“jews”: Lyotard's diacritique of Jewishness
The critical text which has gone furthest in employing “the jew” as an allegorical trope for otherness is Lyotard's recent Heidegger and “the jews” (Lyotard 1990). I am going to propose in this section that Lyotard's essay on “the jews” continues in highly significant fashion the Pauline dualist allegory of the Jews. The title tells the story: Heidegger gets a capital “H,” but “the jews” are in lower case. This is done, as the back cover copy explains, “to represent the outsiders, the nonconformists: the artists, anarchists, blacks, homeless, Arabs, etc.—and the Jews.” The Jews are doubtless chosen as exemplary both because the voices of some Jews are so prominent in European modernism and because of the enormous challenge of Nazi genocide to Enlightenment thought. But the name as used here is essentially a generic term standing for the other. And indeed Lyotard's book is all about the danger of forgetting that one (“one” in a position of relative power, that is) has always already forgotten the Other.
But why does Lyotard feel free to appropriate the name “the jews”? What does it mean for David Carroll, the author of the introduction to the American edition of Lyotard's book, to write, in reference to Lyotard's citation of “Freud, Benjamin, Adorno, Arendt, Celan,” that “these are ultimately ‘the jews’ we all have to read and even in some sense to become, ‘the jews’ we always already are but have forgotten we are, ‘the jews’ that Heidegger forgets at great cost for his thinking and writing” (xxiv)? What Lyotard refuses to forget, remembering the negative example of Heidegger, is not so much upper or lower-case Jews as Christian European crimes against humanity. In other words, Lyotard takes history seriously as an implication of philosophy, doubtless a vital exercise. This sketch of a critique, therefore, is not intended as an exposé of Lyotard but as a further implication of the universalizing, allegorizing traditions of Hellenistic philosophy as absorbed into Christian culture.
Lyotard basically repeats Sartre's thesis about the production of the Jew by the anti-Semite: “What is most real about real Jews is that Europe, in any case, does not know what to do with them: Christians demand their conversion; monarchs expel them; republics assimilate them; Nazis exterminate them. ‘The jews’ are the object of a dismissal with which Jews, in particular, are afflicted in reality” (3). Let us stop a second on the first words here, and try a paraphrase: how would it work if a man or a woman said, “What is most real about real women is that men continually try to dominate them.” The condescension of Lyotard's statement immediately becomes evident.
It would have been quite different if Lyotard had written rather, “What matters most to me here about those usually called ‘Jews’ is that Europe does not know what to do with them.” For there is no gainsaying the power of his insight: Europe indeed does not know what to do with “real Jews.” But what of European philosophy? Is Lyotard not Europe here? Might we not fairly say, “Europe does not know what to do with them; philosophers allegorize them,” et cetera? To which one might comment that in doing so, they continue another particularly Christian practice with regard to upper-case Jews, one which begins with Paul.
And here we can see more analytically what is wrong with Carroll's rhetoric about us all becoming once again “the jews we always already are but have forgotten we are.” We must resist the seduction of these sentiments, for they deny, they spiritualize history. For some contemporary critics—indeed, those most profoundly concerned with the lessons of the encounter between Jewish identity and European self-adequation—it seems that the real Jew is the non-Jewish jew. What does this say about the “reality” of those Jews—most of those who call themselves Jews, of course, are the untheorized, unphilosophical, unspiritualized Jews—who would think the phrase “non-Jewish Jew” to be nonsense? Is it politically correct to “forget” them and to fashion an imaginary dialogue with the Other who is, in fact, the already-sactioned, official model of the “non-Jewish Jew,” the Kafkas and Benjamins? For as we know, the vast majority of the Nazis' Jewish victims were unredeemed “real” Jews.
Against this incipient critique stands precisely the force implicit in Lyotard's act of allegorizing the name “jew.” Radiating out from the sun of philosophy, remembering the other by writing the “jew,” Lyotard challenges all those who would fetishize their particular difference, insisting that we learn how to imagine ourselves as blacks, as Arabs, as homeless, as Indians. This is a political challenge, but Lyotard does not suggest how those who are themselves “real Jews” could respond to it. Indeed, he explains that one reason for his avoidance of the proper noun, of the upper-case “Jews,” is to make clear that he is not discussing a particularly Jewish political subject, which he identifies as Zionism (3). I want to insist in response to Lyotard that there is a loss and a danger either in allegorizing away real, upper-case Jews or in regarding them primarily as a problem for Europe. My claim entails in turn a responsibility to help articulate a Jewish political subject “other” than Zionism, which in fundamental ways merely reproduces the exclusivist syndromes of European nationalism. Zionism itself is predicated on a myth of autochthony. I will be suggesting in the next chapter that a Jewish subject position founded on memories of genealogy, not genealogy tout court but that which has since antiquity been called “race,” provides for a critical Jewish identity.