Jews and the Ends of Theory

Jews and Marxism; Jews and the avant-garde; Jews and modernism; Jews and the nation; Jews and “abstraction”: the linkage between Jews and critical theory lurks, under various rubrics, in the history of Europe’s world, in the collapse of that world in the near-century following World War I, and in the fleeting transfer of world dominance to the United States. But what are the relationships between Jews and theory now? What role has Jewishness played in our conception of theory? How has the figure of the Jew (in his Jewishness) shaped Euro- or Americentric theory’s discourses on colonialism? And how do we think (implicitly or explicitly) or, more prescriptively, how should we think and talk about Jews, Jewishness and theory when the promises of European modernity lie in wreckage around us as around its former colonies, when US cultural dominance appears on the wane, still what will replace these is not yet clearly on the horizon?

This conference will broadly explore a series of questions about the relationship between Jews, Jewishness and theory now.   (While this following list well expresses the concerns of the organizers at the outset, the final shape of the conference will be substantially determined by three brief “keynote” papers, each by a prominent senior scholar, each setting the agenda for one day of the conference’s deliberations.)

First: what role does the figure of ‘the Jew’ (or ‘Jews’) and his or her Jewishness play in contemporary theory? For at least a century and a half (a not entirely arbitrary starting point is Marx’s “Essay on the Jewish Question”) such figures and their religious confessions occupied a privileged place in theory. Is there any sense in continuing to privilege such figures, such confession? If so, what work would they do? We would like to consider these questions in light of “the resistance to theory” within and around the disciplines that variously serve as homes for scholars in the academic field known as “Jewish Studies.” What are the possible and actual relations between theory and “Jewish Studies”?  How has the theoretical figure of 'the Jew' shaped the encounter, both real and figurative, between Jews and Arabs in general, and between Jews and Palestinians in particular?

Second: since the late 19th century, Jewish intellectuals have been disproportionately represented in the discourse of European and American theory—Freud, Jakobson, Scholem, Benjamin, Adorno, Lévi-Strauss, Arendt, Lukacs, Derrida, Levinas, and Chomsky, to name a few. The cohort that has succeeded them appears to be more ethnically diverse. How might we understand the figure of “the Jewish intellectual” in the aftermath of these giants?

Third: how does the notion of the “end of theory” (related, to varying degrees, to discourse on “the end of politics” or even “the end of history”) play into these questions? How, if in any significant way at all, is it related to the changing or disappearing figure of the Jewish intellectual, or of Jewishness in theory? Is it worthwhile to think the notion of end “Jewishly,” as a reflection about Jews in theory?

And finally a set of reflexive considerations to inform all of the foregoing:  How is the linguistic turn of 20th century theory related to its Jewishness? What might we learn from this relation about the sources of outrage against the language of theory itself? What language (if any) is suitable, then, for such a set of inquiries?



Seyla Benhabib

Yale University

Martin Land

Hadassah College, Jerusalem

Svetlana Boym

Harvard University

Yitzhak Melamed

Johns Hopkins University

Konstanty Gebert


Hannan Hever

Hebrew University

Jay Geller

Vanderbilt University

Martin Jay

Berkeley University

Jim Porter


Sarah Hammerschlag


Sergey Dolgopolski

SUNY Buffalo

Haviva Pedaya

Ben Gurion

Elliot Wolfson


Andrew Bush


Erin Carlston

University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill

Gregory Flaxman

University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill

Jonathan Freeman

University of Michigan
Jews and the Ends of Theory
Tue, 04/30/2013 to Wed, 05/01/2013
Duke University & UNC-Chapel Hill

The Jews and the Ends of Theory Conference is grateful to the following sponsors for their support: Duke Center for Jewish Studies, Carolina Center for Jewish Studies, The UNC Kaplan Chair, John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke Dean of Humanities, The Institute for Arts and the Humanities at UNC, Department of Religious Studies at UNC, Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke