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The American Journal of Semiotics

Volume 33, Issue 3/4, 2017

Cassirer on Communicology

Jacqueline M. Martinez
Pages 373-397
DOI: 10.5840/ajs2017121829

Cassirer’s “Violent Inner Tensions of Culture”
A Cultural Phenomenology of Ethics, Freedom and the Mythology of Peace

Ernst Cassirer’s assertion that the most “violent inner tensions” are at work in the unfolding of culture, is the central problematic taken up in the present work. A “mythology of peace” is identified as central in maintaining a collective blindness to these violent inner tensions at the level of culture. Any notion of cultural ethics must emerge from an examination of culture as it is alive and concrete. Such an examination requires a cultural phenomenology. Cultural ethics must be considered in its relationship to conditions of human freedom. Cassirer’s concern with symbolic forms provides an entrée into the problematic of the relationship between culture, ethics and freedom. From within this problematic, Cassirer develops the terms, conditions, and practices of a cultural science that investigates the function of symbolic forms as they at work within the everyday world of people communicating. The work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty offers important extensions of Cassirer’s cultural science, particularly with regard to the relationship between individual perception or experience and the cultural milieu in which those perceptions and experiences are situated. A specific case of an ex-police officer turned mass-murderer within the U.S. American context is analyzed as a moment of rupture—an eruption of these violent inner tensions. This phenomenology of culture provides an insight into how mythologies of the “totalitarian race” and of “the hero” exacerbate these violent inner tensions of culture to the point of concrete expression. It also reveals the danger of overly rigid mythologies that can emerge from “symbolic forms,” and which deeply impede the “task of freedom” in a human world.