Journal of Modern Literature 26.3/4 (2003) 103-122
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Representation, Violence, and The Fate of Culture:
An Interview with Geoffrey Hartman
Daniel T. O'Hara
When I invited Geoffrey Hartman to speak at Temple in the fall of 2002, I discovered that his talk, "Cultural Memory and the Passion Narrative," dealt with the complex problem of tradition and its often fraught relationship to individual talent. Even more to his point (and not T.S. Eliot's), the problem involved the larger issue of representation and the diverse forms of witnessing by individuals and members of social groups. Professor Hartman's historical argument in his talk was that we have a new sense of what constitutes cultural memory—many more peoples and modes of representation are involved—and of how things represented tend to count only if they appear in the genres of witnessing, of bearing witness to a wrong of some kind, a suffering, and the consequent avowed or implicit demand for justice, for reparation, restitution, a setting right of the mechanisms of cultural and other kinds of representation. Professor Hartman's sober warning in his talk was that a drive for apocalyptic representation, for a total and ultimate showdown between the aggrieved (and grievously wronged) and the often truly horrific wrongdoers, is always with us, precisely via the sublime witnessing of some passion narrative, whether autobiography and memoir, post-war [End Page 103] multi-media testimony in legal proceedings, or case history and documentary. We cannot outlaw such desire for justice even if we should be so foolish as to want to do so, but we have to learn how to handle it to minimize the aggressive drive for violent retribution, which of course only begets a new phase in another endless cycle.
A short time later, reflecting on this talk and its pointed message, I began to conceive (as this journal's Review Editor) of the idea of adding to what the Journal of Modern Literature would include in its Annual Review Issue. Why not, I thought, include memoirs, autobiographical reflections, and interviews (by and with) established scholars, critics, and theorists of modernity and modernism? Our readers could get to see such major figures reflect critically on their own bearing witness to that portion of the cultural memory which had engaged their attentions most intimately and intensely. I realized at the time that this idea would mean broadening the scope both of what the journal had done in its Annual Review Issue and of what topics had been included in it. Perhaps, because the times seem so barbarously threatening, too often on all sides, especially to culture of any sort, I proceeded with my idea, with the full support of my editorial colleagues, for which I am deeply appreciative.
What follows, then, is the first interview with a major scholar, critic, and theorist of modern culture—Geoffrey Hartman—conducted by Steve Newman, a Temple English Department colleague and friend. Originally, the two of us were to put the questions to Hartman, but circumstances dictated that Steve alone, with (despite what he claims in his prefatory note) only minimal input from me in the end, conducted the interview and asked his own questions in his own way. I regret having missed the opportunity to continue my conversation with Prof. Hartman, but I'm happy with the way the discussion turned out and hope our readers will be, too.
This is a revised transcript of a discussion with Geoffrey Hartman at the Modern Language Association conference in New York City, on December 28, 2002. I wish to thank Dan O'Hara, for commissioning the interview, for formulating some of the strongest questions, and for helping me to articulate others. And, of course, I wish to thank Prof. Hartman for his patience, his thoughtful answers to a wide-ranging set of queries, and for his work, both past and ongoing.
I. Presentation and Representation
Steve Newman: I'd like to...