A Polemical Confession.
This brings me to my preoccupation with (my fixation on? my tormented vexation in the face of?) my relationship with the professional Jewish studies complex--shades darker than mere ambivalence--and to the fact that I have been recently thinking about productive ways to analyze the relationships between a scholar and the institutional formations in which his/her interdisciplinary field invests itself. Physics has a powerful tool in theories of subatomic particles to help it account for the aggregation and association of dissimilar or even antipathetic entities, but humanism can also bring something to the analytical table: namely, theories of affect, that tricky place where emotion crosses with identity, fooling reason and critical intelligence into looking the other way.
Because this is a confession, I'm going to claim my prerogative to begin with a kind of affective primal scene for the thoughts I here put to paper. At a recent AJS conference (it was the one in Baltimore in 2014), I participated in a seminar on postwar Jewish American culture. In my paper I was trying to make a point (as I often do) about the dominance not so much of historical methodologies, but of a historical or historiographic predisposition, in Jewish studies. For all the disciplinary diversity celebrated by contemporary Jewish studies, for all the interdisciplinary zealotry of the AJS, professional Jewish studies scholarship is in so many instances reducible--at least by the end of the day, and often quite openly (if, perhaps, not exactly self-consciously)--to the history of Jewish populations. No one reading this needs me to tell them that this is a powerful institutional formation, and there's obviously a lot to be gained from it; my point (then as now) is that there's also something to be lost in such a confident precognitive organization, and that we need to remain critically vigilant about how easily such confident population-organized historicism can seduce intellectuals into equating information with knowledge and instrumentalist competence with thought. During our discussion, I was proposing that Jewish studies devote more explicit and sustained attention to its knowledge practices, and that it be more open to critical literary methodologies (not that those are the only alternatives to historicism); specifically, I was using a handful of films to make a case for how the postwar period for Jews in America has been represented.
In any case, while I was talking two prominent scholars in the audience, leading intellectuals situated respectively in the fields of Jewish American history and Jewish American anthropology, were shaking their heads self-assuredly to each other. The anthropologist asked me a question--I use the accepted jargon of these affairs--that confidently dismissed (maybe refused to accept?) the distinction I was trying to make between mode of representation and object of representation in the scholarly consideration of cultural texts (at the very least the question reduced
the former to an ancillary servant of the latter). I admit that I tend to get rather, shall we say, animated while arguing, and we all know that such animation is often capitalized as grounds for rejection or, shall we say, kiss-off, in scenes of professional interaction--but I sincerely don't think I was getting too animated. But hey, what do I know; it's just my scholarly identity and reputation at stake. Later, at the close of that day's seminar session, the anthropologist came up to me and--wait for it--gave me a hug; I forget the scholar's precise words, but the general thrust was something along the lines of "Don't worry, many young academics embarrass themselves in the beginning, and you probably need a hug after that; no hard feelings." Like all primal scenes, this one claims no necessary chronological primacy--I had certainly been humiliated before, I had already been thinking along this critical line for several years, and I had already published my first monograph and my second would be out in a matter of a few months following the conference. But it can claim a kind of a categorical or analytical primacy: it offers a beginning for reflection because it organizes how to think about, by performing, and ironically rendering explicit, the precise vector of my critical observation. The scene stages an analytical itinerary. Not only does the condescension demonstrate (arising from) the professional elevation of historicism over criticism, but it provides a beautiful display--in the way forensic photos of a deadly car crash are beautiful--of the ways in which institutionality rewards its own reproduction, of the ways in which common-sense recognition is affectively incentivized and buttressed, and concomitantly of the ways in which critical negation is precognitively suppressed. It's a primal scene because in it, thinking and affectivity cross, becoming inextricable. My project in this confession, however, is not to talk about this scene of professional antagonism, but in fact a different, later scene of professional antagonism. I start here to emphasize that in this field of ours--maybe more than other fields, with its specific dynamics of insiderism--the personal and the political almost always intersect in what we can easily call affectively intensive ways. I wonder if "affect" might not name precisely that space in which we might pry some kind of objectivized difference, and therefore the possibility of thinking, from the void between professional dismissal and novelty, between information and knowledge, between scholarship and criticism.
I worry that the field in which I spend a lot of my professional time is a kind of stray, or orphan. While at times I despair that it's doomed to stay that way, at other (less frequent) times I think its structural disadvantages give it a useful critical perspective (at least for the time being). And to tell the truth, I should probably admit that I've grown pretty comfortable with its outsider problem (and mine), certainly to the point of professionally identifying with it. But I digress. Since I started working on Jewish American literature (that is, as a field-object), which was shortly after I finished my PhD, I haven't been able to ignore how this subfield tends to get neglected by the two larger academic fields with which it overlaps and might otherwise have productive dependent relationships: American literary study and the interdisciplinary field of Jewish studies. Ever the careerist, several years ago I chose to instrumentalize these anxieties for professional advancement. As I suggested in my opening, I've been trying to address this problem by arguing that Jewish studies needs to think more deliberately and more critically about itself. Jewish studies, like other "studies" fields, includes under its banner an array of diverse disciplines, but unlike most "studies" fields, it tends not to devote all that much energy to thinking about how it includes them, and instead mostly takes itself for granted as a generalized historical project. My problem is that I haven't figured out how to land my critique successfully. I either make the point in the very prestige-starved academic milieu that I'm trying to diagnose--that is, Jewish American literary study--thus guaranteeing that, when it falls on any ears at all, it often isn't heard, or, as I assume is pretty clear in my opening anecdote, when I try to make this point in higher-prestige venues, I can be met with dismissive hostility. This led me to wonder if a more personalized narrative, one that foregrounds the affective constellation that is everywhere a part of my argument, can in fact do some of the same work, but without shooting itself in its own disciplinary foot, as it were--indeed, by proceeding in precisely the hegemonic terms that tend to suppress the critical question I hope to elaborate. So here we have it.
During a recent stay in New York City right after the 2018 MLA conference ended, I serendipitously found myself in a conversation with a scholar of Rabbinics and a scholar of Middle Eastern Jewish history. The topic was the relative status within Jewish studies of our respective disciplines. While the Middle East historian mostly looked on, the Rabbinicist and I had a long "conversation"--a word I set off in quotes because we were mostly talking around, or at best at, each other--that illustrates the odd niche in which professional Jewish studies scholarship operates today. Tenured in an English department, I was voicing my perennial complaint about how no one in the academy really takes Jewish American literature seriously--that the field is neglected both by Jewish studies, which does not hold it in the same esteem it accords other, more "obviously" Jewish literatures like those written in Yiddish and Hebrew and Arabic, and in any case doesn't really trust literary study as a discipline in its own regard in the first place, and by English departments, which on balance shy away from approaching it in terms of the higher-prestige ethnic literatures, like Latinx, Asian American, Native American, African American, and so forth. Adjuncting in religious studies and Jewish studies programs, the Rabbinicist was complaining that because there are so few tenure lines in her field, she can't get a secure job. It was only a few years since my run-in with the anthropologist at the AJS conference, and I was still smarting from being hit head-on by institutional condescension; we were making two different arguments, and I was insistent that this difference be recognized. I get how this looks, I assure you, but bear with me.
My point, despite being told once during the summer of 2000 that when one assumes one makes an "ass" out of "u" and "me," was grounded in my assumption that there are more scholars, academics, and intellectuals operating under the aegis of the Jewish studies complex who understand Rabbinics and related classes as part of the core identity of Jewish studies than there are operating under the aegis of Jewish studies and the English department combined who understand Jewish American literature classes that way. This is not to say that more Rabbinics classes are in fact staged, or that Jewish studies programs or English departments don't run Jewish American literature classes, but it is to say that Rabbinics has at once a kind of institutional home in the Jewish studies imaginary and an intellectual self-consciousness--and confidence--that Jewish American literary study lacks. "Scarcity" indeed names the institutional claim through which cost-benefit calculations "explain" both why there are few tenure-stream scholars whose primary field of research is Rabbinics teaching in religious studies, classics, Jewish studies, Near or Middle Eastern studies, or maybe even some history units and why there are few tenure-stream scholars whose primary field of research is Jewish American literature teaching in English, Jewish studies, and comparative literature units, but I'm talking discursive identity, not neoliberal exigency. While these two registers of thinking clearly determine--even overdetermine--each other to some significant extent, I don't think we are justified in collapsing these vocabularies for the valuation of curriculum entirely into each other. Indeed, given the current state of the humanities in US academia, probability tells us that the Rabbinicist is more likely than not to remain without a tenure-track job. But the difference is that there seems to be a kind of handwringing within Jewish studies establishments about the dearth of professional opportunities in Rabbinics to a degree that we don't see in response to the relative absence of professional opportunities in Jewish American literature. Argue with my methodology if you will, but we might take the respective number of AJS Review articles situated in the two fields as an index to which the AJS, at least, reproduces this anxiety. In the last five years, out of a total of seventy-five articles across eleven issues (and spanning two editorial regimes), twenty-nine articles were Rabbinics-related while fully zero were on Jewish American literature. Modest showings are made by both American Jewish history and comparative literature, but bubkis for literary study of literature in English. (1) In the last five years, close to 40 percent of all articles in the AJS's house scholarly organ--supposedly devoted to the professional Jewish studies complex's essential interdisciplinarity, or, in the words of the self-description it touts on its webpage, to "covering the field of Jewish Studies," from "biblical and rabbinic textual and historical studies to modern history, social sciences, the arts, and literature"--were in one field. I mean, maybe that's not a reaction to institutional anxiety, but the smart money would at least entertain the possibility that it is. The historical project that is contemporary Jewish studies worries about the gap in coverage of Rabbinic Judaism, but a shortage of Jewish American literature tenure lines occasions far less anxiety, I bet in part because it simply does not register as a gap in coverage. Insofar as the only kind of literary study Jewish studies really values is literary history, a deficit of Jewish American literary scholars is no problem so long as there are Jewish American historians around.
Don't get me wrong, I think there's certainly an argument to be made for claiming that the development of Rabbinic Judaism holds more significance in the context of that set (however imaginary) of all objects of knowledge that can be marked by a concept of Jewish identity than does that relatively limited literary tradition whose most publicized synecdoche remains Philip Roth's Newark teen jerking off into the liver that would a few hours later become the family supper. But there's also an argument to be made for claiming that for a North American university complex that has reorganized itself over the last forty or fifty years around the twinned neoliberal ideals of "relevance" and "excellence"--ideals structurally aligned with metrics of so-called consumer choice and self-realization--it's conspicuous that the representation of a member of a nuclear family living in the twentieth-century United States who masturbates and eats food purchased from the market--experiences most of us share--should be counted as holding less value than obscure bureaucratic codifications of desert-dwellers 1,500 years and 5,500 miles distant. And there's yet another argument to be made--this is the kind of argument I might actually like to make--for claiming that the non-historicist disciplinary methodologies of literary study are just as valuable as the methodologies of religious studies or the master historiographic predisposition of an academic project that understands itself as the archival elaboration and analysis of everything Jews have ever done qua Jews. But in its reifying elevation of aboutness, Jewish studies holds the field of Rabbinics in higher esteem than it does the field of Jewish American literature because in the currency of its ultimately population-based historical project, the Babylonian Talmud (for a lot of valid reasons, to be sure) tends to appear a lot more important to the development of Jews and Judaism than Portnoy's Complaint does. I'm certainly not claiming--as a certain willfully reductive reading that tries to ignore most of my argument here might lead one to imagine--that there's anything necessary or objective about the Jewish American literary canon that makes it a better standard bearer for the Jewish studies brand than is the textual canon of the Rabbinics field. The important issue here is neither the richness of any particular tradition nor some criterion of relevance, representational accuracy, or authenticity inevitably anchored in an ultimately essentialist and/or self-evident concept of Jewishness; rather, the axiomatic premise to be challenged is precisely the synecdochic or metonymic logic supporting the assumption that the "Jewish" object matter of our scholarly work offers some kind of access to the historical presence of the Jewish populations that we Jewish studies professionals are really interested in anyway, and that therefore what we're all really doing is engaging in an (albeit multivalent) archival project overseen by the master-signifier of history. This is why (am I diverging too far, embracing too willfully a line that's tangential to my main subject here? maybe not...) the absolute ascendency of historicism across what the French theorists conspicuously called the human sciences, perhaps especially in literature departments, represents such an unmitigated intellectual abdication, certainly for an interdisciplinary, identity-based field like Jewish studies. If literary study is good for anything, it's for its sensitivity to the fact that language is rarely ever simply used, but almost always also stages its own use, employing and rendering conspicuous technologies of normalization. Otherwise, we really should just get a historian to do it.
My argument that night was specifically about the status of our respective fields in the Jewish studies complex; it is her field, not mine, that holds higher prestige in Jewish studies. If this seems like an abstract difference that's maybe not all that urgent in the face of the more practical demands of a scholar's need to make a living, it is certainly not without significance to the future of Jewish studies. Jewish studies, in its various institutionally material manifestations, certainly doesn't owe anything to the individuals who practice in the field it constitutes (certainly not a sense of professional or personal fulfillment), but I think it's easier to argue that it does owe something to its own institutional identity. The simple fact of the matter is that I teach relatively few Jewish American literature classes; these days I regularly schedule only one undergraduate class in the field per year, and even that one is sometimes cancelled for low enrollment in my university of well over forty thousand (I in fact did not even schedule that one class this year), and I have taught a graduate seminar on the topic twice in the last ten years (with a combined enrollment of about as many students). When I was hired I was told by the head of the English Department (where my tenure resides) that, despite the publicized title of the job search we had both recently endured, the English Department considered me first and foremost a modernist, not a Jewish Americanist. To be fair, this isn't at all an illegitimate categorization given my dissertation and first book, certainly, and my enduring research interests, as well (though I'd have been, as I remain, more comfortable with twentieth-centuryist, or post-1900-ist, at least if those were words, than I am with modernist). Indeed, at the end of the day it's not entirely unreasonable to say that the job line I occupy is effectively not in Jewish American literature. I am certain I would not have been hired for this job had I not been able to demonstrate that I could also look and act like a standard Americanist. (And to pursue this thought a bit further, and also further afield of my theme here, I think graduate students in Jewish studies would do themselves a great favor by making sure they devote at least as much attention to building credentials in their home disciplines as they do in Jewish studies, and in areas outside an exclusive Jewish studies focus.) But I again digress; in fact it was her argument, not mine, that I want to emphasize here. In lamenting the academic and cultural state of affairs that explained the infrequency with which she teaches courses in her specialization, and indeed her lack of a tenure-line job, the Rabbinicist said something like "Wissenschaft is dead." One of the many misfortunes of the neoliberal university can certainly be described as a lack of will among college administrators in the face of a lack of desire among students for courses, such as on Rabbinic Judaism or Jewish American literature, whose relevance is perhaps decreasingly obvious, but it's remarkable that Jewish studies professionals are capable of interpreting this situation hermetically from within their field's own persuasive imaginary identification. And so I return again to the theme of the interpenetration and inextricability in Jewish studies of affective identification and disciplinary labor. But in highlighting this return I'm perhaps getting ahead of myself.
In claiming that Wissenschaft is dead, I'm assuming (2) that she meant that the classic scientific study of Judaism, including the secular scientific study of Rabbinics, is falling out of favor. But the classic Wissenschaft historians were just that--historians--and it is precisely here that her comment becomes so illuminating. Of course, Wissenschaft never really died (even if it maybe went into temporary hiding as a result of the Holocaust), and since the Vietnam-era neoliberal reconsolidation of the university around technologies of recognition its animating logic reproduces itself with new swagger in the form of the academic project generally pursued by the Association for Jewish Studies. As anyone reading this likely knows, the Wissenschaft des Judentums was built on the foundation of a rationalization of Jewish nationalism through institutionalization in the university, manifesting in the production of a field of scholarship; it was, essentially, an operation in laundering thought for the era of the nation-state. The modern critical study of Jews and Judaism, Wissenschaft was predicated on the fundamental unity of all Jewish culture, and its two-hundred-year-long history has been characterized, as Michael A. Meyer has put it, by equally fundamental questions about "the relation of scholarly Jews to their texts and traditions, their history and sociology," and its legacy continues to be marked by tensions between an insiderism and the kind of scientific aspirations toward objectivity (or truth, or at least demonstrability) we take for granted in all modern scholarly disciplines. (3) Whether the early Wissenschaftler focused their efforts inwardly to the Jewish community and argued that Wissenschaft should function to bring assimilating Jews back into Judaism's fold or turned outwardly to emphasize a comprehensive academic field unconcerned with its own normative role within the Jewish community, it is impossible to ignore the inherent symbiosis between Wissenschaft and Jews, especially the Jews who practiced it. As Meyer points out, even some of those who argued for the objectivity of the field spoke of "our Wissenschaft" and later scholars like Rosenzweig and Buber would argue that Wissenschaft neglected its function if it did not serve the Jewish community. (4) Gershom Scholem famously spoke of
the contradiction between the repeated declarations of being a pure and objective science, which is no more than a branch of studies in general and which has no purpose outside itself--and the striking fact of the political function which this discipline was intended to fulfill, sought to fulfill, and was accepted by public opinion in order to fulfill. How strange the image of those scholars, all of whose work indicates that they sought to create an effective tool in the struggle of the Jews for equal rights, and who made constant use of this tool in their polemics; and yet nevertheless closed their eyes so as not to see this primary goal too clearly, declaring repeatedly that they seek nothing but pure knowledge for its own sake. (5)
Even if, when it was founded in 1969, the primary goal of the Association for Jewish Studies was gaining institutional respect for scholarly work on Jewish history, culture, society, and literature, with the needs of the Jewish community decidedly secondary (if avowed at all), this tension is still very much alive in contemporary, largely at least in part insiderist, Jewish studies work and institutions. It is signaled in Meyer's vague term "Jewish scholarship," and indeed in Scholem's term "Jewish Studies," which we retain today in all its normalized forgetting. Scholem's opposition between "pure knowledge for its own sake" and the "political function" of scholarly knowledge is no longer a tenable binary, if indeed it ever was (which it obviously wasn't). The AJS-sponsored Jewish studies project at its most pure and basic, premised on the integrated unity of Jewish history and dedicated fundamentally to the reproduction of that unity, is the very quintessence of a political project. I point this out in a spirit not of defeatist resignation, but of activist participation; I like to think my interaction with the possibly resentful, but probably institutionally Hindered, Rabbinicist, no less than my interaction with the condescending anthropologist, demonstrates this with painful conspicuousness. I think it's almost always misguided to deduce from one's own professional career or treatment grand pronouncements about a field's objective state or intellectual foundations, but how can we not get worked up talking about the institutional ground of our very ability to speak relevantly? Affect may in fact be the only space in which to analyze properly this politicization.
What I find so useful about my friend's worry that "Wissenschaft is dead" is that it both reproduces and unmasks the ideological imagination of institutional reality. (6) On the one hand it exposes the unifying ideal of Jewish studies--the ideal unity of the cultural object matter of Jewish studies' knowledge practices, as well as the authority those practices borrow from that unity--as a performance, as the product of a desire. The ideal unity of Jewish studies is dead because no one cares about it anymore, the implication being that if more people cared about Jewish studies' ideal unity then Jewish studies professionals would be able to act on and reproduce it. But on the other hand, this lament exposes its own inability to escape this desire--precisely as a desire. As many will remember, in the opening pages of Epistemology of the Closet Eve Sedgwick shines some helpful light on the "epistemological privileging of unknowing" that underwrites male heteronormative supremacy: "Knowledge, after all, is not itself power, although it is the magnetic field of power. Ignorance and opacity collude or compete with knowledge in mobilizing the flows of energy, desire, goods, meanings, persons." (7) Just as, in her (mid-1980s) example, if Mitterrand knows English and Reagan lacks French, "it is the urbane M. Mitterrand who must negotiate in an acquired tongue, the ignorant Mr. Reagan who may dilate in his native one," so laws governing rape evince an "epistemological asymmetry" that "privileges at the same time men and their ignorance, inasmuch as it matters not at all what the raped woman perceives or wants just so long as the man raping her can claim not to have noticed." (8) Similarly, she argues, a June 1986 US Justice Department ruling held "that an employer may freely fire persons with AIDS exactly so long as the employer can claim to be ignorant of the medical fact, quoted in the ruling, that there is no known health danger in the workplace from the disease." (9) While my specific interest here lies not in comparing the current state of Jewish American literary study with male privilege, rape culture, or murderous homophobia, I do think Jewish studies needs to look really closely at how its institutional logic leverages powerful silences and strategic ignorance. More specifically, Jewish American literary study, precisely in its tenuous relationship with establishmentarian Jewish studies formations, needs to more actively confront the practices of its particular brand of the privileging of ignorance: of its own institutional and disciplinary history, of its relationships with other academic formations, of its investments in Jewish identity and Jewish community. But this confrontation--which is absolutely political--can also be a gift for Jewish studies establishments, if those intellectuals who are relatively comfortably situated within such establishments choose to make their relative institutional privilege (10) an object of or opportunity for criticism rather than an instrument of self-satisfaction. Anything that can de-normalize the inevitable reduction of the analysis of concepts of Jewish identity to the recognition of populations of Jews, and therefore the reduction of the theorization of practice to the instrumentalization of historiography, can be considered a win for Jewish studies-based criticism. Just as Jewish American literary study should no longer be allowed--nor indeed allow itself--to operate in isolation from the main critical currents of academic literary studies and Jewish studies, so Jewish studies itself needs to confront how it manufactures and organizes the coherence of its interdisciplinary labors, and it should not assume anything about the imaginary concept of Jewish culture on which it, and the intellectual and professional self-consciousness of the intellectuals operating under its authority, depend.
(1.) I'm counting everything (inclusive) from the fall 2013 issue through the fall 2018 issue, which is, as of the writing and revising of this essay, the most recent one. I should point out that I'm not dealing with book reviews here, but a similar, though not quite as stark, differential is apparent there, too. I should also point out that the fall 2018 issue included Lila Corwin Berman's article "Jewish History Beyond the Jewish People," which I count a tremendous step in the right, critical, direction.
(2.) I would have liked to print here that wide-eyed, flushed face emoji that connotes embarrassment or recognized shame, but I was told the journal could not typeset an emoji.
(3.) Meyer, "Two Persistent Tensions," 105.
(4.) Meyer, "Two Persistent Tensions," 110-13.
(5.) Scholem, "Reflections on Modern Jewish Studies," 54.
(6.) Which is of course precisely what the anthropologist's hug did, as well.
(7.) Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 5, 4.
(8.) Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 4, 5.
(9.) Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 5; emphasis in the original. I think it's worth noting that with the advent of the #metoo movement, the wall of this privilege may finally be cracking.
(10.) Disclaimer: I'm aware this is a loaded term; I use it here in a restricted sense, to indicate the limited kind of privilege within professional Jewish studies establishments, most notably the AJS, enjoyed more by, say, historians than by scholars of literatures written in English.
Meyer, Michael A. "Two Persistent Tensions within Wissenschaft Des Judentums." Modern Judaism 24, no. 2 (May 2004): 105-19.
Scholem, Gershom. "Reflections on Modern Jewish Studies." In On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time and Other Essays, ed. Avraham Shapira, trans. Jonathan Chipman, 51-71. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1997.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
Benjamin Schreier is the Mitrani Family Professor of Jewish Studies and professor of English and Jewish studies at Penn State University, where he also directs the Jewish Studies Program. He is the author of The Impossible Jew: Identity and the Reconstruction of Jewish American Literary History (New York University Press, 2015) and The Power of Negative Thinking: Cynicism and the History of Modern American Literature (University of Virginia Press, 2009), and coeditor (with Jonathan Eburne) of The Year's Work in Nerds, Wonks, and Neocons (Indiana University Press, 2017). He has served as editor of the journal Studies in American Jewish Literature since 2012.
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|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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