Since the beginning of the 1980s, the Jewish American literary critic and theorist Geoffrey Hartman (1929-2016 ) has made crucial contributions in the domains of Holocaust studies, cultural memory studies, trauma theory, as well as Jewish studies. Hartman was centrally involved in establishing what is now the Fortunoff Video Archive in New Haven in the early 1980s, and in developing it into the most important initiative for the visual recording of Holocaust testimony (together with Steven Spielberg’s large-scale Survivors of the Shoah Visual History project, which borrowed much of its expertise from the Fortunoff Archive). Initially a grassroots initiative started at Yale University in 1979 by media specialist Laurel Vlock and Dori Laub, a psychiatrist and child survivor of the Holocaust, the Archive has since recorded more than 4,500 interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust. Hartman has been a tireless advocate of the initiative, and his writings in the last three decades have repeatedly reflected on the place of the Archive’s protocols in a rapidly changing media ecology.
In a blend of memory activism and cultural criticism, Hartman explores how video testimony can serve as an alternative “optic” in a media environment that, he finds, puts an increasing premium on immediacy and transparency, often at the expense of audiences’ capacities to absorb and process historical knowledge. The Fortunoff Archive’s operating procedures instead honor both the difficulty and the insistent reality of testimony (this emphasis on the actuality of thousands of testimonies informs Hartman’s critique of Giorgio Agamben’s “quasi-theological” reflections on the impossibility of witnessing [Balfour & Comay 2002, 508]). The video camera focuses solely on the bodies of the witnesses (and not on their living environment), while the interviewers remain off-screen and are trained to restrict themselves to minimal prompts. This method foregrounds the bodily presence of a particular person speaking in a particular place and time, and embodies the often atrocious memories that would otherwise threaten to remain ghostly, fleeting, and abstract.
Hartman is interested in both audiences’ (ethical) responsibility and their (psychological) ability to respond. The aim is not to transmit memories in ways that overwhelm or alienate contemporary audiences, as hyperreal cinematographic depictions of excessive violence often do, but that make these memories affectively and intellectually assimilable; the testimonies are allowed to “grip rather than freeze our emotions” (Hartman 2013). In order to effectively transmit the past, video testimony shields audiences from so-called “secondary traumatization” (or retraumatization) as well as from the temptation of indifference. To that effect, it operates as a “counter-cinematic” genre that “use[s] television to cure television” of its drive toward hyperbolic visuality (Hartman 2000, 9-11). Video testimony does not pretend to make absent things present; instead, it respects the impossibility of returning the past to the present, while it makes the persistence of memory unmistakable through its focus on the witness. Hartman uses Maurice Halbwachs’s little-used notion of the “affective community” (Ibid., 11) to characterize the provisional alliance between witness and interviewer (who becomes a “witness to the witness”), which projects the hope of the effective transmission of the legacy that this alliance fosters.
Hartman’s concern for the precarious persistence of the past mark his contributions to the study of cultural memory. In two important books from the 1990s, The Longest Shadow (1996) and The Fateful Question of Culture (1997), he probes the potential of video testimony and other, mostly literary, forms to counter the derealization and abstraction promoted by contemporary visual and digital media. While the poetics of video testimony honor the audience’s inevitable remove from the violence and suffering that is being transmitted, Hartman criticizes Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) for its aesthetic investment in clear and direct vision. The film’s ambition to encompass the enormity of the events through visual means, Hartman writes, aligns it with “the eyes of those who had the power of life and death”, and this ends up derealizing the reality it aims to capture (1996, 83). And if Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), that other landmark in visual testimonies to the Holocaust, does manage to convey a sense of the daily suffering in camp and ghetto, it in its turn risks “vicarious overidentification with the victim” rather than a sobering acknowledgement of distance (2006, 257). For Hartman, video testimony’s less direct transmission of suffering strikes a precarious balance between Spielberg’s and Lanzmann’s complementary errors; he believes that some forms of literary writing – most notably, for the late Hartman, that of the French writer Maurice Blanchot – also have the capacity to transmit the memory of the Holocaust even while underlining the inevitable difficulty of such transmission.
The attention to literature in Hartman’s work on cultural memory is not coincidental; before he became an activist and scholar of memory and a crucial figure in the institutionalization of Jewish and Holocaust studies (through the Video Archive and Yale’s Program in Judaic Studies) in his fifties and sixties, Hartman had made his mark as a leading critic of romanticism, and especially of the English poet William Wordsworth. Indeed, Hartman’s recurring insistence on the need to counter the mediatic drift toward derealization through forms that firmly embody abstract and ephemeral images echoes his understanding of the momentous cultural significance of Wordsworth’s poetry. In The Fateful Question of Culture (1997), Hartman controversially speculates that around the turn of the eighteenth century, Wordsworth’s poetry managed to memorialize an English rural tradition that was rapidly vanishing under the influence of the industrial revolution in a way that saved English politics from “the virulence of a nostalgic political ideal centering on rural virtue” that would go on to ravage the European continent in the twentieth century (7). Wordsworth, that is, helped England manage the transition to modernity without cultivating the rural past as a nostalgic temptation.
Hartman’s emphasis on the difficulties, blockages, and delays of transmission in his account of testimony can also be traced back to his career as a literary scholar. Hartman was educated at Yale, where he later taught for more than four decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, Yale became the center of the spectacular rise of so-called “French Theory” in the American academy. Mainly identified with the names of Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida, both of whom were affiliated with Yale at the time, French Theory foregrounded the limits of textual understanding and the instability of linguistic constructs. Hartman was an enthusiastic fellow traveler of these developments, and was sometimes identified as one of the so-called “Yale critics”; he always emphasized the creativity and freedom of textual interpretation that authors like Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida practiced and promoted, and that Hartman connected to Judaic interpretive traditions (midrash). Hartman was mainly interested in teasing out the unexpected and obliterated meanings and resonances in literary texts, and he recognized French Theory, and particularly deconstruction, as an ally in this endeavor.
The patient consideration for the unobtrusive and oblique dimensions of language persists in Hartman’s work on Holocaust testimonies. Like poetry, testimony demands a mode of attention listening for a nonreferential truth that transpires between the words – a “hearing of words within words” (1995, 540). It also informs his reflections on the notion of trauma, which has clear affinities to his longstanding interpretive practice, his literary-theoretical interests, as well as his work on video testimony. If Holocaust testimonies only surfaced after decades of silence and then spoke a truth that cannot be “fully retrieved or communicated without distortion” (537), this temporality exemplifies the typical structure of trauma: trauma, in the words of Cathy Caruth, one of Hartman’s students and a leading theorists of trauma, constitutes a form of “unclaimed experience” and delayed and oblique articulation. Whether dealing with literary texts, Holocaust testimonies, or traumatic discourse more generally, Hartman’s practice is one of carefully “reading the wound” (537) rather than sealing it. For Hartman, it is primarily literary form that has the power to be responsive to a reality that can only be registered indirectly.
Hartman’s investment in the vital cultural importance of literature is decidedly unfashionable; more than anything else, it testifies to the abiding influence of Wordsworth’s poetry on Hartman’s thought and sensibility. This devotion was nourished when the young Hartman, who was born in a Jewish family in Frankfurt, escaped the Holocaust and spent the war in England, in the Buckinghamshire countryside, where he was brought via a Kindertransport. Hartman repaid his debt to England and to the poetry he encountered there through his lifelong scholarly commitment to Wordsworth and to the uniquely untraumatic cultural history that Hartman, as noted above, believes England partly owes to Wordsworth’s poetic mediation. After the war, Hartman moved to the States and went on to become one of the leading scholars of English and comparative literature of his generation. In retrospect, it is remarkable how long it took the questions of Holocaust testimony and Jewish culture to move to the center of Hartman’s work. Before 1980, these issues only surfaced sporadically in his critical work and in the poetry that Hartman, like his wife Renée, herself a child survivor of the Holocaust, has intermittently published. In this respect, Hartman’s increasingly explicit engagement with the Holocaust is emblematic of the shifting place of the Holocaust in American life – a shift to which his intellectual and activist achievements have unobtrusively contributed.