The aesthetics of politics

Phil Ford

Here’s something I forgot to be thankful for in my Thanksgiving post: the Caveat Emptor bookshop. It’s a scruffy, voluminous used bookstore on Bloomington’s courthouse
square, presided over by an owlish fellow with bottomless knowledge and epicurean love of books — the used-bookstore proprietor from central casting. Here’s an appreciation of it on Maude Newton’s litblog, complete with photo:


Bloomington is a small city, and one of the shortcomings of living here is a certain limitation of consumer choice. My wife complains that all the women’s clothing for sale here is for 19-year-old girls, and just try to get a decent taco. But Bloomington is also the kind of place where there are a lot of professors and graduate students and people who went to IU 16 years ago and could never bring themselves to leave this drowsy academic town and who now live in 2-room apartments where every square inch of available space is taken up by books and who periodically have to dump some of their library out to make room for more. And those books end up at Caveat Emptor. Which means that there are special treats waiting for me every time I go there — books I’ve needed to pick up for years and books I didn’t know I wanted. So, the last time I went, I picked up J. Hoberman’s book on Yiddish film, Richard Schechner’s Environmental Theater (which should be the topic of another blog post), Mark Tucker’s Ellington Reader, James Miller’s Democracy is in the Streets, and Dwight Macdonald’s Politics Past.

This last book is a collection of Macdonald’s short pieces for his anarchist-pacifist journal Politics. Macdonald was politically chameleonic, veering wildly from Trotskyism to anarchism to cold war anti-communism to 1960s New Leftish radicalism, which has caused some to accuse him of being unserious, less interested in the rigors of doctrine than literary style. Well, this isn’t really wrong, but, y’know, you say that like it’s a bad thing.

It’s often said that Norman Mailer’s political critiques are also often little more than critiques of personal style, and again, it’s a put-down that tells you something significant about the man’s work, even if you’re inclined to see it as a strength rather than a failing. Mailer himself said that Macdonald influenced him in this respect: “Macdonald had given him* an essential clue which was: look to the feel of the phenomenon. If it feels bad, it is bad. . . . Macdonald had given the hint that the clue to discovery was not in the substance of one’s idea, but in what was learned from the style of one’s attack.”

The thinky** world, it seems to me, is divided between ontologists and phenomenologists. The former want to see the world as it really is, stripped of artifice and our (perhaps illusioned) impressions; the latter insist that our impressions are all we have, and that (as Oscar Wilde put it) “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”*** The phenomenologists are not apt to see things in terms of appearance/reality – surface/depth – form/content dualities. They see an indissoluble continuity between the idea and the form in which it is expressed. The ontologists (who always seem to be moralists) think this is at least wrongheaded and maybe sinister. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and Macdonald scores often enough to make you think there’s something in it. For Macdonald and Mailer (and George Orwell too, come to think of it) bad prose style is a canary-in-the-coal-mine indication of some more pervasive rottenness.

Take, for instance, the vicious beating Macdonald handed the National Review in its first year of publication. It’s easy to quote Macdonald’s epigrammatic sentences but weirdly difficult to excerpt paragraphs — his writing flows so organically from idea to idea it’s hard to arrest the current. So here’s a longish bit (coming after an analysis of the NR tendency to politicize culture in something of the same way as the old Daily Worker):

This is the voice of the lumpen-bourgeoisie. NR‘s “Letters” department is revealing. There are almost no critical letters, not because the editors have suppressed them—or, at least, so I would guess—but because the magazine’s level is not serious enough to stimulate them. Nor are there letters of correction or amplification; readers satisfied by so modestly endowed a journal are unlikely to have much to add. The whole atmosphere is that of the religious revival (“Amen, brother!”) rather than of dialogue or communication. These are, essentially, love letters—brief, stammering protestations of affection. The writers are inarticulate, culturally underprivileged folk. The diction is either stiff, like a farmhand’s Sunday suit—”Please permit me to wish the promoters every success in this worthwhile project”—or vulgar—”thanks for the home base.” In both cases it is the language of people not accustomed to expressing themselves on paper. “I am crazy about it,” a housewife writes from San Francisco. “Your wonderful weekly really fills a gap.” A Lt. Col. pronounces it “a fine periodical,” while a lady writes from Miami, “Your new magazine is magnificent. Every singe word of the first three editions has been devoured by me.” Another lady of Dallas confesses “. . . so satisfying. I myself find nothing to criticize.” And a clergyman weighs in all the way from Huntsville, Utah: “Even for a first issue, it’s a superlative job—honest, jam-packed factually, witty . . . something we have been waiting and praying for in America.”

There is frequently a sort of pathos in this enthusiasm, like the joy of a long-beleaguered garrison when the U.S. Marines finally arrive. “. . . an oasis in the desert, The spring has been very dry since 1932. This is a second Valley Forge.”  “At last the faceless, voiceless, unorganized but patriotic genuine Americans . . . have a medium.” “God knows it is high time.” “. . . the long-needed house organ of the outnumbered but still dynamic American Underground that refuses to bend with the prevailing winds of Regimentation, Monopoly, Conformity and ideological sleepwalking.”

This mood of helpless isolation is also present in the magazine itself. There are so many enemies; the liberal conspiracy is omnipresent; it includes not only Mrs. Roosevelt, Dean Acheson and Paul Hoffman, but also Life, the New York Times, nay, even Eisenhower himself, whose behavior is as constantly disappointing to the editors as that of F.D.R. was to the editors of the liberal weeklies in the thirties.

There is an undeniable snobbishness in this passage, as there is in most of Macdonald’s best writing, but even so, Macdonald’s stylstic seismograph picked up tremors of a political pathology that is easily seen in the present-day conservative movement the National Review helped to build. The “mood of helpless isolation,” the aesthetic conception of the conservative self as always beleaguered, as being one of the last of a dying but valiant order, the mood where it’s always Dunkirk or the last fatal charge at Gallipoli — this accounts for the conservative love for the movie 300 and books like Mark Steyn’s America Alone. And it accounts for large chunks of the Bush administration’s foreign policy.

The reason aestheticized interpretations of politics can work is that people make political decisions for aesthetic reasons. My own project of writing about the cultural and intellectual history of hipness (i.e., countercultural left radicalism) proceeds from this notion. The dominant tendency in pop music studies right now is to read politics in the aesthetic; like Macdonald or Mailer or Orwell (though inevitably neither so well nor so wittily), I want to turn this on its head, to read the aesthetic in the political.

*”Him” being Mailer, who wrote this line in Armies of the Night, the book that is not a memoir but a non-fiction novel featuring a character named “Norman Mailer.”

**”The thinky world” seems a better, less pretentious, more accurate term than “the thinking world” or “the intellectual world.” It’s not always the world of thinking, since much of what people in this world say hardly qualifies as thought. (“Intellectual reflex” might be closer to the mark.) And anyone who calls him/herself an “intellectual” is asking for a punch in the face. The virtual space I’m trying to designate is the world of those who value thought as a privileged way of dealing with the world, and who either express thoughts themselves or consume the thoughts of others. It’s not always thoughtful, as we all know from reading blogs, but it’s thinky.

***This appears as an epigram in Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation.” Sontag at this point in her life was perhaps an interesting mixture of my two admittedly reductive types: she was an ontologist trying to be  a phenomenologist. Again and again in these essays she wants to the look and feel of things to be complete and sufficient in itself, even as she falls back in the old habit of finding meanings hidden in things. For an example, read her famous essay on camp. Along with her unimpeachable observations of camp phenomenology (‘Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of “style” over “content,” “aesthetics” over “morality,” of irony over tragedy.’) she lapses back into the habit of saying stuff like, Bellini is camp, Ruby Keeler is camp, etc., as if camp were a stable essence that could inhere in things, and as if the point of writing an essay is to reveal these hidden qualities.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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3 Responses to The aesthetics of politics

  1. Lee says:

    Hey, Phil. Nice post.
    I think this impulse–treating the aesthetic dimensions of political life–is exactly right and much more interesting than discovering political meanings in aesthetic objects. I would only add to these thoughts that the ontological and phenomenological approaches to political thought are hard to disentangle.
    We use appearances to make judgments because they give us hints about things that matter to us. Clear skin=healthy immune system=good genes; clear prose style=clear mind=correct analysis; etc. But because the symptom is ontologically distinct from the disease–or from the admirable quality we’re looking for–symptoms can be faked. And often are.
    In the sphere of cultural production, this ability to fake–to buy clothing that looks as if it were laboriously dug out of a pile of trash in a vintage store, but (aha!) was actually purchased at Urban Outfitters–leads to an authenticity arms race…
    Then again, some things matter to us and others don’t. And these preferences are often formed in relation to an aesthetic. You could even argue that it’s all aesthetics all the way down: even the desire to preserve our species from mass extinction can’t ultimately be argued for rationally (after all, we all die) but only in terms of our irreducible preferences.
    To want to look as if you’ve spent hours in the vintage store is itself an aesthetic preference–one that, in the language of economics, is endogenous. It has an autonomous force all its own and can’t be justified beyond its own sake.
    The same’s true about politics. Lattes vs. beers, efficiency vs. equality, survival vs. extinction… I think at bottom we can’t justify our preferences. We feel about these one way or another. Once we know what our values and priorities are, only then can we talk about getting things right or being authentic or whatever…

  2. Jonathan says:

    Beautiful post. I YEARN for a place like that to hang out in. Nothing even remotely like that here. My father and I used to haunt the used book stores in Los Angeles (I lived for little else in middle school, I think), and for me to set foot in such a place now is to feel a palpable inner unwinding, as if I were suddenly Home, a place so long forgotten that the longing for it had completely scabbed over. I envy you in gallons.

  3. A post about my home away from home! (Next to WFIU, of course.) Janis will be pleased as a copy of Punch… believe it or not, I picked up a copy of Tucker’s ELLINGTON READER there as well, a couple years back. That pic looks like it was taken before the six-week spring cleaning he gave the place a few months ago.

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