Lost among the shouts and skirmishes of the "culture wars" is the very idea of culture itself.
In this illuminating book, one of our most distinguished critics and scholars asks what the assault against the canons of Western culture has left in its place. If art and literature are largely the products of ideology and interest, how do they matter? And what does the idea of culture mean in today's sprawling, fragmented, critical world where everything -- poetry or pornography -- gets "read" in the same way?
Engaging an extraordinary range of literature, philosophy, social criticism, and popular culture, Geoffrey Hartman probes the meanings and uses of culture in contemporary society. The triumph of cultural studies -- and its critiques of bourgeois Eurocentric tradition -- is largely complete, Hartman writes. Against the political appropriation of culture, he posits, instead, a definition of culture as public conversation, intellectual and social debate among diverse communities. And against reactionary pressures to impose -- or reinstate -- a singular culture, or to seek in art or literature an affirmation of group identity, Hartman sketches new roles for the human imagination in a postmodern world.
For Hartman, the fusion of culture and politics, of whatever ideology, is disastrous. At a time of abstraction, fragmentation, and alienation, art and literature offer wholeness and meaning. But the promise is fraught with danger, Hartman argues, in a provocative discussion of the uses of culture as exemplified in the Romantic legacy. He pays special attention to literature's role in reconnecting us to the world. The choice is ours: Wordsworth or Heidegger, literature as sharedexperience or as reactionary ideology.
Hartman ranges widely in these elegant pages. He confronts the shock to the universalistic sense of culture from the Holocaust, as well as the problematic responses of such critics as Adorno and Derrida; explores the poetry of Wordsworth both as a diagnostic and a counter-model to the desensitization of modern life; and addresses the impact of the politics of inclusion and diversity on the claims of high culture.
Perhaps Hartman's most publicly engaged book, The Fateful Question of Culture embraces both the masterworks of European literature and art and the signs and symbols of popular media and daily life. It is a powerful reaffirmation of the liberating discourses that have always been at the very center of the Western tradition.
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