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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...

Friday, October 3, 2008


I've recently finished SYMBOLIC FORMS AND CULTURAL STUDIES, a book of academic essays focused on the work of Ernst Cassirer. The title intrigued me because it suggested a possible rapprochement between the work of Cassirer and the academic discipline of "cultural studies." On Cassirer's side, his concept of "symbolic forms" was rooted in an understanding of the different forms human understanding takes in culture (art, science, religion). This bears some comparison to the concerns of cultural studies as we have them now, wherein a wide variety of cultural practices-- not least being popular entertainments-- can be studied for what the values they represent in a given culture rather than what they aren't, which has long been the province of elitists like Harold Bloom and the Frankfurt School. (Ironically, the latter of the two is supposed to have influenced "cs" in its formative years, but to judge from recent essays in that discipline, the relentless elitism of Horkheimer and Adorno has been largely dissipated.)

Unfortunately, no rapprochement takes place in this book of essays; it's nothing more than a collection of essays on various aspects of Cassirer's works, in which most of the essayists have nothing to say regarding cultural studies as such. Perhaps the idea was not to compare Cassirer's legacy to that of "cs," but simply to study his work *through* the "cs" lens. Thus most of the essays are not very useful for my purpose, which is that of exploring symbolic discourse in literary/cultural works.

One essay does suggest an interesting application of Cassirer's work to that of literature, though only in a roundabout way-- made necessary, perhaps, because Cassirer, being a philosopher first, did not write extensively about particular literary forms. Essayist Enno Rudolph begins by pointing out that though Cassirer never wrote an "ethics" as such, conclusions about his ethical beliefs can certainly be deduced from Cassirer's emphasis on plurality of expression:

"Cassirer's criticism is not confined to preserving the ideal of a lively interaction between a multitude of cultural forms as expressions of human freedom-- the implicit guiding ethos of the cultural criticism unfolded in his philsophy of symbolic forms-- rather, his suspicion is directed more generally at the dismantling of cultural complexity."

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.

Now, I cannot say Cassirer would have cared one way or the other about the struggle to gauge the nature of popular fiction. I have not read all of his works, but none of those works I've read show any awareness of popular entertainments, perhaps even less than one finds in the works of Cassirer's inspiration Goethe, whose "three questions" have on occasion been used to buttress elitist perceptions of art. But clearly his endorsement of pluralism matches that of the "cs" discipline, which at its best has a pluralist orientation toward understanding the multiplicity of ways that culture and literature work for assorted audiences. Time will tell whether anyone can ever manage to provide a needed rapprochement between the overly-sociological methods of cultural studies and Cassirer's concepts of symbolic forms, though Northrop Frye is one of the few literary critics to evince some Cassirer influence.

On a side-note, another essay touches on the contributions of German philosopher Christian Wolff (1679-1754), said to have been as eminent in his time as Kant and Leibniz. What I found interesting in the recounting of essayist Ernst Orth was that Wolff apparently had a "threefold structure" through which he endeavored to "establish principally the basis of all human orientation as far as it can be grasped rationally." Wolff's three disciplines are said to correspond to *cosmologia,* "theologia rationalis,* and *psychologia rationalis.* As a devotee of Joseph Campbell I recognized a close resemblance between these categories and the four functions of Campbell, the biggest difference being that Campbell's fourth category, the *sociological,* has no parallel in Wolff. There's no knowing whether Campbell knew of Wolff's categories and decided to add on the sociological function with which many academics-- not least those of the cultural studies discipline-- have been so preoccupied. But it's an interesting tidbit.

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