This is a fundamental research project financed by the Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO). The project was subsidized after selection by the FWO-expert panel.
German-Jewish Thought and its Aftermath. A Tenuous Legacy
A synopsis of the book
References to the Jewish tradition play a crucial role in the conceptualization of modernity by major thinkers of the past century. My book traces the changing form, fate, and function of several key concepts of this tradition such as Exile, Remembrance, Redemption, Law and Tradition itself – in three different periods: modernism, postmodernism in its deconstructive variant, and the current period that begins at the turn of the twenty-first century.
Aspects of the Jewish tradition invoked in the works of early twentieth century thinkers and writers profoundly influence their conceptualization of modernity. This influence initially takes the form of a complex and ambivalent questioning of the Enlightenment, a critique that is neither regressive or conservative nor progressive, but that generates alternative ideas of the modern subject in its apprehension of itself, of the other, of history, of the transcendent and,last but not least, of tradition itself. The postmodernist thinkers constituting the second phase of my study still draw heavily on the Jewish dimension of their modernist predecessors. More recently, however, their views have been challenged or dismissed from various positions during the third phase, which is sometimes designated as "post-theory" but does not, as yet, have a consensual appellation.
The modernist authors and thinkers I consider – Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, Paul Celan and others – constitute the group of German-Jewish proponents of a Jewish modernity designated by Stephane Moses as "critical modernity" in opposition to a "normative modernity". The correlations between the Jewish tradition and modernity established and developed in the writings by these German-Jewish authors were taken up in diverse ways in the poststructuralist context during the decades from the nineteen seventies to the nineties. Here I refer to both Jewish and non-Jewish, predominantly French thinkers such as Emmanuel Lévinas, Maurice Blanchot, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jacques Derrida. By the turn of the twenty-first century, however, a number of influential thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou all claim to generate a new mode of thinking that differs from the approaches of both their modernist and their postmodernist precursors. Simultaneously, thinkers and scholars of Jewish Studies are distancing themselves from the modernist German-Jewish thinkers and criticize what they conside to be their overly assimilated, Westernized and Eurocentric views As a result of all these developments, the encounter of the Jewish tradition and European modernity that marked the first generation of thinkers and was still present in the second, risks getting lost. In my book I will explore these current developments and the challenge they pose to the understanding of modernity developed from Kafka's generation through Derrida's.