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  • Freud, Zizek, and the Joys of Monotheism
  • Eric L. Santner


There is a well-known Jewish joke about a zoology course at a distinguished university in which the students were requested to write a term paper on the subject of elephants. The French student writes a paper with the predictable title, “On the Sexual Habits of the Elephant”; the German student submits a teutonically comprehensive “Introduction to the Bibliographic Sources for the Study of the Elephant”; the American student submits a paper on the topic of “Breeding Bigger and Better Elephants”; and, finally, the Jewish student chooses as his theme—what else?—“The Elephant and the Jewish Question.” The joke presupposes, of course, the listener’s acceptance of common stereotypes of national and ethnic character traits: a French preoccupation with sex, German industriousness and “Gründlichkeit,” American pragmatism and entrepreneurial ambitiousness, and, finally, a certain Jewish self-absorption: the Jewish obsession with the fate of the Jews. Being a Jewish joke, there is, of course, a peculiar asymmetry in the list. The Jewish national character trait stands out as something of an anomaly in the context of the list provided by the joke. For one could say that what, according to the joke, marks the Jew as a Jew, is a preoccupation with the dilemmas and difficulties of being marked as having a national character trait in the first place. The Jew is typed as the one for whom the very experience of being typed constitutes his type, for whom the phenomenon of types and stereotyping is, as it were, his typical problem. To be Jewish is to be that exceptional type in whom the principle of typing and stereotyping—the principle organizing the list of national types exhibited in the [End Page 197] joke—is reflected into itself, makes its appearance as a particular element in the list.

In their work on Nazi ideology, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy have suggested that just such a reflexivity regarding the principal of national types and stereotyping is key to understanding modern anti-Semitism in its most extreme manifestation, National Socialism:

In this respect, it’s essential to point out that the Jew is not simply a bad race, a defective type: he is the antitype, the bastard par excellence. He has no culture of his own, Hitler says. . . . The Jew has no Seelengestalt, therefore no Rassengestalt: his form is formless. He is the man of the universal abstract, as opposed to the man of singular, concrete identity. Thus Rosenberg takes care to point out that the Jew is not the “antipode” of the German, but his “contradiction,” by which he no doubt very clumsily means to say that the Jew is not an opposite type, but the very absence of type. . . .

(Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy 1990, 307)

This analysis of modern anti-Semitism has been taken up and elaborated by Slavoj Zizek in a number of books and articles published over the last several years. I would like to dwell on Zizek’s remarks on anti-Semitism because they illustrate the extent to which recent cultural theory has been engaged in the effort to rethink anti-Semitism in light of postmodern preoccupations with identity politics, sexuality, and representation and to understand these latter preoccupations in light of the lethal history of modern anti-Semitism. In a word, in Zizek’s work it becomes evident that postmodern theory is, among other things, a renewed meditation on the “Jewish Question.”

Zizek’s most recent discussion of these matters returns to the terms suggested by Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy:

At the most fundamental level, anti-Semitism does not associate Jews with corruption as a positive feature, but rather with shapelessness itself—with the lack of a definite [End Page 198] and delimited ethnic disposition. In this vein, Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler’s chief ideologue, asserted that all European nations possess a well-defined ‘spiritual shape’ [Gestalt] which gives expression to their ethnic character—and this ‘spiritual shape’ is precisely what is missing in Jews.

(Zizek, 1994, 146)

The crucial difference between Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy’s approach and Zizek’s is that the former conceive of Nazism as the culmination of the...

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