Academic journal article Shofar

Filming Identity in the Jewish American Postwar; or, on the Uses and Abuses of Periodization for Jewish Studies

Academic journal article Shofar

Filming Identity in the Jewish American Postwar; or, on the Uses and Abuses of Periodization for Jewish Studies

Article excerpt

introdUction

Back in the 1980s, when Cultural Studies was professionally consolidating itself in response to Thatcherite and Reaganite neoliberalism, the key cultural-critical question was often something like: Why are questions about culture always articulated as questions about identity? Now, a decade and a half into the twentyfirst century, the important critical question for the humanities might instead be reversed: Why are questions about identity so often articulated as questions about culture? More specifically, why are they so often asked as questions about culture as the normalized predicate of a population? More pointedly, why are we-Jewish Studies scholars, for starters-incapable of imagining identity other than as a historicist concept?

In the interest of analyzing not only how a label like "Jewish" circulates as a compelling way of describing a group or a set of phenomena or practices, but also how this circulation legitimizes, inscribes, and invests the kind of pro- fessional academic public that we constitute in our scholarly work-I analyze the functionality of Jewish identity in five American films that provide a kind of frame for thinking about postwar American Jewish identity: The Jazz Singer (1927), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), The Pawnbroker (1964), Liberty Heights (1999), and Inglorious Basterds (2009).1 I'm interested in the period from the end of World War II through the Six Day War because of its centrality in a super-legible triumphalist narrative of Jewish history, in which linked Jewish successes in the US and Israel serve a multivalent exceptionalist self-regard. The postwar period in this narrative marks the moment in which Jews enter the mainstream-when American Jews lead the way in breaking out of the immigrant ghetto into cosmopolitan society and culture, and when Israeli Jews lead the way in finally shaking off Jews' weak stateless pariah status by joining the family of nations. What the world needs now is neither another reiteration of this mainstreaming narrative nor a retread cultural history of the shift from pluralism to liberalism to multiculturalism. Rather, it can benefit from a critical analysis of how these periodizing narratives function in the formation of an assemblage of intellectual tools for stabilizing the legibility not simply of a Jewish object of thought but more significantly of a Jewish scholarly project, an assemblage indicated by, among other events, the establishment at the close of this period of the Association for Jewish Studies in 1969. I'm interested in analyzing these films as a way to critically frame our practices of knowing.

"Jewish identity" is primarily a concept, a framework for understanding, a mode of thinking, a machine-not an empirical historical reality. Accordingly, I do not presume that these films function as historical representations or bellwethers or as an index of a positivistic historical reality, and I have no interest in arguing that this selective filmic inventory charts a change in actually existing Jews, in how some continuously recognizable population called or calling themselves Jews imagined themselves, or in how some abstraction we call "America" imagined a changing population which, despite these changes, no one then or now has had any trouble calling Jews. I'll leave such a task to the historians.2 Instead, I want to analyze how our professional understanding of Jewish identity-as Jewish Studies scholars-invests a historical field to elaborate and legitimize a space of scholarly inquiry. I want to critically investigate how these films function as leverage points in a narrative of Jewish American history whose foundational historicist expectation of knowledge about population is currently hegemonic in Jewish Studies discourse. It's not simply that these films illuminate a significant period in Jewish American history, allow- ing us to talk about a historical subject we already take for granted; it's that they demonstrate how our ability to talk about Jewish identity is itself historical, allowing a critical Jewish Studies to interrogate how this period-then and since-defines a transformation in how we know that subject. …

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