Symposium Introduction

Symposium Introduction

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. 

Short Bio:

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.




Julia Lupton


Surviving Shakespeare, Dreaming of Michelangelo, Honoring Arendt

Surviving Shakespeare, Dreaming of Michelangelo, Honoring Arendt

Figure 1: Michelangelo, Achim and Eliud, Sistine Chapel lunette. 

This painting by Michelangelo [Fig 1] is one of several lunettes and spandrels in the Sistine Chapel featuring the Ancestors of Christ. Overshadowed by the more famous depictions of God and his Prophets, the Ancestor series consists of small family groups skootched into leftover spaces in the Chapel’s upper walls. Deprived of the knowledge that vest the Prophets with their dignity and momentum, these minor characters from Matt 1:1-16 are trapped in an interminable before-time. The cramped, divided picture planes yield a range of comportments not exhausted by New Testament typology, from ennui and alienation (notice the backs turned to each other and the viewer) to tenderness and care (the mother on the right prepares a makeshift meal for her baby).

The Ancestors of Christ rank for me among Michelangelo’s most compelling images. They have also long struck me as evocatively Jewish, so I was excited to learn in recent work by Asher Biemann that Hermann Cohen (1842–1918) chose to view these works as portraits of “Jews in exile.”1 In other words, the Jewish Neo-Kantian from Marburg read these scenes as images of survival, in the sense developed so brilliantly by Adam Stern in his new book. The category of the Holocaust survivor, stripped of shame by writers such as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, became a veritable “secular saint” for both diaspora communities and the state of Israel after World War II (4). Yet survival, Stern argues, is not a Jewish idea at all, at least in any straightforward sense, but rather a complex by-product of Christian theology which has been unreflectively reabsorbed by modern Jewish thinkers as well as embraced by Israel’s state project. The process of constructing Jewish survival began long before the Holocaust, when Church fathers such as Augustine reread the “Old” Testament as prophecy and prefiguration of the New, to whose truth the survival of the Jews and their books bear witness (27). This fateful strategy authorized Christendom’s repressive toleration of the Jews as a necessary if reviled corpus mysticum, both dead and alive, embedded in salvation history (29).

Reaching back into Paul and the early church but focusing on modern German Jewish thought, Stern’s central tactic is to find the Christianity in Jewish thinkers, exposing the complicity of their survival narratives with the Eucharistic manufacture of presence, Christ’s resurrection, and the king’s two bodies. Thus, he writes of Arendt,

far from suggesting that a secularized Christianity bears some responsibility for producing this hell on earth, Arendt again sees in the archives of an abandoned Christian theology the critical resources for the world’s salvation. That is why, at the end of a long investigation into the elements and origins of total sovereignty, she famously closes with a citation from Saint Augustine. She reminds her readers that human beings are the created and never the creators: “Initium ut esset homo creatus est— ‘that a beginning be made man was created’” (47).

Because Christianity for Stern is ultimately synonymous with capitalism and imperialism, or what he calls, following Derrida, globalatinization, Arendt’s recourse to Christian figures such as Lazarus, her citations of Augustine, and even her turn to the English language (20) ultimately limit what she has to offer on the history of anti-Semitism and the birth of biopolitics. Although Stern says that he “follows Arendt by asking about the history of survival” (18), he finds her guilty of “secreting (in the double sense of the word) a singularly Christian topography of survival” (20).

But what is Arendt actually saying when she quotes Augustine? Arendt certainly did not think that human beings are incapable of creating; art occupies a key transitional bridge between work and action in The Human Condition. Arendt is arguing rather that the creation story thematizes the introduction of the unpredictability of human actors into the totality of the world considered as a made thing, and any attempt to treat human worldliness as the object of social engineering, household management, or military calculation is bound to fail (or at least reach a terrible stalemate). In The Human Condition, Arendt places the origins of the bureaucratic, post-political state in the Christian Middle Ages, and she explicitly criticizes the translation of Greek political terms into “Roman-Christian thought.”2 What she is trying to retrieve from humanity’s created status, in other words, is the capacity for politics, whose manifold contingencies are bound up in doing, speaking, and appearing to and before others (Eve to Adam, Adam to Eve), a fundamentally dramatic scene that the biopolitical state only imperfectly manages.

In Arendt’s 1933 essay “Original Assimilation” (note the ironic Augustinian title), she compares the Jewish salon hostess Rahel Varnhagen to Adam: “Purely independent, because born into no cultural world, without prejudice, because it seemed no one judged before her, as if in the paradoxical situation of the first human being, she was compelled to appropriate everything as if she were meeting it for the first time.”3 Varnhagen’s assimilation is “original” because it flows out of and gives shape to the disengagement from Jewish tradition predicated by emancipation and enlightenment. In this secular midrash, Arendt uses creation and its discontents to analyze the Jewish predicament, deprived of a politics, in the early 1930s.

In The Star of Redemption Rosenzweig notes that whereas the first days of creation are judged by God to be “good [tov],” the creation of humanity on the sixth day is “very good [tov me’od]” (Gen 1:31). Building on rabbinic commentaries, Rosenzweig identifies this “very” with a “supercreation” within creation, a surplus he identifies with human mortality, which “portends the revelation of a life which is above the creaturely level” by introducing historicity and the possibility of renewal into the teeming yet closed world of creation’s earlier stages.4 This de-completion that completes creation is doubled in the institution of Shabbat, a messianic interim or “time that remains” that opens a clearing for human action by suspending everyday work and labor.5 Arendt emphasizes birth or natality, whereas Rosenzweig emphasizes death or mortality, but both find in Genesis a torsion within creation that introduces historicity into the world conceived as a made thing. Eric Santner argues that German Jewish thinkers developed the topos of createdness and creaturely life because it allowed them to conceptualize “a specifically human way of finding oneself caught in the midst of antagonisms in and of the political field.”6 German-Jewish writers including Arendt, Auerbach, Rosenzweig, and Benjamin take up createdness in its Christian formulations but loosen Biblical typology’s grip on the story in order to accommodate other voices, vistas, and questions.

Stern exposes the Christian core of modern Jewish thought by troubling Arendt’s reliance on Augustine and Rosenzweig’s affinities with Pseudo-Dionysus. Hermann Cohen’s response to Michelangelo as processed by Asher Biemann suggests a somewhat different tactic: how does Jewishness continue to resonate within Christian art and thought? How do such remainders suggest paths into and beyond secularization for both Jewish and Christian artists and thinkers?

Let’s take Shakespeare. Stern reads Hamlet as a Eucharistic allegory: “In a crucial historical translation—‘at the heart of the ghost story called Christianity’—Shakespeare analyzes the aura and reproducibility of the king’s portrait as a political theology of a survivor-ghost” (137). If you read Hamlet for reminiscences of Torah, on the other hand, you might overhear Polonius rewriting the Book of Proverbs, Hamlet wallowing in Ecclesiastes, the Ghost delivering his commandment on Mosaic tablets, and Claudius and his stepson jockeying for possession of Davidic kingship.7 Hamlet’s Bible broadens the tropes of survival well beyond the resurrection celebrated in the Mass, to include the feint of madness, the agony of repentance, and the competing forms of discourse and study associated with Torah (Moses) and wisdom (Solomon). Even Hamlet’s liberatory “interim” in Act Four, which allows him to affirm his role as minister and scourge but also as forgiver and forgiven, has a messianic tenor.

What whispers in Hamlet howls in Lear, the Shakespearean tragedy that displaced Hamlet after the Holocaust.8 Lear has long been compared to Job and the prophets,9 and artists in the eighteenth century, responding to the increasing prestige of Shakespeare as a secular scripture, depicted Lear in the style of Michelangelo’s Sistine portraits.10 In many illustrations, Lear raging on the heath evokes the outstretched arms of Michelangelo’s storm-and-creator-God. The Anglo-Swiss painter Henry Fuseli, fresh from his Italienreise, used Michelangelo’s nested schemata to design a whole Shakespeare gallery, a secular Sistina. It was William Blake, however, who most closely channeled the forced inventiveness of exile that Hermann Cohen later intuited in Michelangelo’s Ancestors. Blake’s image of Cordelia and Lear in prison captures the lassitude and abandonment of Michelangelo’s refugees and honors their remodeling of leftover intervals for acts of imagination, companionship, and care.

Figure 2: William Blake, Lear and Cordelia in Prison, c. 1779. Tate Britain. Photo: Tate. 

Like my father-in-law Frank Reinhard’s generation of assimilated German Jews, Arendt was thrust into her Jewishness by the events of the 1930s, which she survived by becoming a refugee while aiding others in their exodus from Europe to Palestine and the United States. She could not save Benjamin from death, but she did carry his writings out of Europe and see them into print: survival of another kind.11 In the “Introduction” to Illuminations, Arendt compares Benjamin’s citations to pearl fishing, alluding to The Tempest.12 Shakespeare in turn assembled his underwater wonderland from the prophet’s psalm of thanksgiving in the Book of Jonah.13 Arendt’s pearls—luminous, portable, secreted around trash and trauma, and belonging to sea change—proffer a different, more magnanimous, Shakespearean trope of survival than the ghosts, hosts, and dead dictators that Stern finds in Hamlet and Julius Caesar.14

Stern’s genealogical approach unmasks survival’s darker purposes by “provincializing the presumed universality of regnant codes” and “analyzing the text of dominant discourses” (10). Although I came of age on deconstruction, genealogy often leaves me feeling bereft of valuable tools and fellow travelers. There are moments, however, when Stern pauses from the necessary work of critique in order to seek a way forward. In the stunning Epilogue, Stern provides an affirmative genealogy of the Palestinian virtue of ṣumūd—“agency, ability, and capacity in dire circumstances” (184), the forms of endurance that shine in Michelangelo’s lunettes. Stern couples ṣumūd with the rabbinic identification of the sarid or remnant with the talmid hakkam, “a student listening to the call of Torah (even at night),” that is, under conditions of persecution and dearth (186). Such devoted and courageous study, Stern suggests, is a form of Jewish survival less contaminated by Christian-colonial thinking than the post-war “Holocaust survivor” has become. And Stern’s own work is surely itself such an act of nocturnal study, insofar as he is keeping alive the tradition of Jewish thought that flourished before, between, and after the first two world wars, within a new “dark time” (in Arendt’s phrase) marked by the moral compromises of Israel, the march of climate change, and, as we write, the prospect of WWIII.

Figure 4: Hannah Lupton Reinhard, Song of the Sea, 2021. Oil and Swarovski crystals. Private collection. 

Whither Jewish (post-secular) art today? This final image, Song of the Sea, was the centerpiece of an exhibition entitled “Beshert / Beholden,” the 2022 solo debut of painter Hannah Reinhard Lupton (named twenty-six years ago after Hannah Arendt and, yes, my daughter). In this large oil painting bedazzled with Swarovski crystals, the exodus from Egypt becomes an afterparty where Instagram girlfriends trample a Chagallesque dejeuner sur l’herbe. If the headless dancers at the back of the painting mimic the maidens of Botticelli, the women in the foreground, one braiding the hair of another, resemble Michelangelo’s snapshots of Jewish solicitude in exile. Beshert is Yiddish for soulmate. Hannah’s nymphs are dear to each other because they are braiding stories greater than themselves in a world they did not make (“O cursed spite that these were born to set it right”). This granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor from Weimar is finding her way through the ruins of art history and the leavings of Judaism in full knowledge that for her generation, survival of any kind is a burning question. Reading Torah deep into the night, Adam Stern has given us a refreshed and chastened archive with which to think about these predicaments.

  1. Hermann Cohen, cited by Asher B. Biemann, Dreaming of Michelangelo: Jewish Variations on a Modern Theme (Stanford University Press, 2022), 89.

  2. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (University of Chicago, 957), 278.

  3. Hannah Arendt, “Original Assimilation” (1933), in The Jewish Writings, ed. Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman (NY: Schocken Books, 2007), 22–28.

  4. Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, trans. William W. Hallo (University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), 155. The reading stems from Rabbi Meir (139–63 CE), who taught that “’very good’ refers to death … to suffering … to temptation.” Artscroll Bereishis, Vol. I, (NY: Mesorah Publications, 1977), Gen 1:31, 78–9.

  5. Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford University Press, 2005).

  6. Eric Santner, On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

  7. For the latter, see Gabriel Bloomfield, “Exegetical Shakespeare: Hamlet and the Miserere mei deus [Psalm 51]” Shakespeare Quarterly 70.3 (Fall 2019): 183-206.

  8. Richard Ashby, King Lear “After” Auschwitz (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020).

  9. Steven Marx, Shakespeare and the Bible (Oxford Shakespeare Topics, 2000).

  10. Stuart Sillars, Painting Shakespeare: The Artist as Critic, 1720–1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

  11. Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 166-67.

  12. Arendt, “Introduction,” Illuminations, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1968), 50.

  13. Julia Reinhard Lupton, Shakespeare Dwelling: Designs for the Theater of Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 119-25.

  14. On magnanimity, iconography, and citation in the thinking of another German Jew, Aby Warburg, see David L. Marshall, The Weimar Origins of Rhetorical Inquiry (University of Chicago, 2021).

  • Adam Stern

    Adam Stern


    Response to Julia Reinhard Lupton

    Why do you bend such solemn brows on me?
    Think you I bear the shears of destiny?
    Have I commandment on the pulse of life?

    —William Shakespeare, King John


    Perhaps it was inevitable. Long since resolved. Always already “determined, predestined, foreordained.”1 In a word: beshert. Much like Rosenzweig, I will have remained Jewish: a talmid-ḥakham “reading Torah deep into the night.” But if there was never any avoiding these shears of destiny, I am grateful that the decisive judgment has come by way of Julia Reinhard Lupton, whose phenomenal counter-reading so carefully braids together the unthought strands winding their way through my genealogy of Christian survival. Indeed, Lupton’s post-critical gaze cuts through my hermeneutics of suspicion—with its proliferation of “ghosts, hosts, and dead dictators”—in order to weave a “more magnanimous” text. Following a multimedial path that runs between two exiles, two Hannahs, two Adams, and two “Eves,” Lupton calls for a Jewish thinking of survival centered on “acts of imagination, companionship, and care.”

    But let me begin again by returning to Lupton’s preliminary diagnostic. First, Lupton contends that my readings of “German-Jewish writers including Arendt, Auerbach, Rosenzweig, and Benjamin” forget that their sustained engagements with “Christian formulations” were always attempts to “loosen Biblical typology’s grip on the story in order to accommodate other voices, vistas, and questions.” In Arendt’s case, the turn to St. Augustine was never about Christianity as such but rather about a more general, even universal inquiry into “humanity’s…capacity for politics.” Second, Lupton asks what it might mean to move beyond a Eucharistic reading of Hamlet, by keeping an eye out for the “reminiscences of Torah” scattered across Shakespeare’s wider corpus. In doing so, Lupton highlights a range of Jewish “resonances” and “remainders” in various allusions to such biblical books as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Exodus. Finally, Lupton seeks to “broaden the tropes of survival well beyond the resurrection celebrated in the Mass, to include the feint of madness, the agony of repentance, and the competing forms of discourse and study associated with Torah (Moses) and wisdom (Solomon).” In sum, Lupton suggests, my genealogy of survival will have spent a little too much time on Christianity and critique. Not enough on Jewishness, Torah, and humanity.

    I cannot help but affirm my solidarity with Lupton’s provocation. The archive she compiles gestures toward a vision more attentive to the forms of kinship, relationality, and solicitude that might constitute an ethics of survival. After all, what could be more important for us, here and now, “within a new ‘dark time’ (in Arendt’s phrase) marked by the moral compromises of Israel, the march of climate change, and, as we write, the prospect of WWIII”? Who would dispute that today “survival of any kind is a burning question” (not to mention a question of planetary burning)? Is it not time to move beyond genealogy, critique, and deconstruction toward a more useful paradigm of interpretation? Are there figures, texts, and vocabulary that could guide us through this age of catastrophe? Words or images that would allow us to picture survival in a different way?

    It is with this possibility in mind that Lupton introduces the Yiddish word beshert, or “soulmate,” as an evocative frame for thinking Jewishness, humanity, survival, and gender in the present. In her most extended definition, Lupton tenders beshert as a name for those “who are dear to each other because they are braiding stories greater than themselves in a world they did not make.” Lupton is right. And I will always read beshert in the remarkable sense she has suggested here. But I also recall that beshert often carries a more ironic tenor: a fate tinged with “trouble, disaster, and sorrow.”2 Beyond an act of braiding, the word beshert can involve an act of cutting…like a pair of scissors [shern] destined to determine the borders of a frame, the edges of an image, and the limits of a world.

    After others, then, I find myself wondering about the framing of the world that these besherts have been fated to inhabit. Does this world have a name? And if so, what could it tell us about the sovereigns who pass the “shears of destiny” above the heads of some and across the necks of others? There are no doubt options: be it the Anthropocene, Anglocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene, or any of the other “cenes” that scholars continue to propagate.3 But would it be so strange to suggest, as Michelangelo and St. Augustine believed, that we also live and die within the Christocene?4 If it is strange to think about Christianity in this way—to think that Christianity may be more than simply a “religion”—the question is undoubtedly: why? What strategies have made it possible to secure Christianity within such a limited domain? How did the massive theological-political-legal-economic apparatus of Christendom manage to marginalize itself? And for what reasons? Is secularization an exit from religion? Something that happened to Christianity as if from the outside? Or is it, as Marx, Derrida, and others have suggested, an internal relève (destruction/retention), whereby Christendom dissolved itself only to ensure its furtive expansion?5

    In this sense, it was never my intention to suggest that the German-Jewish thinkers whose texts I read were neither German nor Jewish. What I hoped to ask was whether a scholarly overemphasis on these twin identities has diverted attention away from another, more difficult problem: how their texts conceptualize Christianity as a protean historical complex. I wanted to think more about why appeals to otherwise significant differences between Protestants and Catholics, Athens and Jerusalem, universality and particularity, center and margin, antiquity and modernity, secular and religious, Being and Absolute Knowledge, so frequently end up turning Latin Christianity into a transparent but inessential passageway between more fundamental (archeological and eschatological) moments. As Lucia Hulsether recently reminded us: “We cannot understand the dynamics of a putatively neutral global secular market absent attention to its Christian genealogies and tactics of subject production. The point is one to take personally: if you are a person who goes shopping, or who watches reality television, or who participates in American politics, or who goes to work, you have already been formed by the Protestant norms [note Hulsether’s slippage—A.Y.S.] that pervade everyday life in capitalist modernity.”6 Just think of all those religious, secular, post-secular, Jewish and non-Jewish Jews, who would never personally accept the label: Christian. Or then again, all those talmidei-ḥakhamim “reading Torah deep into the night.”

    So, yes, the political is personal and the personal is political. I follow Jill Robbins in thinking that “modern Jewish philosophies…cannot think themselves as Jewish without this relay through, this going by way of, the Christian.”7 As a good reader of St. Augustine, Franz Rosenzweig knew that Jews had long been “living letters of the law,” old testamentary figures, and witnesses (témoins) to Christianity’s progressive march toward redemption. But as Rosenzweig’s text also shows, Jewish survival (“slay them not”) is only a transit-point (témoins) for a broader encounter with Latin Christianity: the discursive cauldron, in which our contemporary definition, representation, and production of human survival has received its most consistent articulation.8 I speak here of that “glorious cadaver,” that wounded and resurrected body—“that guy” (as the Hebrew phrase goes)—whose image likely hangs in a museum near you.

    But if Rosenzweig is right—if the human (read: Man) has always survived within this empty space between God and corpse—then one might want to investigate how this distinction has enabled empirical projects of (de)humanization: Who are the gods? Who are the corpses? Needless to say, the answer to these questions will have everything to do with the histories of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Blackness, settler-colonialism, and more. Which is why I end not simply with the talmid-ḥakahm but with ṣumūd (never the first without the second). Two names that—like beshert­—bear signatures that exceed their significance. While each could easily come under the heading of “survival,” together they enact a certain refusal of the biblical, colonial, Zionist, and Latin Christian tropes that “survival” purports to universalize. In the hesitation that precedes translation, these untranslatable terms circumscribe the limits of a word that should never be understood as a metalinguistic concept but instead as a mark with a parochial materiality, historicity, and genealogy. At very least, I think, such a gesture could help us think more deeply about the contingency of the political vocabulary we have inherited from a globalatin world we did not make but to which we are nonetheless beholden if not beshert.

    1. Robert Gordis, “Mythology, Folklore, and Tradition—Studies in Yiddish Etymology,” in Fields of Offerings: Studies in Honor of Raphael Patai, ed. Victor D. Sanua (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983), 88.

    2. Robert Gordis, “Mythology, Folklore, and Tradition—Studies in Yiddish Etymology,” in Fields of Offerings: Studies in Honor of Raphael Patai, ed. Victor D. Sanua (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983), 88.

    3. Franciszek Chwałczyk, “Around the Anthropocene in Eighty Names—Considering the Urbanocene Proposition,” Sustainability 12, no. 11 (2020): 1–33.

    4. Chwałczyk does, indeed, reference this option (citing Michael S. Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2013]), where, however, it is used for different ends.

    5. Jacques Derrida, “What Is a ‘Relevant’ Translation?,” trans. Lawrence Venuti, Critical Inquiry 27, no. 2 (2001): 174–200; Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978).

    6. Lucia Hulsether, “Buying into the Dream: The Religion of Racial Capitalism in Coca-Cola’s World,” Public Culture 30, no. 3 (2018): 487.

    7. Jill Robbins, “Circumcising Confession: Derrida, Autobiography, Judaism,” Diacritics 25, no. 4 (1995): 21.

    8. On the double meaning of témoins, see Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 32.

Nitzan Lebovic


The Survivor and the Stranger

Between Political Theology and Biopolitics

Stern’s book is a theoretical tour de force that considers the relevance of survival as a theological-political phenomenon that “governs the history of ‘secular Judeo-Christianity’” (11). Stern offers a collection of interpretations, from the Rabbis to Talal Asad. His argument introduces us to the figure of the survivor, as discussed by a long list of thinkers, ancient to recent, all of them responding to the rise of Christian universalism. Over the course of modernity, the transformation from the divine voice to the voice of reality TV stars exposed “a still unresolved conflict between political theology and biopolitics” (153). A fundamental change at the heart of Western culture concerns, then, the transformation from an early modern divine right of kings, to a modern, biopolitical economy of power. Michel Foucault depicted this historical change in his work, and argued that if early modern rulers practiced power in the form of Christian patriarchy (the kingly, the phallic, and the decisionist), modern regimes developed the ability to camouflage their power in popular mediums or practices of distribution, management, and abstraction that “exert a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations.”1

The figure of the survivor appeared in English first as a “secular saint.” (4) In early-modern Hamlet the survivor transformed into a survivor-ghost (16), whom Stern calls “the Revenant.” In modernity he metamorphosed into a living-dead or a “monstrous figure of total sovereignty,” expected “to save us now,” Arendt concludes (43). When Agamben takes over the tradition of Augustinian-Arendtian commentary, he turns the survivor into a survivor-witness who cannot speak up. This is the paradigmatic Muselmann, now Jewish and Muslim, or the old-new “remnant” of Judeo-Christian tradition who’s left to answer for the “production and proliferation of survivor discourse,” as Asad, and Stern following him, explain (117). The survivor is placed, then, at the center of that process of transformation that leads from the secularization of Augustine’s two cities to modern urbanization and post-modern globalization. For Stern, following Agamben, “survival translates and captures a heterogenous field of marks,” both religious and secular (151). Unlike Agamben, the heterogeneity leads us to understand survival via “a history of the notion instead of a history of the concept” (151). From this angle, survival is a transformative moment, an untimely notion whose physicality saves it from both fusion with an early form of decisionism and later, empty, abstractions. The survivor is a concrete individual or community, a specific state, a specific notion of life, the one who continues to live (superstes in Latin), and the one who overcomes the biopolitical immanent notion of power and control. In his introduction, Stern argues that he approaches (Jewish) survival as ‘neither a Jewish nor a Judeo-Christian question” but as a “counterintuitive index for the way survival refracts the ‘secularized forms of Christianity that mark modernity in the West’” (12).2 He argues the same at the end of the book, when he discusses the new survivor, the Muslim.

I want to take a step back at this point. The meeting of secularization (political theology) and biopolitics is a meeting of two grand structures. The existential gap between them, the two periods and forms of control, is where the survivor, but not just her, show up. A similarly marginal figure is the stranger. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Georg Simmel (1858–1918)—a founder of modern sociology and a source of inspiration for Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Walter Benjamin—pointed out the importance of the stranger to modern culture. “The classical example,” for Simmel, “is the history of the European Jew.”3 The stranger is “objective,” meaning she has “the proportion of nearness and remoteness” or what Walter Benjamin would later depict as the “aura.”4 This “proportion” allows the stranger to see society from the margins and “de-familiarize” or “estrange” its conventions and norms. The stranger thus avoids the temptation of power and affirmative cliches. As the late David Frisby showed, “The Stranger is not merely an analysis of a social type but is also related to our sociological knowledge of others.”5 The implication is that we understand the stranger at the heart of what “arises historically out of the transition from a class system to the organization of social life on a more mechanical, relational and political basis.”6 What turns the stranger into an essential figure in the transformation between political theology and biopolitics is the notion of a new threshold: Similar to the survivor’s, her very existence at the margins of society serves to shed light on social and political norms of her time.

The threshold, the light and many shadows of social space, and the form and formless, are all categories Simmel identifies with the aesthetics of modern society. Such aesthetic categories can be found at the heart of Western theology, early modern plays, and modern secular politics. For example, in 1904 he identified the scholastic principle of “Coincidentia Oppositorum” as a key to modern social forms.7 For Simmel, or his stranger, religion, politics, and fashion were seen as “forms” within the primary aesthetics of life. An imagistic “instant of life” (Augenblick des Lebens) allowed one to overcome the assumed contrast between life and religion.8 Focusing on the essential force of life, Simmel develops a liminal methodology that utilizes figures such as the stranger, the creaturely, or the “naked angel,” in order to characterize the same transformation Stern is considers between political theology and biopolitics.

Simmel’s stranger, not mentioned in Stern’s rich interpretation, proposes a way to defamiliarize us with the traditional views of Christianity. If Stern assumes Christian forms as the fundamental shapes populating both political theology and biopolitics, the genealogy of the stranger proposes a different, less teleological narrative. But the stranger is important for another reason, too: The stranger is never alone. Not only does she move among other strangers like herself, but among a variety of different minorities, all suppressed and pushed to the margins by two millennia of Christian domination.

I bring this up to conclude with a rather large gesture, or a question. For that I return to the historical question of continuity and change Agamben and Stern agree on, namely the one leading from political theology to biopolitics, pre-modern to modern, or the crack between them: If Agamben’s weakness lies in the structural bias of his concept—his theory of the Muselmann was heavily criticized as instrumentalizing the survivor for the sake of defining the biopolitical sovereign—Stern confronts a different challenge: the broadness or heterogeneity of his notion allows him to overcome simplifications, but precisely because of it, avoids clear answers. Following the secularized forms of Christianity is important for a critical understanding of both political theology and biopolitics, but it risks following a triumphalist narrative in which both the Jew and the Muslim function as mere indicators. Indeed, as Stern shows clearly, there is no way around Rosenzweig’s negative and damning figuration of Islam as what “severs revelation from its proper link with life” (112). Stern works around Rosenzweig’s Islamophobia by exposing it for what it is, but isn’t incorporating this rejection as a [Christian] “site of excarnation” giving Christianity the last word?

The question I am asking here does not debate the great contribution of this wonderful book. Rather, I am attempting to draw on its intellectual vigor for the sake of a better and more sophisticated historical conversation. How are we to understand the survival of the Jew and the Muslim during “the Christian Centuries,” or what the historian François Hartog recently called “a Christian regime of historicity”?9 How do we escape this regime, dialectical and so expansively “loving” as it may be? Is the survivor our guide? The figure of the stranger, when accompanying or preceding the survivor, may propose a dimension of everyday life to the existential life-and-death drama. Both the Jew and the Muslim function here as the exception to the Christian rule—an exception to the law or to life itself—but the Christian King, real or imagined, defines the rule and its exception. If Benjamin positioned the stranger as “the turbulent void at the heart of (early) modernity” (140), Stern frames the survivor at the heart of Imitatio Christi or “the language of Eucharistic anxiety” (140). And maybe another explanation is possible here: In “The Age of Anxiety,” the title of a new song by Arcade Fire, maybe both figures of the survivor and the stranger are the wrong starting point. Both are too civilized, too much the product of a turbulent West.

  1. Michel Foucault, The Will to Knowledge: History of Sexuality. Vol 1, trans. Robert Hurlley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 137.

  2. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 14, quoted in Stern.

  3. Georg Simmel, “The Stranger,” in On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings, ed. Donald N. Levine (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1971), 145.

  4. Georg Simmel, “The Stranger,” in On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings, ed. Donald N. Levine (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1971), 146.

  5. David Frisby, Georg Simmel, (New York: Routledge, 2022), 117.

  6. David Frisby, Georg Simmel, (New York: Routledge, 2022), 117.

  7. “So ist doch der Sinn der Religionsität, für all diese Gegensatzpaare gleichmässigen Raum zu finden.” The essence of religiosity is to find space for such pairs of oppositions.” Georg Simmel, “Die Gegensätze des Lebens und die Religion,” in Gesamtausgabe, vol. 7, Aufsätze und Abhandlungen 1901–1908, eds. Rüdiger Kramme, Angela Rammstedt, and Otthein Rammstedt (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1995), p. 296. Originally published in Das Freie Wort, Franfurter Halbmonatszeitschirift für Fortschritt anfallen Gebieten des geistigen Lebens 4, no. 8 (1904). My translation.

  8. Georg Simmel, “Die Gegensätze des Lebens und die Religion,” in Gesamtausgabe, vol. 7, Aufsätze und Abhandlungen 1901–1908, ed. Rüdiger Kramme, Angela Rammstedt, and Otthein Rammstedt (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1995), 295.

  9. François Hartog, Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experience of Time, trans. Saskia Brown (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 11.

  • Adam Stern

    Adam Stern


    Response to Nitzan Lebovic

    It’s the age of doubt
    And I doubt we’ll figure it out
    Is it you or is it me?
    The age of anxiety
    (Are you talking to me?)

    –Arcade Fire, “Age of Anxiety”


    Nitzan Lebovic is after stranger things. And really who could blame him. There is something all-too-familiar about the story I tell. It’s as if we’ve heard it all before. My attempt at a critical genealogy has reproduced the most conventional, the most solipsistic, the most totalitarian structure possible. From beginning to end, I will have obeyed the terms set down by a real or imagined “Christian king”; produced a fundamentally “teleological” perspective on history; promoted an account that gives “Christianity the last word”; confirms “its triumphalist narrative”; and once again marginalizes those other “communities, all suppressed and pushed to the margins by two millennia of Christian domination.” A concomitant methodological “anxiety,” moreover, will have meant that my privileging of the “notion” over the “concept” has ended up avoiding “clear answers” to our most pressing problems. Not unlike Travis Bickle—“are you talking to me?”—I will have dissolved all Cartesian conviction into a specular play of deadly indifference.

    If I hyperbolize, it is only because Lebovic makes clear his desire for an alternative or, as I mentioned, something strange, a “stranger,” as it were, who might find a better way to “defamiliarize…traditional views of Christianity.” Lebovic hints that such a strange encounter might identify a new “starting point” for a “more sophisticated historical conversation” about nothing less than the writing of history. But Lebovic is not interested in just any stranger. He makes no mention, for example, of that “great stranger” who—so Freud claimed and as Edward Said later recalled—played such a formative role in the creation of the Jewish people.1 Here too, Lebovic has little to say about other canonical strangers, such as Camus’ pied noir, Hitchcock’s anonymous travelers, Toni Morrison’s fisherwoman, or Hannah’s Arendt’s natality. What does interest Lebovic is Georg Simmel’s famous 1908 essay on “the stranger” as a sociological type. In a trenchant analysis, Lebovic positions the “stranger” alongside and against the “survivor” as a figure of the margins: one that can “shed light on political and social norms” in modernity and, by way of a crucial addition, mark the historical threshold between sovereignty and biopolitics. At stake for Lebovic is a better, more precise historical reckoning with the question of “continuity and change” between genealogical epochs: the “crack,” he says, separating the medieval and the modern. He asks: Is my apparent lack of investment in periodization (sovereignty by another name, as Kathleen Davis helpfully reminds us) a reflection of what François Hartog has called the crisis of “presentism” (at once everything and nothing)?2

    It is probably not insignificant that Hartog’s inquiry into “regimes of historicity” passes through (and over) the “immobile, involuntary present” that characterizes Primo Levi’s haunting poem, “Il superstite” (1984). Still, I want to follow Lebovic down another path, in order to stage a more consequential confrontation between the “survivor” and the “stranger” as dueling figures of time and history. On the one hand, Lebovic’s insistence on the difference between sovereignty and biopolitics strikes at the heart of my engagement with Foucault’s well-known analytic framework. Some will remember that “survival” occupies the gap between the two regimes of power he identifies: the survie of the king and the survie of the population.3 In this light, my suggestion was that survival could provide a différantial starting point for a reexamination of Foucault’s early displacement of political theology (see Discipline and Punish) as an interpretive vector. Unlike the “stranger,” that is, the “survivor” could shed light on the on-going, biopolitical relevance (continuity/change) of the king’s body: that auratic complex of singularity and multiplicity, proximity and distance, presence and absence, self and other, glory and debility, sovereignty and spectrality. Or again: life, death, and resurrection.

    On the other hand, Lebovic’s interest in the periodization of survival also reflects a more basic concern about the relationship between the survivor and historicism. I have argued elsewhere, for example, that the survivor is not simply an object of historical interest but an historiographical subject.4 One could think here of Jules Michelet’s famous prefatory remarks to his monumental, History of the French Revolution (1847), where, in a dramatic scene of death and resurrection, he turns himself into a survivor (celui qui survivait).5 Standing at the foot of a grave, Michelet overcomes the loss of his père—a “true witness,” he recalls, to the revolutionary age—in order to regain and more securely narrate his patrie. The mythological scene, Jacques Rancière notes, dramatizes the conditions of the historian’s contract. If the writing of history begins at the tomb, it is because the historian must first fortify and assimilate the absent voice of the dead witness into the protocols of scientific knowledge. Rancière writes: “Every catastrophe of politics and knowledge is abolished in the equivalence of ignorance and death that the historian—the son, the survivor—quite naturally quells.”6

    It is something like this, I think, that Emmanuel Levinas probably had in mind when he wrote: “Totalization is accomplished only in history—in the history of the historiographers, that is, among the survivors [les survivants].”7 For Levinas, the “survivor” represents not the margin but the center. As a figure for the “philosophy of power,” the “survivor” always seeks to reduce the other to the same: “Historiography recounts the way the survivors appropriate the works of dead wills to themselves; it rests on the usurpation carried out by the conquerors, that is, by the survivors; it recounts enslavement, forgetting the life that struggles against slavery” (253, 228). Eventually, Levinas’s campaign against the “survivor” brings him to the “stranger” as another name for the “absolutely other.” He emphasizes: “Neither possession nor the unity of number nor the unity of concepts link me to the Stranger [l’Entranger], the Stranger who disturbs the being at home with oneself. But stranger also means the free one. Over him I have no power. He escapes my grasp by an essential dimension, even if I have him at my disposal” (28, 39). The stranger and the survivor, then, could not be more profoundly opposed: a distinction that perhaps constitutes the very (im)possibility of historicity.

    And that is why, in the end, Lebovic and I may have no serious quarrel. For what Lebovic’s insightful reading passes over in silence is something like my last will and testament: the talmid-ḥakham-in-ṣumūd. Like Lebovic, I will have always been after stranger things: a “surprising convocation” that would exceed the survivor’s grasp (sur-prise) and, in so doing, mark the “beginning of an other-thought.”8 This is also why my book never purports to write a linear history of Christian survival. It warns instead that “beginnings…are always problematic, usually deceptive, sometimes treacherous” (3). In this light, I follow Foucault in thinking that “to write a genealogy of survival is not to write a history of survival but instead to ask where such a history might begin. What are survival’s limits? What are its archives? What are its languages? And what field of translations mediate its generalization?” (10). Like Arcade Fire, I doubt we can figure it all out. But I am convinced that the task requires “a vigilance precisely against too great a claim for transparency.”9 Because as we know, it is always possible for the stranger to become a survivor…not as a marginalized outsider in Europe but as a conquering settler in Palestine.10

    1. Sigmund Freud, Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion: Drei Abhandlungen (Amsterdam: Verlag Allert de Lange, 1939), 91; Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. James Strachey, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XXIII (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1964), 51; Edward W. Said, Freud and the Non-European (London: Verso, 2004), 66.

    2. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); François Hartog, Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time, trans. Saskia Brown (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 203.

    3. Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité: la volonté de savoir, vol. I (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), 178–80.

    4. Adam Y. Stern, “Theses on the Philosophy of Survival,” Theory & Event 25, no. 4 (2022): 804–28.

    5. Jules Michelet, Histoire de la révolution, vol. 1, Oeuvres de J. Michelet (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1888), 55.

    6. Jacques Rancière, The Names of History: On the Poetics of Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 63.

    7. Emmanuel Levinas, Totalité et infini: essai sur l’extériorité (La Haye: Martinus Nijhoff, 1971), 48; Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1969), 55.

    8. Adam Y. Stern, Survival: A Theological-Political Genealogy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021), 177, 187.

    9. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 293.

    10. To be explored further are the consequences of the propositions, translations, and biblical citations suggested by Joseph Cohen and Raphael Zagury-Orly in “Abraham, the Settling Foreigner,” in The Trace of God: Derrida and Religion, ed. Edward Baring and Peter E. Gordon (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), 132–50.

Joseph Winters


(Jewish) Survival Beyond (Christian) Resurrection

As Adam Stern acknowledges, the term “survival” carries a specific kind of doubleness that demands attention. On the one hand, survival indicates a persistence or continuance of life in the face of negation, devastation, and death. To survive, according to this sense of the word, has something to do with a perpetual surplus within life; it alludes to modes of living and inhabitation that keep going. On the other hand, intrinsic to the notion of survival is the trace of loss and suffering, or a reminder that what did not continue living is a condition of possibility for that which lives on. Survival simultaneously registers continuation and erasure. While discussing connections between Benjamin and Derrida on this matter, Stern writes: “At the very instant that survival declares a negation of, its irremediable loss, division, and death, it also signals the affirmation of life, its equally essential continuation, growth, and expansion” (54). This thoughtful formulation reminds me of a well-known utterance by James Baldwin: “I can’t be a pessimist because I am alive. So I am forced to be an optimist. I am forced to believe that we can survive, whatever we must survive.”1 Here optimism, within and against a regime of anti-blackness, is described as a compulsion, or a forced option. While Baldwin is all too aware of the successive forms of sanctioned death imposed on black people, he insists that what Kevin Quashie calls aliveness is a belief in, and commitment to, black (and human) survival. But this will to survival, this optimism that is imposed on Baldwin by aliveness, is never separable from the violence and terror that produce remnants and ruins, such that what survives takes on a form that bears the wound that is our world.

Stern’s brilliant, thought-provoking, and demanding text invites the reader to reconsider the doubleness of survival. More specifically, this eponymous book asks us to contemplate two related tendencies within modern thought and discourse: the conflation of Jewishness with survival (or marking Jewish survival as a template) and the less acknowledged inclination to imagine and ensnare the idea of Jewish survival within a Christian theo-political paradigm of redemption. Instead of directing us toward explicitly Christian theological texts and authors, Stern examines these tendencies within a series of canonical Jewish thinkers—Arendt, Benjamin, Rosenzweig, and Freud. In Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, Stern discovers a Christian notion of resurrection behind Arendt’s assessment of Jewish survival and her concomitant claim that the concentration camp turns Europeans into Jews and Jews into Africans (the latter described as de-individualized populations that cannot master themselves or make coherent social worlds). As Stern underscores, Arendt introduces Lazarus as the figure of survival and “everything that Arendt writes about Lazarus converges in an image of survival that one can set up and bow down before: the victorious and redemptive ‘mystery’ of Christ’s resurrection” (48). To put it succinctly, Arendt’s notion of Jewish survival is tethered to, and interpreted through, a Christian notion of victory and triumph. In his re-reading of Benjamin’s “Task of the Translator,” Stern notices a conception of pure language that resembles the beginning of the book of John (“in the beginning was the one who is called the Word”). For Benjamin, translation pushes language towards its highest form, a form that “precedes all (actualized) language as its abyssal ground” but that is per-formed and carried out in the translation of texts (80). Through translation, pure language survives. According to Stern, Benjamin implicitly modifies the first verse of the book of John with something like, “in the beginning was Survival” (80). What is important in the conclusion of the Benjamin chapter is that Stern underscores (again) an internal conflict within the notion of survival. While to survive is to “undergo suffering,” it is also a “triumph of life that is not only triumphant life but also a triumph over life” (81). Alongside this reading, the resurrection of Lazarus, which anticipates that of Christ, becomes the template for (Jewish) survival.

As I read Stern, while Arendt and Benjamin betray a commitment to an idea of survival that re-inscribes Christian logics, Rosenzweig ups the ante. Rosenzweig leaves no room for doubt that the Jews remain—within a Christian world historically organized around anti-Jewishness and supersessionist frameworks—to provide a witness to the truth and validity of Christianity. More specifically, since Israel constitutes a living, material collective body, the figure of the Jew anticipates a materiality/fleshliness that the Christian desires but only has access to through the Jews. Describing Rosenzweig’s perspective, Stern writes, “The Jews are an amplification of Christ, a supplement for Christ, and a fulfilment of the role that he fails to properly embody” (115). For the early twentieth century Jewish philosopher, the victorious survival of Christ is the central star “around which the survival of the Jews and [to a lesser extent] the survival of the Muslims orbit” (116). And yet Muslims, for Rosenzweig, participate in the revelation of God in a deficient manner; for him, Muslims enter God’s revelation at a moment of its waning vitality. Anticipating Agamben’s description of the Musselman in the European concentration camps (the figure who represents bare life, the walking dead), Rosenzweig suggests that the Muslim only continues on as a signifier of death, or existence without life. If Stern is right, then what we inherit from Rosenzweig is a theo-political paradigm in which Christian redemption is the guarantor of full life. The figure of the Jew is a necessary rem(a)inder and extension of Christian fulfillment while the Muslim occupies the field of death that the life of Christ (and its sublated Western imperial re-expression) must resist, reject, and/or eliminate.

According to Stern, “If Jewish history has come to exemplify the history of survival, perhaps this is only because survival is one globalatinizing name for the history of Christianity” (175). Stern provides a powerful account of how Jewish history can become the paradigm of survival only when this history has been incorporated into a Christian framework, folded into the Christianization of the world. To put it differently, the persistence of Christianity involves the spread and imposition of survivalist commitments that are patterned after the resurrection of Christ (an image of life triumphant over death that, although interpreted in a variety of ways, has propelled and been annexed to successive imperial projects). Levinas and the later Benjamin understood that the celebration of the survivor often overlooks how the survivors of history appropriate the dead and silent in an imperial manner. The historian, for instance, tends to write in accordance with the victors of history and threatens to convert the alterity of time and experience into the logic of the same.

In the conclusion of the book, Stern shows how a certain survivalist paradigm (which dictates how subjects imagine the interaction between life and death, loss and triumph, vulnerability and impermeability) gets grafted onto “Zionism’s political theology of war” against Palestinians. The will to survival too often becomes a justification for warfare, militarism, and partition politics; in contemporary Israel, this endeavor often entails re-interpreting terms like hisardut to mean a kind of survival that is made possible by militarized reasoning and tank production. It is important that Stern gestures toward other ways of thinking about survival, intimated in Hebrew and Arabic lexicons. By turning to alternative translations of hisardut and the Arabic ṣumūd, Stern leaves the reader with the possibility of practicing “survivance” in a manner that underscores qualities and practices such as silence, secrecy, untranslatability, study, and listening.

Stern is pressing us to re-imagine survival in a manner that breaks with Christian-informed attachments to wholeness, fulfillment, victory, and forms of life that deflect or supersede death and its intimations (vulnerability, woundedness, silence, etc.). While Walter Benjamin’s “Task of the Translator” is an example of survival patterned after Christian resurrection according to Stern, Benjamin’s 1940 essay “Theses on the Philosophy of history” opens up other possibilities and lines of flight. As Stern indicates in the conclusion of his book (with the language of shards and ruins), Benjamin’s oft-cited aphoristic essay is a critique of the “storm” of Progress. As a linear (and empty) mode of homogenous time, Progress is always operating to kill the dead repeatedly. This is why “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”2 In other words, images of past and present suffering are in danger of being erased, forgotten, or incorporated into frameworks of “conformism,” or narratives and discourses that render moments and events intelligible only if they accord with prevailing modes of power and signification.

Consequently, the historical materialist (or the one concerned about the tradition of the oppressed) must avoid two temptations. The one temptation is to focus on the “image of liberated grandchildren” over that of “enslaved ancestors.”3 This would assume that liberation or revolution would involve a simple linear break from the past rather than a weak redemption of the past (which involves mourning, remembrance, citation of the dead, and permission of the past to interrupt the course of things). The other temptation is to convert that weak redemptive impulse into a strong and triumphant attachment to survival. In this case, what survives through remembrance, ritual, and discourse lives on according to a logic of fulfillment and recovery. Survival becomes a justification for imperial modes of living and destroying against those designated to exclusively represent death, non-being, and so forth.

What I am getting at (inspired by Stern’s demanding project) is a conception of survival that refuses projects of forgetfulness and projects that convert the remains of history into a spirit of triumph, a spirit that reifies the line between life and death. My sense is that for Benjamin the form and style of writing has something to do with performing this in-betweenness. I take it that Benjamin’s use of terms such as flash, flit, ruin, and wreckage is vital. When he speaks about what “it means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up,”4 he is underscoring evanescence and warning the reader about the ways in which the past can elude us, or emerge in an instant and then disappear. He is also indicating how the past emerges in an atmosphere of danger and struggle insofar as images of violence and anguish are prone to become instruments of power and the status quo. Similarly, the language of wreckage and ruin also draws attention to the form and shape of what survives. Even as Benjamin’s angel of history would like to redeem and make whole “what has been smashed,”5 the aphorisms in “Theses” leave us with a sense of fracture, the fragment, and the constellation. These images refuse a sense of wholeness or coherence; and yet the series of allusions to what has been punctured and de-composed open up the possibility of alternative relationships and assemblages not defined by life’s triumph over death.

In addition to the aphorism and essay, certain kinds of poetry also introduce ways of thinking, being, and feeling that refuse the life/death binary that imperial conceptions of survival rely on. Here I am thinking of Lucille Clifton’s 1993 poem, “won’t you celebrate with me.” Writing within a black feminist tradition, Clifton celebrates making a life in a world that has consigned her to death and abjection (Or in Arendt’s language, a space of unmastery and unworldliness). Clifton’s poem reads:

won’t you celebrate with me

what i have shaped into

a kind of life? i had no model.

born in babylon

both nonwhite and woman

what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

here on this bridge between

starshine and clay,

my one hand holding tight

my other hand; come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed (Clifton 1993).6

There is much to unpack here. But I am interested in the relationship between celebration and shaping a kind of life (something that Kevin Quashie has thought about in is wonderful book, Black Aliveness).7 The first time, the reader, the personal “you,” is invited to celebrate with Clifton, the question mark registers being petitioned and asked to participate in something. And yet the question mark also points immediately to “a kind of life,” urging us to contemplate what kind of life is shaped without a model and in a context associated, especially in biblical traditions, with evil and promiscuity. On a bridge, in a zone between starshine (or untimely light) and clay (earth, sand, water, plants, the buried), Clifton presents an image of isolation and a relationship within the self—“my one hand holding tight my other hand.” Even in moments when the world has left her alone, touch becomes a way to create a connection through doubling and self-othering. The poem ends with another invitation to the floating interlocutor. Here Clifton alludes to a kind of rejoicing at the miracle of her survival, the miracle of enduring as both nonwhite and a woman. And yet survival is never explicitly mentioned; in fact, it is expressed via the negative. It is alluded to through a failure. The black woman poet survives despite the fact that everyday something has tried to take her life. In other words, survival here is always tethered to the everydayness of anti-blackness, misogynoir, and other interlocking modes of murder and death. She endures because the dis/order of things is never as successful as it makes itself appear. This is not a confident, ascendant account of survival. And yet it is the occasion for mournful celebration and perhaps, with Stern, an opening toward less pernicious ways of thinking and practicing the interaction between life and death.

  1. James Baldwin, in I am not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck (Velvet Film, 2017).

  2. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 255.

  3. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 260.

  4. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 255.

  5. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 257.

  6. Lucille Clifton, “won’t you celebrate with me,” Poetry Foundation,

  7. Kevin Quashie, Black Aliveness, or A Poetics of Black Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021).

  • Adam Stern

    Adam Stern


    Response to Joseph R. Winters

    “Framing ‘the…problem,’ mapping it, describing it in all its different manifestations, trying to get rid of it, laying blame for it, talking about it, writing newspaper columns about it, drawing cartoons about it, teaching about it, researching it, over and over…”

    —Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies


    How does it feel to be studied? W.E.B. Du Bois knew that the history of white supremacy had proliferated innumerable “problems,” “questions,” and topics of “research” (not to mention “inquisitions,” “inspections,” and “interrogations”). Indeed, as Lucille Clifton recalls, white men sometimes asked Du Bois to stand as an expert witness in their trials. Clifton’s poem, “reply” (1991), begins (or appears to begin) in brackets. In his beautiful reading of the poem, Kevin Quashie follows the aesthetic movements that allow Clifton to detach her “reply” from the terms of the “racist happening” that seems to precede and prompt it.1 While “a scene of subjection” may serve as the poem’s “paratext,” Quashie argues, the “poem proper is a scene of aliveness” (5). In this sense, Clifton’s poem exemplifies the hermeneutic that Quashie pursues throughout his self-study, which refuses to think anti-Black violence—its questions, its problems, and its studies—as the sole or even primary condition of Black being. Following a range of thinkers, Quashie’s pursuit of Black study (in the singular) attempts a reversal: to “imagine that the black text speaks to and in a black world, subjunctive and imaginary as that is, away from the false and damaging expectation that black texts have to speak universally, which means that they speak to the larger racial project or conversation—that is, to people who are not black…which indeed they do (a text speaks to any reader who reads it)” (14). Quashie thus defines study as a form of consciousness, work, and labor that promotes “the attentiveness of an alive one” (112). He adds: “Studying, in this vernacular, constitutes being a holy philosopher of one’s inhabiting of the world, what Socrates named as the vitality of examining one’s life” (112). It is a human endeavor, and a “lonely” one, at that: a relational “call to act from and in regard to that which one believes” (112).

    Crucially, Quashie’s reflections on the philosophy of study revolve around his study of another poem by Clifton (“won’t you celebrate with me”): a text that Joseph R. Winters suggests reading through the genealogy of survival. Winters observes: “Here Clifton alludes to a kind of rejoicing at the miracle of her survival, the miracle of enduring as both nonwhite and a woman.” I cannot do justice to all of the consequences that Winters draws from his provocative intervention, which so carefully weaves together additional insights from both James Baldwin and Walter Benjamin. But I do want to pause on the significance of one sentence that he appends to his commentary on Clifton’s poem: “And yet survival is never explicitly mentioned; in fact it is expressed via the negative.” Although Winters does not say so, I think one could extend his apophatic gloss on survival to the entirety of Quashie’s text. Because it is quite remarkable that Quashie hardly ever uses the word “survival” (and certainly never undertakes any deliberate study of its meaning, significance, or poetics). My point here is not to speculate on Quashie’s intentional or unintentional avoidance of this word. I simply want to mark the importance of Winters’ observation concerning survival’s apparently “mystical foundation” (to borrow a well-known phrase).2 Between “scenes of subjection” and “scenes of aliveness,” the concept of survival could trace nearly everything that Quashie has to say about Black poetics even as the word “survival” never quite appears as part of his conceptual lexicon (appearing in not appearing or appearing not to appear). As Derrida often tried to remind us, the trace is nothing.

    What I am trying to say is this: any study of survival must situate itself at the center of this mystical paradox, wherein survival is at once a word—with a particular history and grammar—and a concept—with a universalizing force of generalization and translatability. That is why, like Quashie, I write my genealogy of “survival­” (word) by turning to poetics as a critical style of thought: one perhaps capable of rendering the globalatinization of survival (concept) just a little less transparent or, after Glissant, just a bit more opaque. In this connection, Winters notes that I end “by turning to alternative translations.” Between Arabic and Hebrew, I leave “the reader with the possibility of practicing ‘survivance’ in a manner that underscores qualities and practices such as silence, secrecy, untranslatability, study and listening.”3 This might mean thinking about what “survival” keeps in shadow and what it renders mute: be it the absolute “pessimism” of those who do not survive (Baldwin) or the “tradition of the oppressed,” which, strictly speaking, cannot transmit anything to the future (Benjamin). It is a mournful pose, to be sure. But for this same reason, it may also be a strategy of study that asks—as Winters has—how “to become more vigilant of the tendency to tell stories that reassure us of our power, coherence, and self, and communal identity.”4

    In closing, then, I want to make a move from the genealogy of survival to the study of study by proposing another reading of Benjamin (that is, a reading of Benjamin reading Winters reading Quashie reading Clifton). I am thinking here not of Benjamin’s theses on the “concept of history” (on which I have written elsewhere and in relation to survival), but instead of his 1934 essay on Franz Kafka.5 It is there that Benjamin famously writes: “The gate to justice is study [Studium].”6 For Benjamin, the threshold between “study” and “justice” resides in a distinctive style of thought: Umkehr, or “reversal” (815; 437). Among the various examples that he provides is the following tale:

    In a Hasidic village, so the story goes, Jews were sitting together in a shabby inn one Sabbath evening. They were all local people, with the exception of one person no one knew, a very poor, ragged man who was squatting in a dark corner at the back of the room. All sorts of things were discussed, and then it was suggested that everyone should tell what wish he would make if one were granted him. One man wanted money; another wished for a son-in-law; a third dreamed of a new carpenter’s bench; and so each spoke in turn. After they had finished, only the beggar in his dark corner was left. Reluctantly and hesitantly he answered the question. “I wish I were a powerful king reigning over a big country. Then, some night while I was asleep in my palace, an enemy would invade my country, and by dawn his horsemen would penetrate to my castle and meet with no resistance. Roused from my sleep, I wouldn’t have time even to dress and I would have to flee in my shirt. Rushing over hill and dale and through forests day and night, I would finally arrive safely right here at the bench in this corner. This is my wish.” The others exchanged uncomprehending glances. “And what good would this wish have done you?” someone asked. “I’d have a shirt,” was the answer (812; 433).7

    If Benjamin is right, then the story revolves around a narrative reversal: a reconfiguration of the relationship between past, present, and future that effectively undoes the order of time presupposed by wish-fulfillment. Benjamin departs, in other words, from Freud’s well-known interpretation of dreams, to ask what it might mean to relieve oneself of the “wish” and instead exchange it for its “fulfillment.” To follow the beggar’s story is, after all, to participate in a curious transformation, whereby one is led unwittingly from an imagined future, to a possible past, to an everyday, unhappy present. In the place of “sovereignty” and “empire,” “power” and “fortification,” “night” and “sleep,” the beggar wishes only for what he seems to already have: a “shabby inn” and a “dark corner,” an “evening” and “insomnia,” a “bench” and a “shirt.” At the center of the story, finally, is a question of justice: How to understand the political subjectivity of this beggar-who-would-not-be-king? What is one to make of this stranger? A Jewish or non-Jewish figure, who, at that boundary between sacred (Sabbath) and profane (week), scripts his existence into a line-of-flight? Benjamin gives no decisive answer. But in recounting the tale, he does broach the possibility of a poetic, somnambulist, and fugitive thinking of study as an every-day, quasi-sabbatical, and non-capitalizable form of life. He calls it: Fluchtleben.8

    1. Quashie, Black Aliveness, or a Poetics of Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021), 5.

    2. Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority,’” in Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar, trans. Mary Quaintance (London: Routledge, 2002), 228–98.

    3. I leave aside the significance of the term “survivance,” which, in their response, Eleanor Craig helpfully situates between Jacques Derrida and Gerald Vizenor.

    4. Joseph R. Winters, Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 212.

    5. Adam Y. Stern, “Theses on the Philosophy of Survival,” Theory & Event 25, no. 4 (2022): 804–28.

    6. Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death,” in Selected Writings, ed. Michael W. Jennings et al., vol. 2.2, 1931–1934 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 815; Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka: Zur zehnten Wiederkehr seines Todestages,” in Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, vol. 2.2 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1991), 437. Compare here Nietzsche’s reference to Tacitus in “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life”: “To take everything objectively, to grow angry at nothing, to love nothing, to understand everything, how soft and pliable that makes one; and even if someone raised in this school should for once get publicly angry, that is still cause for rejoicing, for one realizes it is intended only for artistic effect, it is ira and studium and yet altogether sine ira et studio” (Untimely Meditations, ed. Daniel Breazeale, trans. R.J. Hollingdale [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997], 105).

    7. For a fuller treatment of this story, see Freddie Rokem, “‘Let me tell you a story’: Walter Benjamin and the History of the Future,” in German-Jewish Thought Between Religion and Politics: Festschrift in Honor of Paul Mendes-Flohr on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. Christian Wiese and Martina Urban (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2012), 335–48.

    8. Walter Benjamin, “Entstellung in der Zeit,” in Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, vol. 2.3 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1991), 1208. As in my Epilogue, I gesture here to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney. See, for example, Marc Bousquet, Stefano Harney, and Fred Moten, “On Study: A Polygraph Roundtable Discussion with Marc Bousquet, Stefano Harney, and Fred Moten,” Polygraph 21 (2009): 159–75. Consider also a more recent addition to the philosophy of “study,” in Hans Schildermans, Experiments in Decolonizing the University: Towards an Ecology of Study (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).

Eleanor Craig


Crisis, Survival, Solidarity

In Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Remembrance, Debarati Sanyal notes that while the word complicity often marks “participation in wrongdoing, or collaboration with evil,” its Latin root complicare means “to fold together.” Sanyal elaborates a notion of complicity that is less about condemnation than about exploring uneven modes of relationality—forms of contact and contradiction, entangled forms of recognition that connect and collide—that unfurl from their enfoldedness across time and space.1 Adam Stern’s Survival: A Theological-Political Genealogy similarly resists simplistic moralizing while recognizing what Sanyal calls “the unpredictable power and peril”2 of entanglement. In genealogically charting Christian theological notions in Jewish writings on survival, Stern aims to complicate (my account revolving still around complicare, a making complex through weaving and intertwining) survival’s distinctive association with Judaism and Jewish people.

The question “Who is speaking about survival?” begins and ends both the “Introduction” and the “Epilogue.” It introduces and invites, partially answers and finally leaves inconclusive, the matter of whose epistemologies and concerns inhabit works by Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Franz Rosenzweig, and Sigmund Freud. While Stern is unambiguous in showing that Christian theologies weigh heavily on the works of all four thinkers, and that adopting their frameworks leads to various degrees of identification with hegemonic culture, it is less clear whether he imagines that these thinkers should have been able to fully circumvent the dominant Christianity of their early twentieth century western European contexts. The question “Who is speaking about survival?” in present tense urges readers to reckon with the ongoing (after-)life of what Jacques Derrida called globalatinization.

Stern’s deep, close, and contextualized readings do not render unifying conclusions. He demonstrates, with painstaking attention to subtlety and contradiction, how Jewish thinkers narrate Jewish existence through Christian imaginaries, and how Christian ideals (upheld, betrayed, or ambiguously spectral) shape their political and ethical horizons. These accounts disclose untidy assemblages of identification and disidentification. If Stern finds, for example, in The Origins of Totalitarianism “a lament for the demise of Christianity and a confession of Arendt’s longing for its resurrection,” it is Christianity as an alternative to the enchantment of National Socialism and a “total sovereignty” that marks survivors, especially, for death (45–46). Christian civilization is also imagined, however, in negating contrast to a primitivist caricature of “Africa” as savage, prehistoric, and unsurvivable, such that Arendt posits concentration camps as reproducing the “phantom world” of the Dark Continent (37–38, 46–47).

Freud, like Arendt, oscillates between foregrounding the ravages of European “civilization” and adopting, even naturalizing, colonialist ontologies. Stern asserts that Totem and Taboo retells the Eucharistic meal as a universalized tale of patricidal violence and internalized authority—a brutal foundation for civilization and morality (153). He also frames Freud’s thinking on death and survival as fundamentally concerned with fantasies of sovereignty.3 An unavoidable aspect of psychic formation as Freud describes it is to imagine triumphing over one’s rivals by outliving, that is surviving, them (156–58). This ambition to outlast even those with whom one is in intimate or dependent relationship repeats, through transference, across indefinite incarnations (164, 167). The survivor, in Stern’s reading, is not truly sovereign but “one more reproduction” in a relational field that refuses to acknowledge vulnerability and loss (172, 174). The turn to Moses and Monotheism at the end of Stern’s chapter on Freud is evocative and enigmatic: Is Christianity’s delusion that it has lost and outlasted Judaism analogous to Moses’s killers’ (in Freud’s telling of the story) imagining that they had triumphed over their leader? Does the fantasy of the empty tomb map further back onto Freud’s earlier theories of melancholia, and if so, is it a peculiarly Christian inability to face death and loss?

I am interested in following Stern to consider additional ways that imperialism and coloniality conscript those whom they partially—perhaps mostly—reject into their mourning, and thus their continuance. In Timely Reflections on War and Death, Freud grieves that the mounting violence of World War I is possible among “the great world-dominating nations of the white race.”4 Set apart by their morality, technology, aesthetics, and “unity within the civilized nations,” these collectivities were not entirely without prejudice. They contained “certain remnants of other peoples which were generally disliked” even when they showed themselves similarly capable of civilized existence. Yet one would have hoped, “might have been forgiven for thinking,” that a tolerant recognition of common humanity could have overridden prejudice.5 Freud questions the terms of the social contract, and whether the state prohibits individual wrongdoing “not because it wishes to abolish wrongdoing, but because it wishes to monopolize it.”6 The lack of morality on the part of both the state and individuals destroys an illusory sense of evolutionary attainment, the notion that primary drives have been overcome.7 Amidst conflict and despair, the most pervasive illusion consists of a denial of death: “our unconscious is just as deaf to the idea of our death…as man was in primeval times.”8 Freud issues a surprising suggestion: “should we not be the ones to give in and adapt to war?” It is time, he suggests, to face death in order “to endure life.”9

If this is the moral reckoning that war requires, it was seemingly not occasioned by “wars between primitive and civilized peoples”10—by European struggles to conquer, or the ensuing struggles to resist colonization. (I will note from readings in both U.S. trauma studies and European modernist literature that Freud is far from alone in this selective sense of calamity.) A crisis in the state’s moral status reveals the civilized to be primitive but does not thereby overturn hierarchies of nations or race. Whose death—social death, slow death, or planned extinction—continues to underwrite the very notion of civilized nations? Which solidarities are forbidden if we adapt to war for the sake of survival?

In Specters of Marx, Derrida cites a ritualized, repetitive “incantation” that triumphantly declares the defeat of Marxism, communism, and the Socialist International. “It says: long live capitalism, long live the market, here’s to the survival of economic and political liberalism!” The certainty with which these declarations are shouted is, Derrida argues, an attempt “to disavow, and therefore to hide from, the fact that never, never in history, has the horizon of the thing whose survival is being celebrated (namely, all the old models of the capitalist and liberal world) been as dark, threatening, and threatened.”11 Whose survival is unimaginable if economic and political liberalism should survive? If it seems unlikely that economic and political liberalism will survive in their universalizing (sovereign?) ambitions, or if they are already dead at the hands of unapologetically illiberal forces, are we to mourn the social contract that required savage otherness as its constitutive outside? Present-day mourning for civilization too often takes this form, grieving the imagined security of a particular arrangement of domination. Neferti X. M. Tadiar puts it this way: “The world of the no longer is the time of the already human experiencing the ravages of their own war.”12 Stern’s jump from mid-twentieth century Jewish thinkers to present-day Israel and Palestine asks whether survival can be deployed for decolonial ends, in ways that avoid “recapturing resistance within an archive of domination or…disguising colonial violence as an act of liberation” (180).

It seems, at first, that the potential for the latter is too great. Thirty years after Derrida’s lectures at the “Whither Marxism?” conference, the term hisardut attaches to Israeli military tanks to mark survival as military machinery’s ability to withstand attacks. That “invulnerable killing machines” can be imagined as “vulnerable bodies” and “vessels of salvation” demonstrates, for Stern, “the military-industrial effects of survival’s globalatinization” (183). Tadiar points out that Israel’s status as a democratic state “in a region believed endemically hostile to such modern ideals” is an integral part of its alliance with the United States, and that both find themselves “threatened by the refusal of the wretched peoples of the earth to be reduced to the status of the less-than-human.”13 Her emphasis on “small yet vital acts of political survival” resonates with Stern’s brief explication of the term sumūd (183–85).14

Survival that refuses wretchedness is key to Gerald Vizenor’s elaboration of survivance as practiced in Indigenous communities. While citations of the concept often state simply that survivance combines the words survival and resistance, Vizenor repeatedly insists that survivance “is elusive, imprecise by definition, translation, comparison, and by catchword histories, but the sentiment of the word is invariably true and just in native stories, practice and company. Survivance is as complex as the notions and course of dominance.”15 Importantly, survivance is not about dominance; nor does it emphasize “tragedy, nihilism, and victimry.”16 It is fundamentally concerned with practice and presence based in natural law. Survivance expresses a relational world that is ordered and tricky, evasive and inescapable; it maintains that “Native imagination, experience, and remembrance are the real landscapes of liberty in the literature of this continent; discoveries and dominance are silence, absence, want, and cultural nostalgia.”17

Vizenor frequently contrasts survivance with discourses based in monotheism, Christianity, and original sin. Yet he finds Derrida’s deployment of the term suggestive in its sliding descriptions of “a relic from the past” or “the sense of an afterlife,” and an excess that goes beyond life to resist “annihilation.”18 Vizenor declares, “Derrida would surely have embraced a more expansive sense of the word survivance.” He notes with translator Peggy Kamuf that its non-belonging to active or passive voice, subject or object, could align it with “the fourth person or voice in native stories.”19 Enfolded meaning abounds. Perhaps Vizenor is amenable to Derrida’s take on survivance because they are both acutely aware that, “Constitutional democracies have not always been the source of moral imagination or liberty.”20 The democratic state is, as often as not, a threat to both sovereignty and survival.

The question “Who is speaking about survival?” opens onto a raucous present-day scene. It evokes conversations about sexual assault, Indigenous languages, sex work advocacy, climate change, border crossings, police brutality, policing in general, racial capitalism, domestic violence, cultural continuity, land rights, overlapping pandemics, environmental justice, queer adolescence, and fears of racial “replacement.” Survival articulates categories of injury, commitment, vulnerability, fear, and endurance that are interrelated and mutually inextricable, yet crucially incommensurate. I take from Stern the importance of interrogating what resonates and echoes across seemingly disparate contexts, and why.

I am also impelled to ask continually what solidarities are forbidden in a particular time or place, or by a given discourse, and where tentative attempts at awkward translation might reveal something about enfoldedness. Stern traces a partial genealogy for an alternative to hisardut that might alter its meaning from within a shared history. He arrives at the figure of the sarid, removing him from the Pauline interpretation of those who call upon the Lord and are called to survive. Instead, Stern arrives at the sarid as the rabbinic scholar “listening for the call of the Torah (even at night)” (185–86). In a capitalist and colonialist order that would have us compete for viability, it may be possible, Stern suggests, to reorient—perhaps even transform—our notion of what it means to survive.

  1. Debarati Sanyal, Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Remembrance (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), 1-2.

  2. Debarati Sanyal, Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Remembrance (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), 2.

  3. For more on the “cannibalistic intertwining” of “religion, morality, and civilization” in Totem and Taboo, see Amy Hollywood, “Response—On Impassioned Claims: The Possibility of Doing Philosophy of Religion Otherwise,” in Beyond Man: Race, Coloniality, and Philosophy of Religion, ed. An Yountae and Eleanor Craig (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021), 274.

  4. Sigmund Freud, “Timely Reflections on War and Death,” in On Murder, Mourning, and Melancholia, trans. Shaun Whiteside (London: Penguin Books, 2005), 170.

  5. Sigmund Freud, “Timely Reflections on War and Death,” in On Murder, Mourning, and Melancholia, trans. Shaun Whiteside (London: Penguin Books, 2005), 170.

  6. Sigmund Freud, “Timely Reflections on War and Death,” in On Murder, Mourning, and Melancholia, trans. Shaun Whiteside (London: Penguin Books, 2005), 173.

  7. Sigmund Freud, “Timely Reflections on War and Death,” in On Murder, Mourning, and Melancholia, trans. Shaun Whiteside (London: Penguin Books, 2005), 179.

  8. Sigmund Freud, “Timely Reflections on War and Death,” in On Murder, Mourning, and Melancholia, trans. Shaun Whiteside (London: Penguin Books, 2005), 193.

  9. Sigmund Freud, “Timely Reflections on War and Death,” in On Murder, Mourning, and Melancholia, trans. Shaun Whiteside (London: Penguin Books, 2005), 193–94.

  10. Sigmund Freud, “Timely Reflections on War and Death,” in On Murder, Mourning, and Melancholia, trans. Shaun Whiteside (London: Penguin Books, 2005), 170.

  11. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), 64.

  12. Neferti X. M. Tadiar, Remaindered Life (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2022), 4.

  13. ] Neferti X. M. Tadiar, Remaindered Life (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2022), 224–25.

  14. ] Neferti X. M. Tadiar, Remaindered Life (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2022), 226.

  15. Gerald Vizenor, Native Provenance: The Betrayal of Cultural Creativity (Baltimore, MD: Project Muse, 2019), 31.

  16. Gerald Vizenor, Native Liberty: Natural Reason and Cultural Survivance (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 88.

  17. Gerald Vizenor, Native Liberty: Natural Reason and Cultural Survivance (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 7.

  18. Gerald Vizenor, Native Liberty: Natural Reason and Cultural Survivance (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 103.

  19. Gerald Vizenor, Native Liberty: Natural Reason and Cultural Survivance (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 103.

  20. Vizenor, Native Provenance, 28.

  • Adam Stern

    Adam Stern


    Response to Eleanor Craig


    The epigraphs placed at the beginning of select sections are intended to serve as guide-quotes, or as Heideggerian guideposts, to orient the reader as the Argument struggles to think/articulate itself outside the terms of the disciplinary discourses of our present epistemological order; seeing that it is these discourses, this order, that are necessarily—as the condition of our being in the genre/mode of being human that we now hegemonically are—instituting/inscripting both of the Man of the Argument’s title, and of its overrepresentation as if it were the human.

    —Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument”


    The human intellect having drawn him on and led him to dwell within its province, he must have felt distressed by the externals of the Law and by the meanings of the above-mentioned equivocal, derivative, or amphibolous terms, as he continued to understand them by himself or was made to understand them by others. Hence he would remain in a state of perplexity and confusion as to whether he should follow his intellect, renounce what he knew concerning the terms in question, and consequently consider that he has renounced the foundations of the Law.

    —Moses Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed


    Like any good medieval treatise, Eleanor Craig’s reflections begin by turning to etymology for guidance. They write (and cite): “While the word complicity often marks ‘participation in wrongdoing, or collaboration with evil,’ its Latin root complicare means ‘to fold together.’” In this case, Craig notes, the word complicare— “a making complex through weaving, intertwining”—helps to explain why my genealogy of Christian survival threads itself through the texts of Jewish writers and the question of Jewish survival. I am asking “whose epistemologies and concerns inhabit works by Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Franz Rosenzweig, and Sigmund Freud.” If my answer is “Latin Christianity,” it is not because I seek simplification; or even because I want to enact a certain détournement of survival’s “distinctive association with Judaism and Jewish people” (which I do). It is also because I am interested in the way that “survival” enfolds the complications, implications, and applications of globalatinization as a pliant and exploitative project of planetary translation.

    On the one hand, this is a critical endeavor that has everything to do etymology. As Derrida put it: “The Latin family of the pli is untranslatable as a family, into English, for example. You can translate one word pli, by fold; you can translate explication as explication, but you cannot keep the whole Latin family together. This is a problem in which I am particularly interested…the mondialatinisation, the hegemony of Latin over the world today, through religion and Roman law.”1 In a related context, Derrida spins out these reflections further by highlighting the questions posed by the word “religion” and its two etymological sources: relegere and religare.2 In my genealogy of “survival,” I explore the effects of a similar multiplication of origins in a Latin family split between two other morphological factions: superstare and supervivere.3 Like an ellipse, “survival” circumscribes and encapsulates the centrifugal proliferation and imposition of a Latin family whose philological origins nonetheless prove elusive, uncertain, and divided.

    On the other hand, my book is not a treatise. It is a genealogy. This means that I never deduce a definition of “survival” ordine geometrico demonstrata. I neither deploy a unitary, universalizable definition of “survival” nor make any claim to assuage the “distress,” “difficulty” or “perplexity” created by its circulation (to borrow from Maimonides). I accept that “survival” is an irreducibly “equivocal, derivative, or amphibolous” term: one that already swims across many discursive domains, analytic registers, geographic borders, and temporal breaks. By staying with the trouble, so to speak, my genealogy attempts to orient the reader toward the outer limits of survival’s broad if still finite reach. In other words, beyond the significance or insignificance of etymology, it treats “survival” through its “pragmatic and functional effects”: its structural and political dissemination, usage, and manipulation in various texts and contexts.4 Through such readings, I attempt to demonstrate how and why the word “survival” may serve as guide, guidepost or point of orientation for the Christian theological currents charging the long, globalatin histories of the Jewish question, Orientalism, anti-Blackness, colonialism, and more.

    It is here that Craig helpfully expands my argument by pursuing the genealogy of survival into decolonial thought.5 For Craig, this takes a number of forms: from an analysis of Freud’s complicity in “adopting, even naturalizing, colonialist ontologies” to a reading of the Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor’s notion of survivance.6 Craig similarly observes that the link between coloniality and survival could open “onto a raucous present-day scene.” This “might be a conversation about sexual assault, Indigenous languages, sex work advocacy, climate migration, police brutality (and policing in general), racial capitalism, domestic violence, Indigenous land rights, overlapping pandemics, environmental justice, queer adolescence, or ‘foreigners taking our jobs.’” I would only add here that even this lengthy list by no means exhausts the interwoven, enfolded spheres of contemporary survival-talk. Because it really is as if survival stretches everywhere and winds itself through everything: a central, pervasive conceit of our contemporary political vocabulary. Just compare Craig’s catalog of destruction with the uses and abuses of survival in popular media (most recently in the musical and cinematics pugilisms of both Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats and Barry Levinson). My point is that—from Freud to Vizenor and beyond—survival is expansive, elastic, and unruly. And perhaps for this same reason, it is also difficult to isolate, identify, and mark as a distinctive concept. Even as survival seems omnipresent it also remains somehow marginal as a site of genealogical deliberation: a limit-notion, as it were, for any interrogation of the difference between the universality of our political idioms and their particular historical formation.7

    With Craig as guide, then, I want to think more about how to read the uncertain relationship between survival and coloniality by looking at a striking expression of the problem in Neferti X.M. Tadiar’s recent inquiry into “remaindered life.” The specific phrase, Tadiar explains, attempts to expand our “conceptual vocabulary and syntax” for analyzing the racialized forms of life created under permanent, colonial war: the violent proximity and distance between those who deem themselves “already human” (valorized, protected, sovereign) and those whom these self-declared humans deem “not-yet-human” (extractible, servile, disposable).8 At the center of these oppositional frames, Tadiar situates the vital practices of human flourishing performed by the remaindered. These experiences, Tadiar contends, offer “possibilities for the radical remaking of ‘human’ social relations” beyond capitalist “humanization” (life-worth-living) and “dehumanization” (wasted life) (69). They are communities whose styles of organization and poiesis are “not entirely overwritten or disciplined by proper forms of human being” (70).

    In making this contribution to our political lexicon, Tadiar pays close attention to fields of “discursive exchange” and “debate” that organize the “logics, institutions, and infrastructures of empire” (202). Take here Tadiar’s relevant discussion of “freedom” as a “code for building and securing the logistical systems that bring war and capital together” (221); or consider her comments on the pleasures of language and translation from the position of the remaindered: “the surface play of signs, of bodies as signs, within the practical communication of rights—surplus gestures, surplus meaning, words and images in excess of their signifying and asignifying political intents, enjoyed by the communities themselves” (275). But if Tadiar is exceptionally attuned to such semantic and semiotic issues, she is less clear about the status and role that survival plays in her argument. It is, for example, quite possible to read Tadiar’s text as a veritable treatise on the subject. In addition to announcing her project as “an extended meditation on disposability and survival in the world we live in today,” she also includes a tractate with the classical, scholastic title: “Of Survival” (ix, 123). A further reading would similarly confirm the various “senses,” “forms,” “strategies,” “measures,” “dynamics,” “communities,” “processes,” “mathematics,” “matrices,” “tactics,” “socialities,” “postcolonialities,” “political acts,” and “everyday arts” that make “survival” more or less coextensive with her fundamental conceptual formation: remaindered life.

    The difficulty—if it is one—is that “survival” also consistently recedes as a discrete object of knowledge. Even as it plays a central role in defining the terms of Tadiar’s lexical framework, the word or concept, survival, never seems to receive a definition of its own. It remains equivocal, derivative, and amphibolous: a notion that indexes the victimization produced by the most violent, most destructive, most degrading forms of colonial, racial, gender, and class warfare just as easily as it names the victory heralded by the agents of catastrophe. Tadiar thus acknowledges that “survival is not…the monopoly of the virtuous, neither proof of the fittest nor reward for the deserving. Capitalism and its victors are also battling to survive, though survival here—the right to be—can only mean supremacy” (31). This is all to say that the implications, applications, and complications of survival are many. And they are contradictory. Does survival belong to colonizer or colonized? Domination or resistance? Power or subjection? My genealogy simply asks for a more direct confrontation with survival as a major element of our conceptual vocabulary: an encounter that might make its conflicting operations visible and, in Craig’s words, “reorient—perhaps even transform—our notion of what it means to survive” in a world defined by permanent, colonial warfare. Following Vizenor’s own poetic deformations—from survival to survivance—this might mean understanding how and why such a reorientation must involve the work of “transforming language and language play.”9

    And so, I will end with one more “guide-quote”: a marginal but dense footnote that, so I hope, might contribute to the genealogy of survival by helping us think “outside the terms of the disciplinary discourses of our present epistemological order” (to borrow Wynter’s phrase). Here again is Tadiar on the complexities and complicities of survival (Jewish, Indigenous, capitalist, colonial and, yes, Christian) that traverse the war to be human:

    “By destroying the non-capitalist milieu on which its expansion is based, capitalism undermines the conditions of its own growth. The disappearance of this non-capitalist (pre-capitalist) environment thus marks the absolute limit of capitalist development.” Mandel, introduction, 63. But of course noncapitalist social formations and environments never quite “disappear.” They are preserved in internal and external forms (the “native” ineradicable in the becoming-human or in its humanization, segregated and minoritized as Indigenous “tribes” within colonized, Christianized countries). And they are refashioned as modes of survival—to be distinguished from their political conversion into sovereign subjects and territories, as in the “successful” case of Israel, which exemplifies one of the most belligerent cases of the war to be human waged by the yet-to-be-human, a war that has become the permanent condition of its perpetually threatened “existence” (as a settler colonial, capitalist democratic state) (342).

    1. Jacques Derrida, “‘As if I were Dead’: An Interview with Jacques Derrida,” in Applying: To Derrida, ed. John Brannigan, Ruth Robbins, and Julian Wolfreys (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 214.

    2. Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge: Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone,” in Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar, trans. Samuel Weber (London: Routledge, 2002), 71.

    3. Adam Y. Stern, “The Survival of Religion,” CR: The New Centennial Review 21, no. 3 (2021): 19–54.

    4. Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge,” 71.

    5. On Craig’s important contributions to these debates, see their recent volume with An Yountae, Beyond Man: Race, Coloniality, and Philosophy of Religion (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021).

    6. For more, see Gerald Vizenor, “Resistance in the Blood,” in Youth Resistance Research and Theories of Change, ed. Eve Tuck and Wayne K. Yang (New York: Routledge, 2014), 107–17.

    7. I thank my colleague, Ingrid Diran, for pushing me toward this formulation of things.

    8. Neferti X.M. Tadiar, Remaindered Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2022), xvii.

    9. Vizenor, “Resistance in the Blood,” 117.

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