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The Postcolonial Place of Elias, Auerbach, and Cassirer

Barbara Buchenau

In her recent talk at CCSRE, "Jewish Intellectuals in a Postcolonial Age: Elias, Auerbac, and Cassirer," Barbara Buchenau grappled with the legacy of three key German intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century whose work redefined (and in some cases defined) the fields of social anthropology, cultural studies and the philosophy of culture. Weaving together a set of core commonalities of their work, Buchenau arrayed the three thinkers, whose scholarship and lives did not intersect, along two axes of commonality. In their intellectual work, all three sought to understand the meaning-making work of figuration through a series if interactions within their respective domains. At the same time, Buchenau cast their scholarship against the commonalities of their embodied experiences as Jewish refugees fleeing from the Shoah at the rise of National Socialism. By reading their work, none of which directly engages with fascism or even totalitarianism, against the backdrop of their lived encounters with alienation, disconnection and homelessness, Buchenau offers a deeper insight into how the revolutionary work of all three scholars can be repurposed now to better understand our own relationship with postcolonialism through a decolonial lens. 

As Buchenau traces the role that figuration plays in the work of each thinker, she uncovers a set of commonalities through which each uses the process of figuration, and its attendant interest in how the unknown is transformed into the knowable, to connect an experience of displacement with a sense of home or even, in the dialectics of Cassirer, of destination. The process of figuration plays a central role in the work of all three. In her reading of, for example, Elias, Buchenau traces his opposition between the system (which is total, predetermined, and closed back upon itself) and figural (which rigidly maintains a neutral and open relationship to the object of its figuration). In Auerbach's literary history, told through the embodied agencies of characters rather than texts, the same interactions that for Elias, creates interdependencies between diverse social actors in early modern societies, reveal the implicit violence of a typology that impose a determinative past on any future hermeneutic interpretation. Finally, in Cassirer's quixotic attempt to recover Kant as an empiricist thinker at the moment of the National Socialist takeover of Germany, Buchenau finds a reading of the symbol that, far from being abstracted and distant through the lens of Idealism, depends instead on the symbol as an expressive, embodied, and expressive from of sense. 

In the centrality of the figural to all three thinkers, Buchenau locates a desire to connect the purely abstract schemata of their own theories to an embodied practice. For all three, figuration creates the bridge between the purely abstract model and the lived experience of praxis as a form of meaning making through sensuousness. At the same time, this gives Buchenau the leverage she needs to move beyond the words on their respective pages into the contexts in which they wrote. The experiences of alienation (from civilization, from culture, from the arts) that concerns all three is, in Buchenau's framing, a direct consequence of their experience during the Holocaust: the interruption of their academic careers and their expatriate experiences as refugees. Read this way, Buchenau argues, we can best understand all three thinker as fundamentally decolonial scholars, who are not only searching for the underpinnings of the colonialist system in order to dismantle it, but who offer a vision of a pre-, or at least, anti-colonial world.