Monday, June 12, 2006

The Spectral Jew

Here, at long last, is the draft of my review of The Spectral Jew, to be published some day in a non-medieval venue, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts . As you will see, I am a Big Fan of this book.

The Spectral Jew: Conversion and Embodiment in Medieval Europe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. 320 pp. Paper. ISBN 0-8166-4062-9. $26.00.

First, a warning. Readers of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts may expect of this book what friends and strangers who saw it tucked beneath my arm over the past month anticipated upon glancing at its provocative title. The Spectral Jew is not, in fact, about Jews who have died and yet linger in this terrestrial realm as ghosts. The volume contains no undead beings, no revenants or ectoplasm or postmortem unfinished business. The Jews in Steven Kruger's book are spectral in the specialized sense developed by Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx: ambivalent and temporally convoluted figures who intertwine past and present, reality and fantasy. A specter in Derrida's elaboration is an entity that, at the moment it is conjured away, paradoxically must be conjured into being. The performance of those obsequies that are supposed to lay the specter quietly to rest only acknowledge that the spirit is restless, more quick than dead. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock has recently employed the same Derridean concept to excellent effect in his edited collection Spectral America: Phantoms and the National Imagination (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004). Weinstock observes that "as something from the past that emerges into the present, the phantom calls into question the linearity of history" (4). It seems fitting, then, that a book about spectrality written by a medievalist for medievalists should nonetheless be reviewed in JFA.

Whereas the essays in Spectral America examine hauntings of a directly supernatural kind, though, The Spectral Jew concentrates on a historical minority who lived among an often hostile majority, a group whose spectral effects upon Christianity are to be traced in discursive realms like theology, philosophy, and history writing. How this "spectral logic" works is most lucidly expounded in Kruger's nuanced discussion of Jews who converted to Christianity and the texts that record their change in identity. "The prior, Jewish self must be conjured up," he writes, "so that self may be made to disappear" (111). This invocation would seem to enact a simple and permanent supersession (from Jew to Christian, just as the Old Law supposedly yields to the New Law, and the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament). Yet because the preconversion Jew is invoked in order to tell the story of the emergent Christian, a perturbing simultaneity takes the place of this linear movement: "even at the moment of its disappearance, the specter is, if liminally, present – as that whose disappearance is necessary for the emergence of the new, Christian self" (111). The identity of the convert is thereby haunted by his former self.

Thus a clean break or a complete transformation might be declared, but such a neat parceling of past and present seldom in fact proves the case. For example, when the Spanish convert Peter Alfonsi composes a narrative about his becoming Christian (the Dialogi contra Iudaeos, written early in the twelfth century), he creates a text in which his Christian self debates his pre-baptism self, a Jew named Moses. Peter and Moses are angry with each other, Moses feeling that he has been betrayed and Peter arguing that his prior Jewishness has been wholly left behind. Even if the text ends with a repudiation of Moses, it also terminates without a reconciliation between these two opponents who are one person, leaving them together in a ceaseless contemporeneity: "A residue of Jewish identity is thus ineffably inscribed within Peter's celebration of his own embracing of Christianity" (123).

Notably, Kruger describes this residue as queer. The term is appropriate considering the volume's detailed discussion of how from the Christian point of view Jewish otherness intertwines differences in gender, race, social identity (as merchants and bankers) and sexuality as well as religion. Indeed, given the book's central trope of spectrality, it is intriguing that so much of the analysis foregrounds the bodies of the Jews, for it was upon Jewish flesh that their alterity was made to rest. Thus Kruger cites medieval authorities on the bad smell of Jews; their monthly bleeding; the feminization circumcision supposedly works; the special allure of Jewish women. These physical deviations were connected to the spiritual defects of blind literalism and obdurateness. Indeed, considering that Kruger maps this Christian obsession with Jewishness bodily debility so well, it is unfortunate that he does not make some use of a recent critical ally to queer theory, disability studies, a field that might have expanded the book's critical vocabulary.

A problem for the historian with the kinds of Jewish-Christian interchange narrated by Peter Alfonsi is that they ultimately rely upon the silencing of the Jewish interlocutor. In what was to my mind the most moving section of the book – moving because it makes explicit what the stakes of spectralization are, the loss of voice and perhaps the loss of life by living, breathing persons – Kruger is able to discern even in silence the possibility of Jewish endurance. Kruger is examining the records of debates that were staged between Christian councils and Jewish leaders forced to answer to them. The rules for these public performances and the texts that record them are clear from the start: such "disputations" must generically unfold as Christian triumphs over Jewish deficiency. What do you do when you are a rabbi forced to enter such a performance as the speaker for all Jews, your role as loser handed to you in advance? What can you say against an authority that has already judged you as wrong? Is it any surprise that the textual record will record repeatedly that "The Rabbi publicly confessed that he knew nothing more with which to respond"? Such moments when Jewish words fail to appear could be read as an acknowledgement of Christian victory, with "the rabbis as participating in their own erasure." Yet such episodes of
Jewish self-censorship and silence might also be read as resistance -- a refusal, increasing as the debate proceeds, to participate in a process over which the rabbis have no control. That is, silence may be one strategy for staying Jewish -- for the rabbis' maintaining an integrity as Jews -- in a situation where doing so by presenting honestly the varying and sometimes discordant traditions of Jewish interpretation or by strongly proclaiming one's beliefs seems increasingly impossible. (200)

A strength of the book is Kruger's power to find these resistant voices even when they seem to have been reduced to taciturn acquiescence.

Much of the material that Kruger examines will, I admit, be primarily of interest to scholars who study the Middle Ages. Yet despite its obvious erudition the book is written in a generous style that invites non-medievalists into its argument. A further strength of The Spectral Jew is its careful contextualization into a moment of complexly layered cultural clash. Because many of the texts Kruger examines originate in an Iberian milieu, Muslims appear among the Christians and Jews as yet another group engaged in a struggle to define itself while being defined in terms it never chose. Scholars of the fantastic will find much to emulate in the book's historical precision; its careful unpacking of the overlapping layers that form human identity (race, religion, sexuality); its deftness in deploying critical theory while paying minute attention to context. If, as Kruger argues, the conjuration of the spectral Jew "haunts the projects of Christian Europe" (and, implicitly, undoes them), what minority voices and silences might we find spectralized in our own culturally turbulent times? Could one speak of the "the spectral Indian" in the United States? Mustn't one?


Anonymous said...

OK, two inviting quotes, then:

Indeed, considering that Kruger maps this Christian obsession with Jewishness bodily debility so well, it is unfortunate that he does not make some use of a recent critical ally to queer theory, disability studies, a field that might have expanded the book's critical vocabulary.

If, as Kruger argues, the conjuration of the spectral Jew "haunts the projects of Christian Europe" (and, implicitly, undoes them), what minority voices and silences might we find spectralized in our own culturally turbulent times? Could one speak of the "the spectral Indian" in the United States? Mustn't one?

So, I understand the book review gesture to make this book relevant beyond the confines of medievalism and the fantastic (?) but,

(1) seriously, isn't spectrality just another metaphor that, while it furnishes an interpretative opportunity, is no more compelling than any other metaphor or allegory (perhaps that's the better term) one could have used? Readers of "the fantastic in the arts," for example, would presumably be familiar with Todorov's notion of "hesitation," a notion that could, in the hands of a fine reader of texts and history like Kruger, do as much (or as little) "work" as the Derridean one. But the spectral Jew is probably cooler than the hesitant Jew. I can think of half a dozen other suitable allegories of what Kruger describes as spectral. To slide the allegory into queer or “crip” theory does not help specify or clarify the subject (medieval Jews and their representations); what it does is only “expand the book’s critical vocabulary.” A concatenation of allegories is precisely what critical thought does not need.
(2) why should anyone, and I mean even the most critically-savvy and critically-hyped-up medievalists, want merely an expanded vocabulary? In defense of Kruger, why should one book be burdened to give us that expanded vocabulary? I would rather think about the reasons Kruger might have chosen not to turn to disability studies than speculate about why disability studies fails to appear in this particular book. Beyond that, though, it must be asked: Who, other than scattered clusters of PhDs and graduate students in literature departments, could possibly lament Kruger’s non-use of the disability studies referred to?
(3) what would disability studies really add to the discussion of Jewish bodily debility? I ask because I assume Professor Cohen has in mind something, that he’s not spelling out, beyond mere fashionableness (i.e., disability and queer studies as the new hip couple in the theory world), mere addition for the sake of addition or pluralism for the sake of pluralism, and mere insular specialization (i.e., there’s there are umbrella disciplines under which medievalists and literary theorists of contemporary disability operate, so, what the hell, they should be conversant with one another’s stuff). My position, based on what I’ve seen coming out of English departments on the subject of disability, is that it ain’t going to be much. I am willing to be persuaded otherwise.
(4) am I right in assuming that what, at least partially, motivated the last questions of the review (the second quote above) is a sense that rich ideas like spectrality are not bound to one historical period, and may even have some use value in the contemporary moment? I am with you so far: that is, I believe really good ideas have incredible reach, historically, culturally, etc. (I would submit spectrality that is not of an order of idea as, say, Maslow’s self-actualization or Reich’s notion of character as the “congealed” social process, but that’s me.) But I cannot fathom why one would want to speak of the “spectral” Native American or, more importantly, why speaking of them is an ethical imperative. What would it mean for another literary scholar to find “spectralized” minority voices and silence in contemporary America? How would that advance helping those populations, in any meaningful way? What should one do, to use language consistent with the last question, once one has located and written about a veritable cacophony of “spectral” voices—the homeless, the refugee, the aged, the traumatized, the racial minority, the poor, the mentally ill, the criminal, and so on? I guess what I would say is that it’s an ethical imperative to help them, and it’s not one to discuss them in specialized terms. I am not suggesting that all literary scholars should be activists or join a helping profession; what I am pleading for is the cessation of empty talk about “spectral Indians” and “culturally turbulent times.”

Jeffrey Cohen said...

A reply when and if time permits, but for those readers who might not get the joke: Emile Blauche = a pseudonym taken from an obscure scholarly essay ("Why I Go to Strip Clubs") = Anonymous in Austin, a poster from the ethics exchange of last week.

And, quickly, the necessity of spectral Indians is in fact pretty well explicated in this book:
(Thank you Jeff Weinstock).

More from me tomorrow ... but in the meantime, anyone?

Anonymous said...

Like Emile, I found the review's end fascinating. it might be intriguing to switch perspectives: that is, would the contemporary concept of survivance, which is heavily foregrounded in the national museum of the american indian [NMAI], a museum space that tries to overtly avoid historicist approaches, enrich understanding the role of the spectral Jew in medieval culture?

One thing that comes to mind after reading these meditations on spectral ghosts is the relationship between spectral ghosts of the past and cultural ghosts in the present. For me, the "ethical imperitive" isn't a dichotomy between "helping" and "discuss[ing] them in specialized terms." Both impulses have played a role in the horrors of history. here, I find term "survivance" to be a useful term, meant to conjure--and celebrate--both the struggle to survive and the struggle to resist, but from the native's p.o.v.. when I read about the rabbi's silence in "staging" the no-win theological "debates," it echoed the tale of survivance told in the NMAI.

The museum itself is a contested space--seeking to displace the power of the ghostly illusions of history, or the spectral indian, with a celebration of cultural achievement, or to be deliberately reductive, actual native americans--i.e. to move native americans out of america's past and into the present. The museum defines and repeats that "this is indian country." Doing so means invoking nationalism, taking space on the mall, and performing for tourists like me. But I love the musuem so much because it doesn't hide such contradictions, or make them ghostly, but foregrounds them as part of the tourist experience. It doesn't offer one perspective, it claims to offer only fragments of many different tales. at one point, a portrait morphs into a native curator, who implores you to argue with the musuem's pov. the spectral cacophony is sort of the point, but not the end point--with cacophony, clarity assumes a new poignancy, yes? for me, the museum spins one's whole take on the smithsonians, which is the point, i think.

But can one historicize surviviance? Is that what Kruger’s book does?

Anonymous said...

Bearing in mind authors typically write these things:

"Spectralization allows white Americans to construct a concept of American nationhood haunted by Native Americans, in which Indians become sharers in an idealized national imagination. However, the problems of spectralization are clear, since the discourse questions the very nationalism it constructs. Indians who are transformed into ghosts cannot be buried or evaded, and the specter of their forced disappearance haunts the American imagination. Indian ghosts personify national guilt and horror, as well as national pride and pleasure."

Spectral Indians appear to cover quite a range of affect, and I'll trust that someone who's looked at hundreds of literary representations of Native American ghosts in U.S. fiction is right about that.

My point, however, is now stronger: there is nothing "necessary" about explicating them as "specters." Ghosts have been charged with and carry many meanings. Who would have thought? How identifying those meanings translates to an ethical imperative is mysterious. Perhaps those who are in a better position to know will tell us how that book has bettered lives through changed policy, increased advocacy, delivery of basic need services, and so on.

hd: Interesting commentary. Historicizing survivance has been practiced by Native American themselves for centuries. Processes that fuel resiliency have long been recognized as therapeutic within Native American communities. More recently, these resiliency techniques have been formalized as healing interventions that can be empirically verified. Take a look, for example, at a program developed for the Lakota, HTUG (Historical Trauma and Unresolved Grief Intervention).

Here's an ethical choice: HTUG or another obscure treatise by an Americanist?

Anonymous said...

the htug sounds fascinating... i'll check it out. thanks, eb.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

how that book has bettered lives through changed policy, increased advocacy, delivery of basic need services, and so on
Astute readers will have noticed that two senses of necessary are at play here: for Emile, necessary is an ethical compulsion to ameliorate the lives of suffering, living people. For me, I would never insist that a scholarly book could accomplish any of those things. Yet to narrate history in a way that renders our understanding of it more truthful is something such a book might achieve. A book can be a necessary intellectual project and an ethical intellectual project without delivering basic need services.

Karl Steel said...

This is a fight I've no time to enter, but Emile, what 'specters' gets us is made clear in Derrida's own meditation on 'conjuring.' Xians conjure up (the hermeneutic) Jews (on the h. Jew, see J Cohen Living Letters of the Law) or conjure away this same group, and yet something remains necessary to the Xian. Something like that.

At any rate, JJC, just bopping in here while I'm in a world of busy to say: thanks for this review. Kruger's book is one of about 3 I let myself buy at Kzoo, and I'm glad I did it. I've let myself read it on the subway and have been happy to cannibalize its metaphors--er--for my own project of animals. Since you know some of it, you should see quite well how the spectrality of animals haunts the human, etc.

Anonymous said...

How many palastenian and Lebanese children has Israel killed to day?