Authored by: Michael Rothberg

The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Jewish Cultures

Print publication date:  September  2014
Online publication date:  July  2017

Print ISBN: 9780415473781
eBook ISBN: 9780203497470
Adobe ISBN: 9781135048556


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In the past thirty years, power has become one of the most ubiquitous keywords of cultural studies and critical theory. Brought to prominence by two discrete but overlapping intellectual genealogies—the translation of Michel Foucault’s work into English and the rise of ethnic and postcolonial studies—power is now an unavoidable category for thinking about cultural texts and identities in a comparative context. To be sure, no singular meaning of power circulates in such thinking. Indeed, the concept possesses completely opposed attributes in much contemporary thought: traditional understandings of power as a repressive, centralized, and hierarchical possession continue to attract adherents despite Foucault’s famous dictum declaring that “we need to cut off the King’s head” and think of power instead as a productive, dispersed, and immanent relation (Foucault 1980b: 121 and passim). While theorists emerging out of the ethnic and postcolonial studies traditions draw increasingly on figures such as Foucault, work in those areas also maintains some of the political urgency associated with compelling pre-Foucauldian notions of power hierarchies configured around variables such as race, class, sexuality, and gender. Against that backdrop, this chapter will argue that a serious and unsentimental consideration of Jewish cultures and histories can help illuminate the contradictory guises power takes in critical theory at large.

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