Monthly Archives: August 2010


Below is the paper I read today at the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism’s conference on Modernity.” It was a rather interesting conference, which I will perhaps feel moved to comment on at some point. For, now, though, I’d like to state the central conclusion I arrived at from the proceedings. There are now two terms in play, each seeking to name the source of global violence and possible breakdown: “anti-semitism” and “Islamophobia.” For reasons I will perhaps expand upon, I am convinced that these two concepts cannot co-exist–one will disappear or be significantly marginalized, and one will at least have the chance to organize a new mode of politics. I hope that “anti-semitism” is the survivor, since it names something real and the concept might help us advance the cause of civilization. But I wouldn’t bet on its chances. At any rate, I would suggest that the fate of the opposed terms will serve a a clear index of where things are headed in the years ahead.

Anyway, here’s the paper:

Anti-Semitism and the Victimary Era

Adam Katz
Quinnipiac University

In this paper I will offer an account of contemporary anti-semitism in terms of Eric Gans’s “originary hypothesis” regarding the origin of language and culture. The originary hypothesis extends and revises Rene Girard’s analysis of mimetic rivalry: according to the originary hypothesis, the first sign emerged in a single event, a mimetic crisis in which the (proto) human group arrested their common and self-destructive convergence upon a common object by putting forward what Gans calls an “aborted gesture of appropriation.” Representation, then, is the deferral of violence, as is, therefore, all of culture. History is the ongoing process of preserving and, where necessary and possible, replacing such means of deferral (languages, rituals, beliefs, moralities, art, and so on) which are intrinsically fragile and under constant threat from mimetic desire, rivalry and violence.

In a series of books, beginning with The Origin of Language in 1980, through The End of History, Science and Faith, and Signs of Paradox, to mention a few, and his on-line column, Chronicles of Love and Resentment on his Anthropoetics website, Gans’s “new way of thinking” has developed an account of history according to which the market system, and now the world market system, best realizes the reciprocity achieved on the originary scene. History is the liberation of humanity from attachment and “enslavement” to the singular object on the originary scene towards the universal exchange of objects within the market system. It is in the context of the market system that Gans first situates anti-semitism:

The Jew is not in some undefined sense a scapegoat for the larger society’s frustrations. He serves as a model of the inexistent and unfigurable center of the market system… the Jew, having rejected the incarnation, incarnates the truly unincarnable—mediation… In the postritual world of market exchange, the Jew is a paradoxical construction who regulates the self-regulating market, who fixes the prices determined by the interaction of supply and demand; we must eliminate him to gain control over this “inhuman” mechanism. (Chronicle 74, 1997)

Gans’s allusion to the Jews’ rejection of the incarnation already suggests that the suitability of the Jews for such a “model” of the unfigurable center of the market has roots that precede modernity. Anti-semitism, for Gans, is ultimately predicated upon the paradox of the Jewish discovery of monotheism: the Judaic revelation presented knowledge of a single God beyond the means of control of totemic religions and a single humanity whose knowledge of God is most profoundly revealed in the reciprocal relations between humans; at the same time, this very revelation is granted to a single people, “chosen” to work out before the world the implications of this understanding of the divine. The spread of monotheism, already inscribed in its universalistic origin, could hardly take place other than through resentment towards those who both gave this God to humanity and “selfishly” claimed an exclusive relation to Him.

What Gans calls Jewish “narrative monotheism” lays the groundwork for the eventual emergence of the modern market not only by de-fetishizing local totems but by separating faith in God and the obligation to follow the law from the national power and success of the Jewish people. If the defeats and even destruction of the nation are given meaning by demands and promises that transcend those temporal events, then moral meaning can be found in the contingencies of history, rather than the maintenance of a closed ritual space. But this contribution of Judaism to modernity collides with the more specifically Christian contribution or, rather, the revision of Christianity constitutive of modernity. According to Gans, “[w]here Jews had understood that the real center was inhabited by the Being of the sign, the Christians realized that this Being was generated, and could be generated anew, by an act interpretable as a victimization.” In other words, while Jewish victimization was already a sign of Jewish chosenness, this was a burden borne by Jews alone; for Christianity, the persecution of Jesus is imitable and identification with it the source of salvation. But this also meant that Christianity provides the model for anti-semitism: “[t]he anti-semite compels the Jew to enter the infernal circle of rivalry and persecution in order to reenact his own Christian conversion: he is the new Paul, and the Jew is the Saul he used to be.” (Chronicle #207)

The consequence of this privileging of victimization and identification with it as a moral model is clarified by Gans’s account of the role of Romanticism in the development of the modern market. Gans speaks of the “constitutive hypocrisy of Romanticism,” wherein the Romantic individual performs his rejection of the market system and proclaims his persecution by all those situated within that system only in order, ultimately, to create a compelling self capable of circulating effectively within the market. In abiding tension with this individualistic gesture is the formation of nationalism along analogous lines, through the martyrdom of the nation and its heroes at the hands of its oppressors; oppressors that are, of course, simultaneously mimetic models. So, Gans argues,

anti-Semitism intensifies in the bourgeois era because it is at this point in history that persecution, which grants significance, comes to be preferable to indifference… At this point the Jews indifference to Jesus is no longer a veil covering his guilt for the Crucifixion; it is itself the ultimate persecution. To opt out of the theater of national life is ipso facto to operate in the hidden realm of conspiracy. The Jew is the ultimate dandy whose detachment from society—in principle, regardless of fact—is the sign of his omnipotence. The anthropological meaning of anti-Semitism may be expressed in terms of the market, but only insofar as the lesson of the modern market is itself understood as a transhistorical revelation concerning human exchange. The Jew is designated the “subject” of the market because, faithful to the empty center revealed by the burning bush, he remains in principle indifferent to the object—whether of persecution or adoration—that he finds there. (Chronicle #207)

The fury of the Nazi’s assault against the Jews gathered together all these threads of the anti-market revolt within a desperate attempt to displace the primacy of the Jews and “falsify” their narrative: “[e]nraged at the Jews’ monotheistic equanimity in defeat and disaster, the Nazis hoped to inflict on them a catastrophe so great that it could not be understood as a message of God to His people.”

The ultimately omnicidal potential for human violence revealed by the Holocaust introduces something new into this equation. The Holocaust marks the beginning of the victimary era, in which we are now living. The virulent hatred of the Nazis towards the Jews drew the world into a cataclysmic struggle, the like of which we will not survive again in the nuclear age. The eschewing of such hatred must be the center of the new system of deferral constructed after the war: whatever “looks like” the Nazi-Jew relation must be uncompromisingly proscribed. This, of course, creates an incentive to make one’s own grievance fit that model: post-colonial, anti-racist, feminist, environmentalist and so on struggles are all cast in terms of the perpetrator/victim/bystander configuration extracted from the Holocaust.

The Jews are once again placed in a paradoxical position. First of all, the response on the part of the Jews to the consequences of their utter defenselessness in the Holocaust is to create and, with growing unanimity, support a Jewish nation-state. But the nation-state, with its ethnic exclusivity, preparedness for belligerency and narrow self-interest, is one of those things that “looks” very much “like” Nazism. Second, the victimary principle can only be universalized if the Jewish monopoly on Holocaust guilt is broken—the best way to do so is to present the Jews as oppressors, at least just like the rest of us, at worst uniquely so, insofar they have exploited the world’s guilt so as to perpetuate the very conditions that enabled their own victimization, only this time at the expense of others. Finally, then, the emergence of a new victim, the Palestinians, the victim of the Jews, completes the victimary metaphysics first set in motion by the essentially theological response to the Holocaust. The victimary system, then, depends upon this new, expanded anti-semitism, in which the Jews are scapegoated for the crimes of the West as well as for the intensifying resentments toward the West, coming now, in particular, from the most bitter if not the oldest of those resentments: that of Islam.

It was the Israeli victory in the 1967 war that made it possible to maneuver the Jews, ideologically, out of the victimized and into the victimizer position. But this maneuvering might have gone no further than the kind standard anti-colonial critique applied to the US in Vietnam or the European powers without the increasing abandonment of nationality on the part of Western Europeans and the rise of radical Islam. In this context, as Gans says, we are, first of all,

struck by the similarity between medieval and modern Christian antisemitism. In both cases, the Jew is accused of remaining behind in the “old” Israel rather than entering the New Israel of Christianity. It is by this suspicious archaism that he betrays his immoral preference for honoring the historical memory of his monotheistic discovery over its inherent promise of universality. Whether well-poisoner or Protocol-worshiper, the Jew is accused of refusing to “love his [non-Jewish] neighbor” as himself. (Chronicle #301)

Earlier, I suggested that we could attribute to the modern market a “Jewish” and a “Christian” component: the former being the location of meaning in one’s “patient” action within history and the latter in the processes of individual singularization of the player on the market. It would, in that case, be the “Jewish” component that insists upon the regularization of exchange by the rule of law within what would inevitably a national framework—which is to say the same paradox of universality and exclusivity long associated with the Jewish place in the world. Only the U.S. has fully embraced this paradox and the burdens it implies, which accounts for not only the alliance between the US and Israel, but that of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. In that case, the contemporary European attempt to transcend nationality is not so much a rejection of the modern market in the manner of Nazi and Communist totalitarianism as it is a rejection of one of the critical elements of the market, the nation-state under the rule of law, and an evasion of the paradoxes and resentments involved in the articulation of nationality and the world market.

With the most politically influential currents of contemporary Islam, meanwhile, we do most emphatically see a rejection of the market. Gans sees Islam, in its origins and today, as the monotheism of an “excluded majority,” forged out of resentment against the first monotheism and the prevailing, dominant one: “the Hebrews discovered monotheism as the source of communal harmony independent of political power; the Muslims discovered it as a means for mobilizing the margins of the decaying imperial provinces to overpower them” (Chronicle 301, “Anti-Semitism from a Judeocentric Perspective I”). Hence the Islamic notion of the “uncreated Koran,” a direct rebuke to the potential for interpretation and supersessionism (“distortion”) built into the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Today, though, this resentment places Muslims at the margins of the global market, which they cannot avoid, and, indeed, through the oil producing states participate in substantially, but in such a way as to minimize the transformations in the division of labor that would reflect genuine cultural and ethical integration. The identification of Jews with the Subject controlling the uncontrollable marketplace inherited from modern Western anti-Semitism is in a sense radicalized in the Muslim world, which can create a political identity against the market itself from the outside. In the course of an analysis of a 2004 speech by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Gans contrasts modern European anti-Semitism, which sees itself as occupying the same world as the Jews, with

Mahathir’s world [where], on the contrary, the Jews occupy a different world from us, and their hidden domination of that world is that the root of that world’s open domination of Islam. By setting up the Jews as the all-powerful enemy, he is encouraging Muslims to forget their military and economic inferiority to the West and focus on the infinitesimal number of their “real” masters. The only thing our billions need in order to vanquish these few million Jews is a collective will to power. (Chronicle #302)

Gans focuses more on the global Muslim “umma” in these reflections I am working with, than Muslims living within the Western countries, but following the line of his argument one could suggest that the convergence of this mutated form of Islamic anti-semitism and the revival of anti-Semitism in the West along with the consolidation of White Guilt is creating a particularly intractable new strain. As Gans says, the anti-Israel contingent in the West doesn’t distribute copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion but they respect the right of Muslims to do so. We might say that the Western Left plays the role of defense attorney to Islamic terrorism: it doesn’t approve, but it is determined to see that the accused receive due process. “International law,” as the latest supersessionist project of the West thereby becomes a vehicle for this new brand of anti-semitism: as reflected in the Goldstone Report in particular, postcolonial, postmodern international law can readily be interpreted in such a way as to render any conceivable form of Israeli self-defense illegitimate; how else can we translate this project than in terms of a simple imperative: die!

The conclusion, I think, is that we cannot effectively address this emergent anti-semitism without addressing the pathologies surrounding the global market. On the one hand, the form taken on the marketplace by what Gans calls Jewish “firstness” is that of the centrality of the entrepreneur, who organizes capital, introduces a new division of labor and creates new desires. Despite claims of consumer supremacy, one source of the mysteriousness of the market’s workings is precisely that new products enter the market before anyone has been asking for, or has even thought of them—tales of consumer manipulation take on their plausibility from this fact. Similarly, the solicitation of investment capital, from the outside, inevitably looks conspiratorial, especially when heavily regulated markets require political maneuvering before new projects can get off the ground. We can see exploitative and deceptive entrepreneurial practices as exceptions to the rule in a fundamentally beneficial market process; or we can see the honest worker and consumer as, a priori, the victims of malevolent and unaccountable market players: which perspective we adopt will determine the way we think about regulating economic institutions, and only a fundamentally benevolent view will make it possible to accept the basic asymmetry between producers and consumers, capital and labor, and resist the search for scapegoats for our disappointments in the market.

Second, though, as I suggested earlier, Jewish firstness is represented by a willingness to endure historical contingency, adhere to the moral law (even if no one else does), and ask for no recognition or “proof” of election. I should make it clear that even if this possible relation between law, morality and history was invented by the Jews, it can, of course, be adopted by anyone (as, for example, in “American Exceptionalism”). At any rate, this form of firstness takes the form of an embrace of normalcy—not at the expense of eccentricity, innovativeness or otherness in general, but certainly as a rejection of the a priori victimary stance which artificially inflates the value of alterity. The location of cultural exemplars among the upholders of everyday middle class values and common sense patriotism, and the social prioritization of such values might prove even more difficult than rehabilitating the figure of the entrepreneur. Without such a cultural turn in which we come to see entrepreneurialism and normalcy as the modes of deferral they are rather than as exploitation and indifference to the other, though, anti-semitism will continue to attract and direct the resentments generated by the world market.