- Dramas of Culture: Theory, History, Performance
Originating as conference papers given at a meeting of the International Association for Philosophy and Literature held at George Mason University in May 1996 (from which a 2002 collection, Thresholds of Modern Culture was also published), the chapters in this volume are thoroughly revised essays centered around a reappraisal of culture studies, the notion of culture itself, and culture's relation to drama. The editors provide both a general introduction and an introduction to each of the four parts of the book. The essays in part 1, "Second Thoughts on the Cultural Turn," have little to do with drama; rather, they discuss both the current state of the cultural studies movement and the political implications of the study of culture. Foremost among these is the opening essay by Geoffrey Hartman, originally the keynote address to the conference, titled "A Culture of Inclusion: Politics and Poetry." Hartman presents a wide-ranging meditation on relations among culture, politics, and the university while focusing on the role of literature in dealing with the problems posed by the ideals of inclusion and multiculturalism. This in turn engenders some new thinking on the now decades-old question of the canon. Hartman credits Giambattista Vico with the origins of the current emphasis on "social construction," or the notion that culture is man-made and modifiable rather than a permanent endowment. As a partial solution to the dilemmas of cultural inclusion, Hartmann proposes what he terms "Juno's compromise," which he draws from book 12 of the Aeneid. Recognizing the Trojans' defeat of Latium, Juno asks Jupiter to let the native population keep its Latin language and certain observances at the same time that it incorporates the culture of the conquerors into its own. Such amalgamation, as opposed to revolutionary overthrow, is, Hartman maintains, the best we can hope for.
In the second essay, "The Narrative of Culture," John McGowan begins by expressing a skeptical view of the term "culture" and what he calls "culturalism," which he sees as a romantic, antirational attitude used (now more by the left than the right) to explain behaviors when all else fails. He goes on, however, to attempt to rehabilitate culture, using the notion of "the dramatistic performative," which he finds in the work of Kenneth Burke. Burke's pragmatic emphasis on individual agency and process rather [End Page 263] than on inherent and static product offers a model for a democratic culture that might be considered a variation on Juno's compromise, "a public space for undertaking transformative interaction between self and others" (54). In another look at cultural amalgamation, Anthony Easthope argues in "The Spectacle of Cultural Studies" that the cultural studies movement's attempt, like that of Dada, to banish aestheticism and high culture, has in the end incorporated what it tried to repress.
The essays in part 2, "Dramatic Categories in Cultural Discourse," focus specifically on relations between culture and drama as genre. David Halliburton in "Setting the Scene: Judging Kenneth Burke Judging" takes up Burke's dramatism, discussed by McGowan, from a different perspective. Focusing on Burke's commentary on the Oresteia, Halliburton shows how Burke's notion of justice is conceived in "dramatistic" terms, combining an understanding of truth with interpersonal relations. Burke's approach, for Halliburton, refutes Marxist materialism and other views of the idea of justice as merely relative to economic or social conditions. In "Politics as Melodrama: Revolutions, Empty Signifiers, and the Political Sublime," Oliver Machart, beginning with the premise that "both drama and politics are public and agonistic"(77), discusses relations between the French Revolution and melodrama. The short, theoretical format, which does not allow discussion of any dramatic texts, leads him to the erroneous assertion that "postmodern or democratic politics are tragic whereas modern or popular politics are melodramatic" (84). Taking Hamlet (hardly a typical tragedy) as his only example, Machart also characterizes the tragic hero as a "paralyzed spectator" in contrast to the melodramatic actor. While...