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Anti-Semitism and the force of discourse

In this essay, Christopher Law surveys Judith Butler's writings on anti-Semitism and asseses their relationship to Butler's broader political and intellectual project 

Christopher Law25 October 2019

Anti-Semitism and the force of discourse

In a recent, much-shared review of her latest book, Judith Butler takes Bari Weiss to task for its ‘unasked questions’. Although in How to Fight Anti-Semitism, Weiss posits a progressive idea of Jewish identity, one that is welcoming of the ‘stranger’, and in spite of her book’s necessary attentiveness to real escalations of anti-Semitism in the United States and elsewhere (it was occasioned by the murder of eleven people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018), Butler contends that Weiss’s text ultimately gives voice to a familiar and reductive refrain: that criticisms of the actions of the Israeli state invariably excuse and bolster anti-Semitic words and actions. As Butler sees it, this is symptomatic of an ‘ahistorical notion of antisemitism’, which encourages us to ‘feel enraged opposition to antisemitism at the expense of understanding it’. The review attends to the book’s straw-man critiques—of ‘intersectionality’, for example, or of ‘identity politics’—to propose that Weiss fails to interrogate the major faultlines that punctuate Jewish experience in the early twenty-first century, foremost among these the erosion of a public sphere in which legitimate discussion of Israel is possible. In advance of the publication of Butler’s The Force of Non-Violence: The Ethical in the Political, it’s worth pausing over this short review.

The review of Weiss’s book, published in Jewish Currents, brings together some of the major threads that have defined Butler’s intellectual trajectory since the turn of the century (or, were we to prioritise a contiguous, intersecting chronology, since September 11, 2001). Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence contains an essay that might strike any reader as an uncanny precedent of the recent review. That essay is ‘The Charge of Anti-Semitism’ (which was published in shortened form in the London Review of Books) which was written in response to a 2002 address by Lawrence Summers, then President of Harvard University. There, Summers claimed that ‘profoundly anti-Israeli views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities’, that is, that ‘serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.’ Butler’s essay in response is an unsparing appraisal of the governing assumptions of Summers’ address, which, she notes, worked to generate an almost uninhabitable atmosphere for Jews critical of Israeli policy. Written in the wake of this increasingly hostile intellectual climate, in which academics critical of the Israeli state were subject to charges of anti-Semitism and, in some contexts, placed on watch lists, Butler’s essay navigates the treacherous effects of a series of inconsistencies in Summers’ work. Here, as elsewhere, Butler’s form of argumentation tends to identify, in a way that discloses her indebtedness to the major insights of speech act theory, a certain ‘force’ present in linguistic discourse. Not only do our utterances articulate subjective opinions or make objective claims about specific events, they also work to create and reinforce the very conditions under which they are identifiable, legible or visible. Powerful speech, then, determines the contours of the very sphere in which it circulates, rendering some ideas acceptable and others indefensible. Like her critique of Summers in Precarious Life, then, Butler’s review of Weiss recognizes the particular ‘force’ that underlies and amplifies the language of the (relatively) powerful. (Things come full circle: Butler’s Jewish Currents review points out that, as a student in New York, Bari Weiss ‘helped lead an effort to bring complaints against Middle Eastern studies professors who held critical views of Israel for allegedly creating a hostile environment for Jews on campus’, complaints which—after review—were found to be ‘almost entirely unfounded’.)

Common to both the earlier essay on Summers and the review of Weiss is an attempt, in the face of persistent reductions, to identify and recover a progressive Jewish identity. These attempts are voiced in response to a common conflation, made by both Summer and Weiss, and registered as catastrophic by Butler: each constructs an intellectual domain in which any criticism of Israel is potentially anti-Semitic, with the effect of effacing the identities of those Jewish people critical of Israeli policy (whether privately or publicly) and of reinforcing a genuinely anti-Semitic trope that identifies all Jewish people with Israel and often with Zionism. Butler’s sources for articulating another Judaism are multiple: from Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida, to contemporary networks of resistance that traverse Jewish and Arab populations in Israel, Palestine and elsewhere. Less familiar to general readers might be Butler’s ongoing interest in the writings of Martin Buber, formulated most expansively in Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012). From Buber, Butler derives an account of an irreducibly dialogic Jewish identity inseparable from a political project of ‘binationalism’, one founded not on the negotiation of discrete, competing interests, but rather on the assumption of a separation of ‘nation’ and ‘state’ and the axiom that states ought not to express cultural identity. Needless to say, such a project’s prospects are increasingly unlikely with the entrenchment of right-wing nationalism in Israeli parliamentary politics.

As even this extremely brief summary of Butler’s recent writings demonstrates, her work involves a certain degree of repetition, one that is routinely rubbing up against discursive impasses. Yet, instead of betraying a theoretical failure, this seriality is recognised by Butler and made central to her concerns. Rather than being positively affirmed, the progressive Jewish identity to which Butler regularly appeals is, it might be said, invoked in response to reductive characterisations of Jewish life that are exclusionary, bigoted, unequal: in short, wrong. (A 2011 article for the London Review of Books considers the tensions generated by recent legal contestations over Franz Kafka’s notebooks and drafts. Here, Butler seeks to wrangle something out of a linguistically and culturally heterogenous Kafka that eludes two competing claims made on his texts: their status as mere commodities capable of being sold—literally, as she notes, by the kilogram—and their putative status, demanded by Israeli cultural institutions, as the unconditional heritage and property of the Jewish people.)

Alongside Buber, a major influence on this irreducibly conditional experience of identity is Emmanuel Levinas, whose account of the Jewish interdiction against killing, famously cast through the figure of the ‘face’, also influences Butler’s ongoing concern with non-violence. Levinas is an important source for terms that have come to seem almost synonymous with Butler’s recent project: vulnerability, exposure, precariousness. Particularly in texts such as Precarious Life and Frames of War, Butler proposes that precariousness defines a network of ineluctable entanglements that characterise human experience, and which, if recognised, demands an ethics of care and cohabitation. If, as such an ethics implies, Jewish experience is not merely particular, the resources of Jewish thought—Butler’s work argues—can be solicited to reflect upon, and resist, other regimes of situated violence: these are explored at length in Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, and have influenced recent work in political theory, such as Emily Apter’s Unexceptional Politics and Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s Civil Imagination, which recognises a similar potential in the image. That our conditions of subjectivation also determine the limits and possibilities of our forms of political assembly: this might be the lesson that connects Butler’s early, well-known writings on gender and performativity to her recent attempts to theorize resistance in diverse political contexts.

Yet, what are the limits of this lesson? Butler’s signature passion for the performative politics of assembly is partly what got her in trouble in Geoffrey Bennington’s notoriously piercing review of the new translation of Derrida’s Of Grammatology, occasioned by the text’s fortieth anniversary in 2016. Newly translated (and, according to Bennington, more or less botched) by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Of Grammatology was also given a new introduction by Butler. Many of Bennington’s criticisms are specific to Butler’s understanding of Derrida’s text and of the history and reception of deconstruction, but some are informed by a concise but highly relevant problem he sees Butler as glossing over: how directly are the politics of assembly, advocated by Butler, related to whatever politics might be gleaned from Derrida’s writing? The tension at stake here is pertinent because it forces us to question the extent to which speech act theory—or a discursive theory of language as a field in which power relations are manifested and differentiated—in fact exhausts the ‘force’ of language itself. Are the linguistic frameworks that determine the transmission or failure of ideas always successfully generated by power in discrete historical epochs, or is writing’s own, ungovernable generation of differences, liable to produce less recognizable distortions of language. In short (to borrow the language of deconstruction), should we not strive to identify conditions of impossibility as well as conditions of possibility? This question is a familiar one for anyone interested in the reception of Derrida, but it is inescapable.

The title of this book—The Force of Non-Violence—also brings to mind the text that has had perhaps the strongest influence on Butler’s recent body of work: Walter Benjamin’s ‘Toward the Critique of Violence’ (one of whose most influential readings is Derrida’s controversial essay ‘Force of Law’). Benjamin’s essay is itself just a fragment, in reality, a fact overlooked by many of its readers eager to pitch it as a philosophical commentary on the question of whether violence can ever be justified (in fact, in remaining fragmentary—‘toward’—it is a critique of the assumption of the possibility of such a critique, an indication of its possible impossibility). In a commentary on Benjamin’s essay, Butler registers her awareness of this problem, proposing that the text’s notorious distinction between mythic and divine violence acts as a kind of cipher for the importance of non-violence in Jewish tradition. Butler, in turn, suggests that the use of violence can never be determined in advance, but instead may arise only on singular and ungeneralizable occasions, the result of an act of ‘wrestling’ with the interdiction against killing.

Butler’s regular, recursive returns to the problems identified most recently in her review of Bari Weiss, we might then say, perform this wrestling itself, refusing to make assumptions about how generalizable her own arguments are. This seems important, insofar as it refuses to posit the validity of a theoretical argument in a rapidly shifting—often worsening—political climate. Yet the hope I have for Butler’s new book is that it will deliver a sustained account of the complexities and paradoxes that have accompanied her own recent intellectual itinerary. What does it mean, for example, that the public sphere, as a forum for potential disagreements about Judaism and Israel, remains consistently out of reach? What ideals about the communicability of ideas are invested in such an object? And what accounts of the relation between language and political action are lost?

Christopher Law teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he completed a PhD in Comparative Literature