Enlightenment in the Colony: The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture

Enlightenment in the Colony: The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture

by Aamir Mufti

ISBN: 9780691057323

Publisher Princeton University Press

Published in Literature & Fiction/Historical

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Jewishness as Minority


In the fall of 1843, in the process of becoming a political refugee himself, Karl Marx turned his attention to the genesis of liberal state and society in the eighteenth century in order to ponder the failure of what he called "political emancipation": "The decomposition of man into Jew and citizen, protestant and citizen, religious man and citizen, this decomposition is no trick played upon political citizenship, no avoidance of political emancipation. It is political emancipation itself, the political manner of emancipating oneself from religion." The failure of emancipation, he concluded, did not derive from its having been thwarted; it lay instead in its success. The appearance of a crisis around the particularism of the Jews was intrinsic to the successful realization of liberal state and society, for the figure of the Jew, as it emerged from the collapse of the social space of the ancien regime (and hence of the ghetto), continually and paradoxically undermined the universalist claims of the emerging liberal order. With characteristic clarity, Marx noted the centrality of the Jews to the emergence of the forms of modernity-capitalist relations of economic production, the secular and universalist state, the money form, Enlightenment legacies of tolerance and critique, uniform and abstract citizenship-not simply in sociological terms but rather as a site for the elaboration of the constitutive narratives of modern life. The subsequent century of European politics was to confirm Marx's prognosis, as at key moments in the political history of Europe and its relations with the rest of the world-the Damascus Affair, the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the unification of Germany, the Dreyfus Affair, the defeat and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of National Socialism, and the beginnings of the era of decolonization-the Jews were repeatedly thrust into the foreground of an increasingly global drama about the meaning and fate of the projects of European modernity, the meaning and fate in the world of the idea of Europe itself. The drama that had begun a half-century before Marx's declaration, in the revolutionary declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and renewed during the Napoleonic reorganization of the continent and then the retrenchment at Vienna, was thus established as the source of some of the most often recurring motifs of the nineteenth century. And the history that had begun as a series of questions, explorations, aspirations, and crises in such places as Konigsberg, Paris, the Rhineland, and Berlin, played itself out a century and a half later in upheavals and displacements in such faraway places as Jaffa, Jerusalem, New York, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Bombay, and Los Angeles. But if it is widely understood that the crisis over the Jews represents an irreducible feature of modern Western life, it is not generally perceived that its consequences are global in nature, that is, that it now represents an irreducible feature of a globalized modernity as such. It is in and through the external displacement of the purportedly internal Jewish Question, as much as through the imperial management of other peoples and continents, that the problematic of European modernity itself achieves a global significance. In the present, post-genocide phase of the Jewish Question, that is, in the conflict over the meaning and inhabiting of historical Palestine, the question of Europe's "other without" is brought together and into articulation with that of its "other within." The inherent failure of the modern nation-state system, the recurring crises it engenders about "national" peoples and "minorities," is condensed in concentrated form, and revealed with unrelenting clarity, in the conflict over Palestine and the nature of the Jews and the Palestinians as distinct peoples. In this book I take seriously, and with an eye to its many implications, the assertion that the fate of the Jews of Europe carries implications not simply for Europe and its peoples but for the projects of modernity as a whole. I begin, therefore, by attempting to reinscribe certain elements of the literary and cultural history of the Jewish Question within a global frame in order to reopen the question of liberalism, secularization, and the crisis of minority, and to explore the mutual relations of these formations as a problematic of global dimensions and significance.

The figure of the Jew has faced a paradoxical predicament in the culture of the modern West, and has typically been met with a contradictory set of representational demands: on the one hand, as a figure of particularity, it has generated anxieties about the undermining of the universalizing claims and ambitions embedded in the constitutive narratives of modern culture, with the Jews coming to be seen as slavishly bound to external Law and tradition, ritualistic and irrational, and incapable of the maturity and autonomy called for in the development of enlightened, modern subjectivity; on the other, as a figure of transnational range and abilities, it raises questions about deracination, homelessness, abstraction, supra-national identifications, and divided loyalties. Marx pointed precisely to this paradox of Jewish particularity as the basis of Jewish cosmopolitanism in outlining the contradictory relationship of the Jews to the emerging liberal order (and each of the two parts of his essay on the Jewish Question corresponds to one side of this contradiction): "the Jew" of modern Western imagination is both the threat of particularism confronting the secularizing and universalizing state and the figure of universal exchange that serves as a marker for the uprootedness and abstraction of bourgeois culture. "Jewish emancipation" is thus for Marx an impossible idea so long as emancipation is conceived of in liberal terms and the crisis around the Jews marks the inherent limit of this form of emancipation.

This chapter itself is structured into two main parts, each one broadly corresponding to one side of this contradictory configuration. In the first section I examine the figure of the Jew from the perspective offered by the question of enlightened subjectivity, the universal and abstract citizen subject on whose emergence the projects of Enlightenment are predicated. In the second part I approach the figure from the direction of the problem of national culture and belonging. It has become a commonplace method in the comparative study of minority-majority relations to counterpose what is seen as the universalism of liberal citizenship to the exclusivism and narrowness of national belonging, a procedure inherent to the practice and self-perception of liberal politics itself. This sometimes takes the form of a historical narrative-Enlightenment followed by Romantic-nationalist reaction-and sometimes the form of ideal-type analysis in which different nation-state formations are compared for their more or less inclusive political traditions, with Germany and France often representing the two oppositional poles. Very often the two strategies work in tandem, as in the various arguments that see Germany-Nationalism itself as a rejection of and response to France-Enlightenment-Revolution. This chapter, and the book as a whole, opens up, on the one hand, the legal or political question of citizenship towards an exploration of wider notions of personhood, community, and subjectivity, which the legal or political discourses themselves repeatedly rely upon, point towards, and blend into; on the other, this chapter dismantles the self-abstraction of liberal culture from the more patently troubled history of romantic nationalism. Abstract citizen subjectivity and national belonging constitute moments in the dialectic of modern selfhood, with the figure of the Jew coming to mark the inherent limit of each moment of identification, to mark the disruption of the categories of identity, becoming in the process the site of crisis and its attempted containment. This tension between, as it were, emancipation and assimilation is a central problematic in the history of the Jewish Question, often misperceived as a tension between practices (as well as theories) of social cohesion that differ in their treatment of the Jews. It is, instead, a constitutive tension in the emergence of the forms of liberal culture and society as a whole and marks the centrality of the Jews to this emergence. As Arendt pointed out long ago, this tension is embodied in the (hyphenated) idea of the nation-state itself, even as it has taken different forms in concrete historical situations. Thus the relationship between the subject of national belonging and the eighteenth-century figure of citizen, whose dignity and rights were supposed to be derived entirely from a uniform human nature, and not from received culture or tradition, is one of tension and not mere contradiction, as certain forms of intellectual history have conventionally suggested. Rejecting such a historical narrative, Isaiah Berlin viewed this relationship as one of reliance as much as negation, drawing our attention to the "paradoxical" possibility that the figure of the autonomous and autochthonous people assumes the self-determining individual subject posited in Enlightenment thought and is a displacement of it from one plane of existence to another. To be more precise, one can only conceive of the collective and sovereign subject of national belonging once the "freedom" of the subject as such-its "self-legislation," in Kantian terms-has been achieved. This constitutive freedom of the abstract subject, as much as the myth of autochthony of an individual people, is brought to crisis in the minor practices, narratives, and locations of Jewish existence. The ultimate collapse of this tenuous balance concerning the status and meaning of Jewish existence, which opened the door to the final catastrophe, represents, as Arendt noted, the complete overpowering of the claims of citizenship and state by those of Volk and national belonging: "the transformation of the state from an instrument of the law into an instrument of the nation had been completed; the nation had conquered the state, national interest had priority over law long before Hitler could pronounce 'right is what is good for the German people.'"

In the following chapter I turn to the rhetorical complexities of the attempt to normalize and settle the unsettling figure of the Jew through the form of territorialization that we know historically as Zionism, in which the Jewish Question, this recurring and seemingly intractable crisis of post-Enlightenment European culture, is offered up to a solution in terms of a social, political, and cultural geography made possible by Europe's colonial domination of non-European societies. I am particularly interested here in the involvement of liberalism with this manner of conceiving of a resolution to the question of the Jews. Finally, in keeping with the larger thesis of this book, I turn in the second half of the next chapter to an exploration of the manner in which the question of minority and modernity is transformed in the literary culture of late imperial Britain, as the figures and narratives of Jewishness in the metropolis are displaced and reinscribed in a consideration of the colonial relationship and the crisis of the identity of England's empire and its Indian colony-the passage, to be precise, from the formal and thematic preoccupations of Daniel Deronda to those of A Passage to India.

At various points in these two chapters I take individual texts or fragments of texts as starting points for an exploration of a larger cultural moment and constellation. Beginning with readings of a number of literary, philosophical, and polemical texts from the late eighteenth to the latter half of the nineteenth century, I chart the emergence of the problematic of Jewishness in these early decades, from the first formulations of the question of emancipation to the moment when the "question" of the Jews becomes available for a Zionist and hence colonial solution. The social, political, and cultural history of Jewish emancipation has, of course, taken rather different forms in the various European countries, as well as in different regions within individual countries themselves, depending upon a host of factors ranging from long-standing cultural traditions to varying processes of economic, social, and political modernization, and I draw here upon material from the British, German, and French contexts. It is certainly possible, however, to speak of the emergence of a European problematic in the mutual interaction of these individual histories, and my purpose throughout is to place individual texts, persons, events, and discourses within this larger perspective, even concerning the question of national belonging, for it is precisely the normalization of European selfhood in terms of national identities in the nineteenth century to which Jewish identity poses a number of insurmountable difficulties. In other words, I attempt to read the works that concern this book as European texts, a task that will also involve, wherever possible, an endeavor to make visible the translation of these local or national themes and questions into that pan-European context.

Jewishness, Philo-Semitism, and the Antinomies of Emancipation

It is customary in the historiography of Jewish emancipation to see the beginnings of the era of emancipation in the developments of the late 1770s and the 1780s, for example, in such events as the publication and performance of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's reputedly philo-Semitic play, Nathan the Wise (1779); the wide-ranging public debate following the appearance of Christian Wilhelm Dohm's plea for Jewish emancipation, On the Civic Improvement of the Jews (1781); the Austrian Edict of Toleration (1782); the publication of Moses Mendelssohn's Jerusalem (1783); the appearance of Konigsberg Ha-Me'asef (1783); the discussion surrounding the writings of Mirabeau and Gregoire of the late 1780s on the subject and the National Assembly debates of 1789-91, which concluded with the emancipation proclamations of 1791; and the publication, in 1792-93, of Solomon Maimon's Autobiography. I follow this convention to the extent that it identifies a new configuration of the problem centering around the status of the Jews, with the polemics now taking the form of a call for uniformity of rights based on the notion of uniformity of human nature. The difference from even the so-called Jew Bill controversy of 1753 in England is a marked one. Although the bill was repealed after an eruption of both popular and organized Tory anti-Semitism, it had in fact been concerned with the smallest of changes in the civil status of the Jews, easing to a degree some of the conditions for naturalization of foreign-born Jews alone. The controversy introduced for the first time into the emerging liberal public sphere such ancient features of European anti-Semitism as the charge of ritual murder. Not even the proponents of the bill, who hastily withdrew in light of the public outcry, imagined anything like the notion that uniformity of citizenship would be a basis for their views, which routinely would be the case from the 1780s onwards not just in France and Germany but in England as well.


Excerpted from "Enlightenment in the Colony: The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture" by Aamir Mufti. Copyright © 0 by Aamir Mufti. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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