Lecture Series of the Interdisciplinary Centre for European Enlightenment Studies (IZEA) and the Seminar for Jewish Studies
Global Antisemitism and the Dialectic of the Enlightenment
In times of the Corona-Crisis, we can not say whether the series will even start in the summer semester. We will inform you as soon as possible.
When dealing with the breach of civilisation that the Shoa represents, we meet with a broad spectrum of responses that range from explaining the Shoa as a contingent historical reaction to the Enlightenment, to reading it as a logical consequence of the Enlightenment. The second interpretation implies that racism, irrationalism and anti-Semitic violence follow from western rationality.
Judging from the seemingly irreconcilable discrepancies alone between the two positions addressed above, it is clear that there can be no simple either/or. Endeavouring to identify the anti-Semitic essence en bloc in the inventories of the international Enlightenment, of German Idealism or Romanticism, represents a questionable undertaking. Authors as diverse as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Friedrich Schlegel, and even Hegel who tended towards a theologically explicitly anti-Judaistic argumentation, nonetheless supported the emancipation of Jews. Ambivalent positions, even severe tensions between the religious-theological and civic-cultural assessment of Judaism, exist side-by-side with the rigid contrast between a political desire of freedom and nationalist anti-Judaism in the works of Protestant – Romantic and non-Romantic – thinkers like Schleiermacher, Fichte und Jahn, but also of Catholics like Görres, Brentano and other members of the ‘Christlich-Deutsche Tischgesellschaft’ (Christian-German Coterie). An explanation for the persecution and genocide of Jews must be sought neither exclusively in a historicizing and, thus, relativizing stance towards contemporary history, nor in a determinism fed by the Enlightenment. Yet, how can we relate these two explanatory models so to produce new insights?
How can we overcome the commonplace that the western Enlightenment tradition is linked to the excessive violence in the twentieth century and, yet, remains an important instrument to fight such violence? Horkheimer and Adorno identified the limits of the Enlightenment primarily in that rationality came to be embodied by the reign of the economy. According to their Dialectic of the Enlightenment, the people’s legitimate expectations and hopes are encapsulated in anti-Semitism and made unattainable for everyone: e.g. to gain access to education, to be in global interaction with partners etc. Yet, did not the Enlightenment itself play a large part in stirring great hopes, which it nevertheless accepted as unfulfilled for a significant part of the people?
The Kantian Enlightenment, for instance, left crucial questions unanswered, e.g. the tension between universal, historically invariable morality and historically formed configurations of shaping the world in culture, religion and politics. Similarly, the programmatic balance between freedom and equality is incompatible with the contingency of the actual distribution of chances and goods. Then and now, we need to ask against a larger framework whether our societies enable people to make use of their freedoms within the limits of economic, social, and constitutional regularities. Instead of paying homage to the nimbus of the grand promises of the Enlightenment, it appears to be imperative to understand one of the crucial missions of the Enlightenment to consist in creating living conditions characterised by freedom, equality and fraternity for all people. One may smile at those globally connected anti-Semites when they ‘celebrate’ themselves in their writings – in the Turner Diaries or Breivik’s 1500-page manifesto or the internet forums of the Incels – as failed, white, western heterosexual men. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, one would need to see them as evidence for the increasing schism of the hopes legitimately linked with the Enlightenment project.
It belongs to the dialectic of the Enlightenment to acknowledge that a long tradition of marginalising the hopes at the root of this movement is part of the history of its reception and impact; and part of the equally long tradition that holds Jews accountable for the failed hopes of the Enlightenment thinkers. The lecture series seeks to ask how and why quite a number of Enlightenment thinkers accepted the separation of universal promises from their project of rationality? How could they fail to see the ambivalences of this all-encompassing project evident in the anti-Judaist rhetoric of the Enlightenment? How did Jewish authors, especially, interpret these ambivalences in the Enlightenment’s progress through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Which social formations do we need to keep Jewish people from being instrumentalised as projection screens for the unfulfilled hopes of the West?
In the field thus outlined, the lecture series aims to discuss fascinating and ambivalent themes or constellations in the Enlightenment and the history of its reception and impact. Possible topics could include, but are not limited to:
- With a focus on the eighteenth century: The (alleged) universalism of enlightened thought in relation to the (alleged) particularism of Judaism – here, it would be requisite to examine (e.g.) the impossibility to empirically display such intellectual claims and the historical inconsistencies of this characterisation;
- With a focus on the (early) nineteenth century: Judaism as driving force and obstacle of the constructs of Idealism and Romanticism in the history of religion – here, it would be vital to consider (e.g.) that the motif of progress evokes complementary problems for normativist and culturalist configurations in historical thinking;
- With a focus on the early twentieth century: The interpretation of anti-Semitism as a consequence of a ‘dialectic of the Enlightenment’, that is, of the transformation of enlightened reason into an instrumental rationality that tends to be all-determinative – here, it should be born in mind (e.g.) that the ‘Dialectic of the Enlightenment’ did not aim at the ‘revocation’ of the Enlightenment, but at its ‘rescue’;
- With a focus on the late twentieth century and the present: Anti-Semitism as an instrument of the hostility and resentments of the (perceived) losers of globalisation who insinuate (e.g.) a (global) Jewish conspiracy in finance capitalism – here, it would be essential to analyse (e.g.) that the global counter model called for in this context consists in a nationalist and identitarian thinking of the primacy of the respective country or culture.