- Globalizing Race: Antisemitism and empire in French and European culture by Dorian Bell
By Dorian Bell. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2018.
Dorian Bell’s Globalizing Race: Antisemitism and empire in French and European culture has all the ingredients of an important book: an intricate yet fresh conceptual framework—drawing both on extensive primary research and a vast range of theoretical approaches to antisemitism, racism and imperialism—, premises that bring to the fore a past that appears particularly salient in today’s Europe, and a compelling narrative delivered in elegant prose that renders the book a very engaging read. The book further accomplishes that rare feat of historical scholarship: despite a narrow focus on a limited corpus of French literature, newspapers and antisemitic pamphlets dating from the last decades of the nineteenth century, the breadth of its scope is impressive, as the narrative core expands in multiple directions, crossing geographical, conceptual and disciplinary boundaries. At the intersection between intellectual / cultural history and critical race theory, with valuable inputs from studies of nationalism, empire and post-colonial theory, it offers a story that illuminates the relationship between antisemitism and imperialism in its late nineteenth-century French context while simultaneously drawing attention to the role of modern antisemitism in producing global imaginaries of race.
Central to the narrative is the concept of racial scalarity, a welcome addition to the interpretive frameworks deployed for understanding modern antisemitism and its political, social and cultural functions. Defined as “the tendency of racializing logics to change scales in an effort to resolve contradictions internal to the logics themselves” (9), similar to the “spatial fix” of capital in its imperial expansion,1 the concept is meant not only to denote the familiar operation of race in its motion between different scales (national and global, to which one could add “imperial” as an intermediate, not-quite-global and more-than-national one), but “to pose the question of how race has subtended the development of scale itself” (10). In a reading inspired by Marxist theory and critical geography, antisemitism is thus seen to have enabled the very production of scale, as Jews “offered a ready-made metaphor for capital’s growing dialecticization of the local and global” (28) and “Jewishness became a conceptual currency not only for constructing the national and global scales important to imperial capitalism but also for elaborating the necessary dialectic between them” (83). This, according to Bell, more than notions of “world conspiracy” or its global deployment through imperial expansion, is how “race became most thoroughly global as a tool—perhaps the chief tool—for constructing and negotiating scale in the era of late imperial capital,” epitomised by modern antisemitism, as the racism “most historically and organically suited to the scalar task at hand” (21). The concept of race remains however elusive throughout the book, as the author collapses its multiple meanings, from a legal instrument facilitating colonial hierarchies through “a principle of social organization” (78) to biological notions of immutable difference (as well as the very important passage from one to the other), into a capacious notion that ends up signifying little more than alterity, whose fine gradient allowing both contingently determined associations and distinctions between Jews and other racialised groups is obscured in the process.
The story of the entanglements of antisemitism and empire includes an interesting operationalisation of Arendt’s famous “boomerang thesis,” which the author—pointing out “its embedment in, and retroactive illumination of, a fraught tradition stretching back to the nineteenth century” (79)—refashions in accordance with the book’s main concept of racial scalarity (Chapter 1). Similar attention is devoted in Chapter 4 to the indebtedness of Horkheimer and Adorno’s account of antisemitism to the “nineteenth-century degeneration theory inverting expectations of steady biological improvement into the teleology of decline” (207) and the related notions of “spatiotemporal reversibility” (210) developed in response to the tension between the twin yet opposing narratives of progress and regression. Whether in the Freudian approach of the latter or in Arendt’s recourse to classical philosophy, the author discerns the challenge posed by the insistent return (or...