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Heimat: A Critical Theory of the German Idea of Homeland.

Heimat: A Critical Theory of the German Idea of Homeland. By PETER BLICKLE. (Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture) Rochester, NY: Camden House. 2002. xi+ 186 pp. $70. ISBN 1-57113-225-2.

According to Ernst Bloch's famous final sentence of Das Prinzip Hoffnung, 'Heimat' is 'etwas, das allen in die Kindheit scheint and worin noch niemand war'. Whereas in Bloch's reading 'Heimat' connotes a utopian dimension and even a political potential for the left, Blickle places 'Heimat' discourse firmly in the tradition of pre-modern, largely regressive thinking. The introduction flags the study's conclusion in the following summary manner:

Heimat is a crucial aspect in German self-perceptions; it represents the fusional anti-Enlightenment thinking in German Romanticism; it is the idealization of the pre-modern within the modern; it unites geographic and imaginary conceptions of space; it is a provincializing, but disalienating, part of German bourgeois culture; it reflects modern German culture's spatialized interiority; it combines territorial claims with a fundamental ethical reassurance of innocence; and, to achieve this combination, it uses a patriarchal, gendered way of seeing the world. (pp. 1-2)

The snappiness of these opening reflections sets the tone for the study as a whole: the reader who expects an examination of this thesis with reference to multiple examples from German literature, the visual arts, or film will be disappointed. Instead of analysing diverse concrete examples of geographically specific instances of 'Heimat' discourse, the study 'is concerned with the idea of Heimat overall' (p. 1).

Following the notion of modernity put forward by Jurgen Habermas and Anthony Giddens, the study argues that Heimat resists the main characteristics of modernity by simply negating the distanciation (as Anthony Giddens calls it) of time and space and modernity's reflexivity. For Blickle 'Heimat' discourse embraces a regressive imaginary that aims at re-establishing an idealized traditional order. Holderlin's 'Heimkunft' is quoted as evidence of a fusional discourse which is 'an antidote against irony, against the alienation of having a self-conscious, reflexive and rational self' (p. 42). Blickle conveniently ignores the fact that the self's return to the lost 'Heimat' already reflects the subject's decentredness and dislocation from the space of 'Heimat'.

While such cursory treatment of Holderlin leads to stark simplifications, the ensuing reading of Herder's cultural nationalism is more nuanced: Blickle's discussion of the relationship between the localized idea of 'Heimat' and the development of the nation advances his argument quite well. Drawing upon Norbert Elias, Blickle points to the utopian dimension of Herder's cultural-linguistic nationalism (p. 5o). The problem is, however, that the study as a whole ignores the ambiguity of Heimat discourse throughout: his argument rides roughshod over German philosophical and literary traditions. Drawing a sweeping line from German Romanticism and Idealism to Heidegger, Blickle identifies a specifically 'German affinity for grounding' (p. 122). Clearly this reduces German philosophical thought to a cartoon-like caricature. Because Blickle's point of departure is a one-dimensional concept of 'Heimat'-'Heimat is a kind of toothless German critique of Western civilization' (p. 20)-he is blind to the concept's semantic flexibility: for instance, he fails to note that nineteenth-century German-Jewish authors often adopted 'Heimat' discourse in their writings, thus unsettling the binary between self and other, identity and difference. Examples of a 'Heimat' discourse beyond the limited horizon of a 'counterphobic conceptualization expressed in regressive imagistic terms' (p. 15) are too numerous to cite. A much more nuanced discussion of how identity and difference, belonging and exclusion are handled in German 'Heimat' discourses since the 1890s is offered by Elizabeth Boa and Rachel Palfreyman in Heimat: A German Dream (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); reviewed in MLR, 98 (2003), 524). While Blickle's study offers many snappy aphorisms about the regressive dimension of 'Heimat' discourse, it fails to engage with the complexity of 'Heimat' discourse which is neither intrinsically antirational and regressive nor utopian. Blickle's study is too one-sided to make a real contribution to the vast body of literature on this fascinating subject.


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Author:Fuchs, Anne
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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