Sephardics Readings List: An Intersection between latinx/hispanic/jewish studies

a. Western intellectual and cultural history since 1600. This examination includes basic
issues in the philosophy of religion, theory and method in the study of religion, and
contemporary critical theory. The purpose of the exam is to situate the field of Religion and Culture in its historical and intellectual context.

This list is designed to include canonical works in the broader field of Religious Studies as it relates to my topic such as Machiavelli’s The Prince, Cervante’s Don Quixote, Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise; and also to include non-canonical primary sources wich are nevertheless important to the development of the ‘West,’ works like the diary of Ursula de Jesus and the proto-novel Lazarillo de Tormes as well as the broader picaresque literary genre that so subtly influenced posthegemonic rebellion of an internal (–marrano–) kind. The representatives of the canon as well as those chosen to represent a noncanonical kind of canon are designed both to challenge the supremacy of canon as a concept and to point to the role of Spanish imperial culture as being an important, if not fundamental, element in even conceiving a phrase such as ‘Wesern intellectual and cultural history since 1600″. Spanish history, particularly as it pertains to the whirlwinds of posthegemonic stirs, desires, and manifestations along the margins of the Empire, involves an incredible transformation on the world stage. I will follow Professor DeGuzman’s observations and posit that the West as such positions itself historically as being other than Spanish, that modernity is other than Spanish, that freedom (as in the case of the ‘Free Cities’ that developed in the early modern period, such as Sale, or even Amsterdam or London, ports that were in the new zones of global trade outside of Spanish Imperial hegemony) was increasingly defined in reaction/accommodation to the professed Spanish imperial ideal. Professor Cassen’s Italian Spy is indicative of yet another possible ‘posthegemonic’ reaction to the Imperial claim on religious conformity–as are characters like Samuel Palache, Abraham Miguel Cardozo, Baruch Spinoza, and many others.  I plan to have an eye on these macro historico-cultural turns that were taking place in different places within the matrix of the Spanish/Portuguese Imperial zone but also on marranism’s (destabilizing, reinvigorating) force and influence on what we now call ‘Western’ thought.

b. Area of specialization. This examination focuses on major scholarly literature specific to the student’s specific field of study.

This list is focused on the historiography of the converso/new christian/marrano narrative, with a nod at the different streams of understanding the converso phenomenon both within and without the Iberian peninsula. This is an exploration of the development of a new Sephardic community that would come to understand itself in many different ways in different locations, but, and particularly in seventeenth-century Amsterdam and throughout the Atlantic zones, began to articulate a sense of nationhood that included fellow kinsmen then living or having lived in Spanish lands (‘the lands of idolatry’) as Catholics, even for generations. This trajectory will follow the work of Bodian, Yovel, Perez, Netanyahu, Nirenberg, Jonathan Israel, and many others.

c. Cultural theory. This examination focuses on methodological and theoretical issues in an area of cultural theory relevant to the student’s scholarly work, such as literary theory, cultural studies, ethnographic theory, postcolonial studies, or gender theory.

This list is designed as a ‘Jewish Studies’ list, but with an emphasis on the history of the ‘heretical.’ I follow Gershom Sholem and more recent scholars like David Halperin and Benjamin Lazier and try to show that heresy is an integral–if not fundamental–to the movement of (Jewish) history.  I also highlight different ways that the Inquisition was instrumental in creating precisely what it feared most. We can see this in Wachtel’s recent Marrano Labyrinths in which he details conversations had between Inquisitorial prisoners (who were recorded by fellow inmate spies) where we witness a ‘return’ to Judaism as a result of a life lived at the at times ruthless mercy of Inquisitorial bureaucracy. At the same time, following scholars like Rawlings or Kamen, the Spanish Inquisition was a modernizing institution and became a model for non-Spanish elites to not only reject the “inquisition” at a rhetorical level (as an illiberal and primitive institution to be abhorred) but also adopt its innovations and efficiencies, its claim on biopolitics, the right to a trial, access to international databases, adherences to procedure, global institutional cooperation, and, to remain topical, an early apparatus of the modern deep state.

d. Dissertation examination. This exam covers historical and critical literature specific to the student’s area of dissertation research.

This list is a focus on the cultural and political phenomena of ‘Philosephardism’ which I explore as part of a Spanish postcolonial nostalgia that became marginally widespread after the territorial losses of 1898 that marked the end of Spanish colonialism in the ‘New World.’ At the same time, philosephardism was concurrent with growing nationalisms that took on many forms, among them a kind of re-colonialism that would invert certain traditional (crusader) norms by claiming loyal ‘Moors’ and Spanish Jews and enlisting them in a new project of ‘hispanidad’ that supposedly could usher in a new and better era. Broader European notions of progress inflected these ideas and they played out in Spanish (re)colonial thinking in various and particular ways. This included King Alfonso XIII’s love affair with chemical weapons which he used unabashedly in the Rift Wars, setting the stage for the first mass aerial bombardments of civilian populations in Europe during the colonial-reconquest of peninsular Spain from the supposed dangers of Communism during the Spanish Civil War. The proto-fascist Spanish right revitalized and reinvigorated the narrative of 1492, reconquest, los reyes catolicos, etc; but interestingly the ideology differed both with more traditional conservatism and its counterparts of in the modern right in northern Europe. ‘Southern’ proto-fascism made room for thinking about an orientalism that allowed for Jews to re-enter the bodypolitic of Spanish nationhood on the one hand, while on the other both rejecting and internalizing the ‘Moor’ as the noble, potentially civilized, but still tainted savage other. Sebastian Balfour’s Deadly Embrace is crucial for talking about these so-called African wars, while Isabel Rohr’s Philosephardism and the Spanish Right, and Stanley Pain’s several biographies and histories of Franco and the run-up to the Spanish Civil War are necessary historiographies as well. The writings, works, thoughts and lives of individuals central to disseminating philosephardism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are necessary, people like Angel Pulido and Ernesto Gimenez; and then represented should be examples of philosephardism in the contemporary literary world–like Munoz’ Sefarad or Eran Torbiner’s recent documentary Madrid before Hanifa; as well a brief rumination on Spain’s current philospehardic law to extend citizenship to exiles of 1492.

Unity is Tyranny. by Alejandro Moreiras

Derrida: “The ‘tower of Babel’ does not merely figure the irreducible multiplicity of tongues; it exhibits an incompletion, the impossibility of finishing, of totalizing, or saturating, of completing something on the order of edification, architectural construction, system and architectonics.”

And Yeshayahu Leibovitz explains that the Tower of Babel narrative shows God’s mercy in dispersing man to create difference: “In a world that is of one language and a common speech, man is a complete slave because there is no greater tyranny than to have unity forced on people.”

In the biblical text, the people say, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.”

A tower leading to the heavens, to the gate of the gods, made of brick instead of stone, was the first hegemonic project, a progressive one, technologically advanced, meta-physical, rational, categorical, pursued in the name of recognition, for having a name, to finally reach the divide between the cosmos and the heavens.
But the people fail, they do not reach their liminal threshold, their border, their door, their wall. The gods scatter them because, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
A reminder from Derrida, which is self-evident in Hebrew, is that here ‘confusion’ is used metonymically for ‘babel’; Babel is at once The Gate of God and The Great Confusion.
What happens next is perhaps unexpected: once dispersed the people stop building, and the Tower is left deconstructed. But nevertheless, the seekers find what they sought–identity. But it was not unified, nay, it never could be, there could only be identities; infinite, like the cosmos. They desired the names of the gods for themselves; but a name, it turns out, does not make way for a new hegemony. It makes way for infrapolitics.
The builders of the Tower, the nameseekers, wanted a collective recognition, one that erased distinction and watered the desert between the divine and the profane. They wanted, as a group, an identity that signaled accomplishment, completion, power, conquest, totality.
Deserted the Tower eventually crumbled. But for a time it remained, half-built and forgotten, not destroyed by the godhead but abandoned by the people.
The heavens remained out of reach, as always, and the people gained language, a confused and fluid tool of division and independence. With language and name people no longer understand one another. Bewildered they continue, divinely confused and unfinished, living with the rubble, and the story goes on.
The project of the Tower of Babel, to bind the heavens and the earth, to pursue utopia, to wish for the eschaton, to desire a return, to want a postmessianism, is an exercise of hegemonic fantasy.
The scatter is necessary. The confusion is babel–the doorway to god, the name of the gods as well as gods’ name for us; and our names for each other.
Cacophony is the order of the political. A pluralist and diverse mess where tyranny can not live, where the polis is relegated and delegated by chaos, a fermenting chaos that births life and moves it.
I’ll close with Benjamin’s divine violence, a violence not based in law but that exists in spite of; a violence that liberates from the harmful violence of order and universalism; one that undermines the implicit horrors of a social contract; a violence that obliterates the terranean impulse to reach for the stars.

Moral Outrage. By Alejandro Moreiras.

Someone recently posted a meme of Hitler with the words “What Hitler Got Right” big and bold at the top, and below a quote attributed (falsely?) to Mein Kampf that basically states that American Jews are and have been the main exploiters of black Americans.

This facebook page saw hundreds of comments, several of them mine, in a matter of hours (certainly not viral, but in the echo chamber of my small circle of acquaintances, that number counted as something of note). People appalled or applauding had a surprising range of emotional relationships to the meme, both in support and opposition; tacit, indirect, and outright; from pride to shock, disappointment to disbelief; from ‘how could this be posted?’ to ‘how can you not understand why this is posted?’

There are many conversations to be had about these memes designed to spark moral outrage and the dialogues that ensue. Trolling loosely defined is now as benign as responding, and the concept of social media is lost. Our use of twitter and facebook, etc, transcended the social years ago and we currently find ourselves rooted in the entirety of media—in the umbrella sense of the term; one that includes everything, or at least includes the middle of everything and points to a new prime mover of the American body politic.

From alternate facts to alternate rights, republicults and deplorables, arise familiar vocabularies of the new middle media, words that act as ambassadors to every day feeds, signifiers of a much more personalized, polarized, and partisan cyberspace.

But its effects are also felt on land; there are physical and physiological interactions with this media; the news in the middle of everything, perpetually humming in our pockets and beeping on our screens. Sharing is taking the place of speaking, a phenomenon that challenges writing, and transforms reading into an externalized act. There is a paradigm shift of sorts going on, and no one has a handle on it.

These conversations are important. For example, in the anecdote above, the meme where Hitler is used as an expert to make an unabashedly antisemitic point, there is nevertheless a nod to an understudied side of American history. As James Baldwin wrote: “Negroes are anti-Semitic because they are anti-white.” The implication being that there are cases, many even, of Jews, as assimilated whites, exploiting a black underclass.

There certainly are these histories; one can easily point to figures in the early modern trans-Atlantic slave trade, to the modern entertainment industry, and to anywhere else one cares to look, that would fit the bill of being Jewish and exploiter. This meme, interpreting it as liberally as possible is meant as a boisterous rebellion against a perceived hegemonic history and culture that has included American Jews as whites but has excluded black Americans.

But it fails to consider that it reduces black suffering by explaining it through antisemitism, a form of scapegoating almost as old as history; fails to consider the strong Jewish representation in the civil rights era of the mid-twentieth century; fails to consider that Jews were relegated to the merchant and entertainment industries as a result of being frozen out of nearly everything else;  fails to consider that the majority of the world’s Jews are brown-skinned and poor, and many are black, too, and most white Jews do not enjoy upper or even middle-class status, etc.

The meme is deeply divisive, polarizing, manifestly antisemitic—and, perhaps more to the point does not lead to any kind of productive dialogue between what quickly metastasizes into two opposing camps (those opposed and those in favor). It is designed for reaction and reactionaries.

Another underexplored point to make here is that there is a long history of the American countercultural left appropriating fascist and Nazi images and postures. One need only turn to Kerouac’s antisemitism; beatnik and hippie affinity for future, leather and motorcycles; the Surfer’s Cross; Malcolm X’s speech to American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell in 1961, at the end of which Rockwell donated financially to the NOI; David Bowie’s love affair with fascism and strong man nationalism in the 1970s; and on and on. Indeed, there are many examples of leftwing affinity for elements of fascism and National Socialism, both aesthetically and ideologically; and I’d even argue that until the recent Trump/Bannon phenomenon and the upending of an American political tradition stretching back to the beginning of the postwar era, were largely confined to left-wing and libertarian circles, and to cultures outside of the conservative norm.

These could be enlightening conversations. But the memed conversations of late are worrisome. Details are lost, generalizations are broad, and thought is reduced to emotion.

Moral outrage is a paved road to hell.