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"See that Straw? That's a Straw": Anti-Semitism and Narrative Form in Ulysses

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 9, Number 3, September 2002
pp. 375-388 | 10.1353/mod.2002.0056

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Modernism/Modernity 9.3 (2002) 375-388

What difference does it make to the way we read Ulysses that Leopold Bloom is a Jew, or rather, that he is thought by most of Dublin to be a Jew? In the past decade, research into the question of Ulysses and Jewishness has been largely dominated by two main approaches, one concerned with content, and the other with form. Content-oriented critics such as Neil Davison focus on the representation of Bloom as a "Jew," and tend to ignore the formal and stylistic innovations of Ulysses, treating them as distractions in an essentially "realist" novel. The form-oriented critics examine Joycean textuality itself for signs of Jewishness—say, through analogies to the Talmud (Ira Nadel), or to Levinas's philosophy (Steven Connor)—in a way that tends to bracket the question of the specific function and representation of Bloom, as well as to promote a disturbingly fetishized notion of Jewishness. What I want to propose here is a way to synthesize the premise that thinking about Jewishness in Ulysses means thinking about Bloom, with the insight that this thinking needs at the same time to account for the peculiar formal innovations that give Ulysses its place in literary history. I should also point out that other critics, most notably Bryan Cheyette and Marilyn Reizbaum, have acknowledged and addressed the self-consciousness with which Joyce invokes the notion of "Jewishness," however their accounts lack a consideration of the particular literary techniques and styles that distinguish Ulysses: this essay attempts to remedy this omission in critical discussions of Joyce.

In what follows I propose that the way to achieve this synthesis is by thinking less about the identity of either Bloom or the text and more about structural similarities in the way both Bloom and the work Ulysses are perceived by others. In particular, I want to draw attention to a certain conceptual homology between the anti-Semitic notion of "the Jew" and aspects of Ulysses' form, insofar as both might be seen to represent the abstract realm of social relations under industrial capitalism.

The account of modern anti-Semitism that I find most productive in this context is that put forward by the social theorist Moishe Postone. In "Anti-Semitism and National Socialism," Postone focuses on romantic anticapitalism's confusion of the appearance of capitalist relations for their "essence." Capitalist social relations appear

antinomically, as the opposition of the abstract and concrete. Because . . . both sides of the antinomy are objectified, each appears to be quasi-natural. The abstract dimension appears in the form of abstract, universal, "objective," natural laws; the concrete dimension appears as pure "thingly" nature.

Romantic anticapitalism, however, hypostatizes the concrete, rooted, and organic, and identifies capitalism solely with the abstract dimension of the antinomy. As Postone asserts, romantic anticapitalism does not understand "That concrete labor itself incorporates and is materially formed by capitalist social relations [the abstract dimension]" ("ANS," 309).

According to Postone, modern anti-Semitism takes this romantic anticapitalist model a step further and sees the abstract dimension of capitalist social relations (for the romantic anticapitalist, capitalism as such) personified in the Jews. Central to the story Postone tells is the observation that

the specific characteristics of the power attributed to the Jews by modern anti-Semitism—abstractness, intangibility, universality, mobility . . . are all characteristics of the [abstract] value dimension of the social forms analyzed by Marx. Moreover, this dimension, like the supposed power of the Jews, does not appear as such, but always in the form of a material carrier, the commodity. ["ANS," 308]

In other words, "the Jew" as imagined by modern anti-Semitism solves the problem of finding a concrete embodiment, or, more precisely, a personification, for powerful social and economic forces that otherwise lack a material manifestation. The Jew serves to personify processes within finance capital that have no concrete manifestation, that are quite literally unrepresentable. Thus we might infer that the problem that anti-Semitism solves is a problem of representation, and that anti-Semitism must therefore possess an intrinsically aesthetic dimension. An aesthetic dimension, and a specific kind of aesthetic at that: the Jew gives a human shape to the abstract circuits and...

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