- Diasporas of the Mind: Jewish and Postcolonial Writing and the Nightmare of History by Bryan Cheyette
“There should be no need for this book in an ideal world,” writes Bryan Cheyette in Diasporas of the Mind: Jewish and Postcolonial Writing and the Nightmare of History (xii). This is so not simply because an ideal world would preclude the nightmare histories of empire and colonization, New World slavery, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust around which this book circles, but also—in the meaning Cheyette intends—because such a world would not admit the disciplinary barriers that have oddly estranged these histories from one another, rendering them mutually incomparable subjects of study.
However, within the world as given this illuminating, elegantly written book makes a kind of ideal contribution: breaching academic barriers and offering a powerful example of an unruly, extra-disciplinary study that will inspire others. Yet it may behoove us to pause and ask, in part with Cheyette, why the Jewish/black/postcolonial boundary isn’t more often transgressed in contemporary critique. Why do contemporary academic disciplines “tend to stress specific histories of victimhood and exile,” as Cheyette writes (2014, 19), rather than treat, as Frantz Fanon put it when linking the victims of Nazi genocide to those of European colonization, “the common wretchedness of different men, the common enslavement of extensive social groups” (quoted in Cheyette 2014, 59)? Though the term “diaspora,” long associated with Jewish experience, has come to name many modern population dispersions—the postcolonial above all—connections between postcolonial and Jewish diasporas have diminished in contemporary discourse. Scholars of postcolonial and of Jewish studies operate in distinct circuits, seldom sharing the critical texts, terms, and assumptions that mark a common project.
While Cheyette cites postcolonial thinkers (Paul Gilroy and Caryl Phillips) who assert that “public representations of the Holocaust enabled other minorities and histories of oppression to be articulated” (2014, 36), he also argues that postcolonial studies has generally “expunged” “interconnections with Jewish history and the Holocaust” “under the rubric of a dominant white ‘Judeo-Christian’ Western culture” (24–25). [End Page 528] In other words, postcolonial studies tends to position Jews within the imperial cultural dominant, undifferentiated from other European and American whites, rather than within the excluded and oppressed margins—a positioning that reflects postwar changes in the world status of Jews more than it does the self-conception of many individual Jews. Because of such political distinctions, and perhaps also because of fatigue with the Jewish historical claims attending “diaspora,” Cheyette writes that some “self-designated ‘new’ disciplines—such as Diaspora Studies, Postcolonial Studies, and Ethnic and Racial Studies—defined themselves as superseding a Jewish history that is constructed as age-old or ‘classic,’” and thus as no longer quite relevant (38, invoking Hilary Mantel). Indeed, an intriguing thread in this book is the hypothesis that postcolonial studies has a “repressed Jewish other”—the rootless cosmopolitan vagrant, or luftmensh, a figure harder to champion than the nationalist, anticolonial insurgent (22).
Meanwhile, Cheyette notes among scholars of Jewish studies the “fear … that such metaphorical thinking—where the similar and dissimilar become blurred—will dilute Jewish particularity,” which is held to be of particular importance “in the name of protecting the memory of Holocaust victims” (39). Cheyette calls this “the anxiety of appropriation, especially in relation to histories of racial victimization” (xiv). A related, problematic tendency takes European anti-Semitism and the Holocaust especially as a “world-historical model of racism, with all forms of historical oppression expected to fit into this framework” (37). If the blindness in this tendency might understandably derive from the Jews’ longtime, “world-historical” status as “boundary case” (Biale, Galchinsky, and Heschel 1998, 5), heirs at once to histories of marginality, calamity, and privilege, still it suggests a failure in Jewish discourse to attend sufficiently to the distinctiveness of other oppressed peoples’ experiences.
Finally, the histories of different academic disciplines may put them out of sync. David Biale, Michael Galchinsky, and Susannah Heschel observe:
Jewish studies in America developed precisely...