Platon, Lego und der Prosumkapitalismus

DSC03019Varul, Matthias Zick (2015): ‘Kreative Zerstörung als Rückkehr genialer Gewöhnlichkeit LEGO, die Kulturtragödie der Exzellenz und die Expropriation des Brickolariats’ (Beitrag zur Plenum 9 »Die Krisen des Mittelmaßes« – organisiert von Anne Waldschmidt und Hans-Georg Soeffner) in: Stephan Lessenich (Hg.): Routinen der Krise – Krise der Routinen. Verhandlungen des 37. Kongresses der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Soziologie in Trier 2014.

Die Krise des Mittelmaßes – der call for papers nimmt indirekt auf Aristoteles Bezug, auf sein Ideal der Mäßigung (σωφροσύνη), nach dem tugendhaftes Verhalten immer in der Mitte (μεσότης) zwischen zwei Extremen liege. Und Aristoteles, mit seiner Vorstellung des guten Lebens, des Strebens nach Glück statt Gewinn, sinnvoll-tätiger Muße statt sinnlos-geschäftiger Arbeit, scheint tatsächlich wieder aktuell angesichts eines ständig überhitzten, sich krisenhaft zuspitzenden Kapitalismus – ein Kapitalismus, in dem die Hybris des leistungssteigernden Perfektionsstrebens einerseits zu ausufernder Arbeitslast führt und anderseits zu weitgehender Sinnentleerung angesichts der Lächerlichkeit des Exzellenzkults. Der Rückfall auf das Ideal behäbig-bürgerlicher Mäßigung ist daher durchaus verständlich. Aber es gibt noch einen anderen klassischen Begriff der Mitte – und der hat erstaunlich wenig mit Ruhe und Gelassenheit zu tun, ist aber, das ist meine These hier, für das bürgerliche Selbstverständnis wie für die Dynamik kapitalistischer Entwicklung um einiges relevanter. Für Platon war die Mitte eine prekäre Position. Das Abgleiten nach ganz unten, ins totale Chaos, ist nur durch beständiges Streben nach ganz oben aufzuhalten. In einer Welt, die nach Heraklit nicht nur in Flammen steht, sondern geradezu aus Flammen besteht (Popper 1998: 15ff.), geht es nicht darum, sich vorsichtig zu bewegen, um das Bestehende nicht zu zerstören: Was immer an Form da ist, muss beständig reproduziert, erneut hergestellt werden, damit es Bestand hat.


substantiell erweiterte englische Version

Consumerism into Fascism – Part 2: The Chesterton Slide

I thought I would have a joke, and I have created a passion. I tried to compose a burlesque, and it seems to be turning halfway through into an epic. – King Auberon in G. K. Chesterton’s 1904 The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

In the first part I have highlighted how, despite suggestion to the contrary, consumerism as heir to Romanticism is incompatible with fascist politics in one crucial aspect, namely its anti-heroism and its rejection of immediate reality and realisation which lies at the heart of this anti-heroism. Their, so the damning verdict of fascist legal theorist Carl Schmitt, ‘occasionism’ and refusal to act decisively in the world extended even to the reactionary visions of German Romanticism from Novalis’ medievalistic utopia to Wilhelm Hauff’s sycophancy of old Württemberg. But on the other hand it is difficult to deny that fascist propaganda does take inspiration from consumerism, especially from advertising. There are also some uncanny parallels in the mode of expression and the collective effervescences induced by both. And finally, the fundamental opposition of fascism to both Romanticism and consumerism[1] is one that concerns the mode of cultural production and consumption – not necessarily its content.

[footnote: By ‘consumerism’ I do not mean simply mass consumption of industrially produced goods, but the mass use of such products for identity-relevant hedonistic daydreams. I am also not claiming that totalitarian regimes had no such consumer culture at all. Especially Fascism more so than Stalinism allowed and encouraged consumer-cultural escapes by permitting apolitical, non-subversive cultural production for a free consumer market (as long, of course, the producers were not classified to be “racially inferior”). Walter Lacqueur points out that there were consumerist ‘joys of everyday life’ under fascist rule:

‘The less interest a person had in public affairs and the more he or she ignored politics, the freer that person could feel in his or her private world. The authorities in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy (and equally in the Soviet Union) used propaganda to an unprecedented extent, but people were still not told what games to play, what movies to watch, what ice cream to eat, or where to spend their holidays. The authorities probably suspected this would be counterproductive.’ (Lacqueur 1996: 72f.)

The point is that this is a concession to the practicalities of governing a country with a developed capitalist economy – a deviation from the dream of an organically integrated, totally mobilised people. The total war which is the vanishing point of all fully-fledged Fascism notoriously makes sure that those private worlds would shrink away in the end and with it all the distractive Neugier, Zweideutigkeit and Gerede. end of footnote]

Wilhelm Hauff, for example, not only created in Georg von Sturmfeder (protagonist in Lichtenstein) the kind of steadfast Tatmensch (man-of-action) and true follower of his national cause the Nazis wrongly thought Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell to be – Hauff also delivered, with his antisemitic novella Jud Süß, a template that Veit Harlan and his team of writers could then further worsen into the script for their even more viciously antisemitic 1940 feature film of the same title, one of the most successful propaganda movies of the Nazi era. The overt ultra-nationalism, racism and misogyny at the core of fascist ideology is alien to consumer cultural products (although racist and sexist undercurrents remain pervasive – and a sublimated form is lived out into fantasies of annihilation when it comes to aliens from outer space).  The motif of the Tatmensch and celebrations of the heroic, the mythological and mechanised war, however, are quite common place. The question I am trying to tackle here, therefore, is whether and how there is a danger of a slide from the romantic consumerist imagination into fascist politics – a slide that was as mentioned envisaged in J. G. Ballard’s Kingdom Come.


Consumerism into Fascism? Part 1: Carl Schmitt v. Novalis

In this first part I will argue that romantic consumerism is decidedly non-heroic and intuitively anti-totalitarian – I will try and explore the potential for totalitarian reversals in the second part.

I have argued that the now habitual condemnation of consumer culture as the central evil of contemporary capitalism is misguided and potentially reactionary. But there are proposed linkages between consumerism and a new postmodern fascism that have to be taken seriously. The most realistic scenario is given in J D Ballard’s novel Kingdom Come (as Alan Bradshaw argues) – which was an especially frightening read when EDL activism and international football events conspired to reproduce the imagery of St.-George-crossed suburban shopper fascism of the book. It is the dystopic version of the more playful Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. Chesterton. But the message is the same – at one point the bored citizens of a dull consumer society will turn the violent fantasies of the stories and imageries they absorb into bloody realities. (more…)


Much of an era’s social, cultural and political aspects are coagulated in the cars it produced. So much of early 1960s France is conserved in the Citroën DS famously analysed in Roland Barthes’s Mythes. Two features stand out in la Déesse: The achievement of beauty by seamlessness of form and the civility of a homely interior that it represents – tamed speed and mobilised domesticity married in the petty-bourgeois heavens of ascendant consumerism. Also, as far as cars go, the DS has a friendly face. It performs post-war consumer-capitalist republican optimism at the highest aesthetic level. On a lower level and commercially more successfully a similar feat was achieved in the de-Nazification of what started as KdF Wagen and became the Volkswagen Käfer – the VW Beetle. The friendly face, which the Käfer acquired by accident – it’s what happens if you produce a more practical, more compact, tame and infantilised version of the Porsche – was of great help when Bill Bernbach’s agency managed to sell ‘the Nazi car in a Jewish town’

The de-Nazification of one other iconic car brand of the 1930s proved more difficult. There is nothing cute and cuddly about a Mercedes. Maybe furthest removed from the aggressively futuristic and necrophiliac aesthetics of the 1930s is the 300 SEL 6.3 of 1972, sealing the Wirtschaftswunder in gold-metallic and an obvious attempt to look more like a fast-moving piece of expensive furniture rather than a bullet. There never has been a more civilian Mercedes than that – and still it carries some material memory of the first Mercedes designed to travel down the Autobahn, the Stromlinien-Limousine, of which the Mercedes Benz Museum displays the 320 version of 1939. By MartinHansV (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Seeing it my first thought was “evil on wheels” – picturing some regime types in matching black uniforms travelling on Party business. The presentation, however, entirely plays to the visitor’s fascination with technology and automotive beauty – arguably it is one of the slickest cars of the whole exhibition. To be fair, the Mercedes Benz Museum does contextualise its cars historically and there is no attempt to gloss over the significance of the Mercedes car in the iconography of the Third Reich and the involvement of the corporation in its crimes. But it is intriguing to see how the visitors’ appreciation is completely absorbed by the technological detail and the seamless aesthetic even where the link to Nazism is clearly stated, as with the 770 of 1937 which is marked out as a preferred vehicle of industrialists (such as the original owner of this one – Otto Wolff von Amerongen) and key figures in the Party hierarchy (although they don’t point out that this includes the key figure).

The Stromlinien Limousine itself, however, is taken out of context and included in a collection called “Voyagers” – the Autobahn for which it was designed as a fast and safe traveller is not linked to the regime. The name itself is telling. The seamlessness, that in the DS is deployed to create a republican/domestic road goddess, here is foregrounded as technologically justified by aerodynamics (Stromlinenform as aearodynamic or streamline shape) but also alludes to the concept of the Linie, the Party line to which the member of the national community is to be true, linientreu. The purity and cleanliness that its shining and unbroken surface suggests makes the same point: it is sauber and rein, common slang for … linientreu. So the Stromlinie, line of flow, moves two ways – against the stream of air, cutting through its resistance as the purportedly unstoppable movement cuts through the forces opposing its progress; and the streamline of that movement itself into which all its constituent elements have to fit without any remnant of individuality. In shining funeral-black, the radiant non-colour of the mythical Black Sun by which SS leader Heinrich Himmler was fascinated accompanied only by a few lines and circles of the most aggressive shade of blood-red and the unavoidable steely chrome that in combination here mirrors the dress sword. As design masterpiece it encapsulates the fascist aesthetic of terror whose attractions live on in the notoriously recurring instances of “Nazi chic” in popular culture. But as (among other things) totalisation of the necrophiliac tendencies of industrial capitalism is a constituent element of Nazism this fascist imagery of speed and death remains an undercurrent in the general kinetico-aesthetics of automobility as long as industrial capitalism retains some dominance.

The eerie technocratic coldness of Kraftwerk’s 1974 hymn to driving on the Autobahn  – a piece tailored, probably, more to the experience of driving the above-mentioned 320 SEL through 70s Bundesrepublik monotony – in its anti-humanist machinality nonetheless also highlights the link between that car and its totalitarian ancestor which still seems to travel as a ghost down the fast lanes. Particularly as subsequent streamliners (such as the latest S 300 BlueTec) seem to be aiming for a halfway position between the emphatically civilian 320 SEL and the fascist 320 Stromlinie. There is a long distance between the two, but it is a distance on a continuum.

The Lego Movie as Consumer-Capitalist Myth: The Cultural Tragedy of Production and the Expropriation of the Brickolariat

[a much enhanced version of this paper has been accepted for publication in the European Journal of Cultural Studies – forthcoming…]


DSC03019Current Capitalism is in crisis. This is well known. Capitalism always is in crisis. From early on capitalism was experienced as unsettling, unbalancing and unstable. Gone was the cherished Aristotelian feudal/aristocratic ideal of moderation (σωφροσύνη) which locates virtuous behaviour in the considered middle (μεσότης) of two vices or excesses. It was replaced by an ever accelerating Faustian drive towards innovation, and self-transformation.[1] The ageing Johann Wolfgang von Goethe expressed this sense of loss of the, as he felt, healthy aristocratic middle as one of moderation and balance in favour of a bourgeois middle that constantly has to keep surpassing and transcending itself only to remain mediocre while becoming both more extreme and more common.[2]

The Myth of the Producer

This corresponds to another ancient concept of the middle – that of Aristotle’s teacher Plato. Plato’s concept had very little to do with moderation, but it does anticipate the strained situation of the middle classes in the capitalist logic of development about two and a half millennia later.