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The Merchant of Modernism: The Economic Jew in Anglo-American Literature, 1864-1939 (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 1, Fall 2007
pp. 179-185 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0031

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It is a truism that everything must eventually enter the marketplace. In The Merchant of Modernism, Gary Martin Levine not only agrees with this observation but argues that the cultural-studies project of deconstructing Jewish representation has consistently neglected "the economic element of modern anti-Semitism" in lieu of the religious and political elements discoverable through that endeavor (1). To Levine, the orientation is crucial because, in turning critical attention away from economic theory and toward orientations such as gender or nationalism, studies of "the Jew" have failed to grasp how "[t]hrough the speculative frenzy of late Victorian culture, the consumer capitalism of the nineteenth-twenties, and the deflationary poverty of the Great Depression, this economic Jew remains the figure in which authors confront the relationship of their own literary practices to the semiotics of capitalism" (1).

The full impact of that recognition relies on a study of the changes modernity fostered in capitalism and vice-versa and the way the Jews were implicated in those changes—a set of questions answered for the author best through the New Economism. This theoretical approach seeks to understand how the "semiotics of capitalism" became a template for western cultural production and how the two were often symbiotic in their modernity-shaping roles. Levine argues that Marxist influence on literary studies was an obvious stop-gap for this endeavor and suggests that scholars who read capitalism as only "the dark history of power relationships, of slavery, sexism, imperialism, post-colonial exploitation and environmental degradation" find a "metonymous anti-Semitic correspondence in the early writings of Marx," in which Judaism plays an instrumental role in the rise of supply and-demand and then investment capitalism—the eradication of which would end a pernicious Jewish influence in the modern world (4, 6). Unburdened by the assumption that Marx got modernity right, however, Levine investigates representations of "the Jew" as central to understanding the marketplace's dialectical shaping of artistic production and the cultural evaluations contained therein.

Focusing on the mid-Victorian-to-modernist era of stock speculation and consumerism, Levine discovers that the instability of language theorized in deconstructive thought is applicable to this dynamic as well, especially insofar as "the act of writing, or representation, [can also be viewed] as a form of exchange" (5). Such cultural instability (literary or financial) threatened Victorian master-narratives and was often represented as the product of a contaminating, hyper-materialistic racial Jewishness. In this vein, "[t]he metonymous economic Jew in late Victorian to Modern literature represents a similar attempt . . . to separate the arena of capitalist exchange from the nexus of human relationships" (7). Given that tension, Levine employs Zygmunt Bauman's theories of allosemitism ("the Jew [as] 'ambivalence incarnate'") to support his readings of the economic Jew as "consistently portrayed in ambivalent terms," rather than in solely negative ones (9).1 He engages a broad and well-worn selection of texts, including Our Mutual Friend, The Way We Live Now, Daniel Deronda, The Golden Bowl, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, The Professor's House, The Apes of God, The House of Mirth, the poetry of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, and Ulysses. Although many of these have previously been the site of readings of "the Jew,"2 Levine argues that none have yet been subject to examinations through the lens of capitalist economics as a manner of re-reading both form and content.

Given this broad palette, it should be noted that The Merchant of Modernism was Levine's dissertation at the University of Iowa and that it might have benefited from revisions that, ironically, he was prevented from making as a result of the study being chosen for the Routledge series. For example, Levine offers the disclaimer that his discussion of so many texts is not based upon the idea of "wad[ing] through a list of authors, wagging fingers at those who espoused anti-Semitic views, but rather to establish a basis . . . [for] an economically-driven modern anti-Semitism. . . . [and] by the sheer accumulation of data to show a pattern" akin to "a weather map, with various little swirls of motion here and there" (9). The problem with this methodology...



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