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  • The Wandering Signifier: Rhetoric of Jewishness in the Latin American Imaginary
  • Patrick Dove
The Wandering Signifier: Rhetoric of Jewishness in the Latin American Imaginary, by Erin Graff Zivin. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008. 222 pp. $21.95.

Erin Graff Zivin's The Wandering Signifier: Rhetoric of Jewishness in the Latin American Imaginary explores representations of Jewish presence in the region in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Latin American literature. The book does not present itself as a study of Jewish experience and identity, but is instead an investigation of how literary representations of "Jewishness" bear witness to conflicts that accompany the historical transformation of Latin American societies during the previous two centuries. The key distinction between representations authored by Jewish writers on the one hand, and literary portraits of "Jewishness" by authors who do not necessarily meet any definition of Jewishness (and who in some cases apparently had very limited first-hand experience of "real Jews"), establishes a productive tension. Graff Zivin acknowledges that cultural representations of "Jewishness" have frequently coincided with—at times helping to conceal—real experiences of violence and discrimination against Jewish communities. At the same time, she insists on the distinction between "Jewish" and "Jewishness" in order to underscore the crucial role played by representation (and thus fabrication, distortion, and figuration) in the unfolding of "real experience." "Jewishness" describes a rhetorical function of naming "differences" that have not been fully assimilated into dominant national and regional narratives of belonging in Latin America. Graff Zivin argues that these literary representations have the potential to secure prevailing hegemonic configurations (by providing negative examples of what the nation must overcome or repress) or to destabilize these operations (by preserving or reintroducing the thought of a remainder that has yet to be assimilated into dialectics of self and other, familiar and stranger, and so on).

The Wandering Signifier contains an introduction, three central chapters and a conclusion. Following the initial chapter, which clarifies the concept of "Jewishness," the central chapters are organized around three concepts associated with popular views of Judaism. The first concept is diagnosis, or "Jewishness" as constructed by nineteenth-century medico-scientific (positivist and social Darwinist) discourse. In its most extreme manifestation, "Jewishness" is equated with a biopolitical "pathology" that infects the nation while threatening to undermine key philosophical, political, and cultural distinctions between inside and outside, friend and enemy, citizen and foreigner. Graff Zivin examines the association of Jewish life with social decadence and biological disease in canonical and lesser known nineteenth-century Latin American novels by Jorge Isaacs (María, 1867), Julián Martel (La bolsa, 1891), Rubén [End Page 196] Darío (Los raros, 1896), José Ingenieros (Al margen de la ciencia, 1908) and José Asunción Silva (De sobremesa, 1925). The chapter concludes with two contemporary Hispanic Jewish women writers, Luisa Futoranksy (De pe a pa, 1986) and Margo Glantz ("Zapatos," 1991), who submit this tradition to an active re-reading by proposing new, less derisive juxtapositions of Jewishness with disease and deformity, while also deviating from traditional ways of affirming Jewish belonging.

The second concept, transaction, exploits popular associations of Jewish-ness with money and prostitution. Graff Zivin reminds us that in medieval Europe it was Jews who were relegated to the profession of money-lending while also being inflicted with the social stigmas associated with this vocation (the Jew as greedy, as hoarder, as conspiratorial manipulator of national and international finance). As literary topoi, however, both money lending and prostitution open up new spaces in nienteenth- and twentieth-century novels for reflecting on social interaction as perhaps the two forms of modern sociality par excellence: sex and commodity exchange. The works discussed in this chapter include Martel's La bolsa, Jorge Luis Borges's "Emma Zunz" (1948), Hilário Tácito's Madame Pommery (1920), Clara Beter's Versos de una . . . (1926) and Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill's Vivir afuera (1998).

While the last of the three terms, conversion, unavoidably brings with it the old Spanish obsession with the myth of genealogical purity (pureza de sangre), Graff Zivin also uses this term to initiate competing interrogations of gender and sexual difference. In comparing Isaac's classical novel María...


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pp. 196-198
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