Archive for October, 2010


Oct 14 2010

So I like studying Jewish Lit. There. I said it.

by at 3:50 pm

So I’m a Jewish woman from Queens, N.Y. and I enjoy studying all things Jewish. Don’t get me wrong, I love science and tech studies and the early American period, but I also find myself gravitating towards Jewish Studies. I swore I wouldn’t be that Jewish woman who studies Jewish literature. Well, look at me now. I’m really interested in 19th-century and early-20th century Yiddish culture–both secular and traditional. In Jameson’s first class, he mentioned in passing pragmatic communist texts written in Yiddish. Being the type of scholar that I am, I couldn’t help but fixate on this small sidepoint. Wait, Jews were writing communist treatises in Yiddish? Okay, this is sort of obvious but so obvious that I had never really thought about it until now.

Yiddish Communism, from what I’ve gathered, is oddly nationalistic despite its communist leanings. Being that I really know very little about all of this, I’m trying to read up as much as I can about this movement and the general Yiddish literary movement. “Yiddish in Amerike” explicates a strange Yiddish play written by Gordin that centers around Moses, Jesus, and Marx. Here are some of the important passages:

In “Moyshe Rabeynu, Yezus Kristus un Karl Marx tsu gast in Nyu York,” Jacob Gordin makes fun of Jesus, but he does so in Yiddish. He probably would never have done it in English, and certainly not in Russian while he was living there under the Tsar’s regime. This short satire, probably written between 1897-1902, is quite unlike the austere tragedy of Jacob Gordin’s full-length dramas.10 Although it is overtly socially conscious, it uses exaggerated typage and acerbic laughter rather than Gordin’s familiar Ibse- nesque realism to highlight society’s evils. The theme and the narrative structure place this satire in the tradition of purimshpil couplets, which often begin with a sacred Hebrew expression, only to profane it immediately afterwards. […] When Moses comes down from heaven and finds corruption on earth, he repeats his commandments in Biblical Hebrew, only to get threatened and spat on by New York Jews, then beaten up by a policeman. Jesus and(Wishnia 207, 208)  
 “Moyshe Rabeynu” also begins in heaven, with Moses, Jesus, and Karl Marx challeng- ing each other as to which of their competing religions has the most adherents on earth […]  “Moyshe Rabeynu” ends with a triumph that never occurred: the triumph of socialism in the US.” (Wishnia 208).
Politics of Yiddish as a language in the 19th-century: 
The son of a maskil (an educated follower of the haskala, or enlightenment movement), Gordin was most comfortable writingGORDIN in Russian and had to learn, or at least significantly improve, his Yiddish in order to reach the Jewish masses in the US and to achieve his goal of educating them (Shatzky 128; Epstein 138, 142; Sandrow 132). He wanted to bring “men of widely different social ranks to one intellectual level” (Shatzky 135). When he arrived in the US in 1891, many radical thinkers viewed Yiddish only as a means of reaching the workers, not as a literary end in itself. Many conservative thinkers still derided Yiddish as “the corrupt language of Babylon for maids and coachmen” (Noble 86), which is precisely why the radical thinkers wanted to use it” (Wishnia 208, 209). GORDIN in Russian and had to learn, or at least significantly improve, his Yiddish in order to reach the Jewish masses in the US and to achieve his goal of educating them (Shatzky 128; Epstein 138, 142; Sandrow 132). He wanted to bring “men of widely different social ranks to one intellectual level” (Shatzky 135). When he arrived in the US in 1891, many radical thinkers viewed Yiddish only as a means of reaching the workers, not as a literary end in itself. Many conservative thinkers still derided Yiddish as “the corrupt language of Babylon for maids and coachmen” (Noble 86), which is precisely why the radical thinkers wanted to use it” (Wishnia 208, 209).  
Um, woah,a socialist parody of the “Ani Maamin” or “I believe” prayers or the “Prayer of Faith”  from the Talmudic era that I used to say in prayer services at Yeshivah. I want to write on this!
Morris Winchevsky produced many parodies in Hebrew such as his socialist “Prayer of Faith,” published in England in 1903, which begins, I believe with perfect faith, that whoever profits by the labor of his fellow man without doing anything for him in return, is a willful plunderer…. I believe with perfect faith, that women will remain the slaves of men, or their playthings, as long as they will depend upon the will of others instead of enjoying the fruit of their own labor. I believe with perfect faith, that labor and handicraft will be de- spised by all as long as the working men will labor to satisfy the appetites of the idlers. (quoted in Davidson 81) (Wishnia) 209.

 Plot of “Moyshe Rabeinu:”

 The plot of “Moyshe Rabeynu” is relatively simple and straight- forward. There is equality in heaven. Moses is a respected figure who lives in harmony with the founders of two other world relig- ions, Buddha and Jesus (although Jesus is depicted as something of a naif); even Karl Marx is capable of civil exchange with his “adversaries (Wishnia 209). 

OH. MY. GOD. This is Jewish humor at its best:

Both Gordin and [Lenny] Bruce have jokes about Christ and Moses taking contemporary modes of transport: in the Gordin piece, they take an elevator “from the seventh heaven straight to the roof of the Hebrew Institute” (Gordin, Ale shriftn 195); Lenny Bruce has them taking “Transcontinental [airlines], $88 to Chicago.” Both authors get in a dig at the immigration authorities: in “Moyshe Rabeynu,” Buddha protests that he should be allowed to visit New York as well, and Marx answers, “they won’t let you in,” thanks to the new Commissioner of Immigration (Gordin, Ale shriftn 194); Lenny Bruce has reporters from News-week asking if Christ and Moses have “State Department clear- ance (Wishnia 210-211). Note: the “Lenny” in italics I added.

 Problems of Translation:
  The Yiddish of this satire reproduces the polyglot speech of the community that inspired it. Zalmen Zylbercweig lists “Yezus Kristus” along with a few other sketches in which Gordin “uses simple folk-jests and ‘builds’ stories around them”(Zylbercweig 398). This strongly suggests a cultural precedent: there must have been Jewish jokes about what would really happen if Moses (or Jesus) came down to visit “our” world, and how they would be treated. In this sense, this satire is a far cry from Gordin’s better- known “Realist and Modernist renderings” for the stage (Warke 247). In “Moyshe Rabeynu,” we have the textualization of a popular joke motif, one man’s version of an oral folk-tale aimed at urban Jews speaking Yiddish mixed with American English, written by a man whose first literary language was Russian, employing a great deal of Biblical Hebrew, dozens of daytshmer- isms (Germanisms) that Uriel Weinreich’s Modern Eng- lish/Yiddish, Yiddish/English Dictionary informs us are “inadmis- sible in the standard language” (Weinreich xl), in addition to a few words that are only to be found in Russian, Polish, and German dictionaries (Wishnia 212).
 Yiddish incorporation of English words and sayings are fascinating: 
 If some high and lofty Hebrew adds an air of the divine to the humble Yiddish text, the borrowings from English do precisely the opposite: many of them represent American life at its most crass and materialistic. Some of the Englishisms in “Moyshe Rabeynu” include: trost (trust, monopoly), grinhorn, biznes, “Get aut of hier, ” “Gad dem yu doirty sheenee,” tenement, boss, fektori, polisman, and feyker. Such multilingual borrowing is a common immigrant phenomenon, and it seems reasonable to transliterate some of these terms back into English, retaining their Yiddish spellings to mark them as “foreign,” particularly when they occur in dialogue or passages discussing life in the US (Wishnia 215, 216)  





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Oct 06 2010

Vibrant Matter, Jane Mitchell

by at 3:40 pm

Right now I’m working on expanding a chapter of my thesis (“Electric Publics and Electric Nations: The Creation of a National Identity in Herman Melville’s Pierre; or, The Ambiguities). After I had finished my thesis, Dana recommended that I check out Jane Mitchell’s Vibrant Matter , largely a philosophical and political work that challenges our notion of thingliness by looking at how supposedly inert matter is very much alive. Dana thought this could be revelant to my project. She was right of course. My thesis was all about looking at how the atmosphere or air–that seemingly inert, open, and dead space that surrounds us–is actually very lively and filled with moving matter–matter that often is emitted from so-called live bodies. Lookng back, my project was very much about dissolving the distinction between the body and the atmosphere.

So clearly Mitchell’s book could be really useful in helping me work on this chapter for publication. So here are my extensive notes on the book.

Mitchell’s project:

The philosophical project is to think slowly an idea that runs fast through modern heads: the idea of matter as passive stuff, as raw, brute, or inert. This habit of parsing the world into dull matter (it, things) and vibrant life (us, beings) is a “partition of the sensible,” to use Jacques Ranciere’s phrase (vii).

Mitchell here is talking about the problems of concieving matter in a purely dialectical construction–one that posits what she calls dull matter versus vibrant life . Mitchell’s title title vibrant matter is part of an attempt to argue that all matter, whether it be humans or electrical charge, are inherently life-like.

As Mitchell says: “I will turn the figures of “life” and “matter” around and around, worrying them until they start to seem strange, in something like the way a common word when repeated can become a foreign, nonsense sound. In the space created by this estrangement, a vital materiality can start to take shape” (vii).

History of philosophical treatment of vibrant matter:

“The idea of vibrant matter also has a long (and if not latent, at least not dominant) philosophical history in the West. I will reinvoke this history too, drawing in particular on the concpets and claims of Baruch Spinoza, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, Theodor Adorno, Gilles Deleuze, and the early twentieth-century vitalisms of Bergon and Hans Driesch” (viii).

Also note how Mitchell’s study are predominantly philosophical texts. Becuase Mitchell’s analysis is more of a philosophical one it will be helpful for me to follow this paper trail of hers as a way of enriching my chapter.

Vitality of non-human matter (non-human matter as actants):

“The political project of the book is, to put it most ambitiously, to encourage more intelligent and sustainable engagements with vibrant matter and lively things. A guiding question: How would political responses to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of (non human bodies)? By “vitality” I mean the capacity of things–edibles, commodities, storms, metals–not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to see how analyses of political events might change if we gave the force of things more due. How, for example, would pattern of consumption change if we faced not litter, rubbish, trash, or “the recycling,” but an accumulating pile of lively and potentially dangerous matter? […] What difference would it make to the course of energy policy were electricity to be figured not simply as a resource, commodity, or instrumentality but also and more radically as an “actant?” (viii).

Definition of actants:

“The term is Bruno Latour’s: an actant is a source of action that can either be human or nonhuman; it is that which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events” (viii).

“Why advocate the vitality of matter? Because my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies. These material powers, which can aid or destroy, enrich or disable, ennoble or degrade us, in any case call for our attentiveness, or even “respect” (provided that the term be stretched beyond its Kantian sense) (ix).

So I should probably read Deleuze and Guattari:

“In the “Treatise on Nomadology,” Deleuze and Felix Guattari experiment with the idea of “material vitalism,” according to which vitality is immanent in matter-energy. That project has helped inspire mine. Like Deleuze and Guattari, I draw selectively from Epicurian, Spinozist, Nietzchean, and vitalist traditions, as well as from an assortment of contemporary writers in science and literature” (x).

“In what follows, then, I try to bear witness to the vital materialities that flow through and around us. Though the movements and effectivity of stem cells, electricity, food, trash, and metals are crucial to political life (and human life per se), almost as soon as they appear in public (often at first by disrupting human projects or expectations), these activities and powers are represented as human mood, action, meaning, agenda, or ideology. This quick substitution sustains the fantasy that “we” really are in charge of all those “its”–its that, according to the tradition of (nonmechanistic, nonteleological) materialism I draw on, reveal themselves to be potentially forceful agents” (x).

I should also probably read Spinoza:

“Spinoza stands as a touchstone for me in this book, even though he himself was not quite a materialist. I invoke his idea of conative bodies that strive to enhance their power of activity by forming alliances with other bodies, and I share his faith that everything is made of the same substance. Spinoza rejected the idea that man “disturbs rather than follows Nature’s order,” and promises instread to “consider human actions and appetites just as if it were an investigation into lines, planes, or bodies” (x).

Universiality of substance in philosophy:

“Lucretius, too, expressed a kind of monism in his De Rerum Natura: everything, he says, is made of the same quality stuff, the same building blocks, if you will. Lucretius calls them primordia: today we might call them atoms, quarks, particle streams, or matter-energy. This same-stuff claim, this insinuation that deep down everything is connected and irreducible to a simple substrate, resonates with an ecological sensibility, and that too is important to me” (xi).

Also, what about a political (in terms of citizen and representation before the law) sensibility?

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