Featured Post


This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, February 17, 2014


I don't have anything further to say about the assorted pluses and minuses of Edward Skidelsky's Cassirer book, but I should note that the following quote raised my eyebrows a bit.

Man is held fast, even more inexorably than by the mechanism of work, by the mechanism into which he is thrust by the mechanism into which he is thrust by the products and proceeds of technical culture, and in which he is thrown, in a never-ending frenzy, from appetite to consumption, from consumption to appetite.-- Cassirer, "Form und Technik."

I didn't need Skidelsky to point out the similarities to doctrines propounded by uber-Marxist Theodor Adorno.  Adorno and Cassirer were both German-Jewish intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany to the bosom of the United States.  In one of Adorno's most famous works, he too took aim at the "never-ending frenzy" of America's consumerism and technological standardization:

A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself. It is the coercive nature of society alienated from itself. Automobiles, bombs, and movies keep the whole thing together until their leveling element shows its strength in the very wrong which it furthered. It has made the technology of the culture industry no more than the achievement of standardisation and mass production, sacrificing whatever involved a distinction between the logic of the work and that of the social system.-- Adorno, DIALECTICS OF ENLIGHTENMENT.

Skidelsky points out the similarity between Cassirer's remarks and similar observations by both Adorno and Martin Heidegger, but does not comment except to point out that "[Cassirer's] protest is not against social injustice so much as hedonism: his stance is not that of a Marxist but a classical moralist. Gains in efficiency cannot, for one raised on Plato and Kant, weigh against the much graver forfeit of virtue inherent in modern consumerism."

Not having read "Form und Technik," I cannot comment on Cassirer's logical arguments against modern consumerism, though I am happy to see that the quotes given are not as shrill and as poorly constructed as Adorno's argument, critiqued in detail here and here.  But I have wondered at times what Cassirer, a man raised in the high mandarin culture of the German intellectual tradition, made of American popular art when he emigrated to this country. I have occasionally argued that I felt that the logical extrapolation of Cassirer's "philosophy of symbolic forms" was one that, by logical extension, should embrace the diversity of the popular arts:

It's clear (to me at least) that one can plausibly extrapolate from this endorsement of human freedom in all its cultural forms an ethos which also tolerates all forms of literature, ranging from the great works that have endured for decades to those works that were intended only to please a particular, perhaps ephemeral audience.

And also here:

To be sure, Cassirer does not address in this book the provenance of the mythical imagination in literature.  He does address in general terms the transition from “the mythical image world and the world of religious meaning to the sphere of art and artistic expression.”  But it seems plain to me that literature functions far more through “association” than through “analysis,” and that it depends just as much as myth on creating “networks of fantastically arbitrary relations,” a phrase borrowed by Cassirer from one Hermann Oldenberg.

I've mentioned that Cassirer never wrote a poetics, though Skidelsky asserts that art and literature were Cassirer's first loves before he gravitated to the study of philosophy.  From the quotes here it seems likely that had Cassirer written a poetics, it would have been one rooted in "classical morality."  Goethe was Cassirer's literary idol, and Goethe's circle may have favorably influenced Cassirer's acceptance of myth and folklore as valid expressions of human reason.

Herder and Goethe collected popular ballads; Humboldt and Schlegel studied languages and place-names; the Brothers Grimm anthologized folktales.-- Skidelsky, p. 72.

However, though it's demonstrable that European folklore serves some or all of the same aims as modern popular culture, it seems evident that Cassirer liked the "never-ending frenzy" of the latter no more than Adorno did.  At base, though, one can speculate that both men, like Frederic Wertham, were alienated from this culture simply because it was not their own.  This is not to say that some native Americans have not also inveighed against American consumerism, Gary Groth being the outstanding proponent of Adornite philosophy in the comic-book domain.  But what is a "never-ending frenzy" to one man is a thrilling wave of creativity to another.  "Fantastically arbitrary relations" govern the worlds of popular fiction no less than the worlds of myth, and one's appreciation for the tenor of those relations depends largely on whether or not one is "tuned to hear."

No comments: