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  • The Fateful Question of Culture
  • Ethan Goffman
Geoffrey Hartman. The Fateful Question of Culture. New York: Columbia UP, 1997. 250 pp.

The term “culture” is a contested one, undermined by poststructuralist critics, appropriated by pop culturalists, and fragmented by multiculturalists. In The Fateful Question of Culture, Geoffrey Hartman attempts to salvage notions of culture as a fulfilling search for transcendence based upon a European tradition that combines the Enlightenment slogan of “dare to know” with the romantic philosophy of “dare to feel.” If postmodernism and multiculturalism threaten such notions, Hartman sees the Holocaust as the central event bringing into question the European heritage. Yet Hartman misses an opportunity in this discussion of multiculturalism for, rather than using the failure of Europe as an antithesis against which to extend ideals of culture, he opts for a simplistic attack on identity politics.

In a period of fragmentation, alienation, and loss of history, the most forceful argument in The Fateful Question of Culture is for the necessity of an artistic and literary education: “I offer one guiding precept in this tract for the times: do not give up the concept of aesthetic education. Art is not a luxury, a snobbish indulgence, but basic to a measure of freedom from inner and outer compulsions.” Especially because university education now seems reduced to a search for technical skills, a diploma, and a job, this is a maxim worthy of repeating and discussing. Hartman supports his call to aesthetics by connecting literature to a wider cultural experience, one “linking genius to the sympathetic imagination [which] sees the progress of humanity in terms of an ability to feel for others.” Romantic poetry is the prime example here, in its foregrounding of peasants, wanderers, and outcasts. [End Page 1067] Yet for Hartman this widening sympathy, this opening up of new voices, seems to stop at the frontiers of the European classics.

The European heritage, in Hartman’s view, is itself problematic following the Holocaust, lending The Fateful Question of Culture an ambiguous quality that pervades its discussion of contemporary society. Hartman bemoans the contradiction between Europe as a center of culture and the tribalist excess of Nazi Germany: “Auschwitz is the revelation that the Palace of Culture, as Brecht had said, was built of dogshit.” European history seems to culminate not with a great opening up of the human spirit, but a reductive search for mythic purity: “The archaic and allegorical forces of the genius loci may then be appealed to, as blood (race) and soil (nation) become the identifying slogans.” Local cultures are systematically reduced, destroyed, or incorporated into a singular, central model.

Despite its critique of nationalism and essentialism, The Fateful Question of Culture neglects current appeals for multiple notions of culture. Multiculturalism is reduced to a form of tribalism implicitly analogous to Nazi philosophy, “an identity philosophy for the masses based on strong emotional bonding”, variously described as a “pathology,” an “inflamed sense of identity,” a “stressed sympathetic imagination,” an “essentialized difference” and a resort to “foundational and fundamentalist myth.” These attacks are launched in a work that contains virtually no quotations from, or discussion of, major figures associated with multiculturalism. Hartman briefly acknowledges current calls for a “diversity of voices,” for a literary analysis that considers literature’s “dialogic or polyphonic structure,” but quickly moves away from any praise of multicultural diversity. Hartman may be right to say that “Multiculturalism remains undertheorized and seems as unrealistic or abstract as the cosmopolitanism it intends to replace.” Indeed, multiculturalism is an amorphous term, meaning many things to many people; yet simply dismissing it evades crucial issues. How do cultures outside of Europe fit into Hartman’s argument? What is the place of “minority” and postcolonial literatures, which fuse various world cultures with European languages and forms, in his discussion of culture? These are, of course, huge questions, yet any discussion of the current state of culture should address them. In a diverse, interdependent [End Page 1068] world Hartman seems to wish, instead, to somehow reconstruct an old ideal of culture out of aesthetic education and thin air.

Ethan Goffman
Purdue University

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pp. 1067-1069
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