Sunday, June 3, 2012

Anti-Semitism, The Jew as the Emergent Objet Petit a in Capitalism

Two worms struggle for the rod of power
One slowly releases, the other grasps more tightly on...

Slavoj Zizek, "Living in the End Times"
One of the supreme ironies of the history of anti-Semitism is how the Jews are made to stand for both poles of an opposition: they are stigmatized both as upper class (rich merchants) and as lower class (filthy), as overly intellectual and as too earthly (as sexual predators), as lazy and as workaholics. Sometimes they stand for a stubborn attachment to a particular lifestyle which prevents them from becoming full citizens of the state thet live in, at other times for a "homeless" and uprooted universal cosmopolitanism indifferent towards all particular ethnic forms. The focus changes with different historical epochs. In the era of the French Revolution, the Jews were condemned as being overly particularistic: they continued to hold onto their identity, rejecting the possibility of becoming abstract citizens like everyone else, this accusation was turned around: the Jews were now considered all too "cosmopolitan," lacking all roots.

The key change in the history of Western anti-Semitism occurred with the Jew's political emancipation (the granting of civil rights) which followed the French Revolution. In early modernity, the pressure on them was to convert to Christianity, which itself created problems of trust: have they REALLY converted, or are they secretly continuing to practice their rituals? By the later nineteenth century however, a shift occurs which will culminate in Nazi anti-Semitism: conversion is now out of the question, effectively meaningless. For the Nazis, the guilt of the Jews is directly rooted in their biological constitution: one does not have to prove that they are guilty; they are guilty soley be being Jews. The key is provided by the sudden rise, in the Western ideological imaginary, of the wandering "eternal jew" in the age of Romanticism - precisely when, in real life, with the explosive development of capitalism, features attributed to Jews began to permeate the whole of society (since commodity exchange became hegemonic). It was thus at the very moment when the Jews were deprived of their specific properties (which had made it easy to distinguish them from the rest of the population), and when the "Jewish question" was "resolved" at the political level by formal emancipation (by granting them the same rights as all other "normal" Christian citizens), that their "curse" was inscribed into their very being - they were no longer misers and userers, but demonic heroes of eternal damnation, haunted by an unspecified and unspeakable guilt, condemned to wander, and longing to find redemption in death. It was, then, precisely when the specific figure of the Jew disappeared that the ABSOLUTE Jew emerged, a transformation which conditioned the shift of anti-Semitism from theology to race: the Jew's damnation was their race, they were not guilty for what they had done (exploiting Christians, murdering their children, raping their women; ultimately, betraying and murdering Christ), but for what they WERE. Is it necessary to add that this shift laid the foundations for the Holocaust, for the physical annihilation of the Jews as the only appropriate final solution of their "problem"? Insofar as the Jews were identified by a series of properties, the goal was to convert them, to turn them into Christians; but, once Jewishness concerned their very being, only annihilation could solve "the Jewish question."

The true mystery of anti-Semitism, however is why it is such a constant, why it persists through all its' historical mutations. One is reminded of what Marx said about Homer's poetry: the true mystery to explain is not its' origins, how it was rooted in early Greek society, but why it continued to exert its supreme artistic charm even today, long after the social conditions which gave birth to it have disappeared It is easy to date the original moment of European anti-Semitism: it started not in Ancient Rome, but in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as Europe began to awake from the inertia of the "dark ages" with the accelerated development of market exchange and the role of money. AT that precise point, "the Jew" emerged as the enemy: the usuper, the parasitic intruder who disturbs the harmonious social edifice. Theologically, is also the moment of what Jacques Le Goff called the "birth of the Purgatorium": the idea that the choice was not only between Heaven and Hell, that there had to be a third, mediating place, where one could make a deal, pay for one's sin's (assuming they are not too great) with a determinate quantity of repentance - money again!
...and other paranoiac misprojections.

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