In the past thirty years, power has become one of the most ubiquitous keywords of cultural studies and critical theory. Brought to prominence by two discrete but overlapping intellectual genealogies-the translation of Michel Foucault’s work into English and the rise of ethnic and postcolonial studies-power is now an unavoidable category for thinking about cultural texts and identities in a comparative context. To be sure, no singular meaning of power circulates in such thinking. Indeed, the concept possesses completely opposed attributes inmuch contemporary thought: traditional understandings of power as a repressive, centralized, and hierarchical possession continue to attract adherents despite Foucault’s famous dictum declaring that “we need to cut oﬀ the King’s head” and think of power instead as a productive, dispersed, and immanent relation (Foucault 1980b: 121 and passim). While theorists emerging out of the ethnic and postcolonial studies traditions draw increasingly on ﬁgures such as Foucault, work in those areas also maintains some of the political urgency associated with compelling pre-Foucauldian notions of power hierarchies conﬁgured around variables such as race, class, sexuality, and gender. Against that backdrop, this chapter will argue that a serious and unsentimental consideration of Jewish cultures and histories can help illuminate the contradictory guises power takes in critical theory at large. At the same time, however, Jewish studies-and even the more recent and theoretically
invested formation of Jewish cultural studies-has rarely been an explicit contributor to this ongoing conversation about the nature of power in contemporary societies. The indexes of recent, path-breaking collections in Jewish cultural studies contain no entry for “power” despite their manifest interest in exploring race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in comparative perspective (Boyarin and Boyarin 1997; Biale et al. 1998; Boyarin et al. 2003). Nor is Foucault a signiﬁcant presence in any of these works, with the exception of his work on sexuality, which plays an unavoidable role in Queer Theory and the Jewish Question. Yet, those works, along with a related collection emerging from the British context, Bryan Cheyette and Laura Marcus’s Modernity, Culture, and “the Jew”, certainly suggest new ways of theorizing domination, focused as they are on what Cheyette and Marcus call the “ambivalent positioning which characterizes Jewish history and culture” between “the heart of western metropolitan culture” and “that which is excluded in order for ascendant racial and sexual identities to be formed and maintained” (Cheyette and Marcus 1998: 3). Although, in complementary fashion, there is a paucity of “mainstream” cultural studies and
critical theory work that engages with Jewish history and culture in a systematic fashion when
attending to questions of power, the ﬁgure of the Jew does make some notable appearances. Indeed, a whole tradition of twentieth-century French philosophical and theological thinking takes “the Jew” as emblematic of notions of foreignness and non-belonging. This tradition includes both thinkers identiﬁed as Jewish-such as Emmanuel Lévinas, Jacques Derrida, and Hélène Cixous-and non-Jewish ﬁgures such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Blanchot, and JeanFrançois Lyotard. Lyotard’s provocative notion of “the jews”—plural, lower-case, and in scare quotes-has proven especially controversial, with critics taking him to task for his allegorization of Jewishness and his seeming disregard of “real Jews” (Boyarin and Boyarin 1993; Cheyette 2003; Shapiro 1994; Silverman 1998). Yet, Lyotard’s notion of “the jews” has been inﬂuential nonetheless as a mode of disidentifation with powerful, exclusionary national and ethnic identities (cf. Hammerschlag 2010). Even more prominent in recent theory has been the ﬁgure of the concentration camp inmate-a ﬁgure not always identiﬁed as Jewish and sometimes even termed a Muselmann or “Muslim,” an appropriation of camp slang, to which we will return, that has become a prominent, if contested theoretical concept deployed by Giorgio Agamben (1999) and others (see the critical commentary of Anidjar 2003). In these strands of poststructural and post-Holocaust thought, Jewishness has circulated in proximity to questions of national belonging, racial identity, and genocidal violence-in other words, to key sites where power is negotiated and exercised-even when a direct association between Jews and these questions has not been asserted. This essay seeks to bring together such dispersed reﬂections on Jewishness and power in order
to foster a mutually beneﬁcial exchange between Jewish cultural studies and contemporary critical theory. It argues that any approach to power in relation to contemporary Jewish cultures has to situate itself at the intersection of at least four major discursive and material axes: a ﬁrst involving antisemitic fantasy; a second involving genocidal violence and biopower; a third involving contested notions of whiteness and assimilation; and a fourth involving diaspora, Zionism, and state power. These intertwined and sometimes overlapping axes oﬀer the possibility to begin formulating a necessary new account of contemporary Jewish cultures as implicated in-that is, both enabled by and cross-cut with-relations of power. Historically, Jewish cultures have stood-and, indeed, they continue to stand-at the uneasy
intersection of seemingly distinct understandings of power that correspond to these four axes: between economic and political forces, ancient and modern techniques, privileged and marginalized positions, and statist and diasporic social organizations. Jewish cultures are thus an interesting topic for theorists of power for the same reason theories of power ought to be an essential topic for Jews: taking Jewishness into account requires a vision of the world open to ambivalence, complexity, contradiction, and moral gray zones. Jews need theory, in other words, to makes sense of the world they live in; and theorists who don’t make sense of the “Jewish question” are missing something essential about power in the modern world: its refusal to resolve into a two-dimensional, either/or, black and white grid.