Spencer Wolff The Institutionalization of Violence



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Spencer Wolff

The Institutionalization of Violence: Violence as Lebenstil and Fascism as a Fusion of Arendt’s Categories of “Power” and “Violence”

“Fascinating Fascism” is the title of Susan Sontag’s celebrated article on Leni Riefenstahl’s The Last of the Nuba, a photographic chronicle of the “aloof, godlike Nuba” of southern Sudan. The laudatory reception of this work, Sontag argues, functions as the cap to the snowballing rehabilitation of Riefenstahl in the eyes of the world; a rehabilitation which includes her reintegration into post-war society as a filmmaker summarily “concerned with beauty” (Sontag, 4). Implicitly, therefore, this redemption assumes her to have been wholly unconcerned with the lamentable propagandistic “tangents” to her earlier and greatest works: the Nazi films, Triumph of the Will and Olympia. It is rather strongly implied by Sontag that this insidious cleansing of Riefenstahl’s reputation is symptomatic of the immense and bizarre appeal of fascist ideas; it is only by virtue of our own fascination with fascism, not as an object of study, but as an ideology with visceral mass appeal, that someone as irremediably entwined with its catastrophic past should find herself so startlingly and “convincingly” rehabilitated. Sontag draws a quite worrisome lesson from this:

“Riefenstahl’s current de-Nazification and vindication as indomitable priestess of the beautiful—as a filmmaker and, now, as a photographer—do not augur well for the keenness of current abilities to detect the fascist longings in our midst. Riefenstahl is hardly the usual sort of aesthete or anthropological romantic. The force of her work being precisely in the continuity of its political and aesthetic ideas, what is interesting is that this was once seen so much more clearly than it seems to be now, when people claim to be drawn to Riefenstahl’s images for their beauty of composition. Without a historical perspective, such connoisseurship prepares the way for a curiously absentminded acceptance of propaganda for all sorts of destructive feelings—feelings whose implications people are refusing to take seriously.” (Sontag, 8)


Sontag’s essay is a clanging alarm to attention, but her rallying cry, this paper will argue, may be an impossible one.

Sontag herself readily admits that the ideals of fascism are “vivid and moving to many people,” (Sontag, 8) However, she restricts herself primarily to a descriptive analysis of fascism: its contradictory rhetoric, its simplistic idealism. “Its contempt for all that is reflective, critical, and pluralistic.” (Sontag, 5) Sontag, like most interpreters of fascism, never mines the deeper psychological structure that allow for the adoption of an ideology whose internal discrepancies remain entirely unresolved and apparently unremarked or uncriticized by its own adherents.

“Fascist aesthetics include but go far beyond the rather special celebration of the primitive to be found in The Last of the Nuba. More generally, they flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication or replication of things; and the groupings of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets, uniformly garbed and shown in ever swelling number. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed static, ‘virile’ posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death.”(Sontag, 6, my emphasis)
Sontag’s rendition of fascist aesthetics is quite convincing, but her rather tautological characterization of the aesthetic praxes within fascism, “they flow from (and justify),” though ostensibly limited to the aesthetic realm, at the same time obviates any incisive consideration of the underlying structure of the fascist mindset. Such a research was surely beyond the scope of Sontag’s short piece, and to identify its lack is not to criticize her rational. However, to merely supply an albeit excellent descriptive overview of the components of fascist thought, and to urge us to combat our insidious longing for these forms, leaves us inordinately unprepared for this struggle—not to mention fascinated by its elements. Tantamount to this matter is the lack of clarity about whether fascist aesthetics or ideology, in their raw and purified form are not, in fact the very essence of human idealism:

“It is generally thought that National Socialism stands only for brutishness and terror. But this is not true. National Socialism—more broadly, fascism—also stands for an ideal, or rather ideals, that are persistent today under the other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders)…it is dishonest as well as tautological to say that one is affected by Triumph of the Will and Olympia because they were made by a filmmaker of genius. Riefenstahl’s films are still effective because, among other reasons, their longings are still felt, because their content is a romantic ideal to which many continue to be attached.” (Sontag, 8)


For the most part, this description, though hardly redeeming fascism for any of its crimes, nonetheless targets a slew of traits that hardly seem inimical. Is there a schism in fascism, between the romantic and the brutal? Or where then does one draw the line between rhetoric which is fascist, and rhetoric which is idealistic? If the ideals that Sontag targets in the Last of the Nuba are present in everyday life, as well as in artistic discourse, but yet the extensive fascist pageantry, as well as the peculiar amalgam of egomania and servitude there lack, can Riefenstahl’s new work truly be lambasted as fascist? This paper proposes that it is not merely a distinctive imagistic content or specific aesthetic trappings that distinguish idealism from fascism, but rather it is very specifically the means employed by the fascists for dissolving “alienation in ecstatic feelings of community” (Sontag) that lies at the heart of fascism’s danger. It further proposes, via Hannah Arendt’s work, On Violence, that fascism’s defining characteristic is the coalescing of the community both in the face of alleged immediate danger, and by the promise of concerted militant action in response. As German fascism is the overriding preoccupation of this paper, one should never discount the racial/ethnic rhetoric which has overridingly stamped Nazism in historical memory. However, besides singularly defining the community, this racist discourse similarly operated as a means of evoking a menace, the Jewish Cabal and the pollution of German blood, and proffered an active, violent solution, the expulsion and wholesale extermination of all threatening elements.

In On Violence, Arendt proposes that “The greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence.” In this case she is examining the growing violence in the student movements of the 1970’s, yet her reflection “that much of the present glorification of violence is caused by severe frustration of the faculty of action in the modern world,” could be equally as well applied to the political stalemate tearing apart Germany during the Weimar era. The Nazis proposed a Germany united through action. They conjured up enemies and injustices false and real and promised to deal with them decisively. They outraged and an already outraged populace through inflammatory propaganda and speeches, and in doing so tapped into what Arendt identifies as one of the fundamental human emotions.

“That violence often springs from rage,” she writes, “is a commonplace, and rage can indeed be irrational and pathological, but so can every other human affect. It is no doubt possible to create conditions under which men are dehumanized—such as concentration camps, torture, famine—but this does not mean that they become animal-like; and under such conditions, not rage and violence, but their conspicuous absence is the clearest sign of dehumanization. Rage is by no means an automatic reaction to misery and suffering as such…Only where there is reason to suspect that conditions could be changed and are not does rage arise. Only when our sense of justice is offended do we react with rage…to resort to violence when confronted with outrageous events or conditions is enormously tempting because of its inherent immediacy and swiftness….In private as well as public life there are situations in which the very swiftness of a violent act may be the only appropriate remedy. The point is not that this permits us to let off steam—which indeed can be equally well done by pounding the table or slamming the door. The point is that under certain circumstances violence—acting without argument of speech and without counting the consequences—is the only way to set the scales of justice right again. (Billy Budd striking the dead man who bore false witness against him is the classic example.) In this sense, rage and the violence that sometimes—not always—goes with it belong among the ‘natural’ human emotions, and to cure man of them would mean nothing less than to dehumanize or emasculate him. That such acts, in which men take the law into their own hands for justice’s sake, are in conflict with the constitutions of civilized communities is undeniable; but their antipolitical character, so manifest in Melville’s great story, does not mean that they are inhuman or ‘merely’ emotional.”(Arendt, 63-4, my emphasis)
Surely the German fascists waxed on about ideals, but in their early years their rhetoric was one of indignation and calls for justice. There was the injust Versaille’s treaty, the capitalist cabal, and they inspired others to vote for them to a great extent by means of their indignation. It is not difficult to picture the justified resentment of the petty bourgeois—along with the other cohorts eventually supporting the National Socialists—under the Weimar era government; their prospects dim and growing dimmer, their means of action almost entirely circumscribed in the polarized atmosphere of the day. The appeal of the fascist revolution must have been immense, and their vote may initially have been that swift impractical violence intended to set the scales of justice right again, of which Arendt speaks.

However, in order to understand how fascism arises, and therefore how one can possibly prevent its recurrence, it is imperative that we treat this translation from righteous, short-term indignation, to the exercise of unprovoked, institutionalized violence, by which fascism, in its full maturity, was distinguished. For fascism promised more than indignation and action, but, as Sontag highlights, ecstatic communal belonging, and as Arendt asserts there is no camaraderie as intense as that of men in the face of death.

“In collective violence, [violence’s] most dangerously attractive features come to the fore, and this is by no means because there is safety in numbers. It is perfectly true that in military as well as revolutionary action ‘individualism is the first [value] to disappear;’ in its stead, we find a kind of group coherence which is more intensely felt and proves to be a much stronger, though less lasting bond than all the varieties of friendship, civil or private….once a man is admitted, he will fall under the intoxicating spell of ‘the practice of violence [which] binds men together as a whole, since each individual forms a violent link in the great chain, a part of the great organism of violence which has surged upward.’…Fanon’s words point to the well-known phenomenon of brotherhood on the battlefield, where the noblest, most selfless deeds are often daily occurrences….As far as human experience is concerned, death indicates an extreme of loneliness and impotence. But faced collectively and in action, death changes its countenance; now nothing seems more likely to intensify our vitality than its proximity. Something we are usually hardly aware of, namely, that our own death is accompanied by the potential immortality of the group we belong to and, in the final analysis, of the species, moves into the center of our experience….it is true that the strong fraternal sentiments collective violence engenders have misled many good people in to the hope that a new community together with a ‘new man’ will arise out of it. The hope is an illusion for the simple reason that no human relationship is more transitory than this kind of brotherhood, which can be actualized only under conditions of immediate danger to life and limb.” (Arendt, 67-9)
The German Fascists did not merely rouse the indignation of the community, nor did they merely devise hydra-headed threats to the collective, but moreover they promised community by means of collective indignation, they fashioned a collective by means of a militant community of violence. They militarized a nation; everyone was involved by means of constant parades, youth camps, and later universal conscription. The fascist pageantry that Sontag identifies was a skillful resurrection of the communities of violence that had engulfed the world during The Great War, and an adroit replication of the comraderie that holds sway in the military. Arendt’s reflection explains why utopias constructed around the concept of perpetual war are even conceivable. What it really means is perpetual and fulfilling brotherhood. The Freikorp soldiers, returning from the smoldering trenches of World War One pledge themselves to unending war—a pledge which bore fruition with the establishment of the Third Reich.

Indeed, the abrupt eclosion of fascism in Italy and Germany must be understood as a phenomenon specific to the post-World War I era, as an ideology promulgated in the trenches, and made possible only through the widespread communality of the warfare experience. That the Futurists in Italy and the Freikorps in Germany had enough adherents immediately after the war to organize themselves into even a vociferous minority, and that they thereafter seized the imagination of an ultimately receptive populace points to fascism’s debt to the trenches.

The inevitable difficulty in trying to maintain a culture which originates in conditions of near total war, is that with its ascension to power, simply in order to maintain itself, it must occasion other wars. The harping rhetoric, the phantasmagoric renditions of looming menaces and standing enemies, the meticulously cultivated state of tense readiness, inevitably necessitates mobilization: aggression, war, Gotterdammerung. Eventually it consumes itself. Again it is this controlled, perpetual violence which is the hallmark of fascism. Fascism is not irrational violence as some theorists claim, but rather cynical, hyper-rational violence. Its bureaucracy too is one which replicates the often Byzantine regulations of military bureaucracy, and is precisely the framework within which “individualism is the first to go,” and man is treated as a means to an end.; thereby paving the way for later crimes against humanity. The iconic movement towards fascism may then be this sequence from a violence rising out of righteous indignation coupled with a frustrated faculty of action to the institutionalizing of violence as a way of life, i.e. the propagandistic imposition and prolongation the transient feelings of brotherhood which arises out of communal action in response to the proximity of danger.

I would like here to introduce David Fincher’s enormously successful film Fight Club as a surprising illustration of precisely this sequence in keeping with the transformation of a petty-bourgeois individual into a fascist ruler. The film commences with the unnamed protagonist’s private “indignant revolt” against a stifling bureaucracy’s disregard for human life, and culminates with his organizing of a cultish, fascist army. It thereby intimates a compelling link between Arendt’s apolitical “indignant” rage and the instauration of fascism. I do not have time today to dedicate the extensive commentary to the film that it deserves, but I will try to highlight the points most germane to the argument. At the start of the film, the protagonist is calmly leading a modern day Kafkaesque existence dictated by a faceless, and similarly nameless, bureaucratic corporation. His job is that of a recall coordinator. He flies from location to location analyzing the wrecked remains of human beings charred alive within the autos manufactured by his cost-cutting, regulation eschewing company. The serene manner with which the company plugs peoples’ lives into a banal formula is incapable of veiling the malicious eradication of human life in order “to meet the bottom line.” The protagonist, allegedly given no bureaucratic out, begins moonlighting as an urban, anti-corporate terrorist. His first transformation thus replicates Arendt’s indignant, apolitical revolt; an apolitical, violent action meant to set the scales of justice right again. He soon undergoes a second transformation and organizes a society of underground fight clubs, that could easily embody a contemporized update to the wrestling society described by Riefenstahl in The Last of the Nuba. Both are all male-wrestling cults, whose members are devoted to physical perfection, are disdainful of women, and for whom the greatest imaginable honor is that of victory in the ring. “Fight Club became the reason to live,” the protagonist at one point intones.

The film Fight Club is therefore quite helpful in elucidating exactly how Riefenstahl’s Last of the Nuba is not quite fascist, though its aesthetics are in keeping with fascist ones, and the violent way of life it depicts could be a precursor to a fascist one. For it is at this point that Fincher’s film takes a sudden turn A society which previously was about “being a God for five minutes” in the ring, reorganizes itself as an anti-corporate army. Its members devote themselves to the utter eradication of individualism; all are deprived of their names and dress only in black: a conspicuous reference to the SS which inspired Roger Ebert to call Fight Club the “most cheerfully fascist big-star movie since Death Wish.” Interestingly, the goals of this fascist army are merely a politicized version of the protagonist’s initial, apolitical indignant revolt. Whereas he spent his time playing pranks, the army aims to seriously upset the ruling order by destroying the headquarters of major credit companies. In the film it is when private indignation and apolitical revolt become political and organized that they render themselves fascist. Thought the film is fantasy, it taps into Arendt’s apprehension before “the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic…the practice of violence,” she writes, “like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.” (Arendt, 80)

I would like to conclude this paper by applying Arendt’s categories of power and violence to fascism in a way I hope will be illuminating. Arendt defines power as:

“The human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of somebody that he is ‘in power’ we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name.” (Arendt, 43).
On the other hand,
Violence…is distinguished by its instrumental character. Phenomenologically, it is close to strength, since the implements of violence, like all other tools, are designed and used for the purpose of multiplying natural strength, until, in the last stage of their development, they can substitute for it.” (Arendt, 46)
Thus she arrives at the conclusion that:
“Politically speaking, it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance…Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.”(Arendt, 56)
Curiously though, fascism, contra to what Arendt says, is the paradoxical resolution of power and violence. Successful fascism is none other than the extreme exercise of power and violence at once. Fascism certainly arises from violence as a way of life, like the Nuba or the Fight Club. However, true fascism depends on institutionalized, bureaucratized violence; violence conferred the legitimacy and authority of power. After the eradication of practically all political opposition by the end of 1934, National Socialist authority was hardly imperiled, and violence against the resistant portions of the German population was no longer necessary in order to achieve active consensus. Nonetheless, the endless martial displays and the militarization of the populace continued. Under fascism, violence does not appear where power is in jeopardy, but rather where power is at its strongest. Its rhetoric is that of violence and action, and therefore the very expression and display of fascist power, which is the actualization of its rhetoric, must be violence.

In fact, it is only in non-violent protest that power and violence manifest themselves as total antitheses. Most other times power and violence tend to commingle. The exercise of violence is of course the prerogative of power, and the police, law and army represent the imminent menace of the violence against those who would infringe on this prerogative, whether or not they imperil power itself. It is only when Arendt’s category of power arises in the form of non-violent demonstration, and thus confronts the police, army and law, that it is able to totally and completely resist violence, and counter organized violence’s fascist logic. It is only when peaceful means are instituted contra violent ones, and that all the idealistic self-discipline and self-abnegation in which Sontag sees stirring the seeds of fascism is employed by protestors precisely in order to obviate violent confrontation, that the fascist impulse is in fact countered.



The emphasis thus gets laid on how the ideals exemplified by Riefenstahl’s Nuba are employed. For they are indeed ideals shared by both artistic vision and athletic endeavor. It is merely when these ideals are organized politically and are coupled with the will to power, when the fasces is militarized and feelings of community are maintained by means of existential threat that they are rendered fascist. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”






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