Perish the Thought
by Bruno Chaouat
Liverpool University Press, 288 pp., $120
Bruno Chaouat’s mordantly titled book on how postmodern theorists have responded to the upsurge in European anti-Semitism over the last two decades makes for dispiriting reading. Is Theory Good for the Jews? reviews the ways in which fashionable intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic have not only failed to grapple coherently with ramifying hatred and violence in their societies, but have often joined the anti-Semitic chorus, especially when Israel is the target. The book’s pathos derives not only from Chaouat’s detailed and morally cogent analyses of a rogues’ gallery of contemporary academicians. It also reflects the admirable honesty with which Chaouat, a professor of French at the University of Minnesota who describes himself as “an unrepentant Theory addict,” asks whether a life devoted to “Theory” may have been a mistake. In the book’s preface he quotes Proust’s famous anticlimax in which the protagonist of Swann in Love muses: “To think that I’ve wasted years of my life, that I’ve longed to die, that I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type.” Chaouat dares to ask whether, given the moral autism of so many of Theory’s luminaries when confronting the basic political questions of our time, his own romance with it has been a similar waste.
Let us not leave these questions hanging, as Chaouat mournfully does. The answer to the book’s title is straightforward: No, Theory is not good for the Jews (or, for that matter, anyone who cares about intellectual and moral clarity). And, yes, there are probably better ways to spend one’s life than marinating in postmodernism’s silly conceits and tin-eared jargon. And yet, if Chaouat hesitates to draw such un-ambiguous conclusions he has nevertheless performed a service here by chronicling a range of Theory’s recent intellectual and moral failures and how they continue to revolve around Jews, the Holocaust, and the State of Israel. This is worth knowing about since, to adapt Trotsky’s warning, Jews may not be interested in Theory, but Theory is very interested in Jews.
For those who have not spent time in a university humanities department since the 1980s, Theory—also commonly referred to as French theory, postmodern theory, or critical theory—is, as Chaouat puts it, a set of “theoretical discourses permeated by the legacy of Nietzsche and Heidegger,” which includes “deconstruction, as well as structuralism, post-structuralism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis,” in addition to postcolonial theory and more or less distant cousins such as the neo-Marxist writings of the Frankfurt School thinkers. Its totems include Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, who have been at least as influential in the American academy as in France or Europe more generally. Theory’s frequent markers are a radical skepticism about the existence of truth and stable meaning in human communication; a conviction that the civilization of the West and the institutions of liberal modernity are not to be significantly distinguished from totalitarian barbarism; a fascination with the supposedly liberatory powers of violence, degradation, and sexual extremity; and a famously obscure manner of expression.