Intellectual history Interview

Genealogies of Survival: An Interview with Adam Y. Stern

by contributing editor Jonathon Catlin

By Jonathon Catlin

Adam Y. Stern is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison working in German and Jewish studies. His first book, Survival: A Theological-Political Genealogy (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021), casts Jewish thought and politics in a new light by tracing their recurrent tropes of survival and redemption back to the representation of Jews and Judaism in a long tradition of Christian political theology. Tracking the discourse of survival in writers such as Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Franz Rosenzweig, Sigmund Freud, and Jacques Derrida, Stern argues that survival serves as a powerful index for the secularized traces of Christianity that define Western modernity. His book compellingly highlights the persistence of the trope of “the survivor as a universal figure for death-in-life” up to the present day (149). Contributing Editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed Stern about his book.

Jonathon Catlin: Your book begins with a striking epigraph from the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, who famously once referred to himself as “the last Jewish intellectual”: “Who do these people think they are, that they can make light of or ignore what they have done to us and still wrap themselves in the mantel of ‘the survivors’?” The book ends with an epilogue reflecting on how “the survivor” has been associated with both victims of colonization (by Jean-Paul Sartre and Abdelkebir Khatibi) and with colonizers (by Emmanuel Levinas) in the context of Israel/Palestine. How did you first come to interrogate the category of “the survivor,” and how did you arrive at the perhaps unexpected organizing framework of the decolonial political questions of whose survival is valued and what violence can be done in the name of survival?

Adam Stern: I’m glad you’ve decided to begin at the beginning by citing Said’s powerful observation about the role of the “survivor” in the Nakba, i.e., the ongoing settler colonization of Palestine. I came across the quote itself only late in my research, but it encapsulates many of the initial questions I wanted to pose about a language and a discourse that both pervades public speech and often evades reflection. This observation was coupled with an interest in the philosophical uses of “survival,” as they appear, for example, across Derrida’s work, in a different way for Agamben, and then in Butler’s interventions into “precarious life” and “vulnerability.” The project finally came together for me following one further observation, which is the prominent discursive relationship between “survival” and “Jews.” For Said, of course, the “survivor is a “mantle,” precisely because the category authorizes the hiding and displacing of colonial violence against Palestinians onto the precarious life and vulnerability of a symbolic, sacralized Jewish Holocaust victim. As others have noted, Israel styles itself a “survivor state.”

This was enough to pose a working hypothesis; namely, that the discursive proximity between Jews, survival, and colonialism could serve as a point of orientation for a more general inquiry into the genealogy of the word(s): survival, survivor. Methodologically, this meant returning to an archive of well-known figures: Arendt, Benjamin, Rosenzweig, and Freud. These are thinkers whose work has framed both the specific discussion of “Jewish survival” as well as the more general theoretical debate about survival’s conceptuality. In a preliminary way, my re-readings try to fracture the link between “Jews” and “survival” by showing that these canonical, secular, Jewish writers actually open up a different genealogical horizon: a horizon in which the rhetorical formation of survival has less to do with Jews than with the Jewish question. In other words, I wanted to see whether the very notion of “Jewish survival” could serve as an index for the theological-political (not to mention racial and colonial) history of Christianity.

JC: I see your book as part of a recent wave of scholarship including Emma Kuby’s Political Survivors (2019), Carolyn J. Dean’s The Moral Witness (2019), and Dirk Moses’s The Problems of Genocide(2021) that have historicized received categories of victimhood and highlighted their political dimensions in postwar struggles for recognition, justice, and human rights. More polemically, Robert Meister argued in After Evil (2012), in your summary, that “​​the protocols governing the ‘survival of the Jews’ have made the Holocaust a virtual shibboleth for the acceptance of others into a universal discourse on human rights” (9). Your book traces the trope of Jewish survival back to older and primarily Christian works, from the Bible, to Pseudo-Dionysus, to Shakespeare. As you write in your chapter on Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, “The Jews,” in a significant Christian tradition, “are nothing less than a corpus mysticum, a repudiated and intolerable church but one still indispensable to the work of redemption,” for, since Augustine, they have been said to serve as witnesses to Christian revelation and, in their survival, as a proxy for the resurrection of Lazarus and ultimately Christ (29). In a way, your book de-Judaizes and universalizes the category of the survivor: “At various times and in various ways, Christ’s body has played host to a survival slot, which has sifted through a series of occupants (Jews, Muslims, Africans, etc.) as well as filtered the deposits of multiple discursive domains” ranging from antisemitism to biopolitics (176–177). What new insights does this political-theological lens reveal?

AS: At the center of my critique of so-called “secular” histories is the fact that they are not really all that secular. On a simple level, this means recognizing the implicit equation of secular history with the notion of a “Judeo-Christian tradition.” I won’t rehearse the many problems with this framework, but simply emphasize that the continuity it implies between secularism, Judaism, and Christianity has implications for the way one approaches the history of concepts. As Kathleen Davis has shown, the historian is the sovereign who decides on the state of periodization. At stake, for me, is an alternative, genealogical form of writing that takes seriously Christianity as an object of thought and not merely as a disappearing passageway between antique origins and modern, secular transformations. To put it another way, and following Gil Anidjar, we need a concept of Christianity. We need a form of naming that reads secularization (and, indeed, the word religion) as a technology of self-erasure. By this, I mean the way that Christianity has made itself invisible even as so many of its structures, concepts, and modes of knowledge continue to underwrite that vague thing we call modernity. That’s why I would also say that my goal is not exactly to universalize “survival.” While I do generalize survival beyond a certain Judeocentric perspective, the decentering itself is an attempt to circumscribe survival’s universalization within a parochial Christian history.

I also want to say something about the Latin phrase corpus mysticum. The expression belongs to an old, complex debate about the body (and bodies) of Christ. I try to show the significance of these debates for the emergence of the “survivor” by tracing a line of thinking about Christ’s body that runs from Eucharistic theology, to the notion of the “king’s two bodies,” to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But, as you suggest, some modern writers (e.g., Jacques Maritain) have also turned to the corpus mysticum as a gloss for the ambivalent position of “the Jews” in Western Christendom: the condemnation and preservation of the Jewish body for the work of salvation. This was also true for the influential Zionist historian Yitzhak Baer, (1880–1980), who, in addition to drawing on Romantic, organicist notions of the Jewish body, also sometimes referred to Jews as a “mystical body” (guf misti). So to come back to your first question: If Israel is indeed a “survivor state,” this is perhaps because it is also the contemporary dispensation of a specific theological-political lineage: one that is (I hesitate to say) decidedly “Judeo-Christian.”

JC: Invoking Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life (1999), you situate your study amidst a postwar “shift from victim to survivor,” whereby “those formerly identified as the passive, silent, and weak objects of Nazi aggression gradually became figures endowed with agency, speech, and power, capable of moving ‘from the realms of exclusion and invisibility to public recognition and moral authority’” (4). Remarkably, “This revaluation would lead to the construction of the Holocaust as an occasion for feelings of pride” (5). Today we take the moral authority of survivors for granted, but you show that this required a turning of the tables, a Nietzschean revaluation of values. At the same time, scholars like Robert Jay Lifton tried to universalize “the survivor” as a transhistorical category spanning from medieval plagues to the bombing of Hiroshima, in the process transforming the concept of survival “from a sign of the extreme to an element of the everyday” (6). Through such semantic transformations, the term also underwent a “militarization” that “has increasingly combined perpetrators and victims of violence into a single generic category” (7). Where do you come down on the specificity of this category? Are all these interpretations legitimate, or do some distort the meaning of the term beyond recognition? To put your own question back to you, “What are survival’s limits?” (10).

AS: I’m not interested in defending legitimate or illegitimate uses of survival. My project is not to correct a distortion by purifying the term of its problematic resonances; it is instead to highlight the various, contradictory ways in which survival circulates and to take stock of survival’s efficacy as a prominent term in our contemporary political lexicon. But even without trying to determine a more proper meaning for survival, there are troubling things to underscore about its alliance with a certain militarization of thinking. I’ll just point here, by way of example, to a newspaper clipping Dagmar Herzog includes in her important book on postwar Freudian thought. It’s from an article published in the New York Post in 1972 that bears the title: “Auschwitz & Viet:—The Survivors.” The article surveys contemporaneous insights into the parallel psychological effects (e.g., guilt) experienced by Holocaust victims and American combatants in Vietnam. As Herzog and others have shown, it was largely US antiwar activism (and not a particular concern about the Holocaust) that brought questions like “survivor’s guilt” into public view. On a conceptual level, I simply want to understand the genealogy of the term—“survivor”—that seems to move seamlessly between civilian and combatant, genocidal victim and imperial soldier. What does one make of a history that emerges from a comparison between persecuted Jews and American G.I.s? How did debates about Vietnam recruit the image of the Holocaust survivor for military ends? My ultimate point here is not to rectify a problematic conceptual transfer, but to show that the genealogy of survival has always been about sovereignty. That’s why the real question may be how and why Holocaust victims became survivors at all. From another angle, what does it mean to take seriously Derrida’s remark that “we are all survivors”? If this is so—especially here and now—what does the notion of survival tell us about political formations of the “human” and the “subject”?

JC: Speaking of conceptual transfer, as a Curb Your Enthusiasm fan, I loved that you mention the iconic episode “The Survivor” (2004), in which Larry David stages a vicious contest of “oppression Olympics” between an elderly Holocaust survivor and a contestant from the reality television series Survivor. What makes that exchange so funny to us? What does it illustrate about the semantics of “the survivor” in the contemporary cultural imagination?

AS: Yes, I almost didn’t include that episode in the book, since it has been so widely commented upon elsewhere. I did finally decide to mention it, though, because David’s astute juxtaposition highlights something important about the proliferation of survival-talk across apparently incommensurable spheres (especially in popular media). The discomfiting humor no doubt lies in the obscene analogy it draws between the reality of genocide and the artifice of “reality TV.” But I wouldn’t necessarily read the exchange as a contest of suffering or as an “oppression Olympics.” If anything, lurking in the background here is the historical interface between post-Holocaust discourse and the culture of survivalism (prepping, bunker-building, etc.). What David implicitly asks us to note is that survival is about strength, about agency, and about power. Perhaps he knew that, already for Spencer and Darwin, survival was a contest of the “fittest.” Today, one might also consider Evan Osnos’ perceptive formulation regarding survivalism among the wealthiest of elites in the age of planetary catastrophe: “survival of the richest.”

JC: Your original reading of Hannah Arendt’s landmark The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) in chapter one shows how “the racial theology of chosenness” developed by European racial supremacism rearticulated “the mystery of Jewish survival” through the ages (40). “From Jewish survival and African survival to total survival and European survival,” you write, “Arendt projected the outline of a single redemptive image: a portrait of the glory and horror, spectrality and mysticism, of Christ’s death and resurrection” (119). Your fourth chapter then connects this empty signifier of Christlike survival with political theology, which posits the survival, not of individuals or a people but, in the spirit of Ernst Kantorowicz’s classic The King’s Two Bodies (1957), of power as such after the dissolution of monarchy. You see this being enacted in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (as read through Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, and Jacques Derrida), which dramatizes “the ghost story called Christianity” by casting the threatening “survivor-ghost” of Hamlet as the rightful heir to his father’s throne (137). Do you agree with Benjamin, and later Michel Foucault, that these ghosts continue to “haunt the life of the state”? (146).

AS: Many political thinkers have attempted to trace the theological-political vectors of the modern state. I follow out some of these lines of inquiry in the figures you mention as well as in others such as Louis Marin. In my reading of Arendt’s Origins, for example, I emphasize her simultaneous reliance on and suppression of Carl Schmitt’s theological-political analysis of total domination. Especially significant, I think, was his suggestion that Hitlerism forged a racial identity between leader and people that reiterated the Eucharistic theology of Christ’s “real presence.” This is the idea that the sacramental consecration of the Host not only recalls the history and memory of Christ’s crucifixion, but also transforms the very substance of the bread and wine (i.e., transubstantiation) into the body and blood of Christ. If you think about the historical influence of this ritual (sacrificial death, resurrection, and incorporation) on medieval theories of kingship and Hobbes’s Leviathan, Schmitt’s suggestion might seem less strange. What codes of blood and body make possible the identification of sovereign and people? The crucial question here—which goes beyond the context of totalitarianism—is whether theological-political genealogies (or analogies) can help diagnose the specific forms of representation that permit the survival of racial and crusader states, white supremacy, Orientalism, and more. As I mentioned above, the political theology surrounding Zionism and the Israeli state is one (but by no means the only) confirmation of the fact that in significant ways “we have never been modern.”

JC: You describe your book as a “genealogy” and a “history of the present” (Foucault): “the book is less a history of survival than a genealogy of its contemporary force” (x). Invoking Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular (2003), you argue that critical genealogies working back from our present “can help us think through the contingencies that have come together to give us our certainties” (16). What are the stakes for you in writing intellectual history in this way?

AS: You are hinting here at one of the organizational peculiarities of the book, which is that it more or less runs backward, beginning with Arendt’s postwar texts and concluding around 1900 with Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. This is a minor displacement of common intellectual-historical procedures, but it highlights a more serious issue regarding the difference between history and genealogy. Talal Asad points out that genealogy is not merely a form of history-writing that gestures toward contemporary political topics. It is better understood as a framework for questioning the way history is written and for seeing “beginnings” as a problem for theoretical investigation. This was also a concern for Freud and Derrida, who, in different ways, elaborated the concept of Nachträglichkeit, or “belatedness.” On a practical level, the question of beginnings meant approaching the genealogy of survival neither as a search for origins nor as a linear account of survival’s uses across specific contexts, but as a set of discontinuous readings in twentieth-century texts that raise the question of where, when, and how to begin constructing survival’s documentary archive.

My book, then, is best read as a prolegomenon to the conceptual history of survival and not as an encyclopedic compendium on the topic. I pose preliminary questions that could establish a framework for future critical interventions. Like Dipesh Chakrabarty, I claim that translation is one key, provincializing tool for reading “survival” as a problem of language. Thus, the term that I borrow from Derrida—globalatinization—is as much about Christianity as it is about the materiality of the Latin idiom. The point is that the proliferation, breadth, and generalization of survival in the present calls for some methodological constraints, which can make room for tracing survival’s genealogical contours. While this might frustrate some, my aim was not to make it easier to talk about survival but to make it more difficult and, in doing so, gesture toward different vocabularies and grammars for the present.

JC: Since your book engages the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s Foucault-inspired theory of biopolitics, I’d like to ask you about the controversy surrounding his remarks on the Covid-19 pandemic. Early on in the pandemic, Agamben suggested that lockdowns and other measures designed to slow the spread of Covid-19 are forms of potentially totalitarian biopolitics, the state regulation of who shall die and who shall live (or, as it were, who shall merely “survive” in an animal state of “bare life” exemplified by the Nazi concentration camps). He even went so far as to liken those cooperating with such regulations to the Holocaust perpetrator Adolf Eichmann, who infamously claimed to be just following orders. Adam Kotsko, who translated some of these texts, as well as Eric Santner, have observed that Agamben’s commentary descended into a rigid “ideology,” or what Anastasia Berg called “bare theory.” Amidst a profusion of dubious Holocaust analogies, I wonder if you read Agamben differently today. More generally, has the pandemic taught us anything about the nature of survival?

AS: I have learned a lot from Agamben, and I rely on his methodological and theological-political insights throughout the book. But I was ultimately not that shocked by his comments on the pandemic. For one thing, even as I’ve found myself influenced by his way of turning modern political concerns into theological questions and philosophical concepts into linguistic problems, I’ve never been persuaded by his positive political project. Likewise, I’ve long been convinced by critics who have noted his marginalization of colonialism and transatlantic slavery to the genealogy of homo sacer.

At the time, it also seemed to me that Agamben’s response relied on a misreading of his own work and a stereotypical presentation of his thought’s potential contribution to pandemic politics. Not that he was necessarily wrong to be concerned about “states of exception” or governmental violence, but recourse to the Nazi model occluded the ways that the spread of the pandemic was already exposing the biopolitical fault-lines of both the liberal state (essential vs. non-essential workers, racial disparities, healthcare austerity, immigration policy, police violence, “wars on terror,” etc.) and the inequities of global capitalism (e.g., vaccine distribution, travel bans, etc.). It seems to me that the phrase “make survive” perfectly encapsulates the production of a difference between bios and zoē, humanization and de-humanization, that already defines the current, catastrophic order of things. How do class, racial, and geographical divides traverse and manufacture the difference between survivors and victims? And what mode of political intervention could bring about a “true state of exception”? The genealogy of survival is one attempt to reflect on these questions by charting the term itself as a trace of such historical asymmetries.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of catastrophe in modern European thought. He tweets @planetdenken.

Featured Image: Anselm Kiefer, Merkaba (2002), from the cover of Survival.

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