Jews (in Theory): Representations of Judaism, Anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust in Postmodern French Thought

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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. …