, Kristeva (still following Bataille) lists corpses, wounds, menstrual blood, pus, excrement. Yet Kristeva departs from Bataille by insisting that the abject is above all a feminine-maternal element, tenuously excluded from and through the constitution of the self. And Kristeva explains anti-Semitism as the result of a return of the repressed abject, an excluded otherness that rages against the symbolic structures of language, law, and self.
The exclusion of the abject is the defining factor in Kristeva's history of religions, a history that takes up the first half of her book, and which emphasizes the uniqueness of biblical Judaism. She defines biblical Judaism in terms of its stance "against paganism and its maternal cults"(28) and its unique manner of purging the abject, which sets Judaism apart from pagan sacrificial religions. According to Kristeva, Judaism attempts to neutralize the abject through an innovative "logic of separation" elaborated in the Hebrew Bible: a separation of clean from unclean, pure from impure, holy from profane, and so on, as exemplified by the Bible's extensive dietary laws. She argues that the taboo of maternal incest (an abject, clearly) is the Bible's "originating mytheme,"(29) the source of its "logic of separation." Kristeva even enlists a reading of the prophets as furthering this "logic of separation" ("But we are an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags" Isaiah 64:6). Such a conception of Judaism is necessarily reductive and is furthermore limited mostly to the Hebrew Bible, which truncates the religion considerably (there are three brief references to postbiblical writings in her book).
Kristeva sees the biblical "logic of separation" as the birth of morality, and the restricting of the violently sacral.(30) Kristeva asserts that the sacrificial victim of pagan religions is replaced in Judaism by the unclean, the impure - the "abomination" - and so "a deep qualitative change takes place: the religion that ensues, even if it continues to harbor sacrifice, is no longer a sacrificial religion. It tempers the fascination of murder. . . . Nothing is sacred outside of the One."(31) Kristeva agrees with Girard that "it is the Bible, particularly through its emphasis on abominations, that starts the process of going beyond a sacrificial concept of the social and/or symbolic contract." In the Bible, "Not only shall you not kill, but you shall not sacrifice anything without observing rules and prohibitions." The Torah is therefore "what curtails sacrifice."(32)
However, this does not mean that Kristeva cherishes a Judeophilic love for the law such as we see in Lyotard. Rather, Kristeva is ambivalent about the repression of the abject within Jewish scripture, which she says operates by creating a "persecuting machine" that declares war on the maternal, pagan element.(33) Elsewhere, Kristeva characterizes "Prohibition and Law," such as she finds in the Hebrew Bible, as "unfailingly oppressive," though "necessary if that perverse interspace of abjection is to be hemmed in and thrust aside."(34) The apprehension Kristeva evinces here concerning the "Symbolic" and "Law" foreshadow her book's conclusion, in which she emerges as a champion, not of biblical law, but of a type of horrified pleasure in the abject.
Meanwhile, Christianity is described as a progressive "interiorization of abjection." As in the case of the Hebrew Bible, Kristeva's reading of the New Testament is reductive; the pivotal Christian distinction between Law and Gospel is defined as an "oralization" of the Hebraic pure/impure dichotomy, based on a reading of a handful of passages in Matthew and Mark. Her reading is also selective; for example, Kristeva makes much of Jesus' statements concerning the honoring of parents, but leaves out entirely his very opposite statements in which he subordinates filial obligation to Christian duty. Nevertheless, it is this internalization of abjection which defines Christianity for Kristeva, and separates it decisively from Judaism. The Christian sense of sin is an internalization of biblical defilement. Thus, Christianity manifests a "reconciliation with the maternal principle" that is quite unlike Judaism's separating out of the abject. Kristeva therefore follows the Freud of Moses and Monotheism in seeing Christianity as "a compromise between paganism and Judaic monotheism." And Christian sin is "the revenge of paganism," the return of the abject.(35) This would explain the very Christian resonances in one of Kristeva's first descriptions of abjection: "Abjection is a resurrection that has gone through death (of the ego). It is an alchemy that transforms death drive into a start of life, of new significance."(36) Thus, abjection follows the Christian structure of the Passion (or, as Kristeva would doubtlessly argue, the Passion bears the determining mark of abjection).
Kristeva has unfolded her Lacanian and Bataillean ideas in a Hegelian world history, bringing us (readers who are evidently Christian or post- Christian) into a modernity which has internalized abjection and encounters it most dramatically in art. At this point, Kristeva can take up her analysis of Celine. She argues that the dynamics of abjection in Celine's art give rise to his pathological anti-Semitism. Yet the importance of her argument is not limited to this one author. Rather, she argues that what takes place in the psychology and writings of the individual author is in fact the same dynamics of abjection that produces recurrent and violent anti-Semitism within Western civilization as a whole.
According to Kristeva, there are two elements that run through Celine's anti-Semitism. One is "rage against the symbolic. "This is a "fully secular rage" against all organized religion, all symbolic structures, and all ideologies of transcendence, and which takes Jewish monotheism as its central enemy. The second and subsequent feature is "the attempt to substitute another Law" for the symbolic - the new law being defined by "material positivity," by "a kind of sameness," and by a "mystic" quality that "proclaims the immanence of substance and meaning, of the natural/racial/familial . . . communicated to the senses as Rhythm."(37) This new law - rhythmic, immanent, bound to nature and race - is a new paganism.
Anti-Semitism is, therefore, the return of the repressed pagan-feminine. It is "a kind of parareligious formation . . . the sociological thrill, flush with history, that believers and nonbelievers alike seek in order to experience abjection." And it will arise during "all attempts . . . at escaping from the Judeo-Christian compound by means of a unilateral call to return to what it has repressed (rhythm, drive, the feminine, etc.)."(38)
Kristeva's use of the adjective "Judeo-Christian" is a bit disingenuous, however, since it is Jews and not Christians who are the target of the parareligious pathology she describes. The Jews find themselves at the center of the dynamics of abjection, of the struggle of the maternal with the symbolic, because of the content of their scripture and religion: "The anti-Semite is not mistaken. Jewish monotheism is not only the most rigorous application of Unicity of the Law and the Symbolic; it is also the one that wears with the greatest assurance, but like a lining, the mark of the maternal, feminine, or pagan substance. If it removes itself with matchless vigor from its fierce presence, it also integrates it without complacency."(39) This attributes the uniqueness of Judaism not only to its monotheistic rigor, but to a strenuous tension between monotheism and paganism that is maintained in biblical and prophetic discourse, and which has been assuaged to a great extent in, say, Christianity. The Jewish "logic of separation" preserves the maternal within its very structure, but without the compromise and individualization manifest in Christianity. Thus, historical crises trigger anti-Semitic reactions, since this is programmed into the most constitutive parts of the Western psyche.
If at this point the reader expects some sort of discernible stance against such anti-Semitism, only disappointment follows. Instead, Kristeva concludes her analysis with a dark paean to what Celine shows us is "the fascination exerted upon us, openly or secretly, by that field of horror."(40) She says that if the analyst of the abject derives from it a "perverse" thrill, "fine; provided that . . . he allow the most deeply buried logic of our anguish and hatred to burst out." How this pronouncement relates to concrete historical and social situations, Kristeva does not make clear; rather, we are given a grandiose and apocalyptic prophecy According to Kristeva, modern analysts such as herself, now armed with the knowledge of the abject, are "preparing to go through the first great demystification of Power (religious, moral, political, and verbal) that mankind has ever witnessed; and it is necessarily taking place within that fulfillment of religion as sacred horror, which is Judeo-Christian monotheism. In the meantime, let others continue their long march toward idols and truths of all kinds, buttressed with the necessarily righteous faith for wars to come, wars that will necessarily be holy."(41) The abject and the attempts to repress it will continue to rack humanity with holy wars, and such holy wars will more often than not be waged against the Jews. However, Kristeva does not explain how the analyst's "demystification of Power" is related to his cathartic pleasure in abjection.
Kristeva only mentions briefly what would be the most pressing modern example of the destructive effects of abjection, the Holocaust. "In the dark halls of the museum that is now what remains of Auschwitz, I see a heap of children's shoes, or something like that, something I have already seen elsewhere, under a Christmas tree, for instance, dolls I believe. The abjection of the Nazi crime reaches its apex when death, which, in any case, kills me, interferes with what, in my living universe, is supposed to save me from death: childhood, science, among other things."(42) This is curiously offhanded. Surely the darkening of Kristeva's Christmas memories is not the "apex" of this "abjection."
Girard: Christianity as Anthropology
Rene Girard would not wish to be classified with these other theorists, and the feeling is frequently mutual. Girard's is a school of thought unto itself, a method of analyzing all cultural forms according to a single principle, and he has little patience with those who do not acknowledge this principle as being the most important. Furthermore, his theories are opposed to the generally antireligious atmosphere of most modern universities. From the heart of the secular academy, Girard's theories function as an earnest plea on behalf of an almost medieval-sounding Christianity. Despite their own religious influences, this would certainly be anathema to most theorists. Yet Girard is still considered a major figure in Theory because his thought - in its own unique way - shares with other theorists a deep resistance to the values of Enlightenment humanism, and because his writings are highly important to theoretical analyses of sacrifice and violence.
The distinctiveness of Girard's theories begin with his reappraisal of the subject of mimesis, the human capacity to imitate. Most theories of mimesis speak positively about it, since imitation is often considered to be the basis of human learning and so of civilized behavior. Girard also sees mimesis as a fundamental human impulse; however, he argues that it is the root of violence. His first major insight is to consider mimesis in a triangular context. Whereas most mimetic theories attempt to understand the way in which one individual imitates another, Girard points out that most of the time what is being imitated is the behavior of one individual towards a third party, and that this is a situation that cannot help but lead to conflicts. I see you eat food and I want to eat your food. You desire a mate, and from you I learn to desire that mate as well. Imitation is therefore as inherently violent as it is human.
In his most influential work, Violence and the Sacred, Girard outlines a theory of religion that bases it on the need to control mimetic violence.(43) According to Girard, violence is contagious. It is the nature of violence to escalate, each act of revenge being greater than the violent act which preceded it. From earliest times, human communities have been sensitive to the danger of reciprocal violence, and have evolved systems designed to preserve order and communal cohesion through the channeling and ritualizing of violence. Such systems - religion - are based on the mechanism of sacrifice. Sacrifice designates an arbitrary victim to serve as the receptacle for a community's violent desires. Religion is therefore the consequence of violence, and communal unity is in fact generated through murder. While I necessarily oversimplify Girard's subtle and cogent analyses - which proceed with equal facility through modem ethnological and anthropological studies, pagan myths, classical tragedy, and his own critiques of other theorists of sacrifice (Freud, Levi-Strauss, Frazier, Mauss, etc.) - the central issue is their placement of sacrifice, which both ritualizes and hides communal violence, at the basis of human culture. Civilization is built on sacrificial violence, and there is no human community, according to Girard, that eludes this paradigm.
The books that grow out of Violence and the Sacred elaborate this view. In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, a book structured as a kind of Platonic dialogue between Girard and two enthusiastic disciples, Girard undertakes one of the most audacious and shrewd "philosophic-scientific" justifications of Christianity since Hegel. The Scapegoat performs much the same task.(44) Building on his previous work, Girard now argues that only the Christian Gospels contain the sociological demystification needed to save humankind from the curse of contagious violence. The one correct interpretation (which is Girard's) will reveal these texts to be the most sophisticated anthropological and psychological critiques of violence that we possess. If we listen to the true message of the Gospels, we will be "saved." If we do not, we only contribute to the violence that will eventually lead to the destruction of the world.
Of course, these are the Gospels as Girard interprets them. Many Christians would find the sociological significance that Girard attaches to the apostolic accounts and Christian mysteries to be unacceptable. It is nevertheless amazing how much of traditional Christianity is preserved in Girard's "meta-anthropology." As we will see, far from emptying out Christianity's uniqueness and dogma, in the manner of, say, a Feuerbach, Girard frequently sounds like a new Church Father in his seriousness and attachment to traditional Christian belief, including the oldest of Christian prejudices concerning the Jews.
According to Girard, the Gospels are unique in human history because, as no other text, they consciously expose all the workings of the sacrificial process of "victimage." They make it impossible for the human race to hide from itself the violent essence of its culture (figured in the Gospels as the force of Satan), and the way it perpetuates violence by sacrificing innocent victims. Girard admits that the New Testament echoes many pagan sacrificial myths, but he maintains that the Christian scriptures are really a critique of these myths. The victim in the Gospels is portrayed as perfectly innocent; thus, the Gospels make the violent mechanisms of human culture transparent for all to see.
The innocent victim is of course Jesus, who is according to Girard "the last and greatest of the prophets, the one who sums them up and goes further than all of them. . . . With him there takes place a shift that is both tiny and gigantic . . . the complete elimination of the sacrificial for the first time"(45) The message of Jesus, as seen for example in the Sermon on the Mount, is both an expose of violence and a program for escaping it. This is what Jesus means by "the Kingdom of God," nothing less than "the complete and definitive elimination of every form of vengeance and every form of reprisal in relations between men."(46) And our need for the Kingdom of God is more pressing than ever, since we are living in an age of "apocalyptic violence," by which Girard means the very real potential for humanity's total self-destruction in nuclear war.
Yet Girard is not merely watering down Christian theology into a simple message of nonviolence. Jesus' message of nonviolence is a unique event, with the deepest repercussions for humanity. With the arrival of Jesus, "it becomes impossible to put the clock back. There is an end to cyclical history, for the very reason that its mechanisms are beginning to be uncovered."(47) Thus Jesus' cultural critique is not mere sociology, but - by definition - revelation.
Furthermore,Jesus himself is a singularity. If human culture is inherently violent and self-deceiving, then an emissary of a real critique of this violence must - by definition - be transcendent, beyond the horizon of what can be thought by humans. And so: "To recognize Christ as God is to recognize him as the only being capable of rising above the violence that had, up to that point, absolutely transcended mankind. Violence is the controlling agent in every form of mythic or cultural structure, and Christ is the only agent who is capable of escaping from these structures and freeing us from their dominance."(48) If we define God as what transcends human violence, then Jesus is God, as Girard also makes evident in the following "anthropological analysis": "the gospel text contains an explicit revelation of the foundations of all religions in victimage, and this revelation takes place thanks to a nonviolent deity - the Father of Jesus - for this revelation appears in close association between Father and Son, in their common nature, and in the idea, repeated several times in John, that Jesus is the only way to the Father, that he is himself the same thing as the Father, that he is not only the Way, but also the Truth and the Life. Indeed, this is why those who have seen Jesus have seen the Father himself." Jesus is "the only Mediator, the one bridge between the Kingdom of violence and the Kingdom of God."(49)
Girard notes that this Christian critique of violence had commenced in the Old Testament, and he performs several readings of biblical passages that he feels indicate a stance opposed to sacrifice. For this reason, he argues that the Old Testament prefigures the New. The Old Testament does not, however, complete its critique; it still ascribes human violence to the will of God. Therefore, Girard insists that "only the texts of the Gospels manage to achieve what the Old Testament leaves incomplete. These texts therefore serve as an extension of the Judaic Bible, bringing to completion an enterprise that the Judaic Bible did not take far enough, as Christian tradition has always maintained."(50) Furthermore, Girard agrees with Paul (especially in Romans) that the Jewish Law has been abrogated by the coming of Christ since, as Girard phrases it, "It is no longer possible to separate the enemy brothers by a controlled violence that would put an end to their violence. . . . No longer is any distinction possible between legitimate and illegitimate violence."(51)
Such theories obviously depart very little from the trappings of traditional Christianity. Even the virgin birth is preserved as an indication of how separate Jesus is from any form of violence whatsoever. Indeed, in accounting for Christ's complete separation from violence, Girard looks to the description of the Logos in the opening of the fourth Gospel, and arrives at a similar concept, a Christian version of Lyotard's "jewish" Forgotten, or Kristeva's pagan abject. He cites John 1:5, "He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not" and goes on to argue that: "The Johanine Logos is foreign to any kind of violence; it is therefore forever expelled, an absent Logos that never has had any direct determining influence over human cultures . . . the misrecognition of the Logos and mankind's expulsion of it disclose one of the fundamental principles of human society."(52)
Of course this is to ignore the violence wreaked by historical Christianity, as well as its evidently sacrificial theology. Girard argues that historical Christianity is a misreading of the Gospel message, a relapse into the old sacrificial paradigm in which communal unity is temporarily created by venting the community's discord upon a scapegoat. In Christian history, this sacrificial scapegoat has, disastrously, been "the role the Jews fulfill." Historical Christianity - which Girard calls "sacrificial Christianity" - has misinterpreted the Gospels; it has made them yet another version of the "sacrificial cultural foundation" that we see in all societies.(53) And this has been the source of Christian anti-Semitism, which Girard deplores in no uncertain terms.
However, this means that the problem with Christianity up till now is that it has been too "Jewish" - too attached to the Old Law of sacrifice - and not yet truly "Christian."(54) In Girard's view, anti-Semitism arises because the "Christian sons have repeated, even aggravated, all the errors of their Judaic fathers," those stubborn Pharisees who refused the message of Jesus.(55) The origin of the Jews' role as scapegoat is due precisely to the sacrificial mechanisms that Girard wishes to uncover and so end. Yet this tells us that we are still within the domain of traditional Christianity's stance towards the Jews, which sees the Pharisees as rejectors of salvation. To be fair, Girard does insist that the New Testament's vilifications of the Jews use them "as an intermediary for something very much larger," describing "a universal phenomenon whose consequences are going to fall not only upon the Pharisees."(56) However, in this, Girard still echoes a conventional Augustinian theology: the Jews continue to signify the wretchedness that accompanies humanity's rejection of Christian salvation. Jew-hatred is the predictable sacrificial misinterpretation of the true Christian message, and it will disappear from the earth only when Girardian Christianity is accepted by all. (Just as anti-Semitism in the traditional account will end only at the end of days when all accept Christ as their savior.) Until then, Girard's theories will be, as in a passage he cites, like unto "The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness" (Isaiah 40:3).
Ultimately, the discourse that Theory creates silences the Jewish subject, which is replaced by various Western-Christian constructions. The Jew with whom these theorists wish to converse is therefore revealed as a lack, an invisibility. One might speculate that this phenomenon is the result of post-Holocaust European intellectuals attempting to fashion a dialogue with a people who are no longer there.(57) Certainly, the outcome of this one-sided conversation seems to be a debilitating sort of scholasticism. The reduction of events and ideas is at times useful, but not when it leads, for example, to Kristeva's regurgitation of a Hegelian narrative of the unfolding of the absolute abject. Unfortunately, because of their unfamiliarity with Judaism and Jewish history, these theorists do not draw upon a complex and detailed, historical scholarship. Instead, we witness the casual recycling of stereotypes, negative or sentimental, which are not subject to critique or historical context. This refers as much to Girard's atavistic medievalism as it does to Lyotard's nineteenth century ethical monotheism.
Yet in each of these thinkers' explanations of culture, the Jews occupy a central position. Whether they are the best representatives of noncommunity or the perpetual victims of abjecting or sacrificial violence, the Jews are deeply enmeshed in the intellectual economies of postmodernism. The current debates, nourished by Theory, concerning politics and barbarism, culture and otherness, will continue to focus - as do these theorists - on the Jews and their enemies, and perhaps most frequently on the Holocaust. But it must be the task of a mature, knowledgeable scholarship to expose the problems in Theory's Jewish studies, salvage what is of value, and so turn a curious chapter of intellectual history into something more closely resembling critical analysis.
1. See, for instance, The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader, ed. Richard Wolin (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1993). Another controversy concerning Theory and fascism surrounded the figure of Paul de Man, who played a leading role in the introduction of French deconstruction into the United States, and who was discovered to have written anti-Semitic articles for a pro-Nazi journal during the war.
2. "What is Enlightenment?" in The Foucault Reader, trans. Catherine Porter, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), p. 33.
3. Lyotard writes: "'the jews' and the Christians make two, like Kafka and Claudel, like Benjamin and Bataille, like Celan and Char make two respectively. As much witnesses to the unnamable as the second mentioned might be, flesh and earth are saved in their work. But they [the first] are slaughtered in the penal colony, with the Angel of History, and in the Name of no one." Heidegger and "the jews," trans. Andreas Michel and Mark Roberts (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), p. 39. In this passage, only the real Jews - Benjamin, Celan, and Kafka - are "jews."
4. Ibid., p. 3.
5. Alan Milchman and Alan Rosenberg, "The Unlearned Lessons of the Holocaust," Modern Judaism 13 (1993): 179.
6. Ibid., p. 186.
7. Lyotard, p. 3.
8. Kristeva also posits a type of "Forgotten," a type of repressed Other, which is her category of the "abject." But Kristeva's Other is a pagan-maternal element which defies Law, while Lyotard's Other is the foundation for ethical Law modeled on quasi-Jewish sources. Girard also has his equivalent for the Forgotten, which he identifies with the Christian Logos.
9. To explain his concept of the unrepresentable, Lyotard turns to Freud's paradoxical hypothesis of the "unconscious affect," a shock "of which the shocked is unaware, and which the apparatus (the mind) cannot register in accordance with and in its internal physics." Lyotard next refers to Kantian aesthetics; as in the case of Freud's "unconscious affect," Kant's sublime describes a state in which "the imagination is also unable to collect the absolute (in largeness, in intensity) in order to represent it." Lyotard, pp. 11, 12, 32.
10. Ibid., p. 22.
11. Lyotard and Kristeva both see a contiguity between paganism and Christianity. Girard is of course staunchly opposed to such an outlook, arguing that Christianity emerges from, and fulfills, Judaism.
12. Lyotard, p. 80.
13. Ibid., p. 22.
14. Ibid., p. 81.
15. Ibid, p. 81.
16. Ibid., p. 5.
17. Ibid., pp. 93-4.
18. Ibid., pp. 92-3
19. Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin, "Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity," Critical Inquiry 19 (Summer 1993): 719.
20. Ibid., p. 712.
21. Ibid., p. 711.
22. Ibid., p. 712.
23. Uriel Tal summarizes Freud's psychological diagnosis of anti-Semitism as follows: "anti-Semitism functions, among other applications, as a catharsis. It gives release to a repressed paganism, a pre-Christian heritage of the Gentile, which remained latent, mostly subconsciously, in Christianity. By negating, hating, ridiculing, fighting, and then also persecuting the Jew, the Christian revenged himself on those he held to blame for his alienation from his Gentile past, his original roots in nature." Tal, "Religious and Anti-Religious Roots of Modern Anti-Semitism," Leo Baeck Memorial Lecture 20 (New York: Leo Baeck Institute, 1977), p. 17. Tal's scholarly overview of the idea of paganism in modern anti-Semitism is very illuminating when applied to Kristeva.
24. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 17.
25. Ibid., p. 26.
26. Ibid., p. 13; all emphases are Kristeva's.
27. Ibid., p. 56.
28. Ibid., p. 94.
29. Ibid., p. 106.
30. Sacrifice is a key concern of French postmodern thought, which traces its intellectual lineage back to anthropologists and theoreticians of sacrifice such as Emile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, and Bataille. Note that each of the thinkers I discuss is concerned with the relationship of sacrifice to the Jews.
31. Kristeva, op. cit., p. 111.
32. Ibid., p. 112. Kristeva follows Mary Douglas's anthropological approach to Jewish sacrifice. Nevertheless, one could point out that biblical Judaism is a sacrificial religion. Furthermore, despite the romantic conception of sacrifice held by Kristeva and Bataille, pagan sacrifice also observed rules and prohibitions. If Judaism departs from sacrifice, this departure is probably more evident in the development of prayer and study as religious acts.
34. Ibid., p. 16.
35. Ibid. pp. 113-16.
36. Ibid. p. 15.
37. Ibid. pp. 178-79.
38. Ibid. p. 180.
39. Ibid. p. 186.
40. Ibid. p. 208.
41. Ibid. p. 210.
42. Ibid. p. 4.
43. Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).
44. Rene Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987); The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).
45. Girard, Things Hidden, p. 200.
46. Ibid., p. 197.
47. Ibid., p. 206.
48. Ibid., p. 219.
49. Ibid., pp. 184, 216.
50. Ibid., p. 158.
51. Girard, The Scapegoat, p. 129.
52. Girard, Things Hidden, p. 271.
53. Ibid., pp. 224-5.
54. Girard is particularly interested in downplaying the New Testament texts which clearly apprehend the Crucifixion as a sacrifice, especially the Epistle to the Hebrews. And the problem with Hebrews, according to Girard, is that its author "interprets Christ's death on the basis of the sacrifices under the Old Law." Things Hidden, p. 227.
55. Ibid., p. 224.
56. Ibid., pp. 158-59.
57. This idea came up in a discussion with Sidra Ezrahi on the presence of the "jew" as metaphor in postmodern thought.
MICHAEL WEINGRAD is a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of Washington. He recently returned from a Fulbright in Jerusalem and is working on a dissertation on Walter Benjamin and Georges Bataille.…