Tuesday's Book: The Fateful Question of Culture by Geoffrey H Hartman, Columbia University Press, pounds 17.95

In the Great British Debate about culture since the rise of mass literacy, we have come to expect certain things: swooping mandarin ironies, raillery, much self-protective humour, jokes about soap-operas, Keats versus Dylan and furious protest activity at the perimeter fence supposed to divide high from low culture.

Had this collection of lectures by the austere Yale critic Geoffrey Hartman been written on this side of the Atlantic, its title would have been coyly ironic. In fact, it is an allusion to Freud's Civilisation and its Discontents. Hartman is definitely not playing this one for laughs.

What he offers is a more rigorous definition of culture, which the British debate sorely needs. If the US debate often seems preoccupied with PC and stalking the slow beast of multiculturalism, it is also more ambitious. Hartman's patient teasing-out of the philosophical issues raised by the word "culture" is learned and complex, but arguably it cites too much and gives too little of himself. He is not possessed of a single thesis or Big Idea but comes nearest to that in reiterating the idea that liberal culture failed us in the 20th century. Between the present and the serene meliorism of Matthew Arnold's idea of culture a great boulder lies across the path: the Holocaust.

The failure of liberal humanist culture to stop Nazism, with the latter's seduction of its intellectuals and borrowing of the terms of cultural discourse, dealt an irreparable blow to culture's high claims. Nor was it a 20th-century aberration. The roots of cultural thinking in pastoralism and nature worship contained a dangerous virus. Idealism, Hartman suggests, is pathological. The dream of a common culture can be oppressive to the uncommon elements. The passionate pursuit of X can easily shade into the annihilation of Y.

Although he thinks multiculturalism is "undertheorised", Hartman is not offering a tetchy conservative opposition to it. But he seems to argue that ensuring a balanced, non-malign culture is profoundly difficult. The way to it is most likely to lie in the separation of culture from politics, the recovery of disinterestedness in the university, the restoration of aesthetic education.

The scandal of "culture wars" - when culture is a tool of violent nationalism or divisiveness - leads him to assert that "Art is not a luxury, a snobbish indulgence, but basic to a measure of freedom from inner and outer compulsions". Often proffered as a unifying force, culture can just as easily be a means of asserting domination. It can also be a way of helping us to connect with the world, resolving our sense of displacement.

In its immediate prescriptions, which are few, Hartman's deeply learned book can seem, on occasion, like an attempt to reformulate those classic liberal nostrums which the book appears, at first sight, to be holding at a distance.

But its heart is none the less in the right place. Too subtle to be a manifesto or a call to arms, this is an important contribution to raising the level of the culture debate.

News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

    £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own