A rally with U.S. President Donald Trump in Grand Rapids, Michigan, March 2019 (Anthony Lanzilote/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Benjamin’s Warning

When politics is an exercise in style, democracy suffers.

“The logical outcome of fascism is an aestheticization of political life.” This is a central thesis of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin considered the aestheticization of politics logical because he viewed fascism as an attempt to mobilize the public in such a way that it could express a desire for a different kind of society, with “changed property relations,” while leaving those relations intact. When you want expression without effect, you get aesthetics.

This kind of aestheticized politics is clearly not unique to twentieth-century fascism, nor does it require one-party rule. What we have today in many Western democracies, including in our own inane culture wars, are political systems aestheticized on the Left and the Right, largely to the benefit of the status quo. Instead of one all-consuming aesthetic vision we are entertained with two interdependent ones. It’s tempting to call it a fascism with two faces, but that would be reckless and ahistorical. These aestheticized politics aren’t fascism, at least not yet, even if part of their aesthetics is to loosely bandy about the charge.

That said, there are some echoes of the crises of the first half of the twentieth century. A small elite has control of the economic and political system; it has brought repeated ruin on the lower classes and precarity on the middle class; and it has managed to escape not only unscathed, but also richer than ever before. People are demanding a more just distribution of power and resources. And, once again, forces have emerged to sate them with aesthetics instead. While not equivalent to fascism, the aestheticization of our politics does reveal a vulnerability that our society shares with those that succumbed to fascism. More specifically, up and down our failing political system, atomized, isolated people cling to destructive narratives created and fueled by stage-managed personalities. One salient difference between now and the 1930s is that cults of personality are not just confined to the top. Everyone is a star, at least potentially.  

 

How did we get here? The answer is not as simple as economics, the internet, loneliness, consumer culture, therapeutic culture, or a failed education system, though a full accounting would have to include all those things. The answer might have as much to do with historical changes to the concept and role of art, implausible as that may seem.

Benjamin’s essay deals provocatively with a shift he locates in the very concept of art when media like film and photography came on the scene, and as the techniques of modern reproduction got hold of the old art. Technology rends art from the elevated, quasi-religious domain occupied by the masterworks of painting and music, which were imbued with a certain “aura” or authenticity. With mass reproduction these are brought into the grasp of the masses—a new audience that floods into the marketplace and begins to erode the aristocratic stratification of culture and aesthetic elitism.

No longer do artworks occupy a withdrawn sphere, Benjamin argues; no longer are they to be contemplated with detachment by a hushed, pious, and privileged audience; no longer do they gleam with originality and uniqueness. Instead, they seek out their audience, integrating themselves into our experience and asking little of us in the way of attention or effort. Art goes from an object of veneration to a print on a coffee mug, a video we watch on the toilet, a narcotic beat injected into our heads while we try to endure the miracle of air travel.

Art goes from an object of veneration to a print on a coffee mug, a narcotic beat injected into our heads while we try to endure the miracle of air travel.

Benjamin’s term “aura” is famously hard to pin down, but it is essentially the uniqueness of an object, the quality that separates it from everything else and brings a hush over an audience. It manifests, as Benjamin puts it, “the phenomenon of a distance no matter how close the thing may be.” He does not restrict the concept to art: nature and even individual human beings have an aura in this sense.

Aura in art is evident in the difference between being present at a Bach concerto and calling it up on your iPhone so that you can listen to it while you do the dishes. In the concert hall it commands respect and attention—even among those who don’t understand it or don’t think much of it—just by virtue of its irreducible presence. It has an authenticity and authority that can’t be subsumed by its viewers. It stands against us in a certain way, challenging us. It is something that, as Benjamin puts it—citing a Chinese myth of an artist who literally steps into one of his paintings—we can get absorbed in, forgetting ourselves in the process.

Whereas we might be absorbed in the live concerto, we absorb the one on our iPhone. “The distracted masses absorb the work of art into themselves,” Benjamin writes. “Their waves lap around it; they encompass it with their tide.” Far from forgetting ourselves, if we listen to it enough it may even become part of us, a kind of appendage. We feel we deserve credit for liking it. It becomes part of our personality, like a pair of jeans or sneakers. We “share” it with others, not to expose them to something awe-inspiring outside of themselves, but to exhibit our own style and help them build theirs.

For Benjamin, the vulnerability of aura to reproduction means a complete shift in the role of art. Before, art had been tied to cult, religion, and ritual. Even after it loosened itself from religious tradition in modernity, art retained the feeling of something sacred and set apart. Any political significance it had was derived from this connection. Even after the concept of divine right had lapsed, for example, the statue or portrait of a king or nobleman—or even a bourgeois merchant—established him as an object of authority and elevated status. Art still had something of a ritual function, placing the privileged at a distance from the viewer.

But with the decay of aura, Benjamin writes, “the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics.” This doesn’t mean that all art has political content, but rather that its significance lies not in its past—its moment of creation, its ownership, authenticity, the tradition to which it belongs—but in its future—the impact it has on people, how it gets incorporated into their lives, how it spreads, and the mass movements to which it contributes.

Walter Benjamin (Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

It thus makes possible and accelerates the intertwining of culture and politics that characterizes our society. The new art is readily available, easily assimilated, profane, disposable. It is more akin to what we now call “media.” No longer capable of taking our breath away, it is instead the very air we breathe.

In the tendency of reproducible art to liberate itself from cult, Benjamin saw something potentially very positive. In the films of pioneers like Charlie Chaplin and Russian realists like Dziga Vertov, Benjamin saw films made “straight from life,” inaugurating a “right to be reproduced” and showing “there exists no judge superior to the actual audience.” The destruction of aesthetic stratification could work in parallel with an end to social and political stratification.

 

But by the mid-1930s, the revolutionary potential for film was already beginning to look grim, in the quickly commodifying Hollywood of Chaplin, in the authoritarian Soviet Union, and, of course, at home in Germany. Benjamin had before him far more evidence of the “counterrevolutionary purposes” to which the new art was being put, by both fascism and capitalism. In Nazi propaganda films like those of Leni Reifenstahl and in works of Italian futurism, Benjamin saw fascism reinjecting a cultic quality into the works of reproducible art. The most obvious example is Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl’s documentary about Hitler’s Nuremberg rally, which came out shortly before Benjamin wrote his essay. In that film, sophisticated camerawork turns Hitler into something like a Hollywood star.

Critic and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer, a close friend of Benjamin’s, would later identify authoritarian tendencies in the German film industry even before Hitler came to power. His 1947 study of Weimar-era film, From Caligari to Hitler, explored a series of historical movies about Frederick the Great. In these films, Kracauer argued, a tension between the ideal of individual autonomy and submission to a charismatic leader was eased by plots that tended to evolve “from rebellion to submission.” Through these plots, he wrote, “one could participate in the ruler’s glory and thus drown the consciousness of one’s submission to him. The halo of glamour surrounding the screen Frederick lured the audience into acts of identification with this supergenius.”

Film was being used not to make reality more accessible but to distort it, elevating Hitler’s cult and Nazi mythology into something supernatural and distributing them to the masses. This gave art a new kind of cult power—not the cult of the king or god, but “the cult of the star.” From Benjamin’s point of view, the parallel between Hitler and Hollywood was no accident: 

The cult of the star promoted by film capital preserves that magic of the personality, which has long consisted in no more than the false gleam of its commodity character; its complement, the cult of the audience, at the same time promotes the corrupted condition of the masses, which fascism seeks to put in the place of their class consciousness.

Where film itself contained “a compelling urge toward new social opportunities,” contemporary film was “clandestinely exploiting” the medium “in the interest of a property-owning minority.” The cult power of the new art was very different from that of the old. Traditional art established a distance, which those in power used to facilitate submission. It helped keep populations in place by defining a realm inaccessible to them from which they must take orders. The new art, by contrast, mobilized the masses by giving them access to something and an opportunity for self-expression. But forces were conspiring to ensure that such expression did not threaten the positions of the powerful. In Hollywood, this meant an ever-accelerating drive toward consumption, but Hitler and Goebbels were showing how the same machinery could be diverted to serve totalitarian ends.

The most successful pop idols and demagogic political leaders understand that they are not simply objects of fascination, but vehicles for the audience’s own self-expression. To truly succeed, they must become a product and a platform on which their audience’s fantasies can be projected. Their power comes not from premodern distance or veneration but from an imagined intimacy. Whereas loyal subjects kneel before their sovereigns, modern audiences reach out to touch their stars. Stars don’t absorb: we don’t imagine them in a transcendent world that we might step into, forgetting ourselves in the process. Instead, they are absorbed, themselves becoming a kind of media through which we express and understand ourselves.

 

Donald Trump’s insight was to see himself and his personality as a work of art in this mold. Much of his act was not new, of course. Politicians from both parties have long used mass media to generate cults of personality. And conservatives have long played to a base of white middle- and working-class people resentful of distant and disconnected elites.

What was new was that Trump didn’t purport to simply represent the interests of this base; he didn’t just play to their fears and resentments. Rather, he became—with the help of online media and an obliging legacy press similarly desperate for attention—the star of a daily soap-opera reenactment of their resentment. Instead of expressing a desire for a different kind of society, alienated Trump supporters found themselves cheering on a vulgar, self-obsessed anti-hero despised by all the right people. As one Trump supporter put it, “The more they hate him, the more I want him to succeed. Because what they hate about him is what they hate about me.” Trump was not simply admired; he was absorbed. He became a means of aesthetic expression for his base. He explicitly acknowledged this role on the campaign trail when he told his audience: “I am your voice.”

Trump’s soap opera played out on TV and on Twitter. Just as radio in the twentieth century helped bolster demagogues in both Europe and the United States, Twitter now provides apparently unmediated access to star politicians operating beyond the control of corrupt elite interests and institutions. Indeed, Twitter ramps up access considerably. Audiences no longer need to content themselves with the passive and vicarious thrills of radio or the moving image. On Twitter, the consumption of stars becomes active and public. Audiences can cobble together online identities largely on the basis of their favorite celebrities. Fans can even become minor stars themselves.

On Twitter and Facebook, cowering shut-ins create confident, outgoing lives (and then bemoan their “impostor syndrome”). Platforms that promised to connect people instead interject themselves between them, turning friendships into relationships that are not only externally monetizable, but take on the internal character of mutual consumption. Each party acts and poses for the other. Every tweet is self-advertisement. There is no cooperation, only mutual self-congratulation; no genuine debate, only smug one-upping and putdowns; no genuine inquiry, only the escalation of one’s prior beliefs into hatred and hysteria. Most importantly, nothing much is built except individual brands and, on occasion, mobs who set out to destroy them.

Instead of expressing a desire for a different kind of society, alienated Trump supporters found themselves cheering on a vulgar, self-obsessed anti-hero.

These dynamics are not organic. In the same way that the genre films of Hollywood or Berlin were not a necessary upshot of film technology, social media as we know it is not a necessary upshot of the internet. Mainstream social media, as Benjamin said of film, actively amplifies and “preserves that magic of the personality” and “the false gleam of its commodity character.” Instead of democratizing communication, access to information, or political influence, the internet—primarily through social media—has been made to democratize the cult of the star.

It’s a commonplace to say that on these platforms you are the product being sold to advertisers, but you’re also made into a product sold to your friends and acquaintances. The latter commodification underpins the former and is arguably more damaging. We are forced into the cult of stardom by design choices and profiteering that have fostered a new kind of interpersonal consumption and a set of attendant pathologies.

One result is a proliferation of the mental anguish once reserved for Hollywood stars. When your persona replaces your self, the connections you form with it remain forever tenuous. You can’t trust anyone, since they only ever engage with a commodified version of yourself. You become needy—dependent on constant affirmation that is, by design, never enough. 

Another result is the further aestheticization of politics. Like stars, political content and opinion no longer exist at a distance from their audience. They are absorbed and re-expressed by them as an appendage to the consumer’s personality. The average Twitter political junkie casts about for content much like Trump does, creating a pastiche of causes, grievances, and commentaries as she curates the daily disposable micro-dramas in her orbit. (Some part of the overwrought aversion to Trump is self-recognition.)

For the Twitter star, truth is prized (when it is prized at all) not for its inherent value but for its secondary aesthetic value. Science, expertise, and “facts” become fetishized and, in the process, undermined. Conspiracy theories flourish because they express deeply felt resentments or fantasies that require only emotional “correctness.” Even initially well-grounded views begin to wander toward the terrain of conspiracy theory as their value as an aesthetic accessory begins to overwhelm their empirical merit. A view held as a feature of one’s identity is much harder to revise in the face of new facts than one that is simply an interpretation based on the available evidence. Your views become precious parts of a narrative about the world starring you. As such, any challenge to them begins to feel existential. Objections to your views automatically take on the character of “gaslighting”: they can’t be taken to reflect a legitimate difference in interpretation, but instead represent a more radical attempt to undermine your experience of the world and sow self-doubt.

 

The aestheticization of politics occludes important social and political issues that cut across the culture war and might present an opportunity for solidarity—issues like globalization, governance by “public-private partnership,” a crisis of meaning. Meanwhile, it mires in exaggeration and venal idiocy the problems that do end up enmeshed in the culture war: the legacy of racism, global warming, COVID-19, to name a few.

Even if aestheticized politics mainly serve to distract from any actual changes to an unjust and anti-democratic economic structure, they are far from completely inert. Aesthetic expression may not change the balance of power but it can lead to other serious results, as we saw on January 6. In its search for a totalizing fulfillment, such a politics courts disaster. 

In the most extreme example, Hitler, the failed artist and master propagandist, attempted to bring his deranged political vision to reality. As Benjamin wrote in 1935, “‘Fiat ars—pereat mundus,’ says fascism.” May art be made, and the world perish. Benjamin concludes his essay by writing about fascism’s drive toward war as an aesthetic climax:

Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. 

Of late we’ve seen both Right and Left speculate about the possibility of a second civil war. Thus far, only the most deluded and troubled march the streets looking for a fight. But there is a more widespread tendency to revel, whether in enlightened despair or morbid curiosity, in apocalyptic futures. At the same time, our leading tech industrialists and their acolytes indulge in fantasies wherein technology facilitates a transcendence of the human condition. Benjamin would see this as further evidence of our self-alienation. Media that drive us relentlessly outside ourselves and turn us into god-like spectators of even our own personalities tend ultimately toward visions of fantastical transcendence or destruction. If it’s all a TV show, as people like to pretend on Twitter, then there must be a finale.

 

Benjamin believed that instead of aestheticizing politics, we ought to “politicize art.” Although he offers no real explanation of what that might mean, he is certainly not referring to the kind of the ham-fisted pseudo-satire or “statement art” that is often criticized today for being too political. In Benjamin’s terms, that kind of political art is not strictly speaking political at all. It aestheticizes political content, removing it to a sphere of fashion where it can’t be contested or truly engaged with, only embraced or reviled. This kind of art or media is actually anti-political, because it is convinced that everything is already settled and it’s just a matter of whether the viewer “gets it” or is, in that heavily self-alienated phrasing, “on the right side of history.”

So it is not that the new media needs to be depoliticized; rather, this media must be genuinely politicized for the first time. This would involve rescuing it from cult and culture war so that it can fulfill its democratic potential. It would mean envisioning and building alternative platforms that are not designed and controlled with only profit in mind. The interest in extracting as much money as possible from human attention requires and produces isolated, narcissistic subjects concerned most of all with their own appearance and incapable of banding together for any higher purpose.

We can already see glimpses of a more genuinely politicized media. Well-intentioned writers invested in genuine discussion and debate attempt valiantly to open up a space for something like real politics on their Twitter feeds, even if they frequently succumb to protective irony and defensiveness themselves. Meanwhile, with the “GameStonk” episode on Reddit in January, we saw a creative (and hilarious) attempt to protest and change property relations, even if it came with a large dose of materialism and trolling. And Substack has demonstrated the earnest, nearly desperate desire for a less-aestheticized journalism, even if the platform’s financial model still seems dependent on Twitter stars and the dynamics that drive engagement there.

These successes, such as they are, share a common feature. They occupy a middle ground between the isolated user and the undifferentiated whole. Whether by accident or intention, they delimit an actual community, however fragile, where like-minded people can talk to one another without having to curate themselves for the entire world. They offer a partial refuge from the self-alienating abyss that the average social-media user faces—a single scantily protected individual confronting an endlessly diverting but also endlessly hostile arcade. It is in these kinds of mediated communities that we might escape from the cult of stardom and begin to make real politics possible again. 

Published in the December 2021 issue: 

Alexander Stern is a writer whose work has appeared in the Hedgehog Review, the LA Review of Books, Aeon, and the New York Times. He is the author of The Fall of Language: Benjamin and Wittgenstein on Meaning and a writing fellow at Heterodox Academy.

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