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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
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
News
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
people
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
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: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

    £38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

    Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

    £35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

    Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

    £15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

    Day In a Page

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea