Orientalism and the Figure of the Jew

Orientalism and the Figure of the Jew

Orientalism and the Figure of the Jew

Orientalism and the Figure of the Jew


Orientalism and the Figure of the Jew proposes a new way of understanding modern Orientalism. Tracing a path of modern Orientalist thought in German across crucial writings from the late eighteenth to the mid twentieth centuries, Librett argues that Orientalism and anti-Judaism are inextricably entangled.

Librett suggests, further, that the Western assertion of "material " power, in terms of which Orientalism is often read, is overdetermined by a "spiritual" weakness: an anxiety about the absence of absolute foundations and values that coincides with Western modernity itself. The modern West, he shows, posits an Oriental origin as a fetish to fill the absent place of lacking foundations. This fetish is appropriated as Western through a quasi-secularized application of Christian typology. Further, the Western appropriation of the "good" Orient always leaves behind the remainder of the "bad," inassimilable Orient.

The book traces variations on this theme through historicist and idealist texts of the nineteenth century and then shows how high modernists like Buber, Kafka, Mann, and Freud place this historicist narrative in question. The book concludes with the outlines of a cultural historiography that would distance itself from the metaphysics of historicism, confronting instead its underlying anxieties.


The ground of modern German Orientalism is the absence of the ground. This somewhat gnomically provocative formulation of my approach to German Orientalism can be spelled out, still in an extreme condensation, as follows. Around the late eighteenth century, Western modernity finds itself, as if suddenly, without its own absolute foundations, or bereft of grounding, and this not only in the theological dimension but also in the realms of politics, gender, family form, and philosophy generally, to name only the most prominent areas. This lack of foundations—which implies also a loss of all guidance and measure—creates uncertainty, hence anxiety, and at the limit panic, in those who become aware of it. One fairly pervasive defensive response to this state of affairs among intellectuals—during the period and for many subsequent decades—both in Germany and in Europe as a whole, is the disavowal of the lacking ground. This is how and why the cognitive and affective uncertainty is often kept in check. And in turn one major modality of this disavowal, I argue, is precisely modern Orientalism (both in its discursive and in its more real, commercial, and colonialist dimensions). Such Orientalism, especially in its historicist articulations, places a fetishized Oriental origin in the place of the lacking absolute foundations, thereby holding nihilism apparently at bay. But the alien origin thus posited must be appropriated in order to become the West’s own. The fetish must become “mine.”

How does one make one’s own an origin one finds radically outside of oneself? In the case of modern Orientalism, the appropriation is accomplished—and this is a main theme of the book—through the application of medieval typology, or figura, to the East-West relation. Whereas the Jewish-Christian relation was traditionally conceived as that between the prefigural “dead letter” and its fulfillment in the “living spirit,” now the Oriental-Occidental relation in general is conceived along exactly these lines. This is one of the (generally ignored or underappreciated) points I emphasize throughout: One cannot adequately understand the Orientalist problematic—especially but not exclusively in the German tradition— . . .

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