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  • A Bounded Leeway
  • Vivian Liska

The importance of Georg Simmel's "Excursus on the Stranger" as a seminal text for the discourse on the topic is undisputed. His portrayal of the stranger—who is neither a fleeting visitor nor a member of the group, who combines proximity and distance, embodies mobility, objectivity, and freedom, and inhabits a status that is both positive and negative, enriching and vulnerable—has become a standard reference in cultural studies and the humanities in general. While the conceptual tools that Simmel has forged in his excursus continue to exert wide influence, critics have recently argued that his depiction of the stranger no longer applies to the increasingly globalized, mobile, and mutable world of today. Even greater doubts have arisen about the contemporary relevance of Simmel's positing of the Jew as the paradigmatic example of the stranger.1 Critics argue that the radical changes in the Jewish world since Simmel's time, particularly the Holocaust and the establishment of a Jewish majority society in Israel, have rendered Simmel's idea of Jewish exemplarity obsolete.2 Whereas this critique may apply to aspects of Simmel's excursus that are linked to social formations of the past and the specific roles that Jews could play in them, the approach underlying the excursus can serve as an illuminating touchstone to probe recent conceptualizations of Jewish exemplarity.

Even a cursory look at recent theoretical discourses shows that conceptualizations of Jewish exemplarity have proliferated. After 1945, and [End Page 293] particularly in the final decades of the twentieth century, numerous thinkers have elaborated views of the Jew as exemplary stranger that echo Simmel's spatial parameters in both literal and metaphorical terms—more specifically, the conceptual pairs of mobility and stasis, inside and outside, belonging and distance, detachment and fixity. The various ways in which these polarities feature in the writings of thinkers from George Steiner to Judith Butler, from Emmanuel Levinas to Jean-François Lyotard, and from Maurice Blanchot to Alain Badiou invite a comparison with Simmel's approach.3 While Simmel conjoins these polarities into a "unity," these thinkers keep them radically apart and regard them as binary opposites. In this constellation, the "exemplary Jew" is identified either with the radical nationalist bound to a land of his own or with the paradigmatic exterritorial, rootless nomad par excellence. These one-sided, romanticized constructions of Jewish exemplarity, which were both advanced increasingly, and ever more radically, in relation to the establishment and consolidation of the Jewish State, can benefit from a return to the intricacies of Simmel's text.

Simmel's excursus can seem like a confusing text that leaves many of the questions it raises unresolved. Its style oscillates between the dryness of a textbook and poetry's rhythmical vitality and grace.4 The excursus has a jagged structure and rests on a discontinuous argumentation that thwarts smooth summary. A closer inspection of the text shows, however, that Simmel's mode of writing mirrors the basic premises of his approach to the stranger, to exemplarity, and, by extension, to the Jew. Repeated shifts between impersonal observation and an occasional "we," or the indistinct use of der Fremde and Fremdsein, conflating an external designation with an inner experience, destabilize the authorial perspective and preclude an external, objectifying projection. Rhythmical chiasms and quasi-paradoxes5 [End Page 294] tie antagonistic forces into intricate knots that resist resolution. Verbal nouns with unusual suffix constructions in the plural reach a level of abstraction that creates a palpable distance to the specific empirical examples adduced to these concepts. For Simmel, exemplarity, indeed, is not the equivalent of identity: whereas a certain phenomenon in Jewish history is instructive for the argument at hand, the Jew is not the stranger. Most strikingly, the text begins with the setting of boundaries defining the space within which the stranger moves: it is a space described as a unity of detachment (Gelöstheit)6 and fixity (Fixiertheit) to a given place. Subsequently, variations of these polarities—distance and proximity, inclusion and exclusion, warmth and coldness—are similarly united in a both/and that leaves the modality of their combination—a middle ground, a mixture...


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