The Wandering Signifier
Rhetoric of Jewishness in the Latin American Imaginary
Erin Graff Zivin
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While Jews figure in the work of many modern Latin American writers, the questions of how and to what end they are represented have received remarkably little critical attention. Helping to correct this imbalance, Erin Graff Zivin traces the symbolic presence of Jews and Jewishness in late-nineteenth- through late-twentieth-century literary works from Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, and Nicaragua. Ultimately, Graff Zivin’s investigation of representations of Jewishness reveals a broader, more complex anxiety surrounding difference in modern Latin American culture.
In her readings of Spanish American and Brazilian fiction, Graff Zivin highlights inventions of Jewishness in which the concept is constructed as a rhetorical device. She argues that Jewishness functions as a wandering signifier that while not wholly empty, can be infused with meaning based on the demands of the textual project in question. Just as Jews in Latin America possess distinct histories relative to their European and North American counterparts, they also occupy different symbolic spaces in the cultural landscape. Graff Zivin suggests that in Latin American fiction, anxiety, desire, paranoia, attraction, and repulsion toward Jewishness are always either in tension with or representative of larger attitudes toward otherness, whether racial, sexual, religious, national, economic, or metaphysical. She concludes The Wandering Signifier with an inquiry into whether it is possible to ethically represent the other within the literary text, or whether the act of representation necessarily involves the objectification of the other.