Why Recent Decades All Feel Culturally the Same, and Why Mark Fisher Thought Capitalism Was to Blame

The nine­teen-sev­en­ties had its own dis­tinc­tive aes­thet­ics, ques­tion­able though that peri­od’s styles have often looked to sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions. So, in stark, jagged, neon con­trast, did the eight­ies. Those of us who came of age in the nineties have, in recent years, come to appre­ci­ate that look and feel of what then sur­round­ed us, which seemed both bland and exag­ger­at­ed at the time. But around the turn of the mil­len­ni­um, some­thing fun­da­men­tal seems to have changed. The brief “Y2K” era may now offi­cial­ly be retro, but how dif­fer­ent was the style of the two-thou­sands from that of the sub­se­quent decade, or indeed one after that — the one in which we find our­selves right now?

To put the ques­tion more blunt­ly, why don’t decades feel cul­tur­al­ly dis­tinct any­more? “The dimen­sion of the future has dis­ap­peared,” British the­o­rist Mark Fish­er once said in a lec­ture. “We’re marooned, we’re trapped in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, still.”

To be in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry is noth­ing more than “to have twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry cul­ture on high-def­i­n­i­tion screens.” Though Fish­er died five years ago, his obser­va­tions have only become more rel­e­vant to our cul­tur­al con­di­tion. We’re still expe­ri­enc­ing what he called “the slow can­cel­la­tion of the future,” a phe­nom­e­non explained in the Epoch Phi­los­o­phy video at the top of the post.

“The way we expe­ri­ence artis­tic time peri­ods is dying as we speak,” explains the video’s nar­ra­tor. “In our cur­rent state of this new post­mod­ern social exis­tence that we see in the West, his­toric­i­ty is gone. The way we inter­act and expe­ri­ence time is start­ing to fade away into a con­fused jum­bled mess of aes­thet­ic chaos.” The cul­prit, in Fish­er’s view? The tri­umph of cap­i­tal­ism, and more so the “cap­i­tal­ist real­ism” that clos­es off the pos­si­bil­i­ty of even imag­in­ing alter­na­tive social and eco­nom­ic orders. “Dur­ing the age of social democ­ra­cy, Britain fund­ed art pro­grams and film cen­ters,” result­ing in “exper­i­men­tal clas­sics” and “extreme­ly artis­tic British TV.” These and oth­er mech­a­nisms main­tained a “sub­lime val­ue around art” that pro­tect­ed it from “the whims of the mar­ket.”

Today we have only “a hyper-com­mod­i­fied sphere of art, where the pri­ma­ry goal is now mak­ing a prof­it — not nec­es­sar­i­ly out of pure love of prof­it, but the real­iza­tion that your abil­i­ty to be an artist will die with­out tan­gi­ble sales.” Hence the “recy­cling of old art” in forms as var­i­ous as “music, TV, film, and even video games.” This absence of the tru­ly new, to Fish­er’s mind, implied the death of the very idea of the future, of improve­ment on or at least a break from the present. No mat­ter our polit­i­cal views — or our abil­i­ty to digest Fish­er’s use of Der­ridean terms like “hauntol­ogy” — we’ve all felt the truth of this in our cul­tur­al lives. As tech­nol­o­gy march­es on, we indulge ever more deeply in nos­tal­gia, pas­tiche, and retro-futur­ism. Per­haps we can break out of this cycle, but Fish­er, safe to say, was not opti­mistic.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Pre­vi­ous Decades Pre­dict­ed the Future: The 21st Cen­tu­ry as Imag­ined in the 1900s, 1950s, 1980s, and Oth­er Eras

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Theodor Adorno & His Cri­tique of Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism

Stephen Hawk­ing Won­ders Whether Cap­i­tal­ism or Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Will Doom the Human Race

How the Sovi­ets Imag­ined in 1960 What the World Would Look in 2017: A Gallery of Retro-Futur­is­tic Draw­ings

The Cri­sis of Cap­i­tal­ism Ani­mat­ed

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

Banksy Spray Paints Murals in War-Torn Ukraine

We may not know for sure the iden­ti­ty of Banksy, the Eng­lish street artist famous for his social-com­men­tary graf­fi­ti murals inspired and inte­grat­ed with their sur­round­ings. But giv­en his appar­ent inter­ests, we might have sus­pect­ed him to turn up in Ukraine soon­er or lat­er. Recent­ly post­ed by Banksy him­self, the video above shows him at work in the region of Kyiv, the Ukrain­ian cap­i­tal, each of which makes a visu­al com­ment on this year’s Russ­ian inva­sion and the for­ti­tude Ukraine’s peo­ple have shown against it. “As is typ­i­cal of Banksy’s work,” writes The Art News­pa­per’s Torey Akers, “the artist’s edits com­bine a satirist’s edge for wink­ing com­men­tary with a sin­cere invest­ment in polit­i­cal sol­i­dar­i­ty.”

Smithsonian.com’s Jacque­lyne Ger­main describes a few of Banksy’s new works in Ukraine, begin­ning with two in the near­ly aban­doned town of Borodyan­ka. “Paint­ed on the side of a crum­bling build­ing,” one piece “depicts a gym­nast doing a hand­stand on a pile of rub­ble.”

In anoth­er, “a young boy flips an old­er man onto his back in a judo match. Some spec­u­late that the old­er man is Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, who is known to be a judo enthu­si­ast.” (Banksy has devel­oped a dis­tinc­tive sen­si­bil­i­ty in his decades of pub­lic art, but sub­tle­ty isn’t its fore­most ele­ment.) His images put up else­where “jux­ta­pose wartime imagery with snap­shots of civil­ian life: in one, chil­dren ride a met­al tank trap as a see­saw,” and in anoth­er “a woman in her dress­ing gown wears a gas mask.”

The con­flict in Ukraine now approach­es its tenth month, with no clear signs of an end to the vio­lence. Civil­ian life can’t go on, yet must go on, and it comes as no sur­prise that Banksy would find some­thing to draw upon in that har­row­ing and con­tra­dic­to­ry state of affairs. Nor could it have been lost on him what con­tex­tu­al pow­er the sham­bol­ic urban envi­ron­ments of Borodyan­ka, Hos­tomel, and Horen­ka — towns lit­er­al­ly torn apart by war — could grant even murals humor­ous­ly spray-paint­ed upon its sur­faces.

At the end of the video, Akers notes, “a heat­ed local man points to an image the artist paint­ed on a graf­fi­tied wall so that a pre-exist­ing tag of a penis became a war­head atop an armored truck and declares, ‘For this, I would kick out all his teeth and break his legs.’ ” Even in a war zone, every­body’s a crit­ic.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Mak­ing of Mod­ern Ukraine: A Free Online Course from Yale Pro­fes­sor Tim­o­thy Sny­der

Banksy’s Great British Spray­ca­tion: The Artist Spray Paints England’s Favorite Sum­mer-Hol­i­day Des­ti­na­tions

Banksy Debuts His COVID-19 Art Project: Good to See That He Has TP at Home

The Joy of Paint­ing with Bob Ross & Banksy: Watch Banksy Paint a Mur­al on the Jail That Once Housed Oscar Wilde

Banksy Paints a Grim Hol­i­day Mur­al: Season’s Greet­ings to All

How Ukraine’s Works of Art Are Being Saved in Wartime — Using the Lessons of World War II

Why Rus­sia Invad­ed Ukraine: A Use­ful Primer

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The Internet Archive Launches Democracy’s Library, a Free Online Library of 500,000 Documents Supporting Democracy

“Democ­ra­cy is the worst form of gov­ern­ment except all those oth­er forms that have been tried from time to time.” So said Win­ston Churchill, per­haps not sus­pect­ing how fre­quent­ly the remark would be quot­ed in the decades there­after. Time and expe­ri­ence con­tin­ue to reveal to us democ­ra­cy’s lia­bil­i­ties, but also — at least in cer­tain soci­eties — the nature of its sur­pris­ing stay­ing pow­er. Since well before Churchill’s time, democ­ra­cy and its work­ings have been objects of fas­ci­na­tion the world over. So have its cen­tral ques­tions, not least the one of just how to main­tain the “informed cit­i­zen­ry” on which its oper­a­tion sup­pos­ed­ly depends.

The Inter­net Archive has just launched its own kind of answer in the form of Democ­ra­cy’s Library. “A free, open, online com­pendi­um of gov­ern­ment research and pub­li­ca­tions from around the world,” the site offers cit­i­zens a way to “lever­age use­ful research, learn about the work­ings of their gov­ern­ment, hold offi­cials account­able, and be more informed vot­ers.”

Col­lect­ed from a vari­ety of gov­ern­men­tal bod­ies like the Unit­ed States’ Nation­al Agri­cul­tur­al LibraryFor­eign Broad­cast Infor­ma­tion Ser­vice, and Nation­al Insti­tute of Stan­dards and Tech­nol­o­gy Research Library — as well as Sta­tis­tics Cana­da and Pub­lic Accounts of Cana­da — its mate­ri­als were osten­si­bly pro­duced for the pub­lic, but haven’t always been easy to find. It total, there are more than 500,000 doc­u­ments in the col­lec­tion.

“Gov­ern­ments have cre­at­ed an abun­dance of infor­ma­tion and put it in the pub­lic domain, but it turns out the pub­lic can’t eas­i­ly access it,” says Brew­ster Kahle, founder of the Inter­net Archive. He gives one of the series of talks that com­prise “Build­ing Democ­ra­cy’s Library,” the launch cel­e­bra­tion that took place last week and that you can still watch in the video above. Its pro­ceed­ings go into quite a bit of detail about the efforts of acqui­si­tion and orga­ni­za­tion that went into this project, as well as the nature of its mis­sion. For this isn’t just an effort to doc­u­ment democ­ra­cy, but to strength­en it by mak­ing the infor­ma­tion it pro­duces avail­able as con­ve­nient­ly as pos­si­ble to as many cit­i­zens as pos­si­ble. And no mat­ter the coun­try of which you count your­self a cit­i­zen, you can start brows­ing Democ­ra­cy’s Library here.

Relat­ed con­tent:

His­to­ri­an Tim­o­thy Sny­der Presents 20 Lessons for Defend­ing Democ­ra­cy Against Tyran­ny in a New Video Series

Why Socrates Hat­ed Democ­ra­cies: An Ani­mat­ed Case for Why Self-Gov­ern­ment Requires Wis­dom & Edu­ca­tion

Han­nah Arendt Explains Why Democ­ra­cies Need to Safe­guard the Free Press & Truth … to Defend Them­selves Against Dic­ta­tors and Their Lies

Does Democ­ra­cy Demand the Tol­er­ance of the Intol­er­ant? Karl Popper’s Para­dox

Bertrand Russell’s Ten Com­mand­ments for Liv­ing in a Healthy Democ­ra­cy

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Historian Timothy Snyder Presents 20 Lessons for Defending Democracy Against Tyranny in a New Video Series

Yale pro­fes­sor and his­to­ri­an Tim­o­thy Sny­der has sound­ed alarm bells about autoc­ra­cy and fas­cism for sev­er­al years now, in both his schol­ar­ly and pop­u­lar books about Russ­ian and Ger­man his­to­ry. Whether you’ve fol­lowed his warn­ings or just start­ed pay­ing atten­tion, it’s not too late to get caught up on the lessons he brings from his rig­or­ous stud­ies of 20th cen­tu­ry total­i­tar­i­an­ism. To make his rel­e­vant points more acces­si­ble, Sny­der has dis­tilled them over the years, aim­ing at the widest pop­u­lar audi­ence.

First, he pub­lished On Tyran­ny in 2017, draw­ing 20 lessons about unfree­dom from the lives of those under the Nazi, Sovi­et, and oth­er fas­cist and total­i­tar­i­an regimes. With­out argu­ing that his­to­ry repeats, exact­ly, Sny­der not­ed sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences to past events, and adapt­ed gen­er­al prin­ci­ples to the geopol­i­tics of the ear­ly 21st cen­tu­ry. These lessons get reit­er­at­ed and dis­tilled even fur­ther in an edi­tion of the best-sell­ing On Tyran­ny illus­trat­ed by artist Nora Krug.

Pub­lished in 2021 and reflect­ing four years of Trump­ism, the illus­trat­ed edi­tion con­tin­ues what we might call Sny­der’s Chom­skyan com­mit­ment to pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al­ism. Trump may be out of pow­er, but the threats to democ­ra­cy are wired in — in one judi­cial action after anoth­er, and in states like North Car­oli­na, where an ille­gal, racial­ly-ger­ry­man­dered state leg­is­la­ture has held pow­er for years, and now seeks to nul­li­fy fed­er­al elec­tions at state lev­el, with many oth­er states threat­en­ing to fol­low suit.

This kind of polit­i­cal seces­sion­ism impos­es the per­ma­nent will of a minor­i­ty on a rapid­ly chang­ing nation, ensur­ing that his­to­ry nev­er catch­es up with the elites, a cat­e­go­ry that includes lead­ers on both sides of the euphemistic “aisle.” For increas­ing num­bers of Amer­i­cans, polit­i­cal divi­sions are more apt­ly char­ac­ter­ized by bar­ri­cades, prison walls, or indi­vis­i­ble codes of silence(ing), repres­sion, and com­plic­i­ty. Sny­der meets this time of creep­ing (lop­ing?) fas­cism  with a YouTube series in which he speaks direct­ly to the cam­era.

He isn’t giv­ing up on more peo­ple pay­ing atten­tion to the big­ger pic­ture, and he’s nev­er giv­en up on effec­tive respons­es to 21st cen­tu­ry tyran­ny. Vot­ing alone has nev­er been enough, and it could be ren­dered mean­ing­less in the near future. The lessons — “Do not obey in advance”; “Defend insti­tu­tions”; “Beware the one-par­ty state” — may be famil­iar to us now, or they may not. But if they bear repeat­ing, it’s worth hear­ing them from Sny­der him­self, who clos­es some of the dis­tance between the intel­lec­tu­al and the pub­lic by step­ping away from print alto­geth­er — a medi­um per­haps unsuit­ed to the mal­leable demands of the online present.

How does the media affect, or become, Sny­der’s mes­sage, espe­cial­ly when it’s effec­tive­ly one-sid­ed­ly tele­vi­su­al, the medi­um of the 20th cen­tu­ry of fas­cism par excel­lence? Sny­der does not address these the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions, except indi­rect­ly by way of a gener­ic book talk aes­thet­ic com­plete with rum­pled shirt, rustling lapel mic, and req­ui­site back­ground shelves of books you’ll find your­self try­ing to iden­ti­fy as you learn to “be wary of para­mil­i­taries.”

Being wary is one thing, but to what does Sny­der’s hyper vig­i­lance add up with­out the pow­er to make change where we are? Ah, but in ask­ing such a ques­tion, maybe we find we are already in the trap, obey­ing in advance by assum­ing pow­er­less­ness and freely giv­ing up con­trol. It’s our job as indi­vid­u­als to apply the rel­e­vant lessons where we can in our own lives, and to read (or watch) Sny­der crit­i­cal­ly, in rela­tion to oth­er trust­wor­thy voic­es with­in, and far out­side of, Ivy League aca­d­e­m­ic depart­ments.

We do not lack the infor­ma­tion we need to under­stand our moment through a his­tor­i­cal lens. But we often lack the knowl­edge to make sense of things at world-his­tor­i­cal scale. His­to­ri­ans like Sny­der can bridge the gap, and it’s good to take advan­tage of the freely-offered pro­fes­sion­al expe­ri­ence of skilled read­ers, researchers, and edu­ca­tors. In this instance, Sny­der’s approach seems well-tai­lored to counter innu­mer­able pre­sen­ta­tions that triv­i­al­ize WWII his­to­ry into over­fa­mil­iar­i­ty and per­verse spec­ta­cle… or what anoth­er anti-fas­cist pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al, Wal­ter Ben­jamin, iden­ti­fied as the aes­theti­ciza­tion of pol­i­tics — fas­cism-by-pas­sive-con­sumerism that leads us down the path to hor­rors we’d nev­er con­tem­plate out­right.…

Watch all 20 lessons above, or find them here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Noam Chom­sky Explains the Best Way for Ordi­nary Peo­ple to Make Change in the World, Even When It Seems Daunt­ing

20 Lessons from the 20th Cen­tu­ry About How to Defend Democ­ra­cy from Author­i­tar­i­an­ism, Accord­ing to Yale His­to­ri­an Tim­o­thy Sny­der

A Beau­ti­ful­ly Illus­trat­ed Edi­tion of On Tyran­ny: Twen­ty Lessons from the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry, the Best­selling Book by His­to­ri­an Tim­o­thy Sny­der

The Mak­ing of Mod­ern Ukraine: A Free Online Course from Yale Pro­fes­sor Tim­o­thy Sny­der

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

When Mikhail Gorbachev, the Last Soviet Leader, Starred in a Pizza Hut Commercial (1998)

Mikhail Gor­bachev, the 8th and final leader of the Sovi­et Union, died last month at age 91, a news event that trig­gered respons­es rang­ing from “Who?” to “Wow, was he still alive?” The first response reflects poor­ly on the teach­ing of his­to­ry: jour­nal­ists report­ing on Gorbachev’s death have been oblig­ed to explain his sig­nif­i­cance to many Amer­i­can read­ers just a few decades after his name filled U.S. head­lines. But it’s also true that Gor­bachev left a thor­ough­ly ambigu­ous lega­cy that seems to grow only more mud­dled with time.

As his­to­ri­an Richard Sak­wa wrote on the 20th anniver­sary of the short-lived Sovi­et empire’s col­lapse, Gor­bachev is remem­bered in the U.S. — depend­ing on who’s remem­ber­ing — as either a “mag­nif­i­cent fail­ure” or a “trag­ic suc­cess.” Some for­mer Sovi­ets, espe­cial­ly those more par­tial to the author­i­tar­i­an­ism of a Stal­in or Putin, omit any pos­i­tive descrip­tions of Gorbachev’s major achieve­ment – to wit, reform­ing the U.S.S.R. out of exis­tence in the late 1980s with lit­tle need, real­ly, for Rea­gan’s extrav­a­gant nuclear pos­tur­ing.

Putin him­self calls the fall of the U.S.S.R. “the great­est geopo­lit­i­cal cat­a­stro­phe” of the pre­vi­ous cen­tu­ry, an assess­ment shared by many who agree with him on noth­ing else. At the end of the 80s, how­ev­er, an emerg­ing gen­er­a­tion of Rus­sians had no clear sense of what was hap­pen­ing as their coun­try fell apart. “I was 6 when the Sovi­et Union broke up,” Ana­toly Kur­manaev writes at The New York Times. “I had no idea at the time that the per­son most respon­si­ble for the over­whelm­ing changes trans­form­ing my home­town in Siberia was a man called Mikhail Gor­bachev. I remem­ber stand­ing in line for bread in the dying days of Com­mu­nism, but I don’t remem­ber much dis­cus­sion of his ‘per­e­stroi­ka.’ ”

Mixed admi­ra­tion and con­tempt for Gor­bachev trick­led down to a younger gen­er­a­tion a few years lat­er. “The snatch­es of con­ver­sa­tion I could hear were about peo­ple being fed up,” writes Kur­manaev, “not about the man with a dis­tinc­tive birth­mark sit­ting in the Krem­lin…. Iron­i­cal­ly, my first dis­tinct, inde­pen­dent mem­o­ry of Mr. Gor­bachev, as per­haps for many of my gen­er­a­tion, dates to a 1998 com­mer­cial for Piz­za Hut,” an ad made by the U.S. fast-food com­pa­ny to cel­e­brate the open­ing of a restau­rant near Red Square, and made by Gor­bachev because… well, also iron­ic, giv­en the ad’s premise… he need­ed the mon­ey.

Writ­ten by Tom Dar­byshire of ad agency BBDO, the com­mer­cial stages a debate between patrons at the restau­rant before Gor­bachev’s arrival calms things down. “Meant to be tongue-in-cheek,” Maria Luisa Paul writes at The Wash­ing­ton Post, the ad intend­ed to show that “piz­za is one of those foods that brings peo­ple togeth­er and bridges their dif­fer­ences,” says Dar­byshire. In yet anoth­er irony, Gor­bachev him­self — who nego­ti­at­ed for a year before agree­ing to the spot — refused to eat piz­za on cam­era, allow­ing his grand­daugh­ter the hon­or instead.

Though he would­n’t touch the stuff, Gor­bachev defend­ed him­self against crit­ics, includ­ing his own wife, Raisa, by say­ing “piz­za is for every­one. It’s not only con­sump­tion. It’s also social­iz­ing.” What was the talk at Gor­bachev’s local Piz­za Hut on the day he popped in with his grand­child to social­ize? Why, it was talk of Gor­bachev.

“Because of him, we have eco­nom­ic con­fu­sion!” one din­er alleges.

“Because of him, we have oppor­tu­ni­ty!” retorts anoth­er.

“Because of him, we have polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty,” the first responds.

An old­er woman breaks the impasse by stat­ing their obvi­ous mutu­al affini­ties for piz­za, to which all reply, “Hail to Gor­bachev!”

Try as they might, not even Piz­za Hut could heal the wounds caused by the coun­try’s eco­nom­ic con­fu­sion and polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty.

The ad has cir­cu­lat­ed on social media, and in his­to­ry class­es, before and after Gor­bachev’s death as an exam­ple of mass media that “still reflects his lega­cy,” writes Paul. Gor­bachev may be large­ly for­got­ten — at least in the U.S. — decades after the Piz­za Hut ad aired, but it would­n’t be his last attempt to leave his mark in adver­tis­ing, as we see in the 2007 Louis Vuit­ton ad above, fea­tur­ing a prod­uct much less acces­si­ble than piz­za to the aver­age Russ­ian.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The His­to­ry of Sovi­et Rock: From the 70s Under­ground Rock Scene, to Sovi­et Punk & New Wave in the 1980s

The Sovi­et Union Cre­ates a List of 38 Dan­ger­ous Rock Bands: Kiss, Pink Floyd, Talk­ing Heads, Vil­lage Peo­ple & More (1985)

Long Before Pho­to­shop, the Sovi­ets Mas­tered the Art of Eras­ing Peo­ple from Pho­tographs — and His­to­ry Too

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Texas School Board Bans Illustrated Edition of The Diary of Anne Frank

Accord­ing to a recent sur­vey con­duct­ed by the Texas State Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, 70% of sur­veyed teach­ers said they were seri­ous­ly think­ing about leav­ing the teach­ing pro­fes­sion. “Lin­ger­ing stress from the pan­dem­ic is a fac­tor, but it isn’t the only one. Inad­e­quate pay, polit­i­cal attacks on edu­ca­tors and the fail­ure of state lead­ers to pro­tect the health and safe­ty of stu­dents and school employ­ees also have com­bined to dri­ve down the morale of teach­ers to the low­est lev­el in recent mem­o­ry and endan­ger our pub­lic school sys­tem,” TSTA Pres­i­dent Ovidia Moli­na said.

We recent­ly saw how Texas’ edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem has become a vast polit­i­cal mine­field, with con­ser­v­a­tive leg­is­la­tors attempt­ing to ban 800+ books from school libraries–pri­mar­i­ly because the books make stu­dents feel “uncom­fort­able.” This week, the Keller Inde­pen­dent School Dis­trict in Fort Worth, Texas decid­ed to can­cel an acclaimed illus­trat­ed adap­ta­tion of The Diary of Anne Frank, echo­ing the recent deci­sion by a Ten­nessee School board to ban Maus, the Pulitzer-Prize win­ning graph­ic nov­el on the Holo­caust. The ban of The Diary of Anne Frank was trig­gered by a par­ent com­plaint, which the right-lean­ing school board decid­ed to hon­or. Why would think­ing peo­ple want to opt out of teach­ing in the Texas edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem? It’s not hard to imag­ine.

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Relat­ed Con­tent 

Ten­nessee School Board Bans Maus, the Pulitzer-Prize Win­ning Graph­ic Nov­el on the Holo­caust; the Book Becomes #1 Best­seller on Ama­zon

The 850 Books a Texas Law­mak­er Wants to Ban Because They Could Make Stu­dents Feel Uncom­fort­able

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

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When Christopher Hitchens Vigilantly Defended Salman Rushdie After the Fatwah: “It Was a Matter of Everything I Hated Versus Everything I Loved”

I have often been asked if Christo­pher defend­ed me because he was my close friend. The truth is that he became my close friend because he want­ed to defend me. –Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie remains in crit­i­cal con­di­tion after suf­fer­ing mul­ti­ple stab wounds while on stage in New York, a shock­ing occur­rence but not quite sur­pris­ing giv­en that the author has lived with a death sen­tence over his head since 1989. (You can read the his­to­ry of that con­tro­ver­sy here.) The nation of Iran has denied any respon­si­bil­i­ty for the attack on the author, but it’s prob­a­bly safe to assume that his 1988 nov­el The Satan­ic Vers­es has some­thing to do with it, over thir­ty years after the fact.

“Even before the fat­wa,” Steven Erlanger writes in The New York Times“the book was banned in a num­ber of coun­tries, includ­ing India, Bangladesh, Sudan and Sri Lan­ka.” Protests of the nov­el result­ed in sev­er­al deaths and attacks on book­sellers. Rushdie had not set out to enrage much of the Islam­ic world, but nei­ther had he any inter­est in appeas­ing its con­ser­v­a­tive lead­ers. Always out­spo­ken, and a fero­cious crit­ic of British Empire as well as Islam­ic theoc­ra­cy, his career since the fat­wa has demon­strat­ed a com­mit­ment to free­ing the lit­er­ary arts from the dic­tates of church and state.

On the sub­ject of impe­ri­al­ism, Rushdie and the late Christo­pher Hitchens came to dis­agree after the U.S.‘s inva­sion of Iraq and Hitchens’ “U‑turn across the polit­i­cal high­way to join forces with the war-mak­ers of George W. Bush’s admin­is­tra­tion,” Rushdie writes in a Van­i­ty Fair appre­ci­a­tion for Hitchens’ after the lat­ter’s death. But his book God is Not Great “car­ried Hitch away from the Amer­i­can right and back toward his nat­ur­al, lib­er­al, ungod­ly con­stituen­cy”; a col­lec­tion of peo­ple who see the free expres­sion of ideas as a far prefer­able con­di­tion to the exis­tence of theo­crat­ic death squads.

Wher­ev­er he fell at any giv­en time on the polit­i­cal spec­trum, Hitchens nev­er gave up his defense of Rushdie, one in which, as he wrote in his mem­oir, Hitch-22, he was com­plete­ly com­mit­ted from the start:

It was, if I can phrase it like this, a mat­ter of every­thing I hat­ed ver­sus every­thing I loved. In the hate col­umn: dic­ta­tor­ship, reli­gion, stu­pid­i­ty, dem­a­gogy, cen­sor­ship, bul­ly­ing, and intim­i­da­tion. In the love col­umn: lit­er­a­ture, irony, humor, the indi­vid­ual, and the defense of free expres­sion. Plus, of course, friend­ship– 

Hitchens was grave­ly dis­ap­point­ed in lib­er­al writ­ers like Arthur Miller who refused to pub­licly sup­port Rushdie out of fear, as he says in the tele­vi­sion inter­view at the top of the post. The ambiva­lent response of many on the left struck him as gross polit­i­cal cow­ardice and hypocrisy. He went on the attack, argu­ing round­ly on pop­u­lar shows like Ques­tion Time (below, with his broth­er Peter, Baroness Williams, and recent­ly deposed prime min­is­ter Boris John­son).

Hitchens “saw that the attack on The Satan­ic Vers­es was not an iso­lat­ed occur­rence,” Rushdie writes, “that across the Mus­lim world, writ­ers and jour­nal­ists and artists were being accused of the same crimes — blas­phe­my, heresy, apos­ta­sy, and their mod­ern-day asso­ciates, ‘insult’ and ‘offense.’ ” Rushdie had meant no offense, he writes, “I had not cho­sen the bat­tle.” But it seems to have cho­sen him:

It was at least the right bat­tle, because in it every­thing that I loved and val­ued (lit­er­a­ture, free­dom, irrev­er­ence, free­dom, irre­li­gion, free­dom) was ranged against every­thing I detest­ed (fanati­cism, vio­lence, big­otry, humor­less­ness, philis­tin­ism, and the new offense cul­ture of the age). Then I read Christo­pher using exact­ly the same every­thing-he-loved-ver­sus-every­thing-he-hat­ed trope, and felt… under­stood.

If the fat­wa against Rushdie made him infa­mous, it did not make him uni­ver­sal­ly beloved, even among his fel­low writ­ers, but he always had a fierce ally in Hitchens. Let’s hope Rushdie can pick up the fight for free expres­sion once again when he recov­ers from this bru­tal stab­bing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Christo­pher Hitchens Dis­miss­es the Cult of Ayn Rand: There’s No “Need to Have Essays Advo­cat­ing Self­ish­ness Among Human Beings; It Requires No Rein­force­ment”

Hear Salman Rushdie Read Don­ald Barthelme’s “Con­cern­ing the Body­guard” 

Jeff Koons and Salman Rushdie Teach New Cours­es on Art, Cre­ativ­i­ty & Sto­ry­telling for Mas­ter­Class

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Walter Benjamin Explains How Fascism Uses Mass Media to Turn Politics Into Spectacle (1935)

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

In his 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechan­i­cal Repro­ducibil­i­ty,” influ­en­tial Ger­man-Jew­ish crit­ic Wal­ter Ben­jamin intro­duced the term “aura” to describe an authen­tic expe­ri­ence of art. Aura relates to the phys­i­cal prox­im­i­ty between objects and their view­ers. Its loss, Ben­jamin argued, was a dis­tinct­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry phe­nom­e­non caused by mass media’s impo­si­tion of dis­tance between object and view­er, though it appears to bring art clos­er through a sim­u­la­tion of inti­ma­cy.

The essay makes for potent read­ing today. Mass media — which for Ben­jamin meant radio, pho­tog­ra­phy, and film — turns us all into poten­tial actors, crit­ics, experts, he wrote, and takes art out of the realm of the sacred and into the realm of the spec­ta­cle. Yet it retains the pre­tense of rit­u­al. We make offer­ings to cults of per­son­al­i­ty, expand­ed in our time to include influ­encers and revered and reviled bil­lion­aires and polit­i­cal fig­ures who joust in the head­lines like pro­fes­sion­al wrestlers, led around by the chief of all heels. As Ben­jamin writes:

The film responds to the shriv­el­ing of the aura with an arti­fi­cial build-up of the “per­son­al­i­ty” out­side the stu­dio. The cult of the movie star,  fos­tered by the mon­ey of the film indus­try, pre­serves not the unique aura of the per­son but the “spell of the per­son­al­i­ty,” the pho­ny spell of a com­mod­i­ty.

Benjamin’s focus on the medi­um as not only expres­sive but con­sti­tu­tive of mean­ing has made his essay a sta­ple on com­mu­ni­ca­tions and media the­o­ry course syl­labi, next to the work of Mar­shall McLuhan. Many read­ings tend to leave aside the pol­i­tics of its epi­logue, like­ly since “his rem­e­dy,” writes Michael Jay — “the politi­ciza­tion of art by Com­mu­nism — was for­got­ten by all but his most mil­i­tant Marx­ist inter­preters,” and hard­ly seemed like much of a rem­e­dy dur­ing the Cold War, when Ben­jamin became more wide­ly avail­able in trans­la­tion.

Ben­jam­in’s own idio­syn­crat­ic pol­i­tics aside, his essay antic­i­pates a cri­sis of author­ship and author­i­ty cur­rent­ly sur­fac­ing in the inves­ti­ga­tion of a failed coup that includes Twit­ter replies as key evi­dence — and in the use of social media more gen­er­al­ly as a dom­i­nant form of polit­i­cal spec­ta­cle.

With the increas­ing exten­sion of the press, which kept plac­ing new polit­i­cal, reli­gious, sci­en­tif­ic, pro­fes­sion­al, and local organs before the read­ers, an increas­ing num­ber of read­ers became writers—at first, occa­sion­al ones. It began with the dai­ly press open­ing to its read­ers space for “let­ters to the edi­tor.” And today there is hard­ly a gain­ful­ly employed Euro­pean who could not, in prin­ci­ple, find an oppor­tu­ni­ty to pub­lish some­where or oth­er com­ments on his work, griev­ances, doc­u­men­tary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the dis­tinc­tion between author and pub­lic is about to lose its basic char­ac­ter.

Benjamin’s analy­sis of con­ven­tion­al film, espe­cial­ly, leads him to con­clude that its recep­tion required so lit­tle of view­ers that they eas­i­ly become dis­tract­ed. Everyone’s a crit­ic, but “at the movies this posi­tion requires no atten­tion. The pub­lic is an exam­in­er, but an absent-mind­ed one.” Pas­sive con­sump­tion and habit­u­al dis­trac­tion does not make for con­sid­ered, informed opin­ion or a healthy sense of pro­por­tion.

What Ben­jamin referred to (in trans­la­tion) as mechan­i­cal repro­ducibil­i­ty we might now just call The Inter­net (and the coter­ies of “things” it haunts pol­ter­geist-like). Lat­er the­o­rists influ­enced by Ben­jamin fore­saw our age of dig­i­tal repro­ducibil­i­ty doing away with the need for authen­tic objects, and real peo­ple, alto­geth­er. Ben­jamin him­self might char­ac­ter­ize a medi­um that can ful­ly detach from the phys­i­cal world and the mate­r­i­al con­di­tions of its users — a medi­um in which every­one gets a col­umn, pub­lic pho­to gallery, and video pro­duc­tion stu­dio — as ide­al­ly suit­ed to the aims of fas­cism.

Fas­cism attempts to orga­nize the new­ly cre­at­ed pro­le­tar­i­an mass­es with­out affect­ing the prop­er­ty struc­ture which the mass­es strive to elim­i­nate. Fas­cism sees its sal­va­tion in giv­ing these mass­es not their right, but instead a chance to express them­selves. The mass­es have a right to change prop­er­ty rela­tions; Fas­cism seeks to give them an expres­sion while pre­serv­ing prop­er­ty. The log­i­cal result of Fas­cism is the intro­duc­tion of aes­thet­ics into polit­i­cal life.

The log­i­cal result of turn­ing pol­i­tics into spec­ta­cle for the sake of pre­serv­ing inequal­i­ty, writes Ben­jamin, is the roman­ti­ciza­tion of war and slaugh­ter, glo­ri­fied plain­ly in the Ital­ian Futur­ist man­i­festo of Fil­ip­po Marinet­ti and the lit­er­ary work of Nazi intel­lec­tu­als like Ernst Junger. Ben­jamin ends the essay with a dis­cus­sion of how fas­cism aes­theti­cizes pol­i­tics to one end: the anni­hi­la­tion of aura by more per­ma­nent means.

Under the rise of fas­cism in Europe, Ben­jamin saw that human “self-alien­ation has reached such a degree that it can expe­ri­ence its own destruc­tion as an aes­thet­ic plea­sure of the first order. This is the sit­u­a­tion of pol­i­tics which Fas­cism is ren­der­ing aes­thet­ic.” Those who par­tic­i­pate in this spec­ta­cle seek mass vio­lence “to sup­ply the artis­tic grat­i­fi­ca­tion of a sense per­cep­tion that has been changed by tech­nol­o­gy.” Dis­tract­ed and desen­si­tized, they seek, that is, to com­pen­sate for pro­found dis­em­bod­i­ment and the loss of mean­ing­ful, authen­tic expe­ri­ence.

You can read Ben­jam­in’s essay here, or find it in this col­lect­ed vol­ume.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

Toni Mor­ri­son Lists the 10 Steps That Lead Coun­tries to Fas­cism (1995)

Are You a Fas­cist?: Take Theodor Adorno’s Author­i­tar­i­an Per­son­al­i­ty Test Cre­at­ed to Com­bat Fas­cism (1947)

The Sto­ry of Fas­cism: Rick Steves’ Doc­u­men­tary Helps Us Learn from the Hard Lessons of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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