Jeffrey S. Librett on the “abstract historiography of the nonexistent present”; conclusions from “Orientalism and the Figure of the Jew” (2015)

I have reviewed important determinations of Orient and Occident, and within the figure of the Orient, its verious bifurcations into a “good” (appropriable) Orient and a “bad” (nonappropriable) one. We’ve seen that the nineteenth-century historicist thinkers invariably used the Christian construction of the Jewish-Christian relation, that is, supersessionist figuralism, as a model for their contructions of the Oriental-Occidental relation. In Enlightenment thinkers such as Lessing and Kant, whom I left in the background for reasons of space (though I treat them in detail elsewhere), the ahistorical ethical demand of tolerance interrupted supersessionist narratives to some extent, but at the cost of an abstraction that the historicists wanted to overcome. At the fare end of the historicist vogue, critical modernists such as Kafka, Freud or Mann made supersessionist Orientalist narratives the object of their irony, but likewise tooke their distance from the ahistorical formalism and moralism of the Enlightement.
We’ve seen further how the various nineteenth-century bifurcations of the Oriental prefiguration culminate moste destructively in the Semitic/Aryan split, and we’ve seen how this split tends to be doubled and shadowed in turn by a split between the “good Semite” and the “bad Semite” (a game we are still playing in the Middle East and in international publoic opinion today, with sad consequences for all). Thus, one of my main general points about the study of modern Orientalism /…/ has been that it cannot be pursued in isolation from the study of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism and vice versa. /…/
In philosophical and psychoanalytic /…/ terms, as we have seen, modern thinkers mobilize the determinations of the limits of East and West defensively in order to organize a whole series of binary oppositions. /…/
The most important, or fundamental, opposition in the series, which is an ontological one, is /…/ that between foundations and their lack. This is the case, I believe, both because in modernity absolute foundations are pervasively in question and because, with particular explicitness in modernity since Leibniz, to be without foundations is to be thought not to exist. /…/ I have argued that it tends to be precisely a panic, but in the psychoanalytic sense of an ego starting to dissolve in the absence of any ego ideal, and responding with an extreme hope and fear in urgent search of an elusive resolution. Fortunately, so to speak, Orientalism is there, in its various forms, /…/ to disavow the absence of absolute foundations and so to reassure “us” of “our own” existence! Unfortunately, as we have seen, one can never reassure oneself of the stability of one’s foundations by situating groundlessness elsewhere (e.g. in a pre-Orient or in the “bad” Orient), projecting it outward, because grounding and groundlessness interpenetrate. The use of ethnic or cultural identity categories for the sake of metaphysical assurances is both futile and destructive.
What we’ve found in the various readings /…/ is that there is a relatively simple set of metaphysical homologies in operation. To begin with ontology, the two levels of material and spiritual are most generally associated with groundlessness (or insubstantiality) and (self-)grounding (or substantiality), respectively. The East must end up being material, while the West is spiritual. This remains the general Orientalist program even though the typological tradition completes this scheme in a dialectical manner. That is, the anticipatorily and externally combined but still split excessive spirituality and excessive materiality of the East condemn it (like the simultaneity of Jewish abstraction and Jewish ceremonial-legalistic fetishism from a Christian point of view) to an ultimate materiality, whereas the synthesis and overcoming of these two excesses gives rise in the West to “concrete” spirituality, as spirituality “properly” so called, the “realization” of spirituality. And so, in modal categories, matter is associated in historicist Orientalisms with potential, or unfulfilled possibility, whereas spiritual form is reserved for realization, or the ultimate reality itself.
In the lagnuage of fundamental logical terms or principles, the equivalent of these oppositions is the binary of difference and identity, which rhetorical philosophy translates as figural and literal. /…/ Figuration (the “dead letter”) is the realm of difference /…/ whereas the literal represents the sphere os identity. And the Pauline and medieval doctrine of figura organizes the Jewish-Christian relationship (and later the East-West relationship) by combining the figural-literal opposition with the possibility-reality binary.
Further, in terms of what Kant called the forms of sense, space and time are bound of within this set of conceptual homologies as well. /…/ In temporal terms, the split duplicity of memory and anticipation (or pastness and futurity) constitutes the site of temporal nonidentity, while the unitary monologism of the pure present, or (As so prominently in Goethe) Augenblick, functions as temporal identity, self-assured existence, and so on.
In following the trajectory of modern German Orientalism, however, we have seen that none of the extreme terms of these binary oppositions can be plausibly made to correspond to given cultural phenomena, or to the givings and misgivings of human manifestation. /…/ We simply cannot have spirit (and the series of terms associated with it) in isolations from matter (and all the notions it traditionally implies). So how can we begin to reconfigure cultural historiography that it would dop what Hegel says no one ever does, namely, learn from (the mistakes of) historuy? The point would certainly not be to renounce historiography entirely /…/ for to embrace an ahistoricism would be to repeat the illusory ambitions of an exclusively synchronic analysis /…/ Rather, it’s still a matter of learning from the limitations of both Enlightenment formalist normativity and nineteenth-century historicism, and continuing to unfold the implications of advanced modernism for history. /…/
We begin with panic, or radical anxiety (i.e., “hope and fear”, as Spinoza put it): the acknowledgement that there is no absolute escape from the leaderless, foundationless position. /…/
Further, not only are cultural essentialisms /…/ patently false and uninteresting, but also methodological or discursive distinctions like that between a material – for example, political and social – history and a history of ideas (or cultural forms) are henceforth in principle untenable. This opens up new possibilities for the recombinations of materialist accounts with idealist ones, /…/ If the history of ideas is already a history of material foprms, and if matter and spirit is not thereby simply overcome, then new representational economies and recombinations become both possible and necessary.
Indeed, the very narrative structures of history become open to reconsideration when one reflects on the inadequacy of the ontological-modal schemas of possibility and realization, anticipation and fulfillment. For example, what it, on the one hand, no potentials are ever realized, /…/ because what comes later is also in one sense radically new? And what is, on the other hand, no reality or situation ever ceases to be shot through with potentialities (both for the future and from the past) that render it essentially other than it is? How would reflection on these specifically modal aporias – which introduce insettling discontinuities and continuities into history that are more resistant to monological description than the discontinuities Foucault pursued – alter our representations of individual works, epochs and developments in history?
Moreover, when one takes seriously the notion that there is (pace Goethe) no “present moment” or Augenblick (and thus no gaze) that is not dispersed into an endless multiplicity of pasts and futures, even while it remains radically separated from them, how will the adequate representation of a given moment in its originary diaspora proceed or take shape? If history hgas always attempted to describe a presumed (past) present or (present) past that, in fact, has never existed as such, then how will we write the history of a nonexistent present? To be sure, the inscription of the present in a temporal process has been the concern of historiography since the beginnings of historicism at the very least (perhaps all the way back to Herodotus, Thucydides, the Old Testament narratives, the Ramayana, etc.), not to mention oral traditions. Yet the passage beyond the model of a sequence of presents linked by various linear figures of potentiality and realization introduces /…/ difficult and important forms of narrative (dis)continuity.
let me nonetheless close with a few illustrative and illusive remarks on German Orientalism in the (nonexistent) present of what we call present-day Germany.
After the high modernist episode, the first thing that happens with historicist German Orientalism is that it explodes into World War II and the Shoah as the National Socialist assertion of the Aryan myth in its most extreme form. Under the Nazis this myth becomes the principle of the limitless colonization of a world they view as subject to an ever-growing threat of Semiticization. The National Socialist ideology identifies the Aryan racial principle with immediate positive presence, while it reduces the Semitic (and specifically the Jewish Semitic) principle to mediation, negativity and absence caused by representational excess, or (dis)figuration. /…/
Subsequent to the war, /…/ the Orient-Occident split continued to haunt German culture in various forms, such as its own division by the occupying powers into East and West, /…/ During this time, the East appeared to the West as a still precapitalist despotism destined to realize itself one day in capitalism, while the West appeared to the East as precommunist, in a reversal of East-West teleologies that retained the supersessionist (Hegelian-Marxist) narrative of a dialectivally attained freedom. /…/
Orientalist schemas and stereotypes from yesteryear persist in many respects, including the pressure to determine a “good”, assimilable, Oriental origin and a “bad”, nonassimilable, one. With respect to Turkish-German relations, this pressure takes innumerable concrete forms that I cannot specify here, sometimes, for example, by opposing a “good” Turkey to a “bad” one, sometimes by opposing a “good” Turkish Orient to another Orient designated in some sense as “bad” or the reverse.
The “bad” Orient always represents, here as elsewhere, the site of the projection of “bad” traits potentially characteristic of the West in general and Germany in particular. One sees here the same structure as the projection of Western sexism onto the Oriental despot in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, /…/
Another complex illustration is the contemporary Jewish-Christian or Jewish-German relation, which in turn (by comparison, contrast and competition) to some degree overdetermines and is overdetermined by the Turkish-German one on conceptual, historical and phantasmatic levels. Even apart from that overdetermination, the old question of “good” versus “bad” Orient repeats itself here in connection with the search for foundations, /…/ The foundation here understandably sought, then, is that of a clear conscience, as the possibility of an unashamed and un-self-conscious national-cultural self-assertion. And the “good” Semite would be precisely the mirror in which that clear conscience could catch a glimpse of iteself. In this situation, a certain desire to moralistically devalue and blame the Israelis in a sweeping manner as “bad” Semites, while exculpating the Palestinians as “good” Semites and victims of the Jews, is thus both supported /…/ and undermined /…/ To choose the more subtle and rational middle position, in favor of the maximally equitable reconciliation of a tragic conflict, leaves one exposed to the anxiety of both positions at once. /…/
Since Jews were associated by the Nazis both with capitalism and with bolshevism, one has two possible ways of trying to satisfy with respect to diasporal Judaism any conscious or half-conscious interest one may retain in compensatory identification with the murdered Jews. On the one hand, one can pursue the Western, and more specifically U.S. American cultural identification by way of New York and L.A. (as prominent sites of Jewish cultural production). This is one familiar tendency since the war and in our own times. On the other hand, one can (at least for a time one could) move in the direction of Marxist, Eastern European cultures, which are (or were) associated with a different sort of Jewish universalism and assimilation. (A certain Frankfurt School culture, for example, arguably participates in this phantasm.) Either way, however, one finds oneself potentially opposed to oneself through one’s very choice. /…/
Yet our historical representations of complicatedly temporal processual events are compelled to configure them in fragments characterized by a certain abstraction, just as our theoretical claims must materialize in forms marked by a degree of opacity that we will never overcome.

Excerpts from the concluding chapter of Jeffrey S. Librett, Orientalism and the Figure of the Jew (Fordham University Press, 2015)

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