Marc Redfield, "Shibboleth: Judges, Derrida, Celan" (Fordham UP, 2020)


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In this episode, I speak with Marc Redfield, professor of Comparative Literature, English, and German Studies at Brown University about his most recent work, Shibboleth: Judges, Derrida, Celan, published in 2020 by Fordham University Press. In this short but intricate and dense work, Redfield investigates the “shibboleth”—the word, if it is one, and the concept—from its roots in the Book of Judges to the contemporary global regimes of technics that are defined by constantly proliferating technologies and practices of encryption, decryption, exclusion, and inclusion.

At the heart of this book is an insightful interpretation of two poems by the Romanian-Jewish, German-language poet Paul Celan. Redfield places Celan into a polyphonic dialogue with others who invoked “the” shibboleth: the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, William Faulkner, and the Colombian visual artist Doris Salcedo (whose 2007 installation at the Tate Modern, which bears the title Shibboleth, provides the cover image for the book). In doing so, Redfield pursues the track of shibboleth: a word to which no language can properly lay claim, a word that is both less and more than a word, that signifies both the epitome and ruin of border control technology, and that thus, despite its violent origin and role in the Biblical story, offers a locus of poetico-political affirmation.

Britt Edelen is a Ph.D. student in English at Duke University. He focuses on modernism and the relationship(s) between language, philosophy, and literature. You can find him on Twitter or send him an email.

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