Monthly Archives: October 2020

Towards an Anaesthetic of Fascism

The fascist has not been grasped irrevocably by the sublimity of power and authority, but they have been grasped by it. The nature of this very sublimity, of the fascist aesthetic, is the key to freeing them from their own cage, and ourselves with them. Attempting to persuade the fascist is fruitless. They do not, they cannot be reached by reason. Aesthetic judgement is not willful, nor does it recognise or respect our interests or our moral values. Our political rhetoric must therefore engage with the fascist aesthetic on its own terms. There is no other way to repair our communities, our families, and our institutions.

An aesthetic judgement concerns the intrinsic value or disvalue of an experience. There are three main elements to aesthetic judgement: the process of judgement, the experience being judged, and the content of that experience. I examine each in order before moving on to the implications of the fascist aesthetic for political rhetoric.

Aesthetic judgements are neither deliberate, fully rational choices, nor strictly reflexive. They stand in the uneasy in between. They can be refined but they cannot be controlled. They can be justified but they cannot be persuaded. Guy Dammann and Elisabeth Schellekens[1] understand aesthetic judgements in this sense to be deeply question-begging: reasons given in support of them become reasons only for those who already assent to the claim being justified.[2] Daniel Whiting argues that aesthetic reasons are question-begging because they are always in need of some supplement without which they can only permit aesthetic judgements but cannot demand them.[3] For Whiting, this supplement is something like taste: those systematic aesthetic judgements observers have already made from past experiences and which subsume that judgement being justified. Aesthetic judgements, that is, are merely elements of a broader aesthetic framework which orients a life.

This framework of aesthetic judgements is life-guiding in two ways. First, it guides an observer’s attention toward aesthetically salient elements of a given experience. It is because of our aesthetic framework, our preferences and our capacities for discernment, that we might attend to the colours or the textures or the melody or the semantic content of an experience. Two people embodying two different aesthetic frameworks simply cannot see or hear or feel the same things in the same way given the same experience. Second, an aesthetic framework translates aesthetic judgement into normative force. An aesthetic framework, that is, demands that an observer act on the basis of an aesthetic judgement. This is because an aesthetic judgement concerns the intrinsic value or disvalue of an experience. Once an experience is recognised as intrinsically valuable, thence arises a (defeasible) obligation to promote it; likewise, mutatis mutandis, for an experience recognised as intrinsically disvaluable.[4]

Aesthetic judgement is of experience; on the basis of aesthetic judgement, one is obligated to promote or prohibit experience. Aesthetic judgement alone does not concern the content of aesthetic experience except insofar as manipulating the content of experience can promote or prohibit experience. I do not mean to say here that objects or events cannot be beautiful or ugly. Certainly they can be. I look in the mirror at least once a week—less often if possible—and am fully acquainted with my own aesthetic. But they take on these qualities in light of the kind of experiences they produce in observers. Rather, I mean to say that our aesthetic judgements can be wrong. We can judge something initially as boring or as mediocre or as ugly only to later revise our judgement in light of a novel appreciation. Dammann and Schellekens argue that observers are capable of cultivating more accurate aesthetic judgements, and subsequently frameworks, by reflecting upon their own good in connection with their cultural background and the artistic traditions implicated in it.[5] By these means, they suggest, aesthetic judgements can be bootstrapped into a framework in order that one develop as an observer. They are not, however, describing a change in aesthetic judgements; a beautiful image is not by these means regarded as ugly or vice versa. Aesthetic judgements cannot be reached by reason; they can only be altered by aesthetic judgements themselves. It appears that this is what occurs on their proposal too, unbeknownst to them. By reflecting on the background and traditions of an experience, additional aesthetic judgements are formed concerning its semantic significance. The additional aesthetic judgements may shift the framework just enough to generate a new appreciation of old experiences, but this is a slow and unreliable process directly predicated on one’s existing values. The fascist cannot be repaired in this way.

We rather need to focus on the structure of the aesthetic framework. Only the virtuous among us employ a consistent aesthetic. The fascist aesthetic is not one of these. It is deviant and disordered, marred by inconsistencies and ambiguities. This is how we win: we capitalise on the inconsistencies in the fascist aesthetic, in the aesthetic framework which orients their lives and their politics, and we use it to draw the fascist back to the good. This is not simple, but it is achievable.  It requires only a willingness to engage and to genuinely understand the fascist.

Fortunately, the fascist is a simple creature in an ironic age. Their aesthetic is purposeful and unique. It’s kitschy, tacky, uncoordinated, vulgar, and loud. There is no mistaking the bright red cap, the Southern Cross, or Thin Blue Line. These unambiguously signal an identity. This is a significant evolution on the bumper stickers and t-shirt slogans of years past, which do the job but which are not recognisable at a glance. The fascist takes themselves to be the majority, the Volk, the formerly powerful who have been silenced by the threat of powerful minority interests. Their aesthetic reflects this in its visibility, its detachment from what the powerful minority dictate to be good taste, and its open expression of violence and power. The fascist knows that if they really are the majority, as they seek to demonstrate, then they truly do hold the power in their polity—and it is the aesthetic appreciation of power that truly unites all fascists.[6]  

But what power means to the fascist is bound up with traditional hierarchies, with masculinity, with whiteness, with wealth, and so many others. Masculinity especially is so tightly bound up with the fascist aesthetic that it is inseparable from power. Masculinity is virility and invincibility. The Man need not exercise caution: his masculine will is invulnerable to calamity. A good scheme might be a salient exercise of power, but in all else, sober planning has become a symbol for weakness and cowardice. The fascist is somatic, intuitive, impulsive, and violent. The fascist has no patience. They have no empathy—not at least for the underclass, the minority, who have dispossessed the Volk for so long and who continue to dispossess the fascist. The Man merely exercises his will and dominates only to dominate.

And this too is what makes the fascist aesthetic so pernicious. Even the underclass can appreciate the exercise of power. The lower class fascist may know full well that they are liable to become a victim of fascist excess, but they value too deeply the experience, the experience of domination, the catharsis and the struggle that accompanies it. In joining with the fascist, they feel the power they only wish they could exercise—and when the fascist takes power, they permit themselves every liberty to do so against those even more vulnerable than they.

There is more than mere power to the fascist aesthetic, however. There is also vengeance. To the fascist, they are recovering tradition, the natural order, one which had been interrupted by a clever, sly minority that overcame and dispossessed the powerful majority by appealing to their charity and good will.

This narrative is of course not novel. Philosophers might trace it back to Nietzsche, to his Genealogy and the deconstruction of the Master Morality. But the narrative goes back much further; Nietzsche, indeed, presented a parody of this narrative designed to outrage the budding fascists in his midst. He attacks their tradition, their natural order, their Christian morality, and allies it with the Jews. The old Masters, the highest expression of worldly power, fall to ever farther depths. Their fault was not charity, as the story had gone, but stupidity and impulse. The Jews overcame the Masters not because they were sly or clever but because the Jewish priestly class was genuinely more powerful on account of their cleverness. If Nietzsche has any goal in the Genealogy, it was to drive a wedge between the fascist love of vengeance and their love of power, and all within the realm of aesthetic judgement. He clearly failed. We cannot.

What means are available to us now? In what way might we shake the fascist of their drunken love of power? We cannot appeal to them through reason; we cannot demonstrate the contradictions of their will or their interests or their rhetoric. This does not concern them. We cannot beat the fascist in the ballot box: this will only delay their authority, and they have long considered the electoral process to be rigged against them, the true majority visible in red hats and racist flags. We cannot even do them harm, for at present, the fascists do have the power, the arms, the wealth, and the numbers to withstand any assault. The time for punching Nazis has come to pass. So what can we do? Contrapoints has proposed that we employ cringe, a distinctly somatic, aesthetic experience designed to isolate and malign a target group without putting a target individual in a defensive stance. Cringe in this sense hacks apart an aesthetic framework and provides the means to rebuild it anew. I do not know the final course of action. But we must find one, and we must find it quickly.

[1] Guy Dammann and Elisabeth Schellekens, “On the Moral Psychology and Normative Force of Aesthetic Reasons,” Estetika: The Central European Journal of Aesthetics, LIV/X (1), 2017: 20-39

[2] Philosophers, of course, are no stranger to this kind of justification. It was the dominant form of philosophical reasoning for the better part of a century under the guise of philosophical intuitionism. Intuitions, and the kind of philosophy that grows out of them, are (or are at least isomorphic to) a kind of aesthetic judgement. This is why intuitionists attempt to defend their account of philosophy as a kind of perception or “seeming” and may even appeal to a “faculty” of intuitions even when they use them for the sake of robust philosophical justification. Intuitions too are not perceptions or deliberate judgements, but stand uneasily between them. At their foundations, intuitive justifications can be understood and modified in exactly the same ways as aesthetic judgements about the exercise of power or about works of art. Philosophy presumably should not wish itself to be cemented into something so fluid and arbitrary.

[3] Daniel Whiting, “Aesthetic Reasons and the Demands They (Do Not) Make,” The Philosophical Quarterly, 2020: 5; Whiting’s main argument against the demandingness of aesthetic reasons is that there are so many objects which individually possess aesthetic properties to make demands on observers that this would be excessively demanding on those observers. This is confused in a number of ways. First, aesthetic properties are properties of experiences, not objects. This significantly limits the number of aesthetic properties with which an observer might be faced. Second, aesthetic properties are relational between different elements of an experience, often involving the whole experience, and not just the elements atomically. This further limits the number of aesthetic properties. Altogether, clearing up Whiting’s confusions leaves us with an easily manageable set of aesthetic demands, especially since most of these are satisfied automatically. His first argument is much more compelling, even if insufficient. As a matter of course, I do think that aesthetic properties levy a demand upon people to assent to them.

[4] I suspect that aesthetic judgement in the sense I have presented here serves as the foundation of a fairly general kind of constructivist moral theory, and certainly one that is more psychologically compelling than for example Kant’s. I will not develop this here, but it is worth considering.

[5] Dammann and Schellekens, 37-38

[6] The fascist aesthetic is not exactly wrong about this: power, community, struggle, these are all genuinely valuable experiences. The fascists’ error, however, is what they take to promote these experiences, namely the impulsive and systematic domination of the vulnerable. If only we could reach the fascist in reason, it would be a simple matter to show them how what they take to be an exercise of power ultimately leads to their feebleness, but alas, we cannot.

Nonsense and The Fight for a Transparent Political Rhetoric

Clear expression is the foundation upon which we build our political rhetoric. It is important for any liberatory project that our protests and our pronouncements be understood and that we have the means to expose as nonsense any justification given to us for our oppression. However, for the liberal academic, animated as they are by a spirit of charity, accusations of nonsense and their concomitant demand for clear expression have become suspect. These academics are too stupid and too cowardly to appreciate what their charity has bought them. Their suspicions have undermined their own rhetorical foundations and left them ill equipped to respond to the present political moment and to the swelling tide of dispossession and violence that will crash down upon them. If we are to respond at all, if we are to have any hope in succeeding for the sake of the marginalised and oppressed, we must oppose the erosion of our political discourse and fight for clear expression. This may be only the beginning of a liberatory project, but it is an essential step towards its success.

For the liberal academic, of course, language is a purely descriptive, theoretical concern. They recognise no stakes and accept no demands. They are blind to the normative dimension of language and its political valence. It is from this ignorance that Charles Pigden demeans accusations of nonsense as totalitarian and unjust. For him, Neurath was just as bad, just as evil, as the Fascists he was fighting. And certainly there must be a case to be made here. Neurath is not perfect. His ISOTYPE was a distinctly Viennese symbolism which struggled to accommodate the diversity of human experience. Pigden worries that Neurath has unjustly excluded lives and languages other than his own. That this equates in Pigden’s mind to full-scale totalitarianism is laughable. Especially since he is not worried about defending different cultures or different lifestyles. He is worried instead about defending the prospects of metaphysics. “Are there no languages which are, so to speak, metaphysical all the way down?” he asks.[1] And of course if this is your worry you might be tempted to equate the fascists with those fighting against them (even despite the explicitly metaphysical character of German fascism). But Neurath’s project is entirely different. He sought to eliminate racism and nationalism by making racist and nationalist thought and expression impossible. Neurath may have failed in this effort, but it does not follow that racism or nationalism or metaphysics is sensible, as Pigden alleges. Far from it.

A victim of liberal modernity, Pigden reacts to Neurath by declaring any and all “coercive theories of meaning” to be false. His ultimate argument against them, beyond badly misunderstanding their use[2], is an exercise in stone-kicking. The explananda of a theory of meaning, he says, are our linguistic intuitions about what sorts of expressions are meaningful. A coercive theory of meaning attempts to revise what we take to be significant, to “contract the realm of the meaningful.”[3] But, he asks, “Where does the theory get the authority to overcome [our linguistic intuitions]?”[4] When Rosenberg talks about the Eternal Jew and the racial ladder, or when Heidegger talks about the German people hoisting Dasein upon its shoulders, what right does Neurath have in saying that they are speaking nonsense? Surely they must mean something by their convoluted expressions! These fascists are not totalitarians, no: it is Neurath who unjustly coerces them by dismissing their views as nonsense.

A theory of meaning is quite a different thing than a scientific theory. It does not explain. It cannot explain. It has no explananda, least of all our pretheoretic linguistic intuitions. Rather, a theory of meaning is strictly normative. Through it we understand, cultivate, and negotiate our agency as linguistic creatures not alone but within a linguistic community. For Neurath, German had been poorly negotiated. A long history of competing and evolving influences had exacerbated rather that resolve the tensions implicit in human experience. Far too often did German expressions appear to have a meaning only to have that sense evaporate under closer inspection. Instead of waiting for German to organically correct itself, Neurath appealed to the productive power of theoretical science in order to engineer a language. He failed. It has become clear that the functions of natural language cannot (yet) be replicated by even the best science. But this is not to say that we should give up entirely the project to improve language. In their reluctance to treat language as normative, liberal academics have cast themselves off into the current of language and surrendered to its rhetorical ebbs.

If we are seriously interested in constructing a better, juster, freer society, we should take pains to master our language. This is a different project than strict political rhetoric just as surveying a battlefield differs from fighting a battle. A theory of meaning is impartial with respect to what can be meant.[5] But taking stock of how meaning is conveyed and negotiated permits us not only our own interventions, but also to recognise when expressions violate the terms of our agreement. This is nonsense. This is when an expression, despite any appearances to the contrary, fails to signify. This most often occurs by accident, when a speaker mistakenly transgresses linguistic strictures. But this occasionally occurs purposefully, even if unknowingly, for the sake of some rhetorical exercise. It is at this time that linguistic negotiation begins in order that an expression may be either made meaningful and incorporated into a language or dismissed as a confusion. That dismissal is only one (often marginal) possibility demonstrates just how far off Pigden’s understanding of “coercive” theories of meaning has strayed. There is nothing coercive about them. They rather provide transparent mechanisms  for including and supporting diverse discourses into the whole of our language. It appears still that Pigden only objects to dismissing those expressions which not only do not signify but which cannot signify. But if Pigden wishes to continue kicking stones he should be prepared to express himself clearly in order that his expressions may become meaningful. These are the risks: at times, our expressions dissipate into the aether and what appeared to us to be meaningful ceases to have any significance for us. And if that’s the cost of justice, we could have purchased it centuries ago.

In truth, nonsense has a rhetorical mystique and power that is difficult to surrender. No party has been willing thus far to do so. They most often oscillate back and forth between exposing the nonsense of their opponents and manufacturing their own nonsense. So often we think of rhetoric as trickery that we forget that in politics, we wish to persuade. And so I contest that we ourselves shrug off the need for nonsense and trickery and strive instead for clear expression. If we speak in terms that people can confidently grasp, we shall find our projects to be more confidently embraced. Then, and perhaps only then, shall we find liberation.  

[1] Charles Pigden, “Coercive Theories of Meaning, Or: Why Language Shouldn’t Matter (So Much) to Philosophy,” Logique et Analyse 53 (210): 151, 2010: 155

[2] Pigden charges Neurath, Wittgenstein, et cetera with performative and theoretical contradiction for declaring some domain of discourse to be nonsense because, on his view, these theories of meaning necessarily outstrip the thoughts expressible in language. Had Pigden thought deeply about the motivations for these theories, however, he would recognise his error: “coercive” theories of meaning are not supposed to be sensible, expressible, verifiable, or any such thing. They are normative constraints on what can be sensibly expressed and understood. Wittgenstein goes so far as to openly and purposely construct his Tractatus as a work of nonsense, and Neurath too is open about his political and normative motivations. It was not until logical positivism was appropriated by apolitical English theorists that the question of the empirical adequacy of a theory of meaning even arose in part because these theorists could not grasp the normative even if it had handles.

[3] Pigden, 179

[4] Pigden, 178

[5] Philosophers must of course be careful that they genuinely examine language impartially. Far too often they pretend to an appreciation of an ordinary conception of meaning, whatever that might be, while nevertheless using a theory of meaning to obscure their own agenda. Wittgensteinians in particular are guilty of this, often in order to isolate their own philosophical commitments (such as Wittgenstein’s mystical Christianity) from philosophical critique. One indication of this is that the Wittgensteinian grounds their theory of meaning in a simple meaning relation, namely rules, that are manifested by a form of life. But as with everything human, meaning relations come in a wide variety, and their interaction provides the complexity and often the intractability of language.