Saturday, 13 September 2008

becoming-political of aesthetics

The transvaluation of aesthetics places the value giving judgment in the political. The loss of aura is an emancipatory act. Aesthetics inherently becomes political. Aesthetic experience becomes political experience. This is slightly different than say Kant or Schiller, in whom the aesthetic experience lays the ground work for politics. Schiller, for example, feels the free play provided by an experience of the beautiful is what prepares man for politics. Benjamin differs, in that for him, aesthetic experience is the political. The exhibition value of an artwork is a measure of it political affectivity. Technology enhances is this, in that it creates new exhibition spaces, reaching masses and affecting more people in ways previous mediums could not. For Benjamin, the art is valued on it political basis, and as such, and experience of the beautiful is an inherently political experience. Art effects the organization of masses. One example Benjamin gives of this is the formation of habits. Habituation is an example of the way in which the medium of art creates a political grouping by its ability to “mobilize the masses” (SW 4:269). The ability of art to form politicized masses means that “to theorize and make recommendations for artistic practice is also to make theoretical recommendations for political practice.” However, the interrelation of aesthetics and politics is not an unqualified good for Benjamin. Once again, it comes down to a choice between affirmation and denial. In one of the most famous passages of the artwork essay, Benjamin tells us that the interrelation can take two forms: the aestheticization of the political characteristic of fascism; or the politicization of aesthetics as performed by communism.

Aestheticizing the political is what happens when we merely revaluate. It is a reaction against the changes of becoming. What Benjamin means by the “aestheticizing of political life” is that values become stagnated and turn back in on the political. Instead of aesthetics being evaluated in terms of becoming, becoming is now evaluated in terms of the old aesthetic values. It is an essentially reactive maneuver, “[responding] to the changes in perception wrought by new technologies.” In his “Theories of German Fascism”, Benjamin says the fascists relate to technology as “a fetish of doom” in that they cannot see the way in which it is constitutive of experience (SW 2:321). As Nietzsche reminds us, there is no value suitable for the evaluation of becoming, and this “fetish of doom” as it falls under “philosophical pessimism”, it “ranks among comical things” (WP §708).

As comical as it may have been for Nietzsche, fascism carried far more gravity for Benjamin. The problem is not that fascism merely is anti-technology. In fact, the fascists were highly technological. They mechanized warfare and industrialization to a degree never before seen; the Nazi war machine was previously unparalleled in human history. The true danger is that fascism utilizes technology, but it only does so in an unnatural manner. In terms of artistic production, instead of liquidating the aura in the wake of reproduction, fascism resurrects ritualistic values in order to subjugate reproduction. “Ahistorically insisting on its eternal features,” Esther Leslie notes, “fascist art and politics demonstrate the re-entry of cult values” into modern production. This is part of the power of fascism. Ritual values were always based on the unique existence of the artwork. These were called into question by reproduction, which is able to produce seemingly infinite copies. Rather than finding these objects bereft of aura, it applies the same categories of authenticity to these reproductions. Technological reproduction becomes a miraculating machine, endlessly creating magical copies. Thus, a print of a photograph of Hitler becomes a religious icon and a mass-produced swastika becomes a sacred standard. By reintroducing the aura, fascism becomes capable of instilling any object with a sacred power. At the opening of the essay, Benjamin asserts that his ideas are “completely useless for the purpose of fascism” (SW 4:252). This is accomplished, in as much as the liquidation of the aura can be seen as an exposition of false basis from which fascism draws its power. If we can see the other world to be false, then fascism appears to us stripped of its veil, laid bare in its false creations.

If the aestheticization of politics is understood as the stagnation of the political via old aesthetic values, then the politicization of aesthetics can be understood as the emancipation of aesthetics via the political. As we described in the above section on transvaluation, aesthetics is opened up in a continuous process of transvaluation. As opposed to the denial of becoming characteristic of fascism, “communism, for Benjamin, affirms the flux of identity and the permanent revolution of the organization of experience.” Communism represents the possibility of change and a different relationship to technology. In opposition to the fascistic “fetish of doom”, communism sees technology as “a key to happiness” (SW 2:321). (Insert note about communist utopias as the space in which technology is put towards human ends. I remember reading somewhere someone talking about this. But I’ve been pouring over my notes and I can’t seem to find it. So, I’m just leaving it for the time being until I can remember where I read it.)

There is no middle ground for Benjamin in this debate. The difference between the two, between fascist domination and communist utopia, comes down to a simple choice. Esther Leslie phrases it in no uncertain terms: “the crisis must culminate in either the rejuvenation of humanity, marked my humanity’s adoption of a political relation to art, or its complete destruction, signaled by an aestheticization of politics.” The stakes are dire, as Benjamin new all too well. It is not possible to do nothing. Fascism thrives on the passive assent of a reactive nihilism. The only way to counter this is through the creatively destructive affirmation of an active nihilism.

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