The Wandering Signifier

Rhetoric of Jewishness in the Latin American Imaginary

The Wandering Signifier

Book Pages: 240 Illustrations: Published: December 2008

Latin American Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Theory, Religious Studies

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.


The Wandering Signifer [makes a] singular contribution to the literature on difference in diverse Latin American cultural scenes. Zivin's study adds another dimension to solving the conundrum of how to represent ethically ‘unnarratable others,’ those voices and figures who attest to the vibrant, yet polemical and ambiguous heterogeneity of the Latin American experience.
— Nelson H. Vieira, Luso-Brazilian Review

The Wandering Signifier fills a void in the fields of Latin American and Jewish studies with an original, intelligent, and well-researched study of the problems of representing constructions of Jewish identity from a cultural, ideological, racial, and political perspective. . . . Thanks to her sophisticated analysis of the difficult problem of representation of alterity in Latin American literature and her novel perspective on the uses of the concepts of ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewishness’ in this body of literature, The Wandering Signifier makes an important contribution to Jewish and Latin American Studies scholarship and to the field of cultural studies in general.” — Ariana Huberman, Hispanic Review

The Wandering Signifier makes an important and much-needed contribution to Latin American literary studies. The book develops a series of thematic explorations that have previously been understudied in this field, while also making a convincing argument as to the importance of Jewishness for Latin American literary and social history. Moreover, Graff Zivin’s readings are enlivened by her sophisticated grasp of difficult theoretical debates (Levinas and Derrida in particular). . . . [I]n The Wandering Signifier Graff Zivin has established a new and vital bridge between two fields that have avoided sustained consideration of their points in common for too long now.” — Patrick Dove, Shofar

“As a comprehensive analysis of the rhetoric of Jewishness, with emphasis on literary theory, The Wandering Signifier should be of interest to students of Latin American, Cultural and Jewish Studies.” — Nora Glickman, Bulletin of Latin American Research

“In this original and profound study, Graff Zivin raises deep philosophical and methodological concerns. . . . It is here, in the third section that concludes the book, where the importance of Graff Zivin’s work lies, raising the discussion of Jewishness to a completely new level.” — Amalia Ran, EIAL

“Issues of difference have become central to debates about Latin American culture, making this book a valuable contribution to a corpus of literature about identity in the Americas.” — Gavin O’Toole, Latin American Review of Books

The Wandering Signifier is a superb cross-national literary study that touches on questions of diaspora, ethnic relations, and memory. It is accessible to a broad public interested in fields including Latin American studies, cultural studies, and Jewish studies. Erin Graff Zivin moves subtly between the work of Zygmunt Bauman, Jorge Luis Borges, Margo Glantz, and Ricardo Piglia (among many others) to examine the sociopolitical implications of the many symbolic constructions of Jewishness in Latin American literature. The imaginative scholarship, narrative excellence, and wide-ranging insights make this work required reading for students in multiple fields.” — Jeffrey Lesser, author of A Discontented Diaspora

“Erin Graff Zivin’s book proposes a sophisticated reflection on notions of national belonging, scenes of cultural crisis, and the ethical import of constructing the ‘Jew-as-Other’ in critical moments of Latin American history. Indeed, this is the first study to address the powerful symbolic presence of Jews in Latin America and the first to consider the ways in which the literary representations of Jewishness enter into productive discussions of citizenship, identity, and ultimately salutary alterity. I am willing to predict that The Wandering Signifier will very soon be considered an indispensable book.” — Sylvia Molloy, Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities, New York University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Erin Graff Zivin is Assistant Professor of Hispanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the editor of The Ethics of Latin American Criticism: Reading Otherwise.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: "Jewishness," Alterity, and the Ethics of Representation 1

1. Diagnosing "Jewishness" 29

2. The Scene of the Transaction 74

3. Textual Conversations 119

4. The Limits of Representation 154

Notes 179

Bibliography 195

Index 207
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4367-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4332-5
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