On FB, Naomi Seidman recently asked all of us about whether or not there are any new paradigm shifts in Jewish Studies and in the sub-fields in which we work. From my perch at Syracuse, I’d like to suggest that a way forward might be in turning away from “subjects” and the “social construction of identity.” In particularly, this means a turn away from the so-called linguistic turn in which bodies are signified like texts and texts like bodies. Dominated by literary theory, this was the theoretical model that drove so much Jewish Studies in the 1990s under the impress of “postmodernism.”
After postmodernism and the critics of totalities (Derrida, Foucault, Levinas), Jewish Studies would look, in particular, for the human in relation to biological bodies, including animal bodies, to all kinds of networks, science and technology and media, topographies and ecology and ontologies, mind and possible worlds, including the possibility of non-human agencies. A new paradigm in the humanities, writ large, and in Jewish Studies, writ small, would pick up cues from our current mediated environments, saturated as they are by science, tech, and images.
Currently in the humanities, some of this has already found expression in Material Feminism, Affect Theory, and Post-Humanism. As always behind the curve, Jewish Studies has not really come to any of the discussions framed by theorists like Deleuze, Irigaray, Latour, and Karen Barad. But precursors there are, at least in Jewish thought. Here I would look to work by Norbert Samuelson, Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Elliot Wolfson, Michael Fagenblatt, Sergei Dolgopolsky, Aaron Gross, Shaul Magid, and Kalman Bland (z”l).
Instead of just looking at “Jews,” we might want to start looking at other things in the world around us. I’m not entirely ready with Magid to call this “post-Jewish,” but I’m almost there. What matters most in these new approaches would have less to do with that absolutely exhausted concept “identity,” the more or less isolated but always constructed Jewish “subject,” “text” or “body.” The Jewish Studies nodal point would related to the imbrication of Jewish “singularities” into large networked bodies and affects, into big systems of exchange and data fields, into science, nature, and new ontologies.
Go to the movies, read a new novel, go to a museum or gallery where they show contemporary art. There are alternative models in the humanities out there whose rules are relatively easy to learn. The trick in Jewish Studies is to figure out how to make these work.