Larisa Reznik and Daniel J. Schultz
Adam Y. Stern’s book Survival: A Theological-Political Genealogy opens with a parallel set of observations: the first takes note of the ubiquity of survival-talk in the public sphere and the second registers the persistent association of Jews and survival. In the former instance, Stern has in mind the myriad ways “the figure of the survivor has come to mediate the representation of current events, from genocide, climate catastrophe, and mass shootings, to disaster capitalism, sexual violence, terminal illness, and more”; in the second, Stern is thinking not only of the Holocaust survivor’s exemplarity, but of how “survival underwrites the narration of Jewish history (the survival of the Jews) and Jewish politics (the survival of Israel)” (ix). How, the study asks, might these two fields of survival-talk be brought together? What, if anything, does this survival-talk across secular, biological, political, and planetary domains have to do with Jewish survival?
Stern’s answer to this question, and the book’s main provocation, is that these heterogeneous expressions of survival are already linked. They carry with them the signature of a Latin Christian political theology of survival. Secularism does not mark the overcoming of Christianity; it marks, rather, its universal global translation. This is captured, for Stern, by Derrida’s neologism globalatinization, a sign which both hides and globalizes a Latin Christian grammar of concepts and style of power. Stern’s theo-political genealogy tracks this Christian morphology of survival through exemplary scenes of its ongoing translation.
Representing the best impulses of an interdisciplinary approach, Survival marshals the resources of religious studies, theology, continental philosophy, media studies, psychoanalysis, postcolonial thought, and translation studies, to name a few. While the core chapters of this book engage Arendt, Benjamin, Rosenzweig, and Freud, along the way, a reader will tarry with the Talmud, the Eucharist controversies, the Gospel of John, Friedrich Kittler’s “discourse networks,” Shakespeare, Conrad, the postcolonial thought of Abdelkebir Khatibi, and so much more.
The respondents in this Symposium further expand this already capacious archive. In addition to drawing out the deep resonance of Stern’s analysis of Jewish survival with the way survival circulates in Black and Indigenous Studies, these responses — in the way they draw alongside, contest, and extend Stern’s claims — betray disciplinary desires (for a different archive) and anxieties (about the way Stern has configured his own). A book like Stern’s cannot not awaken these wants and fears, the desire for an emancipatory subject of history and the anxiety about what happens if such a subject is abandoned. If Enlightenment critiques of Christianity, which promise its overcoming, work to intensify the sensation of human freedom, expanse, and futurity, genealogical work like Stern’s, which reframes this supposed overcoming as yet another chapter of Christianity’s insidious self transformation, can amplify a readerly sensation of claustrophobia. It can make it seem as though history were a yoke to be borne or a horizon of closure to be endured.
Stern is not, however, resigned to such closure, even as he resists the consolations of a subject of history. He models resistance to the globalatinizing figuration of survival in the book’s remarkable epilogue. There he offers us, if not an alternative, an image — linguistically condensed in the Hebrew-Arabic neologism talmid-hakham-in-sumūd — on the basis of which something like an alternative might be elaborated. This attempt at a local translation of survival, one derived from Jewish and Palestinian sources, refuses globalatin mediation. The fact that one can construct an alternative Jewish genealogy of survival, however, does not mean there’s reason to believe it will be any less violent, subsumptive, or in the business of replicating sovereignty everywhere it goes. The parting gesture of Survival then offers a point of entry into an investigation of Jewish alternatives but does not assume that something good will necessarily be found there. In the responses collected here, the perils and the promise of Stern’s project come into sharper relief.
Joseph Winters’ response — “(Jewish) Survival Beyond (Christian) Resurrection” — weaves Stern’s theo-political genealogy of survival into the poetic figuration of black being, or to that mode of survival that Kevin Quashie has termed “Black aliveness.” What is at stake here is a form of aesthetic world making where what survives, in Winters’ words, “is never separable from the violence and the terror that produce remnants and ruins.” This notion, which draws on the “weak messianism” of Walter Benjamin’s famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” captures the double sense of survival pervades Stern’s genealogy: survival is not only what remains, but also the wreckage and ruination that enables what remains. Winters introduces this thematic with James Baldwin’s remark: “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. So, I’m forced to be an optimist. I am forced to believe that we can survive, whatever we must survive.” This forced optimism disallows any suggestion that survival here is triumphant or emancipatory; instead, it is very much, to borrow a phrase from Christina Sharpe, “in the wake.” Winters brings these tensions to a crescendo through a remarkable reading of Lucille Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me.”
If Winters’ reading of Survival transposes Stern’s problematic from the German-Jewish philosophical domain to the poetic domain of Black study, it does so leaving the project’s genealogical method and central claims intact. Conversely, Julia Reinhard Lupton’s response — “Surviving Shakespeare, Dreaming of Michelangelo, Honoring Arendt” — offers a different angle of approach, one that attempts to disrupt Stern’s genealogical procedure and to furnish a counter-reading of his major interlocutors. Where Stern finds in Jewish narratives of survival a rearticulation of, and complicity with, Christian salvation history, Lupton finds Jewish thinkers taking up Christian formulations in order to make them more capacious and elastic, allowing them “to accommodate other voices, vistas, and questions.” In addition to reading these German Jewish thinkers otherwise, Lupton supplements her counter narrative with a rich visual analysis of two minor Jewish figures in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes — Achim and Eliud, ancestors of Christ (Mt 1:1-16). Unlike the major prophets who loom large on the lavishly painted ceiling, Achim and Eliud are tucked away, painted on either side of a lunette and are weakly tethered to the overall theology of the fresco program. “The cramped, divided picture planes,” writes Lupton, “yield a range of comportments not exhausted by New Testament typology.” This acute sensitivity to an ongoing Jewish resonance and remainder in Christian art and thought is meant to resist the hegemony of Christian closure, something Lupton repeatedly does in exceptional readings of Shakespeare that both draw alongside and critically probe Stern’s own.
In framing their reading of Stern’s iterative ask, “who is speaking about survival?,” Eleanor Craig reminds us that Stern is asking “whose epistemologies and concerns inhabit” texts and how might we talk about textual complicity in terms of that inhabitation, rather than some authorial intent. Craig’s reading of Stern’s question might be less about who is speaking about survival and more about whose survival is (and is not) being spoken. Framed in
that way, Craig, like Winters, orients Stern’s inhabitational accounting toward new archives and possibilities for solidarity with a range of others for whom the call of globalatinizing survival is a proleptic death knell—those of Indigenous Studies and related disciplines that seek to publicize the“arrangements of domination” undergirding the very project of Western “civilization.” Stern’s analysis illuminates the growing zone of indistinction between domination and practices of freedom. Adding to this analysis, Craig, following Gerald Vizenor, calls upon survivance to hold open a space for practices of freedom that cannot be wholly translated into the dialectic of domination and resistance. Vizenor locates survivance in Indigenous knowledge and practice. By marking affinities between Survival’s search for a language in colonial Palestine for responding to the threat of annihilation that is not already overwritten by survival’s globalatinized effects and the idiom of survivance, Craig points to opportunities for solidarity across populations whose disparate histories nonetheless share in both the effects of survival and the arts of survivance—however diverse and untranslatable such arts (must) remain across contexts.
Nitzan Lebovic focuses on the gap between sovereignty and biopolitics that a genealogical approach indebted to Foucault and interested in the question of secularization like Stern’s must traverse. Lebovic reads the survivor as a figure that appears on the faultline between the regime of sovereignty and the regime of biopolitics. From this vantage point, Lebovic offers a provocation, asking just how exemplary is “the survivor” to this genealogical story and might another sort of figure serve equally well for tracing the seam of transition from sovereignty to biopolitics. Lebovic proposes the figure of “the stranger” refracted through the German-Jewish philosophical, historical, and sociological scene, drawing on Georg Simmel as a resource for theorizing the stranger. As a marginal figure accorded x-ray vision into the contradictions of secularization, which the transition between the regime of sovereignty and biopolitics names for Lebovic, the stranger also renders visible the hegemonic effects of the secularization of Christian norms, forms, and grammars. Yet because “the stranger” is a figure of ambivalence, whose legacy is not so firmly tethered to the twin polls of Christian survival–the fittest and the least fit–he holds out the possibility of traversing the shift between sovereignty and biopolitics that modulates the risk of “giving Christianity the last word.” Like Lupton, Lebovic worries that Stern leaves us with no way out of the regime of globalatinization that Stern’s genealogy of survival presents. Like Craig, Lebovic also gestures towards the desire for a counter-genealogy of survivance. Ultimately, Lebovic concludes that neither the survivor nor the stranger can serve as a starting point for such a counter genealogy, as both figures are “too civilized, too much the product of a turbulent West.”
These responses, taken together with Stern’s generous individual replies, give incipient shape to a transdisciplinary conversation. The attempt here to trace the lines of force that traverse “survival” yield strikingly original readings of canonical figures and stage a series of direct confrontations with some of our most intractable political problems.
Daniel J. Schultz is an Assistant Professor of Religion and Anthropology at Whitman College. His work, which explores themes that range from medieval art history to political theology to postcolonial historiography, has appeared in venues such as The Journal of Religion, Word & Image, Political Theology, and History and Theory. He is currently writing a book that examines the ways religion is constituted as an object of knowledge in Michel Foucault’s later works.
Larisa Reznik is Lecturer in Religious Studies and Jewish Studies at The University of Chicago. Previously, she was Visiting Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at Pomona College. Her research and teaching focus on modern Jewish thought, religion and politics, critical theory, and gender and sexuality studies. She is currently working on two book projects, tentatively titled Modern Jewish Thought and the Politics of Political Theology and Theological Realism and the Jargon of Authenticity.