Kermit Snelson on Wed, 31 Jul 2002 06:46:03 +0200 (CEST)

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RE: <nettime> how to defeat activism

David Garcia:

> every avant garde or modern utopia has been founded on
> the basis that the practice of artists was to liberate
> a potential for art making in everyone and shared by
> humankind as a whole. A potential whose field was aesthetic
> but whose horizon was political

David's appeal to a pedigree rather than an argument is not advisable.  The
trope that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" (Shelley,
1821) may indeed go back to the Romantics, but the opposing argument has an
even more distinguished lineage, going back to Plato and perhaps even to

In Book 10 of the _Republic_, written in the fourth century BCE, Plato notes
that the "quarrel between poetry and philosophy" was already "ancient."  He
then has Socrates go on about the ontologically inferior status of artistic
production.  So it's no surprise that when Plato finally pronounces on the
controversy as to whether poets or philosophers are the natural rulers of
the human polity, he decides, famously, in favor of the philosophers.

It is strange to be informed that the French Revolution was brought about by
poets and artists, especially German ones.  If any single "hacker" can be
said to have brought about that particular event, it was Jean-Jacques
Rousseau with his "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences" (1750).  As anyone
who has read that work knows, Rousseau took a rather dim view of art's
effect on the body politic.  In fact, his essay argues that art be
controlled by an elite in order to preserve civic virtue.  Nor has the home
town that Rousseau was proud to call his own, Calvinist Geneva, entered
history with the reputation as being a hotbed of sexual or imaginative
liberation.  Yet these are the thoughts that preceded the "Discourse on the
Origin of Inequality" (1754) and the "Social Contract" (1762), and which
finally culminated in the reign of Robespierre, the Incorruptible.

My point, however, is not to correct David's history lesson.  It is merely
to point out that the argument over the political role of art is very old,
and so important that Plato himself chose it to crown his oeuvre.  And as
Plato's work was largely a response to the fact that Athenian freedom and
democracy were about to die, I think that we, who are roughly in the same
position today, are obliged to examine the idea of "aesthetic politics" just
as ruthlessly as Plato did, and to make it just as central to our analysis.

Hitler was perhaps the only one of history's monsters to have started his
career as an art student.  His rejection by the Vienna Academy of Art in
1907 is arguably the most disastrous thing that has ever happened.  (Or is
David going to argue that he would have been even more powerful politically
as a professional artist?) But Hitler's sensitivity to artistic issues
continued, remarking later in his career that "Whoever wants to understand
National Socialist Germany must know [Richard] Wagner."  His organization of
"Degenerate Art" exhibits are infamous, and there was more than a little
German Romantic aestheticism in his 1934 agreement, with Speer, that the
public buildings of the Third Reich be constructed to ensure that they would
eventually make picturesque ruins. [1] Hitler later honored Wagner's former
friend Friedrich Nietzsche by personally attending the funeral of the
philosopher's sister in 1935.  As we know, Nietzsche began (and ended) his
academic publishing career by writing that "the world is only justified as
an aesthetic phenomenon."  Stalin was also keenly interested in artistic and
aesthetic issues, inventing "socialist realism" and personally reviewing
(uncharitably) Shostakovich symphonies in _Pravda_.

All of this is only to argue, as Plato knew, that mixing aesthetics and
politics makes a deadly cocktail.  Walter Benjamin knew it, too.  In 1936,
he wrote that "The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of
aesthetics into political life." [2] He also wrote that "All efforts to
render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war."  Four years later,
Benjamin died fleeing that war.

But what say today's deep thinkers on the subject?  Fredric Jameson doesn't
get too far into 1991's _Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late
Capitalism_ before pronouncing this flip judgment on Benjamin's dictum:  "He
thought [the "aestheticization" of reality] meant fascism, but we know it's
only fun:  a prodigious exhilaration with the new order of things, a
commodity rush." [3]  He later elaborates:  "Culturally I write as a
relatively enthusiastic consumer of postmodernism, at least some parts of
it:  I like the architecture and a lot of the newer visual work, in
particular the newer photography.  The music is not bad to listen to, or the
poetry bad to read ... Food and fashion have also greatly improved, as has
the life world generally." [4]  Defending the role of aesthetics in politics
by observing simply that one man's fascism is another man's fun rings more
than a bit unpleasantly in a book that also argues that Paul de Man's
collaboration with the Nazis was "simply a job" [5], and that Heidegger's
commitment to Hitler was "morally and aesthetically preferable to apolitical
liberalism." [6]  Especially since Fascism led Walter Benjamin to an early
grave, while Jameson's "fun" has led Duke University' famous Marxist
professor to the comfortable summit of America's academic ant hill.

What of the role of "tactical media" theorists in Jameson's "commodity
rush"?  They are perhaps the first in history (other than Jameson, perhaps)
to have claimed "shopping" as a revolutionary virtue.  But they are
certainly not the first to have insisted that a revolution requires a
"distinctive and recognizable aesthetic." [7]  Hitler certainly did as well.
So did Stalin.  So did the Taliban.  No one will ever agree on what is more
aesthetically preferable, nor on which sexual mores are truly liberating,
nor on what practice is the more spiritually fulfilling.  That's why making
such things an integral part of politics is, as Walter Benjamin wrote and
history shows, a recipe for war.  Aesthetics and sexual mores should be left
out of politics for the same reason that religion should be.

The reason why humanity never seems to live up to this truth is that finding
one's own way is hard.  That personal task, not politics or revolution, is
the true role of creativity, artistic expression and identity formation.
But a "tactical" aesthetic of consumption, of criticism, of refusal, of
opposition is the very opposite of this.  It's a lot easier than finding
your own way.  It takes no real work at all.  It's the aesthetic of a slave,
a parasite, and a vandal. [8]  And if you seek its monument, look around.

Kermit Snelson

[2] Benjamin, Walter, _Illuminations_, p. 241
[3] Jameson, Fredric, _Postmodernism_, p. x [sic]
[4] ibid., p. 298-9
[5] ibid., p. 257
[6] ibid., p. 257
[8] True also of the Right's "tactical media", the USA's warblogs.

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