The Surreality of Community: Frédéric Brenner’s Diaspora: Homelands in Exile

My paper begins with a postscript, and more accurately a postscript to a preface, from Frédéric Brenner’s book, Diaspora: Homelands in Exile (2003a, 2003b). Yet his postscript obviously is also the preface to my paper–the already written beginning, not only Brenner’s but also my own, yet only to the extent that one can claim possession to such a beginning which, as we shall see, is not really possible and perhaps not even really desirable. So it is a postscript that functions as a preface, a situation that is not entirely uncommon given that nearly all prefaces are written last, which is to say that prefaces are, ironically, writings after writing. But then again, what is there after–in the sense of what remains–after writing? Perhaps more writing, including in the form of this latest question (first and last?) that begins, that has just been here written as: but then again’

And so it is that this postscript to a preface (both mine and Brenner’s) immediately opens up and keeps open the question that I in no way wish to close up, namely the question of beginnings and endings, first writings and last writings. For as far as my investigation of the Jewish Diaspora is concerned, my writing–and I will argue that of anyone else–can be nothing more than a preface, a writing in the face of, which is also to say, ‘before’ the diaspora. This affirms the sense that the diaspora does not merely involve nostalgia for the past, but more importantly and accurately, is a promise of the future, a future that is still to come. In this sense, one might say that the diasporic condition is prefatory and that this makes writing on and about the diaspora, or in the case of Brenner, of taking photographs of it, an impossible pro-position. In which case one must ask what it is that Brenner has been doing since 1978, when at the age of 19 he began to take photographs of Jews around the world, a project that necessarily remains ongoing (incomplete), and in the past 26 years has taken him to over forty countries on five continents, and now consists of close to 80,000 images. Photography in the face of, in front of and so, in a sense, before all of those faces and therefore in a further sense, before the diaspora, in which the latter will forever be irreducible to any number of faces and will always be the interruption and therefore the promise of community. This is what I set out to think in this essay.

But first the postscript: it is an anecdote, a surreal short story about a surprise encounter, involving a taxicab, a cell phone, memory, forgetting, a persistent anonymity the latter of which, as you’ll hear, is not only God’s, but that of the taxicab driver as well, and the question, which may or may not be a diasporic question: ‘where do you come from?’

I have gone in search of the people I have photographed in the four corners of the world. But, sometimes, it is they who find me.

One day, in New York, I jump into a taxi and indicate where I want to go. I look at the driver’s identification plate: the name sounds Russian. So, in my rudimentary Russian, I begin a conversation. ‘Where do you come from?’

‘From Tashkent.’

I begin to list the names of villages in central Asia that I had visited: Kattakurgan, Andijan, Namangan, Fegana, Hadirshi. The driver turns around and asks how I know these places.

‘Frédéric! It’s you!’ he exclaims. ‘You were at my wedding!’ He immediately calls his wife on his cell phone: ‘Liuba! Remember Frédéric, the photographer who was at our wedding? He’s here in the taxi!’

As we make our separate ways, we underestimate all that weaves us together. My friend Albert Maysles, to whom I recounted this story in New York, replied, ‘Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.’ (Brenner, 2003a: xv)

Is it simply a coincidence that in this story, the taxi driver also remains anonymous, as anonymous as God? Which might also be a way of giving him, the cabby, a name, a name that is and can never be a name, an anonymous name (namely God), not in order to assert divine presence but rather, as Blanchot comments on the brothers Jacob and Esau, to positively register a bond between two people that is non-relational and anonymous and therefore not unlike the relation one might have with God. Blanchot stresses that, in Jacob’s statement of offering to his brother Esau (‘”If I have won favor in your sight, then accept this gift from me; for I have seen your face as one sees the face of God”‘), Jacob ‘does not say to Esau “I just saw God as I see you” but “I see you as one sees God,” which confirms the suggestion that the marvel (the privileged surprise) is indeed human presence, this Other Presence that is Autrui–no less inaccessible, separate, and distant than the Invisible himself’ (1993: 129).

In recognizing the anonymity of the cabbie as similar to the anonymity of God, and more specifically as a non-redeeming messianic God, might it then also be a matter of giving God a job, namely that of picking up passengers and transporting them from place to place, perhaps without ever actually arriving at a final destination, and provoking God to ask of his fares, again and again, ‘where do you come from?’, and, ‘where are you headed?’. Yet when it comes to the encounter in a taxi, might it not also be said that the driver is just a little bit more diasporic than the passenger, in his ability to ask both questions (‘where do you come from?’, and ‘where are you headed?’), whereas the one in the back seat rightly assumes that at that moment, they are both headed in the same direction, to the same place, the same destination?

In any event, or precisely in the event that is this encounter, both men are taken by surprise, unawares as we say, as their paths re-cross each other, there and now here, Tashkent and Manhattan, a convergence in divergence, the non-coincidence that lies at the center of coincidence, a coming together but only at the point of departure (‘As we make our separate ways, we underestimate all that weaves us together’). For not only is it impossible to prepare oneself for the encounter, given that it is, by definition, predicated upon nothing more than the pure force of the surprise, it is also what Maurice Blanchot refers to as ‘the infallibility of the improbable’ (1993: 412, emphasis in original). Which, he goes on to explain, is ‘what by definition does not cease coming about and yet only comes about exceptionally, in uncertainty and outside every promise: at all times but in a time impossible to determine, that of surprise’ (1993: 412). To experience the encounter is to share in a disjunctural and hyphenated bond, in the persistence of anonymity and the limits of perceptibility. The encounter is the separation at the point of contact, an irreducible distance and spacing that is, at once, the potential collapse of the relational bond and its maintenance and preservation. It is ‘all that weaves us together’, and what perhaps necessarily and unavoidably will always be underestimated precisely in the impossibility of it ever being fully estimated, calculated, and finalized. As Blanchot writes: ‘The encounter designates a new relation. At the point of juncture–a unique point–what comes into relation remains without relation, and the unity that thus comes to the fore is but the surprising manifestation (a manifestation by surprise) of the un-unifiable, the simultaneity of what cannot be together’ (1993: 415).

Rather than fortify our visual-based epistemologies of identity and community, Brenner’s project works at the limits of vision and perception and their technological surrogates and prostheses, including photography and its representation of faces and potential re-inscription of the stereotypical, exemplary, and allegorical. As Brenner has admitted, his project was originally defined ethnographically yet eventually began to put into question many of the presuppositions that ethnographic photography relies upon in order to render social-cultural identities. This admission of limits is further attested to when he states, ‘Perhaps we do not possess the tools to decipher what is being played out before our eyes. And so these photographs are meant not as answers but as questions’ (2003a: xv). More than simply saying that his photos enable questions to be posed, Brenner is effectively redefining them as questions, as the very places where notions such as diaspora, Jew, Jewishness, loss, homeland, and resemblance are visually materialized, where they exist on a visual register, as questions. In this way, it can be argued that Brenner’s photographic project is not so much an archiving of the Jewish diaspora, as it is a diasporic photographic practice, that is, one that is without the image of a single people, identity, land, image, or face.

To the extent that Brenner’s project keeps these questions open, it is political, able to affirm that Klal Yisrael, the community of Israel, does not find its geographic synonym in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel as the territory of ancient Palestine and the modern state of Israel), and that the community of Israel has a future, and that this future and this community are yet to come.

Take, for instance, the photograph of a barbershop, in Leninbad, Tajikistan, in 1989, at the time still governed by the USSR. In regard to this hall of mirrors, Brenner tells us that ‘All the barbers are Jews except for two. All the customers are Muslim Tajiks, except for one’ (2003b: 42). It is significant that he does not bother to tell us who is who, and which is which, assembled as they are in a place for the purposes of cutting and severing (of difference) and yet also a vertiginous space of resemblance, with that V-shaped emptiness in the middle made from two lines of diverging and converging bodies, a boomerang effect if you will, on the level of the social and the visual.

Frederic Brenner, Barbershop, Leninbad, Tajikistan, USSR, 1989

Eight years later, Brenner was able to reunite all of the barbers from Leninbad for a photograph taken in the Dead Sea (on the border between Israel and Jordan). All but three were once again present and together, since two who were still living in Tajikistan, and one gentleman was sick. One of the customers from eight years ago is now here as well, the man second from the right. When recently asked by reporter Robert Siegel of National Public Radio (NPR) why he had posed them this way, Brenner responded,

It was so surreal. Those people who were living not far from the Afghan border, who I never thought would come to Israel. And the book is about showing the extraordinary spectrum of expressions and representations of Jews and Judaism. There’s something surrealistic in this photograph, but I feel this is what life is about. (National Public Radio, 2003).

As it has been said by others, Israel was born in exile and in its very originary existence it was/is exilic, dispersed, deterritorialized. In that same NPR interview, Brenner underlines this by pointing to that passage (in both senses) in the Book of Genesis, that book that is taken to be the preface of The Book, in which one reads an early if not first injunction (a taxi driver’s command?) of dispersal and necessary disjunction: ‘Go for yourself. Go to yourself. Go out of yourself. Go to reach out’ (NPR, 2003). So it is that the singularity of existence–including the singular existence of Jews and Judaism–is multiple, an originary differing and deferring, in which ‘the truth of the beginning is in separation’ (Blanchot, 1993: 126). Blanchot referred to this sense of origin as its ‘nomadic truth’ and argued that Judaism is one form of its positive affirmations (1993: 125). For Blanchot, being Jewish entails exodus and exile as legitimate movement. Through this exodus and exile comes an affirmation of an irreducible relation to strangeness (or otherness) and in turn and through this authority comes the potential to learn to speak and write, that is, to enunciate the relational condition of existence, to decide as did Abraham to heed the injunction to exteriority. For it is this willingness to give oneself over to the outside, to set out and to leave, that keeps open the possibility of what Blanchot refers to as a ‘just’ or ‘pure relation’, which should be read and heard as a relation that is not only just (in a juridical-ethical sense) but that is just a relation, simply and absolutely (not unlike the distinction drawn by Jean-Luc Godard between a just image and just an image).

The singularity of this just or pure relation is–in its originary multiplicity–open, incomplete, and interminable. Which is also to say that it bears ‘within itself’ the persistent claim that there will always be a remainder, a future, as long as we cannot foresee what that future will be. And so it is that Derrida and the brothers Boyarin (and many others) equate Jewishness and future, a necessarily interminable equation that is also a remaining open, a remaining that is precisely this opening, differing and deferring: remaining as opening, remaining as differing, remaining as deferring (Derrida, 1995 & 1999; Boyarin, 1993). This space of divergence and persistence, and of a persistent divergence and diverging persistence is the space of encounter, a slipping away and through the hyphenated bond (trait d’union), a sharing ‘in’ a future, as some time and place altogether other (heterological)–a sharing-out that has been theorized as the condition of ex-istence itself (Nancy, 1991, 1993, 2000, 2003).

Remarkably, it is Blanchot who enables one to begin to trace the connections (that are not simply theoretical) between Brenner’s sense of diasporic space as surreal and this sense of the intimacy between future and Judaism. For it is in his essay, ‘Tomorrow at Stake’ (which serves as the final chapter of his collection of writings, The Infinite Conversation), in a section titled ‘The Absence of the Book’, that Blanchot discusses Surrealism as predicated upon such things as the surprise, the encounter and therefore as bearing upon the future. What I wish to do in the remainder of this essay, is to think Brenner’s photographic project as a series of encounters with the surreality of the diaspora–of what it means to be ‘at home in exile’–and thereby exist as exposures to, and promises of, a future to come.

Brenner’s photographs may be understood as surreal not only because the diasporic condition in a certain sense can be described as such, but also because it might be argued that the composition or arrangement of bodies and places in each of the photographs involves a disaggregation or derangement (yes, perhaps a certain madness even), that inescapably bears the paradoxical situation of being at once at home and estranged (unheimlich). This is a surrealism not of experimental photographic techniques or explorations of psychological conditions, but rather in the sense of untimely images of unhomely conditions: of what it means to be at home in exile, and in the full sense that the homely can only be exilic.2 Of what it might mean to be at home in the world in which there is no place other than this world. Yet in such a way that existence is defined in terms of an irreducible relation to exteriority, an exteriority that does not lie outside or beyond the world in a realm of utopic, messianic redemption, but right here now in an infinite passage and incessant opening out. The force of this relational exteriority–that in its power and trajectory might be literally described as pathbreaking–will always undo efforts at finality and closure, including as a singular unified whole, such as a nation-state or other form of community. It is the way in which the surprise encounter, in its surreality, affirms existence–including in its futurity–as a sharing-out, of being in relation not to this or that particular person, place or thing, but simply (and therefore absolutely) just in relation.

For the subjects of the photographs are themselves bodies-in-encounter, exhibiting a certain sense of surprise of being there, wherever. Brenner’s photographs then are not simply documentary encounters with others, they are more accurately the traces of an encounter with encounter, a doubling in which Brenner’s own nomadism is factored in. These photographs bear a surreal aesthetic of encounter that is not so much captured and visualized in their pictorial composition but rather in the conditions of their production: the surreal surprise of encountering Jews all around the globe, and the realization of so many of them rarely ever looking like Jews. Such a diasporic deconstruction of clichés and stereotypes provokes the question: ‘what is a Jew supposed to look like?’ as it simultaneously leaves any number of possible answers infinitely postponed and incalculable.

To further our discussion of the encounter then, it might be said that what makes the encounter an encounter lies outside the frame and outside the work (hors d’oeuvre), in an inassimilable exteriority, as that which has yet to let itself be put to work. The encounter opens up a distance within this world, a spacing that is the space of relationality and difference. It is ‘what comes without advent’ (Blanchot, 1993: 414) and without admission. It is unexpected: the stranger and, even more precisely, the strange that lies at the heart of intimacy, of familiarity. As Blanchot, via Levinas, speaks of the Jews, so too can one speak more specifically of Brenner and his photographed subjects:

They ‘ bear witness ‘ to this relation with difference that the human face (what in the visage is irreducible to visibility) reveals to us and entrusts to our responsibility; not strangers, but calling us to the exigency of strangeness; not separated by an incomprehensible retribution, but designating as pure separation and as pure relation what, from man to man, exceeds human power–which is nonetheless capable of anything. (1993: 129)

In a number of other texts, Blanchot names this force ‘worklessness’, and here one might say that diaspora is this force of worklessness that interminably interrupts the work, and in its interminable interruption keeps it open (to the future, to difference). One might be tempted to say that it is this interruptive force that makes the work possible, yet only if one is also willing to accept that that work is nothing more than the affirmation of this worklessness, such that diaspora is the impossibility of representation. So something as strangely paradoxical or surreal as the absence of diaspora in a book solely dedicated to diaspora (and so the same can be said for my paper).

What each of these photographs amounts to then is a hiatus, suspension, and a certain kind of arrest. Look at all of these photographed bodies, and realize that nearly all of them are standing still, posed and almost always poised. Yet none is more originary or closer to the origin than any other. They are types without access to origins, types separated from the arche (origin) that would render them as archetypes, as allegorical symbols of the origin, the foundation, the law, the homeland.

Some notes and observations on a few of Brenner’s photographs

Frederic Brenner, Leonid Semyonovich Doktor, hatter, Shargorod, Ukraine, USSR, 1989

Here is Leonid Semyonovich Doktor, in Shargorod, Ukraine, in 1989. A maker and wearer of hats, and seemingly a dwarf, he stands in front of and below a wall across which are hanging, in four rows, a number of soft-top caps. This is his workshop and store, where he makes and sells hats. At the moment of this photograph, it appears as though he is about to go outside, as he stands there wearing a dark overcoat and neck scarf and one of his caps. Perhaps this is the one that had also been hanging on the wall, in the space that is now empty; a cap nearly identical to the others.

Frederic Brenner, Jews with Hogs, Miami Beach, Florida, USA, 1994

The title of another photograph punningly identifies–and in the most un-kosher of ways– this group of bikers as ‘Jews with Hogs’, as in Harley-Davidson motorcycles, a diasporic vehicle, assembled in front of a synagogue in Miami Beach, Florida. Two observations: first, that this photo, regardless of its seemingly benign disposition of bodies and bikes, reminds us of the chillingness of any form of communitarianism, in the sense of a ‘gang’, and second, and this from Derrida’s commentary on the image: ‘Davidson’ is a proper Jewish name (Brenner, 2003b: 91).

Frederic Brenner, Marranos celebrating Passover in secret, Belmonte, Portugal, 1988

Marranos celebrating Passover in secret, Belmonte, Portugal (on the border with Spain), 1988. A family still retaining their crypto-Jewish traditions, secret rituals and underground spaces (although it’s an attic, isn’t it?) here now revealed, or not? As Derrida says, ‘They make of their secret an archived invisible visibility. They are the only ones, in this series of photograms, to keep the secret that they exhibit and to sign their belonging without belonging’ (Brenner, 2003b: 65).

In terms of the question of belonging, and in contrast to the Portuguese Marranos, there is a photograph of the Jewish community of Beijing. Assembled around a torah scroll in front of the Tiananmen Gate, ten years after the brutal suppression of demonstrators whose demands, as Giorgio Agamben has argued in his book, The Coming Community, were largely without ‘determinate contents’ (1993). In their unwillingness to assert a collective identity based upon a predetermined sense of belonging, but instead simply existing politically in and as their whatever singularity, they posed the greatest threat to the State. As Agamben goes on to argue,

Whatever singularity, which wants to appropriate belonging itself [rather than belonging to], its own being-in-language, and thus rejects all identity and every condition of belonging, is the principal enemy of the State. Wherever these singularities peacefully demonstrate their being in common there will be a Tiananmen, and, sooner or later, the tanks will appear (1993).

Agamben’s notion of the coming community is synonymous with the diasporic community (whichever), such that the latter will only bear the promise of a future, will persist, to the extent that it remains yet to come.

Brenner’s photographs imply a situating of the de-situated, and yet in this suspension or hiatus, and through this slender gap or passage, is the future to come. It is not the space of being but of becoming, and in the case of this diaspora, of becoming-Jewish. For as Deleuze and Guattari describe it, the minoritarian deterritorialized movement that is becoming always involves ‘two simultaneous movements, one by which a term (the subject) is withdrawn from the majority, and another by which a term (the medium or agent) rises up from the minority’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987: 291). Which is to say that in becoming-Jewish there are always two Jews that are, in Deleuze and Guattari’s words, ‘asymmetrical and indissociable’: a Jew that is separated and dispersed, and a Jew that through this separation and dispersal is irreducible to any allegorical or stereotypical minority identity. This double separation and dispersal that is the path of becoming, effects both Jew and non-Jew, such that: ‘A Jew becomes Jewish, but in a becoming-Jewish of the non-Jew’ and the space of becoming is an opening onto a nonlocalizable future, whether in the form of homeland, nation-state, or community. Becoming-Jewish then entails the unbecoming of the Jew and a becoming of the non-Jew.

As Derrida reminds us, the true obligation and imperative of the archive (which to say, of any attempt to assemble and collect, such as Brenner’s project), is to remember the future (Derrida, 1995: 68). This means to keep the future open as obligation and imperative and perhaps most of all as a question, an open-ended one, as one might say; it is to retain or preserve the future as always the future to come. Is this not also what Walter Benjamin meant when, in his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ written in the midst of the most risky and dire of exiles and escapes, he spoke prophetically and of prophets, about a specifically Jewish, messianic future as not being ‘turned into homogeneous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter’? (Benjamin, 1969, 264).3 This heterological instance and passage, this exposure to the future in all of its unpredictability and non-redemption (what Derrida has referred to as ‘a messianicity without a messianism’ [Derrida, 1999]) is the time and place of the coming community. It is the promise of the future that is not, cannot, and one might go so far as to say, must not, ever be posited or projected as the promised land, but that rather must remain as an unfolding and exposure to the outside. A community that will only be at home in exile, unbecoming in its incessant becoming such that, as Blanchot has spoken of surrealism and as we wish to speak here now of Judaism, tomorrow will always remain at stake; not only for Jews and Judaism, but for Jews and non-Jews alike.


1 Earlier versions of this paper were presented at 37th Annual Comparative Literature Symposium at Texas Tech University, March 2004; and at the Art History and Visual Studies department, University of California, Santa Cruz, April 2004. I wish to thank those respective audiences for their response to my work, and Dorota Glowacka for the opportunity to contribute to this issue of Culture Machine. Finally, I am grateful for the feedback provided by the anonymous reader of this paper.

2 One of the ways in which Brenner’s project affirms this sense of home as exilic is in its inclusion of photographs taken in Jerusalem and other locations in Israel.

3 For a brilliant discussion of a bond of thought between Maurice Blanchot and Walter Benjamin, specifically as regards Judaism and questions of the future, see Dubow (2004).


Agamben, G. (1993) The Coming Community. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Benjamin, W. (1969) Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.

Blanchot, M. (1993) The Infinite Conversation. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Boyarin, D. & Boyarin, J. (1993) ‘Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity’, Critical Inquiry, 19/4, Summer: 693-725.

Brenner, F. (2003a) Diaspora: Homelands in Exile. New York: Harper Collins. (Volume 1: Photographs).

Brenner, F. (2003b) Diaspora: Homelands in Exile. New York: Harper Collins. (Volume 2: Voices).

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Derrida, J. (1995) Archive Fever. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J. (1999) Adieu: To Emmanuel Levinas. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Dubow, J. (2004) ‘The Mobility of Thought: Reflections on Blanchot and Benjamin’, Interventions 6, 2: 216-28.

Nancy, J.-L. (1991) The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Nancy, J.-L. (1993) The Birth to Presence. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Nancy, J.-L. (2000) Being Singular Plural. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Nancy, J.-L. (2003) A Finite Thinking. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

National Public Radio (2003) ‘Interview: Frederic Brenner discusses his work Diaspora: Homelands in Exile‘, radio transcript, October 2.

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