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Marrano Universalism: Benjamin, Derrida, and Buck‑Morss on the Condition of Universal Exile

The following paper was presented at the 2015 Telos Conference, held on February 13–15, 2015, in New York City. For additional details about the conference, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

Like Solomon,
I have married and married the speech of strangers
—Charles Reznikoff, Jerusalem the Golden

In my short essay, I would like to outline a new strategy of the universalization of history, which emerges from the analysis of modern Jewish practice of philosophizing. I call it a Marrano strategy, by building an analogy between the religious practices of the late-medieval Sephardic Jewry, which was forced to convert to Christianity but kept Judaism “undercover,” and the philosophical intervention of modern Jewish thinkers who spoke the seemingly universal idiom of Western philosophy but, at the same time, impregnated it “secretly” with motives deriving from their “particular” background.[1] Yet, they did not do it in order to abolish the universalist perspective, but to transform it; for the last heirs of this “Marrano” line, Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida, the proper universalism amounts to an after-Babel project of mending the broken whole from within, horizontally, without assuming the lofty position of a general meta-language, but through the effort of multi-linguality.

The Task of the Translation

“The wish to be a Marrano” (which Hélène Cixous quite rightly attributes to Derrida[2]) is a synonym of a desire for universalization of one’s own message, which, when expressed too openly, immediately becomes accused of particularism and denied an access to a proper “conversation of mankind.” A “Marrano philosopher” struggles to convince his readers that the Jewish mode of thinking is not alien to the spirit of universalism, just negotiates it differently: not as a ready-made declaration of a universal essence, but as an ongoing practice, something Walter Benjamin called “the task of the translation.”

Benjamin, who also posits himself in the Marrano line, emphasizes the particular character of any monolingual tradition; for him the true universality emerges only through the clashes—or marriages—of two or more separate idioms. The truly universal language can never be spoken as such, i.e., as one homogenous idiom; neither Greek philosophy nor Christian religion can undo the “catastrophe” of Babel, which resulted in the scattering and particularization of languages. The Babel predicament of linguistic dispersion is a fact, but it need not be a curse; though there is no meta-language that could raise above the clamor of differences, men are still capable of “marrying the speeches of strangers” and thus completing the broken whole on the horizontal level. They do not reach universality “vertically,” i.e., by rejecting or growing out of their particularity; this way was clearly shown as wrong by the story of the Tower of Babel, which was supposed to hover above the plane of human differences. The only way to reach universality is horizontally, never pretending to abandon the realm of particularity; the way leading through, as Walter Benjamin put it in his great essay on “The Task of the Translator,” translation and completion (Übersetzung und Ergänzung), making various languages clash, marry, meet, befriend, mingle with, and confront one another.[3]

And while Benjamin still remains ambivalent as to the dispersion of languages, unsure whether to treat it as a blessing or a curse, Derrida—pushing strongly into the Marrano direction—interprets “the task of the translator” in a decidedly non-nostalgic manner. In “Des Tours de Babel,” the essay partly devoted to Benjamin, he firmly states the impossibility of a “universal tongue.”[4] Moreover, Derrida goes as far as to claim that Babel is, in fact, one of the divine names and that “the proper name of ‘confusion’ will be his [God’s] mark and his seal.”[5] The legend of Babel, therefore, tells an alternative story of God’s revelation where “confusion” turns out to be His proper name, perhaps even more real than the one revealed at the Sinai. To know the “confusion” and to work through it horizontally, without any vertical escapes into an abstract universality, such is the task of the translator, marrying the speeches of strangers with one another, as well as the task of the modern thinker. The road to universality does not lead through the purification of “neither–nor” but through “marriages,” that is, confusions, conjunctions, and contaminations of the Joycean “jew-greek; greek-jew.”

Universalism of Exile

The Benjaminian–Derridean alternative strategy of universalization has found an interesting echo in the work of one of the best living Benjamin’s scholars, Susan Buck-Morss, whose recent project, called “New Universalism,” tries to navigate between the postmodern rejection of the Hegelian universal history, on the one hand, and the endorsement of all sorts of “small narratives,” which lead toward further and further fragmentation of identities and traditions, thus defying any common ground of possible mutual encounters, on the other. Convinced that the “phantasm of purity” constitutes the main danger and that cultures thrive on encounters rather than isolation, Buck-Morss proposes that we rethink the idea of a New Universal History: against but also along with Hegel, that is, without the intention of giving up universality altogether.

Regarded in this context, the strategy of Philosophical Marranos, which first confronted the Hegelian universal explicitly, anticipates New Universalism avant la lettre. Instead of letting their Jewish heritage dissolve into an “icy wasteland of abstraction” of universal philosophical thought,[6] they rather turn toward their own Judaic tradition and work upon it to render it universal in the manner of what we could indeed call, after Buck-Morss, an “open access.” This enormous working-through the Jewish tradition, the goal of which is to make it relevant and recognizable for anybody, anywhere, anytime, breaks the seals of restricted admittance and makes it “citable” in other, distant constellations of thought—which also means, according to the hidden double meaning of the word “tradition,” open to “betrayal,” to “treason,” to its inherent “unfaithfulness.” This is precisely what Buck-Morss calls the “delicious promiscuity” of non-restricted stocks of traditional archives, which, once transformed this way, can produce new configurations of ideas: the process of translation turns its seemingly frozen actuality into a much more plastic and open potentiality.

The movement, therefore, is double. It consists not only in bursting open the so far sealed archive of one’s own tradition, in disappropriating it—but also in an attempt to “localize” the so called universal thought that pretends to be rootless, free of presuppositions and, because of that, “proper.” The Hegelian maneuver—the “sublation of all religions and traditions in one philosophy,” leading toward the highest synthesis of the purely universal thought—has to be opposed by the contrary move, which proposes syncresis instead of synthesis. The New Universalism would thus resemble the Benjaminian collection, made of heterogeneous elements: a collection of languages that mutually foster their “growth” and indeed “grow together,” as the very notion of syn-cresis suggests.

Susan Buck-Morss introduces her crucial distinction between the syncretic and the synthetic modes of universalization apropos her description of the Haitian Vodou cults. Already informed by the Scholemian description of the Lurianic Kabbalah, where the metaphor of “breaking of the vessels” stands for the world, tradition, and humanity in the crisis of universal exile, she also uses it freely, very much in the open access manner of promiscuous “citability,” and says:

Vodou was constructed out of the allegorical mode of seeing that experiences history as catastrophe. For those who have been defeated by history, whose social relations have been severed, who live in exile, meaning drains out of the objects of a world that has been impoverished by physical distance and personal loss. In Vodou, the collective life of not one but multiple cultures has been shattered, surviving as debris and in decay. Emblems are hollowed out; their meanings have become arbitrary. The skull and crossbones—a variant of the pervasive emblem of the deaths-head-signifies not merely the transiency of life, but the transiency of meaning, the impermanence of truth itself. The gods are radically distant. They have deserted the living.[7]

Far from representing any essentially different, indigenous African culture, the Vodou emblems lend themselves to a universalizing approach that strikes a chord of resemblance with another, also seemingly particular, distant story of cultural cataclysm that left its tradition in ruin: the exile of the fifteenth-century Spanish Jews.

Derrida’s and Buck-Morss’s New Universalism uses Benjamin against Hegel, but this gesture may also be seen as the correction of the Hegelian universal history, which becomes so easily universal, mostly because—as Benjamin stated it in his theses On the Concept of History—it is written by the victors, i.e., from the triumphant perspective of the world conquerors who spread and multiply without encountering the limit, fracture, or crisis, lead by the “all-overreaching” Spirit, der angreifende Geist.[8] What they, after Benjamin, want to supply is a universal history of victims, whose traditions experienced a traumatic break and because of that closed upon themselves, protecting the exclusivity of their respective traumas in the typically narcissistic gesture of small and wounded cultures. The New Universal History, therefore, should be approached as the Benjaminian-Marrano “task of the translation,” where the particular origin of languages coexists with the ideal of universal communication.


1. See Agata Bielik-Robson, Jewish Cryptotheologies of Late Modernity: Philosophical Marranos (London: Routledge, 2014).

2. Hélène Cixous, “The Stranjew Body,” in Judeities: Questions for Jacques Derrida, ed. Joseph Cohen and Raphael Zagury-Orly, trans. Bettina Bergo and Michael B. Smith (Bronx, NY: Fordham Univ. Press, 2007), p. 55.

3. Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Selected Writings, vol. 1, trans. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1996–2003).

4. Jacques Derrida, “Des Tours de Babel,” in Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 107.

5. Ibid.

6. The phrase uttered by Benjamin and quoted by Adorno in Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 4.

7. Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2009), p. 127.

8. Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, in Selected Writings, vol. 4, p. 396.

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