Reviewed by Therese O’Donnell, The Law School, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Email: therese.odonnell [at] strath.ac.uk.
David Seymour’s concerns in this book lie with the lack of attention given to the links between law and the emergence of anti-Semitism. He is curious about the potential for an intimate connection between the two and is doubtful about the prevailing course of study which he sees as viewing anti-Semitism as a pre-existing given, with law’s connection to it as simply being one of external application. Utilising a wide field of enquiry which stretches from the thoughts of such thinkers as Marx via Sartre to Agamben, Seymour sees linkages between the diverse thinkers in the way they make connections between legal rights as an expression of modern political emancipation and the emergence and development of anti-Semitism. His view is that even critical theory has had its shortcomings in properly theorising anti-Semitism, because although it identifies the historical connection between emancipation and anti-Semitism, it is Seymour’s view that critical theory remains in thrall to the explanatory tenets of the anti-Semitic worldview “including the naturalising of social categories and the denial of subjectivity that come with this naturalising” (p.xvii).
At the turn of the 20th century into the 21st, Seymour having thought that his work on anti-Semitism was destined to become of historical interest only, grew uncomfortable with the increasing attractiveness, at least in the West, of “Jewishness.” Indeed, similar turnarounds in the fortunes of erstwhile pariahs have been evident in the relationship modern Australians seek to re-establish with criminalised ancestors. Seymour identifies one fascination with “the Jews” as lying in their identification, notably by Lyotard, as particularly ethical. While such a phenomenon might be written off as mere kitsch fascination or a retreat to a problematic (and potentially dangerous) exoticising, Seymour goes straight to a Nietzschean ressentiment anxiety. That is, upon being discovered as less than the transcendent superior force external agents ascribe to them, Jews will suffer an unfortunate fate at the hands of the vengeful disappointed. Indeed, such projections and reflections permeate the book which opens with a “letter from Shylock” in which Shylock attacks the dishonesty of Christian criticism of usury and yet bemoans his own foolishness in acting as a Christian (by dealing “unjewishly” with Antonio). Shylock’s reflections conclude that he has been killed as a Jew but no more than Antonio has been as a Christian and he ends with the question “[W]ho now can separate the flesh from the blood?” (p.xv).
In considering the relationship of Enlightenment and emancipation to law, [*882] anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, Seymour considers Marx’s attempts to highlight the social basis of seemingly natural phenomena as championed in particular by Bruno Bauer. Marx was convinced that complex and potentially competing public and private identities attach to all members of civil society, not simply Jews. Indeed he questioned the very nature of political emancipation itself by generalising any individual’s participation in the state as an act of mere sophistry thus simultaneously “dissolving” any Jewishness in the question. This was in opposition to Bauer’s writings which suggested a perfidious aspect to Jewish citizenship which could only be cured by renunciation of faith. For Marx, property’s capacity to afford access to rights and money was less about perceptions of Jewish power than the conditions wrought by capitalism. Seymour notes that for Marx the political emancipation of the time was the end of the beginning in a process heading towards genuine emancipation. However, for Seymour the challenges to naturalism undertaken by Marx were not pursued by subsequent critical thinking.
Seymour then moves on to a discussion of the work of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Zygmunt Bauman, and Giorgio Agamben which he sees as a trilogy of works culminating in a situation in which naturalised anti-Semitism becomes dissolved into general and generalised conceptions of domination (p.14). Seymour considers that Adorno and Horkheimer, despite their best efforts, still treat “the Jews” as a socio-economic concept thus masking or denying the “non-conceptual” Jews of everyday life (p.18). He maintains that their treatment of anti-Semitism as independent of individual human thought or action, allows it to take on the characteristic of a natural phenomenon unrelated to human responsibility and responsiveness. Bauman’s work, notably in its discussion of science and the possibilities it creates for anti-Semitism, is described as the mid-point on the trajectory from critical thinking to positivism. Seymour considers that Bauman’s work allows anti-Semitism to lose its uniqueness and to be subsumed within more generalised notions of domination, whereby extra-social naturalist science imposes itself onto society (p.23). Anti-Semitism thus ceases to become a product of social relations and critical thinking becomes infused with positivistic elements. Nevertheless Bauman’s work leaves some space for the social realm notably in his critique of the “conceptual Jew” and the social construction of it. Seymour sees that for Agamben the granting of citizenship becomes a decision dictated by biopolitics. It stops being a question of mere political membership, instead becoming more fundamentally about life itself, with Jews and their exclusion becoming the naturalised product of an absolutist positing power (p.29). Thus, for Seymour, the Jews, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism are simply reduced to paradigmatic examples of general domination and positivism’s dream of reducing the many to one is fulfilled. In his opinion, this will result in the loss both of an understanding of the particularities of anti-Semitism and the social worlds which bring it into being and the means through which it can be acknowledged and confronted.
In the mid-point of the book where Seymour examines anti-Semitism, he [*883] considers the work of Nietzsche, Sartre, Lyotard and Agamben. Among the linkages between these thinkers he sees is the tendency to treat modern emancipation as doomed to failure leading to a ressentiment, not only against the emancipated world, but against the very idea of emancipation. Among Seymour’s stronger criticisms are those levelled at Lyotard. For Lyotard, modern emancipation involved the loss of the “ethical,” a quality which he saw the Jews as embodying, and which led to their targeting as a result of ressentiment (p.67). Seymour considers this characterisation as distorting as those expressed in anti-Semitic views and in his view paradoxically inaugurates a post-Holocaust stream of ressentiment (p.68). Although acknowledging Lyotard’s evaluation of the ethical in the Jews as a positive, not a negative, Seymour is concerned that the effect of such an image can be equally dangerous (pp.73-74). Ultimately, for Seymour the theoretical trend whereby critiques of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust are submerged within generalised critiques of emancipation is worrying.
What comes to light . . . is the presentation of antisemitism as the outcome of a shortcoming of emancipation that, in itself, has little or nothing to do with the actual existence of Jews.
. . . Subsumed under universal categories, the specificity of antisemitism and the Holocaust will become the ontological loss that lies at the core of the calls for an emancipation from emancipation. The consequence of this new loss contains within it ressentiment against the acknowledgement of a specifically modern Jewish dimension to the equivocalities of emancipation. It is a ressentiment that we find nurtured within the very roots of antisemitism itself. (pp.80-81)
Seymour does not end his work on this negative note. After all he wishes to encourage theoretical vigilance regarding ressentiment not an ignoring of, or surrendering to, it. After a discussion of the jurisprudence of Nazi monumental architecture, which he considers parodied classicism in the same way that the Nazi Law of Nature parodied Natural Law, Seymour concludes by discussing Hannah Arendt’s work which he considers to avoid the pitfalls he identifies in other works. He favours her refusal to treat Jews as mere objects of history and her approach which eschews the pursuit of a chronological continuity between pre-modern anti-Jewish prejudice and modern anti-Semitism in favour of identifying the distinctions, as well as her call for a more sophisticated understanding of the concept of human rights.
This is a dense and thought-provoking work which attempts both deep and broad analysis of political thought likely to be of interest to researchers working in the fields of jurisprudence, sociology, philosophy and politics. The book builds on the author’s previously published works, and, given his cautioning regarding potential upsurges of ressentiment in matters related to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, it will be interesting to see the progress of his ideas in the context of 21st century critical theory.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Therese O’Donnell.