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  • Scars of the Spirit: The Struggle Against Inauthenticity
  • Pieter Vermeulen
Geoffrey Hartman , Scars of the Spirit: The Struggle Against Inauthenticity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. xii + 260 pp.

Rather than the volume of literary criticism one might have expected, Geoffrey Hartman's most recent book offers an "intervention" (a term Hartman employs following Adorno's usage, 229) in the fuss surrounding the rise of cultural studies to curricular dominance. The book's thirteen essays address the possibility of authenticity in a world flooded by simulacra and develop the analysis of this question into a counterstatement on the institutional hegemony of what Hartman describes as "aggressively pragmatic" cultural studies (213). The "norm of inclusiveness" (197) and "ethos of cultural retrieval" (198) in this discipline, the argument goes, fail to temper an ineradicable reality hunger and thus counterproductively provoke a purgative political nostalgia for an allegedly more real past. Against this, Hartman's plea for an aesthetic education stakes the authority of the whole of his oeuvre: the theoretical statements on textuality, making up the book's third and best part, rework the conclusions of the readings dominating Hartman's works till, roughly, Saving the Text, his 1981 engagement with Derrida, while the overall analysis derives its grave "cultural and political urgency" (viii) from the investment in Holocaust remembrance that has accompanied his increasingly ethical criticism since then.

The problematic of survivor testimonies occupies the whole second part of the book and, for two interrelated reasons, constitutes the most dramatic application of Hartman's cultural analysis. First, our postmodernity confronts an increasing derealization of the world due to the overkill of simulacra. The corollary of this is an unsatisfiable reality hunger exemplified most distressingly by a "memory envy" aimed at Holocaust survivors, because of the second and third generations' "lack of something more collectively defining" (79). Second, this derealization is crucially brought on by the "mediaturn," that is, by the media's claim to being "a medium rather than a mediation" (68), while it is on these media that the survival of the testimonies [End Page 195] depends. Both issues urge the question of authenticity, and although this is the least theoretical part of the book, it is the only one in which Hartman ventures beyond the reticence marking the subtitle's implicit double negative.

Throughout the second part of the book—but especially in the essay "Testimony and Authenticity"—Hartman articulates the urgency of these issues drawing upon his own experience as founder of the Fortunoff Video Archive. "Testimony and Authenticity" is an important essay that collocates Hartman's very concrete remarks on his own approach with a critique of the work of Giorgio Agamben, whose dominant reliance on abstract theoretical reflection fails to do justice to the uniqueness of the Holocaust. "By substituting an eloquent generalization for close, empirical study," Agamben's position neglects "thousands of survivor testimonies that actually exist" (90). This insistence on the urgency of the issue at hand is characteristically followed by the most theoretical part of the book, the essay "The Letter as Revenant," which offers a remarkable dehellenization of Hartman's important article "From the Sublime to the Hermeneutic" (in The Fate of Reading [1975]), in advocating a now emphatically Judaic "lettrist" (cf. 116) refusal "to go into exile from the word" (117). I find it Hartman's most cogent articulation yet of one of his abiding concerns, and a remarkable twist in his vision of literary history. The dechristianization of this imperative to resist an "imperious spiritualism" (106), which Hartman earlier situated in Hegel, signals one of the book's more implicit themes, the impatience with a "Christian ideology," both in its aggressive absolutization of the opposition between spirit and letter and in its survival in postmodern discourses of a hypocritical "weak thought." This essay is followed by the reprinted Tanner Lecture "Text and Spirit," which offers a first example of what a more spiritual "lettrism" might look like. This splendid text shows Hartman, in the dialectical movement between a meditation on the use of the word ruach in the Bible, Fortune Cookies, and Emily Dickinson, closer than ever to the ideal of a broadly humanistic philology he so admires in...


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