Posing (Cindy Sherman and the Art of Becoming Judaism)

(Cindy Sherman at MoMA)

To write about Cindy Sherman and Judaism is sort of like the old joke about the elephant and the Jewish problem. But here we go.

What Sherman’s work is able to visualize is that old saw, namely the performative construction of identity. Her work helps us think through the tremendous amount of Jewish posing on Facebook, the staging of Judaism online, and all the political posturing that comes with it. I’m okay with that kind of posing or posturing, and want to be honest and upfront about it.

I don’t see how Judaism can be today anything but simulacral. What this means is that the interface between Jewishness and Judaism is not a subject-position as in old identity politics. Jewish identity and Judaism are not about a subject or a group of single subjects, but concern surface play of actional and affective positioning coursing through “the Jewish people,” a body without organs. The same hold for Christianity and Islam and Hinduism, and Buddhism, and new-atheism.

Having said that, I also want to say that I don’t necessarily want to reduce Jewishness and Judaism to an aesthetic surface performance, although in the end, perhaps I will as an unintended effect. Let’s just say it’s an element that JP has yet to fully theorize.

Tired of postmodern play, there’s a resurgence of new realism on the critical scene today (Badiou, Zizek, et.al). But I’d rather stay with a kind of Deluezian realism. It’s not that everything is simulacral. I think it’s more right rather to say that the simulacral is everywhere, especially today in super-accelerated forms mediated by technologies. It would be fair, I think, to say, is that performance is everywhere, not everything. This is what happened to me in graduate school. I was very aware of it happening. A new social role gradually turns into a new skin, a new subjectivity, which is as real as anything else. It’s just that there’s nothing necessarily underneath the fold, except more surface folds (as per Deleuze and Nietzsche).

It’s as all the subjects in Frédéric Brenner’s massive photographic series of Jews were all one single sitter, namely Brenner himself, posing first this way and then that way (http://www.fredericbrenner.com/) The fungible difference between life and art. “Normal social posing” is not as self-conscious and meticulous as “the artificial posing” in photographic works by Sherman (and Brenner). And that’s how we learn about life from artifice and life as artifice. This would include Jewishness and Judaism.

[[I cribbed the post’s title from The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times,” co-edited by Barbarah Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jonathan Karp (http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/14382.html).]]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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