In a polemic against the unexamined foundations and stagnant state of the field, Benjamin Schreier critically analyzes a series of professionally powerful clichés about Jewish American literary history and how they came into being on the way to contesting the foundational ethnological presuppositions of Jewish Studies.
2020 | 224 pages | Cloth $49.95
Religion / Literature
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Table of Contents
Introduction. What's the "History" in "Jewish American Literary History" the History Of?
Chapter 1. The History of Jewish American Literary History: "Breakthrough" and the Institutional Rhetoric of Identity
Chapter 2. Before Jewish American Literature
Chapter 3. After Jewish American Literature
What's the "History" in "Jewish American Literary History" the History Of?
We must free ourselves from the sacrilization [sic] of the social as the only reality and stop regarding as superfluous something so essential in human life and in human relations as thought. . . .
Criticism is a matter of . . . show[ing] that things are not as self-evident as one believed . . . see[ing] that what is accepted as self-evident will no longer be accepted as such.
Nothing testifies to the etiolation of the field of Jewish American literary study—my field—so much as the fact that so few people ever fight about anything. There are no big methodological or theoretical disputes, no open rivalries between competing theories or methodologies. One could be excused for having the impression that nothing is at stake—or at least the impression that few intellectuals operating in the field believe there's anything at stake.
Sometimes I wonder if an alternative title for this book could have been "Jews and Truth." Michel Foucault is so important for this project because he helps us understand the effects of thinking about power rather than about representation. The main function of the shift to power was to replace the self-evidence of a system of dominant representations with questions about, indeed a field of analysis of, the procedures and techniques by which power relations and the knowledge practices they organize and enable are actually effectuated. Representation tends to presume something represented, and begins and ends there, with its object of scholarly desire. But it's the job of critical thinking to not start with the end.
Anyway, now vee may perhaps to begin. . . .
Ask anyone, or at least anyone who cares: the dominant event of Jewish American literary history is "emergence" or "breakthrough"—the irruption in the 1950s of Jewish American writers like Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Grace Paley into the heart of the American cultural scene. In fact, or maybe (more cautiously) more to the point, the "fact" of breakthrough is the primal scene of the Jewish American literary field: the more or less formalized or academically disciplined study of Jewish American literature grew up around the consolidating self-evidence of the breakthrough narrative, and the field's legibility and condition of possibility have from the start been articulated with it. The prevailing accounts of Jewish literature in the United States inevitably orbit, even if only implicitly or inconspicuously or once or twice removed, in the gravitational field of this central event, which also establishes an assimilationist—if also pluralist or multiculturalist—temporality that's exceedingly easy to take for granted as culturally and socially self-evident, a before and an after of Jewish American confidence, security, and success. Though Jewish American literary study, unlike its sibling U.S. ethnic literary formations (which have for at least a generation been trying to denaturalize the link between identity and body), has mostly resisted the urge to explicitly theorize itself and its practices—a refusal that's intimate with Jewish studies' more general difficulty or discomfort with understanding itself (that is, as an institutional entity, or even just an academic program) as "political" or "resistant" in the same way that, say, African American studies understands and is comfortable with itself (it would be interesting to see how many teach-ins about Charlottesville, for example, were held by African American studies units vs. by Jewish studies units; and it's in any case notable that the Association for Jewish Studies has as of this writing refused to follow the lead of other professional academic organizations in denouncing Trump's December 2019 executive order "clarifying" the meaning of antisemitism, with its express curbs on academic freedom)—the narrative of breakthrough has operated as a deputized proxy for the only real theory, however sporadically and insufficiently acknowledged, of Jewish American literature that has ever been able to carry any currency—either professionally, in the academy, or publicly, among lay readers of Jewish American writing: namely, immigration. Thus, if Jewish American writing before World War II can mostly be characterized by a parochial or provincial angst, and can often easily fit into such stalwart U.S. literary historical compartments as "immigrant writing" or "regionalism" or "urban fiction," categories as durable as the dependability with which they consign their constituents to a decidedly second-tier prestige—so this foundational paradigm goes—then within two or three decades of the war's end it had rapidly shed these marginalizing limitations and come to represent American literature at its most central and innovative and ascendant, the Jewish American standing as the representative modern figure and the Jewish American writer the spokesperson for the modern condition in toto. Accordingly, as Jewish American literary study has tended, certainly in some of its recent formations, to become more diverse in focus and more sophisticated in scope, it often draws its warrant for these critical investments from—and it reproduces an image of its own intellectual responsibility in the name of—the increasing diversity, sophistication, and independence of Jews in America. Jewish American literary study persists in imagining itself as part of the enduring historical reality of breakthrough.
Significantly, in this narrative of sociocultural movement from margin to center and rear guard to leading edge, Jewish American literature dependably tracks the career of Jewish America: the breakthrough narrative of Jewish American literature normalizes itself as a straightforward—I use this term ironically, of course, informed by Antonio Gramsci's critical keyword commonsense—and largely politically innocent reflection of or representational lens on Jewish Americans conceptualized as a population, as a mode of representational access that suppresses critical theorization in the name of instrumental or productivist—which is to say self-evident—ethnological history, leveraging its hegemony on the assumption that literary history is itself neither theoretical nor historical. This book begins in a critical suspicion about the way in which professional academic formations, including both English department-based literary study and Jewish studies-based interdisciplinarity, have taken Jewish American literature for granted—and about the way in which Jewish American literary history has itself reflected these predispositions, taking for granted its own literary historical warrant. My critical targets are the disciplinary and intellectual modes in which the Jewish American literary field's exceptionalist estrangement from the mainstream of humanistic critical self-regard have been carried out. By historicizing the practice of Jewish American literary study and destabilizing the assumption that Jewish American literary history operates under the ethnological authority of an inquiry into the lives and times of Jews in America, I hope to make it easier for humanists to imagine and act on a critically self-aware intellectual practice. Breakthrough needs to be approached primarily as an event in Jewish American historiography, not Jewish American history.
I certainly don't pretend that there was no institutionally housed study of writing by Jews in America before the 1950s, or that the literary intellectuals of the breakthrough invented the idea of thinking about what we now easily call Jewish American writing. To be sure, before World War II there was fiction and belles lettres being written by Jews in the United States, there were scholarly works written that took as their object the representation of Jews in English and American literature, and there was of course the persuasive tradition of nineteenth-century German-Jewish Wissenschaft des Judentums premised on the cultural-nationalist logic of a transhistorical unity of Jewish cultural expression, a tradition that, in Michael P. Kramer's description, "shifted the locus of Jewish self-definition from Judaism as a revealed religion to Jewishness as national character" and imported and legitimized "the Romantic notion of literature as the expression and repository of the spirit or genius of a people, of its Volksgeist. . . as the primary justification for the study, cultivation, and dissemination of Jewish literature." But before the discursive innovation of breakthrough, scholarship could not yet take for granted the field unity of a canon of literature organized, defined, and essentially interpretable by the Jewish American identity of its authors; this was a postwar development and it has a history that itself cannot be extracted from the gravitational pull of the "breakthrough" narrative. The innovation of breakthrough was not simply to link, inevitably and unimpeachably, the Jewish authors and Jewish texts of Jewish American literature but to reorient thinking about literary texts written by Jews in America around authors as representatives of Jewish American people, experience, and culture; Jewish American literary study would professionalize over the following decades as scholarly focus shifted from the object of literary representation to its subject, from Jews as a community written about to Jews as a population writing.
This was an epistemological transformation likely encouraged (if not enabled) by the concept of Jewish "peoplehood," the revisionary, 1930s-era American crossing, particularly in the writings of people like Stephen Wise and Mordecai Kaplan, of, on the one hand, Wissenschaft's cultural nationalist investment in the Volksgeist of the Jews and, on the other, the rise of Zionism as a full-fledged political, intellectual, and nation-building movement. As Noam Pianko has argued, "The language of peoplehood translates some of Zionism's fundamental assumptions into a vocabulary that serves as a kind of code word for nationhood, internalizing those assumptions while erasing the term nation from the conceptual vocabulary of American Jewish collectivity." The concept of Jewish peoplehood established "Jewish nationalism" as the central "framework for defining Jewish collectivity" in America by contrasting itself to explicitly state-oriented Zionism even as it relied on much of Zionism's deeper conceptual foundation. "It enabled Zionism's conception of Jewish groupness to move from the margins to the mainstream of American Jewish life and thought." Pianko's focus on the importance of Zionism in the history of the term demonstrates that the concept of Jewish peoplehood, which was designed to evade some of the restrictive implications of a strictly religious or theological concept of Jewish identity through a more secular and expansive concept of civilization, has a fundamentally nationalistic pedigree; but at the same time, answering the anxieties of a community already wary of charges of dual loyalty, the ideology of peoplehood tended to suppress explicit mention of—and focus on—nationalism and Zionism. Thus, just as Zionism tended (and tends) to suppress attention to alternative or divergent histories of links between land and identity, so the concept of Jewish peoplehood incited a more or less unitary concern with a coherently Jewish narrative.
More pointedly, therefore, the elaboration of breakthrough was often framed in triumphalist terms (colored at times by a touch of the "tragic") by critics for whom the narrative of emergence was also crucially and fundamentally bound up with a reflexive structure of self-recognition in a persistent scholarly affect Kramer has helpfully identified as "critical narcissism." For Kramer (as for many others) Jewish literary study should be seen in the context of the academic "recovery" of ethnic literature in the last decades of the twentieth century, and this political history had important consequences—what I might call subcognitive consequences—for the professional study of Jewish literature: "the profound sense of cultural affinity that drew African Americans to African American literature, Asian Americans to Asian American literature, and American Jews to Jewish American literature also tended to suggest strict protocols about the study of ethnic texts—about who is authorized to interpret texts and what sorts of interpretations are acceptable. That is to say, it produced a tendency toward critical narcissism." As Leslie Fiedler, one of the leading breakthrough intellectuals, put it in a late-career reflection on his writing about Jewish American literature, "It was not, I realize now, a disinterested venture, since I thought of myself at the beginning of my writing career as part of the movement that had carried such children of immigrant Jews from eastern Europe from the periphery to the center of American literary culture—making their experience, our experience, a part of the communal dream stuff, the myth that makes all Americans one, whatever their ethnic origin." More generally, he admits that over his professional life, whatever the topic, he "continued to write, willy-nilly, from a Jewish point of view, as a Jew." The frequency with which first person pronouns like "us" and "our" appear in the writings on Jewish American literature of Fiedler and his fellow breakthrough literary intellectuals is notable, and the repeated investment in constructions like "our language" and "our culture" as pervasive shibboleths is impossible (and would be foolish) to miss. For the vast majority of the breakthrough literary intellectuals, that is, the critical study of Jewish American representativity was fundamentally autocritique. I am less interested in the ways in which Jewish American literary study enforces protocols for the positive representation of Jews than Kramer hopes his term "critical narcissism" describes, but I do think the term helps illuminate how the exceptionalist insiderism that breakthrough inherited from the Wissenschaft tradition and Kaplan's revisionary speculation on Jewish "peoplehood" matured in postwar thinking about Jewish American literature, constituting as well a legacy for the consolidation of professional Jewish studies.
The field of Jewish American literary study ignores this history at its peril—or at least at the risk of its irrelevance. The ethnic literary formations we often associate with the emergence of multiculturalism and ethnic studies arose from and as institutional deputies of active political movements; and they still often identify themselves as part of this struggle. In its institutional interdependence with the narrative of breakthrough, however, Jewish American literary study in a sense emerged as part of a perception that a political struggle was in fact over. And as a result, to the extent that it continues to constitute itself as a technology for interpreting the history of what Jews do, say, and write, and to the extent that it instantiates itself in the assumption that Jews are always recognizable and always somehow continuous with all other Jews wherever or whenever they might be found, Jewish American literary study reproduces the grounds of its own redundancy, if not in fact its own obsolescence. If thought is to be something other than an ethnologically descriptive instrument in the toolbox of demographic accountancy—and, perhaps more important for some potential readers of this book, if Jewish American literary study is to approach prestige parity with its sibling academic formations within the literary, ethnic, and Jewish studies complexes—then scholars cannot take for granted the representational capacities of the word "Jewish"—not in the study of Jewish literature, and not in Jewish studies more generally. Rather, we have to approach such use—critically interrogating it even as we unavoidably reproduce its modes and applications—as a productive act of theorizing and analysis far more significantly than as an ultimately deterministic act of reference or reflection. My polemical goal—my struggle, if you will—is to make legible a nonethnological concept of Jewish identity, one that can liberate a critically minded literary practice from vassalage to a restrictively conceived Jewish studies-based, Wissenschaft-derived, and nationalism-informed—in a word, Zionist, as I'd like to expansively and critically use that term—orthodoxy that takes history for granted as the fundamental scholarly discipline.
Eve Sedgwick opens her book Epistemology of the Closet by enumerating the "Axioms" or theoretical principles that orient her work; it is an attempt, as she puts it, "to articulate some of the otherwise implicit methodological, definitional, and axiomatic groundings of the book's project." Given the degree to which exceptionalist resistance to criticism of first principles (or indeed to any sustained theoretical self-awareness) largely governs the way academics and other thinkers have often been able to (or indeed have cared to) imagine the field of Jewish American literary study and the intellectual labor it organizes and authorizes, I take Sedgwick's approach as a kind of model here in my own Introduction. My hope is that in laying out the postulates or analytical starting points from which I launch my critique of the field I can make clear the polemical stakes of my project in this book and, more significantly, make it a little more difficult to dismiss, disregard, creatively overlook, or otherwise ignore that critique.
A note for the perplexed (and perhaps for the impatient): I admit I'm being a bit playful here, but I hope nonetheless to make obvious that I straddle the line here in my axioms between the descriptive and the normative.
1. We need to put more effort into trying to think about identity under the banner of epistemology rather than ontology. Please.
The countless occasions on which I have been misunderstood in talking about identity suggest that I need to be exceedingly careful and clear about how I'm using the term. By identity I mean to indicate not some kind of stuff, an ontological attribute in those whom we identify, but an epistemological or interpretive frame that allows us to do that identifying. The "stuff" side of the ledger is obviously important, but the other, "frame," side has been woefully underexamined in Jewish American literary study. I'm not using identity as a way of naming the historical object inhering in Jews that grounds our practices of categorizing them—as an alternative to, but largely commensurate with, such historical objects as race, religion, ethnicity, culture, and so on, concepts that end up grounding what are inevitably essentialist projects under guise of another name (and concepts as well that Michael P. Kramer has helped us think critically about under the banner of "metonymic ethnicity"). Rather, I'm focused on identity more as way of naming the form of thought, the discursive machine, the conceptual apparatus that, precisely by spectrally producing the presence of such an object, grounds our professional practices of categorizing Jews. Which is to say that my interest in the concept of identity is entirely theoretical and a priori (and therefore has nothing necessarily to do with Jews): my point is simply that we cannot talk about Jews, we cannot engage in "Jewish studies" (just as we cannot engage in any kind of ethnic studies, or queer studies, or American studies, or American literary studies, or modernist studies, etc.), without a concept of identity. I used to think this is pretty obvious, but I guess I was wrong.
2. Jewish American literary study is unduly—stubbornly—burdened by the assumption of representativity, by an expectation that it offers, fundamentally, a reflection of Jewish American historical reality.
Why does so much Jewish American literary scholarship approach its field as if its task were at some basic level ethnographic? That's not exactly a rhetorical question, but I certainly consider the asking of it more critically productive than a possible answer might be; and indeed, on the one hand I don't really have such an answer, at least so long as we emphasize the "Why" that begins the question, but on the other hand in this book I endeavor to narrate the institutional and intellectual paths taken to get us to this situation, with emphasis on an implied "how." If someone were to tell you that the most important thing—indeed, the fundamental, the primary, thing—that scholarship on Moby Dick can do is to tell us about whaling or whalers, you'd call that person a lunatic. Laughable, yes, but the truth is that the Jewish American literary field is overshadowed by an often unquestioned assumption that the primary value of its literary archive is its ancillary function supplementing the historical record of Jews in America, an assumption taking form in practices ranging from the widespread habit of anchoring Jewish American literary criticism with historical claims about Jews in America to such maddening customs as taking for granted the scholarly value of assaying how easily (Jewish) scholars can identify with characters in Jewish American literary texts or blithely claiming that Nathan Zuckerman is the "alter ego" of Philip Roth, z"l. To be sure, these and many more allied practices do not characterize the entirety of the field's work. But it behooves us to ask what the Jewish American literary field would look like were it to discipline itself as something other than a repurposed ethnographic—or autoethnographic—history oriented by a set of questions about how Jews are represented (or represent themselves) in and by cultural texts. Any responses to such an inquiry would likely have to route themselves through questions about what Jewish American literary study would look like were it to ask critical questions about how knowledge practices have produced Jews as objects and subjects of discourse. Granted, most identity-based "studies" fields are burdened by at least some kind of expectation of representativity (often refracted through Kramer's "cultural affinity")—the particular recognizable case reveals what a subjectified "they" or objectified "we" are like—but I think this problem is exacerbated in Jewish American literary studies to the extent that the field has mostly refused a sustained project of critical self-theorization.
In 1845, in his eleventh and final thesis on Feuerbach, Karl Marx famously wrote that idealist philosophy up to that point had assumed that its task was merely to "interpret" the world "in various ways"; Marx's point was that thought in fact can (and indeed does) exert force in and "change" the world. I have written this book in the hope that we're at a point in the field-history of Jewish American literary study at which this difference is becoming urgent; certainly the ongoing debate about the role of Zionism and Israel in the politics and practices of Jewish identification in the United States, both in the American Jewish community and in American politics more generally, and especially the unequivocal fact that—at least as a problem strictly of biomass if not biopolitics—Zionism is far more pressingly significant as a lever of identification in the United States as a white Christian issue than as a Jewish issue (indeed, long before Zionism became a "Jewish" political movement in the late nineteenth century, the "restoration" of Jews to Palestine had been an established evangelical Protestant project), suggests at the very least that the links and relays between Jewishness and representation—links that are now taken for granted at so many levels—are neither self-evident nor secure. To be sure, strong institutional influences enforce the conservatism of intellectual habits and scholarly practices premised on the assumption of a reflection theory of literature, culture, and indeed thought, but I'm beginning to think that if they are still dominant, they may no longer be hegemonic.
3. Jewish studies is the analysis not of Jews, but of discourses about Jews; or, alternatively, Jewish studies is not about Jews, but about how we know about Jews.
This is not a book primarily about Jews. To be honest, and also more to the point, the book isn't even really about Jewish American literature, strictly speaking, either, at least insofar as it doesn't comprise a series of readings of texts already taken to be representative of—contained in and typical or characteristic of—the set Jewish American literature. It's about, rather, Jewish American literature's aboutness. It analyzes the professionalization of an institutionally situated way of talking about Jewish American literature, and is therefore about the historical development of a discursive link between Jews and what would become knowable as the Jewish American texts they write: it's about the investment of literature by and about Jews in America as a culturally capitalized object of cultural knowledge—a coordination and an investment logically informed by a larger project to know about and manage populations that is characteristic of a postwar regime of knowing. This coordination between discourses oriented around the investment of Jews as an object of knowledge established itself so quickly and so unequivocally during just a couple of decades after World War II that within a generation it had become hegemonic—to the point that it is still almost entirely taken for granted that the study of Jewish American literature (like Jewish literature more generally) is, primarily, a privileged site providing knowledge of Jews. In other words, this book is about how Jewish American literature came to be regarded as being a privileged record of Jewish life in America via the epistemological medium of its identifiably Jewish authors. But to the extent that Jewish American literary study—and indeed Jewish studies more generally—takes its current formations and practices for granted, forgetting its own history and declining to investigate or even acknowledge the discursive logic in which those formations and practices are grounded, its pursuit of field mastery will continually reenact and reproduce a blindness to its own instrumentality.
Kandice Chuh has admitted an "irritation" with aboutness, specifically with the "regularity and normativity of the practices and questions organized by and around it," which is to say with a process of normalization that, as she points out, "plays out in such ordinary academic activities as the creation of doctoral exam lists, course titling, and departmental hiring practices, all of which still largely follow the dogmatism of mastery-of-field ideology." Bracketing for now the fact that very few hiring committees in the last decade or so have presided over searches for specialists in Jewish American literature, such activities unfold in an institutional context that posits fields and "knowledge formations" as "external to each other," and with the former dependent on—and about—the independent latter. By directing our "attention to how aboutness functions as an assessment of relevance," Chuh argues that questions about what a given field or canon is about—some canon of literature marked by (almost always as the expression of) some ethnically identifiable group—or what is ethnically identifiable about a given text are "intellectually impoverished" and fuel a "complacency" that insulates fields from each other and ignores the "historicities of knowledge work," the inevitable result being that we come to think of fields as more or less self-evident.
With Chuh's critique in mind, we need to remember that neither the literary-historically recognizable categories "Jewish American literature" (or its immediate-predecessor formations, like "American Jewish novel" or "American Jewish writing" or "Jewish-American writing") or "Jewish American writer" nor the ethnographic historicist culturalism of our current mode of ethnic literary study is self-evident, and that they have histories. Specifically, in this book I chart the appearance of a discourse that articulated an emergently legible field of literary production to a newly conspicuous ethnic population—ethnicity itself a term that was undergoing change and elaboration during precisely the same period—in a national context in which the post-civil rights movement and nascently multiculturalist United States was revising how it understood groups and the population-bound cultures through which they are recognized as unified. So I might revise my opening claim: this is not a book about Jews as a subject of history, but about Jews as an object of knowledge, specifically in literary and cultural studies, and this has everything to do with what "we"—by which I mean intellectuals with some professional investment in thinking about Jewish identity and knowing about Jews and what they do—want out of a concept of Jewishness.
Julian Levinson has written that "in retrospect," Emma Lazarus "heralds the beginning of what we can properly call Jewish American literature—especially if we mean by this a tradition of writers in America of Jewish descent who have grappled explicitly with the meaning of Jewishness." This is as good a definition of Jewish American literature as any—from a certain angle, it's slightly more restrictive, and therefore satisfying, than Michael Kramer's disarmingly provocative claim that "Jewish literature is simply literature written by Jews"—but it is good only so long as we take for granted that Jewish American literary history itself has no history. In a note to this claim, Levinson admits (of course) that any attempt to fix the beginning of the tradition of Jewish American literature is necessarily going to be "inexact," and that he's "wary" (of course) of using as his primary categorical criterion "not only" the parentage of authors but texts that "explicitly allocate to Jewishness or Judaism some specific and often positive set of associations." It's true that the "in retrospect" with which Levinson introduces his claim is vitally important, but its function is precisely to displace the possibility of attending deliberately to the fact that the scholarly ability and willingness to professionally attend to this coordination between an author's Jewish heritage and a text's Jewish content has itself an institutional history. We need to revise and complicate Levinson's easy claim: I'll be the first to concede that a definition of Jewish American literature inheres in some perceived sense of feedback between the recognizable Jewishness of an author and the recognizable Jewishness of a text, but ignoring the history of the structures and practices of this feedback necessarily results in taking for granted that the field of Jewish American literary study operates as a historicist ethnography. In pursuing this history, my book proposes a critical displacement of the field. Which is to say that a Jewish or Jewish American literary tradition is a dubious enough concept—such a tradition certainly isn't self-evident, and it certainly doesn't exist in itself—that criticism might consider the full range of implications of not using it.
4. Humanities-based scholars—whether operating under the institutional auspices and authority of Jewish studies programs, English departments, or anywhere else—don't have to, and indeed should not, assume that Jewish literary study pursues the history of the Jews under another name; in other words, Jewish American literary study could stand to put a little effort into maintaining disciplinary independence from history.
The history I'm hoping a critical Jewish literary study would be interested in is the history of the professional vocabularies we use to talk about Jewish literature, and through it the history of our desire and ability to know about Jewish literature, not the history of the subject or object populations of Jewish literature. The significant historical development I trace in this book is how an emergent professional discourse about Jewish American literature became an institutional site in which Jewish American culture became an object of intellectual desire, a transformation we can talk about under the rubric of what Foucault has labeled the incitement to discourse. That is to say that this book is organized around an attempt to disarticulate and denormalize the constellation of tradition-canon-field. I'm hoping I'm not being too fast and loose with the word "tradition" here: I mean something like an assemblage of historical and cultural data whose unity and legibility, and also utility, is revealed under the sign of population-based identity. If there's anything that the current state of professional Jewish studies formations bears out, it's that an effective means of legitimizing an identity-based field and authorizing interdisciplinary scholarly inquiry within it is to construct a chronological narrative, grounded in a canon of texts as the manifest representation of that embodied identity; and indeed, the academic field of Jewish literary study presents itself as organized—necessarily if not self-evidently, but in any case obviously—around a literary and cultural canon of texts that itself draws its coherence and authority—metonymically if not representationally, but in any case presumably—from the historical self-evidence of a tradition, a term Jewish studies ultimately cannot disengage from a concept of population. In other words, given that (1) canonicity is not an inherent quality in texts and (2) the desire to categorize texts is one of the key forces that defines the literary field, Jewish literary study needs to pay some serious and explicit attention to the problem of how to understand the epistemological implications of the former while still acknowledging the professional protocols of the latter; if canonicity does not inhere in a text as an essential or genetic quality, why does so much literary history proceed from the assumption that literature offers a genetic representation of the identity category that centers a canon?
Accordingly, this book aligns itself with a critical Jewish studies for which intellectual responsibility takes the form of elaborating the history of the Wissenschaft-inherited institutional practices through which a literary canon draws its institutional authority from its claim to stand as representative of, and therefore essentially linked to, a historically recognizable cultural tradition. The work of this book is to pursue a critical history that makes it more difficult to take for granted that the Jewish American literary field is organized around the self-evidence of Jewish American literature's representation of Jewish American history. The book is motivated by a critical imperative to ask, if not why history has become the master disciplinary framework for work in Jewish studies, then perhaps what Jewish studies work that imagined itself otherwise than as organized and administered fundamentally by the history of populations might look like—or perhaps at the very least what work looked like that tried to contest its inevitable fall into the gravitational field of the self-evidentiary enticements of the history of populations. As literary critics it behooves us to be sensitive 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, just get a historian to do it.
5. The Jewish-American-literary-study-as-shadow-ethnography paradigm has played itself out, resulting necessarily in an impasse. The concept of identity organizing the field of Jewish literary study is a product of disciplinary practices authorized by the Jewish studies complex more generally; the assumption that it is naturally occurring in the texts the field comprises is an example of magical thinking that is ultimately unsustainable.
Consider as a starting point the methodological gap between Hana Wirth-Nesher's two magisterial editing projects, 1994's What Is Jewish Literature? and 2016's The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature. The first is an anxious collection, setting itself a relatively narrowly constrained (if unequivocally intensive) critical task to define the scholarly category of Jewish literature, while the second is rapturous and almost promiscuous, taking for granted a wide purview for its relatively unrestrained exploration of a capacious tradition of literary and cultural production already understood as Jewish and American; the latter volume exchanges the former volume's critical-theoretical speculations about how to recognize an archive for expansive discursive elaboration of an archive. The productivist investing of a field of analysis displaces the restrictivist obligation to define the field. The distance between these two modes of scholarly labor—between the possibility of examining a critical problematic and the incitements to produce discourse around key structuring problems or questions—illuminates the problem of the material recognizability of the text that lies at the heart of Jewish literary study.
Anita Norich exposes, albeit symptomatically, an ethnographic impasse that's rooted in the machinery of this displacement. Reminding us that "scholars of Jewish literature have devoted considerable attention to questions of identity, nomenclature, boundaries, and intersections, seeking a definitive identity for the texts they study or simply a working definition of their subject," Norich argues that "despite Hana Wirth-Nesher's excellent analysis of the topic" in What Is Jewish Literature?, "despite the vocabulary and conceptualization of ethnic literatures in America that Werner Sollors has been instrumental in giving us" in volumes like Beyond Ethnicity, and "despite the controversy generated by Michael Kramer's straightforward assertion that Jewish literature is literature written by Jews" in his essential essay "Race, Literary History, and the 'Jewish' Question," "the issue is no closer to resolution than it has ever been." The "issue" in Norich's assertion that "the issue is no closer to resolution than it has ever been" is presumably the "definitive identity for the texts" that scholars of Jewish literature study, or "simply a working definition of their subject," articulations that she goes on to gloss as "the question of what constitutes Jewish literature" and "concerns about how to identify, characterize, analyze modern Jewish literature" (776). But it is also worth pausing over the semantic reticence in Norich's formulation, an ever-so-slightly-detectable hesitation, one suspects, to be too precise: if Jewish literary scholarship has so far failed to come up with an incontrovertible definition that can functionally police the category of Jewish literature, Norich seems both shrewdly aware of the problem and unwilling to fully commit to bringing it into the light. As Norich helpfully notes, the problem of the identity of Jewish literature is instead resinscribed in a series of what end up being unsatisfying questions and antinomies through which Jewish literary study too often conducts itself—to wit: "tensions between Jewish and non-Jewish languages, diglossia and heteroglossia, exile and homeland, the cosmopolis and the shtetl, diaspora and Zion, derivation and influence. Is English now a Jewish language? Are Jews most creative when they are at home or when they are outsiders critical of or yearning for home? Did urbanization or modernization make Jewish identity too diffuse and indistinguishable from others? Is there a distinctly Jewish sense of humor, a Jewish aesthetic, a Jewish voice? What is a Jewish book?" (776). Norich worries that these questions effectively try to police the category but with a bad conscience, proceeding "primarily" by "asking who is within and who is outside some border" that they in fact refuse to name, and thus "underscor[ing] a profound anxiety about gatekeeping and permeability," about, essentially, policing. The strength of Norich's account is her diagnosis of this "mask[ing]" operation and her attention to "the literary" as the register in which its analysis should take place: "The worry about just what Jewish literature is in the modern era is an academic version of the equally problematic question 'Who is a Jew?'" But this is a question, as Norich holds, that we have not been able to easily answer "politically, sociologically, or culturally" (777). Indeed, in its dominant forms Jewish literary study takes shape in a series of questions that reinscribe the categorical question "What is Jewish literature?" precisely by displacing its critical force in the production of descriptive discourse oriented around a series of disciplinary problems. But what we might admit are her own circumlocutions betray another evasion.
Norich finds scholarly practices organized around such culturalist questions to be unsatisfying to the extent that they punt on precisely what the field presumably seeks in them: "These are not, finally, productive questions, and certainly not in literary or cultural terms, partly because they ignore the specific difference of the literary, partly because they are masks for that underlying question of identity" (776). Because scholarly practices organized to police the boundaries of Jewish literature are inevitably frustrating, Norich prefers a project to analyze how the "signs" under which Jewish literature announces itself are "established" and "contextualized" (775-776). Indeed, she suggests that "it might be more productive to question the term canon rather than the term Jewish" (778); repeating a move that's become standard since the rise of the new Jewish cultural studies in the 1990s, Norich hopes to talk about multiple Jewish literatures with a multiplicity of representational agendas, and she explicitly shuns the expectation of a "normative Judaism" that might underlie the search for an "agreed-on canon of modern Jewish letters" (777). As she argues, "Canon implies a kind of unity, or at least community, that does not exist for Jewish culture, spread all over the world and in scores of languages" (778).
But Norich's concept of canon reveals precisely the problem with the hegemonic force of the ethnological paradigm in Jewish literary study. For Norich, "there is no modern Jewish literary canon because until recently there have been none of the Jewish institutions of power required for canon formation": though categorically secure formations like a Jewish nation, Jewish schools, and a Jewish press have existed sporadically throughout Jewish history, Norich points out that they have not existed continuously, and so have not exercised the normalizing and unifying force that they might otherwise effect and that would be necessary to guarantee the cogency and intelligibility of a canon (778). In assuming that canons aren't appropriate for a population as geographically and historically diverse as the Jews, however, she discounts the fact that canons are, at the end of the day, facts of scholarly discourse, not of nature. The kind of canon that matters to Jewish literary scholarship—let us say, for the sake of argument, that we're interested in something we could call the Modern Jewish Canon—does not arise genetically and self-evidently from a culture, but is rather produced retrospectively, through mechanisms of selection, often through the agency of culture professionals. If such a canon is recognized as an expression of a Volksgeist, it's a Volksgeist that's recognized as such by scholars far more than by the Volk whose Geist is at issue. Norich, however, seems to expect a canon to function primarily as the signifying effect or expression of the internal coherence of a culture, and seems not to consider canon as the product of administrative forces imposed externally by institutionally situated practices of reading. In calling out the constellation of literary-historical questions that inscribe a border around Jewish literature by displacing the problem of the definition of the field, but by simultaneously reproducing the ethnographic paradigm by taking for granted that the field's coherence can be rooted only in the determining coherence of Jewish populations, Norich's discomfort with the ideological project supporting efforts at literary gatekeeping is symptomatic. Despite her gestural critique of normative canonization, she assumes throughout the categorical security of "Jewish literature," similarly to how Wirth-Nesher's Cambridge History does—precisely as a cultural substrate for the differences she wants to mark: Jewish "literatures" may be plural across time and space, but their Jewishness, like that of the coherent field that it anchors, is for her everywhere recognizable as such. In order to liberate modern Jewish literary scholarship from the compulsion to secure boundaries, Norich in fact renormalizes Jewish literary scholarship as a demographic operation organized under a regnant concept of representation. A Jewish studies-based reader can hardly blame her: Norich wants to criticize her categorical Jewishness and have it, too. Identity-based literary history grounded in these essentially ethnological assumptions cannot escape the impasse of this discomfort.
6. Professional Jewish studies in its dominant forms has organized itself as an insiderism, but a critical Jewish studies need not take the conventionalized practices and modes of thought characteristic of this insiderism, and the modes of privilege through which it has been institutionalized, for granted.
Michael Kramer has given us a powerful tool in his analysis of the "critical narcissism" arising from the dynamics of cultural affinity baked into Jewish studies practice. The institutional history of Jewish studies reveals a kind of privileged relationship between scholar and subject, often relayed through exceptionalist affects and taking form in the expectation of a "satisfying mode of ethnic self-expression" on the part of a scholar for whom "questions about the definition of the field are inextricably bound up with questions of self-definition." Kramer worries that "when literary criticism becomes overly personal, when too much is at stake, when the study of culture becomes confused with statements of creed . . . then the field's resistance to conceptual closure—the source of its strength and vitality—is significantly weakened. In short, if we insist on using Jewish American literature as a mirror, then we will only see images of ourselves." The obligation of Jewish studies is not to imagine the possibility of a politically innocent way to escape this narcissism, but rather to critically contest its inevitability as a normative function of Jewish studies's Wissenschaft heritage.
As anyone reading this likely doesn't need me to tell them, the foundation on which the Wissenschaft des Judentums was built was a rationalization of Jewish nationalism through institutionalization in the university, the product of which was a field of scholarship; it was, essentially, an operation in laundering thought. The modern critical study of Jews and Judaism, sometimes known in English simply, though perhaps ambiguously, as "Jewish scholarship," Wissenschaft was predicated on the fundamental unity of all Jewish culture, and in one sense the classic Wissenschaft historians were just that, historians—practitioners of a more or less secular, scientific historical project. But Wissenschaft's two-hundred-year 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 objectivity we take for granted in modern scholarly disciplines. Whether the early Wissenschaftlers focused their efforts inwardly on the Jewish community and argued, like Zacharias Frankel, that Wissenschaft should function as a "lever" to bring assimilating Jews back into Judaism's fold or turned and faced outwardly, like Leopold Zunz, to emphasize a comprehensive academic field unconcerned with its own normative role within the Jewish community, it is impossible to ignore the inherent symbiotic relation between Wissenschaft and Jews; as Meyer points out, even Zunz 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. Gershom Scholem famously spoke of the
Even if, when the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) was founded in 1969, the primary goal 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)—as Meyer puts it, "the establishment of academic respectability for Jewish scholarship within academia was the foremost consideration"—this tension is still very much alive in contemporary 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.
I began my analysis here with Epistemology of the Closet, and I want briefly to return there. In the opening pages, Sedgwick shines critical light on the "epistemological privileging of unknowing" that underwrites male heteronormative supremacy (and we can certainly include white supremacy in this analysis, as well): "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." Just as, in her (more-than-thirty-year-old) example, if François Mitterrand knows English and Ronald 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." Similarly, a June 1986 U.S. 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." While I do not aim in this book to compare the current state of Jewish American literary study with male privilege, rape culture, or murderous homophobic discrimination, I do think Jewish American literary study, precisely in its tenuous relationship with establishmentarian Jewish studies formations, needs to confront the practices of its own privileging of ignorance: 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. 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, Jewish studies itself needs to confront how it organizes the coherence of its interdisciplinary labors, and it should not assume anything about the ideal concept of Jewish culture on which it depends.
In other words, 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 obviously it wasn't. The AJS-sponsored Jewish studies project at its most pure and elemental, premised on the integrated unity of Jewish history—an ideological unity that it is above all engaged in producing—is the very quintessence of a political project, which manifests in its repeated reproduction of a fundamental, if not always explicit, attitude of self-relation. This dominant structure became more or less inevitable when the most powerful agent of institutional professionalization in academic Jewish studies, the Association for Jewish Studies, embraced what is now recognizable as historicist cultural studies when it was founded in 1969. Jonathan Boyarin has spoken of the "troubled romance between the master discipline of Jewish history" and "the wayward, unpredictable, 'undisciplined' hybrid known as cultural studies" in contemporary Jewish studies. Boyarin's case in favor of cultural studies is grounded in an argument that cultural studies has some built-in safeguards against the danger of falling back on "rhetorics of cultural wholes when doing cultural history," as cultural studies embraces the fact of its own agency in reading history itself as text. The picture he paints of critical responsibility is one in which the scholarly enterprise recognizes that, insofar as it never stands separate from the historical narratives it objectivizes and charts, those historical narratives do not maintain a self-evidence or truth apart from its own knowledge practices: "Continued interrogation of our own pedagogy, our own research, our own writing remains in order, whether or not we still have any hopes or pretensions of 'liberating' ourselves or others thereby. Cultural studies, among other things, is about the idea that just as a text is never a second, more ideal order of reality, so too we are never 'above' what we're studying, teaching, discussing, writing. Rather than fixing on a supposedly delimited time and space as the guarantor of the purest approach to truth, let us be aware that we are constantly tacking between two formations of identity," one in which we recognize ourselves and which we understand to be continually shaped by the other, which is the past and its relics, and that we "attend to our work as not simply the knowing, but rather the active making or performance of history."
I'm not as sanguine about the prospects for cultural studies, I think, as Boyarin is; it's also this implication that underlies at once a utopianism and an insiderism, a double articulation that seems to be inevitable for contemporary Jewish studies. As Boyarin put it (with his brother) a decade earlier, cultural studies responds to a "crisis" in the academy, to the biopolitical reinvestment of knowledge production oriented around human life, and directs itself to "discovering ways to make history, literature, and other cultural practices 'work' better for the enhancement of human lives." And because "Jews and Jewish culture are obviously in their own state of crisis," the Boyarins continue, "there is room for a Jewish cultural studies, one that will function in two ways: first by seeking to discover ways to make Jewish literature, culture, and history work better to enhance Jewish possibilities for living richly; and second by uncovering the contributions that Jewish culture still has to make to tikkun olam, the 'repair of the world.' The question that Jewish cultural studies raises might be said to be this: Is Jewishness up to the challenge?" Thus if in its early history Wissenschaft responds to the intensifications of nationalism inherent in the developing protocols of scholarly responsibility with what may be seen as a kind of bad conscience—with, in a manner of speaking, an expressed tension between the "Jewish" and the "scholarship" of "Jewish scholarship"—then "Jewish cultural studies" names the academic formation in which this bad conscience can be embraced as the instrumental mode of critical Jewish self-understanding, with a truly "Jewish" form of "studies."
It's hard not to notice another kind of tension, in the sign "culture," that emerges in this messianic forward-thinking image the Boyarins paint—between on the one hand the "cultural practices," like "literature" and "history," that have historically been the object matter of the academy and that cultural studies has an opportunity to put to "work" for "the enhancement of human lives" at the this moment of "crisis," and on the other hand the secure identitarian coordinates of "Jews and Jewish culture," which presumably serve as the nurturing environment in which a specifically Jewish cultural studies is, at least potentially, able to instrumentalize "Jewishness," if it's "up to the challenge," to achieve critical self-consciousness and in doing so repair the world. Another way to approach this tension and the intellectual danger it poses to critical Jewish studies is to understand how, almost immediately, many of the deconstructive insights of the new Jewish cultural studies—for example, its attention to Jewish studies' investments in the overdetermined insider/outsider dualism, its focus on the discursive productivity of fields of difference and on Jewish identity's inextricability from other forms of identity, and so on—hardened into positivisms in a lot of humanistic Jewish studies scholarship, which now tends to treat them largely as historical elements of the cultural matrix that Jewish studies is about. Standing at the orbital center of a multilateral professional system comprising both academic and communal institutions for the production of discourse, such an open and unfixed concept of culture functions as a strategic incitement. As Jeff DiLeo has argued, "unraveling the workings of affiliation in contemporary academic life is nothing short of an exercise in demythologization: the ethics of affiliation in American academic life necessarily involve making cultural beliefs about affiliation seem as though they are the only or even natural beliefs."
7. Jewish studies needs to entertain the possibility that its keyword "culture" (that is, as it appears in professional terms of art like "Jewish culture") operates less like an actual thing in the world than as a discursive lever or conceptual machine. More pointedly, Jewish studies, and Jewish American literary study in particular, needs to adopt a stance of what Said called "secular criticism," which has long been conventional in post-colonial studies and other ethnic studies fields, if it wants to be relevant or, for that matter, be able to face itself in the mirror.
It can sometimes seem like Jewish studies has forgotten the history of the term culture. Culture signifies for critics in the humanities in at least two more or less distinct though by no means exclusive ways—indeed, they rarely operate independently of each other. First, we use it in a way that can be termed anthropological, ethnographic, sociological, or, sometimes, maybe more boldly, national; this usage—as in the sense of American or French culture, or African American culture, but also something like gay culture, or even something like a corporate culture, and also for our purposes something like Jewish culture—is linked to a concept of "identity," and it underwrites current institutionally situated concepts of "diversity" and "multiculturalism," for example. Second, there's culture as a kind of training or expertise—culture as knowing about wine or cheese, or the difference between the Sex Pistols and Sibelius, or that Francis Ford Coppola and George Cukor are better than Larry Cohen (so some might argue), or that Moby Dick is supposed to be one of the highest achievements of American literature, as Shakespeare is of English; this usage can often be inflected by a consciousness of class and is operative in distinctions between high and low or elite and popular culture, or more generally in demarcating divergent regions of cultural production and circulation. We might want to specify a third, more general usage, insofar as we use the term culture to describe a kind of ideological or superstructural realm in which a social assemblage is aware of itself, as when we might think of a culture as arts and literatures and religions, for example—but it likely makes sense to think of this usage as more the abstraction of a key mechanism at work in the other two senses than as a separate usage in its own right. This exercise might be a bit too quick and dirty, but these usages can be differentiated (as I have begun to do here) by characteristic keywords or critical itineraries through which their respective instrumental authorities are manifested; the keyword of the first sense is cultural identity, the keyword of the second is cultural education (or just cultured), and the keyword of the third is cultural expression. Even if, again, these three different keywords or conceptualizations are relatives, and overlap, and maybe even converge—as "identity," "education," and "expression" tend to become impossible to imagine without each other—we would do well to recognize the different sorts of work they do and the different interpretive agendas they underwrite.
Part of the complexity arises from the fact that, as Stuart Hall observes, what we actually have in mind when we think about culture can be one of two objects—either culture as "the sum of the available descriptions through which societies make sense of and reflect their common experiences" (and I think we're justified abstracting from Hall's "societies" to other kinds of social assemblages more generally), a frame that emphasizes descriptions of or ideas about culture, or culture as a set of "social practices," a frame that is "more deliberately anthropological" and that accentuates the ways and means of a culture. Again, however, these two ways of understanding culture are not really contradictory or mutually exclusive, and we can easily see how they are both active in each of the three senses of the term I just distinguished. And it's probably fair to say that this abstract difference between knowing—ideas and descriptions—and doing—practices—deconstructs, as the anthropological focus on doing doesn't really work without a sense of knowing familiarity: rubes act like rubes because they don't know better, and knowledgeable experts authoritatively talk the talk because they have walked the walk. After all, experience and expertise do share the same root. Like many identity-based fields, Jewish studies instantiates its authority precisely by capitalizing this insiderist ambivalence between participant and specialist: the Jewish studies expert leverages masterful training in Jewish culture in order to be able to make authoritative claims. So long as it takes as its fundamental object Jewish populations—that is, as the final guarantor of the Jewish cultural content on which it trains its interdisciplinary eye—and so long as the culturalist recognizability of those populations is circumscribed by the protocols of Kramer's "cultural affinity," Jewish studies inevitably normalizes this exceptionalist insiderism.
In charting the purview and authority of their specifically Jewish cultural studies, the Boyarins point to Raymond Williams's "pioneering" efforts, which were soon afterward elaborated by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the mid-1960s and in post-1968 anthropology-influenced work "especially in the United States," to abstract Marxist critical tools from their original focus on class to a much broader field of identity relations and subjectivity and subjectification in general. Williams, for whom culture belongs to a group of words that don't represent concepts so much as historical problems, shows how a normalizing, naturalizing metaphorology has administered the history of the term. In Keywords, he explains that the term's Latin root word carried a range of meanings, including inhabit, cultivate, protect, and honor with worship (the "inhabit" sense grew into "colony," "honor with worship" grew into "cult," etc.), though its first English uses circulated around natural process, as in our current verb cultivate: the culture or tending of something, like crops or animals. This meaning—the tending of natural growth, linked with allied ideas of husbandry—was dominant until the early nineteenth century. Williams describes two key transformations occurring during this period: first, the metaphoric transference of this "natural" meaning to the human context, making the sense of human tending direct, and second, an extension of particular processes to a general process, which the word could abstractly carry. It is from this second sense, obviously, that our noun "culture" derives—though this independent noun, as an abstract process or the product of such a process, would not become common until the middle of the nineteenth century (Williams points out that Milton used civility at times as the nineteenth century might use culture, though by the eighteenth century cultivation and cultivated were introducing some class inflections). French and German usages influenced the English at this point, too, especially in association with a concept of civilization, an idea from which the development of the term culture had not been differentiated until the eighteenth century, when civilization emerged as a separate term.
In Marxism and Literature, Williams explains that until the late eighteenth century, culture and civilization were mostly interchangeable, and carried a double sense, two meanings which, he points out, "were historically linked: an achieved state, which could be contrasted with 'barbarism,' but also an achieved state of development, which implied historical process and progress." The terms diverged for a number of reasons, including a Romantic attack that "civilization" was superficial rather than "natural," a cultivation of extraneous qualities, like luxury and politeness, rather than more inherently human qualities. This Romantic attack became the basis of a distinction between internal and external: culture became the term indicating "inner" or "spiritual," rather than external, development, as distinct from or even opposed to civilization or society in an abstract or general sense. From here, culture as a general process or "inner" development was extended to include a descriptive sense of the means and works of such development: that is, culture as a general classification of "the arts," religion, and "the institutions and practices of meanings and values." By the Romantic period, therefore, culture could be the record, impulse, and resource of the human spirit, and therefore "at once the secularization and the liberalization of earlier metaphysical forms," thus establishing the naturalized groundwork for the material historical associations it has now. And so in the Romantic period it also became possible—and perhaps necessary—to talk of multiple cultures. This romantic concept of culture emphasized an idea of human development alternative to that carried by our current terms civilization and progress: it was used to emphasize national and traditional cultures, including the new concept of "folk culture," which was developing in reaction to mechanization and industrialism. Specifically, it was used both to distinguish between human and material development and to distinguish the development of different national groups. As a result of these transformations the term culture acquired connotations both of naturalness and of coherence or identity, and it's also obviously as a manifestation of this shift that nationalist scholarship, including national literary projects and the Wissenschaft tradition, could emerge.
Williams marvels at the "remarkable" complexity of the modern usage of the term culture. There persists of course the literal continuity of the physical process, as, in Williams's examples, in "sugar-beet culture" and "germ culture." But then there are three main usages. First, there's "the independent and abstract noun which describes a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development," which emerges in the eighteenth century. Second, there's "the independent noun, whether used generally or specifically, which indicates a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period or a group," which consolidates in nineteenth-century Romanticism. Finally, there's an "independent and abstract noun that describes the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity." This last usage is relatively late (probably late nineteenth or early twentieth century, according to Williams), and is in fact an applied form or reification of the first usage: "the idea of a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development was applied and effectively transferred to the works and practices which represent and sustain it." Indeed, Williams points out that in English the first and third senses are quite close; in Matthew Arnold for example, they are largely indistinguishable. Williams's history of the term helps explain how the tension Hall pointed to between practices and descriptions is a function of how "culture" came to be inextricable from the elaboration of a diversified conceptualization of identity. And it also helps us understand the insiderist or narcissistic habits of thought—intellectual and institutional practices that privilege and naturalize links between the authors and readers of culturally categorizable texts—that characterize the dominant mode in Jewish studies.
The history of culture's multifarious investment of a concept of identity is often forgotten by post-cultural-studies humanists in professional Jewish studies, for whom culture's alliance with a concept of birthright and culture's alliance with a concept of education tend to collapse into each other. In both cases the term corresponds to an archive or body of knowledge, with the significant difference being that in the one case that correspondence is crossed by an administrative concept of heritability—and is colored by concepts of nationality, ethnicity, or even race—and in the other case it is crossed by an administrative concept of progressive development and discrimination—and is colored by concepts of taste and perhaps class. Culture is a filiative structure into which we're born, one that interpellates us through paternal lineaments of authority, but it's also an affiliative system of reading, acting, and practice that we acquire, one that interpellates us through our desire and ability to identify with it. In both cases, the role of the expert in culture—one who carries cultural expertise—is validated, though with some variation: as native informant in the first case, or as a kind of trained and experienced professional in the second. But in the case of the dominant form of exceptionalist-narcissistic Jewish studies work, these two definitions of the "expert" converge.
Culture's naturalized variant of a concept of archive is allied to a concept of property in a double sense: we easily speak of culture both as something on or to which one has some claim, but also as something to which one belongs. Archives are discursive assemblages, but as Foucault reminds us, discourses do more than simply designate things, and "this 'more'. . . renders them irreducible to the language and to speech. It is this 'more' that we must reveal and describe." Which is to say that the urgent task of the critic of culture is to denaturalize this link between belonging, expertise, and cultural description on the way to disrupting the normalized link between canon-tradition-field, analyzing more than the information culture is held to contain or signify, and thereby to focus at least as intently on what Edward Said describes as the "process" whereby culture describes both something one possesses and something that possesses one, and whereby it "designates a boundary by which the concepts of what is extrinsic or intrinsic to the culture come into forceful play" and whereby it performs its "power" to "authorize, to dominate, to legitimate, demote, interdict, and validate." Culture always involves hierarchies, separating elite from popular, good from bad, and so on, but also ours from theirs; in defining the matrix of its interior through discriminations and evaluations, culture is always also a system of exclusions defining an exterior. Culture's "system of values" is not equally distributed through its domain of exercise, and the "canons and standards" that are the manifestation of its domination are normalized to the point of invisibility, appearing "natural," "objective," and "real."
Said's emphasis on culture's power to make affiliative social forms appear as naturalized filial forms, a "transition" in which "affiliation" operates as a "compensatory order" that can "reinstate vestiges of the kind of authority associated. . . with filiative order" (19), offers a mode of critical approach to the operational structure of Jewish studies' insiderist—Kramer's narcissistic—exceptionalism. While filiative order is maintained by "natural bonds and natural forms of authority—involving obedience, fear, love, respect, and instinctual conflict—affiliative relationships recast these bonds into what seem to be transpersonal forms—such as guild consciousness, consensus, collegiality, professional respect, class, and the hegemony of a dominant culture" (20). Affiliative order surreptitiously duplicates—represents—filiative order: "Affiliation then becomes in effect a literal form of re-presentation, by which what is ours is good, and therefore deserves incorporation and inclusion" (21). This is not immaterial to how we theorize and practice work in the humanities for Said, in a paradigm with which we are all familiar by now: "When our students are taught such things as 'the humanities' they are almost always taught that these classic texts embody, express, represent what is best in our, that is, the only, tradition." Even if the boundaries of what we consider "our. . . tradition" have greatly expanded in the last few decades since Said wrote these lines, and even if we may no longer be "taught that such fields as the humanities and such subfields as 'literature' exist in a relatively neutral political element," or that they exist primarily "to be appreciated and venerated," it is indeed still a fact that "such fields as the humanities and such subfields as 'literature'" ground themselves in the hegemonic sense that "they define the limits of what is acceptable, appropriate, and legitimate so far as culture is concerned" (21). Insofar as this representational structure naturalizes affiliative order in its re-presentive reproduction of filial authority, it reinscribes a kind of self-evidence that at once "reinforces the known at the expense of the knowable" by normalizing "what belongs to us (as we in turn belong to the family of our languages and traditions)" and reinforces an "assumption that the principal relationships in the study of literature—those. . . based on representation—ought to obliterate the traces of other relationships within literary structures that are based principally upon acquisition and appropriation"—that is, the assumption that focusing on what texts represent or mean outweighs "what they are as the result of contested social and political relationships" (22-23).
Said's critique of orientalist ethnocentrism in the reproduction of the Western canon—which is not particularly my interest here—is illustrative as well of the way in which Jewish studies insiderism reproduces itself as a culturalism, as it highlights, first, the intellectual habits and ideological relays that conceptually normalize culture as a more or less legible, disciplinarily operable historical object that carries with it a certain expectation of historical knowledge production; second, the powerful attraction exerted by this naturalizing process on the scholar (both in Jewish studies and elsewhere) incentivized to speak the "truth" of culture; and third, more generally, that what as Jewish studies functionaries we mean to indicate or describe by employing the term culture we are often in fact discursively constituting as an analytical object by doing so. If the "validated nonbiological social and cultural forms" that affiliative relationships take become legible as forms "representing the filiative processes to be found in nature" (23), Said finds two alternatives for the contemporary critic. The first is "organic complicity" with this pattern, manifested in a set of practices that naturalize and normalize affiliation's reinscriptive displacement of filiation: "the critic enables, indeed transacts, the transfer of legitimacy from filiation to affiliation" (24). This route describes the dominant form of culturalist Jewish studies scholarship, especially (but not exclusively) in the tendency of Jewish studies scholars to operate in the compelling mode of "native informant." Said emphasizes the ethnocentrism underlying the maneuver subtending this first possibility, in which humanistic scholarship is pursued within a general structure of "reverence" directed at once toward its objects and toward the culture it serves: "This keeps relationships within the narrow circle of what is natural, appropriate, and valid for 'us,'" and thereafter "excludes" what is not us or ours, but also "the political dimension" in which "all texts" can be found" (24). We should not read "reverence" here too narrowly: it takes form as a kind of scholarly act of taking for granted—in a general sense—reserved for those topics and analytical objects whose status and value carry some degree of self-evidence, and the scholar in this mode engages in what Paul Bové has in other contexts called a "nihilistic ascesis," operating in a narrow, instrumentalized, and politically neutralized range of knowledge production.
But Said's critic labors against the normalization of this representation of culture. The second alternative Said offers is for the critic "to recognize the difference" between "filiation" and "affiliation," and "to show how affiliation sometimes reproduces filiation, sometimes makes its own forms." This kind of "secular criticism," as Said calls it, would therefore be capable (as the first alternative would not be) of analyzing the "ideological capture" of texts by a humanistic curriculum that reinscribes them in a naturalizing culturalism such that incentivized scholars are compellingly positioned to produce accounts of how those texts represent that culture (24). Criticism in this second mode is for Said necessarily "oppositional," insofar as it necessarily shines critical light on the investment of both dogma and system and finds "its identity" in "its difference from other cultural activities"—its "suspicion of totalizing concepts" and "its discontent with reified objects." Insofar as the institutions of scholarship tend toward the naturalization of their cultural objects, Said's critic can never feel at home in those institutions and must be their uncompromising enemy: "criticism is most itself and, if the paradox can be tolerated, most unlike itself at the moment it starts turning into organized dogma" (29).
A critical Jewish American literary study will oppose the field's dominant narcissistic historicism, which reproduces Said's "organic complicity" structure, recognizing cultural texts as representative of a naturalized culture, and largely dismissing the possibility of criticizing either scholarship's labors of reification or the scholar's practices themselves in their relations or affiliations with both the texts they take up and the audiences they address. Said helps us understand how Jewish studies—we should recall that Said did once (in)famously call himself "the last Jewish intellectual"—operates by constructing the self-evidence of its cultural object field and representing its own naturalized dependence on this objective field. This mode of culturalist scholarship is "defined once and for all by its secondariness," by a kind of foundational posture of "having come after the texts and occasions it is supposed to be treating" (51), and its discursive investments almost always reproduce what Jonathan Boyarin calls "rhetorics of cultural wholes." Scholarship's secondariness in this naturalizing mode is not simply temporal: it is legible and functional precisely as representationally dependent, instrumentally reliant on the more primary, fundamental reality of the historical objects it takes up, themselves defined by their documentation of cultural presence; scholarship's compelling truth-value rises and falls on the more primary historical truth of the textual objects about which it offers information. Crucial to the naturalizing force of this "organic complicity" is the historical naturalization of the objects of humanistic analysis. This is essentially the material work of the term ethnicity, which operates hand in hand with an insiderist model of the intellectual.
What about the second, critical, alternative, however? With its focus on a dynamic engagement between critic and text, subject and object, and therefore present and past—with its insistence on the multivalent affiliations between, in his words, world, text, and critic—Said's secular criticism carries the burden of certain questions that the first critic, who chooses "organic complicity" with a normalized historical field, chooses not to face. Rather than historiographically contained or simplified representations of self-evident cultural realities or pellucid acts of communication that exist, neutrally, to be read to reveal their cultural truths, Said encourages us to think of texts as already interpretations, interpretations that exist in a never-completable or -totalizable dynamic relation with other interpretations: "As Nietzsche had the perspicacity to see, texts are fundamentally facts of power" (45); interpretations displace interpretations, texts displace other texts. As Said puts it, "if we assume instead that texts make up what Foucault calls archival facts, the archive being defined as the text's social discursive presence in the world, then criticism too is another aspect of that present. In other words, rather than being defined by the silent past, commanded by it to speak in the present, criticism, no less than any text, is the present in the course of its articulation, its struggles for definition" (51). Criticism, then, rather than an act of decoding dependent on an already-coherent historical origin, should be conceptualized as itself the active creation of a context for the text's interpretation, always the activation of a "beginning": what criticism does is "to begin to create the values" by which texts are judged (52) insofar as they "embody in writing those processes and actual conditions in the present" by means of which texts "bear significance" (53). Criticism does not find or uncover knowledge stabilized in and by the past; it is itself a "form of knowledge. . . . [I]f, as Foucault has tried to show, all knowledge is contentious, then criticism, as activity and knowledge, ought to be openly contentious, too. My interest is to reinvest critical discourse with something more than contemplative effort or an appreciative technical reading method for texts" (224). Criticism is always the contestation of a naturalized image of cultural history.
8. The keyword ethnic culture can function as an intellectual dodge, allowing critics in Jewish studies and other identity-defined fields to shirk the responsibility to theorize their practice.
The normalization of a concept of "ethnic culture" as the nationalizing anchor concept of Jewish American literary history is the machine through which literary study subordinates itself to history. I'm not going to get into the weeds of this concept right now (I'll do that later), but the point about ethnicity that's so important to the academic institutionalization of Jewish American literary study and to the Jewish studies-based critique of identity is that unlike the concept of population underlying Wissenschaft-based cultural studies, the specifically ethnic concept of population that became hegemonic in postwar thinking about identity merely had to be declared or proclaimed for its associated cultural history to be affectively affirmed. Whereas the Wissenschaft subject needed to be actively engaged—to diligently labor—in the continual reproduction of its cultural traditions, the American ethnic subject can lay claim to "its" culture as a naturalized function of inheritance. Even if the cultural practices and interpretations of social life that produce the experience of ethnicity are robust and active, the ethnic subject hardly encounters ethnicity as such, and has access to a diverse archive of cultural content (foodways, literary traditions, geography, etc.) merely by passive fact of heritage—that is, as a right, essentially. And what goes for the ethnic subject has tended to go as well for intellectual practices organized around this concept of ethnicity, especially in literary study. Which is to say that far more important for our purposes is the fact that for the scholarly enterprise, ethnicity operates as a historical machine that spectrally produces the coherent ground it already recognizes.
9. I've been questioned and counseled (for years, in fact) about devoting too much attention in my writing to reactionary cranks whom, I'm told, aren't at the end of the day that influential or relevant; but in an identity-based field like Jewish studies—and especially a sub-field like Jewish American literary study, whose narcissistic exceptionalism continues to reproduce itself in the institutional repetition of breakthrough—mainstream liberal scholarship that imagines itself to be politically innocent can in fact be continuous with aggressively nationalistic work if it's not careful to critically contest the logic of its own practices.
Indulge me a provocative claim: the Jewish literary field, especially in its dominant liberal formations, loves Ruth Wisse. What I mean by this is that, especially after the publication of The Modern Jewish Canon in 2000, Wisse provides liberal scholars of Jewish literature an imaginative opportunity to discursively separate politics and scholarship—her literary scholarship is pretty great, but man, are her politics dreadful, so the oft-repeated gesture goes—and therefore to enjoy the fantasy that scholarship can be politically neutral. The remarkably powerful institutional effect of this maneuver is that it allows liberal scholars to benefit from a recognizable literature identifiable according to all the standard nationalist protocols by which national literatures have been identifiable since the advent of the era of racialist nationalism while at the same time criticizing nationalism, often in the name (if at all) of vague terms of cultural unity like history or experience or peoplehood that, presumably, representationally anchor a category of Jewish literature without participating in nationalism's bad associations.
Arguments such as Wisse's, which assert a restrictive political orientation for the appropriately inscribed Jewish subject and the Jewish literature proper to that subject, further reproduce the irrelevance of a specific Jewish American literary study. Despite, in its claims of the politically self-evident content of Jewish literature, her program's reactionary (by which I mean anticritical) alignment, Wisse's Tikvah-funded insistence that there's a great deal at political and institutional stake in how intellectuals pursue Jewish literary study in fact betrays how institutional and political inconsequence are the very essence of a Jewish literary study that is grounded in an ethnologically representational concept of Jewish identity and that therefore takes for granted that its purpose is to interpret the words and acts of a Jewish American subject of history. Frankly, I'll concede the germ of critical intellectuality in Wisse's attending to a text like George Eliot's Daniel Deronda in the context of a discussion of Jewish literature, as she has done; the problem, of course, is that her attention is administered entirely by a germicidal nationalist anxiety about polity, rather in fact than by any responsibility toward a critical concept of Jewish literature. With illuminating candor, Wisse writes in The Modern Jewish Canon: "Daniel Deronda, the best Zionist novel (though not a Jewish book), foretells just how difficult it would be to uphold the idea of Jewish peoplehood in English literature"; crystalized in the brutal ideological honesty with which she differentiates "Zionist" and "Jewish" even as her book premises itself on the elision of that difference, she admits that her primary interest in it is in asking "how well the Jewish story can be told in English" rather than in any kind of critical analysis of how categorical concepts of Jewishness and literariness intersect. Jewish American literary study in its dominant historicist formations may carry its own obsolescence with it wherever it goes, but thanks to dynastic intellectuals like Wisse we can understand how nationalism operates as the inevitable supplement of its representational historicism.
10. Polemics are critically productive, even for people who are stylistically turned off by them.
As the itinerary of a term like Jewish peoplehood through Jewish studies and Jewish community institutions testifies, professional scholarship doesn't always operate in a state of complete autotransparency. My only real point in advocating for the polemic form is that it can sometimes offer the only opportunity to lay bare a scholarly formation's history, intellectual genealogy, and institutional alliances, which the disciplinary practices enabled by that formation might not otherwise reveal. Its disadvantage, of course, is that those who resist such institutional transparency will find in the polemic's form an affective opportunity to dismiss its critique. I admit that I tend to get rather animated while arguing, and we all know that such animation can be capitalized as grounds for rejection or dismissal in scenes of prestigious professional interaction. Again, my defense of the polemic form is simply that it brings this kind of reactive professional maneuver out of hiding (as it did with a reader of the manuscript that became this book, who wrote, in part: "Although Schreier preempts criticism of his personal strident attack on Wisse by admitting that he's been warned not to waste time repeatedly attacking an extremist voice in Jewish American literary studies, he does it again, and it is symptomatic of a shrill political agenda, exactly what he accuses Wisse of committing"). And while I'm on the subject, I will also claim a similar justification for my use of "theory" "jargon": it ideally forces Jewish studies intellectuals to confront the fact and weight of commonsense patterns of self-evidence in their professional practices. I don't imagine this argument will convince many people already predisposed to disagree with me, but we all make choices.
One of the primary tasks I attempt in this book is to look more closely than Jewish studies is accustomed to looking at how a series of professionally powerful clichés about Jewish American literary history was established. Genealogy has to be the beginning of any remedy for normalized institutional practice. The narratives through which Jewish studies reinscribes its compelling self-evidence need to be analyzed not simply for the historical realities they claim to represent but also for the intellectual and institutional structures through which they produce these representations; in the case of "breakthrough," an explanation of why it so quickly consolidated and became hegemonic can be found in part in its double articulation of a particular American subject and of a transnational history that categorically identifies it as Jewish. And accordingly, one of my central claims in this book is that the ethnological ground of the Jewish American literary field has deteriorated in the decades since the consolidation of the breakthrough narrative's self-evidence, to the point that it's becoming increasingly difficult to continue to take "Jewish American literature" for granted as a coherent thing in the world other than as a categorical lever of the Jewish studies enterprise.
The structure of the book is pretty simple. Chapter 1, "The History of Jewish American Literary History: 'Breakthrough' and the Institutional Rhetoric of Identity," offers a close analysis of the breakthrough narrative, examining how it came about, how it's been reproduced, and how its persuasive epistemological, affective, and institutional investments are structured. The second chapter, "Before Jewish American Literature," examines how breakthrough consolidated by reproducing and re-presenting Yiddishkeit as Jewish American literature's past, its representational link to Jewish history. Finally, by way of a discussion of how this new literary-historical entity, Jewish American literature, has circulated since its mainstreaming consolidation, the third chapter, "After Jewish American Literature," analyzes the institutional and disciplinary implications of breakthrough's investment of the Jewish American writer as a subject of Jewish history. In the Conclusion I show how the ethnographic narrative of Jewish American literary history deconstructs.
I have aimed to write this history of Jewish American literary study from the perspective of a critical elaboration of institutional labor rather than from the perspective of a historicist elaboration of ethnic fact. As Said helps us understand, this does not mean writing a history of a supposed canon or tradition of Jewish American literature in terms of the books that currently constitute the archive of that canon. Rather, it means writing a history of the discursive shifts that constituted the field in which that archive can be thought to be representative: a critical history of the incentivized ability to think in terms of a specific identity rather than, and in fact in explicit opposition to, a history of the subject constituted in the field of that identity.