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Political Aesthetics and Twitter Fascism

This post is not about Herschel Walker, but it is also about Herschel Walker.

In his most recent post, Paul quotes a lengthy passage from John Ganz. In it, Ganz writes that:

We should recall the old chestnut about Hitler being a failed artist: unable to express himself aesthetically, he turned to politics. Today, the vanguard of neo-fascism today seems to be once again among those whose creative urges are trite or tasteless, forcing them to lash out in hatred. We should also think about Walter Benjamin’s famous statements about fascism’s introduction of aesthetics into politics: “Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic.” Alexandre Kojève, whom Fukuyama followed for his famous “end of history” thesis, envisioned two possibilities for post-historical humanity: either a return to a bestial state, or highly aestheticized forms of snobbery made the general condition, essentially the paradigm of the Japanese tea ceremony but for all human activity. One thing that fascism represents is a possible synthesis: aestheticized barbarity.

This reminds me of an interesting article in International Studies Quarterly by Michael C. Williams. It’s about images and the so-called “aesthetic turn” in the study of international politics.

Williams asks, in essence, how the idea of an “aesthetic turn” in international-relations scholarship is possible in the first place. In other words, why is the study of aesthetics, and especially the role of images in world politics, at least apparently absent from contemporary international-relations scholarship?

Williams argues that aesthetics used to be an explicit concern in “mainstream” American international-relations scholarship. How the field does and (mostly) doesn’t engage with aesthetics reflects specifically ideological developments in the postwar United States.

The connections between the aestheticization of politics, fascism, and violence became one of the dominant features of the postwar intellectual landscape, seen by many as posing some of the greatest challenges to the survival of liberal democratic states in both domestic and international politics. As Martin Jay puts it, “Insofar as the aesthetic is identified with the seductive power of images, whose appeal to mute sensual pleasure seems to undercut rational deliberation, the aestheticization of politics in this sense means the victory of the spectacle over the public sphere. . . . In this cluster of uses, the aesthetic is variously identified with irrationality, illusion, fantasy, myth, sensual seduction, the imposition of will, and inhumane indifference to ethical, religious, or cognitive considerations”. Blended with widespread worries over the connections between mass politics, violence, and war, images and aestheticized politics became associated with some of the deepest potential pathologies of modern life, including the rise of totalitarianism within states and conflict and war between them.

Postwar liberals developed an alternative project for aesthetics and politics, one that:

[C]ould convey… themes of anxiety, human imperfection, and tragedy essential to political understanding. Liberal intellectuals like Lionel Trilling brought these ideas to a wide audience through books such as his bestseller, The Liberal Imagination…. [A]esthetics could only play this quintessentially political role if, somewhat paradoxically, it was kept substantially separate from politics in the conventional sense. As Johannes Voelz observes, “[a]nti-communist intellectuals insisted on the irreducibility of art to politics, but the capacity of art to make clear this distinction was itself seen as the most political function of art.” Freed from manipulative, technocratic uses as mass propaganda, aesthetics could be turned against those applications. An aesthetic realm that was depoliticized in these specific senses of subjective artistic “freedom” and a structural division between art and politics was justified as a positive contribution to the construction of a liberal society. As such, the figure of the modern artist as political precisely in their unwillingness to bend art to politics in the totalitarian (now generally code for Communist) sense, and who challenged political orthodoxy precisely by proclaiming her or his distance from political strictures and demands, became an exemplary symbol in Cold War liberalism. As Giles Scott-Smith has nicely termed it, this represented a remarkable “apolitical politics” whereby the arts played a powerful political role precisely by asserting their autonomy from politics.

The tensions inherent in an “apolitical politics” weren’t the only ones at work in postwar liberal aesthetics. The creation of an “apolitical politics” was itself an inherently political project, and aesthetics remained deeply political even during the peak of postwar liberalism. For example, U.S. government agencies — most notably the Central Intelligence Agency — treated American culture as power-political instruments in its competition with the Soviet Union.

U.S. officials attempted to “weaponize” a truly staggering number of cultural movements and products, including jazz music. Much of their efforts focused on those associated with “modernism,” from abstract art to consumer design.

This served a dual purpose.

First, during the first Cold War — which lasted from the late 1940s until the mid-1960s — U.S. officials believed that the United States and the Soviet Union were far more than great-power rivals: they were in a competition to determine which political system represented the future of humanity. It was imperative, therefore, that the United States demonstrate that liberal capitalism was “more progressive, modern, and future-oriented” that Soviet communism.

Second, it cohered with aspects of the postwar liberal “aesthetic” project:

Cold War modernism highlighted certain formal elements of modernist art (in particular its techniques of representation) and adopted the idea, held by some but by no means all modernists, that art should be autonomous from the practice of daily life, not subject to evaluation by social or political criteria. It then dispensed with the more revolutionary or reactionary political associations that had marked modernism in the public mind in the first part of the century, replacing them with a celebration of the virtues of freedom and the assertion that the individual is sovereign. What remained of modernism, then, was a set of formal techniques and attitudes unique to each art form but sharing some important commonalities across genres: allusiveness, abstraction, fragmentation and indirectness, the sense of being belated within a cultural tradition, the subsumption of emotion under formal technique, the retreat of the personality of the artist into the background behind different “masks” or narrative voices, and, above all, high seriousness. Largely emptied of content, modernism as a style retained its prestige and status, particularly among intellectuals, which made it an appealing attribute for consumer products and middlebrow artworks that employed modernist techniques but without the seriousness, aesthetic unity, or moral depths of the best modernist works.

The postwar project of liberal aesthetics started to unravel during the 1960s. As Williams argues:

As Mark Greif shows in compelling detail, by the mid-1960s the restrained, serious, and often elitist aesthetics of Cold War liberal realism seemed increasingly out of touch with the technologies, content, and power of modern popular culture. Its constant refrain of caution and limitation tended to become affectively pedestrian or even tedious. It appeared increasingly staid, socially stale, and politically conservative as the specter of totalitarianism receded and the cultural politics of the 1960s accelerated. Under these conditions it seemed unclear which direction the liberal aesthetic could take. This situation helps explain the sense of tragedy and failure that pervades much of Cold War liberalism, as well as classical realism, one that left many Cold War liberals disillusioned as their aesthetic politics seemed increasingly irrelevant in the “counterculture” of the late 1960s or led them toward the culturally (neo)conservative political Right in the following decades.

This timing is significant. If Robert Inglehart was correct, then the rise of reactionary populism is a symptom of post-material politics. The relative success of the postwar liberal project, particularly in the economic realm, facilitated a shift toward cultural disputes (and away from class) as the major axis of political conflict. We live in an age where political aesthetics dominate political discourse, and in which the performative dimensions of politics are increasingly ends in of themselves.

This stylized account leaves out a number of important developments. At least one of these brings us back to Ganz’s post.

The theorists that Ganz refers to were living in a period marked by an epochal change in the media of political communication.

Before World War I, the printed word— such as newspapers, pamphlets, and books — was the closest thing to “mass media.” Cinema and radio were still in their infancy. Television didn’t exist. Cinema and radio became increasingly powerful media over the course of the interwar period. Many observers saw a connection between their ‘manipulation’ and the rise of figures such as Mussolini and Hitler; they were closely associated with the dangers of aestheticized politics.

There are, indeed, good reasons to believe that major changes in communications media at least create conditions of possibility for the diffusion of heterodox, destabilizing ideologies. Moveable type made possible the books and pamphlets that spread the Protestant Reformation. The emergence of newspapers is strongly associated with the rise of nationalist ideology.

But this broad association doesn’t necessarily mean that different kinds of communication media produce similar specific effects. It is not obvious how much theories of fascism that are tied to the age of radio and cinema tell us about reactionary populism in the age of the digital telecommunications and social media. Contemporary far-right movements build from the ideologies, ideas, and aesthetics of their predecessors. But we should also look closely at how they differ in terms of their causal dynamics, their forms, and their ideological content.

Ganz also draws, although implicitly, on a venerable argument that antisemitism finds fertile soil among those who feel a strong sense of relative deprivation. Sure, you could always blame yourself for your dashed expectations. But it’s so much simpler, and far less painful, to look for someone else to hold accountable. That’s a role that “The Jews” have played for over a thousand years.

Here I also overall agree with Ganz, but I worry that Kanye West’s very public disintegration is something of a distraction. The people we’re talking about — including West — are very skilled at accumulating social, political, and economic capital in the attention economy created by social media.

Ganz quotes Benjamin’s evocative claim that “Self-alienation [that] has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” I think that describes one mode of performance that allows the (already at least semi-famous) to capture social bandwidth — and, by extension, accumulate some degree of political capital. But it’s not the only one, and it’s probably among the least viable.*

My sense is that West-style self-destruction ultimately harms, rather than helps, the political causes he espouses. Put differently, he’s almost certainly less influential today than he was a week ago, and he was probably less influential a week ago than he was in 2020. I also suspect that, in most cases, what we see is where we stand. Just consider the examples of Donald Trump and Elon Musk. I don’t think readers of LGM perceive the aesthetics of their performances the same way that reactionary populists do.

*There’s a longer story here about how a number of different developments, including Trump’s 2016 victory and the fact that journalists spend far too much time on Twitter, have led people to believe that social-media capital is extremely valuable in the political field. I think there are strong indications that it is, in fact, currently overvalued — especially among Republicans. But I don’t even know what that would mean, since the value of social-media standing in politics is, in no small measure, a function of how much people think it’s worth.

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