Western Wall Fetish Object

fetish.jpgwestern wall

Just a quick note on the Western Wall fiasco in the wake of Netanyahu’s suspending plans to create an egalitarian prayer space there. Parts of the Jewish left are claiming that the fight over access to the Western Wall, this particular fight over Public Judaism, is no big deal, that the Occupation matters more, that the liberal Reform and Conservative movements have done “nothing” to oppose the Occupation, and that, finally, the Wall constitutes, in their words (in a near constant refrain), a “fetish.”

It seems that no one understands that “fetishism” was an old racist and colonialist rubric with which to negate the significance of African religious materialities. It was recommended to me by Gail Hamner and I’m recommending to you William Pietz’s “The Problem of the Fetish, I.” It appeared in RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 9 (Spring, 1985), pp. 5-17. “The Problem of the Fetish, I” is mostly a theoretical-philosophical excursus.  It’s companion, “The Problem of the Fetish, II” is a historical geneaology going back to the Christian origins of the term and then its adaptation by Portuguese and then Dutch and English colonists.  It was later picked up by critics like Marx and Freud to signify questions of value, meaning, in particular, some fixation of false consciousness around constellations of crude objects that obscure some more fundamental good. (One could argue that, in this, the implicit racism in Marx on commodity fetishism is sister to his identification of “Judaism” with another false object-god, namely money.)

Against this defamation of the fetish, Pietz begins the first essay with an epigraph by Merleau Ponty, who wrote somewhere in Invisble and Visible, “every historical object is a fetish.” He writes, “Fetishes exist in the world as material objects that “naturally” embody socially significant values that touch one or more individuals in an intensely personal way: a flag, monument, or landmark; a talisman, medicine-bundle, or sacramental object; an earring, tattoo, or cockade; a city, village, or nation; a shoe, lock of hair, or phallus; a Giacometti sculpture or Duchamp’s Large Glass. Each has that quality of synecdochic fragmentedness or “detotalized totality” characteristic of the recurrent, material collective object discussed by Sartre” (Fetish, I, pp. 13-14).

With all due respect to Yeshiyahu Leibowitz, who was one of the first to inveigh against the reactionary theo-political appropriation of the Wall, he was not best known as either a materialist or cultural theorist. Taking up the high cudgel against “idolatry,” a term related historically to “fetish,” as critics on the left identify it, the Kotel has, indeed, become a Jewish “fetish.” But in dismissing the fetish quality of the Western Wall, they would have forgotten, even betrayed the materialism to which so many of us, at least on the academic left, would in any other circumstance embrace as foundational to culture and consciousness. As per Pietz, the fetish is irreducibly material, bound up with significant (not false) social value,  and in active relation to the human being as an embodied self. (For a neat summation, see the first paragraph of “The Problem of the Fetish, II, p.23)

With his eye on European colonialists, Pietz distinguishes between the critical discourse of the fetish and his own theoretical reconstruction of the fetish idea as an object of cultural analysis and cultural production, “The discourse of the fetish has always been a critical discourse about the false objective values of a culture from which the speaker is personally distanced…Fetish discourse always posits this double consciousness of absorbed credulity and degraded or distanced incredulity. The site of this latter disillusioned judgment by its very nature seems to represent a power of the ultimate degradation and, by implication, of the radical creation of value. Because of this it holds an illusory attractive power of its own: that of seeming to be that Archimedian point of man at last ‘more open and cured of his obsessions,’ the impossible home of a man without fetishes” (Fetish, I, p.14).

Short of owning up to the bad history of a concept that no one should want to own or to use as a critical weapon, the upshot to all this for our present purpose: the Jewish left should get of its superior high horse; or stop calling yourself a materialist. At the very least, to call something a “fetish” is not an argument against it or attachments to it. Against idealism, for the symbolic-social-spiritual-historical charge it carries, the so-called material fetish object is worth having. In theory, there is no “man” without a fetish, no “home” without a wall.

(With thanks to Gail Hamner and to Biko Gray)

(Here is Fetish I, and here is Fetish II)


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(2 Comments) Dyke March Statement on Zionism

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Here are two comments regarding the Dyke March statement defending the action to give Jewish Pride the boot. You can read the complete statement here

[1] Laura Grauer and Wider Bridge have caught a lot of flak, as if supporting LGBT rights in Israel constitutes a mark of Cain. The site with the statement provides a photo shot of a FB conversation between Grauer and group organizers. You can look for yourself. I don’t think there was anything at all aggressive about anything that Grauer wrote and the group organizers seemed to have responding in kind, assuming there would be no reason to think that Grauer would be harassed.

[2] When men do this, it’s called “mansplaining.” The authors of the Dyke March statement took it upon themselves to define the “essence of  Zionism.” This is what they wrote and all they had to say on the subject. “Zionism is an inherently white-supremacist ideology. It is based on the premise that Jewish people have a God-given entitlement to the lands of historic Palestine and the surrounding areas.” That is to say that the authors reduced a complex historical and ideological phenomenon to 189 characters, including spaces and two punctuation points.



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(Dyke March) No Public Judaism (Ellie Otra)

Jewish pride flag

About public Judaism and being Jewish in public, I’m posting the statement by Ellie Otra, one of the women kicked off Dyke March in Chicago for carrying a Jewish Pride flag. Personal and to the point, the statement appeared on her FB wall and has gotten some circulation online. The incident speaks to to litmus testing on the left as the way to separate bad Jews from good Jews and from everyone else. A magen David has no place on the left? Slipping easily into anti-Semitism, my own view is that anti-Zionism poisons everything with which it comes into contact.

Ellie Otra:

Yesterday I was removed from the Chicago Dyke March. I am so upset that I’m no longer upset, so here is a faithful narrative of every event.

I wanted to be in public as a gay Jew of Persian and German heritage. Nothing more, nothing less. So I made a shirt that said “Proud Jewish Dyke” and hoisted a big Jewish Pride flag — a rainbow flag with a Star of David in the center, the centuries-old symbol of the Jewish people. I snapped a picture before the March, and in retrospect my happy, proud smile breaks my heart.

I knew the March was a politically fraught atmosphere, so I went in very carefully. I ignored people side-eyeing me. I stayed away from Palestinian flags and Palestinian chants. I actively walked away from people who directly tried to instigate conflict. I thought maybe if I played by their rules, I could just be Jewish in public.

No such luck. During the picnic in the park, organizers in their official t-shirts began whispering and pointing at me and soon, a delegation came over, announcing they’d been sent by the organizers. They told me my choices were to roll up my Jewish Pride flag or leave. The Star of David makes it look too much like the Israeli flag, they said, and it triggers people and makes them feel unsafe. This was their complaint.

I tried to explain — no, no! It’s the ubiquitous symbol of Judaism. I just want to be Jewish in public. No luck. So I tried using their language. This is an intersectional march, I said. This is my intersection. I’m supposed to be able to celebrate it here. No, they said. People feel unsafe. I tried again to explain about the Star of David. I tried again to use their language, to tell them that not being able to be visibly, flagrantly, proudly Jewish on my terms makes *me* feel unsafe. This was what I said.

But it didn’t work. After some fruitless back-and-forth, during which more people joined the organizers’ delegation and used their deeper voices, larger physical size, and greater numbers to insistently talk over my attempts at explanation, at conversation, I recognized a losing battle and left sobbing.

I was thrown out of Dyke March for being Jewish. And yes, there were other Jews there, visible ones even, who weren’t accosted, who had fun, even! And yes, Israel exists in a complicated way. But in this case, it doesn’t matter what Israel does or doesn’t do. This was about being Jewish in public, and I was thrown out for being Jewish, for being the “wrong” kind of Jew, the kind of Jew who shows up with a big Jewish star on a flag. No matter how much I tried to avoid conflict, to explain. Oh, maybe there was a way I could have stayed, but rolling up my beautiful proud flag for them would have been an even bigger loss.

This was my community, where for four years I have shown up, stood up, and helped out, and I am broken-hearted.

(I do not want this to turn into a debate about Israel and Palestine in the comments. That is not what this is about. This is about being Jewish in public. Also, I have made this post public and do not mind sharing done respectfully.)

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Exclusionary Imperatives (Ailing American Judaism Today)


I was going to write about the JTS statement on intermarriage (and still will). Then came the kerfuffle relating to leaders at the small Dyke March (some 1000 to 2000 people) demanding that (3) Jews with a Star of David Pride Flag leave the march (the Magen David, it was said, acted as some Zionist trigger), and then the Israeli government pulling the rug out of liberal prayer space at the Western Wall. As friend Adam Black wrote on FB, in the Age of Trump, it’s one scandal, once incident, one thing after another. Like drinking water out of a fire hose. What teases these three incidents relate to the messy, messy business of defining limits and boundaries and the exclusionary imperative. Who belongs in the synagogue, at Dyke March, at the Western Wall? In this illiberal climate, everyone is out to ex-communicate someone. The events feed off of and feed into powerful affective loops of outrage and betrayal that go viral on the internet. For anyone who cares, it’s terrible to look at.




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(Pink) Statue of Liberty (Sundown)


The other night viewed from Red Hook. The massive sky turned the water into bright, dark pink

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(Wicked) Radical Affects (Spinoza)


“Everyone knows how it goes–a disgust with the present, a craving to make fundamental changes, uncontrolled anger, a scorn for poverty–these affects lead men to wickedness.”

(Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, Chapter XVII)

(thank you, Julie Klein for posting this on FB)

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(Reckless Mind) Philosophers & Politics (Mark Lilla)


The distinctly unkind pleasure reading through Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics belongs to liberal skeptics who would concur with Lilla that the combination of philosophy and politics would seem, at least in the twentieth century, to be invariably a botched relation. But handle this book with a certain care. Not intended for specialists, like its 2016 companion The Shipwrecked Mind, this is an easy quick read. Published in 2003, The Reckless Mind is a New York Review of Books book assembled mostly from individual essays published in that august journal of intellectual opinion. While each individual stands on its own relative merits and considerable insight, it’s not clear if all the philosophers assembled in this rogue’s gallery represent the same thing to the same extent –i.e. the recklessness of philosophers in the politics of the last century.

With separate chapters for each, Martin Heidegger (along with Arendt and Jaspers) gets the ball rolling along with other Weimar catastrophists, Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin. The French connection is established by Kojève, Foucault and Derrida. These three reflections are followed by “The Lure of Syracuse” and “Sola Fide,” being an epilogue and an afterword.

A great deal commends attention to these essays in the form of its outline of taxa. What constitutes “the reckless philosophical mind” are chalked up to anti-humanism, the uncompromising revolt against liberal society and culture, and the play of religion, myth, and mysticism (the fascination with limit experience like violence and death) as a form of intellectual habit that lends itself to what Lilla calls “philo-tyranny,” a toxic combination of ideas and passion (pp.208-216). Does everyone fit the bill and do they do so to the same order? Heidegger and Schmitt align obviously with Nazism, the engaged intellectual with Sartre and after with communist totalitarianism and then, with Foucault tellingly but, to this reader, ultimately inconsequential flirtations with revolutionary violence in 1968, and then briefly in response to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Rightly or wrongly, Derridean political philosophy is reduced to something of a non-serious and desperate joke (cf. p.189).

Is Lilla right? Can anyone take any of this seriously? Lilla writes abouth the challenge of teaching this material to students today who simply do not know the traumatic memory of mass death in the twentieth century. This being a blogpost, I’ll allow myself the confession that I like the animus directed at this particular grouping of thinkers, the impossibility for politics of thinkers who celebrate impossibility itself as a first, ontological principle. It’s not my intention here to suss out the degree to which Lilla’s punch either lands or misses its mark. I say this despite my own sympathy for the suspicion that philosophy, whose ultimate stock and trade is a mix of skepticism and ideas, does not mix well with the cynical arts of politics, which operate within while pushing the limits of conventional thinking.

I will submit that, making a brief appearance, Raymond Aron, the author of L’Opium des intellectuels (1955) is the hero of The Reckless Mind for understanding in Lilla’s view the distinction and proper boundary between politics and philosophy. “In his view, the real responsibility of European intellectuals after the war was to bring whatever expertise they had to bear on liberal-democratic politics and to maintain a sense of moral proportion in judging the relative injustices of different political systems –in short, to be independent spectators with a modest sense of their roles as citizens and opinion-makers. Sartre and his follower accepted no such responsibilities” (p.204, emphasis added).

I am tempted to agree that Lilla is right, that Aron was right, as Lilla says he was (ibid.). Ideally, the position outlined here makes a certain amount of limited sense about which one can agree or disagree. But as an intellectual historian, Lilla should have known better, namely that the experience of the twentieth century, a century of mass death and murder, and disruptive moral dislocations was not going to be conducive to the philosophical equanimity, the aesthetic values of right and proportion, recommended by Lilla, as if from some privileged political height or habitat.

There is reason enough to be cautious and critical about the “blurring of boundaries between pure philosophical inquiry, political philosophy, and political engagement” (pp.161, 187). Indeed, one might reasonably suspect that philosophers bring no extraordinary capacities by nature of their peculiar genius to the practical genius of political judgment in actual situations. Philosophy on a soapbox can cut a foolish figure. But the problem might not have anything to do with the relationship between philosophy and politics tout court when it might rather be the case that the philosophy was somewhat rancid in the first place or that there was something amiss about the philosopher’s political capacity to begin with.

More generally, the confusion might relate to problems concerning imagination and empathy. Not getting this right is a basic human incapacity to which philosophers might be especially prone, inclined as they tend to be towards a hermeneutics of suspicion, as opposed to a hermeneutics of charity. Skepticism may go only so far, but that would have to include the liberal skepticism shared by this particular reader with Mark Lilla.

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