Category Archives: Aesthetics

Scholarly Texts

Scholars are illiterate. They know not how to read. They do know how to decipher symbols printed on a page, how to translate those symbols into meaningful elements, and how to synthesise those elements into a cohesive argument. But they do not know how to read.

So often do scholars approach a text prepared to judge it guilty that they can scarcely find any text innocent of wrongdoing—and where they do, it is only on account of some oversight, some gross miscarriage of justice. For truly every text is guilty; only the uncultured boor could ever fail to see the guilt of a text. We call those boors dogmatists who proclaim the innocence of their scriptures. But decrying the injustice of dogmatism is not reading. It is senseless; the scholar has said nothing by expressing this judgement. To read is to forgive a text its trespasses, to reconcile with it and recognise it as more than mere criminal: it is human, equal, partner in the project of life.

This is the scholars’ fault: a text to them is not a partner but a tool. It is a means only to their own text, their own tool, their own unforgiveable object of guilt. And scholars know this. It is expressed in their manner of writing. It is the reason for abstracts and introductions, and all those other means of summary, of bare expression of the value of a text, understood exclusively as the contribution it makes to a literature, to a system of self-satisfied means—or what the Kantian might call an end in itself. That the scholar proclaims the guilt of a text means little when they express at the same time the innocence of the literature. This is dogmatism with etiquette. And a boor in a velvet gown does not cease to be a boor.

There are no ends in life, and the scholarly pretension that their researches, their concepts, their texts exist only for the sake of further texts proves only that the scholar has never lived. They are satisfied by the meagre development of self-consciousness, as if all life were an understanding thing, a knowing thing, a rational thing, Science. It is no wonder that these illiterate scholars find in texts only pale shadows of their own selves. But these texts are no ladder to the scholar, to their literature, to their texts forthcoming. It is only because these scholars have not lived, have never needed to live, that they see themselves, their concepts, their self-consciousness as ends. The living, the truly literate, resist this stupidity. They know that any effort to satiate hunger creates only greater hunger. They know, that is, that life is always driven beyond its means, beyond what can be determined in reason or in consciousness.

The text for this reason is not a mere means. Means are means only with respect to determinate ends. But in life, there are no ends: all our ends lie in wait, ready to be deliberated, elected, constructed through life’s developmental processes. And texts are elements of these processes. They do not contribute to the achievement of our ends, except rarely, but to their construction. They are a means only in the sense that a mother is the means to her child. To call her a means is to mistake her contribution; she has agency; she has power; she is not merely the fertile ground within which sperm may germinate; she rather cultivates the child by opposing, by rewarding, by shaping its originative impulses. To call the text a means is to mistake its contribution in the same way. They possess a queer agency, but an agency nonetheless. A text may drive a reader or arrest them. It ridicules them, makes demands of them, encourages and moulds them. And it does this not on its own volition, but by appropriating the intuitive, deliberative, and altogether reflective power of its reader.

Scholars are not blind to the agency of a text. They actively resist it. A text treated by scholars, a scholarly text, is stripped of its power. This for them is the ideal. This for them allows the text to be best manipulated for purposes alien to its own. To achieve their end, the scholar must attend to the source of a text’s power. They know that it has no power of its own. It cannot. Rather, the text parasitises the agency of its reader. And by inoculating the reader, the scholar sterilises the text. They do this in two ways: by supplanting the powerful text with the scholarly and by cultivating what they call “critical thought.”

Scholarly texts are neutral, summarial, anti-rhetorical; they require no power nor agency on the part of the reader. The scholarly text is a guide through a literature. It is transparent. It contains neither surprise nor challenge. Arguments, premises, inferences are laid bare for the reader; the reader may follow them at their whim. They need not endorse any one. It is in fact better, more scholarly, to refuse. The scholarly text is in this sense an open toolbox. A reader may appropriate any argument that suits their fancy. They may destroy with it. They may construct with it. But in doing so, the reader is not destroyed, is not constructed. The scholarly text has no power to cultivate a reader—not at least in the same way that other texts do. For indeed the scholarly text does cultivate something in the reader. It cultivates complacency in their reader, and weakness, and laziness. The reader becomes accustomed to their guides and their summaries. The reader of scholarly texts gradually loses the power to navigate a text, to reflect on a text, to be moved by a text. They preserve only the power to bend it to their will. And a text has no agency whose power is subject to a reader’s will.

Powerful texts, edifying texts, they are not like this. They make demands, they pose problems, they are puzzles, they are games. In them the reader exercises and develops their agency. But there are boundaries and objectives. A reader does not merely swell: they develop; they grow. A powerful text in this sense informs a reader. It does not merely give a reader the power to exercise their will. It also shapes their will.

The scholar cannot accept this threat. Against it, they deploy “critical thought”—truly a shadow of genuine thinking—by means of which a reader strips a text of its power and translates it, word by word, concept by concept, argument by argument, into a scholarly text. Critical thought is a killer. It is a forge and a hammer. Critical thought beats a living text into a dead, inanimate tool. This is its supposed virtue. The scholar advertises critical thought by emphasising its use in subjecting a text to one’s will. Critical thought isolates claims and reorders them into plain arguments. It eliminates the challenge of a text and the game; it eliminates the agency of a text. This is the goal. A powerful text is a threat to good reason, to good will. And for the scholar, only this is sacrosanct.

The scholar has good reason to worry. The powerful text is a threat to their reason and their will. The living reader is all too aware of this. To them, the text is a partner. One’s ends must be deliberated in its company, negotiated, and then constructed and achieved. And so the reader must take care that a powerful text not destroy them, for any partner may at one time command one’s armies only to at another time turncoat and treason. To this end, critical thought, carefully applied, is indispensable for the reader. But there is much more to reading than criticism, than judging a text guilty, than sterilising it, murdering it, forging it into a tool. A text gives a reader the power to do what they cannot do on their own: to cultivate their own agency. It is by means of the text that the reader reflects upon their own desires, their own values, their own interests; and it is by means of the text that the reader constructs them. Genuine thought is more than critical: it is reflective, synthetic, practical. Critical thought destroys this: it destroys agency, it destroys life. The scholarly text, the powerless text, this I say is death.

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.