Argument! Was nun? What Now?
Replies to the “Open Letter: Antisemitism! What to do?”
For a differentiated debate on Antisemitic arguments in post- and decolonial theory!
In an open letter from 5 April 2012, Eduard Freudmann accuses us, the translators of the book “Epistemic Disobedience” by Walter D. Mignolo (published by Turia + Kant, Vienna 2012, http://www.turia.at/titel/mignolo.html), of “actively concealing and trivializing” Antisemitism. The accusation of Antisemitism is not supported by
a single argument, but solely Mignolo’s text “Dispensable and Bare Lives” (which does not appear in the book) is cited as self-evident “proof” of the author’s allegedly Antisemitic stance. Purportedly not mentioning or merely “footnoting” this alleged stance is what we are accused of.
We decidedly reject this accusation. First of all, because we did not conceal anything, and secondly because we are indeed very interested in a debate about Antisemitism in post- and decolonial theory, we will briefly state our position in the following – despite the self-glorifying and arrogant tone of the “open letter” in our view.
We decided to translate a book by Walter D. Mignolo in the series “es kommt darauf an. Texte zur Theorie der politischen Praxis (“it all depends. Texts on the Theory of Political Practice”), because we find many of his ideas and suggestions on the necessity of thematizing the social, political and epistemic consequences of European colonialism good and important. However, we did not and do not agree with all of Mignolo’s theses. Some of his modes of argumentation are quite ambivalent (and deserving of criticism in this ambivalence): for instance, jettisoning Marxism as belonging to “occidental thinking”, while at the same time referring positively to the anti-colonial Marxists Carlos Mariátegui and Frantz Fanon; or the various simplifications and homogenizations in the historical review of five hundred years of colonial practices; or indeed an understanding of the emergence of the state of Israel that includes Antisemitic traits. In “Epistemic Disobedience” this only appears in a footnote and outside the realm of other argumentation.
In the book that we translated, we did not conceal this one sentence, where one can speak of an Antisemitic mode of argumentation, but rather commented on it. This is found in a footnote (64) in a place that actually involves the rise of modern epistemology. There Mignolo writes (p. 113):The reason why Judaism did not become hegemonic instead of Christianity is a different story that must be linked with the consolidation of a Jewish state after 1948, and with the role that Jews assume in complicity with the current power structure (e.g. in Russia as well as in the US; cf. Amy Chua, The World in Fire. How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. New York: Double Day 2003).
Consequently, we reacted to this in our introduction (Footnote 25, p. 26) as follows:
This occasional lack of detail is also expressed in some casual remarks that tend to weaken, rather than strengthen the argumentation. Such as […] when Mignolo states in passing in his discussion of the various concepts of Modernity that is has to do with the history of the “consolidation of the Jewish state” (1948!) that Christianity became hegemonic in Modernity, rather Judaism.
Astonishingly, in the same footnote – about the philosophy of the Enlightenment – Mignolo makes the “role that Jews assume in complicity with the current power structure” co-responsible for this stated hegemony. In the present book Mignolo repeatedly thematizes the role of Jews as being oppressed and excluded within Europe and within European thinking, yet in this passage he remains uncomprehending of the Holocaust as impetus and founding motivation for the state of Israel. The allusion to a “complicity” of Jews with the “current power structure” makes use, most of all, of other Antisemitic cliches.
As mentioned, the text “Dispensable and Bare Lives. Coloniality and the Hidden Political/Economic Agenda of Modernity” (2009) does not appear in “Epistemic Disobedience”. Since Eduard Freudmann grants more space in his “open letter” to his own self-representation than to the subject matter, we would like to take up the engagement with the text he cites here. Even in light of this essay, the accusations are by no means so self-evidently justified as Freudmann imputes.
In “Epistemic Disobedience” Mignolo himself describes the rise of Antisemitism in the context of an inner colonialization of Europe, the dominant enforcement of certain ways of living and thinking over others. Jews are named here as the excluded and oppressed, whose exclusion, according to Mignolo, partly anticipated the oppression of the colonized on other continents. Similar arguments are found in Mignolo’s text “Dispensable and Bare Lives” (http://scholarworks.umb.edu/humanarchitecture/vol7/iss2/7/). This text deals with the replacement of Christianity as the central formation of racified exclusion through the emergence of capitalism. Here Mignolo writes, in allusion to Aimé Cesaire, among others, – and in accord with other anticolonialists such as Frantz Fanon – that the Holocaust cannot be explained solely from inner-European history, but is rather to be grasped in the context of European colonialism:
Not only that it cannot be explained through the history of Europe but […], on the contrary, the Holocaust “reflected” on Europe itself what European merchants, monarchs, philosophers and officers of State did in the colonies. (p. 77)
Grasping the Shoah as a “reflection” of colonialism certainly does not do justice to the specific logic of European and especially German Antisemitism – this is without question in our view. However, Mignolo does not intend here to subordinate Antisemitism to colonialism as being “less terrible”. Instead, his point is to relate different conditions of domination and forms of oppression to one another.
My understanding of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust comes from my understanding of the racial matrix of the modern/colonial world. More specifically, it comes from my understanding of dispensable lives in a capitalist market-driven economy [...], coupled with the legal/political dispensability brought about by the formation of the modern nation-state in Europe. The first is the case of enslaved Africans, the second of the murdered Jews in the Holocaust. (p. 74)
Up to this point, Mignolo follows the same line of argumentation as authors such as Hannah Arendt, Giorgio Agamben and Zygmunt Bauman, who have sought to grasp Antisemitism in the context of emerging Modernity and also use the terms “dispensable” and/or “bare” life. At the end of the text, however, Mignolo deviates from the line of argumentation of these authors. Here the Shoah suddenly does not matter, when Mignolo quotes Mark Ellis in agreement, when he states, “(t)he major consequence of the complicity between secular Jews and Euro-American economic and political practice ended up in the construction of the State of Israel [...]” (p. 87) – a clearly Antisemitic mode of argumentation, as the significance of the Shoah for the founding of the state of Israel is completely unrecognized, also making use of conspiracy-theory East Coast fantasies. In our view, however, this mode of argumentation by no means permeates the entire text and even contradicts other theses proposed in it. These kinds of arguments can and must be criticized and attacked, in our opinion, but other aspects in a text like this can nevertheless be taken up and discussed.
Karl Marx writes in “On the Jewish Question” (1843):
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money. Very well then! Emancipation from huckstering and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our time. […] In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.
These are unequivocally Antisemitic cliches that are used here, even if initially descriptively intended. Is it therefore necessary to mention the Antisemitism of this passage with every reference to Marx? Is every reference to Marx impossible, because this passage exists? Hardly.
There is a crucial difference between a false reason for the emergence of the Shoah and/or for the emergence of the state of Israel – considering that Mignolo gives it in the context of siding with Jews – and hatred of Jews and/or denial of the Shoah. Distinctions of this kind, which should be made, in our opinion, in dealing with authors, are flattened by Eduard Freudmann, when he speaks of the “theory production of Antisemites” in reference to Mignolo.
A critique that claims to reveal and attack Antisemitism in the post- and decolonial debate, however, must take the trouble to perceive and thematize these kinds of differences, rather than making blanket denunciations.
Recognizing and discussing ambivalences and naming differences is, in our opinion, far removed from integrating oneself into the history of “trivializing or ignoring Antisemitism” (Freudmann). With the rhetorical question of whether we had considered which “local concepts and figures” we would tie into with the “policy of actively concealing and trivializing”, Freudmann loses his grasp on the ability to differentiate and with it the historical and political dimension completely.
Just as we emphasize that we have not participated in policies of “actively concealing and trivializing”, we vehemently reject the malicious imputation transported with this question that we would in any way find ourselves in the proximity of the politics of history and remembrance practices of the so-called Freedom Party and other right-wing extremists in Austria and Germany!
Since Walter D. Mignolo was invited to hold three lectures in Vienna in October 2010 (at the Academy of Fine Arts, at the Kreisky Forum and at the Academy of Sciences), and not even the mildest criticism of him in the direction of Antisemitism was formulated at any of these events, finally we would like to express our astonishment at the vehemence of the accusations against us.
With the first translation of a book by Walter D. Mignolo into German, now a broader German-speaking readership at least has the possibility to examine the accusations in detail themselves. We can only welcome a debate about Antisemitic arguments within post- and decolonial theory, in order to ultimately – naturally – fight Antisemitism. For this, however, arguments are needed, rather than self-aggrandizing pompousness.
Jens Kastner and Tom Waibel
Vienna, April 2012