Judaism & The Fetish: A Quick Note on Marx and the (Religious) Imagination

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Marx was a bitter cuss, the odd positioning of whom in relation to religion from a Religious Studies perspective relates to the binary disambiguation in his thinking between what’s genuinely real and what’s not, namely mental projections and ideological phrasings. Reading Marx in my Theories and Method in Religion seminar, we spent some time closely attending to the famous passage about religion as the opiate of the people (in “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: An Introduction”). We read it along with “On The Jewish Question,” selections from the German Ideology, and that extended passage on the commodity fetish from volume 1 of Capital, and also the Communist Manifesto. Quite clearly, my own mostly sour reading of Marx in seminar reflects my own controlling interest in images and in the aesthetic imagination.

In seminar, we are reading all of the classical theorists for what they have to say as much about modernity as they do about religion per se. The same carries through with Marx. About “On the Jewish Question,” I’ve written before here at the blog. What I sought to do there was to transvalue Marx’s critique, to affirm the dynamics of alienation and difference, Judaism and “money,” even perversion that Marx himself identified with such keen brilliance. What struck me reading Marx this time around was that his use of the racist conceptualization of the fetish, a stock figure in nineteenth century European letters, shares the same structure and function as the anti-Semitism in “On the Jewish Question.” In both are exhibited modern animus to archaic forms of religion. The anti-Semitic animus and the racial animus are deployed deliberately as political critique. The polemical upshot for Marx was that bourgeois society, i.e. Christian society, is nothing better than Judaism, no better than the primitive fetishism. But which is uglier? Is it the image in the mirror with which he wanted to show Europe its “real” visage or is it the ugly mirror, the prejudice itself, with which he does so?

The sticking point is how, philosophically definite notions about what’s “real” and what’s imagination and fantasy are coupled with an unerring confidence in the critic’s own ability as a political economist to discern the truth of the one (real economic conditions) and the falseness (theology) of the other. As a critical theoretician, there is no ultimate involution of the one and the other. Illusion, alienation, haggling, commodity fetish all sit on one side, destined to vanish into air like a puff of smoke, when once and for all are changed the material conditions that give them rise, when class distinction is finally abolished because the international proletariat will have become the human race, in the terrifying words of the Internationale.

Exercising Marx throughout these essays is the sharply demarcated difference between real versus ersatz happiness, between real need (food, drink, procreative sex) versus the surplus wants of advanced market economies with the liberation of “man” as “species being” standing over the rights-invested emancipation of the bourgeois citizen. About “On The Jewish Question” I will say again that it could just as well be the case that the unreal reality constituted by Marx as “Judaism” or the unreality of the commodity fetish is far more real than simple species being, which is a necessary but insufficient material condition of human existence. The more plastic reality than “species being” are those that belong to African or capitalist (pace Jewish) materialities.

Reading Marx for religion, I have formed in my own mind, as it were, a cartoon of him skulking around a wretched market in a dirty coat, stomping his foot at the haunting spectral presence of theological simulacra. Marx and Marxist thought together have something of the spectacle about them. That’s how I would read him more charitably than I am doing so here. But for the actual reality of spectacle in the worlds of religion and the market Marx had zero sympathy, and only some understanding as to the enduring character of fantasy and illusion, along with religion and other forms of consciousness. Located alongside the market, religion would be for Marx a funhouse hall of mirrors in which appear all kinds of surrealistically distorted apparitions, Jewish grotesques, primitive fetish objects, and social hieroglyphics. As a one-eyed realist, Marx seems to have missed the very real reasons why one might, in fact, have good reason to participate in back and forth exchange between this for that, be that one commodity for another, or this world for that world, the material and the symbolic, etc. etc.

None of what Marx identified is settled. This includes alienation, the tensions between material structure and ideological superstructure (the way they match up and the way they do not match up), the stubbornness of matter and material need aligned with the simulacra of religion and money, the abiding reality of social conflict and human misery, and the capacity and incapacity of human beings to create change. With no way out of this Platonic cave, with no way past “Judaism” and the “fetish,” about these things, we will always have to “haggle,” at least in this material life. The violent political temper in Marx against the imagination reflects a violent social world that Marx with matching animus could only interpret.

About zjb

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