Geography, Philosophy and Judaic Thought
- ISBN: 9781350154254
- Published By: Bloomsbury Academic
- Published: November 2020
In In Exile: Geography, Philosophy and Judaic Thought Jessica Dubow sheds new light on the notion of “exile” as the spatial basis for Jewish thought, a notion that holds both critical capacity and political potential. Located at the nexus of cultural geography and philosophy, Dubow’s interdisciplinary approach presents exile as a form of space, thought and action, forcing the reader to rethink dominant understandings of belonging, identity, time, history, and territory. Based on an extensive range of Frankfurt-inclined interlocutors who all signify a particular relation between Jewish tradition and European modernity, Dubow portrays exile as a tool to reconstruct these categories of time, space and location. In evocative academic and prosaic language, she engages with and reorients contemporary scholarly debates wherein exile takes center stage in discussing Jewish nationhood and Israeli politics and foreign policy. Treating exile as both a territorial phenomenon and a form of thought, Dubow translates exilic disorientation “into the exposure of new orientations” (11).
To engage the reader in her thought-provoking argument, Dubow starts with a discussion on the significance of exile in the book of Exodus: whereas the Israelites could have left Egypt via the North of the Sinai Desert, they instead looped around the Red Sea, taking what Dubow terms a “crooked route” (2). This route exemplifies a specific exilic space, and for the author, symbolizes continuities between escape and return, between haste and gradualism, and between regression and redemption, challenging the presupposed binary logic governing these ideas. The crooked route allocates an intellectual space for rebellious thought, Dubow writes. Exodus alerts us to an exilic type of thought, the state and space of a hope, a stipulation; “a turning towards something that does not yet exist or is ever certain to happen” (4).
The central quest on which Dubow embarks then, consists in laying bare how the historical experience and the intellectual notion of exile has influenced Jewish intellectual thought over the last two hundred years. How is Jewish spatial displacement entwined with critical deliberation? In answering this question, Dubow formulates a critique of Western philosophical traditions for stressing territorial location and place in time: she locates exile in the “middle city”, a space with a particular historical intensity, and argues that the uncertainties and the stipulative nature of this middle city point to a conception of history outside the assurances of territory or the threat of dispossession. Exile, located in the middle city, challenges the binary of territory versus dispossession: it is a release from the very supersessions of time that keep us from all that is originally untimely, and so a conception of exile locatable within history itself. Judaic exile, in Dubow’s line of thought, is not the subject’s lack of a world, nor a reiteration of the antisemitic trope of the Wandering Jew: it is instead a particular form of exilic intelligence, driven by the vitality of the disorientations that Jewish historical uprootedness espouse.
In the book’s five chapters, Dubow draws on a rich variety of Frankfurt-inclined critical theory. Her most important interlocutors are Frans Rosenzweig, Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt. These three German intellectuals, whose lifetimes span from the late Weimar Republic to post-WWII Germany, all symbolize a relation between Jewish tradition and European modernity. All three figures discussed exemplify a specific exilic intelligence – installing a distance from the defenses of time and territory, disclosing the founding failures and foreignness of place, and enjoining us to inhabit them. Dubow persuasively connects Rosenzweig’s critique of historicism with Benjamin’s messianic political writings and urban aestheticism, and by supplanting Arendt’s view on freedom and public political being with the theories of Sigmund Freud, Isiah Berlin and W.G. Sebald, works towards the concept of ‘placeholder’ in her conclusion. The placeholder is a repositioned political subject in an exilic spatiality, a spatiality that allows for a certain type of action. This place of the placeholder is significant, but carries no determinate meaning.
In Exile is an eloquently written book, even as it covers an impressive amount of dense literature. This tone of the book, however, is in tension with the book’s argument. Although Dubow posits that exile holds critical capacity and political potential, she does not make this potential explicit. Moreover, Dubow does not elaborate on the political background against which this potential has to be understood. This results in an eloquent but not a solution-driven book, despite the immediate feeling the adept reader gets for the importance of uprooting exile. Despite her astute and appropriate selection of interlocutors, Dubow assists the reader very little in understanding how these interlocutors function regarding the book’s larger direction, and more crucially, she does not touch upon her own position as she engages with her interlocutors.
This relates to a more fundamental problem regarding the structure of Dubow’s book. Only in the epilogue of the book does she situate the potential of exile in relation to an explicit research problem. This problem, for Dubow, consists in “enjoining exile to Judaism today at all” (165). In the very last pages of the book does she face the difficulty of engaging with exile in the face of Israeli political reality, which “instrumentalizes … a specific history of spatial dispossession, enlisting it as license and exculpation for its own territorial violations” (165). Treating exile as a form of thought that carries political potential, Dubow engages rather thinly with the political reality of Israel as “the contemporary Jewish state” (165), which, as she notes, is characterized by a negation of the notion of exile. In fact, Dubow notes that although exile might describe the spatial fundament of Judaic existence, no type of society ever allowed for a form of life based on this spatial fundament.
In the end, it seems like Dubow only gets to the central problem of the book in her conclusion. One wonders what the book would have looked like if Dubow had, in the very first pages, located Israel’s instrumentalization of exile against exile’s potential. More fundamentally, this raises the question of the extent to which modern scholarship on Jewish nationhood and exile can ever transpire independently from the Israeli-Palestinian political reality. In Exile is a strong and impressive intellectual exercise, which invites readers to take its findings and mount a weighty political challenge.
Wytze J. Dijkstra is a graduate student in Islamic and Arabic studies at Utrecht University.Wytze J. DijkstraDate Of Review:May 13, 2022