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Culture as tragic

June 26, 2011

A quick follow-up to the post on Kliger’s article, which contains this passage:

In Simmel, tragedy characterizes the logic whereby the cultural forms generated by individuals for their self-fulfillment solidify, acquire laws of their own, and turn out to be “no more concerned with our individuality than are physical forces and their laws.” (83)

Bakhtin disagrees, thinking that Georg Simmel (1858-1918) “is mistaken in positing a tragic rift between the needs of the psyche and objective cultural forms” (83).

Based on Kliger’s summary I understand Simmel’s idea like this: people want to express themselves through art, but they can’t really, because even if they manage to create a new cultural form, the form quickly becomes constrained by cultural laws (which I take to mean things like genres and the expectations they create). Assuming writers and readers have read other things before the work at hand, they can’t escape such cultural laws. And how could anyone even learn a language without exposure to “cultural forms” and the patterns they regularly form?

But I might be making Simmel into a Russian formalist critic, and I should put “The Concept and Tragedy of Culture” on my list of things to read.

See Ilya Kliger, “Dostoevsky and the Novel-Tragedy: Genre and Modernity in Ivanov, Pumpyansky, and Bakhtin,” PMLA 126.1 (2011): 73-87. Kliger cites Georg Simmel, “The Concept and Tragedy of Culture,” “The Conflict in Modern Culture” and Other Essays, trans. K. Peter Etzkorn, New York: Teachers Coll. P, 1968, 11-46 (in particular p. 39). A preview of a different translation of it is here.

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