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  • The Wandering Signifier: Rhetoric of Jewishness in the Latin American Imaginary
  • Luz Angélica Kirschner (bio)
The Wandering Signifier: Rhetoric of Jewishness in the Latin American Imaginary. By Erin Graff Zivin . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008. 233 pp. Cloth $74.95, paper $21.95.

The Wandering Signifier examines the insistent appropriation, codification, and representation of "Jews" and "Jewishness" in late nineteenth-through late twentieth-century literary works by writers from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru (2). Drawing and building on the scholarship of Max Silverman, Zygmunt Bauman, Slavoj Žižek, Bryan Cheyette, and Laura Marcus on the figurative life of the "Jew" in the European context, Graff Zivin's work fills a conspicuous gap in the Latin American context where many literary scholars still doubt both the presence of Jewish literary figures in Latin American literatures and the existence of Jewish writers in the region "despite the fact that Jews inhabit every Latin American country" (1). In her innovative book, Graff Zivin refers to the figure of the "wandering signifier" (2, emphasis in original) as a means of highlighting the fundamental malleability of ideas about "Jews" and "Jewishness," which, though "related to 'real' Jews" (3), are not always based on the historically grounded experience of Jews and Jewish communities but have nonetheless been appropriated "by the most disparate ideologies" (Cheyette and Marcus qtd. in Graff Zivin 4).

Graff Zivin's project consists of five sections, each of wide-ranging scope. Restrictions of space force me to comment exclusively on texts and themes related to my own immediate research. In her introduction, titled " 'Jewishness,' Alterity, and the Ethics of Representation," Graff Zivin frames the range of her research by clarifying that the aim of her investigation is not to establish a quintessential Latin American Jewish identity, thus departing from a problematic tendency that can be traced in the work of some scholars in the field of Latin American Jewish studies. Instead, stressing that Latin American projects of national consolidation have traditionally attempted to postulate an exceptional and autochthonous mestizo identity (asopposed to [End Page 241] a Western one), which typically has strived for "whiteness" as a promising way to assimilate undesirable "significant others" (17)—indigenous peoples, communities of African ancestry, and "other" foreigners—within the national body, Graff Zivin suggests, that in this context the signifier "Jew" serves two functions (17). On the one hand, the figure "often comes to stand for these others in literature" (17), and, on the other, the Jewish other becomes "a powerful node onto which a fundamental anxiety toward difference can be projected and performed" (20). Graff Zivin then reveals her project's second goal, which addresses the broader ethical dimension of representation. Problematizing Emmanuel Levinas's hostility toward the objectifying violence of the written word and the radical separation of rhetorical and ethical language, Graff Zivin raises questions about the possibility of "an ethical treatment" of the Other" within literary discourse" (21) and of "hearing" "the face of the Other in literary discourse" (22). In chapters one to three, Graff Zivin largely examines the multifarious racial, cultural, and political yearnings and anxieties that have been projected on and articulated through the rhetorical devices of the "Jew" and "Jewishness" in Latin American literature. In the final chapter, she readdresses the theoretical concern expressed in the introduction about the possibilities of ethical rhetoric in literature.

In "Diagnosing 'Jewishness'," the first chapter, Graff Zivin offers a large variety of literary readings on pathological and medicalized "Jewishness" in a range of Latin American fiction from Jorge Isaacs's María (1867) to Margo Glantz's "Zapatos" (1991). Complementing her analyses of imaginative Jewish literary figures, Graff Zivin offers a reading on a fascinating fin-de-siècle "real" Jew: the Hungarian Max Nordau and his ambivalent position as "Other Within" (60) the Latin American intellectual discourse of his time. Through Nordau, Graff Zivin not only skillfully demonstrates the flexibility of the wandering signifier the "Jew" in real life but also exemplifies the construction of "Jewishness" from the outside as well as from within (i.e., by Jews themselves). Further, following Gabriela Nouzeilles's argument about the volatility of the "boundary between the 'healthy self...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1528-4212
Print ISSN
0010-4132
Pages
pp. 241-246
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-22
Open Access
No
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