The Boy (Syria) (Europe) (Russia Iran) (United States)


The photograph tells us a lot of things all at once –about [1] the failure of Europe to come to terms with this massive refugee influx, [2] the piteous human blowback from the bloody civil war in Syria fueled in large part by Russia and Iran in support of the Assad regime, [3] the indifferent and hands off approach of western governments led by the United States and Obama Administration to that burning conflict. For backstory and questions concerning the ethics of disseminating this picture and others like it, you can read this in the NYT here. The basic fact that the photograph cannot know is this. “The boy, in a red shirt and blue shorts, was identified by Turkey’s private Dogan news agencyas Aylan, 3. The body of his 5-year-old brother, Galip, washed up on another part of the beach.


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CFP: Bible in Modernity (ACLA 2016 Seminar, Harvard University)


Modernity is usually thought of as the age of secularization. At the turn to the 20th century, thinkers such as Darwin, Nietzsche, or Freud fundamentally challenge a world view based on Judeo-Christian religiosity, and their respective substitutes for religion – evolutionism, nihilism, or psychoanalysis – try to make sense of a world that dismisses God as the governing principle. This formerly sacrilegious possibility arises after a fundamental shift in regard to the foundational texts of Judeo-Christianity has taken place: Starting from the 19th century, a number of philologists, theologians, orientalists, historians, and philosophers developed a new Bible criticism that sees the Bible as a human cultural artifact rather than a divine and unquestionable revelation, thus dismissing it as a source of authority and making it an object of criticism in secular academies.

This leaves deep traces in the realm of modern art, and especially in literature. Far from disappearing, the Bible becomes an object of fascination: In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, more and more modernist writers such as Baudelaire, Joyce, Rilke, Valéry, Pound, Döblin, or T.S. Eliot turn to the Bible without an explicitly religious agenda, using it as a source of aesthetic inspiration and motifs. Also in political contexts, subversive and heterodox readings of the Bible have provided strategies of legitimation for social movements of emancipation since the Enlightment, and continue to do so at the turn of the century when merging with Marxist and humanist ideologies, e.g. in the New French Catholicism. In culturally hybrid spaces like Latin America, syncretistic constructions of biblical narratives not only challenge the authority of Catholicism, but also undermine the dominance of Eurocentric visions of art and literature in general. Moreover, in theoretical terms, thinkers in literary theory eventually come to use the Bible as a model for developing new theories of criticism, of reading, of translation, or of narration. Nevertheless,  all those seemingly secularized works of art, political essays, and theoretical reflections are clearly indebted to certain forms of religious reading, thus challenging the very notion of secularization.

In our seminar, we are interested in discerning modernist writers’ different strategies of coming to terms with the foundational texts of Judeo-Christianity in a radically changing modern world. While drawing on the diverse forms and effects of biblical intertextuality, we simultaneously wish to reconsider our understanding of secularization itself. We therefore invite papers on modernist writers and/or theorists from all languages and cultures that are explicitly dealing with the Hebrew Bible and/or the New Testament.

If you are interested in participating, please email the seminar organizers. Paper abstracts must be submitted through the ACLA website: Paper submissions through the portal will close Sept. 23, 2015.


Jenny Haase (Stanford University),

Caroline Sauter (ZfL Berlin),

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A Physiognomic Epirdemiological Analysis of Marx (Jay Geller) (Syracuse)


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Enlightenment Universalism, [Islam] & Europe’s Embarrassment (Itamar Mann)


As people en masse drown at sea and dead bodies wash up on shore, as people suffocate to death in trucks along highways, was the discourse of universalism in Europe always in name only? Vouched for by two European Studies friends on FB, this must-read here by Itamar Mann on the current migration/refugee crisis explores the roiling legal, (bio) political, and ethical morass upon which the very demographic and moral identity of “Europe” might simultaneously stand and founder. For readers of Derrida, it puts the concept of “hospitality” to the test. In light of the magnitude of the distress and the unrolling catastrophes in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Libya, is it a test that Europe will not and cannot pass well?

The upshot of Mann’s analysis is this: “Perceived conditions of crisis — this one has been around for much more time than public perceptions acknowledge — have historically always tested this structure. At stake is a kind of existential dilemma: either treat people as humans and risk changing who you are (in terms of the composition of your population), or give up human rights and risk changing who you are (in terms of your constitutive commitments). At the beginning of September, European societies still seem to be faltering on this question. With unauthorized movement soon entering the low season of winter months, perhaps some of the embarrassment will be dispelled.”

My only critique of the piece would be the way in which its author, steeped in the values European enlightenment universalism now called into question, occludes and even ignores completely the way “Islam” is presented, perceived, and experienced as part of Europe’s inability or unwillingness to deal with this current human crisis. Based on principles of enlightenment universalism, Islam should of course not factor at all into the deliberation one way or the other. At issue is human life, pure and simple. But that’s just in theory. In actual practice, Europe has always had a “minority problem,” defined predominantly in racial terms. Ignoring the particularities of culture, religion, and identity and the failure to deal with those particularities, is part of that intractable dynamic which is just as much if not more a part of the European tradition as enlightenment universalism.

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Introduction to Judaism (2016)

intro to Judaism flyer

Just out of my introduction to Judaism, which I teach every fall semester. I tried something new this year after working through the what-is-Judaism-religion-or-culture exercise. I’m not sure why I ever did it this way. Maybe today I was just tired of listening to my own voice. I simply asked them what they expected and/or wanted from the class. They weren’t after doxa and norms. In their words, they want “depth,” “nuance,” “variation,” “interpretation,” and “independent thinking.”

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New York State Fair Landscape (Temple of Fantasy)



Underscoring the fantastical and commercial character of state fairs as a kind of heterotopia, you can see this old lithograph at the the History of the New York State Fair exhibit in the Grange, just behind the Dairy Products Building. In this image, the fairground represents a counter-real little place, a wonder nestled in the larger landscape dominated by hills in the distance and by Lake Onondoga. Note the figures grouped together in an intimate knot in the foreground. The image bears a strong resemblance to illustrations in which Bedouin or European travelers figures in the foreground overlooking exotic, pastoral oriental landscapes. Here, of course, the empty landscape a soft green marked not by desert ruins but by signs of industrial “progress.” The poster was printed in 1859 by Harvey E. Pease in the Temple of Fantasy, an Albany institution described here at its website as an “upscale ‘Five and Dime,’ where…families could purchase fancy goods, toys, household items, children’s books, and games.” The finely painted details add charm to the overall composition.

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Jewish Studies in Iran

jewish studies, qom

More from Larry Cohler-Esses’ trip to Iran: this article, which you can find here in the Forward, is about Jewish Studies at the University of Religions and Denominations in Qom. The approach to Jewish Studies at Qom is textual, focused as it is on rabbinic law, medieval philosophy, and mysticism.

I’m of two minds on this one.

On the one hand, I’m reading this story in relation to ongoing claims and concerns by colleagues here in the United States that Jewish Studies as an academic discipline is “too Jewish.” One could imagine that Jewish Studies in Iran will look like something else entirely, something out of the blue, like a geometric glazed brick Persian tile-work. It would be interesting to imagine and interesting to see what they “figure” out there.

On the other hand, it’s too early to get excited. The program appears middling at best. With a largely apologetic and religious approach, the research foci look a little like the ones pursued at the AJS circa 1975. Is it the case here that the more things change, the more they stay the same? I liked especially the nod to Martin Buber and H.A. Wolfson.

Either way, this is an interesting story and a welcome alternative to the Iran Deal drumbeat. I can’t think of a single colleague who would not have given an arm and a leg to sit at the table in the photograph above.

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