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Racial Fever (long description)

Racial Fever proposes that Sigmund Freud developed a compelling theory of Jewishness: what it is, how it is transmitted, and how it continues to survive. While his final book, Moses and Monotheism (1939), has often been regarded as an autobiographical curiosity, I consider it as a serious work which is both persuasive and problematic. Rather than being an aberration, Freud’s Moses emerges as the culmination of a lifetime of work investigating the relationships between memory and its rivals: history, heredity and fantasy. According to Freud, Moses was not an Israelite but rather an Egyptian follower of Akhenaten’s monotheistic sun-god cult. Moses (not God) chose a rowdy band of Semites upon whom he imposed an abstract and intellectual monotheism. Finding the religion too difficult, the Semites killed Moses and repressed the memory. Ultimately, Freud argues that the traces of these events and the Mosaic tradition itself have been biologically transmitted from one generation to the next. For this reason, I consider his theory of Jewishness as a racial theory of memory. 

Racial Fever responds to the extensive intellectual debates about the nature of memory and forgetting and the widespread obsession with heredity, genealogy and genetics. For Freud, Jewishness is a matter both of genealogical bodily inheritance and of immaterial memory and its material representations. In the case of the Jewish people, he suggests that regardless of any attempts to repress, suppress or repudiate Jewishness, Jews will remain Jewish and Judaism will survive, for better and for worse. This is one symptom of what I am calling racial fever: the irrepressible desire of individuals and communities to define themselves and others through genealogy, to discover (and sometimes invent) ancestral memories that can somehow explain the tensions and compulsions of the present, and to reconstruct and return to these narratives as if they were indisputable history and palpable facts “on the ground.” Racial fever is felt in and on the body, even as it is invisible, undefinable and ultimately indecipherable. Sometimes it seems to take the form of a sickness; at other times it is a fervor, an intense craving, or a zealous enthusiasm. Now and then, it seems to lie dormant, biding its time.

This book considers Freud’s theorization of the inheritance of memory in the context of other theories of race, evolution and heredity and in terms of his broader theorization of transference and telepathy. Where Sander Gilman contextualizes the racial aspects of Freud's work in terms of anti-semitism, I am more interested in how these elements are central to understanding some of the most beguiling and provocative notions in psychoanalytic theory: the uncanny strangeness internal to oneself and one's own “culture” and the ways in which (immaterial) memories and ideas seem to materially penetrate bodies, not only of individuals who have themselves gone through traumatic experiences, but of everyone around them. This is not to detract from the particularity of such experience, but to explore the uncomfortable ways in which identity and the past are transmitted through uncanny and unconscious means even as they are experienced as concrete and material realities. In this sense then, my primary interlocutors are Eric Santner (German literature/Philosophy), Jan Assmann (Egyptology/History), Ilse Grubrich-Simitis (Psychoanalysis), Jacques Derrida (Philosophy, Etc.), and most particularly, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (Jewish History). 

Racial Fever will appeal to students and scholars of literature, European history, religious studies, Jewish Studies, and the history of science. It is also deeply engaged with discussions in the interdisciplinary studies of race and ethnicity, the social study of science, and of course, psychoanalysis. In addition to academic audiences, the book will be of interest to a number of general audiences interested in the following questions: What makes a person Jewish? Does genealogy alone define who is a Jew, or can a familiarity with Jewish texts and traditions somehow make a person Jewish? Why do certain people feel that they have inherited a distant past within their bodies? How is such experience related to definitions of race and culture? How are racial, religious, cultural and scientific definitions of human groups related to one another? 


Freud’s theory of Jewishness is problematic: it is vexing in its similarities with racial theories which seem to limit the horizon of the individual, and it is potentially illuminating in its affinity with theories of memory which emphasize the creative relationship of the individual to her past. On the surface, it is comparable to any number of theories of the nineteenth and early twentieth century which combined the realms of heredity and memory for diverse reasons and with varied effects. Freud’s notion of “inherited memory” is made more shocking by the fact that the memories which are supposedly inherited are traces of a bizarre, complicated and violent series of events. The weight and the challenge of his theory of Jewishness resides in his insistence that a) these events really occurred, as far as any “history” really occurs, and b) that we literally and biologically inherit the traces of these experiences. Throughout the book, I explore these two aspects of Freud’s theory of Jewishness. What emerges is a narrative which uses Freud’s final book as a point of departure in order to explore questions posed by the history and theories of psychoanalysis. 

In the first chapter, “Moses and the Foundations of Psychoanalysis,” I explore why Freud felt the need to insist on the historical reality of his narrative of Moses the Egyptian. Though he was clearly anxious about publishing Moses and Monotheism because of the political and personal situation in which he wrote it, his particular anxiety about establishing its status as history can be traced to two significant episodes in the history of psychoanalysis: first, his initial establishment of psychoanalysis as a theory and practice in the 1890s, and second, his re-assessment of his theory in the wake of his relationship with Carl Gustav Jung between 1907 and 1914. In this final book, as in these earlier episodes, Freud’s attempts to establish psychoanalysis as a hybrid kind of science—both historical and universal, both medical and theoretical—forced him to acknowledge the inexplicable remnants of analysis and the gaps in the foundations of his theory. 

Rather than simply tracing his patients’ problems to their “degenerate” family lines, in the 1890s Freud turned to their memories of childhood experiences in order to reconstruct the origins of their illnesses. However, in order to prove that they suffered from “reminiscences,” he had to demonstrate that they were not dishonest degenerates and that their narratives could be trusted as truthful accounts of their childhoods. Though Freud initially resisted the idea that his patients’ memories extended further back than their childhoods, in conversations with Jung in 1907-1914, he eventually incorporated the idea that psychical dispositions were the result of ancestral experiences. Throughout this chapter, Moses emerges as a case history, of both Freud and Moses, but also of their creations, psychoanalysis and Jewish monotheism. The Jungian criticism of Freud’s insistence on the reality of primal memories and sexuality is compared to the Pauline criticism of the Rabbinic preoccupation with sexuality and literality. By acknowledging that neither psychoanalysis nor Judaism would ever extend a universal reach, Freud suggests that such particularity may paradoxically be the most critical strength distinguishing them both from their “opposites”—Judaism from Christianity, and psychoanalysis from Jungian psychotherapy.

Freud’s insistence on the “historical truth” of his version of the Moses story may seem strange, but his insistence on the idea that the memory of these events had been inherited by the Jewish people has been regarded as even more problematic, particularly in light of later developments in the scientific theorization of evolution and heredity. In the second and third chapters, I move from questions of history and epistemology to debates about the relationships between science and society. Since Freud’s interest in inherited memory seems similar to the outmoded “Lamarckian” idea that acquired characteristics can be inherited, many scholars have speculated as to why he continued to insist on such “pseudoscience” in the 1930s, when it seemed that he should have known better. Rather than seeing the question of Freud’s Lamarckism in purely scientific terms, in the second chapter, “Freud’s ‘Lamarckism’ and the Politics of Racial Science,” I show that Freud became uneasy about insisting on the inheritance of acquired characters not because it was scientifically outmoded but because it was politically charged and suspiciously regarded by the Nazis as Bolshevik and Jewish. I argue that Freud’s ideas about race, heredity and evolution need to be re-examined with an attention to the ways in which scientific debates were inextricably linked with political debates. Where Freud seemed to use the idea of inherited memory as a way of universalizing his theory beyond the individual cultural milieu of his patients, such a notion of universal science itself became politically charged and identified as particularly Jewish. The vexed and speculative interpretations of Freud’s Lamarckism are situated as part of a larger post-War cultural reaction against Communism on the one hand (particularly in the 1950s when Lamarckism was associated with the failures of Lysenko), and on the other hand, against any scientific concepts of race in the wake of the Holocaust. 

Freud was well aware that there was ample evidence to suggest that acquired characteristics were not inherited. Indeed, the most paradigmatic mark of Jewishness—circumcision—would seem to contradict this idea since it must be performed in every generation in order for its effects to be transmitted. In the third chapter, “Circumcision: The Unconscious Root of the Problem,” I show that circumcision compelled Freud to re-think some of the foundational ideas of psychoanalysis, in particular, his insistence that an individual’s “archaic memory” extended farther back than childhood. Rather than Lamarck, it was the most vociferous anti-Lamarckian, August Weismann, whose theories shaped Freud’s explorations of the blurry lines between the physical and psychical realms, the notions of race and culture, and the domains of heredity and experience. In applying Weismann’s germ-plasm theory to his structure of the psyche, Freud developed a paradoxical theory of heredity and evolution which anticipates his later theory of Jewishness. By incorporating the idea that phylogenetic memory is inherited, Freud was able to maintain the tensions between heredity and memory and between race and culture. More broadly, the topic of circumcision forces the terms of religion back into discussions which are otherwise posed solely in terms of race and/or culture.

Though Freud insisted on the biological inheritance of Jewishness (and memory more generally), his explanation for the actual medium of transmission was by no means straightforward. In the fourth chapter, “Secret Inclinations Beyond Direct Communication,” I show how Freud’s explanations of intergenerational transmission [Übertragung] were shaped by his earlier discussions of telepathic thought-transference [Gedankübertragung], and of the psychoanalytic concept of transference [Übertragung]. From 1910 to 1933, in published and unpublished essays and especially in his correspondence with Jung and Sandor Ferenczi, Freud explored the anxieties and excitement about these diverse forms of transmissions which seem dangerous precisely because they are ungraspable and not easily definable as either material or immaterial. Freud’s discussions of intergenerational transmission in Moses and Monotheism retrospectively illuminate his earlier meditations on transference and telepathy. Particularly in his discussions of these mysterious transmissions, he flirts with the margins of “science,” with the irrationality which haunts rationality. In this chapter, I explore the question of why the occult language of telepathy, ghosts and the uncanny is intertwined with the language used to describe the Jewish subject, both by Jews and non-Jews. The question of this mysterious transmission of Jewishness can be refined by comparing it to the classic literary debate between Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida about whether “the letter always arrives at its destination.” The question is whether Jewishness is always transmitted from the past to the future. Freud suggests that to be Jewish is to be caught up in an interminable process of transference which threatens the borders between past and present and between self and Other. Such phenomena, he suggests, may be “more powerful the less they are suspected.”

Where Freud explored the mysterious modes of ghostly transmission throughout his career, in Moses and Monotheism, he insists that Geistigkeit [intellectual-spirituality, but also ghostliness] is the defining feature of the Jewish tradition. In the fifth chapter, “Immaterial Materiality: The ‘Special Case’ of Jewish Tradition,” I explore the tension between Freud’s insistence that Jewish tradition is defined by its supreme Geistigkeit and his emphasis on the idea that Jewishness is transmitted through biological genealogy, a medium that seems utterly material. Freud suggests that the intellectual Jewish tradition has survived precisely because it is genealogically transmitted from one generation to the next. In order to make sense of the apparent contradiction of the supreme Geistigkeit and the base materiality of biology, he needed to maintain biology in a realm “beyond sensory perception.” Thus, he knowingly and ironically inverts the “matrilineal principle” of Jewish genealogy, making the matter of biological inheritance a purely geistig—intellectual-spiritual—issue, based not on material evidence (that is, the identity of the mother) but on “hypotheses” and “inferences” (about the identity of the father). Like psychoanalysis more generally, Freud’s theory of Jewishness emerges as both a scientific theory which challenges the scientific standards of proof and evidence and a cultural theory which expands the boundaries of what defines “culture.” 

In defining Jewishness through the inheritance of memory, Freud illuminates and integrates two seemingly contradictory aspects of Jewish definition: that is, in the most material sense, Jewishness is collectively and ineluctably determined by descent, while in a more non-material sense, Jewishness is individually and consciously determined by one’s beliefs, choices, and practices. While many Jewish leaders and scholars have understandably rejected the “racial” (biological, ineluctable) definitions of Jewishness, laypeople continue to attempt to define their own Jewishness (as well as others’) via lineage, genetics and “inherited” history. Though this book is primarily a historical analysis of Freud’s work, it engages and is informed by contemporary debates regarding the terms of Israeli citizenship, race-based benefits in the United States, and definitions of indigenous populations in the Americas, Australia and elsewhere. Racial Fever attempts to address the question as to why appeals to racial heredity are so persistent even as the scientific establishment has roundly rejected biological definitions of “race.” While there are major dangers in appealing to the language of racial difference, there are even greater pitfalls in ignoring how such appeals continue to shape our lives every day.