The Wandering Signifier: Rhetoric of Jewishness in the Latin American Imaginary

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While Jews figure in the work of many modern Latin American writers, the questions of how and to what end they are represented have received remarkably little critical attention. Helping to correct this imbalance, Erin Graff Zivin traces the symbolic presence of Jews and Jewishness in late-nineteenth- through late-twentieth-century literary works from Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, and Nicaragua. Ultimately, Graff Zivin’s investigation of representations of Jewishness reveals a broader, more complex anxiety surrounding difference in modern Latin American culture.

In her readings of Spanish American and Brazilian fiction, Graff Zivin highlights inventions of Jewishness in which the concept is constructed as a rhetorical device. She argues that Jewishness functions as a wandering signifier that while not wholly empty, can be infused with meaning based on the demands of the textual project in question. Just as Jews in Latin America possess distinct histories relative to their European and North American counterparts, they also occupy different symbolic spaces in the cultural landscape. Graff Zivin suggests that in Latin American fiction, anxiety, desire, paranoia, attraction, and repulsion toward Jewishness are always either in tension with or representative of larger attitudes toward otherness, whether racial, sexual, religious, national, economic, or metaphysical. She concludes The Wandering Signifier with an inquiry into whether it is possible to ethically represent the other within the literary text, or whether the act of representation necessarily involves the objectification of the other.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Issues of difference have become central to debates about Latin American culture, making this book a valuable contribution to a corpus of literature about identity in the Americas.” - Gavin O’Toole, Latin American Review of Books

The Wandering Signifier makes an important and much-needed contribution to Latin American literary studies. The book develops a series of thematic explorations that have previously been understudied in this field, while also making a convincing argument as to the importance of Jewishness for Latin American literary and social history. Moreover, Graff Zivin’s readings are enlivened by her sophisticated grasp of difficult theoretical debates (Levinas and Derrida in particular). . . . [I]n The Wandering Signifier Graff Zivin has established a new and vital bridge between two fields that have avoided sustained consideration of their points in common for too long now.” - Patrick Dove, Shofar

The Wandering Signifier fills a void in the fields of Latin American and Jewish studies with an original, intelligent, and well-researched study of the problems of representing constructions of Jewish identity from a cultural, ideological, racial, and political perspective. . . . Thanks to her sophisticated analysis of the difficult problem of representation of alterity in Latin American literature and her novel perspective on the uses of the concepts of ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewishness’ in this body of literature, The Wandering Signifier makes an important contribution to Jewish and Latin American Studies scholarship and to the field of cultural studies in general.” - Ariana Huberman, Hispanic Review

“In this original and profound study, Graff Zivin raises deep philosophical and methodological concerns. . . . It is here, in the third section that concludes the book, where the importance of Graff Zivin’s work lies, raising the discussion of Jewishness to a completely new level.” - Amalia Ran, EIAL

“As a comprehensive analysis of the rhetoric of Jewishness, with emphasis on literary theory, The Wandering Signifier should be of interest to students of Latin American, Cultural and Jewish Studies.” - Nora Glickman, Bulletin of Latin American Research

The Wandering Signifier is a superb cross-national literary study that touches on questions of diaspora, ethnic relations, and memory. It is accessible to a broad public interested in fields including Latin American studies, cultural studies, and Jewish studies. Erin Graff Zivin moves subtly between the work of Zygmunt Bauman, Jorge Luis Borges, Margo Glantz, and Ricardo Piglia (among many others) to examine the sociopolitical implications of the many symbolic constructions of Jewishness in Latin American literature. The imaginative scholarship, narrative excellence, and wide-ranging insights make this work required reading for students in multiple fields.”—Jeffrey Lesser, author of A Discontented Diaspora: Japanese Brazilians and the Meanings of Ethnic Militancy, 1960–1980, and coeditor of Rethinking Jewish-Latin Americans

“Erin Graff Zivin’s book proposes a sophisticated reflection on notions of national belonging, scenes of cultural crisis, and the ethical import of constructing the ‘Jew-as-Other’ in critical moments of Latin American history. Indeed, this is the first study to address the powerful symbolic presence of Jews in Latin America and the first to consider the ways in which the literary representations of Jewishness enter into productive discussions of citizenship, identity, and ultimately salutary alterity. I am willing to predict that The Wandering Signifier will very soon be considered an indispensable book.”—Sylvia Molloy, Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities, New York University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822343677
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Erin Graff Zivin is Assistant Professor of Hispanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the editor of The Ethics of Latin American Criticism: Reading Otherwise.

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Read an Excerpt

The Wandering Signifier

By Erin Graff Zivin


Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4367-7

Chapter One

Diagnosing "Jewishness"

During the latter part of the nineteenth century, the dominant Western epistemology of positivism, with its corresponding subtheories of race, degeneracy, eugenics, and hygiene, infiltrated the political and cultural landscape of newly independent Latin American nations. Across the region, letrados-politicians, doctors, intellectuals, religious leaders, and artists-began to appropriate these predominantly European concepts of corporality, relying on the belief in science as a principle resource in the constitution of collective subjectivities and national identities. Although principally found in the sectors of politics, religion, and science (sectors whose main objectives included the domestication or regeneration of the masses), the obsession with disease and health made its way into the aesthetic realm as well. Writers and other artists responded to the language of positivism, adopting and occasionally subverting the impulse to control the other through an aestheticization of scientific rhetoric. This phenomenon has been detailed by the Argentine literary and cultural critic Gabriela Nouzeilles, who, by investigating the "pact of meaning between literature, nationalism, and medical knowledge," has highlighted the process of fiction making inherent in both political and literary discourses at the end of the nineteenth century, underscoring the affiliation of the ideological and the cultural in the fashioning of national subjects through the rhetoric of science.

Yet while the primary function of medical discourse has been to separate the "well" from the "sick," establishing, following Nouzeilles's argument, a boundary between the "healthy self" and the "infirmed other," there remains an implicit tension between these fields, a constant threat of the invasion of the dominion of the same by the contaminating force of the other. It is be cause of this intrinsic ambiguity in pathological discourse that the notion of "Jewishness" becomes a useful motif through which anxiety surrounding identity and alterity is articulated. The idea of "Jewishness" appears embedded in narratives of disease and medicine because of its status as wandering signifier, its ability to unsettle and seduce both writer and reader, simultaneously reifying and exploding the categories so vehemently fought for not only at the end of the nineteenth century but throughout the twentieth century as well.

By unpacking literary scenes in which the rhetorical "Jew" appears in diverse and often contradictory roles, never fully free of the diagnostic gaze, I address the following questions: in what way is the diseased "Jewish" body inscribed with larger social and aesthetic concerns? Why is the conjugation of "Jew" and "disease" present not only in nineteenth-century narratives of pathology but also in those of the twentieth century, well after positivism had lost its status as the dominant paradigm? In what way does the analysis of these scenes of "pathological Jewishness" help clarify the double bind of alterity proper to Latin American constructions of identity?

In order to expand the limiting conceptual framework of the dichotomous relationship between same and other, one must move beyond the figure of the "sick Jew" by considering the entire scene within which "disease" and "Jewishness" are juxtaposed. The idea of the diagnosis allows one to shift concern with the diseased body to the broader context within which subject and discourse are married. The diagnosis, as a discursive act whereby sickness is invented and defined, is the means by which knowledge is organized. In a Foucauldian analysis of fin-de-siècle diagnostic texts, Sylvia Molloy sustains that "el diagnóstico se vuelve ... modo privilegiado de organizar el saber (represivo) del estado, la patología se convierte en 'forma general de regulación de (una sociedad)' que adjudica al diagnosticador incontrovertida autoridad" (the diagnosis becomes ... a privileged way of organizing the [repressive] knowledge of the state, pathology turns into "the general form of regulating [society]" which attributes unquestionable authority to the diagnostician) (1996a, 174-75). Each scene of "pathological Jewishness" grants authority-whether aesthetic, social, narrative, or ideological-to the diagnosing subject, regardless of whether the object of diagnosis is doctor or patient, self or other. The diagnosed figure serves as a body upon which the values and preoccupations of the writer and the culture can be inscribed, as well as the means by which the diagnosing subject constructs his or her own discursive authority.

Three distinct but interrelated diagnoses of "Jewishness" are at play: as the nation's contaminating other; as the Jewish doctor; and as the pathological (writing) self. "Jewishness" does not remain restricted to one side of the dichotomy sickness-medicine, but rather straddles and questions this very divide. The act of assuming diverse positions within scenes of diagnosis appears as a fluid, often paradoxical activity: the "Jew" can appear as doctor or patient, self or other, even though "Jewishness" is always the object of diagnosis. Jorge Isaacs's María (Colombia, 1867) and Julián Martel's La bolsa (Argentina, 1891) exemplify the exclusionary politics of medical discourse by identifying a contaminating body that threatens the integrity of the nation. In Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill's Vivir afuera (Argentina, 1998), Rubén Darío's Los raros (Argentina, 1896), José Ingenieros's Al margen de la ciencia (Argentina, 1908), and José Asunción Silva's De sobremesa (Colombia, 1925), medical authorities-Max Nordau being the most fascinating example-also become fruitful objects of the diagnostic gaze. And the protagonists of Luisa Futoransky's De pe a pa (Spain, 1986) and Margo Glantz's "Zapatos" (Mexico, 1991) attempt a sort of "self-diagnosis," rendering the space of illness and deformity aesthetically productive. When unpacked, these rich textual scenes reveal the function of pathologized or medicalized "Jewishness" in a Latin American context-that is, what specific modes of anxiety surrounding otherness are at work within broader projects of imagining community.


All aspects of the Jew, whether real or invented, are the locus of difference.-Sander Gilman, The Jew's Body

Every characterization of the "Jew" within the European imaginary highlights his otherness, claims the literary and cultural historian Sander Gilman, specifying that in the nineteenth century representations of "Jewishness" become intertwined with pathological discourse popular not only within scientific circles but throughout society: "The very analysis of the nature of the Jewish body, in the broader culture or within the culture of medicine, has always been linked to establishing the difference (and dangerousness) of the Jew.... In the nineteenth century [this analysis] is more strongly linked to the idea that some 'races' are inherently weaker, 'degenerate,' more at risk for certain types of disease than others" (1991, 39). As Latin American intellectuals produced their own positivist discourse during the second half of the nineteenth century, appropriating the connection between race and degeneration, representations of the Jewish body became entangled in broader attempts to imagine modern national and individual identities.

Jorge Isaacs's María (1867) and Julián Martel's La bolsa (1891) employ such literary politics of diagnosis, constructing "Jewishness" as pathologically other. In both novels, however, it is the impossibility of diagnosis-or the ambiguity of the other's disease-that is problematic within the context of national consolidation. Though the novels were published only twenty-four years apart, the economic, racial, and national landscapes from which each text emerges are quite distinct. While Isaacs's María conveys a Colombia (and an Isaacs, for that matter) in a crisis of identity, due in part to the recent abolition of slavery, Martel's La bolsa depicts a turn-of-the-century Argentina in the midst of a wave of European immigration that threatens the notion of national purity. Despite the fundamental differences between the two projects-Isaacs, himself the son of a Jewish convert to Christianity, expresses a deep ambivalence toward racial alterity, while Martel, at least on the surface, reproduces explicitly anti-Semitic clichés found in nineteenth-century European discourse-both writers employ the trope of contamination in order to articulate the place of the other within the evolving social landscape of the nation.

Described by the English and Latin American literary scholar David Musselwhite as "landowner, soldier, politician, editor, shopkeeper, litigant, bankrupt, explorer, prospector and, of course, writer" (2006, 42), Jorge Isaacs lived through and, to a certain degree, embodied the political turmoil of his generation in Colombia. The conflict between the Centralists and the Federalists as well as between the newly formed Liberal and Conservative Parties (in addition to the violent aftershock of slavery and the racial tensions that characterize the post-abolition period) did not, however, figure into the center of the Isaacs's romantic novel. While many critics have underscored what is "lost" or absent from the novel, it is worth noting the way in which that which is absent is strikingly present, that is, exclusions are also at the same time inclusions, both on the level of form and content. The death that stands at the center of the novel thus serves as a reinforcement of that which cannot be part of the familial or national system, but which nevertheless cannot be symbolically eliminated.

Jorge Isaacs's lacrimogenous novel opens with a premonition. As Efraín, the semiautobiographical protagonist and narrator, prepares to leave the family plantation in order to study medicine in Bogotá, everyone, it seems, is in tears. His father, mother, sister, and cousin María-after whom the tragic novel is named-are all distraught by his parting, and Efraín cries himself to sleep the night before his departure. Efraín confides to the reader that the sadness shared by the family that night had seemed to him a kind of foreshadowing of the suffering that was to come. Indeed, María's readers should be prepared to mourn as well as enjoy the difficult events that follow. As terrible as it will be to witness María's mysterious illness and subsequent death, in addition to the sad fate of the tragic lovers, Efraín and María (who will never consummate their relationship), the highly sentimentalized plot-still popular among teenage girls and other lachrymose readers-produces plea sure in the readerly subject by establishing an economy of difference while preserving the ideal of romantic love. Isaacs draws on anxiety surrounding disease in order to create a family drama in which only the most assimilated members of the half-Jewish family thrive, allegorizing the impossibility of national consolidation in post-abolition Colombia.

While Efraín is portrayed as healthy, his father and cousin María, both of whom have converted from Judaism to Christianity, are stricken with unknown illnesses. María's body, the object of desire of Efraín and, indirectly, of the reader, is not characterized as repugnant (this is in contrast to the undesirable pathological "Jewishness" of Mackser in Martel's La bolsa, Saúl in Fogwill's Vivir afuera, Emma in Borges's "Emma Zunz," and Laura in Futoransky's De pe a pa). Rather, María is doubly marked as pure Christian and exotic Jewess. That her "Jewishness" is a source of attraction is not without precedent. Tamar Garb has noted the dissonant attitudes toward Jewish masculinity and femininity in the European cultural imaginary: "The physicality of the male Jew is generally an object of scorn and repulsion. Not so the image of the Jewess. If anything the sexualization of the female Jew involves an idealization that confers upon her an exotic otherness, a sensuality, and beauty, which make her an object of erotic fascination and protect her from some of the more virulent and overt animosity suffered by her male coreligionists" (1995, 26). This conflicting attitude toward Jewish physicality explains, in part, the exoticism with which María is regarded, the Orientalist gaze noted by Sylvia Molloy in her reflections on the construction of Isaacs's heroine (1984, 46). When Efraín's love interest is first introduced to the reader, she is characterized as unmistakably other: "Pude admirar en [sus ojos] la brillantez y hermosura de los de las mujeres de su raza" (I admired in [her eyes] the brightness and beauty of the women of her race) (Isaacs 1978, 5). That the brilliance of her eyes and general desirability is linked to "her race" reveals not only the exoticism with which she is depicted but also that the articulation of her "Jewishness" depends on a racialized conception of identity. As a social invention of a biological category, ideas of race in the late nineteenth century are commonly linked to disease and degeneration: this is certainly not exclusive to Isaacs's text. What is interesting about María is the way in which anxiety surrounding racial difference is ambivalently played out through the family unit, a microcosm of the nation.

While María's body is represented as exotically other, she is simultaneously associated with a "Christian" innocence. Early in the novel, Efraín describes the dual quality of his attractive cousin: "Su paso ligero y digno revelaba todo el orgullo, no abatido, de nuestra raza, y el seductivo recato de la virgen cristiana" (Her light and dignified step revealed the undefeated pride of our race and the seductive modesty of the Christian virgin) (8). His narration reveals a contradiction: María is both proud as a Jew and modest like the Christian virgin after whom she is named. Moreover, the possessive "our" in reference to María's "race" represents a slippage from his earlier reference to "her race"; just as María's identity is marked as hybrid, so, too, does Efraín's religious affiliation appear as heterogeneous and conflicted.

Yet, while María's "Jewishness" is not explicitly deemed negative by the narrator, it is unquestionably tied to her mysterious illness, which ultimately keeps her from fully assimilating into the family. It is suggested that María has inherited this disease from her Jewish mother, Sara, who had died many years before, leading to the adoption and subsequent conversion of María, originally named Ester. Although this theory is later contested-María's team of doctors fails to agree on a diagnosis-a connection is irreversibly established between María's racial makeup and her mother's. (Sara, in turn, represents that which refuses to be converted; indeed, had she survived, she would not have allowed her daughter's baptism to take place). María's poor health is further associated with "Jewishness" in that it is described as a "nervous condition," recalling the dominant discourse that links hysteria to both women and Jews (Gilman 1985).

Only the fully assimilated, medically trained protagonist Efraín offers the potential for renewal within a post-abolition social order, where traditional divisions between black and white prove antiquated. Despite the fact that he is the son of a converted Jew, and even admits to this when he refers to "our race," he is ultimately more malleable than his cousin. María, by contrast, dies of her unidentifiable ailment, foreclosing any possibility of romantic consummation and national consolidation. María's defective genes (read: "Jewishness") have no place in the new Colombia.


Excerpted from The Wandering Signifier by Erin Graff Zivin Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction "Jewishness," Alterity, and the Ethics of Representation....................29
One Diagnosing "Jewishness"....................74
Two The Scene of the Transaction....................119
Three Textual Conversions....................154
Four The Limits of Representation....................179
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