Video: The Jew as Migrant: From Theory to Poetry

March 2, 2020
Vivian Liska
Vivian Liska spoke at the CSWR on Feb. 25, 2020.

On February 25, Vivian Liska, Professor of German literature and director of the Institute of Jewish Studies at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, delivered the annual List Lecture in Jewish Studies at the CSWR.

The Jew as archetypal migrant is a pervasive trope in philosophy, politics, and the arts. Since Biblical times, the condition of exile was a source of discrimination, oppression, and suffering. Recent philosophical discourse, however, often regards it as the embodiment of a glorious deterritorialization that overlooks the hardship inherent in exile and migration. Close readings of theoretical and poetic texts by Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot, Giorgio Agamben, and Paul Celan highlight the dangers of romanticizing migration and the potential of poetic language to address contentious ethical and political issues of the present.




Good evening, everyone. Although the curriculum has ostensibly moved to a schedule where we start on time, the events still seem to lag five to 10 minutes late. So we're keeping with that Harvard tradition.

My name is Charles Stang. I'm the director here at the Center for the Study of World Religions. And it's my pleasure to welcome you to the center's annual Albert and Vera List lecture in Jewish studies.

Let me put the profane before the sacred and ask you all to silence your phones. I'll do the same. And before I get too far along into my remarks, I'd like to acknowledge and thank our co-sponsors this evening. That is the Center for Jewish Studies-- where's David?

There he is. Thank you, David. And Harvard Hillel. I don't know if we have anyone from Harvard Hillel level this evening but they helped us get the word out. And as always, I'd like to thank the center's staff for their help in putting this event on.

So as I mentioned, this is the annual List Lecture in Jewish Studies. Recent List lecturers have included Andre Aciman from the CUNY Graduate Center, Sarah Hammerschlag from the University of Chicago, and Guy Stroumsa, emeritus from Oxford University and Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

But it's my distinct honor and pleasure to welcome this evening Professor Vivian Liska as this year's List lecturer. She is professor of German literature and director of the Institute of Jewish Studies at the University of Antwerp in Belgium.

Since 2013, she has been the distinguished visiting professor in the German division of the faculty of the humanities at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2012, she was awarded the cross of honor for sciences and the arts from the Republic of Austria. She's published extensively on literary theory, German modernism, and German Jewish authors and thinkers.

Professor Liska's lecture this evening, entitled "The Jew as Migrant, from Theory to Poetry," falls into one of the center's programming threads entitled poetry, philosophy, and religion. The series aims to explore the porous boundaries between these three modes of inquiry and utterance, which have had a tense but productive relationship from antiquity until today.

For the most part we have, to date, invited poets to speak in this series. Professor Liska, however, brings a different perspective to this topic. This evening, she will explore the trope of the Jew as the archetypal migrant, both in theory and in poetry, and the political implications of this trope.

She will chart the transformation of the theme of exile from its ancient associations as a source of discrimination, oppression, and suffering, and its modern philosophical reimagination as the embodiment of a glorious deterritorialization. But this romantic reimagination threatens to overlook the hardship inherent in exile and migration.

And so Professor Liska will provide close readings of theoretical and poetic texts by Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot, Giorgio Agamben, and Paul Celan, which will highlight the dangers of romanticizing migration and the potential of poetic language to address contentious ethical and political issues of the present. Please join me in welcoming Professor Vivian Liska.


Good evening. It is a great honor and pleasure to be here. Thanks so much, Charlie Stang. Thanks, [INAUDIBLE]. I don't know if she's still around for helping me. And of course now, Byron, who set all this up.

I want to thank you also for accepting the topic that I proposed for this lecture. My title invokes one of the oldest, and pervasive, if not eroded, topics in Jewish literature and thought and in the reflection about it. It might indeed come as a surprise that the motif of the Jew as migrant, the Wandering Jew, Jewish exile, is still so prevalent in recent theoretical writings and in poetry. So it is my primary contention that an investigation into its discursive use, particularly in philosophical writings in the past decades, can highlight crucial political issues and concerns of our times.

I would like to reformulate the core question that you have prepared in your kind introduction. So to reformulate the question underlying my talk, since biblical times, just as in the ancient Greek world, exile or forced migration is considered as a source of discrimination, of suffering.

Jewish history and scriptures are replete with accounts of the hardships of exile. Recent philosophical discourse, however, often regards Jewish exile as the embodiment of a glorious deterritorialization. Speaking of exile as a dismal predicament implies a need for rootedness and tends to justify territorial nationalism.

Celebrating exile, however, overlooks or minimizes its hardship. Thus the question I would like to address here, is it possible to criticize this romanticizing affirmation of exile without endorsing nationalist discourses of territorial rootedness?

Throughout the centuries, the Jews was regarded as the epitome of the stranger. He was the universal quasimythical symbol of humanity's homelessness on earth but also the ruthless intruder, parasite, among other settled societies. This duality between exile as a universal human condition and as a specific sociopolitical predicament already informs Jewish scriptures.

Some biblical passages that deal with exile indeed invite interpretations in the metaphysical existential realm. Others in the political one. The expulsion from paradise lends itself to an understanding of exile as a universal conditio humana of the alienation of man from nature, from fellow man, and from God.

By contrast, take the passage in Deuteronomy 28, 26, and 27. And I'm quoting from the King James Bible. "The Lord shall bring thee and thy king, which thou shalt set over thee unto a nation, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known. And thou shalt become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword among all the nations whither the Lord shall lead thee."

These verses-- so in the translation of the King James Bible were where a cursed and expelled people become an exception among other nations, which all have their own respective homelands, refers to a specific group, the Israelites, and wields dismal political and social connotations of powerlessness and humiliation.

In Luther's version, for example, these words convey a curse and a punishment in the most unforgiving terms of objection and humiliation. [SPEAKING GERMAN]

Now it's interesting, the Buber translation, the Buber-Rosenzweig translation, is very much like the King James version. [SPEAKING GERMAN]. So much closer to the idea of astonishment. [GERMAN]. This is not quite the same as a [NON-ENGLISH].

The modern philosophical and theoretical discourse that I will explore here, however, attributes a positive quality to the state of exile. In this discourse, the Jew embodies the renouncement of fixity, dominance, and belonging associated with territorial emplacement.

Jewish exile, regardless of its negative or positive associations, has, over the centuries, become both a concrete phenomenon and a metaphor extending its meaning to the universal realm. The shifts between this literal and figurative will be part of my investigation.

Now there have been, before modern times, positive legitimations or views of Jewish exile. One finds them, for example, in some Kabbalistic writings after the expulsion from Spain where this affirmation or affirmative discourse of exile is used as a kind of consolation where it is said that God went along into exile with the Jews and that this represents, in some way, a kind of divine mode of existence.

However, in modernity, Jewish exile, beyond being a theological historical and political issue, became a [? polyvalent ?] and discursive theme, a literary motif, and a loaded philosophical concept.

As an embodiment of shameful rootlessness, it appears in anti-Semitic depictions of the wandering outsider among the nations of the earth. And it's interesting that the whole question of [NON-ENGLISH] also implies that this is something that can be used metaphorically, that it is something that can be transposed, projected onto others, being taken over by others.

It was however, and for diverse reasons, also embraced by many Jewish authors, particularly modernist German Jewish thinkers including Franz Rosenzweig, to some extent Walter Benjamin, [INAUDIBLE] and many others. For Rosenzweig, for example, the Jew is a faithful agent of his people only when he dwells in foreign lands. Longing for homeland is part and parcel for him of the messianic hope, for redemption that is yet to come.

However, after the perils of the situation had become a deadly reality under Nazi rule, the attraction of the figure of the Jew as it turned into the migrant became more contentious, but it also gained momentum as an antidote to the territorial ideology of national socialism. Considering Jewish exile as positive modality served various purposes. It reversed a hostile view of the rootless Jew and propagated a universally valid alternative and even a counterforce to Blut und Boden ideologies. For many intellectuals who were skeptical about the newly born Jewish state, the idea of the Jew as eternal wanderer often reactivated the age old notion of an intellectual rootedness embedded in the law, the word, and the letter. It presented a positive alternative to a national or geographic rootedness and as a disruption of territorial nationalisms. Jewish exile became for many a heroically born transcendental homelessness and noble wandering, or simply an embodiment of cosmopolitan modernity.

These ideas, however, raise fundamental questions. And I will sum them up in three points. One, political exile as for most migrants in the modern context, generally implied a condition forced by external circumstances, a dismal state of displacement, and exposure imposed on a population or an individual. This was particularly true for the Jews over centuries. What are the implications of presenting Jewish exile as positive? Indeed exemplary de-territorialization in light of the Jewish history of suffering, which was more often than not, also a history of suffering from exile.

Two, in recent theoretical discourse, Jewish exiles features as a metaphor that has come to represent an intellectual literary philosophical stance that can be emulated by all-- can and should. Insisting on the concrete specificity of Jewish exile in history plays into Jewish particular wisdom. Embracing the generalizing metaphor on the other hand, means obliterating the concrete Jewish experience. Is there an alternative that does justice both to the Jews concrete historical experience, and that at the same time can be at least potentially relevant to all?

And three the Jews designation as the people of the book has been played out against the territorial Jew in many variations, sometimes paradoxically uniting the extremes of the spectrum, ultra Orthodox Jews, and leftist intellectuals. It is undoubtedly attractive to be considered as a primarily letter centered culture, nation, and religion. History has shown however that while this has contributed to the survival of Judaism, it has also not protected Jews in situations of utter violence directed against them. Therefore, my third question. Is it possible to retain the association of the Jews with the people of the book, captured in Heinrich Heine's [INAUDIBLE], without forgetting the historically evidenced precariousness of this paper thin shield?

The celebration of the Jew as exemplary migrant features in numerous variations and modalities and theoretical and philosophical writing since 1945, the period that interests me here. These include works by thinkers ranging from Jean-Paul Sartre, Levinas, Blanchot, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Francois Lyotard, Philippe [INAUDIBLE], [INAUDIBLE], Edward Said, George Steiner, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and many others, some prominent contemporary figures that I will be talking about later, some of them in Europe, some in the United States, and I'm thinking here of Giorgio Agamben Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, and here of Judith Butler and the [INAUDIBLE].

Some of these thinkers speak about an actual existing Jewish people with a history and tradition carrying the message of [INAUDIBLE]. And this is already a major difference, embodying ruthlessness as a universal value. Others refer to Jewish ruthlessness as purely mythical or metaphorical. In such cases, specific manifestations of Jewishness are regarded as not only superfluous, but even a hindrance to or in conflict with the targeted dissolution of a localized identity. An example of this is Jean-Francois Lyotard's distinction between Jews without quotation marks and capital letter, and jews in small letter and with quotation marks, claiming that Jews with capital letter and without quotation marks are bad Jews, because they precisely don't follow this idea of the wandering, rootless, and so on.

Furthermore, a fundamental difference exists between praise of Jewish cosmopolitanism as a model of a political stance worth emulating on the one hand, and turning a heteronomous and ahistorical myth into a universal symbol on the other. Similarly, one must distinguish between the victim's attempt to reverse the significance of exile as a consolation, like the example I gave before after the expulsion of Spain, and using the concept of exile as a metaphoric screen upon which to project ideological agendas. Now these are not always easy to distinguish.

And therefore, I think that one has to look closely at the rhetoric and at the way these ideas are formulated. Envisioning a positive Jewish exile as an attempt to give meaning to a painful historical experience is not the same as deploying the figure of exile for purposes of identity politics. Finally, different situations, depending on the speaker, the location, the time of occurrence, and different levels of figurative speech, from model and example to symbol and metaphor, produce starkly different conceptions. The affirmation and universalization of Jewish exile is, to say the least, a precarious discourse that requires careful and individual scrutiny.

I will start with all the well-known statement about the wandering Jew. And I was hesitating to include it, but I saw a few days ago that George Steiner died two weeks ago. And I decided to include him. I'm not sure if this is an homage, but it is certainly worth remembering. George Steiner represents a prime example of questionable universalization of Jewish exile by a Jewish thinker after 1945.

In his article, A Kind of Survivor, which is dedicated to Elie Wiesel, Steiner writes, "the ruthlessness of the Jew, the cosmopolitanism denounced by Hitler and Stalin, is historically an enforced condition. But though uncomfortable in the extreme, this condition is, if we accept it, not without a larger meaning. Nationalism is the venom of the age. Even if it be against his harried will, his weariness the Jew-- or some Jews, at least-- may have an exemplary role, to show that whereas trees have roots, men have legs and our each other's guests. Even a great society is a bounded, transient thing compared to the free play of the mind and the anarchic discipline of its dreams."

Moshe Idel, one of the most important Kabbalah scholars writing today, criticizes Steiner's position for being un-historical, and applies his charge to using the modern idea of Jewish exile as a whole. He then criticizes Steiner's notion of a Jewish spirit as essentialism and illegitimate metaphorization. He argues that Steiner's recourse to the topos of Jew as People of the Book is but a construct of modern intellectuals, and fails to do justice to Jewish life in terms of ritual and community.

He criticizes Steiner's view of Jewish exile in similarly harsh terms. "Few Jews," states Idel, "ever imagined peregrination as more than a simple curse, reminiscent of the wandering kind. To say otherwise, is from a historical point of view, sheer distortion or anachronism. Jews were no more enamored of the concept of the homo viator than were medieval Christians or Muslims."

Now rather than examining the historical accuracy of Steiner's claim, and rather than arguing ideologically, I shall consider his statement-- so Steiner's statement-- in terms of its rhetorical gesture. And this is what I am trying to do throughout. So the examples I chose-- the common denominator between them is that I believe that they run into logical and rhetorical problems. It is not my aim to argue politically or ideologically here.

I am interested in how the questions that I set up at the beginning that present themselves as double binds or is as paradoxes-- how can you do both this and that. I believe that in the examples that I'm giving, they all come to the fore in different forms of contradictions, of imprecisions and so on. And that is what I would like to look at with each one in the texts themselves. So this is one thing that I believe that they have in common.

Another is that they address all three questions that I asked at the beginning, the question of the suffering of exile, the question of the relationship between the particular and the universal-- how can this be exemplary metaphoric for all-- and third, the question of the relationship between the experience and the letter, the book, that supposedly the Jews embody.

Now Steiner's rhetoric is seductive. For him, the Jews' specific historical situation-- that is, as a ruthless individual-- represents a universalist and apparently universal ethics. This ethics explicitly directed in the context of this quote against Heidegger's rhetoric of dwelling, of [SPEAKING GERMAN] however, would have to reject the particularist notion that the Jews are privileged, exemplary, and ultimately essentialized nation of the ruthless. Evidently aware of the problem, Steiner relativizes it with the addition in the quote above of the words, "at least some Jews."

Now if not the Jew as such, but merely some Jews embody the state of ruthlessness-- so those who choose it-- then it remains an open question whether the reference to Jews remains meaningful. Do Jews freely choose this role, and must they uphold it, or does it befall them as Jews in the name of an unexamined adherence to the Jewish people or its tradition? In Steiner's exposition, a violent historical uprooting, to which he himself refers, evolves seamlessly into the admirable ruthlessness of the free-floating intellect.

This portrayal thereby also casts doubt on the range and tendency of Steiner's polemic, his blurring of the distinction between enforced exile and cosmopolitanism, and his self-affirming idea-- so I don't think that what was denounced by Hitler and Stalin was the Jews' cosmopolitanism-- and his self-affirming idea of an exemplary role for his own people weakened his polemic against the poison of a territorial nationalism-- so this part was called George Steiner's imprecisions-- leaving us contradictions.

Like Steiner, Emmanuel Levinas endorses an ethics of uprootedness. The core of his philosophy, namely the constitution of ethical subjectivity in the exposure to the other, is presented in terms of a model of metaphorical exile, [SPEAKING FRENCH] the face of the other, forces the subject out of his or her self-absorption-- in the case of Levinas, it's his, I added hers. He has a text on the feminine that would justify this remark-- forces the subject out of his self-absorption, and shatters every notion of autonomy.

Often, Levinas' description of this exilic concept of subjectivity is formulated in purely abstract terms, describing the structure of exteriority. But this universal structure has in his writings a concrete correlation. It corresponds to the biblical message of Abraham, who unlike Ulysses, does not return home. Hearkening to the call of God, of the absolute other, Abraham-- according to Levinas-- leaves his own land to journey to a foreign one.

And in his essay, Heidegger, Gagarine et nous, Levinas draws an explicit analogy between the structure of subjectivity and the story of Abraham's departure from the land of his forefathers. Levinas directs his praise of Jewish rootlessness-- for which he uses the term exile and exteriority interchangeably-- against Heidegger's idea of a bond to a place, that is to what Heidegger calls soil, a rootedness that Levinas ascribes to paganism.

So the references to Heidegger are also among the common denominators of all the examples that I will give. I'm not sure that I will be referring to Heidegger in each case, but he is certainly there. Here he is certainly there as a negative foil. This is not always the case. And I forgot to add that one thing they all have in common is that they wrote intensely about Paul Celan, to whom I come at the end.

Contrasting Judaism and Jewry to Heidegger's pagan rootedness, Levinas characterizes it as a de-territorialized community, one enlivened rather than deracinated by displacement. Quote, "the constitution of a real society is an uprooting, the end of an existence in which the being at home is absolute." For Levinas, a detachment from this bond-- so the bond to the soil-- is the basic condition of all ethics and politics.

And I quote, "one's implementation in the landscape, one's attachment to place, without which the universe would become insignificant and would scarcely exist, is the very splitting of humanity into natives and strangers. In other words, the spirits of the place, the genius loci, are dangerous." "Judaism," Levinas writes, somewhat hyperbolically, "has always been free with regard to place."

I think one could write an extensive paper about the problematic aspect of this statement. But this is not what concerns me here. This negation of rootedness lies at the core of what Levinas regards as one of Judaism's universal messages. He turns this message into a fundamental distinction between Judaism and Christianity.

In Levinas' view, Christian doctrine not only retains pagan residues, but also adheres to a false conception of Jewish loyalty to the letter. So you see here that this is the point of the letter that comes back in. In his view, such loyalty refers, quote, "not to the subordination of the spirit to the letter, but the substitution of the letter for the soil."

It could seem as if Levinas, like Steiner, fully affirms Jewish exile and de-territorialization. One can, however, sense contradictions that run through Levinas' writings between an ethics of uprootedness and his continuous awareness of the migrants' plight, between his universalist claims and his privileging of the Jewish tradition, and most contentiously for some, between his critique of an attachment to the soil and his unflinching support of the state of Israel. I have analyzed the complexity of Levinas' position mainly in a passage-- I don't have it here in my PowerPoint-- but it's a passage in his essay on Paul Celan titled, From Being to the Other.

The passage begins with what seems like a hyperbolic hymn to exile, and I quote, "outside of all rootedness and all domesticity, being without the fatherland, [SPEAKING FRENCH] as authenticity." The paragraph ends with a similar seemingly unequivocal sentence. I quote, "but the dwelling justified by the movement toward the other is Jewish in its essence." In this formulation, at the latest, one could gain the certainty that Levinas takes the position of the wandering Jew as guarantee of a modality of the ethical being, which he associates with, somewhat problematically, essentialized Judaism, what is Jewish in its essence.

At this moment, however-- and I can't demonstrate this here in detail because I don't have it in the PowerPoint-- Levinas strikingly adopts a language of detours, of zigzags, of propositions and counter-propositions that destabilize his own argumentation. And I just give a little example in the following quote. "But the surprise of this adventure of the self, which is dedicated to the other in the non-place-- it is the return. It is as if in going to the other, I withdraw in myself, and implanted myself in the soil from now on native."

Now this is indeed a surprising turn. Would Levinas' imperative of going toward the other be only destined to return to the self and end up rooted in soil? Would the surprise of this return be that it is necessary to go towards the other in order to end up at home? Arguably, Levinas-- and in this he comes closest to answering the question with which I began-- resolves these contradictions by invoking another biblical reference. He points to a conception of biblical dwelling that serves as a reminder that the relation to the land is neither possession nor rootedness.

The land always remains a promise. It does not offer a homeland, but in Levinas' words, "serves as a mere refuge to pass the night in order to protect from the cold, from hunger, from destitution." And in a very beautiful, lyrical passage, Levinas describes the situation, "a temporary shelter," where in strikingly poetic words, unmistakably directed against Heidegger, Levinas speaks of "the insomnia in the bed of being-- [SPEAKING FRENCH]-- and the impossibility to curl up oneself to forget oneself-- [SPEAKING FRENCH]-- persists."

So his conception of what that home is is one in which it is impossible to actually rest. Levinas insists that a home is not an attainable telos. It remains and must remain both a promise-- and in reference to the Exodus from Egypt and the feast of Sukkot of tabernacles, a mere quote, "hut in the desert." True, this tentative place between territory and homelessness does not entirely resolve Levinas' contradictory discourse on the Jew as migrant. After all, pagans can worship the soil and live in tents, and a state is hardly a place to pass the night. But hut in the desert thus prefigured a possibility to which I shall return at the end.

My next example, Blanchot's desert. The topic of exile associated with the Jew is also an omnipresent topic in the writings of Levinas' friend, the literary theorist and precursor of deconstruction, Maurice Blanchot. Partly under the influence of Levinas, Blanchot effects a complex bond between literature and Jewishness.

Unlike in Levinas' thought, however, the placeless, rootless Jew is not the bearer of a message to humanity. Instead, he is explicitly a metaphor in which the Jews' active participation, even the actual presence disappears. In an implicit dialogue with Levinas, Blanchot shifts ever so slightly, yet nonetheless significantly, Levinas' conception of a universally valid ethics of rootlessness proclaimed by Jews, and transforms it into a poetics of wandering that he associates metaphorically with Jewish exile.

Blanchot, as Levinas, places Jewish exile in opposition to the pagan fixation on place and dwelling. Whereas Levinas argues against attachment to soil from an ethical perspective, Blanchot does so in the name of literature, which for him, stands for a language that resists any use and any grounding. Such language is without foundation or telos. Its roots are detours without goal or purpose. And therefore, Blanchot considers the Jewish people as wandering in the desert as the ultimate metaphor of literature.

Commenting critically on Blanchot's equation, Levinas notes, "that in the desert, the Jews also entered into a covenant with God and became a nation." This criticism, however, hardly undermines Blanchot's metaphorical construction. In his theory of literary language, figurative discourse is not dependent on an external reality.

In Blanchot's view, such discourse is therefore more authentic than the conceptual language of philosophy, because it admits referential failure from the start. Since it cannot reach reality, it might just as well admit it, and therefore all language fails to reach reality. Literary language admits that it fails, and therefore is the authentic language. Considered as a performative and destabilizing act, a metaphor is itself a form of de-territorialization.

Not surprisingly, Blanchot uses exile and nomadism interchangeably, and largely overlooks the vulnerability associated with exile that runs through Jewish history. And I quote Blanchot. "If Judaism is destined to take on a meaning for us, it is indeed by showing that at whatever time, one must be ready to set out. Because to step outside is the exigency from which one cannot escape if one wants to maintain the possibility of a just relation, the exigency of uprooting, the affirmation of nomadic Jews."

In his reflections on uprootedness, Blanchot explicitly admits his indebtedness to Levinas, yet he asserts that Jewish resistance to place, quote, "appears now as a series of tropes, metaphors for human tendencies that can be disengaged from their proper referent." In replacing displacement and exile with the nomadic, Blanchot omits, in the words of Sarah Hammerschlag, whom you have quoted-- you said that she was here last year, and there is a certain dialogue with Sarah in my paper-- so in Sarah's words in her wonderful book, The Figural Jew, "a mode historically associated with Judaism."

Jewish displacement, or rather placelessness, becomes for Blanchot a pure metaphor of the negation of any identity and belonging, and necessity of foreignness-- [SPEAKING FRENCH]-- an exteriority of speech, which according to Blanchot, quote, "unfolds in the prefix of the words exile, exodus, exteriority, and-- [SPEAKING FRENCH]-- The sliding shift of these concepts, from exile to-- [SPEAKING FRENCH]-- and exteriority, which is a crucial concept for Blanchot, is what Blanchot would term a performative act, one subverting the foundations of referential language.

Metaphor is itself similar to, quote, "the exiled Jew, a disturbing stranger, an intruder in a foreign context. It is [SPEAKING FRENCH] in the sense of out of place." So a metaphor is something that finds itself in a foreign context, and is therefore out of place, and [SPEAKING GERMAN] That is itself [INAUDIBLE] and confusing the order of identities, the Jew as metaphor, the metaphor as Jew. In this somewhat circular argument, the very exteriority which Blanchot promotes is at risk of getting lost.

I come to my two even more contemporary figures, Agamben-- and this section is called Agamben's pre-Jew. I will have a post-Jew later on. Discourse touching upon Jews and place has taken on an increasingly political tone in the context of recent developments in Continental thought. Today's thinkers conduct an affirmative discourse of exemplary Jewish exile in the context of a critique of Zionism. In this discourse, the Jew who identifies himself as Jewish and resists metaphorical universalization is taken to its radical conclusion. Simultaneously, the metaphor is itself superseded by the concreteness of contemporary political reality.

A strong example for a radicalization of the praise of Jewish exile in this context can be found in the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben's short text, Easter in Egypt. Agamben in this text interprets a line by Paul Celan he wrote to Max Frisch and Ingeborg Bachmann in 1959. Answering their invitation to visit them in Switzerland, Celan apologizes that he cannot come. And this is what Celan writes in the letter.

"I promised months ago to visit an old aunt in London for Jewish Easter, and now, though I by no means recall ever escaping from Egypt, I will celebrate it in England with my relatives." Celan, whose middle name was, by the way, Pesach, obviously refers to the escape from slavery in Egypt commemorated on Passover in a performative ritual. Agamben, in a grave misreading, turns this meaning of Egypt and what Celan is writing in this sentence into what he considers a positive non-place, an objection to territory, law, and peoplehood.

And here I dare explicitly say grave misreading, and maybe even come to some kind of ideological and political critique, but not only. I believe that I still remain within a question of logics and rhetoric. So this is what Agamben writes about Celan's sentence that I quoted before, "though I by no means recall ever having escaped from Egypt."

"Celan positions himself as a Jew in Egypt, that is to say, before or anywhere outside of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, which the Jewish Easter commemorates and celebrates. This is something much more radical than a claim for Galut, for exile and diaspora." So the examples we have seen before, Agamben says this goes much further than only embracing exile and diaspora. "Celan locates himself outside of the Exodus, in a Judaism deprived of Moses and of the law. He has stayed in Egypt. It is unclear on what grounds, whether as a prisoner, a free man, or a slave, but certainly, his only abode is Egypt."

Agamben situates Celan's good Judaism before and thus without law and peoplehood. Rather shockingly, he blurs the distinction between prisoner, free man, or slave-- that doesn't really matter-- a distinction at the core of the meaning of the Exodus from Egypt, not only for Jews, but for all those who invoke Exodus as a liberation from slavery. In a strange conclusion, Agamben lays open his cards by merging the biblical Egypt with a concrete situation. Praising Celan for remaining in Egypt, Agamben concludes, "I do not think it is possible to imagine a Judaism that is more extraneous to the Zionist ideal."

I do not think it is possible to imagine a Judaism that is more suitable for Agamben's Pauline doctrine, but I have to insist that this is an interpretation of Paul that does not take recent interpretations and reinterpretations of Paul and his relationship to Judaism into consideration. "Without covenant, peoplehood, and the law, the efforts of supersessionism would literally and figuratively be saved." Now what could Celan possibly have meant when he writes, "though I by no means recall ever having escaped from Egypt?"

Well, I believe that it could have two meanings. He could be echoing the injunction central to the ritual of Pesach, which aims to recreate not the memory of an incident in the past, but to enact the liberation from Egypt's slavery as if one had been there oneself. This is part of the Passover ritual. Although I personally have not been there, I enact this on the eve of the Seder. It would be one interpretation.

Or Celan could be expressing his feeling that the original act-- the liberation from slavery-- never occurred for him. As a traumatized victim of the Holocaust, he himself remained in a permanent state of oppression and un-freedom. Now in both cases, Egypt stands for a negative stage in Jewish history, a time and place of slavery and suffering.

And my last theoretical example, Alain Badiou's post-Jew. One of today's prominent contemporary Continental philosophers, Alain Badiou, makes pronouncements that are even more dubious. In his polemics against Jewish particularism conducted in the name of a universalism inspired by the apostle Paul-- and that's again, that same Paul-- Badiou calls for abolishing the exceptionality of the word Jew, which he believes derives from its extermination under Hitler.

Even more than Agamben, he puts the existing Jew and everything so far associated with Judaism into question, its history, its nationhood, and most strikingly, its scriptural tradition. And here we have all three, and that's why I-- not only diachronically-- but that's why I placed him last. Because the three issues that I've talked about come together in three letters in this quote.

"In this context it is important to ask the following question. What is the desire of the petty faction that is the self-proclaimed proprietor of the word Jew and its usage? What does it hope to achieve when bolstered by the tripod of the Shoah, the state of Israel, and the Talmudic tradition-- the SIT-- it stigmatizes and exposes to public contempt anyone who contends that it is, in all rigor, possible to subscribe to a universalist and egalitarian sense of this word?"

Badiou is saying he wants a universalist and egalitarian sense of the word Jew, rather than being the sacred signifier that it became after the Shoah, in the face of the state of Israel, and with its Talmudic tradition, by which he basically refers to the law. Badiou thus no longer plays out the bad attachment to a soil against the good one of the letter or the book. For him, Talmud is part of what is wrong with the Jew.

No longer solely concerned with the surrender of a particularist identity, Badiou does not regard the Jew as either the exemplary embodiment of exile, or the metaphor of de-territorialization. Instead, the Jew is, rather astonishingly, the name of a new place yet to be created, a [SPEAKING FRENCH]. This place refers to a new Palestine. But because, for Badiou, quote, "Palestine represents not only a local situation, but stands in as a symbol of all humanity, it also carries a wider meaning."

In line with his idea of a supersessionist Paul, whom Badiou calls, "the paradigmatic Jew, [SPEAKING FRENCH]. The Jew is supposed to stand for, quote, "a Jewishly located universalism-- [SPEAKING FRENCH]-- in which there are neither Jews nor Greeks." Badiou's universalism thus requires divesting the Jew of any historical, national, ethnic, or religious particularity.

The consequence of this postulate are remorseless. I quote, "if we have to create a new place-- [SPEAKING FRENCH]-- Badiou writes, "this is because we must create a new Jew-- [SPEAKING FRENCH]. Satisfying this imperative would not only solve the question of the reality, metaphoricity, or exemplarity of Jewish exile, it would solve the Jewish question altogether."

And to end, two poems by Paul Celan, where I find what Celan would call a [SPEAKING GERMAN], a counter-word to the theoretical positions formulated above, and a response to my initial questions concerning the remembrance of the hardship of exile without endorsing nationalist discourses of territorial rootedness, the search for language that retains both concrete historical experience and can be relevant to all, and the precious but precarious association of the Jews with the people of the book.

Leveraging the power of his poetic language, Celan un-hinges the tropes and metaphors so that they oscillate between different visions, values, and worldviews. In a poem written on 9, April 1966, which concludes the cycle Eingedunkelt, or Darkening Light, published in 1968. Celan envisions Jewish exile in similar terms to those of the other authors considered here. As did other thinkers who regard the Jew as the embodiment of displacement, Celan associates both rootedness and belonging to a place with Heidegger, and beyond that, with the blood and soil ideology of National Socialism. Celan too associates the alternative to this dangerous rootedness with the text and the letter.

Simultaneously, however, he blocks the path to appropriation, and above all, enacts an irrefutable resistance to the forgetting of suffering, in particular, the suffering from exile. I will read it in German, and you have the English next to it. And the German is important here, because the references are clear in German only. [SPEAKING GERMAN]

In this short two-part sentence lacking any verbs, Celan speaks as we or us, and says what or how it is with us. The intertextual reference to Heidegger's being with-- [SPEAKING GERMAN]-- becomes more explicit in the second line, where he defines the collectivity to which he refers, the we/us are the [SPEAKING GERMAN]-- the thrown, but here they are the thrown about nevertheless. We are and thus also are not the Heideggerian thrown, those thrown into the world as being, so Heidegger's [SPEAKING GERMAN]

We are more precisely thrown about-- [SPEAKING GERMAN]-- thrown from one place to the next, displaced, hunted, and expelled, we are above all, those who nevertheless, despite the trauma of persecution and expulsion, resist the yearning for fixity, saving us from the condition of thrown-ness. We are those who nevertheless defy the consolation of fixity who turned the passivity of having been thrown by fate and history and those who perpetrated it into self-determined action.

We become the [SPEAKING GERMAN], who as such could be Rilke's [SPEAKING GERMAN]. It is a-- [SPEAKING GERMAN] is a famous term in Rilke's poetry-- circus people, artists, vagabonds, those unsettled and unplaced melancholics. Celan's travelers, however, derive their significance from the resistance evoked in the nevertheless. They are the expelled and hunted, the [SPEAKING GERMAN], who nevertheless withstand the temptation of rootedness, who travel as a resistance against it.

But this is no longer an enforced exile, but this is explicitly in the distinction, a choice. This resistance rests on the only unrelenting, undiminished certainty that remains, the soul unscarred, non-appropriable, defiant grief. The unsurmountable defiant grief, uniting anger and mourning, binds these travelers and accompanies them. It does not stand for them metaphorically, nor does it define an identity. Rather, it is with them. It is neither to be used nor to be appropriated, as a metaphoric undoing of particularity would have it. It stands upright amidst all movement.

And there is another poem called Never, upright grief-- Niemals, stehender Gram. You see there is a line here, the [SPEAKING GERMAN]. So it is the other poem where the word gram, grief, comes up. [SPEAKING GERMAN]

Just as in that poem, written two years later, the poem Mit Uns defies mimeticists who no matter how lettered, never wrote a word that rebels. The sorrow evoked in With Us is as defiant as the letter of this poem in which gram, grief, and grammaton, the Greek word for letter, come together in the concrete and singular reality of the poem that is open to all fellow travelers who are touched by it.

And to end, only a few verses from the poem [SPEAKING GERMAN]. Thus I will start reading, but then I will only go to the last stanza. [SPEAKING GERMAN]

As in With Us Celan's poem, [SPEAKING GERMAN], refers to Heidegger, this time to the German philosopher's famous hut in the Black Forest, which embodies this celebration of [SPEAKING GERMAN] earthiness, a bond with the soil. In his poem, Celan associates the alternative, the counter-word to this volkish rootedness with the text, and the letter. But [SPEAKING GERMAN] is also regularly translated into English as tabernacle window. This translation clarifies what is otherwise only an implicit reference to the Jewish tabernacle [INAUDIBLE], which commemorates the years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert.

The hut or tabernacle window functions here as a contronym between Heidegger's Huette and the Sukkah, oscillating between a meaning and its opposite, Jewish wandering at the same time as its dangerous exposure, its concrete enemy in the present. In the middle part of the poem, various images of desolation, abjection, and suffering are interrogated alongside spaces and places of myth and history. The final stanzas invoke letters of the alphabet.


The poem ends on the contrast between the aleph alpha as both Greek and Jewish immateriality, and the bet with which the Torah begins, and where letter and dwelling are joined in one, bet and bayit. These verses offer not a territory, but a shelter for both mensch and Jew, a material, everyday place of refuge, a house and table, as well as an illumination that does not stem from the shield of David's star, but from the candles of Shabbat, and the doubleness of concrete, earthly, even homely and metaphorically holy heavenly light. Thank you.