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Nuanced Distinctions Instead of Irreconcilable Divisions BY MARC RÖLLI

Delving into the subject of “Anti-Anti-Semitism,” issue 119 of Texte zur Kunst not only takes a stance against anti-Semites, it also sides with the critics of BDS. Several members of the magazine’s advisory board have responded with a statement in which they have expressed apprehension that the issue, and the anti-BDS slant in particular, would divide the readership “between those whose focus is on fighting anti-Semitism, and those who advocate for decolonization.” [1] That is the crux that I want to home in on in the following. It is not a coincidence, I believe, that it marks the issue’s breaking point. For a long time, it virtually went without saying – or it would certainly seem to for most readers of Texte zur Kunst – that one saw oneself as neither anti-Semitic nor racist. That may no longer be quite the case now that the critical positions are increasingly locked in implacable opposition, as the divided response to the “Anti-Anti-Semitism” issue illustrates. I would like to propose that we take a step back and analyze this polarization as a problem. For its political function is rather unhelpful when considered in the context, for instance, of right-wing populism as well as some of the critical reaction to it. Polarization then means that people take a stand either against globalization, capital, and liberal elites or against “regressive” forces that seek – or, more likely, pretend to seek – salvation in the nation, in traditions or in cultural identities. Both factions are convinced that they are on the right side, yet fail to consider their own entanglement in the economic structures of neoliberalism. Needless to say, the significance of the art market for the professional production of writing on art would also be a subject ripe for such reflection.

In this light, here is the question I want to raise: If we consider the critiques of anti-Semitism and colonialism through the lens of the history of theory, is there a meaningful difference between them, and wherein does it lie? Are not both the colonized and the Jews among “the Wretched of the Earth” (Frantz Fanon), formerly (and, in a different way, still today) subject to specific relations of power? If there is a difference here, we should be able to discern it in the theories dedicated to their respective and differently “denigrated” otherness. To the extent that the “Anti-Anti-Semitism” issue has drawn attention to this problem, I think it reads as an opening move (however lopsided it may be) in a debate that we have yet to have. So it is good that the problem has come to the fore – and with it, questions that demand answers. I would suggest that we try to stand the discomfiture (How can we still be critics of anti-Semitism given the sweeping criticism of Israel’s settlement policies? Do we need to take a stance on BDS because we wish to strengthen the decolonization of contemporary thought in cultural institutions and academies, and in politics?) and throw the problem into sharper relief.

Numerous post- and decolonial theories have discussed the contentious question of the philosophical tradition with which to affiliate. In their early decades, references to Marx or – in the wake of the emergence of a more acerbic critique of reason and modernity in Michel Foucault and others – to the so-called poststructuralist movement were prominent. More recently, however, a growing chorus of voices has suspected critical theory of Eurocentrism; [2] similarly, the choice of Jacques Derrida or Foucault as a central source of inspiration is increasingly controversial. [3] As Amy Allen, who has worked to decolonize the normative foundations of critical theory, has put it, “a gulf has opened between the Frankfurt School approach to critical theory and critical theory done under the heading of postcolonial theory.” [4] Based on the writings of Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, but also of Walter D. Mignolo and Achille Mbembe, we might identify a shared focus of the various formations in postcolonial theory in the racist construction of the “otherness of the colonized” (in the sense of an imperialist constitution of subjectivity). In European philosophy, however, a critical idea of the exteriority of the other was first developed in the framework of its critique of anti-Semitism – in the figure of Jewishness. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment gathers “Elements of Anti-Semitism.” [5] And Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-François Lyotard, and Derrida considered the question of how to think the otherness of “Jewish others.” Still, I do not know of a dedicated and lucid analysis of the points of convergence and divergence between – to paint in broad strokes – critical theory and poststructuralism in terms of their treatment of anti-Semitism. The same applies to how these theories handle the question of whether and how anti-Semitic otherness corresponds to racist otherness. Lyotard, for example, writes in an essay on “the jews”: “The anti-Semitism of the Occident should not be confused with its xenophobia” [6] – yet that, by and large, is what he has to say on the matter.

These observations raise the question of how the concept of “the other” laid out by the critique of anti-Semitism relates to the notion of “othering” developed by the diverse theorists of postcolonialism. It may seem obvious that the (Saidian) “Orientalization” of the other with its emphasis on identity politics is untranslatable into the (Levinasian) other undermining the identity relation. Yet I would be skeptical of this incompatibility – with respect to both sides: Might it not be that the praise of the other articulated by the philosophy of difference produces its own exoticizing effects? And does not the concept of othering presuppose a difference-event (and be it only one precipitated by the “microphysics of power”) that generates its strategic qualities as part of a colonial practice in the first place? How can the colonial practice of “alienizing” be prevented from reproducing itself in the effort to pin down and exhibit a being-other?

This strikes me as a point that we need to think harder about. Spivak has made a pertinent proposal by distinguishing between “homogeneous” and “heterogeneous others”: the construction of the homogeneous other relates to the colonial aspect of European identity, which constitutes itself as a privileged entity by excluding from itself an other; the concept of the heterogeneous other, by contrast, refers to the “true subaltern.” Spivak explicitly connects these reflections to Derrida and his “‘call’ to the ‘quite-other’ (tout-autre as opposed to a self-consolidating other).” [7] Another pointer that there would be no motif of decolonization without this “difference within the other”: the “Orientalized” individual, in Said’s parlance, is not an Oriental, but she is also not a European – she is, that is to say, other than the other she was made to be.

Critical theorists of anti-Semitism are not the only ones who face the question of their specific conception of otherness; since Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Fanon, so do feminist and decolonial theorists, respectively. A resolution of these questions is bound up with a clarification of the relations between a philosophy that owes its engagement with the other primarily to its critical examination of anti-Semitism – and a post- or decolonial thinking that derives its self-understanding from the reconstruction of “othering,” the “subaltern,” or of “négritude” (after Aimé Césaire and Mbembe). A debate over the roots of the different conceptions of otherness might help break up the confrontation between the ostensible antagonists (opponents of anti-Semitism vs. advocates of decolonization). That confrontation, after all, is untenable for anyone who wishes to disavow racisms and anti-Semitisms with equal resolve. In her 1981 book Ain’t I a Woman, bell hooks already made a compelling argument that there can be no successful struggle against patriarchal, capitalist, or racist structures in isolation. [8] By the same token, we have reason to expect to encounter an intersectional element also in the field between the critiques of colonialism and anti-Semitism – as, for instance, in the history of the concept of the other. Then again, we would do well to keep in mind that a long tradition going back to Marx’s essay On the Jewish Question (1843) has lent the critique of capitalism anti-Semitic features. Horkheimer and Adorno oppugned this association. Still, keeping anti-Semitic prejudice out of the critique of structures of economic exploitation remains a constant and vexing challenge.

As I see it, the problem of the polarization sketched above requires us to avoid thinking strictly in identities, which is to say, in rigid cultural blocks or else in the form of a sharp divide between culturalism and universalism. Tying even human rights solely to the history of the European Enlightenment – and so effectively claiming them as a “Western cultural asset” – is a dangerous move. Fixed cultural or political identities consolidate wherever there is a dearth of pluralistic concepts for the description of social processes. That is one factor driving the perfidious strategy (hatched in identitarian circles) of using the term “ethnopluralism” to hypostatize cultural differences (in a quasi-racist sense). It creates the danger that the theoretical potentials of both ethnology and (not just liberal, but radical) pluralism are neutralized. A more promising approach, I believe, would be to promote peaceful “dialogue projects between Palestinians and Israelis,” as Saba-Nur Cheema puts it, while being alert to the often asymmetrical relations between the groups involved – relations that are products of constellations of power. [9]

Some readers may find this statement vague in its stances and perhaps even unduly invested in conciliation; they may think that it accomplishes nothing more than to add to an elitist and rather a bit too self-assured theoretical discourse. My objective was merely to take the diagnosis of the divided response seriously and discuss it as a problem in light of its context in the history of theory. What I hope to have shown is that unresolved questions loom in the critical thinking of the other that can perhaps help us understand a bit better the fraught and tense relations between the European traditions of critique and critical theories of colonialism. One such unresolved question concerns the decolonizing force inherent in the philosophical concept of the other – a concept that (at least in key aspects) was developed in the framework of the critique of anti-Semitism.

Translation: Gerrit Jackson

Marc Rölli is a professor of philosophy at the Academy of Fine Arts Leipzig. His book Anthropologie dekolonisieren, which extends the arguments in his 2011 Kritik der anthropologischen Vernunft (Berlin: Matthes & Seitz), is scheduled to be released by Campus-Verlag in early 2021.


[1]Susanne Leeb, Jenny Nachtigall, Juliane Rebentisch, Kerstin Stakemeier, Diedrich Diederichsen, “On the Debate around ‘Texte zur Kunst,’ Issue 119,”
[2]See the extensive discussion in Amy Allen, The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).
[3]See Walter D. Mignolo, Desobediencia epistémica: retórica de la modernidad, lógica de la colonialidad y gramática de la descolonialidad (Buenos Aires: Ediciones del Signo, 2010). Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s critique of Foucault and Deleuze – with a view to their conversation on “intellectuals and power” – is arguably an especially prominent example of this growing disaffection; see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Lawrence Grossberg and Cary Nelson (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 271–313.
[4]Allen, The End of Progress, p. xv. For a scathing critique of the tradition of critical theory as an heir to the European Enlightenment, see Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2013).
[5]Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments [1944], ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 137–72.
[6]Jean-François Lyotard, “‘the jews,’” in Heidegger and “the jews,” trans. Andreas Michel and Mark Roberts (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), pp. 1–48, quote p. 23. Horkheimer and Adorno write: “the blacks must be kept in their place, but the Jews are to be wiped from the face of the earth”; see Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 137. Delphine Horvilleur suggests a similar distinction, emphasizing that anti-Semitic hatred, unlike racist hatred, takes aim at a “too much” (which cannot be clearly localized and poses a threat to integrity); see Delphine Horvilleur, “Positive Contaminations: Delphine Horvilleur in Conversation with Isabelle Graw and Dirk von Lowtzow,” Texte zur Kunst, no. 119 (September 2020), pp. 74–92, quote p. 76.
[7]Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” pp. 84, 89.
[8]See bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (London: Pluto, 1982).
[9]Saba-Nur Cheema, “Critique, and Critique of the Critique: How the BDS Debate Leads to a Dead End,” Texte zur Kunst, no. 119 (September 2020), pp. 46–50, quote p. 48.