Badiou, Rosenzweig and the word “Jew”


Mostly a thinking out loud post based on some visceral reactions, really. I have heard the charge of antisemitism directed at both Badiou and Zizek for sometime now, and while I’m not completely unsympathetic to such claims, they do tend to misinterpret and simplify both thinkers, which of course, have the effect of missing the mark completely. Now, in particular, with regards to Badiou and the term “Jew,” this seems to me to be an old problem of particularism vs universalism rather than the typical knee jerk reactions towards the state of Israel (see here and here). In this sense, it’s hard not to think of Isaac Deutscher, who remarked in a speech he gave to the World Jewish Congress in 1958:

Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense am I therefore a Jew. I am, however, a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated. I am a Jew because I feel the pulse of Jewish history; because I should like to do all I can to assure the real, not spurious, security and self-respect of the Jews.

Now because I’m without shame, here’s my original comment pertaining to the above passage. This is a very interesting response, and really, a very Jewish one. This begs a number of questions: Is it ever possible to reconcile ethnic fidelities with a commitment to “universal human emancipation? ” Is the only option to simply choose sides, that is, either a nationalist (particularism) or a “non-Jewish Jew” (universalism/cosmpolitanism)? But here’s the thing, if Judaism is a particular community/ethnicity/religion with a universal aims/goals/ramifications (e.g. a light unto the nations) to begin with then there is no choice to be made, the “Jew” as such would not have to choose either/or, but then again, perhaps I’m just not very dogmatic.

I still have the same response, but I often find myself feeling somewhat uncomfortable when I hear Badiou discussing these issues. In an article I dug up on lacan.com, “The Uses of the Word “Jew,”” Badiou writes this:

An abstract variation of my position consists in pointing out that, from the apostle Paul to Trotsky, including Spinoza, Marx and Freud, Jewish communitarianism has only underpinned creative universalism in so far as there have been new points of rupture with it. It is clear that today’s equivalent of Paul’s religious rupture with established Judaism, of Spinoza’s rationalist rupture with the Synagogue, or of Marx’s political rupture with the bourgeois integration of a part of his community of origin, is a subjective rupture with the State of Israel, not with its empirical existence, which is neither more nor less impure than that of all states, but with its exclusive identitarian claim to be a Jewish state, and with the way it draws incessant privileges from this claim, especially when it comes to trampling underfoot what serves us as international law.

But we need to back up a bit. Here’s an excerpt from the third paragraph of the article:

…what is at issue is to know whether or not, in the general field of public intellectual discussion, the word “Jew” constitutes an exceptional signifier, such that it would be legitimate to make it play the role of a final, or even sacred, signifier. It is evident that tackling the eradication of forms of anti-Semitic consciousness is done differently, and with a different subjectivity, depending on whether we consider these forms of consciousness to be essentially different to other forms of racial discrimination (e.g. to anti-Arab sentiments or to the segregating of blacks to their communitarian activities); or whether – given certainly distinct and irreducible historicities – we consider that all forms of racist consciousness alike call for the same egalitarian and universalist reaction. Further, this shared repugnance of anti- Semitism must be distinguished from a certain philo-Semitism which claims not only that attacking Jews as such amounts to criminal baseness but that the word “Jew”, and the community claiming to stand for it, must be placed in a paradigmatic position with respect to the field of values, cultural hierarchies, and in evaluating the politics of states.

Badiou spends some time detailing with victim ideology (see Ethics for a more in depth analysis):

…the fate of the word “Jew” lies in its communitarian transcendence, in such a way that this destiny cannot be rendered commensurable with those of other names that, within the registers of ideology, or of politics, or even of philosophy, have been subject to conflicting assessments. The basic argumentation, of course, refers to the extermination of European Jews by the Nazis and their accomplices. In the victim ideology that constitutes the campaign artillery of contemporary moralism, this unprecedented extermination is held to be paradigmatic. In and of itself the extermination would underpin the political, legal and moral necessity to hold the word Jew above all usual handling of identity predicates and to give it some kind of nominal sacralization. The progressive imposition of the word Shoah to designate what its most eminent historian, Raul Hilberg, named, with sober precision, “the destruction of the Europe an Jews” can be taken as a verbal stage of this sacralizing of victims. By a remarkable irony, one thereby comes to the point of applying to the name “Jew” a claim that the Christians originally directed against the Jews themselves, which was that “Christ” was a worthier name than all others. Today it is not uncommon to read that “Jew” is indeed a name beyond ordinary names. And it seems to be presumed that, like an inverted original sin, the grace of having been an incomparable victim can be passed down not only to descendants and to the descendants of descendants but to all who come under the predicate in question, be they heads of state or armies engaging in the severe oppression of those whose lands they have confiscated.

And here is Badiou–with a rather silly play on words–detailing another variation of this ideology:

It claims to show that the Jewish question’ has defined Europe since the Enlightenment era, such that there would be a criminal continuity between the idea Europe has of itself and the Nazi extermination, which is presented as the ‘final solution’ to the problem.

Ok. So Badiou is seeking to depart from this type of logic and posits a better approach:

I shall maintain that the intrusion of any identity predicate into a central role for the determination of a politics leads to disaster.

Badiou’s real polemic is directed towards the “petty faction” that is the “self-proclaimed proprietor of the word “Jew” and its usage” who rest their claims on a triad Badiou (again silliness) names “SIT,” that is, the Shoah, the State of Israel, and the Talmudic tradition.   I actually think that the phrase “Talmudic tradition” Badiou uses without explanation is rather problematic, at best. I have no real idea what he means by it, what Badiou thinks it means, it’s just given as if these all mean one thing at all times.  Now, to his credit Badiou has singled out “extremist” and right-wing factions that draw upon this trifecta to justify say, the aggression of the IDF, or I would say, more accurately, those settlers who actively fought the IDF when they came to evacuate all the settlements in the occupied territories last year or so. So, fine. In this context Badiou is able to claim:

I will make the hypothesis that the aggressive promotion of the triplet Shoah – Israel – Tradition, or SIT, as the only acceptable content of the word ‘Jew’, and the ignorant, stubborn, personalized violence directed against anybody who proposes a different mode of signification and circulation of the word, has to do with protecting a power: the power – very useful to the powers-that-be – of managing to subjugate this word to totally anti-working- class political and statist determinations, i.e., to a system of judicial and police control to which, little by little, everything that shows itself to be heterogeneous to the established consensus is subjugated, whether or not that heterogeneous element is already localized in organizations and actions, or is as yet only at the stage of the circulation of ideas. Further, that, in the constant use of a word that has been reduced to a sort of power of intimidation, it boils down to rallying the largest possible number of intellectuals in the world to the camp led by the Americans. In sum, it is about making the word “Jew” – assumed lo be untouchable because of its Shoah component; statist and pro-American because of its “Israeli” component; and vaguely spiritual because of its “Tradition” component – into the ideological shield and the intellectual referent of a new stage in the counter-revolution mat has been led in France by the nouveaux philosophes since the end of the 1970s, a stage that is now truly oppositional and supported by the services of state.

Now, I’m not going to argue against the logic or even accuracy of Badiou’s claim here. It’s unfortunate that there is this tendency. However, this starts to make me a bit uncomfortable:

By protecting their monopoly over the word ‘Jew’, it is hoped to eradicate for ever the very possibility of political universalism, of an equality of all particularist predicates, of a politics practiced by people who are here, irrespective of their origin. As soon as one threatens the stranglehold that the SIT triplet has over the destiny of the word “Jew” in language, in thought, and in historical life, as soon as one revives this word on the side of universal singularity and political emancipation, it constitutes a mortal attack on the faction’s power to cause harm.

While again, Badiou may be right, it smacks of the same problem Jews have faced throughout history, viz., the question of being a particular community with universal aims. Now, this got me thinking of some passages from Franz Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption. These passages are found in the final part of the text. In the Star, Roseznweig argues that reality has three levels, the middle level is experience, which is described in Part 2, the ground of experience, if you will, are the primordial elements that are accessible only to reflective thought (Part I). Finally, the third part paints a picture seemingly beyond experience (only be inescapably involving it) of an ontology, which is derived from casting it through the topos of the sociology of religious life. Put differently, the progressive nature of the text moves from a mathematical system to a grammatical system to the organization of social signifiers (e.g. the form and content of the religious life of the congregation). The mathematical system in part I is inverted in the third part, this is to say that the sign of the collectivity of religious life is given to experience while the referent (the world of redemption) is outside of reality and is lived in anticipation, it is only signified through an intercession by the form of the collective religious life. Anyhow, here are the passages

There is only one community in which such a linked sequence of everlasting life goes from grandfather to grandson, only one which cannot utter the “we” of its unity without hearing deep within a voice that adds “are eternal”. It must be a blood-community, because only blood gives present warrant to the hope for a future (299, Hallo edition).

And later on:

For we have long ago been robbed of all the things in which the peoples of the world are rooted. For us, land and language, custom and law, have long left the circle of the living and have been raised to the rung of holiness. But we are still living, and live in eternity. Our life is no longer meshed with anything outside our selves. We have struck root in ourselves. We do not root in earth and so we are eternal wanderers, but deeply rooted in our own body and blood. And it is this rooting in ourselves and in nothing but ourselves, that vouchsafes eternity (305, Hallo edition).

The blood community does not connote an ethnic community and it always seemed to me that it is certainly meant symbolically and most likely, ontologically (given its intimate ties to temporality and time). For Rosenzweig, Judaism is the singular We that always already lives with God. The “people of Israel” are the temporal dwelling place for eternity. Outside of this “We” past and future are experienced as being divorced from each other. In Judaism, they “grow into one.” Rosenzweig outlines the philosophical ground for his claim that Jews alone are equipped to live within the experience of redemption, viz., “earthly eternity: and the collectivity of experience.” Community, for Rosenzweig, must hold onto neither land or politics, but somehow has to create a sense of eternity within itself. This yearning for ultimacy is folded into/within the horizon. So, the temporal community generates its own time and it indeed, self-grounding. Would Badiou not have a problem with this type of communitarian identity?

Here, I suspect is Badiou’s objection. For Rosenzweig, the Jews disassociation from actual power politics makes them a “community of fate” (322ff). Because of the blood community the Jews have a special temporality. All of this is to say this: through blood a community may will itself into a mode of redemption which is a mode of life, Rosenzweig calls this the “will to People.” The doubling of blood connotes temporality without territorial roots, it is a rooted unrootedness. On the other hand, blood generates permanence; much like law and scripture are eternally present. Jewish identity displays “rootededness in one’s own self” (305).

Yet, it would be good to recall that earlier Rosenzweig spent a good deal of time showing how the We banishes the You, so given Rosenzweig’s insistence on the address of the Psalms, it seems to me that we could follow Rosenzweig back into a theologically based theory of Jewish difference, which is manifested materially as exile. Rosenzweig’s non-liberalism, non (not anti) Zionism expresses the very same disillusionment with liberal assimilationist ideals that had driven many of his contemporaries into national political discources.

Finally, for Rosenzweig, to be fully who we are qua Jews, exile is a pre-requisite. It comprises the continual and necessary condition of Jewish being. The Jewish people are a remnant among the nations (404). Jews constitute the fire, the point, at the center of the star. Jewish exile is the temporal eternity of the persecuted remnant. Redemption is only possible in exile. Why would Badiou not take this tack?

Now, for Badiou, universalism is emancipatory. Behind this lurks a more rigorous philosophical claim is that in an event the (ethical) subject identifies the void of the situation as belonging universally within that situation. That is to say, conditioning the whole of it. Truth, according to Badiou, is always universal. Simply, a truth must be true for all. In a fake event, like the one claimed by the Nazis, the universality of the void is simply refused and the void becomes pushed onto an exceptional set of particular elements. In the idiotic logic of the Nazis the Jews filled this function and were then, quite literally (and violently) “voided” to rather deceptively assert “plenitude” instead of a void in a situation that determined that German Jews were nothing less than exceptions to the German Volk.

Given this, and what I’ve noted above, Badiou discerns a moral excess or prestige that can’t be severed from the word “Jew.” Moreover, because it refers to the suffering of Jews in the Holocaust, it participates (and here I would add it risks participating, in my view) in that very same logic of exclusion: that is, setting apart a subset of elements as exceptional and subject to its own moral “truthiness.”

Ok, all of this said. I find it hard to believe Badiou is in any way trying to minimize or make light of suffering. Nor do I read him as carrying out a critique of any sort of collective action in aimed towards justice. I’m not sure Badiou is providing ammunition for those who don’t believe in the state of Israel. That is, he doesn’t seem to be problematizing or arguing against the rights of Jewish people to live in Israel. I do take him to be saying something along these lines: violence, brutality and oppression are often nothing more than banal types of cruelties lurking behind the notions of good and evil, and as such, hold little, if any, relation to an event that transcends the situation. For Badiou, any actual political “good” is manifested out from a universalist “confession” of the Real of a “situational void,” and not a particularist transference of the void. Hence the now familiar (near) banality associated with Badiou: politics must be born from an ethical fidelity to a singular truth that manages to addresses the state of the situation and generate something novel with regards to that situation. Hence the conclusion to “Uses of the word “Jew:”

…because I am disconcerted by seeing the word “Jew” associated – by intellectuals whose feebleness exasperates and misleads with the support that a large part of public opinion lends to odious policies. I know better, a thousand times better than the extremist faction, of the connection between the word “Jew” and the immense history of universal truths. In nullifying all the substantialist and racialist interpretations of it, in liberating it from any necessary connection to religious customs, in giving it a contemporary vivacity independent of fictitious narratives, in de-linking it from a slate which sticks it in the mud of imperial particularities; in sum, in liberating the word “Jew” from the triplet SIT, to which this faction tries to reduce it, I associate myself amicably with the work undertaken by many others, whether or not they lay claim to the predicate “Jew” by which a new force of the word can and will emerge.

Ok, but my question: how is this at all helpful? I’ll be the first to agree that politics needs to be severed from religion, but Badiou’s “attack” on the locution “Jewish State” makes me a bit uncomfortable. Is it as simple as refusing the identity between “Jew” and “Israeli?” If that’s the case, Badiou is offering nothing particularly interesting here. And moreover, how does one rid the yucky components or associations of any word? Then again, to be suspicious, one might even ask why Badiou cares so much about this word “Jew” and the state of Israel? Certainly, there are other injustices out there too? I don’t know, but this smacks of the same type of frustration Luther had in his vitriol against the Jews when he found out they wouldn’t listen to him and convert…

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4 thoughts on “Badiou, Rosenzweig and the word “Jew”

  1. It is interesting that he is not a Jew by choice, but by force of a kind of logic, an if/then construction (as you quote at the top):

    “I am, however, a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated.”

    This is not the only qualifier, but a pertinent one. He is a Jew because he has unconditional solidarity, perhaps in the way that he is mortal because All men are mortal, and he is a man. A Jew evacuated of all historical content, a non-Jewish Jew, maybe even a Kantian Jew.

    Compare this categorical identification with Deleuze and Guattari’s immanent identification with “the girl” as pure becoming:

    The girl’s becoming is stolen first, in order to impose a history, or prehistory, upon her. The boy’s turn comes next, but it is by using the girl as an example, by pointing to the girl as the object of his desire, that an opposed organism, a dominant history is fabricated for him too. The girl is the first victim, but she must also serve as an example and a trap. That is why, conversely, the reconstruction of the body as a Body without Organs, the anorganism of the body, is inseparable from a becoming-woman, or the production of a molecular woman. Doubtless, the girl becomes a woman in the molar or organic sense. But conversely, becoming-woman or the molecular woman is the girl herself….

    …The girl is like the block of becoming that remains contemporaneous to each opposable term, man, woman, child, adult. It is not the girl who becomes a woman; it is
    becoming-woman that produces the universal girl.”

    …The special role of the girl in Russian terrorism: the girl with the bomb, guardian of dynamite? It is certain that molecular politics proceeds via the girl and the child…The girl and the child do not become; it is becoming itself that is a child or a girl. The child does not become an adult any more than the girl becomes a woman; the girl is the becoming-woman of each sex, just as the child is the becoming-young of every age.”

    a thousand plateaus

  2. Thanks, Kvond. That’s an interesting connection in terms of molar/molecular, I hadn’t thought of that.

    I think that there is a way to understand Deutscher without evacuating all historical content (though I do see the point), this is to say, could we read Deutscher’s statement as taking seriously the idea that the Jews are a “light unto the nations” and that in accessing this particular history we are aiming at the universal?

  3. Pingback: Badiou, Rosenzweig and the word “Jew” (via Perverse Egalitarianism) | Specular Image

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