Tora-nsformations and shaking off the a priori

In the absence of a reaction paper for GY802 last Friday and there being no class this Friday (due to something called a mid-term break), I wanted to take some time responding to Kevin’s paper on The European Enlightenment, the Nation State and the Haskalah. Now I don’t know what the Haskalah is and the paper increased my knowledge of it by 100%. I had read much of the Jewish enlightenment movement of the late eighteeneth and early nineteenth centuries because as an MA student in the mid-1990s, I was knee deep in European social history and the relationship between Jewish identity and the development of German national socialism. Kevin’s paper contains an error that besets much discussion about European identity and the enlightenment: it defines this enlightenment as a priori, that is to say, not arising from experience. My comments are meant as a discursive reaction, not corrections.

The questioning of tradition, daring to know and an ability to draw on human reason are products of specific social relations and do not arise organically from within Europe. Being products of specific social relations, there must be a relationship between these questions and desires to something or some place. These places include, Turkey, Palestine and Egypt. One of the defining features of a self-derived description of modernity (an ambiguous linguistic burden brought upon the social sciences by sociology) is the sense that its roots arose from within itself. In this sense, modernity is said to have a single origin, a beginning point where time itself was ruptured. Hence, in Europe we divide the modern from the pre-modern, defining all that came before, um, let’s say 1521, as not modern. Kevin is right to say that one of the most significant social forms that arose from modernity is the nation state. But if we want to cast aside an a priori conception of the modern nation state, then we have to look at the relationship between those who saw themselves as moderns and those who they defined themselves against.  In other words, we have to avoid a reactionary teleology; the kind that gets Neil Ferguson a multipart series on Channel 4.

Particular social forms are always relational and always involved in the material being of people and the groups that they adhere to. The poor are poor because they are not rich, the religious are religious because they are not secular and so on. This is a linguistic process that is a reflection of, and in turn reflects upon, different social relations. In a similar vein, European enlightenment is both European and is enlightened because those who wish to become modern differentiate themselves from those they perceive not to be modern. The very agency that the philosophes willingly accept for themselves must therefore be denied to others. Seeing the construction of something called modernity in this manner means that slavery in 19th century north America is not something that arose spontaneously because ‘that is what is next’ but because this form of property ownership demanded that people be brought from western Africa to there to fulfill the material conditions that favoured capital accumulation.  Talal Asad’s analysis of secularism in the Formations of the Secular provides some sharp signposts for the way to avoid such self-contained, teleological understandings of history:

Assumptions about the integrated character of “modernity” are themselves part of practical and political reality. They direct the way in which people committed to it act in critical situations. p.13

Kevin hints at this understanding when he says that “local arrangements that were freely created within feudal systems can no longer be tolerated. Depending on the convictions of local leaders or lords, a region could grant distinct rights and privileges to certain groups, including Jews.” But the homogenisation of diversity within the state formation process that he then mentions does not, indeed it cannot, be endogenous. To say that “the Enlightenment created a context for a new range of questions” about political and ethnic diversity is to deny the relational and material nature of becoming European at this time and since. Asad deals with this at some length and so is worth quoting extensively:

Modernity is a project— or rather, a series of interlinked projects— that certain people in power seek to achieve. The project aims at institutionalizing a number of (sometimes conflicting, often evolving) principles: constitutionalism, moral autonomy, democracy, human rights, civil equality, industry, consumerism, freedom of the market— and secularism. It employs proliferating technologies (of production, warfare, travel, entertainment, medicine) that generate new experiences of space and time, of cruelty and health, of consumption and knowledge. The notion that these experiences constitute “disenchantment”—implying a direct access to reality, a stripping away of myth, magic, and the sacred— is a salient feature of the modern epoch. It is, arguably, a product of nineteenth-century romanticism, partly linked to the growing habit of reading imaginative literature —being enclosed within and by it— so that images of a “pre-modern” past acquire in retrospect a quality of enchantment pp.13-14; my emphasis.

Seeing Kant’s thoughts on the “Jewish question” as a distinctively Enlightenment era query is therefore a question of believing that teleology. Kant sought to overcome contradictions that arose from a seemingly homogenising nation state and ‘the place’ of Jews within that process and in this, formed the basis for a particular self-conception of the nation state. The crucial word here is seemingly.  The Prussian state is a homogeneous nation state for those that wish it to be: those with power to cast it as such as what is contained within and without its boundaries based on specific interests. In the current frame, we can cast Ireland as the 26 counties (as the Irish state selectively does) or it can include those abroad who claim Irishness. Those who claim to be Irish who live in the US for example largely do so without including Black Irish people or Indian Irish people and this is done for very specific reasons.

In Asad’s reckoning, being European and secular cannot be explicitly stated as it is so much part of life. Instead we can try and trace the shadows of the secular and the European. “By successfully unmasking pretended power (profaning it) universal reason” he says “displays its own status as legitimate power. By empowering new things, this status is further confirmed. So the “sacred right to property” was made universal after church estates and common lands were freed” pp.35-36.  One of the ways in which universal reason claimed power for itself is by turning the logos of the divine into the mythos of the religious. Jewishness is further isolated from Kant’s reckoning of the Prussian state because it is delegitimated. In this context, a Haskalah is a form of attempting to recuperate universal reason’s legitimating power. How do you become legitimate? You take on the power of the legitimate. Minorities are only so because of hierarchies of power (apologies to the author of that one, I could not find the citation). Jewishness is redefined by those who recast the power to redefine. Hence Jewishness becomes redefined as alien, as not European and certainly not Prussian. This, despite ontological and daily evidence that Jewish people lived and thrived within Prussia’s boundaries.

I suppose I am asking Kevin to cast off the teleology that goes along with an a priori conception of ‘the modern’. Such a conception imposes the powerful mediation of secular time, heading in one direction, inevitable and all-consuming. Redefinitions of progressive time are but one manifestations of this. Thought of relationally, as Asad invites us to do, the secular and that which is defined as European are not endogenous but refer at all times to a sense of the outside. Kant could not see the dialectic inherent in believing that “the color of human beings is caused by the color of the Malipighian layer of the skin” because of specific social forms that believed that becoming a Prussian modern meant delineating one from the other.  Let us speak no more of the European philosophes constantly questioning because they could only do so at material expense of others. It is not pejorative to state, as Kevin does, that “the Enlightenment tradition was parasitic on the Christian tradition” because the Enlightenment tradition (in as much as that is determinable anyway) arose specifically from particular material developments and relations between institutional churches and their professing monarchs in the conduct of war and politics. A wish to integrate the best of both orthodox Jewish identity and enlightened thinking is another address to such power. This address to power is seeking autonomy from the Prussian state. However, as Asad states, and I’ll finish on this:

This autonomy depends on conditions that are themselves subject to regulation by the law of the state and to the demands of a market economy. Second, the encouragement to become autonomous is primarily directed at the upper classes. The lower classes, constituted as the objects of social welfare and political control, are placed in a more ambiguous situation” p.226.

I look forward to talking about Asad with Kevin and others in the coming time.


One thought on “Tora-nsformations and shaking off the a priori

Comments are closed.