Sighting / Citing / Siting Antisemitism
by Lawrence R. Schehr

What are a few acts of oral sex between consenting adults? Or a few remarks that might be anti-Semitic in nature? A hue and cry in the press at both: one on both sides of the Atlantic, the other, only in France, plus a few scattered outposts of higher learning in the diaspora. The reactions to the first on both sides of the Atlantic varied greatly: righteous indignation in the New World matched by a sense of amusement, fatuousness, and ridicule on the other. The more serious affair, Camusgate played out in a few areas: the Parisian cultural world, as well as all major and minor journals and newspapers in France, but perhaps most importantly in Le Monde and Libération; a conference at Yale University; the inevitable bouche en oreille again distinct from that other affair that ensued around email systems that are the university water coolers of the post-modern world; and in cyberspace, precisely one URL, L'Affaire Camus.

Even in two related Western cultures, such as those that dominate in the United States and France, what causes moral outrage can vary widely. And even if the media focalize that outrage, as they did in the case of oral sex in the White House or as they have done in L'Affaire Camus on a different level, there can be wide variation. In the United States, what was outrageous to some (though I believe more in the press than in those who read it) was essentially a private act with no consequences per se. What is outrageous in France is racist speech, the tolerance for which, at least for the last quarter century, has been wider in the United States than in France. But the United States had no shoah, no deportation, no genocide on its shores between 1939 and 1945.

At Yale, having hastily abandoned my original talk, I spoke about what I considered at that time (and still consider) to be the three salient points of the matter. First: the withdrawal of the book from sale and the censorship involved therein. Second, the consequences of anti-Semitism today, for which cogent remarks by Naomi Schor, Philippe Sollers, and Bertrand Poirot-Delpech are particularly poignant. Third, the possible reading of certain observations by Renaud Camus that can be understood as anti-Semitic, and which would be so understood in any common-sense reading of the phrases in question. [1] At that time (as now), I was opposed to the withdrawal of the book from publication, no matter how racist or repugnant some of the comments may have appeared, a position that seems to be shared by many including Dominique Fourcade among others (for which there is a petition), though opposed by some, including Didier Éribon. [2] I am glad that the book, albeit in an edited format, has been returned to circulation and debate.

My concern here is in part with what website does, how it engages or flattens outrage, its role in the affair, its availability whilst the book itself was not visible, or, was in the hands of only a few. Clear from the website is that there are two kinds of readers here. In one group, those who have focused on the énoncés, the statements that alone seem to stand out as anti-Semitic remarks. In other words, the sentences make their case out of context. Opposed to this group are those who have been faithful readers of Camus all along, followers of all 40-odd books; I should be in this latter camp, as a faithful reader, but am not. Such defenders indicate that these few sentences cannot be taken as a measure of the man who has written 40 books, that these are only a few sentences among the many thousands of pages in which numerous subjects are treated, and indeed, where the author has indicated his admiration for Jewish thought or has nuanced his appreciation of difference and globalism in articles on métissage, origin, and race, as well as a long entry on Semitism and Antisemitism. In context, Camus would be someone fighting against uniformity and the negation of differences, a cultural minister for the anti-globalization crowd; at worst, he would have an essentialist view of race. Defenders, like Alain Finkielkraut among others, even note his courage in asking difficult questions about such matters as anti-Semitism. Other defenders and this is perhaps where the website itself becomes even more interesting weigh in with arguments that go beyond a recontextualization or a change in perspective. In one case, we find an argument based on a faulty syllogism: Monsieur Camus has shown great personal or aesthetic interest in some Jews and is horrified at the Nazi concentration camps, so how could he be anti-Semitic (or better, how could he make anti-Semitic remarks?). [3]   In another, we are told how beautiful, how lyric, how stylistically rich the pages of this volume are: how could such beauty hide evil?

What of citing / sighting / siting anti-Semitism? Renaud Camus himself, in his note to the expurgated edition of the work, remarks the absurdity of the act, not because (not here, not now) he is being egotistical, but because, the very words that were excised "ont traîné deux mois durant dans toutes les gazettes." What also has remained ever-present is the site itself, growing with documents of all sorts, some published, others not: the site becomes the locus in which anything is available even if it has been refused, with the sole imprimatur having been granted by Camus himself. One wonders if either those calling for the withdrawal from publication of the book or even Fayard itself, gave thought to this? In other words, the book was never really withdrawn from circulation. What was withdrawn was rather the free-flow and exchange of thought, and perhaps just as problematic, the dynamics and symbolic capital associated with multiple points of view.

Let me explain what I mean. A newspaper, a forum, a conference, whether we like it or not, is a repository for cultural capital. Simply put, it has a point of view (or several) in which there is symbolic investment and acceptance or rejection is meaningful. Like a brain, a website is "a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas" can have a website these days, and we are all, I believe better for it. But the web mixes fact and fiction and half-truths and half-baked ideas; the web removes symbolic capital as fast as possible: the web is the greatest tool ever invented for creating the global village that provokes "horror" in Monsieur Camus. And the web is the great decontextualizer.

The website was of course necessary, an arm against the act of censure and censorship that was constituted by the withdrawal of the book from circulation. At the same time, the website ironically increases that which Monsieur Camus reproves: the fragmentation of decontextualized discourses, the separation from origin, the leveling of cultural values. And the very generous gesture on his part of including as many remarks as possible made by those opposed to him in this matter does not go unnoticed. And yet, the website leaves me unsettled, as it should all readers, on all sides, because after all is said and done, it winds up and not only because of its own inherent structure reinforcing what I never thought would have been a conclusion in this post-modern world: there are some absolute énoncés that function regardless of context.

Here, I am not splitting hairs; I am not thinking of performatives, or ironies, or any deconstructible remarks that might nuance or overturn a statement. I am thinking about remarks relative to race, to origin, to membership in one ethnic or religious group, to gender, to sexuality that always have a consequence. I am thinking of hate speech, racism (and other -isms of its ilk), or in less radical terms, remarks of the sort we read here whose consequences were not considered. Habent sua fata libelli, but Monsieur Camus is too intelligent and perspicacious a writer to ignore that his comments participate in an anti-Semitic discourse. Indeed, in his response to Jean Daniel, he tells us but who is the destinataire, now, of any of this that he weighs various hypotheses. One wonders why he did not weigh what we might call the hypothesis of the destinataire: what would anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge and common sense think of these sentences?

Monicamus? Hardly, for some acts have no consequences and others, severe ones. A few blowjobs might leave (at worst) a bad taste in someone's mouth, but such remarks as these leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth. [4]

Lawrence R. Schehr


[1] Some of which can be found scattered through texts by Patrick Kéchichian, Sébastien Le Fol, the Déclaration des hôtes-trop-nombreux-de-la-France-de-souche (and its follow-up), excerpts in Marianne, and so forth.

[2] Personal remarks to author.

[3] Indeed that very "some of my best friends are Jewish" position, relying on human sympathy on a one-on-one basis, as well as on the refusal of horror, is ironized by Jean Daniel in the conclusion of his remarks in Le Nouvel Observateur. Renaud Camus writes a response to Daniel as well.

[4] Or should. But I believe the reality is quite different, i.e., that there is great (silent) support in many fora in France for precisely what Monsieur Camus says he is not saying or doing: making anti-Semitic remarks.