A Serious Disapointment

Over the weekend I finally got a chance to see the Coen Brothers latest release, A Serious Man.  My initial reaction to the movie was a moderately enthusiastc “Meh.”  However, after I started thinking about it I found myself becoming a bit annoyed and this morning I woke up thinking the film was a total failure. David Denby, who wrote one of the few negative reviews, sums up:

The movie is a deadpan farce with a schlemiel Job as a hero—Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physicist at a local university, whose life, in 1967, is falling apart. Gopnik’s wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for a sanctimonious bastard (Fred Melamed) who covers his aggressions against Larry with limp-pawed caresses and offers of “understanding.” Larry’s kids are thieving brats, and his hapless, sick, whining brother (Richard Kind) camps on the living-room couch and refuses to look for work. There’s more, much more, a series of mishaps, sordid betrayals, and weird coincidences, but Larry, a sweet guy and “a serious man”—upright, a good teacher, a father—won’t hit back. Occasionally, his eyebrows fluttering like street signs in a hurricane, he stands up for himself, but he won’t take a shot at anyone, or try to control anyone, verbally or any other way. He won’t even sleep with the dragon-eyed but sexy and highly available woman next door who sunbathes naked. (read the full review here) Continue reading


Midrash, Quotation, Levinas: Some More Thoughts

Ok, dusting off my Levinas books!  In a comment to a post on some thoughts her talk about the Midrashic impulse triggered for me, Monica writes:

His [Levinas] writing–at least in my reading–imitates precisely the style used by Talmudists and the rabbis and sages who created classical Midrash. There is always that moment in the text that flips the text itself upside-down and forces a re-reading from that particular point in the text. Sometimes these moments are so subtle that we miss them, which I think in some way leads us back to the question of responsibility even on the part of the reader (?). This is, again, I think, what brings us to the ethical, at least in regard to the way I’m using it in my work to describe the midrashic impulse. The ethical is about that (diachronic?) moment of rupture in the text, and the way it compels us to respond to it.

This is an interesting (and accurate in my view) comment.  Talmudic study, according to Levinas, is an awakening of language to what perpetually exceeds its reach, drawing reading and writing into a mode of infinition, of constitutive incompletion. The translation of Talmudic study into practice starts with the assumption that there is nothing that cannot be expressed in a community defined by its willingness to communicate and disagree, except the name of God. Continue reading

How Should We Read Agamben’s Muselmanner?

Last month, I had a bit of a back and forth over here in which I shared the same sort of reservations as Monica regarding Agamben’s “norming” of the Muselman in his book,  Remnants of Auschwitz.   Over there she wrote:

But I am still not comfortable with saying that the camps have become the norm. The implicit comparison bothers me. Perhaps we might find figures in our world who have become like Muselmann for various reasons, but I fear that in allowing such a comparison to be made we forget that the Muselmann of the camps did not become that way because of any of the choices they made; their mental and physical breaking down was intentional, and it was based on nothing other than the fact that they were Jewish.

This has been sitting in the drafts folder for a month, so in my non-existent spare time I reread the book.   I’ve shamelessly incorporated my comments over there virtually verbatim into this post.  Just a er…confession of sorts.  Anyway, I think it’s rather uncontroversial to claim that in a good deal of “recent” criticism, that the Holocaust has led to a “crisis of representation” and a “troubling of theory” has become rather routine.   The continual complication that the Holocaust introduces into thought, whether political, philosophical, aesthetic, ethical or religious, hinges, I think, upon the question of how this threshold may be made audible within language.  This is, of course, one of Agamben’s points throughout.  In fact, a case may be made that this problem is nothing less than the inaugural move of deconstruction that “exhausts the concept. ”   One only needs to have a quick look at Lyotard, Derrida, Blanchot, or Jabes to make this case I think. Continue reading

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: Continue reading

Secular “Jewishness:” The Case of Isaac Deutscher

Somehow, all of this recent talk and thought about philosophy and biography, or philosophy as biography, has gotten me thinking about identity.  In his 1954 essay “The Non-Jewish Jew” Isaac Deutscher writes, “The Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry belongs to a Jewish tradition.”  Such heretics for Deutscher are Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky and Freud:

All of them had this in common, that the very conditions in which they lived and worked did not allow them to reconcile themselves to ideas which were nationally or religiously limited and induced them to strive for a universal Weltanshauung.

Deutscher’s argument is basically that the Jewish backgrounds of these thinkers was critical to their becoming revolutionaries, but yet, each of these thinkers could not reach their dream of “universal human emancipation” within the borders that mark the Jewish tradition.  Continue reading

Love Me! Rosenzweig, Love, the Subject

Wildly Parenthetical’s questions about the possible role of “peace, love and understanding” (Sorry, couldn’t resist the Elvis Costello reference) in Levinas’s ethical rapport has gotten me thinking about Franz Rosenzweig. For perhaps one of the clearest influences of Rosenzweig on contemporary philosophy is to be found in Levinas’s ethical inversion of the etymology of philosophy from the love of wisdom to the wisdom of love (in the service of love). However, I think that Levinas tends to merely transpose God’s demanding love with the love of the other by substituting the ontological status of absence with ethical proximity, which seems to me, a “cool” “Heideggerization of Rosenzweig.” That said, the “here I am” that Levinas associates with love, subjectivity and philosophy clearly has it source in Rosenzweig’s chapter on revelation in the Star of Redemption, but “cashed out” it’s a bit different. What follows is just some commentary/summary/fragments on Rosenzweig’s conception of revelation, what he calls the “ever-renewing birth of the soul.” The second part of the Star moves from logic/cognition into temporality/testimony. The elements in the first part of the Star need an inner transformation so they may be sources of power for revelation and not simply “conceptual pieties.” Being (in the most restrictive sense, to be contrasted with existence) signifies the correlation of acting with experience lies beyond reason and is fulfilled in the realities, e.g. creation, revelation and redemption. Now, whenever I read Rosenzweig I get a bit uncomfortable with all the theological language, but there is certainly something interesting at work behind all of it that can shed some light on the inter-subjective rapport. However, it is good to read Rosenzweig broadly as hammering away at the pretensions of idealism–albeit the regressive movement of the text is rather Hegelian. Continue reading

Rosenzweig, Religion and Politics

franz.jpgAll of this talk about politics and Israel yesterday 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 Continue reading