Don Camillo and Peppone Reloaded: Father Brown and Comrade Slavoj [text]

 

Update (August 2017) – one text I have overlooked is the very good philosophical reflection on Žižek’s use of Chesterton’s allegorical story by George Fried ‘Where’s the Point: Zizek and the Broken Sword’. I agree with most of what he has to say and would probably have produced a much shorter piece which would have focused more on Father Brown’s methodology.

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This post is not meant to be primarily a critique of Žižek, even though he occupies most of the space in it, but to use him as a contrast to bring out what is worth salvaging from Gilbert K. Chesterton’s form of thinking (though not much of its content). The work of deconstructing Žižek’s political rhetoric has already been done successfully by better writers. “Successfully”, that is, in terms of intellectual coherence and conclusiveness – less so in that Žižek still enjoys huge popularity among the academic Left. My favourite is Adam Kirsch’s 2008 ‘The Deadly Jester’ in The New Republic, despite some unjustified claims about the philosophical traditions Žižek draws on.
Further it should be noted that the parallel implied to the two heroes of Giovannino Guareschi’s Mondo Picolo finds its limit in the fact that both the Catholic priest and the Communist mayor are united in their unequivocal antifascism – which can be said of neither Chesterton (who was tempted by Mussolini) and nor Žižek (who congratulates Heidegger on joining the Nazi Party)

The BBC’s favourite “Marxist philosopher” Slavoj Žižek makes ample use of Father-Brown creator Gilbert K. Chesterton’s witticisms and stories in his grand project, the rehabilitation of the Western politico-metaphysical tradition from the Catholic Church to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.[1] The title of his magnus opus in political theology In Defence of Lost Causes is taken from a chapter in Chesterton’s What’s Wrong With the World?  where Chesterton suggests that the ‘lost causes are exactly those which might have saved the world’Žižek draws heavily on Chesterton in his reading of Christianity, but the most important thing he gets out of Chesterton is the rhetorical tactic of contradicting obvious truths by way of paradoxical statement. But, while the paradoxes of Chesterton lend themselves to frivolously totalitarian abuse, I will argue that the contrast between the two could not be much greater.

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a quick note on Chesterton (Father Brown) and Zizek (Heidegger, Stalin) [#withoutwords]

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Die Dornen der Weißen Rose: eine ganz andere Alternative für Deutschland als die der AfD

Vor wenigen Tagen warb die Berliner AfD (“Alternative für Deutschland”) mit dem einem Foto Hans und Sophie Scholl und Christoph Probst für eine ihrer Demonstrationen.

AfD Berlin Screenshot

Wie der Sender RBB berichtet, löste dies (wie wahrscheinlich beabsichtigt) Empörung aus, die sich vor allem über soziale Netzwerke artikulierte. Dass sich, als „verfolgende Unschuld“ (Karl Kraus), rechte Menschenfeinde als Widerstandskämpfer gegen ein repressives System darstellen, ist nichts Neues. Und erst vor Kurzem hat Pegida-Chef Lutz Bachmann eins draufgesetzt indem er Bundesjustizminister Maas mit Nazipropagandaminister Goebbels verglich.

Die implizierte Unterstellung, Rechte würden in der Bundesrepublik verfolgt wie Widerständler unterm Nationalsozialismus ist natürlich lächerlicher Unsinn, vor allem angesichts der Tatsache, dass AfD Politiker/innen sich regelmäßig im öffentlich-rechtlichen Fernsehen verbreiten können und auch Pegida weder in ihrer Meinungs- noch in iher Versammlungsfreiheit nennenswert eingeschränkt werden. Insofern ist das nur freche Dummheit.

Aber es ist und bleibt auch eine ungeheure Beleidigung des Muts, den die Mitglieder der Weißen Rose angesichts eines mörderischen Systems bewiesen haben. Den selbstlosen, von Gewissen und Freiheitsliebe getriebenen Einsatz mit dem Aufmerksamkeit heischenden, interessengetriebenen und menschenfeindlichem Aktivismus von AfD, Pegida und Konsorten zu vergleichen, ist nicht nur anmaßend sondern schlichtweg obszön.

Darüber hinaus muss aber auch daran erinnert werden, wofür die Weiße Rose inhaltlich stand. Sie war nämlich nicht, wie die Gruppe des 20. Juli um von Stauffenberg, ein Sammelbecken von ein paar Demokraten und vor allem von antidemokratischen Rechtsnationalisten (in das der eine oder andere AfD Politiker vielleicht noch gepasst hätte). Die Student/innen der Weißen Rose hatten eine klare Vorstellung davon, wie ein Europa nach Hitler aussehen sollte, und diese ist so ziemlich das Gegenteil all dessen, wofür die AfD steht. Die Gruppe um die Geschwister Scholl wollte ein föderalistisches und großzügiges Europa und einen demokratischen Sozialismus –eine dem Nationalkonservatismus und Wirtschaftsliberalismus der AfD diametral entgegengesetzte Haltung. Das fünfte Flugblatt, das die Aktivist/inn/en der Weißen Rose unter Lebensgefahr verbreiteten stellt klar:

Capture Flugblatt #5

Der Ton der insgesamt sechs Flugblätter schwankt zwischen Pathos und Verzweiflung – die Gruppe appeliert and den Kultursinn ebenso wie an den Überlebenswillen der Deutschen – und Vieles klingt naiv. Aber man muss sich klar darüber sein, unter welchen Bedingungen die Weiße Rose ihre Texte abfasste. Als Kinder aus behüteten evangelischen und katholischen Mittelstandsfamilien waren sie nicht, wie die proletarischen Großstadtjugendlichen, die militante Widerstansgruppen wie die Kölner Edelweißpiraten formten, unmittelbar mit der Brutalität des Regimes konfrontiert. Noch keine Teenager als die Nazis an die Macht kamen, waren sie auch von der Tradition antifaschistisch demokratischen Denkens in der Weimarer Republik abgeschnitten. Ihre politische Analyse bleibt deswegen verständlicherweise etwa hinter derjenigen der linkssozialdemokratischen Gruppen Neu Beginnen oder der Revolutionäre Sozialisten Deutschlands zurück. Umso bemerkenswerter ist es jedoch, dass sie, zurückgeworfen auf die Quellen des deutschen Idealismus und der Weimarer Klassik zu einem klarsichtigen politischen Programm kommen konnten. (Im ersten Flugblatt zitieren sie ausgiebig Schiller und Goethe).

Die Mandarine deutschen Geisteslebens, Gestalten wie Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt und Arnold Gehlen, unterdessen, blieben vor, während und nach dem Dritten Reich umnebelt vom Traum eines homogenen und irgendwie authentischen Deutschland. Trotz neurechter Rhetorik und deutlichen stilistischen Anleihen im Auftreten, besonders bei Thüringens AfD Fraktionsvorsitzenden Höcke – selbst der ist kein Nazi. Nichtsdestotrotz ist die Anlehnung an die intellektuellen Wegbereiter des Faschismus, die Konservative Revolution, nicht zu übersehen, wie Toralf Staud in der Zeit feststellt – und genau die werden durch die Menschlichkeit und Weitsicht der Weißen Rose beschämt.

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.

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Stromlinienlimousine

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.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MHV_MB_320_Streamline_1939_01.jpg 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.