Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Gideon Reuveni's "Consumer Culture and the Making of Modern Jewish Identity"

Gideon Reuveni is Reader in History and Director of the Centre for German-Jewish studies at the University of Sussex. His central research and teaching interest is the cultural and social history of modern European and Jewish history.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Consumer Culture and the Making of Modern Jewish Identity, and reported the following:
Consumer Culture and the Making of Modern Jewish Identity explores the changing nature and dynamic of consumer cultures in the context of Jewish history. It reveals the multifaceted process through which minorities are able to maintain a separate identity through consumption while concurrently, as consumers, feeling integrated in their host societies. Consumerism, it is here argued, refashioned Jewish cultures and provided new venues to imagine cultural belonging beyond the existing denomination of religious, social and political differences. The significance and contribution of this study is that it locates Jewish history within broader developments that may have facilitated cultural diversity and Jewish identities. In a wider sense, the book’s innovation lies in the fact that it employs a cultural approach to economic activities, suggesting that the very coherence of the economy and its ability to function depends very much on the aptitude of people to interact, to allocate values and norms to others, and on their willingness to share mutual representations.

Page 99 falls in the introduction section to part two of the book, which deals with the relationship between consumption and politics. In this page I call attention to the connection between Hannah Arendt's reading of the “Jewish condition” of victimization and exclusion from the world of political realities and her understanding of the “human condition.” Unable or unwilling to develop along industrial capitalist lines, Jews, Arendt argues, concentrated in consumer-oriented professions facilitating the emergence of a modern, passive and worldless, consumer society. Her view of consumer society neatly corresponds to her position on so-called Jewish passivity, and the failure of Jews to act politically. The ensuing chapters contest Arendt's reading. They do not only depict consumption as a site of resistance, but also reveal how Jews struggle to negotiate between their desire to retain Jewish distinctiveness with the demand for political and social emancipation.

It should be emphasized that there is nothing definitive in this study. My concerns here are to a large extent heuristic and my conclusions are still provisional. The realm of Jewish consumer culture is so large and its history so little known that this book has done scarcely more than set out some preliminary markers that will hopefully facilitate the way for more detailed investigations of this important field of historical inquiry.
Learn more about Consumer Culture and the Making of Modern Jewish Identity at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue