We will destroy the museums
Dan Friedman

Gregory Colbert, Ashes and Snow
Shigeru Ban, The Nomadic Museum

I. Pier One

The modern age has been marked by a frantic, impossible striving for stable identity. The desire animates not only the reactionaries against modernism (e.g., fundamentalists of every stripe) but even its most ardent proponents; consider Marinetti and the Futurists, who derided the institutions of the previous age, and called for the destruction of the museums, but who ended up as fascists supporting the Mussolini regime.

Our origins are hopelessly complex, and yet we crave the stability of place, nation, and founding myth. Exemplified by the creation of the wildly successful political tool known as the nation-state (one people, one country, one language, one history, one anthem, one flag), technology has helped us raise our desperate denials to murderous pitch. Ever more powerful tools have resulted in brutal oppressions and ever more effective genocides.

Not only are we increasingly expected to have a single national affiliation (with perhaps a concession for an ethnic flavour in enlightened democracies) but even the language we use to discuss multiply affiliated people reeks of value judgements indicating a diminished sense of belonging – as in words such as “deracinated,” “rootless,” “stateless,” “homeless.”

Barely two miles north of the Statue of Liberty’s secure haven, where the New World accepted the “huddled masses” from the Old World, Shigeru Ban (architect) and Gregory Colbert (artist) have begun to address this prejudice. The appearance of the Nomadic Museum jutting out into New York’s Hudson River is an attempt to revalue our ongoing search.

II. Eternally Wondering Jews

Jews were the first race to be singled out for displeasure by the European hegemon. Their presence in Europe -- unlike that of Africans, for example -- was neither assimilable (like North Africans) or resulting from European depredations (like sub-Saharan Africans). The difficulty of naming the Jewish situation as Europe grouped into nation-states is testament to the way that contemporary thought has been shaped over the past two centuries: pigeonholed as a religion, some Jews have maintained their people-hood, their culture and their history – a history of separation as well as a history of interaction. Other Jews craved the label of "religion," which allowed them simultaneously to "be Jewish" and be French or German or Italian etc. Still others made a bee-line for a nationalism of their own to copy the French, Germans, and Italians. Not supra-national, not identifying in an alternative mode, not diverse, Jews were living up to their label as eternal wanderers – this time as a shiftless group refusing to be categorized in the new terms.

In response to this new paradigm of expulsion from European society -- even as emancipation granted religious freedom, it explicitly denied people-hood -- many Jews resisted by embracing their liminal status. The most successful of these people, from whom I trace my intellectual descent, formed the modern world from recognizing their home rested exactly on this faultline of anomie. Marx, Freud, Einstein, Proust, Kafka, Trotsky crossed back and forth over literal and figurative borders and wove a radically new understanding of the world in which we live. They recognized how integral to the world multiple conflicts and continuities (over a bewildering series of scales) were, and revisioned society, the mind, the physical world, the literary universe, the political landscape.

However arbitrary the homophony of “wondering” and “wandering” may be, it does seem as though those people who move around are those people most likely to confront, critique and question their old thoughts and thought systems. Despite the best hopes of many (see Leah Koenig’s article in this issue) the current relative immobility of the Jewish community means that the efflorescence of Jewish culture is probably over. Other border people are ready to take over the mantle of constructive iconoclasts.

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Image: ashesandsnow.org

June 2005

Star Wars, George Bush, Judaism, and the Penis
Jay Michaelson

The So-Called Jewish Cultural Revolution
Leah Koenig

Witnessing Marshall Meyer
Josh Feigelson

We Will Destroy the Museums
Dan Friedman on Ashes and Snow

Clive Firestone
Nicole Taylor

Heart of Pinkness
Michael Kuratin

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From previous issues:

Are the Ten Commandments Really Carved in Stone?
Joel Shurkin

The Spiritual Foundations of Bushism
Jay Michaelson

The Stable
Ira Stone

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