It has been six months since I have completed a portion of this project. I posted Part IV.1 in April. Then everything fell apart. I got really confused. I didn't know how to deal with the outline I had created. I didn't know how to synthesize my reading and thinking. My momentum fizzled out. So I took some time off. Finally something clicked and I was able to begin writing again. After this all I have to do is Part IV.3 and IV.4. Then I'm done. But here is IV.2 and a table of contents for it:
Part IV.2: Art, Culture, And Politics
4. Art, Amusement, And The Corruption Of Consciousness: Collingwood On Distraction In Western Culture And Politics
5. The Corporate State And The Corruption Of Consciousness: Art and Amusement in Capitalist Culture
6. On A Collingwoodian Aestheticization Of Politics: Concluding Part IV.2
In the last section I analyzed the relationship between politics, war, violence, and power. I concluded that while violence is fundamental to peace (primarily in terms of objective violence), war is not. I think that I successfully disentangled the violence of peace from the violence of war. The key factor of the analysis was Zizek’s distinction between objective and subjective violence. With that distinction I was able to understand that the violence that was inherent to peace was primarily objective violence that keeps subjective violence at a minimum, while war, on the other hand, contains objective violence that is intended to organize large scale subjective violence. The entire purpose of Part IV is to understand if there is any significant relationship between politics, art, and the aesthetic existence. So that analysis of war and politics was the first step in me addressing that larger issue.
Now that I have successfully disentangled the violence of peace and war, I need to take the next step towards the relationship between art and politics by analyzing the relationship between politics and culture broadly. Once I ascertain the relationship between politics and culture I will hopefully be able to have clearer thoughts about the potential relationships between art and politics.
I am going to conduct this analysis in three major sections. In the first section I’ll be using Collingwood’s work to show that he believed that Western art, culture, economics, and politics were intimately intertwined. In particular, I’ll show how his concept of ‘the corruption of consciousness’ captures the complex relationship between art, culture, and politics. In the second section I’ll be trying to apprehend the relationship between politics and culture, both in general and in America in particular. I’ll use John Gray’s argument that political engagement always requires a common cultural base to analyze the relationship between American culture and politics. I’ll try to show that America’s strange breed of corporate democracy is supported by a vapid cultural base of celebrity worship and distraction. Finally I’ll examine Walter Benjamin’s notion of the ‘aestheticization of politics’. I’ll argue that the concept operates under an erroneous definition of the aesthetic, and rather describes the presence of lying, deception, and representation in politics, and does not refer to anything that can accurately be called ‘aesthetic’. That will then set me up to begin hinting at what it would mean, in a Collingwoodian sense, to ‘aestheticize politics’. Because an aestheticization of politics, under Collingwood’s definition of the aesthetic, would be inseparable from a genuine attempt at expression and truth. This line of thinking about a Collingwoodian aestheticization of politics will ultimately be pursued in Part IV.4. Here we go.
4. Art, Amusement, The Corruption of Consciousness: Collingwood On Distraction In Western Culture And Politics
So I want to begin this inquiry into the relationship between art, culture, and politics by explicating an idea from The Principles Of Art that I have not dealt with adequately: Collingwood’s notion of ‘the corruption of consciousness’. Collingwood believes that consciousness is useful in that it lets us turn our raw emotions into ideas, providing us with self-knowledge and emotional stability. The mind’s knowledge of itself is always a critical issue for Collingwood. A corrupt consciousness, therefore, is one that “permits itself to be bribed or corrupted in the discharge of its function, being distracted from a formidable task towards an easier one.” This happens, Collingwood argues, “not because the feeling, as an impression, is an alarming impression, but because the idea into which we are converting it proves an alarming idea. We cannot see our way to dominate it, and shrink from persevering in the attempt. We therefore give it up, and turn our attention to something less intimidating.” Furthermore, Collingwood believes that the corruption of consciousness is not uncommon: “So far from being a bare possibility, it is an extremely common fact” (217). In earlier sections I discussed how art was supposed to be the antidote to the corruption of consciousness. But I don’t think I gave the issue enough consideration, and I don’t think I really explored its cultural and political implications. So that is what I’d like to do now. First I’d like to briefly try to explicate the corruption of consciousnesses relationship to amusement art. Second, I’d like to explain how this the rise of amusement and the corruption of consciousness is tied to larger economic and political factors. Lastly, I’ll briefly look at how Collingwood believed that art itself was the antidote to the corruption of consciousness.
Collingwood spend a significant amount of time in The Principles explaining how amusement art differs from art proper. It is in the course of that discussion that Collingwood first begins to point towards the issue of the corruption of consciousness. He doesn’t introduce the term, however, until his chapter on ‘Imagination and Consciousness’. Thus the best way to understand the relationship between the corruption of consciousness and amusement art is to understand Collingwood’s concept of consciousness.
Collingwood believes that consciousness is the mental faculty that is capable of converting a raw sensation (an impression) into something imaginary (an idea). By focusing our consciousness on one of our raw sensations we are able to elevate it into an idea that we can then consciously reconstitute, understand, and manipulate. The true task of consciousness, therefore, is to turn our raw emotions into ideas, and in that process dominating and domesticating those emotions, taming their effect on our psyche. Thus there is a relationship between consciousness and truth. If an emotion “is thus recognized, it is converted from impression into idea, and thus dominated or domesticated by consciousness. If it is not recognized, it is simply relegated to the other side of the dividing line: left unattended to, or ignored” (217). There is, however, another option: “The recognition may take place abortively. It may be attempted, but prove a failure. It is as if we should bring a wild animal indoors, hoping to domesticate it, and then, when it bites, lose our nerve and let go. Instead of becoming a friend, what we have brought into the house has become an enemy” (ibid.). This abortive attempt at conscious recognition of emotions is what Collingwood calls the corruption of consciousness. A corrupt consciousness is one that is incapable of showing down its emotions, one that defers the difficult task of converting painful sensations into ideas. He calls it “the ‘corruption’ of consciousness; because consciousness permits itself to be bribed or corrupted in the discharge of its function, being distracted from a formidable task towards an easier one” (217).
In previous sections I explained how consciousness was connected to art: For Collingwood art is a process in which we successfully use consciousness to turn impression into idea, and thus succeed at expressing ourselves artistically. The aesthetic process is all about the successful use of consciousness for this conversion of a raw sensation into an expressible idea.
But now I want to ask: what is amusement art? And what does it have to do with the corruption of consciousness? Collingwood defines amusement art as art that is intended to arouse emotions that are not meant for “discharge into the occupations of ordinary life, but for enjoyment as something of value in itself” (78). Amusement art therefore lacks the expressiveness and the utility of art proper: its purpose is to divert our attention to something pleasurable, to distract us from the realities of life. Art proper, on the other hand, would be about using consciousness to successfully convert a sensation into an idea, to showdown our deepest emotions and to come to grips with them. “The corruption of consciousness in virtue of which a man fails to express a given emotion makes him at the same time unable to know whether he has expressed it or not. He is, therefore, for one and the same reason, a bad artist and a bad judge of his own art” (283). In short, “corruption of consciousness is the same thing as bad art” (285).
The relationship between amusement and and the corruption of consciousness should be obvious: A mind or society that is predominantly occupied by amusement is likely to suffer from the corruption of consciousness. If you are always distracted, always enjoying some type of amusement that occupies your mind, you have no opportunity or need to direct your consciousness at larger problems. In fact, larger circumstances may encourage one to find refuge in amusement. In other words, corrupt consciousnesses may be systematically produced by political-economic systems, it may be an integral part of a systems internal logic. I’ll be coming back to this point in the next section.
One important distinction to bear in mind is the difference between amusement and recreation. Collingwood is careful to point out that certain pastimes that may appear to be amusement may actually have practical benefits, therefore making them fall out of his distinction for amusement, and falling under the category ‘recreation’. If I spend a weekend relaxing and having a good time it is possible that I am just amusing myself, avoiding work, suffering from a corrupt consciousness. But if after that weekend I feel refreshed and ready to cheerfully continue my work, then my relaxing “turned out to be not amusement but recreation. The difference between amusement and recreation consists in the debit or credit effect they produce on the emotional energy available for practical life” (95). A form of enjoyable or amusing art is only dangerous if ”the debt it imposes on these stores of energy is too great to be paid off in the ordinary course of living. When this reaches a point of crisis, practical life, or ‘real’ life becomes, emotionally bankrupt; a state of things which we describe by speaking of its intolerable dullness or calling it a drudgery“ (95). Further, Collingwood calls the excessive use of amusement a ‘mental disease’: “A moral disease has set in, whose symptoms are a constant craving for amusement and an inability to take any interest in the affairs of ordinary life, the necessary work of livelihood and social routine. A person in whom the disease has become chronic is a person with more or less settled conviction that amusement is the only thing that makes life worth living. A society in which the disease is endemic is one in which most people feel some such conviction most of the time” (95).
So the relationship between the corruption of consciousness and amusement art is hopefully clear. The next thing I’d like to ask is where the corruption of consciousness comes from. Why are individuals or societies craving amusement and distraction from their daily lives? Collingwood points to certain social, economic, and political organizations as a major breeding ground for the corruption of consciousness. He cites ancient Rome as an example of the way that the corruption of consciousness and an amusement-society come into existence. “The critical moment was reached,” he claims, “when Rome created an urban proletariat whose only function was to eat free bread and watch free shows” (99). It was political and economic success that led to the growth of Rome’s population and their capacity for creating amusement. “Once a class had been created whose only interest lay in amusement, it acted as an abscess which by degrees drew away all emotional energies from the affairs of real life. Nothing could arrest the spread of amusement” (99). Collingwood is suggesting that amusement and the corruption of consciousness are caused by socio-economic factors like population growth, employment, and consumer culture. He believes that material conditions can create corrupt consciousness. I wonder about the relationship between Collingwood and Marx.
Collingwood then gives a sweeping account of the rise of amusement in Modern European culture. He claims that with the decline of Christianity art had to redefine itself as something distinct from religion. He argues that at some point the rising dominant class became intolerant of art, and preferred to think of it as mere amusement. He claims that a “tradition of hostility entered into the main stream of modern civilization through its inheritance by nonconformist bankers and manufacturers, the class which became dominant in the modern world; and how that event drove the artistic consciousness of the modern world, at the very moment when it was liberating itself from the shackles of amusement, into the position of something outcast and persecuted” (100). From there, he claims the process continued. The political-economic system of manufacturing and banking continued to grow, and amusement became more and more popular. He says that at some point the middle and lower classes, too, became addicted to art, and from there we find our current situation. Further, the dominant classes worked to destroy folklore and other traditions that the lower classes clung to. And with the destruction of their lower-class subculture they too became addicted to amusement: “Football... came first; then came the cinema and the wireless; and the poor, throughout the country, went amusement mad.... Increased production combined with the break-down of economic organization led to the appearance of an unemployed class, forced unwillingly into a parasitic conditions, deprived of the magical arts in which their grandfathers took their pleasure fifty years ago, left functionless and aimless in the community, living only to accept panem et circenses, the dole and the films” (102). The key factor in the rise of the corruption of consciousness is therefore unsatisfactory socio-economic situations that incline a society to seek refuge in amusement.
Collingwood then goes on to claim that his society, late 1930’s England, was also suffering from a fixation on amusement. He says that the corruption of consciousness “is notoriously endemic among ourselves. Among its symptoms are the unprecedented growth of the amusement trade, to meet what has become an insatiable craving.... the use of alcohol, tobacco, and many other drugs, not for ritual purposes, but to deaden the nerves and distract the mind from the tedious and irritating concerns of ordinary life; the almost universal confession that boredom, or lack of interest in life, is felt as a constant or constantly recurring state of mind.” (96, my italics). But why is modern English culture also caught up with amusement and the corruption of consciousness? What is causing its spread in the modern world?
Collingwood’s answer is clear: the economic system that provides our basic means to subsistence is largely responsible for the corruption of consciousness and the spread of amusement. He explains how the language we use to describe our work betrays our feelings about the nature of the work. He claims there was “an almost universal agreement that the kinds of work on which the existence of a civilization like ours most obviously depends (notably the work of industrial operatives and the clerical staff in business of every kind, and even that of the agricultural labourers and other food-winners who are the prime agents in the maintenance of every civilization hitherto existing) is an intolerable drudgery; the discovery that what makes this intolerable is not the pinch of poverty or bad housing or disease but the nature of the work itself in the conditions our civilization has created” (97, my italics). Forgive the long quotations. I just find Collingwood’s writing in this section to be so powerful. He is making very strong statement about capitalist culture, and the way it inclines us towards amusement and distraction.
It seems as though capitalism itself may incline us towards the corruption of consciousness. We are living in conditions we have created that we refer to as ‘drudgery’. It would be very difficult to come to terms with the fact that we have done this to ourselves. If we are to turn our conscious to our situation we will realize that we are living in a man-made economic system that puts us in these positions of drudgery, exploitation, and inequality. This is of our own doing. To face that reality is incredibly hard. To truly turn those sensations into ideas is difficult and painful. Thus we use amusement “to deaden the nerves and distract the mind from the tedious and irritating concerns of ordinary life; the almost universal confession that boredom, or lack of interest in life, is felt as a constant or constantly recurring state of mind.” All of this “suggests that our civilization has been caught in a vortex, somehow connected with its attitude towards amusement, and that some disaster is impending which, unless we prefer to shut our eyes to it and perish, if we are to perish, in the dark, it concerns us to understand” (97).
Collingwood thus argues that capitalism is a major factor in the rise of amusement in western culture. He claims that we are so dissatisfied with the conditions we have created for ourselves that we numb ourselves with amusement. That our consciousnesses are corrupt because we cannot face the reality that we have created these conditions for ourselves. This conclusion about the relationship between capitalism and amusement then has implications for the notion of the state and a citizenry.
Apart from economic conditions, Collingwood suggests that a lack political and civil responsibility also contributes to the rise of amusement. He says that in ancient Rome the urban proletariat had no obligations to the state, and therefore had no other option but to amuse themselves. The creation of the Roman urban proletariat “meant the segregation of an entire class which had no work to do whatever; no positive function in society, whether economic or military or administrative or intellectual or religious; only the business of being supported and being amused” (99, my italics). And this remained true for much of the Middle Ages. He says that “by the fact that [the people] had no duties to the community, whether military or administrative or administrative or magical, such as occupied the real gentry. They had nothing to do but amuse themselves” (101). And this makes me wonder about American culture’s relationship to amusement. I feel like I have very few obligations to the state. I have no military or civic commitments of any kind. And as a result I don’t think I feel very fulfilled by my existence in this political-economic system. I feel as though I may be, we may be, suffering from a similar disease that Collingwood recognized in his own culture.
This idea has serious implications for the health of a civilization. Collingwood believes that our attitude towards amusement may signify the downfall of our civilization. He believes that the decline of ancient Rome was deeply intertwined with the rise of the amusement trade. He admits that “Historical parallels are blind guides. There is no certainty that our civilization is tracing a path like that of the later Roman Empire. But the parallel, so far as it has yet developed, is alarmingly close” (102). But what are we to do? If our civilization is slipping into decay, what can we do? Collingwood assures us that war is of no use in this instance: “The gunman’s remedy is no use. We need not buy revolvers and rush off to do something drastic. What we are concerned with is the threatened death of a civilization.... Civilizations die and are born not with waving of flags or the noise of machineguns in the streets, but in the dark, in a stillness, when no one is aware of it. It never gets into the papers” (103-104). The stakes could not be higher. When Collingwood talks about the relationship between art, amusement, economics, and politics, he is talking about the life and death of civilizations. The philosophy of art somehow has implications that extend this far.
So what are we to do about the corruption of consciousness that has been brought about by our amusement-saturated capitalist culture? Well, Collingwood argues that art itself is the antidote to the corruption of consciousness. That what we need is an artist that is capable of being a spokesman for the community. We need an artist who can take initiative and express the secret frustration that everyone in society is feeling. We need an artist that can help society collectively battle the corruption of consciousness: “For the evils which come from... ignorance the poet as prophet suggest no remedy, because he has already given one. The remedy is the poem itself. Art is the community’s medicine for the worst disease of mind, the corruption of consciousness” (336). Collingwood believed that T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland was an example of a work of art that was speaking the heart of a community, attempting to rid it of its corrupt consciousness: The Wasteland “depicts a world where the wholesome flowing water of emotion, which alone fertilizes all human activity, has dried up. Passions that once ran so strongly as to threaten the defeat of prudence, the destruction of human individuality, the wreck of men’s little ships, are shrunk to nothing. No one gives; no one will risk himself by sympathizing; no one has anything to control. We are imprisoned in ourselves, becalmed in windless selfishness. The only emotion left us is fear: fear of emotion itself, fear of death by drowning in it, fear in a handful of dust” (335, my italics). And for Collingwood this process is nothing short of a battle. I’m fascinated by the use of militaristic metaphors, and Collingwood doesn’t hold back with them: “Corruption of consciousness is not a recondite sin or a remote calamity which overcomes only an unfortunate or accursed few; it is a constant experience in the life of every artist, and his life is a constant and, on the whole, a successful warfare against it. But this warfare always involves a very present possibility of defeat; and then a certain corruption becomes inveterate” (284, my emphasis). For Collingwood, therefore, the work of art itself is the cure for the corruption of consciousness. The only way to overcome our addiction to amusement is to embrace art proper, to embrace art as a process of imaginatively expressing our deepest emotions.
Collingwood’s notion of the corruption of consciousness therefore serves as a great starting point for analyzing the relationship between art, culture, and politics. In it I see a way to understand how larger social processes, like politics or economics, influence culture, and in turn, effect individual minds. Collingwood argues that our economic system has given us monotonous work that offers us no obligations to our nation or community. As a result, we experience a sense of emptiness in our daily routines and means to subsistence. Collingwood claims that the nature of our work has transformed us into a culture that is addicted to amusement. He claims that our stance towards amusement has turned us into a society full of corrupt consciousnesses, and that the only cure is a return to art proper, to art as an expressive process. This is a sloppy explication. I don’t think I did this very clearly. But all that matters is that Collingwood’s concept of the corruption of consciousness is loaded with implications about the relationship between politics, economics, culture, and art.
Next I’d like to take Collingwood’s work and use it to ask questions about contemporary American culture. Is amusement thriving in modern America? Is it related to our political-economic system? Why is art so irrelevant in America? How are we to regard it? I hope to use Hedges, Wolin, Zizek, and others to answer these questions.
5. The Corporate State And The Corruption Of Consciousness: Art and Amusement In Capitalist Culture
In the last section I claimed that Collingwood’s notion of the corruption of consciousness is useful in that it offers a way to conceptualize a problem that is at the intersection of politics, economics, culture, and art. Now I want to try and apply that concept to some analyses of contemporary American society. But before I do that I have to make some more basic observations about the relationship between politics and culture. From there I will be able to discuss American politics and culture more intelligently.
In Enlightenment’s Wake John Gray argues that the Enlightenment project has fundamentally failed. Gray recognizes that the Enlightenment was a diverse phenomenon that had different regional manifestations. Yet he insists that regardless of location it was sustained by core goals and assumptions, “above all by the hope that human beings will shed their traditional allegiances and their local identities and unite in a universal civilization grounded in generic humanity and a rational morality” (Gray, 2). Gray claims that the Enlightenment project’s focus on the development of rational institutions means that “it cannot even begin to grapple with the political dilemmas of an age in which political life is dominated by renascent particularisms, militant religions and resurgent ethnicities” (ibid.). In short, Enlightenment philosophy failed because it does not grasp the intimate relationship between political organization and culture.
Gray, therefore, wants to develop a political philosophy that accounts for the inextricability of culture and politics. Because, for Gray, “political allegiance... presupposes a common cultural identity, which is reflected in the polity to which allegiance is given; political order, including that of a liberal state, rests upon a pre-political order of common culture” (120). Politics can never be a fully rational enterprise, but one that has to find its foundations in a already existing common culture. This means that “[a]llegiance to a liberal state is, on this view, never primarily to principles which it may be thought to embody, and which are supposed to be compelling for all human beings; it is always to specific institutions, having a specific history, and to the common culture that animates them, which itself is a creature of historical contingency” (117). We are cultural and historical beings, and our political institutions can only function within that context.
Gray takes free market theory as one of his major examples about the relationship between culture and political organization. Market theorists, according to Gray, have often created economic models assuming that they would function regardless of the culture in which they were created. That market institutions, if properly organized, would not need a cultural base in order to thrive. Gray adamantly opposes this notion. He claims that “the insight of the social market theorists that the cultural matrices of market institutions are as important, and no less diverse, than their legal frameworks, should make us sceptical of the claims of any model for market institutions, and of any mode of policy which is based on the tacit assumption that there is a single ideal-typical form of market institutions to which all economies will, should, or can, approximate” (58). Instead, he advances “a general conception of market institutions in which they are theorized not as self-enclosed systems but as human practices that always come deeply embedded in matrices of cultural tradition and in legal and political frameworks, to which they owe all their stability and legitimacy” (94). In John Gray I find a way to conceptualize the relationship between politics in culture. I see how common culture must always serve as the foundation of political and economic organization.
So, if Gray is correct in his assessment of the relationship between culture and politics, where does that leave me in terms of understanding the relationship between politics and culture in America? What, generally, is American culture like right now? How does American culture stand in relation to the American political and economic systems? What is the status of art proper and amusement are in America? How pervasive is amusement and the corruption of consciousness in America?
In order to answer these questions I will have to try and parse the relationship between American culture and politics. Obviously this is a complex problem and any adequate answer would trace the interconnections between these different categories. I, unfortunately, don’t have the time or resources to do that. So I’ll be analyzing this in an obviously delimited way. Roughly, I’ll primarily be using Sheldon Wolin’s analysis of American politics in Democracy Incorporated, with a little bit of supporting help from Hannah Arendt and Zizek. Then I’ll be using Chris Hedges’ account of American culture in Empire of Illusion, again with support from some other thinkers. So, I’ll go from politics to the culture that supports it. Finally I’ll try to explain how it all relates to the issue of aesthetics.
So what precisely is going on in the American political system? Is this a democracy that we live in? Or is something else going on? According the Sheldon Wolin, America is not a democracy, and it was never intended to be one. From the time of the founding fathers up to the present, Wolin argues, America has always had a ruling elite that has tempered the political power of the the people, the demos. In other words, America has always had a ruling elite that has sought to manage democracy, to keep the people from exerting too much power. While the history of America is long and complex, it is useful to isolate three moments in our political history: the writing of the constitution, the beginning of the Cold War, and the beginning of the war on terror. In each of these moments America moves further from true democracy and closer to what Wolin calls ‘inverted totalitarianism’: A system in which a diverse set of institutions cooperate to turn the free exchange of ideas into “their managed circularity” with the goal of regulating the people and controlling the electoral process (7). “The key components” of inverted totalitarianism, Wolin claims, “are corporate capital, the very rich, small business associations, large media organizations, evangelical Protestant leaders, and the Catholic hierarchy. Models of organization tend to be corporate as well as military” (185). So how did this happen? How did America become a managed democracy? How did America become an inverted totalitarian state? A brief look at those three historical moments will throw some light on this issue.
Wolin claims that America was never a true democracy, even the writers of the constitution wished to temper the potential power of the masses. Wolin claims that James Madison, the ‘father of the constitution’, was skeptical of the people’s ability to decide for themselves, and intended for a group of ruling elites to be the arbiters of power. He claims that Madison wished to divide the demos “and thereby prevent it permanently from gaining the unity of purpose necessary to concert its numerical power and dominate all branches of government.” Madison essentially “produced the theory of how–at the national level–to render majoritarianism forever disaggregated and incoherent” (Wolin, 234, my emphasis). This was accomplished, among other means, through the opening of the frontier. The notion of the frontier has been a major force in American ideology. It is a representation of “democratic virtues of independence, freedom, and individualism. It had supplied ‘what has been distinctive and valuable in America’s contributions to the history of the human spirit’” (232). But the frontier also served as a means of managing democracy. It was a major way of achieving “the fulfillment of Madison’s strategy for dispersing the demos” (233). Thus, even at its founding, the American political system was never intended to be a democracy. It was designed to disperse the potential of the masses so that a ruling elite could wield political power.
America’s attempt to manage democracy, however, gained a new dynamic after World War II. Wolin claims that with the advent of the Cold War the US entered a state of imagined ‘permanent global war’. That suddenly America could frame its policies as part of an ongoing global war that demanded radical decision making by a political elite. Nuclear weapons made the world a more complex and dangerous place, and leaders were therefore more justified in their exclusion of the demos.
It was during World War II and the beginning of the Cold War that America first begins to take on the characteristics of what Wolin calls inverted totalitarianism. Wolin claims that prior to WWII America was moving closer to an ideal of social democracy, but that during WWII American politics became more about international projection of power and that the “bonds between liberalism and democracy began to unravel” (27). Instead, America was now set on international war and victory in the Cold War. As a result, “A ‘defense establishment,’ comprising the economy, the military, and the state, came into being” (28). The development of these goals, in turn, transformed America. Wolin argues that in order to defeat the Soviet Union the United States began to adopt their goals: “The United States had adopted the same goals as the Soviets: global supremacy and a regime change by means of subversion.” (Ibid.). “Thus,” Wolin concludes, “anticommunism as mimesis: the character of the enemy supplied the norm for the power demands that the democratic defender of the free world chose to impose on itself” (37). WWII and the Cold War, therefore, transformed the US from a state with liberal goals of expanding social welfare (i.e. The New Deal) into a state that was competing for global dominance and military supremacy.
A major part of pursuing these ambitious international goals is a strategy for controlling domestic unrest. If the population is unhappy with the government’s international ambitions they could easily protest and potentially prevent these goals from being achieved. The US, therefore, pursued an aggressive strategy of domestic control. They launched a “public relations strategy,” urging that “‘in any announcement of policy and in the character of the measures adopted the emphasis should be given to the essentially defensive character and care should be taken to minimize, so far as possible, unfavorable domestic and foreign reactions” (31). The management of the government’s image became a paramount concern.
America, however, did not achieve these goals in the same way as the Soviets. Rather than achieving domestic and international control through an oppressive centralized state apparatus, the US sought to control their population through subtler means. Instead, the US disseminated propaganda through a diverse set of institutions, through private media and corporations. We now have a system that is “driven by abstract totalizing power, not by personal rule, one that succeeds by encouraging political disengagement rather than mass mobilization, that relies more on ‘private’ media than on public agencies to disseminate propaganda reinforcing the official version of events” (44). And all of this began with WWII and the Cold War. Wolin gives all of this a much more nuanced treatment than I’m doing. But frankly I haven’t studied the book enough. It is challenging.
This system persisted until the present, and Wolin claims that it gained new momentum with 9/11 and the advent of the war on terror. After 9/11 we were living in a different political and social world. The government can no longer claim the threat of the Cold War, but they can now claim to be waging a war against terrorism. This claim to war allows the government to instill fear in the population and to legitimate certain policies, such as the patriot act or their policies on torture. The notion of terrorism has been exploited in an attempt to depoliticize the population, keep us from being involved in war or any type of democratic process, leaving the government clear to pursue corporate and imperial goals. “A world where warfare has no boundaries, spatial or temporal, and hence no limits,” as is the case with the war on terror, “was not the simple product of terrorism but that of its exploitation” (72). Thus 9/11 has given the government an opportunity to once again claim that we are constantly at war, allowing them to pursue imperial goals while depoliticizing the population.
I want to quickly note that this is not something that is the result of the conscious choice on behalf of individuals. It is something larger than any individual. “Inverted totalitarianism... is largely independent of any particular leader and requires no personal charisma to survive: its model is the corporate ‘head,’ the corporation’s public representative” (44). It differs from those other totalitarian states that depended on strong leaders: “inverted totalitarianism comes into being, not by design, but by inattention to the consequences of actions or especially inactions. Or, more precisely, inattention their cumulative consequences” (209). This is similar to Foucault’s notion of ‘strategy’: History gains momentum, institutions develop, individuals tap into them and affect them, but the historical momentum is stronger than any one individual. The dynamics of the institutions shape people and perpetuate conditions.
Thus if we trust Wolin, which I’m not sure if we should, America is no longer a democratic state, and may never have been. Rather, it is a superpower that pursues its own imperial goals. Furthermore, the government has been thoroughly infiltrated by corporate and religious interests. They are the ones really running the show. All of this is accomplished through a diverse network of institutions (corporate, media, religious, etc.) that seek to depoliticize the population. Put most strongly, (and perhaps hyperbolically) the goals of imperial and totalitarian states are pursued in an inverted fashion, directing power not from a centralized state, but from a dispersed apparatus.
Slavoj Zizek corroborates these claims in In Defense Of Lost Causes. In that book, Zizek offers an array of claims and insights about the nature of contemporary democracy. Frankly, I don’t grasp the book. But there is one claim he makes about democracy that is relevant to Wolin’s claims. Zizek claims that democracy essentially has two definitions. One the one hand, democracy in its raw form is the outburst of the people: “the violent egalitarian rise of the logic of those who are ‘supernumerary,’ the ‘part of no part,’ those who, while formally included within the social edifice, have no determinate place within it” (265). Democracy literally means the people and their capacity to politically assert themselves. But democracy, “in the way the term is used today,” means “above all, formal legalism: its minimal definition is unconditional adherence to a certain formal rules which guarantee that antagonisms are fully absorbed into the agonistic game” (264). I would agree with Zizek that democracy today is primarily a formal process. Zizek’s solution? The institutionalization of that radical democratic impulse. “The problem,” he claims, “is thus: how to regulate/institutionalize the very violent egalitarian democratic impulse, how to prevent it being drowned in democracy in the second sense of the term (regulated procedure)? If there is no way to do it, then ‘authentic’ democracy remains a momentary utopian outburst which, on the proverbial morning after, has to be normalized” (266). Zizek is quite difficult here. This idea makes sense to me in a very abstract way, but I really don’t know what it means to institutionalize violent egalitarianism. While his proposed solution is abstract and difficult to translate into concrete terms, his insights about the two senses of the term democracy are quite easy to incorporate into this analysis. It would seem that American democracy as regulated procedure has clearly overtaken the capacity of the marginalized masses to exert any sort of radical egalitarian logic. Although, occupy Wall Street is happening as I write this. So maybe I’m wrong. Maybe people have woken up a bit.
So, if this is indeed the state of the American political system, the next question I need to ask is: What is the cultural foundation that allows such a system to exist? For this question I will turn to Mr. Chris Hedges.
In Empire Of Illusion, Chris Hedges offers a scathing critique of American culture. He argues that our most cherished cultural virtues, such as literacy, love, education, happiness, and the nation itself, have all slowly declined into a state of illusion. Literary culture has been overrun and replaced by a vapid celebrity culture where “the fabricated, the inauthentic, and the theatrical have displaced the natural, the genuine, and the spontaneous, until reality itself has been converted into stagecraft” (Hedges, 15). While in the realm of love we have become overrun by a culture of increasingly violent pornography that degrades women and commodifies their bodies. Education has taken a similar path: the universities have ceased to be subversive intellectual institutions, the humanities have become politically impotent, and the university system has become a factory for the economy, “training an inhumane, deeply frustrated, indifferent, game-driven people” (95). Moreover, Hedges claims that there has been a direct assault on the humanities and that students of these once critical disciplines “have been trained only to find solutions that will maintain the system (103). Happiness, too, has been corrupted. So-called ‘positive psychologists‘ claim that happiness is now the ultimate goal, and that it is to be pursued through personal change or medication. Hedges claims that these ‘quack scientists‘ are “effective in keeping people from questioning the structures around them that are responsible for their misery. Positive Psychology gives an academic patina to fantasy” (120). Finally, the nation itself has become an empire of illusion. Hedges‘ goes off hard: “At no period in American history has our democracy been in such peril or the possibility of totalitarianism so real. Our way of life is over.... Our children will never have the standard of living he had.... There is little President Obama can do to stop it. It has been decades in the making” (145). The result of this all is radical transformation of our mental worlds: “Celebrity culture has taught us to generate, almost unconsciously, interior personal screenplays in the mold of Hollywood, television, and even commercials. We have learned ways of speaking and thinking that disfigure the way we relate to the world” (17, my italics). We are living illusory lives. We are living in a culture of distraction that clears the way for the inverted totalitarian state that Wolin describes.
This, then, is the cultural base that supports America’s managed democracy, America’s inverted totalitarianism. If the people are distracted they won’t get involved in politics. We are too busy with vapid television, pornography, and spectator-sport militarism to be a politically volatile people. Of course, as I write this, thousands of people are protesting in New York, Seattle (where I currently am), and other major American cities. Some of us have woken up, they claim. I am trying to wake up. I’m not out there in the streets. But I’m trying not to be distracted. I’m trying to withdraw and learn, learn, learn, as Zizek encourages me to do in the final lines of the introduction to Violence. But I fear that much of the country is distracted into a position of political paralyzation. What are we to do in such a world? How are we to act politically when the process seems so set? When it seems so impossible to make a difference? It is very easy to withdraw into a life of illusion, to have a mind that is clouded by amusement and pornography.
Thus the state of American politics and culture is clearer: we live in a illusory culture of distraction that serves as the foundation for a corporately managed imperial democracy. The relationship between that culture and that political system, however, cannot be thought of in the way Gray describes. If I understand Gray correctly (which I may not), he believes that culture often serves as a foundation for politics and economics. That culture is the common way of life that gives rise to political and economic practices. But in Hedges’ analysis the opposite is the case: our culture has been created by our political and economic systems. Put more strongly, Hedges believes that “corporate power... holds the government hostage” and “has appropriated for itself the potent symbols, language, and patriotic traditions of the state” (143). It is rampant, unfettered capitalism that has created our culture of illusion and corrupted our political system. “The fantasy of celebrity culture,” Hedges claims, “is not designed simply to entertain us. It is designed to keep us from fighting back” (39). We are distracted into political irrelevance.
The relationship between American culture and politics is thus clear: our political system has been high jacked by the economic system, which has created a culture of illusion that keeps the population distracted into political impotence. This claim is corroborated by Hannah Arendt in he essay ‘Lying In Politics’. In that essay Arendt argues that during the Vietnam war America entered a unique era of politics. For the first time America began to have a public relations strategy. The government was no longer concerned with conveying accurate information to the public, but was rather involved in the business of crafting an image to present to the public to produce a desirable image in the minds of the public and congress. The government began lying and producing false information that was “destined chiefly, if not exclusively, for domestic consumption, for propaganda at home, and especially for the purpose of deceiving Congress” (14, in Crises Of The Republic). This is a unique moment in American political history because now the “goal was now the image itself, as is manifest in the very language of the problem-solvers, with their ‘scenarios’ and ‘audience,’ borrowed from the theater” (17-18). Even when we could no longer win in Vietnam we continued to promote our image, “the goal was no longer one of avoiding humiliating defeat but of finding ways and means to avoid admitting it and ‘save face’” (18). Thus with Vietnam we encounter a new political phenomenon: “Image-making as global policy” (18).
Governmental deception, however, is not merely a top-down phenomenon. On the contrary, Arendt argues that we should bear in mind “the interconnectedness of deception and self-deception.... The deceivers started with self-deception.... they were so convinced of overwhelming success, not on the battlefield, but in the public-relations arena, and so certain of soundness of their psychological premises about the unlimited possibilities in manipulating people, that they anticipated general belief and victory in the battle for people’s minds” (35). Government analysts equipped themselves with a powerful and abstract set of terms in which they could conceptualize the war and their public relations strategy. In the process, Arendt claims that they lost themselves in their abstractions, that their theories got the best of them, and that the deception of the public went hand in hand with self-deception.
Thus it seems that American culture is comprised of illusion and deception from top to bottom. Our government has been pursuing imperial goals and purposefully lying to the public, somehow lying to themselves as well. Or something. This is all getting confusing. But clearly, America’s culture of distraction is a result of our political and economic system. The more these systems fall apart the more we need to distract ourselves. The less sustainable they are the more the government needs to deceive itself. I’m just making stuff up here. But there is clearly a relationship between America’s culture of distraction and our increasingly undemocratic, corporate system. And it seems to be more top down than bottom up; the political and economic effects the cultural more than the other way around. But what does all of this have to do with art? I began this section with the idea that ascertaining the relationship culture and politics would help me speak about art and politics. And I believe that I now can, but only by returning to the concept that I began IV.2 with: Collingwood’s ‘corruption of consciousness’.
Because what I am describing above is Collingwood’s corruption of consciousness in both the American population and the government. The government is not merely corrupting the consciousnesses of the people, the process of lying corrupted them as well. They fell victim to their own self-deception, and they can no longer distinguish the truth. Remember that Collingwood claims that consciousnesses primary task is to convert impressions into ideas, thus apprehending the truth of a situation. Consciousness, truth, and aesthetics are intimately connected for Collingwood. The aesthetic consciousness is one that apprehends the truth. Collingwood thus defines a corrupt consciousness as one that “permits itself to be bribed or corrupted in the discharge of its function, being distracted from a formidable task towards an easier one” (217). And this is precisely what is happening consciousness in America: we no longer know how to distinguish between truth and falsehood. Our illusions have overtaken us and we no longer know reality.
So we let ourselves be distracted, we let amusement take us away from our political and economic difficulties. Because this is precisely where Collingwood believes that corruption of consciousness originates: it comes from unsatisfactory political and economic conditions that force us into a life of distraction and amusement. To face our reality would mean to recognize that our civilization has created conditions that we describe as ‘drudgery’, that are radically unequal and completely unsatisfactory. In fact, Hedges shares almost all of Collingwood’s concerns about our culture: the role of the economy, the prevalence of amusement (alcohol, celebrity, pornography, etc.), and the death of our civilization itself. This is too difficult of an impression to convert into an idea. It is very painful to recognize that our society has created these conditions for itself. So for now we let our consciousness remain corrupt. To have an aesthetic consciousness in these conditions, to perceive the truth in these times, is an awesome task. So we continue to lose ourselves in amusement.
In section five I’ve tried to ascertain the relationship between American culture and politics. It appears as though our political system is at best a managed democracy, and at worst an inverted totalitarianism. This political system sits on a vapid cultural foundation of amusement and empty representation. We are amused and distracted into political docility. Moreover, all of this can be captured in Collingwood’s notion of the corruption of consciousness. Our problems, too, are at the intersection of politics, economics, culture, and art. Our task is therefore to defeat the corruption of consciousness. Our task is therefore the recovery of the aesthetic consciousness. Our task is to apprehend the truth about our situation. Our task is properly modern, in the Foucauldian sense of that word.
We have lost our aesthetic consciousness in America. Both at the level of the government and the average citizen. We can no longer distinguish between truth and illusion. We are overrun with amusement. This means that the aesthetic consciousness has grave political importance. If the aesthetic consciousness is one that perceives the truth, then what we need is an aestheticization of politics. To conclude this analysis of art, culture, and politics I’d like to explore this notion of the aestheticization of politics.
6. On A Collingwoodian Aestheticization Of Politics: Concluding Part IV.2
If we accept Collingwood’s definition of the aesthetic consciousness as one that is able to ascertain truth by converting difficult impressions into ideas then it should be obvious that our culture of political deception and mass amusement badly needs to rediscover aesthetic consciousness. What we really need is an ‘aestheticization of politics.’ This term, however, was coined by Walter Benjamin and has been subsequently used to signify something that is antithetical to what I am trying to talk about. I claim this is because Benjamin is operating under an erroneous definition of the aesthetic. The first step in defending a true aestheticization of politics, therefore, is a refutation of Benjamin’s definition of the aestheticization of politics. Benjamin, however, is still pointing to a real problem about the dangers of rhetoric and representation in politics. I will therefore use some more contemporary thinkers to clarify precisely what Benjamin’s term should denote about our social and political culture. After that I will explain how, under Collingwood’s definition of the aesthetic, the aestheticization of politics would be a profoundly positive and important thing. In particular, I’ll argue that a Collingwoodian aestheticization of politics would leave us striving for something remarkably similar to Clausewitz’s idea about cultivating intuitive judgment in political leaders.
The term ‘the aestheticization of politics’ first appeared in Benjamin’s 1936 essay “ The Work Of Art In The Age Of Its Technological Reproducibility.” In that essay Benjamin concludes that Fascism had effectively ‘aestheticized politics’. With this term Benjamin is trying to communicate a complex idea about the relationship between the masses, technology, art, patterns of action and perception (habits), war, and most importantly, political deception. He arrives at this conclusion through an analysis of the relationship between art and its technological reproducibility.
He claims that with the rise of film and photography art transformed from something about ritual and tradition to something that was more about exhibition and mass exposure. While art used to be about ritual, it is now about mass display and consumption. This shift in the displayability of art has led to a fundamental shift in the purpose of art. Art, he claims, is no longer about ritual and tradition; a technologically reproduced work of art can never possess the aura, the air of authenticity that it once possessed. Art can never be spatially and temporally located like it used to be. The death of art’s aura means a fundamental shift in its purpose: “But as soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production,” he argues, “the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practices: politics” (25, author’s italics). If art can no longer be identified with tradition, it can only be identified with politics. Benjamin believes that film above all else represents this new role of art. Because in film we see for the first time a technologically created, mass consumed, politically relevant work of art. “The function of film,” he argues, “is to train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding daily” (26, author’s italics). In other words, technologically reproduced art, exemplified by film, is intended to provide people with scripts or narratives that are meant to regulate the way people engage with reality. In essence, the technological reproducibility of art directly translates into the reproducibility of individual forms of perception. We can reproduce art, we can display it on mass, and thereby recreate the conceptual equipment of people’s minds.
Film’s capacity to mass produce forms of consciousness, Benjamin believes, has been co-opted by fascism for the pursuit of political ends. He argues that the growth of technology has led to the proletarianization of society. That people are being more and more absorbed into the working classes of industrial capitalism. As a result, “Fascism attempts to organize the new proletarianized masses while leaving intact the property relations which they strive to abolish” (41). He believes that the people naturally want a revolution, that they want to redistribute property in the way that Marx described. Fascism, however, seeks to prevent this by cultivating the masses through ‘aesthetic’ means: they use film, propaganda, and representation to craft the minds of the masses, providing them with certain cognitive-sensory faculties that perpetuate the current distribution of wealth. And these efforts to “aestheticize politics culminate in one point. That one point is war. War, and only war, makes it possible to set a goal for mass movements on the grandest scale while preserving traditional property relations” (41, author’s italics). In other words, the only way fascism could perpetuate the status quo was to take advantage of the reproducibility of art that allowed them to effectively reproduce forms of consciousness in the masses. This is why the technological reproducibility of art has implications “far beyond the realm of art” (22). In particular, film, the greatest example of reproducible art, is used “for counterrevolutionary purposes.” In fact, Benjamin asserts that “the cult of the audience” that film creates “reinforces the corruption by which fascism is seeking to supplant the class consciousness of the masses” (33). Benjamin’s aestheticization of politics, therefore, is fascism’s attempt to use film and other technologically reproducible art in order to craft the consciousness of the masses in order to perpetuate unequal distribution of wealth. And the only logical outcome of this can be war, because war is the only social activity that can “mobilize all of today’s technological resources while maintaining property relations” (41). Thus, we can see how the concept of the aestheticization of politics captures diverse issues such as art, culture, politics, habits of perception, and war. An invaluable concept indeed.
David Harvey also makes use of Benjamin’s concept of the aestheticization of politics. Harvey, however, applies the concept to his analysis of the American political system under the Raegan administration. In The Condition of Postmodernity Harvey argues that the Reagan administration also engaged in practices that can be described as an aestheticization of politics. He explains how under the Reagan administration there were massive cuts in public programs, large amounts of people became homeless, lost their health insurance, and so on. Despite all of these negative trends, the Reagan administration continued to wield a rhetoric that championed ‘traditional’ American values. “A rhetoric that justifies homelessness, unemployment, increasing impoverishment, disempowerment, and the like by appeal to supposedly traditional values of self-reliance and entrepreneurialism,” Harvey claims, “will just as freely laud the shift from ethics to aesthetics as its dominant value system” (337). In this instance, too, we can see what this notion of the aestheticization of politics denotes: It describes a government that is purposefully crafting images in order to regulate the minds of the masses. For Benjamin it was fascism’s use of film and technology to negate the revolutionary potential of the proletariat. For Harvey it is the Reagan administration’s attempt to mask negative social statistics by appeal to a shallow rhetoric of traditional American values.
Benjamin’s ‘aestheticization of politics,’ then, is fundamentally about how representation became a fundamental part of government’s apparatus of control. It is about government’s purposefully using certain types of language and imagery to produce desirable results in the minds of their people. Now is the moment, however, where we must ask whether or not this is an appropriate way of speaking of this problem. Is it appropriate to call this an ‘aestheticization’ of politics? Or are there better ways of speaking about this problem, which is undoubtedly a real thing. Something happened with government in the twentieth century. Government’s certainly have started lying more, have begun to craft their images more deliberately. Recall that Arendt said that “Image-making as global policy... is indeed something new in the huge arsenal of human follies recorded in history” (18). I claim that while this is a real problem, it is inadequate to refer to it as an aestheticization of politics. The inadequacy of this phrase becomes clear if grasp Collingwood’s definition of the aesthetic.
The most important distinction in Collingwood’s account of aesthetics, and the one that throws the most light on the issue of referring to the ‘aestheticization’ of politics, is the distinction between art and craft. Collingwood defines craft as “the power to produce a preconceived result by means of consciously controlled and directed action” (Principles, 15). This means a few things. That craft always implies a distinction between means and ends, between a raw material and finished product, and that there is a phase of planning and one of execution. It is often assumed that art is merely a sort of craft. Collingwood refers to this idea as the ‘technical theory of art’. Collingwood, however, is adamant that “it is necessary to disentangle the notion of craft from that of art proper” (15). He says that the ancient Greeks often spoke of art is if though it were a sort of craft. The ancient Greeks discussed poetry as if it were merely a craft. But Collingwood quickly dispels with this idea. If you think about poetry, you have to wonder, how did so and so write this poem? What process did they go through in order to produce it? Was there a phase of planning? What was the raw material and what is the finished product? Collingwood asks, “Suppose the poem is a short one, and composed without the use of any writing materials; what are the means by which the poet composes it?... If one looks at the matter seriously, one sees that the only factors in the situation are the poet, the poetic labour of his mind, and the poem” (20). In this way it is obvious that the creation of a poem is not a matter of mere craft. And nor is it a craft when it comes to the audiences reception of the poem. Collingwood claims that an artist never aims to have a certain effect on his audience, that this is not the artist’s proper business. “Suppose a poet had read his verses to his audience, hoping that they would produce a certain result;” he asks, “and suppose the result were different; would that in itself prove the poem a bad one?... some would say yes, others no. But if poetry were obviously a craft, the answer would be a prompt an unhesitating yes” (21). Collingwood knows, as we all do, that art must involve some element of craft: the artist must have some type of technique if he is to produce the piece of art. But what makes something art must be different from what makes it a craft. They cannot be the same thing. He asserts that “what make Ben Johnson a poet, and a great one, is not his skill to construct such patterns but his imaginative vision of the goddess and her attendants, for whose expression it was worth his while to use that skill, and for whose enjoyment it is worth our while to study the patterns he has constructed” (27). This is why Collingwood defines art as the imaginative expression of emotions, and ultimately, as the creation of imaginary objects. The artists business he says “is not to produce an emotional effect in an audience, but, for example, to make a tune. This tune is already complete and perfect when it exists merely as a tune in his head, that is, an imaginary tune” (139, my italics). Thus, art is the imaginative expression of emotions, and the creation of imaginary objects. The artifact, the physical work of art, is merely a byproduct of the artist’s total imaginative experience. I already gave this definition a 70-something page treatment in Part I. So I don’t feel inclined to flesh this out in detail. But if you really care refer to Part I.1, I.2, and I.3.
One important implication of this distinction between art and craft is that are cannot be a form of representation. Because representation is always about creating a certain image in the mind of the audience, representation is a species of craft. And the artists who aims at representation knows what he wants to do. The representative artist “know how he wants to make his audience feel, and he constructs his artifact in such a way that it will make them feel like that” (53). The artist proper, however, never aims at producing a certain image in the audience’s minds: “the artist draws what he sees, expresses what he feels, makes a clean breast of his experience, concealing nothing and altering nothing. What these people are discussing, when they talk about selection, is not the theory of art proper but the theory of representative art of the second degree, which they mistake for art proper” (56). Aesthetic theory, therefore, does not deal with art as a form of representation. It deals with art as the imaginative expression of emotions.
Now, recall that the so-called ‘aestheticization of politics’ describes a process by which government’s purposefully produces certain types of representation to effect the mentalities of their population. If you grasp what I’ve written above then it should instantly be clear that Benjamin and Harvey are operating under an erroneous definition of the aesthetic. Benjamin does say that for the ancient Greeks aesthetics was the theory of perception. And that seems to be the way that he is using the term. He is talking about how government’s are using representation to control the way people are perceiving things. Collingwood’s definition of aesthetics as a process, however, is more convincing than that. I agree with him that aesthetic theory should deal with how individuals engage in individual expression, how they use their imaginations to discover and express their emotions. Aesthetic theory cannot deal with matters of representation and influencing perception. That belongs to a theory of craft, representation, and perception. It should be clear that if we take Collingwood’s definition of aesthetics seriously, which I do, then the term ‘aestheticization of politics’ simply will not do.
This does not mean, however, that Benjamin and Harvey are not pointing at serious problems with this term. Indeed, there is something very troubling going on with the relationship between politics and representation. Recall Arendt’s analysis of lying in politics: Clearly government’s have begun to use representation, lying, and image-crafting as major parts of their political strategies. Arendt, too, however, makes the mistake of referring to this process as ‘an art’, saying on multiple occasions “the art of making people believe” or “the art of lying” (8,9). It appears to be one of the major ways that government’s have overcome the problem of needing domestic support for their international political goals. Vietnam is a prime example of how a governments lie to their own people to prevent them from interfering with international military endeavors. So, if the term aestheticization of politics will not do, how are we to conceptualize this relationship between government’s and image-crafting?
One person that offers a useful concept is the British Psychologist Guy Claxton. In Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind Claxton argues that western culture is overly committed to highly articulate forms of thought. “We have been inadvertently trapped,” Claxton argues, “in a single mode of mind that is characterised by information-gathering, intellect and impatience, on that requires you to be explicit, articulate, purposeful and to show your reasoning,” and that we “are thus committed (and restricted) to those ways of knowing that can function in such a high-speed mental climate: predominantly those that use language... as a medium and deliberation as a method” (6). We are addicted to language and its ability to represent reality. Claxton traces the development of this mode of thought back to Renaissance philosophers who asserted that rational thinking was the only true mode of thinking. This trend of logocentrism continued through the Enlightenment and up to the present day.
John Gray also believes that western culture has suffered from its logocentrism. In Enlightenment’s Wake he claims that our desire for clear and rational thinking has destroyed our traditional cultures and left us in a state of moral and political nihilism. Gray believes that we may have gone too far down this path to be saved. That “the calculative and representational mode of thinking which philosophy has privileged in modern times is now so hegemonic that the cultural space is lacking in which an alternative mode of thinking might occur” (Gray, 275, my italics). Our logocentrism, for Gray, has serious political implications. He believes that we have put so much faith in language that we adopted a legal model of government and have lost touch with what the political enterprise truly is: an attempt to prevent war, to mitigate conflict between communities. Claxton also believes that our addiction to rational thinking has political consequences. Western logocentrism, he claims, “leads to a kind of flimsy political culture in which no one ever has the time or the inclination not to know, and so buying and selling jumped-to conclusions becomes a substitute for thinking. No wonder so many people disengage from a discourse that has such a transparent lack of depth” (Wayward Mind, 358). Clearly, our political culture has been saturated with representation and logocentrism.
Image-making has become central to modern politics. This is the problem, I claim, that Benjamin and Harvey are pointing at when they discuss ‘the aestheticization of politics’. But the problem is not aesthetics. The problem is lying. The problem is deception. The problem is representation and rhetoric. The problem is that government’s are crafting their image to sway the masses. The real problem, in short, is that politicians have become less like artists, and more like craftsmen. Claxton and Gray agree with me on this point. Claxton claims that “our culture has come to ignore and undervalue [slow ways of knowing], to treat them as marginal or merely recreational, and in so doing has foreclosed on areas of our psychological resources that we need” (Hare Brain, 4). Even though Claxton does not make this point expressly political, its political implications are clear given the statements he makes at the end of The Wayward Mind. Politicians, too, are estranged from slower, less articulate modes of thought, and they too seek quick answers that will benefit their public image. Similarly, Gray ends Enlightenment’s Wake by claiming that if Western politics are to succeed we need a cultural recovery. We need to discover a mode of thinking that is capable of making difficult political decisions and that doesn’t succumb to the moral and political nihilism inherent in Western logocentrism. He claims that “another mode of thinking – found in poetry and mysticism, for example – can assert itself against the domination of the forms of thought privileged by both science and philosophy in Western cultures. It is with these humiliated modes of thought that the prospect of cultural recovery – if there is such a prospect – lies. Only if the ground of Western cultures can renew itself through such modes of thought can any practical measure have lasting effect” (275, my italics).
The issue of logocentrism is also raised directly by Collingwood in The Principles. He claims that the “cosmopolitan civilization of modern Europe and America, with its tendency towards rigidly uniform dress, has limited our expressive activities almost entirely to the voice, and naturally tries to justify itself by asserting that the voice is the best medium for expression” (244-45). Moreover, Collingwood also believes that there are modes of expression beyond voice that are valuable. If “a civilization loses all power of expression except through voice, and then asserts that the voice is the best expressive medium,” he argues, “it is simply saying that it knows of nothing in itself that is worth expressing except what can be thus expressed; and that is tautology, for it merely means ‘what we (members of this particular society) do not know we do not know’, except so far as it suggest the addition: ‘and we do not wish to find out’” (246). Clearly, the issue of logocentrism is one that is at the core of Western culture and politics.
I love Gray’s phrase ‘humiliated modes of thought’. Because that is what they are. We think of art and poetry as silly, frivolous modes of thinking. But they are essential. There must be some way to reinvigorate our culture, and therefore our politics, with an aesthetic core. There must be a proper aestheticization of politics, in the Collingwoodian sense of that term.
If this is the case, then what would a proper, Collingwoodian aestheticization of politics be? What would it mean for a politician to be an artist? The key thing to remember is that for Collingwood aesthetic expression is inseparable from a genuine search for truth. The artist is someone who uses consciousness to convert a difficult impression (emotion) into an expressible idea, thereby arriving at an important truth. For Collingwood, a statements “artistic merit and its truth are the same thing” (287). The truth that is discovered, however, is not a generic or worldly truth, it is a “knowledge of the individual,” a knowledge of our own minds (289). So does it matter that politicians know themselves and their own minds? How would a politician pursue personal truth in aesthetic way that would translate into political truth and action? How could one become a political aesthetician? In order to answer these questions I will turn to three thinkers: Carl von Clausewitz, Alfred Mahan, and Michel Foucault. In these thinkers I see a way to conceptualize political choice as an aesthetic process. I am going to delay this inquiry, however, until Part IV.4, ‘The Aesthetic Existence and Politics Proper’. In that section I will delve most fully into the relationship between art proper, the aesthetic life, and politics.
The last thing I would like to before moving on is to quickly establish the relationship between these three sections: between the corruption of consciousness, corporate democracy, and Benjamin’s aestheticization of politics. All three of these concepts exist at the intersection between art, culture, politics, and economics. But in terms of tracing causation, what causes what, I’m not so sure. It seems to me that the fusion of economics and politics, as happened in the present, and potentially with fascism, we see the corruption of consciousness and the aestheticization of politics emerging. It seems that the corruption of consciousness emerges as a result to unsatisfactory political and economic situations. I already established with Hedges’ that it was possible for economics to create the cultural base it works in. It is not just that culture serves as a base for politics and economics, they can also affect culture. And I agree with Collingwood that the corruption of consciousness as a cultural force, the spread of distraction and amusement, has a lot to do with our political and economic systems. So this is why these three sections belong together. Collingwood shows us that we are living in a culture of corrupt consciousness, and that this is a result of our economic system. Wolin and Hedges corroborate these claims, and show that the same phenomenon exists in present day America. We, too, are existing in a political-economic system that encourages us to withdraw into distraction and amusement, our system corrupts our consciousnesses. And this is achieved, in part, by a deliberate attempt of government’s to lie. Government’s want to keep the masses distracted, want to diffuse our revolutionary potential or class consciousness, and amusement is a great way to do it. Corporate democratic government’s thrive on corrupt consciousnesses. This, however, is not to be called an ‘aestheticization of politics’, but perhaps something like ‘representative politics’, or ‘image-crafting politics’. Soon I’ll explain what aesthetic politics would really be. I began touching on it with Gray and Claxton, on the importance of escaping from logocentrism to recover ‘humiliated modes of thought’ that might lead to a cultural and political recovery. But for now I’m content to have shown how politics, economics, and lying in government combine to create a culture of distraction that breeds corrupt consciousnesses. I am happy to have roughly traced some of the connections between art, culture, and politics.
From here I need to undertake an analysis of the political implications of the aesthetic existence, which I outlined in Part III. I need to figure out how the aesthetic existence, which is a process that takes place in an individual mind, relates to these larger issues of politics and culture. In Part IV.3 I’ll be looking at the idea of ‘individual politics’. The idea that our thoughts, our actions, our personal lives are thoroughly political. This will involve a lot of looking at Foucault and his political work. I intend to refute this idea that the personal is political. Not in the sense that personal issues are not political issues, because they often are. But I plan on refuting the idea that thinking differently is, in itself, a political act. In large, I will be refuting my own work from the Society’s Implicit War essays.