The Wandering Signifier

The Wandering SignifierWhat happens when difference and otherness become subject to literary and cultural representation? What roles is otherness made to play, and what functions are found for the depiction of difference? These are some of the questions Erin Graff Zivin sets out to answer in The Wandering Signifier, where her focus is the “Rhetoric of Jewishness in the Latin American Imaginary.” There are of course plenty of other more obvious social divides in Latin America than that between Jew and non-Jew. There are, in other words, plenty of “other others,” not least the indigenous peoples who were displaced by the arrival of the Europeans, and who have been oppressed ever since, but remain a significant proportion of the population in countries such as Peru, Bolivia, and Guatemala. Or one might think of the African presence, legacy of the slave trade, that has had such an impact in the Caribbean, Brazil, and elsewhere. By contrast, the number of Jews in the region has always been small–albeit significant in pockets such as Buenos Aires and the River Plate region–and their place in Latin America’s often rigid social hierarchies has been much more ambivalent and ambiguous. But Graff Zivin argues that it is in part precisely because of its ambivalences (and perhaps even because of the relative scarcity of “real” Jews) that Jewishness comes strangely to the fore when it comes time for Latin American authors to define their culture’s identity and their own role in shaping it.

By stressing the role or function of otherness, Graff Zivin wants to steer clear of the mundane debates about ethnic or cultural stereotypes. She is not, for instance, all that concerned about the distance between the literary representations of “Jewishness” (a term she consistently places in quotation marks, to signal its constructedness) and the “real” attributes of flesh-and-blood, historical Jews. This distance is undeniable: “real” Jews do not fit well their stereotypical representations, not least because those representations are so contradictory. Jews are portrayed simultaneously as marginal outcasts and as sinisterly powerful; they are reviled for their supposed ugliness and at the same time feared (or desired) for their seductiveness; they are portrayed as both inescapably different and uncannily similar to the white, Western ideal. But while it is no doubt useful to point out the gap between rhetoric (whether racist or idealizing) and reality, Graff Zivin is more interested in the “rhetorical malleability” itself, and in the uses to which it is put in discourses that are often, ostensibly, not about Jews or “Jewishness” at all. Indeed, “Jews” frequently stand in for the “other others” (indigenous peoples, Afro-Latins, and so on) that may impinge more on the project of constructing a sense of Latin American identity, but that for that very reason may be less versatile or less amenable to cultural representation.

The book presents three “scenes” in which “Jewishness” commonly figures: diagnosis, transaction, and conversion. In the first case, “Jews” are often presented as sick or unhealthy; but they are also equally associated with the medical profession. So the figure of the “Jew” can play either role (or both) in the scene of diagnosis. Likewise, in the scenes of transaction, which involve sexuality and money or even the two together, as in the figure of Jewish prostitution, “Jews” are portrayed as both traders and traded. And conversion scenes focus on the figure of the “converso,” the “Jew” (and now the quotation marks take on extra weight) who may or may not be “Jewish” at all, who may provide the model either of successful assimilation or of its utter impossibility. In each case, the book provides deft and convincing (if sometimes strangely truncated) readings of a range of literary texts, canonical and otherwise, from a variety of eras and from Brazil as well as from Spanish America. New light is shed on (for instance) Jorge Isaacs’s classic María and Jorge Luis Borges’s “Emma Zunz” and “Deutches Requiem,” as well as on a Brazilian Samba and more recent stories by Fogwill and Sergio Chefjec. Consistently, Graff Zivin highlights that the diagnoses, transactions, and conversions are not merely thematic objects of representation, but also performatively enacted by the texts themselves:

The diagnosis is thus not merely written about, but enacted as well; the financial or sexual transaction is not just narrated, but the negotiation also happens on the level of discourse; conversion not only appears as a motif, but the narrative itself realizes a textual conversion: it converts its object by assimilating it into the order of representation. (26)

Ultimately, Graff Zivin is most interested in the last of these functions (and she devotes her final chapter to the topic): whether any representation of the other is inevitably also a form of assimilation. Is the other, in short, always and necessarily reduced to a mere rhetorical function or role simply by virtue of its representation? Or is there some resistance or surplus that ensures that something of the other’s otherness survives and even contests its literary representation? Against the claims of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, this book argues–and for its own sake it has to, in that it, too, quite consciously makes “Jewishness” perform a quite particular function, of helping us to delineate the ethics of representation–that rhetoric doesn’t necessarily exhaust or annihilate real difference. What is less clear is whether Graff Zivin believes that this is always the case, whether (in my terms, if not hers), something always escapes. Her preference, it seems, is towards precisely the kind of careful and self-reflexive accounts that she herself also strives to provide: Borges’s short stories; Ricardo Piglia’s Respiración arficial. This is a book about the ethics of writing that wants to make as few claims upon the other as possible.

But perhaps because of its focus on the ethical dilemma inherent in any attempt to write (about) the other, Graff Zivin’s argument tends towards abstraction. For instance, in her eclectic choice of texts, historical or social context tends to blur, often despite her own best efforts. The problematic raised by the representation of “Jewishness” comes to seem rather similar in Brazil as in Colombia, in the late twentieth century as in the nineteenth. This erasure of history is all the more pronounced when the book dwells on elements of the depiction of “Jewishness” that are drawn from a long tradition dating back to the Middle Ages if not earlier still. Of course, we are dealing here with what is effectively a myth–or a series of closely-related mythic symbolizations. But while a myth, by its very nature, is detached from history and may, in practice, also be transhistorical and transcultural, this does not mean that it is ahistorical. Indeed, treating it as such threatens to confirm its mythic power: in this case, to confirm the notion that the “Jew” (the idea of the “Jew,” not actual Jews) inevitably, and perhaps uniquely, is associated with the same unchanging series of attributes, including (no doubt) the attribute of malleability and textual slipperiness. But surely there are particular moments and particular places in which “Jewishness” takes on specific qualities, while others are discarded or downplayed. And are there not particular occasions when anxiety and/or fascination with Jewishness comes to the fore, and others when it fades into the background or is even forgotten entirely? However much Graff Zivin is clear that she has little wish to dismantle the rhetoric of “Jewishness” entirely, it seems odd to place it on the horizon of all representation of otherness in Latin America as a whole.

Further, the more that in this argument “Jewishness” comes to stand in for language as such–or for the inevitable ethical impasse posed in and by any project of representation–the more that all “Jewish” specificity is lost. Or, to put it another way, the more that the question becomes about ethics per se, the more that Graff Zivin (on her own terms) comes to risk the ethical failure to treat “Jewishness” as anything more than an empty cipher, that could be replaced by any other: indigeneity, blackness, femininity, latinidad… It is one of this book’s many virtues that it is consistently aware (and makes us aware) of this danger. But it is a weakness that in the end it falls into a trap constructed in part in and through its own anxiety to do the right thing.


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