Manufacturing Myth

Art, Judaism, and the Critique of Fascism in the Work of Ernst Cassirer

by Victoria Kahn

The essay begins:

The coincidence of the Trump presidency in the United States and the upsurge of rightwing movements in Europe, including Alternativ für Deutschland, make this an appropriate moment for reconsidering Ernst Cassirer’s analysis of fascism in the last chapter of The Myth of the State. Composed in the 1940s, when Cassirer was in the United States, and published posthumously in 1946, The Myth of the State was Cassirer’s last and most explicitly political work. In this work he suggested that the right lens for thinking about authoritarian political movements was myth, not the organic myth of earlier primitive cultures but instead the manufactured myth of late capitalism, which involved the appeal to irrational instincts and the manipulation of symbols. At the same time, Cassirer held on to the possibility of a rational critique of fascism. In our current era of such manufactured myths as “fake news” and “the caravan,” it is worth reflecting on an earlier historical moment when Cassirer confronted the manufactured myths of the Nazi state and offered a defense of rationality missing from much of our current political conversation. In this essay, I explore the basis of Cassirer’s surprising optimism, which I argue has to do not simply with his “symbolic turn,” his critique of neo-Kantianism for its neglect of language and other symbolic systems in shaping human experience, but with his recovery of art as central to the human capacity for critical thinking and his linking of this capacity to the survival of Jewish ethical traditions.

In an eloquent passage in the last chapter of The Myth of the State, Cassirer spoke to his dawning realization that the technological manipulation of myth could fundamentally transform human nature:

Of all the sad experiences of these last twelve years this is perhaps the most dreadful one. It may be compared to the experience of Odysseus on the island of Circe. But it is even worse. Circe had transformed the friends and companions of Odysseus into various animal shapes. But here are men, men of education and intelligence, honest and upright men who suddenly give up the highest human privilege. They have ceased to be free and personal agents. . . . They act like marionettes in a puppet show—and they do not even know that the strings of this show and of man’s whole individual and social life, are henceforward pulled by the political leaders.

Cassirer went on to argue that “the usual means of political oppression would not have sufficed to produce this effect.” It was technology understood as a series of techniques for producing (and as the new twentieth-century media for amplifying) the myth of the state: the systematic degradation of language, the introduction of new rites, the unifying myth of a master race, and the mythic view of time and history as fate.

Despite the eloquence of the last chapter, the book was not well received. In an early review of The Myth of the State, Eric Voegelin accused Cassirer of subscribing to an idea of historical progress, whereby myth was superseded by rationalism. Only someone who subscribed to this view could be surprised by the upsurge of myth in modernity. He also faulted Cassirer for not explaining why such myths arose and for failing to see that “the new myth emerges because the old myth has disintegrated.” At the same time, Voegelin noted the difference between Cassirer’s last book and some of his earlier work: in The Myth of the State, Voegelin found “no awareness that the myth is an indispensable forming element of social order though, curiously enough, in his earlier work on the philosophy of the myth Cassirer, under the influence of Schelling, had seen this problem quite clearly.”

Leo Strauss, who had written his dissertation under Cassirer, was also critical of The Myth of the State. He noted that, in Cassirer’s historical narrative, the achievements of the Enlightenment were called into question by Romanticism, with its “‘deep wish to go back to the sources of poetry.’ . . . The political insufficiency of romantic aestheticism, in its turn, paved the way for the ‘realistic’ political use of myth in the twentieth century.” (Ironically, Cassirer had made something of the same connection in The Myth of the State.) But Strauss then turned this characterization against Cassirer himself, asking, “Is not aestheticism the essence of his own doctrine?” By this, Strauss seems to have meant Cassirer’s failure to elaborate an ethical philosophy that would provide the grounds for a critique of the Nazi state. Strauss quotes Cassirer’s observation about Plato: “No modern writer would ever think of inserting his objections to poetry and art into a work dealing with politics. We see no connection between the two problems.” Strauss then objects: “But is not the obvious connection between politics and ‘art,’ according to Plato as well as other philosophers, that both must be subservient to morality?” For our purposes, what is interesting about Strauss’s comment is not simply its preoccupation with the source of morality but also its diagnosis of an ambivalence at the heart of Cassirer’s work about the role of art. Though Strauss doesn’t make this point, it’s notable that in earlier work, and in essays written about the same time as The Myth of the State, Cassirer did in fact defend the ethical dimension of art, in which he found, along with reason, a counterweight to myth.

More recent critics have also judged The Myth of the State to be disappointing and/or naïve. In a fascinating recent article, Chiara Bottici accepts Voegelin’s critique of The Myth of the State but then argues that the draft of the book in Cassirer’s Nachlass (collection of posthumous unpublished material) presents a far less optimistic view of human reason. Here, Cassirer admits that myth is a permanent function of the human mind. Moreover, he implies a dialectic between reason and myth that is not far from Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (I will return to this connection later in the essay):

The fiercest and most horrible things were done in cold blood. They were ordered, regulated, calculated. These crimes were no longer crimes of passions; they were methodical crimes. There arose quite a new “science” of political crime that could be taught and that quickly was learned. This science was based on fixed and entirely “rational” principles. It proceeded in a clear and consistent way.

Bottici then asks, “Is Nazism the result of a practical regression into mythical forms of life or of the invention of a new science based on completely rational principles? But if the latter is the case, then we have to conclude that Nazism was not a sudden and possibly only German deviation in an otherwise progressive road from myth to modernity, but rather the result of the application of modern principles themselves—and, to begin with, the very principle of modern science.”

What are we to make of these differences between the Nachlass and the published book? Bottici surmises that either Cassirer’s editor cut these passages to preserve the image of Cassirer as a rationalist, or Cassirer was himself ambivalent about his insights into the potential violence of reason and suppressed these formulations in the draft that was eventually published. And yet, the tension Bottici locates between The Myth of the State and the Nachlass is apparent in the published version of The Myth of the State as well. In the central chapters of the book, Cassirer describes Niccolò Machiavelli as the inventor of a new science or technique of politics, even if one can also find an occasional recourse to myth in his works. Cassirer thus implicitly raises the question of the relationship between Machiavelli’s technique and modern political techniques. And later, discussing the Romantic and Hegelian reception of Machiavelli, Cassirer writes that “Machiavellism showed its true face and its real danger when its principles were later applied to a larger scene and to entirely new political consequences. In this sense we may say that the consequences of Machiavelli’s theory were not brought to light until our own age,” and until “our modern forms of dictatorship.” Here Cassirer himself suggests something like a dialectic of enlightenment or at least of rational technique that paradoxically brings forth what he describes as “the most uncouth and uncompromising materialism in political life.” Continue reading …

Kahn’s essay argues that Ernst Cassirer’s thinking about the spontaneity of form-giving in the creation of art, which he allies to the ethical dimension of Judaism, informs his critique of fascism inThe Myth of the State. Aesthetics, for Cassirer, is not divorced from politics but one of its conditions of possibility.

VICTORIA KAHN teaches English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Her most recent book is The Future of Illusion: Political Theology and Early Modern Texts (Chicago, 2014). Her new book, The Trouble with Literature, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in March.

Graphic Performativity

Powers of the Script: Prescription and Performance in Turn-of-the-Century France

by Antoine Lentacker

For all their concern with the nature of medical authority, historians of medicine have paid remarkably little attention to the history of the medical script, the main medium in and through which the doctor’s authority is enacted. This essay analyzes the medical prescription as an instance of a written performative. While focusing on the changing uses of one particular documentary genre in turn-of-the-twentieth-century France, it seeks to outline a broader theory of graphic performativity, or of the conditions under which the symbolic power of the oral performance is transferred and transformed as it is transcribed on paper.

The essay begins:

 

Although a somewhat stern personality, Paul Brouardel, dean of the Paris School of Medicine, enjoyed an occasional night out at the theater. On one such night in the late 1890s he had found himself particularly entertained by a vaudeville scene that had some relevance to his line of work, so he decided to relate it to his students. That scene, in his summary, involved an on-duty physician at a fictive theater who, longing for a night off, left his seat to a friend who was a stranger to the medical arts. By a stroke of fate, a young lady in attendance that night finds herself unwell, and all eyes turn toward the man occupying the on-call doctor’s seat. Put on the spot, the doctor’s friend quickly realizes he has no way out, so he rushes to the patient’s side, unlaces her corset, and, for good measure, pretends to write up a prescription, scribbling a few words without rhyme or reason on a slip of paper and signing it as illegibly as he could. While the ink is still drying, the script is snatched out of his hands and an usher is dispatched with it to the nearest pharmacy. Thankfully, the potion he returns with has the effect everyone counts on, and the indisposed spectator promptly recovers her health.

How are we to interpret such a scene? Is it that the prescription is useless? If a cure can be effected with a prescription that is senseless, illegible, and apocryphal—hence flawed in all the ways that seem to matter—what added value, we might ask, is there in the proper prescriptions of licensed and qualified physicians? Or is it on the contrary that the prescription does it all? That the accuracy of the diagnosis and the nature of the drug prescribed matter less in achieving the desired effect than the ritual of the prescription itself? Brouardel did not tell his students. Instead, he deemed the story “very fitting in a comedy, but not so in practice” and proceeded to lecture his audience on the need to write prescriptions clearly and legibly. Only later, in an article of 1905, did he appear to ponder what might have been the implicit lesson of the comedy he had delighted in ten years earlier:

The first source of the efficacy of the physician’s action is the trust that the sick place in him. The patient complies with and fulfills prescriptions in whole only if he surrenders completely to the authority of his physician. Trust sustains his moral fortitude; moral fortitude acts upon physiological processes; hope restores strength and resilience in the struggle against disease. The lack of trust has the opposite effect. Prescriptions fail to be fully observed; despair takes hold of the patient and recovery is compromised.

This essay follows Brouardel’s lead in accounting for the double nature of the prescription as both a drug to be consumed and an order to be trusted and obeyed. While suspending judgment on his psychophysiological speculations, it also sees the efficacy of the prescription as residing in an alchemy of words and gestures as much as in a chemistry of substances, and it sets out to describe what this symbolic efficacy owes to the form and medium in which the prescription is administered.

To name and analyze the symbolic powers of the medical script, I shall argue, we need a concept of graphic performativity. In elaborating this concept, two main pitfalls ought to be eschewed. The first mistake would be to locate the powers of performative speech in speech itself rather than in the relations of power between speakers and their addressees. Instead, we need to understand performativity as John Austin originally did—namely, as a theory of ritual whose efficacy is linked to a number of sociohistorical, as well as linguistic, conditions. Of the “conditions of felicity” of performative speech, the first to be mentioned in How to Do Things with Words is the “position of the speaker”: to produce its effect, ritual speech must be delivered by the “person appointed” to do so. Socially efficacious speech, in other words, is inseparable from the casts of socially codified roles in which speech is produced. In this sense, a theory of the performative speaks to the vaudeville scene Brouardel related to his students. The prescription in that instance worked its magic only because its author was, quite literally, in the doctor’s place, and also of course because he was a man of a certain age and poise, the sort of man who could claim doctors among his friends. Furthermore, it speaks to a rich historiography on the changing roles of doctors, patients, and (to a lesser degree) pharmacists in nineteenth-century medicine, a body of work in which few subjects have been as thoroughly investigated as has the struggle of an institutionalized medical profession for the exclusive authority to diagnose and to prescribe.

The opposite pitfall, however, would be to view the script as merely registering or reflecting relations of power constituted elsewhere and by other means. Authority is relational, and so it ought to be examined through its media as well as through its figures or possessors. On this the historiography has less to offer. For all their interest in the deployment of professional authority, medical historians have left the prescription, the main medium in and through which the doctor’s authority is expressed and enacted, virtually unattended. And so does Austin, whose performatives are typically oral performances engaging a kind of spectacle of the speech act. While there is no doubt that prescribing is a performative in Austin’s sense, a speech act whose proper performance endows words with a certain binding force and validity, it is an act deposited in a graphic artifact and mediated by it. Once the patient walks away from the stage of the medical consultation, the performance is over and only a script remains. Hence the specific question here is: How to do things with written words? As a general rule, writing frees the powers of speech from the body of the speaker, even as it threatens to undermine these powers by severing the link to the performance and performer from which they emanate. This means that there are specific conditions of felicity to the written performative—and specific ways it can go wrong.

By graphic performativity, then, I refer to the ways in which the graphic artifact captures and transforms the powers of the oral performance as it is transcribed on paper. My argument takes aim throughout at what might be termed a fetishism of the document. Documents do not attest, authorize, or document on their own, but only within shifting scriptural usages, practices, and institutions. To illustrate this point, I focus on one specific moment in the history of the medical script and examine it from the viewpoint of the three main figures involved in acting it out—physicians, pharmacists, and patients. The special attention the genre attracted in fin de siècle France resulted from the rise of a vast proprietary drug industry whose products were advertised in newspapers and available over the counter. France was not unique in this, but, for reasons explained in the first section of the essay, it was exemplary. French physicians during this period registered with unique acuity the erosive effects of printed medical advice on the authority of the script. Their conversations on the subject generated the trove of sources on which this essay relies. The next two sections consider the matter from the perspective of the pharmacist who judges the validity of the doctor’s note. This allows for a description of some of the concrete ways in which the script creates or loses a connection to the original scene of its production. The final section returns to the effect of the prescription on the patient. Its goal is to reveal the script as a medium in which the subject positions of physician and patient were not merely mirrored but also at once made, maintained, and destabilized. Continue reading …

ANTOINE LENTACKER is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside. His work is broadly dedicated to investigating the effects of changing communication technologies on the governing of people and things in Europe since 1800.

Looking and Geological Time

Staring into the Abyss of Time

by Stephanie O’Rourke

The essay begins:

Beneath the rock, more rock. It stretches deep into the earth in layered deposits of sandstone and shale, whose limits extend far beyond the edges of the plate. The engraving of the Harz Mountains [above], first published in 1785, depicts the textured surface of a quarry face recessed within a grassy landscape. To the right, a single figure ascends a hill toward a built enclosure. To the left, the curtain of the earth’s surface has been cut away to reveal a hypothetical cross section of its unseen depths. The composition symmetrically divides the realm of the human from that of the geological, with the quarry in the center acting as a fitting intermediary; it is, after all, a site where matter is “unearthed” by human labor and converted into resources. But within a few decades of this print’s publication, the preferred geological illustration of choice looked rather different, as an early example of a “stratigraphic diagram” found in Georges Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart’s Essai sur la géographie minéralogique des environs de Paris makes clear [right]. Decorative elements borrowed from topographical landscape drawing have been abandoned, and the human figure is excluded altogether. Instead, rock strata are organized along a vertical axis whose annotations reflect both their relative depth and the geological era in which they were thought to have formed. In late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century stratigraphic diagrams, geological history came into view for the first time, pictured as a function of depth.

The distinctions between these two kinds of illustrations may seem subtle, but the emphasis the stratigraphic diagram placed on geological history reflected a broader scientific preoccupation with the relative age of different rock formations. While not itself antagonistic to human-centric time scales, this kind of illustration participated in the emergence of a new model of geological history that left little room for human history, human agency, or human experience. Whereas the cross section of the Harz Mountains integrated the human scale and the geological scale, whose compositional elements were presented in symmetrical harmony, human elements were purged in later stratigraphic illustrations or relegated to a small detail atop the uppermost strata along with the mise-en-scène of the landscape. In the intervening decades, scientists and savants alike were coming to terms with radically new accounts of how and when the earth was formed. The chronological scale used to measure geological history continually expanded as naturalists attributed ever-greater temporal depths to the rock formations that populated their world. And, correspondingly, human history occupied an increasingly small portion of that geological record; the human figure in [the Harz Mountain] illustration was, in a sense, shrinking. This trend reached its fullest expression in the concept of “deep time” put forward by the Scottish geologist James Hutton in the final decades of the eighteenth century. Hutton proposed that the earth’s formation took place over such a long period of time that it could not even be comprehended in terms of the time scale of human history, rendering human history comparatively inconsequential. As the sweep of geological time grew in the early nineteenth century, “human tenure on the planet” came to seem, in the words of Noah Heringman, “insignificant.” But in other quarters, the geological and the human were still being figured alongside each other.

Atop the rock, man. The German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, known for his love of the Harz Mountains, pictured a strikingly different early nineteenth-century encounter between the human and the geological in his Wanderer Above a Sea of Clouds. From a granite outcropping, an eponymous wanderer placidly surveys the rocky mountain formations shrouded in mist below him and the faintly rendered peaks that flicker into view in the distance. The figure’s physical elevation over his environment and his panoramic view suggest the fantasy of a geological landscape visually possessed and perhaps also physically mastered by the human subject. Long used as a kind of art-historical shorthand for European Romanticism in general, the painting has more recently been taken as emblematic of a model of early nineteenth-century bourgeois subjectivity concomitant with the rise of modern spectatorial practices: “the ascendancy of newly realized bourgeois aspirations, fantasies of autonomy” that, Jonathan Crary writes, “permitted at least an optical appropriation” of the natural world, if not a literal one. Like Crary’s, a number of influential accounts of the painting grant interpretive priority to how the painting frames the role and status of the human figure qua a perceptual encounter with nature, whether mediated or direct.

Yet as a cursory inspection of the two aforementioned geological illustrations makes clear, this was a period in which the relationship between the human and the natural was undergoing extraordinary changes within mainstream scientific discourses—and in ways that posed significant challenges for the dominance assumed by a very model of subjectivity predicated on the unconstrained visual appropriation of the natural world Friedrich’s protagonist seems to experience. Might this figure be poised not on a precipice but along a widening fault line between conflicting models of historical and natural time? After all, [the Harz Mountain] illustration and Friedrich’s painting are not as intellectually and historically distant from each other as we might assume. Mining and geology were important elements of a constellation of cultural practices within which European Romantic thinkers like Friedrich engaged with and conceptualized nature. “It would have been difficult,” Theodore Ziolkowsi notes, “to assemble a group of intellectuals in any of the centers of German Romanticism without including at least one or two guests who were somehow involved with mining” in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Both Johann von Goethe and Georg von Hardenberg (better known as Novalis) were employed overseeing regional mines. Goethe even wrote rapturous lines about geological formations in his 1785 essay “Über den Granit.” As several scholars have noted, Friedrich himself possessed a genuine interest in geology and mountaineering and lived near one of Europe’s foremost centers of geological research for most of his adult life. It is apparent that Friedrich’s work might have both practical and conceptual points of contact with late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century geological discourse.

From this perspective, we might consider whether several of Friedrich’s works—and especially Wanderer—picture a perceptual encounter between the human and the natural that discloses not the sovereignty of bourgeois subjectivity in this period but rather its precarity in the face of divergent models of historical and natural time. In what follows, I reexamine Friedrich’s art with a particular eye to how it frames nature and history, on its own terms and also in relation to larger trends in German Romantic thought. By placing the “geological” aspects of his work within its broader scientific context, it becomes clear that a model of subjectivity predicated on spectatorship—and particularly the act of observing the natural world—was coming under extraordinary pressure in the early decades of the nineteenth century. As an encounter between the human and the geological, do paintings like Wanderer point toward the ascendance of bourgeois subjectivity or to its imagined annihilation? Continue reading …

Art historian Stephanie O’Rourke here examines the role of geological time in the work of the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich in the early nineteenth century. Her essay foregrounds the challenges this model of time posed for the relationship between the human and the natural—a relationship usually considered central to Friedrich’s work—and for the perceptual powers of the viewing subject.

STEPHANIE O’ROURKE is a Lecturer in Art History at the University of St Andrews, where she specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European art and visual culture.