What Experience Was

Awol Erizku

“Closeup jostled shots of thousands of people outside a stadium after a Goebbels speech, people surging, massing, bursting through traffic. Halls hung with swastika banners, with mortuary wreaths and deaths-head insignia. Ranks of thousands of flagbearers arrayed before columns of frozen light, a hundred and thirty aircraft searchlights aimed straight up—a scene that resembled a geometric longing, the formal notation of some powerful mass desire.”
Don DeLillo (White Noise)

“Service and sacrifice in a higher cause had been part of the definition of the manly ideal almost from the beginning, but now such a demand was couched in the rhetoric of the First World War. That war made the greatest contribution to the formation and goals of the fascist man: the new Italian fascist man, Emilio Gentile has written, is a warrior-crusader in the service of a faith.”
George L. Mosse (The Image of Man)

“… that apparent disorder that is in actuality the highest degree of bourgeois order.”
Dostoevsky in London, 1862

I have written quite a bit about what I call the ‘rehabilitation of fascism’ that I see going on globally today. Others have written of this as well, and I think because it’s rather glaringly obvious. The Ukraine/Russia conflict seems the culmination of the current phase of this process.

I want to note that what is different today, and maybe significantly so, is that this is age of the internet, of social media and big data mining. And I believe that the western hegemonic domination of internet platforms has provided a new means to control propaganda but the technology itself has played a role in the manufacturing of a of particular western delusion in its users and audience. It is also, at the same time, manufacturing a new kind of delusional ruling class, and this tiny strata of extreme wealth is more psychologically deformed than any Caligula or Ludwig in history. Imagine the rise of the Third Reich in the age of social media.

Frank Wimberley

Christopher Simpson’s book, The Splended Blond Beast, details the Allied efforts to give de facto amnesty to Nazi business leaders, an effort spearheaded by John Foster Dulles. And meanwhile brother Allen was busy rescuing various high ranking Reich officers and generals in the effort to bring them to the U.S. All this with the justification that it was crucial to fight Stalin and the USSR by any means necessary. Besides, the Dulles brothers rather liked the Nazis.

Later the scandal around UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim led to many of the wartime records on Nazi crimes to finally be unsealed (which reminds me of the joke; what is Waldheimerzers disease? Its when you forget you were a Nazi –cue Rimshot). The rehabilitation of Nazism started immediately after the War. It has never stopped, really, but simply undergone a few cosmetic transformations. But it is accelerating today.

“Allen Dulles exploited his post in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to quash war crimes prosecutions of senior Nazi officials and German business leaders who cooperated with him in a series of clandestine schemes to secure U.S. advantage in Central Europe. He personally intervened to ensure the escape from prosecution of major German bankers and industrialists complicit in the Nazis’ extermination-through-labor program, according to archival records brought to light here for the first time. Dulles also protected SS Obergruppenführer Karl Wolff, the highest-ranking SS officer to survive the war and one of the principal sponsors of the Treblinka extermination camp.”
Christopher Simpson (The Splendid Blond Beast)

Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys

The primary effort of Western scholars, working closely with Academia who in turn worked closely with the US government, was to demonize socialist and communist leaders with a revisionist history of the entire 20th century. It is worth noting that the very idea of war crimes is comparably recent, with the Hague convention of 1899 setting out the basic rules for conduct during war (no poison gas, reasonable treatment of POWs, and no bombing of hospitals or medical workers). But this demonizing, this creating of an enemy so evil that average citizens would join together in their hatred and fear of this symbol, is critical at all times for political leverage in nation states. Side note that Allen Dulles was but 25 years old when he attended the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris (John Foster Dulles was also there as assistant to Norman Davis, the chief negotiator for the U.S). Their uncle, Robert Lansing was Secretary of State (for Woodrow Wilson), and was also at the conference.

Later, after WW1, the banking elites in the U.S. were foundational in forming the very idea of modern western capitalist society. This group included the Dulles brothers (mostly John Foster, terms of banking), Prescott Bush, Averell Harriman, C. Douglass Dillon, and Robert Lovatt (who became secretary of defense). There were others, but this was a small extraordinarily powerful group of White WASP millionaires. They were all lawyers, and worked for about three firms that handled international investment, primarily in Europe. Among the clients were Allied Chemical Company (a participant in an illegal chemical cartel organized by IG Farben), and HAPAG (shipping combine) and several offshoots of IG Farben including the General Aniline & Film corp. These men also worked with the major banks financing reconstruction of Europe (J. P. Morgan & Co. Kuhn, Loeb & Co., Brown Brothers, Read & Co. First National Corporation of Boston, et al)

What Dulles did, given his contacts and family, was negotiate with big firms, and soon with governments (Argentina, Denmark, and Mussolini’s Italy). He would oversee brokerage houses or banks loaning US dollars to facilitate construction projects for mostly European companies — a high percentage in Germany.These white millionaire east coast mandarin financiers were always happy, no, eager, to work with fascists. I think this cannot be emphasized enough. Also, German industry was controlled by an even smaller and even more tightly knit group of bankers and investors. Some with direct ties to, and business relationships with the US (Standard Oil, Anaconda, Guggenheim mining, Texaco, United Fruit and a dozen others including Ford, General Motors, IBM, International Harvester, et al. ) –these relationships were not even interrupted by the second world war. They all shared an hysterical loathing of Bolshevik Russia. And as Simpson notes, the rationalization (if that’s what it was) was that the antisemitism and violence was temporary, and overall this was a part of a greater forward looking vision, this was progress.

Allen Dulles, 1920

“The Nazi party and the SS, not the industrial and financial elite, initiated the Holocaust. But they succeeded in their program of genocide only by enlisting a broad collection of collaborators. They gave financial incentives to the German business community to participate in, first, persecution and dispossession of Jews, later in outright murder. The business community’s enthusiastic response to these initiatives at times actually outstripped the Nazi state’s own anti-Semitic persecution, particularly during the first half of Hitler’s rule.”
Christopher Simpson (Ibid)

“Violent anti-Semitism became accepted by various segments of the middle class as a policy of economic reform.”
Arthur Schweitzer (Big Business in the Third Reich)

The business world was built on rights of birth. Always had been, and always would be, largely. During the first half of the 20th century the east coast WHITE, tight sphinctered and tight lipped WASP, were the agents of decision making. The buttoned down emotionally repressed Wall Street monarchs of capital in North America. This idea, this image of authority (and masculine maturity) was to cast a long, long shadow over the rest of the century. Names like Robert Murphy, Loy Henderson, Joseph Grew, Hugh Gibson, George Kennan, James Clement Dunn, Elbridge Durbrow, Ray Atherton, Arthur Bliss Lane, James Forrestal and Paul Nitze, and Charles Edward Wilson…these were, as Simpson called them, ‘the backbone of the foreign service’ and they were the ideological shapers of American anti communism. They saw themselves as ‘realists’. No feminine idealism, no feminine wishy washy worry about the poor. In Europe, the British said (privately) ‘the *wogs* start at Calais’. Such was the sensibility of these men. They were born into privilege but saw it as personal achievement. In finance names like Ferdinand Eberstadt, Prescott Bush, W. Averell Harriman, and C. Douglas Dillon shared the same rabid anti communism and same contempt for the poor. The oder of Puritanism clings to these men. As privileged as they were by birth, and however un-callused their hands, all of them saw themselves as hard working, and without pretense. They were deep believers in making money. Regardless of how.

“The top Foreign Service officers and investment bankers had often trained at the same prep schools and Ivy League universities; they belonged to the same social clubs and often shared similar preconceptions on issues ranging from social class and geopolitics to men’s fashions. “Style, grace, poise, and above all, birth were the key to success” in the Foreign Service, writes historian Martin Weil.
Christopher Simpson (Ibid)

Edward Zultrau

Without going into great detail, the foreign service under FDR , overseen by JF Dulles and William Bullit (ambassador to Moscow) believed that the USSR was the greatest threat to US predominance. To capitalism, really. And that Hitler and the Reich were the only tool to stop the advance of world communism. They were aware of their own cynicism, but didn’t much care.

One other quote here from Simpson’s remarkable book.

Erna Lendvai-Dircksen, photography. 1941

“But these proceedings {Nuremberg } were not, and were not intended to be, an effort to prosecute the power structure of Nazi Germany as such; nor were they an effort to remove the German “ruling class” (to use Kennan’s phrase) that had operated during the Hitler years from its position in postwar society. The Subsequent Proceedings were in many respects a rear-guard action by the hard-line anti-Nazi wing of the U.S. government, which was already in retreat. Washington hobbled the prosecutions with budgetary restrictions, and some U.S. agencies in Berlin tacitly refused cooperation, particularly during trials of German industrialists. Taylor’s three U.S. trials of industrialists lasted slightly more than a year altogether, resulting in nineteen convictions and fourteen acquittals. The U.S. judges tended to be hostile to the prosecution, particularly in the Friedrich Flick case. The court “was apparently unable to feel that offenses by industrialists fell into as severe a category as when committed by a common man,” as noted legal historian John Alan Appleman put it.”

One thing I think important though, is what Geoff Eley describes in his essay: Nazism,Everydayness, and Spectacle:

“At hand was an elaborate, organized machinery of mobilization, not just for setting people into motion, but for bringing them into deliberately managed public visibility, by materializing them as a mass. By these means, the nation and its histories and futures could be reimagined.”

It is interesting that Hollywood continues to march in lock step, or goose step, with the US government on foreign policy and provides historical revisionism. I have written, briefly, before about the TV series Madame Secretary. There was one episode in particular (even more than the one with the Madeleine Albright cameo) where George Kennan was rhapsodically eulogised by an intern to the secretary of the title. In real life Kennan was an odious moral pygmy whose apologetics regards Nazism are almost impossible to believe. Regards the purging of Nazis and their prosecution, Kennan wrote in his autobiography…“we would not find any other class of people competent to assume the burdens [of leading Germany]. Whether we like it or not, nine-tenths of what is strong, able and respected in Germany has been poured into those very categories which we have in mind.” Its the old, well, the railroads ran on time meme. Kennan argued strenuously against any war crimes tribunals. Yet here he is in the 21st century being made an avatar for American pragmatism and common sense.

The Artemision Bronze. 460 BCE. (debate if its Zeus or Poseidon.)

Kennan also noted, as did dozens of other state department officials, that immigration of German Jews to the U.S. needed to be limited. There really was no justification for such limits, other than rank antisemitism. It was also, as Simpson noted, a distraction (crimes of the Nazis) from the focus on anti Soviet propaganda. Best forget those death camps and tend to the real problem, the USSR.

Another note, the Soviets had already had two war crimes trials before the US managed to finally set up the Nuremberg court. And when Henry Morganthau sent a telegram of congratulations to the Soviets, the US state department began trying to sideline Morganthau altogether.

Worse, the US (and UK) remained reluctant to have ANY war crimes prosecutions.

“The Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators carried out this destruction with greater speed, efficiency, and thoroughness than any comparable extermination in the Reich. Within ten days they deported some 116,000 Jews to Auschwitz, many of them families with children. They shipped 250,000 more people to extermination camps before the end of June.27 The Nazis gassed as many people as they could directly on arrival, but even Auschwitz’s gas chambers could not keep up with the thousands of new victims who arrived each day. The German death machine became glutted on its own carnage.The Allies knew of this slaughter, but they failed to stop it. Worse, they formally declared in secret decisions that the perpetrators of this crime were to remain immune from prosecution for what they were doing. Lord Simon of the British War Cabinet opposed even investigating the Hungarian deportations. It would only be “confusing” from a legal standpoint.” { } Three weeks later, the Soviets seized Majdanek, the first true death camp to fall into Allied hands more or less intact.30 The Nazis had gassed to death about one and a half million people at Majdanek in less than two years, murdering an average of well over 15,000 people per week, about half of whom were children. This made Majdanek one of the “smaller” extermination centers, at least compared to Auschwitz and Treblinka. The overwhelming majority of the dead were Polish Jews.”
Christopher Simpson (Ibid)

And worse still, the British and US press refused to cover the Majdanek story accusing the Soviets of a publicity stunt.

August Sander, photography (Police officer, 1925 Germany)

Morgenthau saw German society as inherently flawed. He knew of German complicity in the Armenian genocide. He knew the crimes in German colonial Africa. He knew directly the crimes of National Socialism. And he knew Germany remained an industrial power who could quickly rebuild. The state department wanted Germany restored exactly as it had been before Hitler, in their mind, lost the plot. It made good business sense. FDR, it should be noted, was appalled. He wanted the German people, and not just a few Nazis, to be given a clear message. But the Dulles brothers and the financial elite on Wall Street, did not share this opinion. There is much more to say on this but it exceeds the purposes of this post. The point here is that there really was no de-nazification of Germany.

“…semiofficial estimates”—most likely leaked from Pell himself—that put the number of Nazi “war criminals” at 6 million: 1.5 million Gestapo and SS officers and 4.5 million SA (Sturmabteilung) brownshirt militia troops. These men were simultaneously criminals and “the greatest potential force and manpower reserve for a Nazi military rebirth.”
Christoper Simpson (Ibid)

Given the scope of Operation Paperclip (see previous posts on this blog) the Nazi rebirth, as it were, took place largely in the U.S. I don’t think this is at all hyperbole. Remember that like both Dulles brothers, most employed in the US state department felt, at most, a mild revulsion of sorts at the *excesses* of the Reich. Remember too, this view was set against the backdrop of economic promise and a relative prosperity for the West at the time. Never mind the depression, the top 5% in US business were reaping enormous profits. The biggest worry for western governments, vis a vis the Reich, was that public opinion could change toward Herr Hitler. Everyone knew, or suspected, the genocidal racism that lurked in the shadows of early Nazi rule, and if this came to the fore, the American consumer might well be put off.

The SA post leaflets to boycott Bamberger &Hertz Jewish owned shop, March 1933. Munich.

“True manhood had become the goal of what the Germans called ‘Bildung’, that is, the self-cultivation of the individual. But although in its origin this was supposed to be an open-ended process, nowit was given a definite goal.”
George L. Mosse (Ibid)

The current switch in attention from Covid to Ukraine has revealed several things, some of which were nurtured during the lockdowns (in the Commonwealth and in the U.S. anyway).

“They spoke in the future tense. Their violence appeared as a reckoning on the way to national redemption.”
Peter Fritzsche (interview on his book ‘Hitlers First 100 Days’, Illinois News Bureau, 2019)

Fritzsche points out, as a kind of sidebar here, that FDRs first 100 days occurred at exactly the same time as Hitlers. They came to power simultaneously. And that both were faced with economic recovery. FDR gave ‘fireside chats’ that were friendly, homey, inclusive. Hitler created the fear of outsiders, friend and foe. And he promised a day of reckoning. The real forces for fascism today are liberal, the mostly white university educated or partly so, urban dwelling gentrifying young professionals. These are closeted supporters of law & order since they often have something to lose or dream of having something to lose. They also fear and hate the poor. Their aesthetic taste is immature and almost provincial at times, but they don’t believe in art anyway, not an art that aspires to the transformative. For transformation has become self improvement. They are the legatees of camp and kitsch, they are screen educated and indoctrinated, and have absorbed culture almost entirely from the internet. They are cultural shoppers.

Anne Karin Furunes

“…fascist aesthetics as a monolithic space of false reconciliation, as a postauratic renewal of aura.”
Walter Benjamin (Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction)

“Modernity constructs new social and cultural forms (i.e. a mass consumerist public) that are politically ambiguous and can be appropriated for dictatorial as well as for ‘progressive’ political purposes.”
David Crew (The Pathologies of Modernity)

“…the most fruitful analyses suggest Nazism’s deeper indebtedness to the apocalyptic and salvationist thinking generated by a crisis of German Protestantism in the early twentieth century, which grew ever more radicalized by the traumas of war, military collapse, and revolutionary upheaval. Amid wild talk of spiritual endangerment, darkness, and catastrophe, Nazism offered a redemptive vision of political deliverance based on the leader’s charismatic authority, the primacy of the Volksgemeinschaft, and a Manichean drive against the enemies of the race.”
Geoff Eley (Ibid)

Amelia Toledo

Today, the idea of self cultivation is also ubiquitous. But it is a cultivation of appearance, more than substance. It is intellectually impoverished and embedded in the therapeutic culture of self help books, and superficial psychological treatments. It is, again, a kind of shopping. Taking what one finds appealing from the shelves of personal improvement options. Additionally, confession is perceived as a sign of moral superiority. The ubiquity of 12 step programs (which for an organization with anonymous in the title certainly seems to have members nearly advertising their participation). The entire formation of ‘victim’s rights’ fits nicely with all this.

“One unhelpful version of that argument was the conflationist approach of totalitarianism theory, in which Stalinism and fascism are rendered simply the same. { } Fascists in Italy, Germany, and more widely certainly invented their own forms of direct-action militancy, collective display, and public intervention based around the heedless paramilitary recourse to physical violence. But they also consciously appropriated the mass forms developed earlier in the socialist tradition (before 1914), while responding with alacrity to the Left’s innovations after 1917.”
Geoff Eley (Ibid)

Fascism was already, at inception, a kind of second generation dupe of Bolshevik revolution. And it was far less complex, easier to see as an entire image, and it also connected more directly with the mass resentments of post WW1 Europe. In an aesthetic sense, the reactionary and near fascistic liberal class of the West today is actually
the inverse of Nazi monumentalism. Monumentality is replaced with the ironic. But also, this ironic aesthetics is cloyingly sentimental and bathetic. And as noted a couple times before, the sentimental masks cruelty {James Baldwin}. This bathetic irony, which replaces the monumentalism of the Reich (and Mussolini’s Italy) is not fascism being downsized. It is distilled monumentalism, but veiled, interior and private, and likely more sadistic at its foundation than any of those taking to torch lit parades or salutes.

To look at photos of Goebbel’s speech at the Sportpalast in Berlin, February 18, 1943, one can see little difference from the Republican or Democratic party conventions over the last fifty years. For this is the Spectacle. How much this aesthetics of the political travelled across the Atlantic is hard to gauge, but the form of political visual propaganda in the US is identical to that of the Reich. But this is on a ‘mock collective’ level, which exists mainly on screens. On a personal day to day level the exaggerated individualism of the West is in the midst of cognitive ‘slimming down’. See the semiotics of the well adjusted bourgeois subject, today. This idea of the aestheticization of politics is rendered today as a de-aestheticization of the aestheticized. The de-aestheticizing of the aestheticized, is both a symbolic castrating of potency, but it is also a call to return to the Court (as in Versailles). This is the only slightly buried nostalgia for literal Empire and houses of Royalty. That *Harry and Meghan* have been given a marketing makeover is testament to this. This is royalty but with the trappings of bourgeois respectability.

Sebastian Liste (Salvador de Bahia. 2010)

“Adorno and his colleagues the authoritarian personality was characterized by the “inability to have experience”; coupled with this personality’s acceptance only of what is like itself and the refusal to accept difference, this contributed centrally to identifying the “high scorer” on the F-scale—in other words, the “potentially fascistic individual.” Leo Löwenthal, who studied the speeches of fully constituted fascist individuals in Prophets of Deceit, had similarly linked the decomposition of individuality to the loss of experience under fascism. In his contribution to the Commentary series “The Crisis of the Individual,” Löwenthal had laid the modern phenomenon of atomization at the doorstep of totalitarian terror and found its most devastating effect to consist in the “breakdown of the continuum of experience.” Confronted with the unpredictability of totalitarian terror, the individual “does not know what he may experience; and what he has already experienced, is no longer important for his person or his future.” This loss of experience reduced the human from an individual to “a unit of atomized reactions.”
Johannes von Moltke (The Curious Humanist)

This is the inversion(s) of the disinformation campaign. If you do not know what is trustworthy, your re-narrating subjective voice goes mute. Fact checkers are the clerks of empire. Just functionaries much like those who cleaned the guillotine, or unplugged Old Sparky between electrocutions.

I want to just digress slightly here. For the topic of cinema is critical in any discussion of the aesthetics of politics. Mussolini is acknowledged as the leader of the fascist regime that most privileged film propaganda. And it is interesting to note that the Italian fascist invasion of Ethiopia, a brutal merciless terrorizing of the African nation complete with the use of chemical gas, remains somewhat absent from the popular memory of the 20th century. . The images of this war were utterly manufactured by the Italian film division, the Luce Cinema.

Jesse Mockrin

“…assembled in Piazza Venezia in October 1935 to hear Mussolini’s announcement of the invasion of Ethiopia .Italian troops were ready to strike at the Ethiopian border, so the rally was largely performative: the regime wished to show the world that the coming aggression had a popular mandate. The presence of Luce cameras everywhere at the rally underscored that the participants were “on stage,” no less so than Mussolini. In the spirit of the Nazis’ blockbuster rally in Nuremberg in 1934, people assembled during the day, giving the press ample time to track their activities. Mussolini delayed his appearance until nightfall. For further dramatic effect, and to let his phrases resonate, silences and pauses composed half of the oration. As always at mass rallies, only a tiny fraction of those present actually saw him. Most looked in the direction of his voice, as transmitted by loudspeakers—those agents of interpellation—or directly at the Luce cameras. Their closed mouths and expressions strongly suggest silence. They are not part of the wild cheering and shouting on the soundtrack later overlaid by the Luce—those after-the-fact sounds of “consent” that become part of the default images of such rightist rallies.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (Five Faces of Fascism)

We are at the start of the technological administration of propaganda. A sort of war laugh track is added. The Covid lockdowns conditioned a population to screen importance anew. Zoom became a strange form of alienated discussion and the split screen certainly reinforced the feelings of fragmentation already present. For the bourgeoisie though, often comfortable in the den they use as their office, there was a sense of specialness to their performance.

The loss of experience is a theme that the Frankfurt School wrote about at great length. I have written about in this blog a dozen times, probably. If anything, this quality of lost subjectivity, of lost reflection, is more intense than ever.

Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, with some woman. 1954.

“The other advantage derived from denouncing a particular instance of disinformation in this way is that it wards off any suspicion that the spectacle’s global language might contain the same thing. With the most scientific assurance, the spectacle can identify the only place where disinformation could be found: in anything which can be said that might displease it.”
Guy Debord (Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, 1985)

Years ago Norman Mailer noted that there was growing up a generation that expected narrative to be interrupted. He was speaking of commercials during TV drama. He thought this might have far more unknown affects than anyone thought. Little did he know. That expectation became anticipation, and was familiar to viewers from this front edge of the age of the predictive.

Siegfried Kracauer sensed, when he arrived in New York, that there was a profoundly narrow quality to thought, overall, in the U.S. He saw a strange deductive reasoning that was based on pretty much nothing. But the structure was familiar and felt legitimate. He saw the unique quality of American cultural expression compared to that of Europe.

Kracauer noted….“There is a sensible lack of action and movement in the French films. While looking at any of them, one feels that they arise from a mind not accustomed to wide spaces and to events with which the film camera is concerned.” (From Why They Like Our Films). This from a collection of his ‘American writings’.

Joseph Cotton in Shadow of a Doubt (Dr. Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)

This is actually pretty perceptive. And it speaks to what Charles Olson saw in Melville, and what many (including myself) have seen in American painting. The Abstract Expressionists were linked to that sense of wide open space. So many American artists came from the mid-west, the great plains, and the deserts west of the Rockies. This was the American experience, on one level. Kracauer rightly recognized the influence of Hollywood (this book came out in the mid forties) and especially American gangster films and (what he called) ‘terror films’.

“Films saturated with terror and sadism have issued from Hollywood in such numbers recently as to become commonplace. The trend undoubtedly had its source in the requirements of wartime propaganda. The original task was to depict the threat of Nazism to the American public—Gestapo tortures, shining parades that alternated with silent agonies, life under the oppressive atmosphere of Nazi-conquered Europe, etc. But even in wartime, the trend went beyond exposing brutality. Along with anti-Nazi films, a number of movies appeared that cultivated the same kind of horror sheerly for the sake of entertainment. And now, with the war over, the species continues to flourish and to increase.”
Sigfried Kracauer (Hollywood’s Terror Films)

He pointed out that “But the current vogue is unique in its predilection for familiar, everyday surroundings as the setting in which crime and violence occur. The criminals in Shadow of a Doubt [USA 1943, dir. Alfred Hitchcock] and Orson Welles’ The Stranger [USA 1946] settle down in plain small towns, places where no one would ever dream of meeting a killer in the flesh. Nightmares are seen in bright daylight, murderous traps are sprung just around the corner. Everyday life itself breeds anguish and destruction.” (Ibid)

For Kracauer this was the transference of anxiety and insecurity of life under the Third Reich to smalltown America where …“Sinister conspiracies incubate next door, within the world considered normal—any trusted neighbor may turn into a demon.”

Grant Wood (1935)

And from the same short essay….“many recent productions place, not so much on outright sadism, as on the permanent menace of it. Apprehension is accumulated; threatening allusions and dreadful possibilities evoke a world in which everybody is afraid of everybody else.” This feels particularly prescient given the last two years. This quality of raw apprehension has been incubating for eighty years. Of course it was also being expressed, to some degree. But not in quite the same way. Hollywood horror films are made in just stunning numbers. There seems no bottom to the audience for this stuff. But the films mentioned above are operative in a different register. For Kracauer this was the atmosphere of life under fascism now coming to infect the entire world.

Hollywood by the 70s was making films in which the horror came from the outcast individual, and rarely implicated the system. The terror was something that fell out of the sky. But Kracauer sensed what was coming…

“Hitlerism, undermined in an essential sense in Open City {Rossellini}, remains virtually undefeated in Hollywood films—which seem to walk on eggs the moment they approach the positive aspects of that which they defend. Impressive surveys of Nazi might in Prelude to War [USA 1943, dir. Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak] and others of the army morale films are contrasted with strangely evasive scenes from life under democracy that betray indecision rather than confidence, lip-service instead of action. In almost every one of the anti-Nazi movies made in Hollywood a character comes to the fore at some moment, appropriate or otherwise, to recite as if by rote a eulogy of the democratic life and of the brave new world to come. But a creed that had a real hold on its adherents would not need to be so explicitly and superficially proclaimed; it would be an intrinsic part and culmination of the drama of the whole film.”
Sigfried Kracauer (Ibid)

Rossellini, even during the Open City period, with Germany Year Zero and Paisan was the antithesis of US studio film. By the time of La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV the antithesis was even more indelible.

Paul Winstanley (1977)

Kracauer also mentions Walt Disney. And alludes to Barbara Deming’s The Artlessness of Walt Disney, an article for Partisan Review. That Disney was a fascist sympathizer, I am sure, was not lost on Kracauer. In the Disney universe (in particular The Three Caballeros) Deming sees the cultural debris of capitalism, and that dark urges seem to find free play. Again, all rather prescient. And a final note on Kracauer’s essay, again one relevant to today; the twin options for a curative to this mass anxiety are the priest and the psychoanalyst. Hollywood’s version of them. Kracauer notes that shrinks seem to be peering into the soul of their patient, and as half magician and half auto mechanic, tries to put the pieces back together — like fixing a broken watch. And both priest and shrink are the product of a society in the which the center does not hold (per Kracauer).

“For The Three Caballeros is not Disney’s private monster, his personal nightmare. It is a nightmare of these times.”
Barbara Deming (The Artlessness of Walt Disney)

On a deeper level the Nazi terror became ‘our’ terror. It is also useful to compare the photography of the Reich. The Nazis put photography to enormous use in their propaganda. And it was photography that foregrounded the mystical and occult links to National Socialism.

“The dramatic pictorial constructions of physiognomic ‘Ethnos’ that were presented in the Third Reich era attempted to showcase this supposed newfound ‘health and vitality’ and reverse the ‘unsettling death’ by visually formalising a link between Volk and myth, a metaphysical, occultic convergence through photography. The physically strong peasants labouring on the land, the close observation of the face and body, the traditional costume or activity, all staged a picture of a healthy, vibrant culture, of a seemingly unified national body. Photography became a decisive part of this narrative of a nation renewed. The photographers of Ethnos who were making these images (for example, Hans Retzlaff, Erna Lendvai-Dircksen, Erich Retzlaff, Otto Kolar, Hemke-Winterer, Friedrich Franz Bauer, etc.) honed their approach to show a people who were healthy and vital. What’s more, these images were often imbued with a romantic mysticism, a closeness to the earth, to the soil of the progenitor ‘ancestors’. These atavistic pictures are a photographic theatre. { } To look upon these völkisch photographic folios, therefore, is to be presented with a performative, cataphoric mirror of silver, framed within an occult mythos. The intended audience of the illustrated books and magazines was expected to identify with the photographs, to recognise that they were linked: it is an identitarian process. The aim was to reinforce a sense of connectedness to an organic society, to recognise a cultural and racial unity against the growing power of the forces of globalism (and the approaching struggle for existence). National Socialist ideologues, like their nationalist predecessors in the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century völkisch mise-en-scène, exploited the power of an occult myth and thus integrated it into the overarching cultural programme of the regime. The mythlore, the crypto-history, embedded in these photographs, suggested that the origin of those people in the photographs (and by extension the reader or viewer who identified with them) had an alternative, ‘holy’, and unique origin in a primordial homeland distinct from all the other races of man. “
Christopher Webster (Transmissions from an Extrasensory World: Photography in the Third Reich)

Roberto Montenegro

Hollywood today, but also the prestige gallery products, tend toward an inverse cartoon version of this. The endless children’s fantasy books made into adult (sic) films speaks to some strange desire for this, but it is made modest, relatable, marketing campaigns that mimic ‘Blood and Soil’ but clean up the blood. (see Greta Thundberg).

Jerry Mander (in a great and somewhat forgotten book) recounts a story…

“Not long after the eclipse I just described, my wife, Anica, was told by her ninety-year-old grandmother that we should not permit our children to sleep where the moonlight could bathe them. Born in preindustrial Yugoslavia and having spent most of her life without technology, the old woman said the moon had too much power. One night, our oldest son, Yari, who was eight at the time, spent an evening at a friend’s house, high on a hill, sleeping near a curtainless south-facing window. He called us in the morning to tell us of a disturbing thing that had happened to him during the night. He had awakened to find himself standing flush against the window, facing the full moon. He had gotten out of bed while still asleep, walked over to the window, and stood facing the moon. Only then did he wake up. He was frightened, he said, more by the oddness of the experience than any sense of real danger. Actually, he thought it rather special but didn’t like having an experience different from what is expected and accepted, which is not to experience the power of the moon. He had been taught that what he had just been through couldn’t happen; he wished it hadn’t and it hasn’t since.”
Jerry Mander (Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television)

Sigfried Kracauer

I have always remembered this story. As he says, “The people who define the moon are now the scientists, astronomers and geologists who tell us which interactions with the world are possible and which are not, ridiculing any evidence to the contrary. The moon’s cycle affects the oceans, they say, but it doesn’t affect the body. Does that sound right to you? It doesn’t to me. ” But it also reminds one of Walter Benjamin’s theories about mimesis. And in particular the loss of our natural mimetic faculties. Children still have them, but they are soon conditioned to lose them. The point here is the loss of experience. A loss that is tied into this last hundred years of growing domination, and currently, the resurgence of fascism. And the suspicion that it has really never gone away. I wrote last post about this idea of regression to myth. Adorno wrote of this, as did most of the Frankfurters, and it was traced back to the Enlightenment. Whether one accepts that or not, the eclipse of all knowledge by a narrow scientific world view has reached its own threshold of regress. The Hadron Collider may one day stand as the avatar for the scientific cul de sac this society and our culture have reached. Benjamin wrote…

“…language may be seen as the highest level of mimetic behavior and the most complete archive of nonsensuous similarity: a medium into which the earlier powers of mimetic production and comprehension have passed without residue, to the point where they have liquidated those of magic.”
Walter Benjamin (On the Mimetic Faculty)

This is a notoriously recondite and cryptic essay. But like Adorno, Benjamin believed that the encouragement to write ‘clearly’ often became an encouragement to write reductively. That complex issues of philosophy required a prose that fought to disentangle itself from the positivist influence, the traps of communicability.

Moschophoros , 560 BC (The Acropolis)

The question of mimesis and the loss of experience is a massive topic. Part two of this post will delve into that. The current normalizing of fascism, of pure Nazism, and the symbols and styles of 20th century authoritarian regimes is also a massive topic. The ‘instrumental’ thinking (as Adorno and Horkheimer labeled it) is a part with the corporate and ever narrowing science that passes as a kind of liturgy in media. The obvious lack of transparency surrounding covid and the vaccines were suspect to a majority of humanity, and yet, most people did not resist. Most could not afford to resist.

“The repetition of childhood experience gives us pause: when we were little, there was as yet no agonized protest against the world of our parents. As children in the midst of that world, we showed ourselves as superior. When we reach for the banal, we take hold of the good along with it—that good that is there (open your eyes) right before you.”
Walter Benjamin (Dream Kitsch)

Martin Jay has an excellent chapter on Benjamin and Adorno’s ideas of lost experience (Songs of Experience). In fact the entire book is very good. And it is exactly this sort of recovery of aesthetics’ importance that is the antidote to the churlish discourse of new fascism. Mimesis is a difficult subject, and I think that is not an accident. I think the mimetic phenomenon in humans is quietly sidelined exactly because you cannot arrive at a science of such a thing.

Karen Miranda Riveneira, photography.

“A spectrum of meanings of mimesis has unfolded over the course of its historical development, including the act of resembling,.of presenting the self, and expression as well as mimicry, imitatio, representation, and nonsensuous similarity. The accent may lie on similarity in sensuous terms, on a nonsensuous correspondence, or on an intentional construction of a correlation. Some writers have emphasized the intermediary character of mimesis; they locate it in medial images, which occupy the space between the inner and the outer worlds. Depending on developments in the larger aesthetic, philosophical, or social context, the meaning of mimesis changes, betraying a hitherto scarcely noted richness in the concept.”
Gunter Gebauer and Christoph Wulf (Mimesis; Culture, Art and Society)

In a world focused on artificial intelligence, computer learning, algorithms, and cyber-science, such ideas are increasingly discouraged, if not ridiculed. The world of the internet is the great fulcrum on which human potential seems to teeter.

Gebauer and Wulf quote Erich Auerbach when asked about his book Mimesis.

“The book is not a system; it strives to present a way of viewing its object, and the very elastic thoughts or ideas that hold it together cannot be taken as individual, isolated statements and refuted.” (Epilegomena zu Mimesis; Romanische Forschungen )

Jose Luis Cuevas, photography.

I will end part one here with another quote of Benjamin’s. The loss of experience is also bound up with the loss of family. When one uses that word, unfortunately there arises the image of Rockwellian bourgeois post cards — but that was already the death of the family. The growing fascist sensibility today, found in the blind automatic embrace of a puppet neo-Nazi regime in Kiev, is one that is constructed on the evolved version of what those photographers created for the Reich. Only now it is expressed more in the narrowing language of drop down menus and spread sheet. The quasi mystical romanticized Ayran mythos is replaced with the arid infertile atmosphere of Sunday morning news magazines, or late night talk shows hosted by, I am sure, soon enough, Volodymyr Zelenskyy — its after all where he started. Oliver North had a second career on TV, so do a dozen other war criminals. Many run for president. Some win that run. It is not an accident that Biden is now the 2nd senile old man to sit in the oval office. The new fascism is anti-monumental, sexually sterile, and wears a cloth mask.

“Everyone knew precisely what experience was: older people had always passed it on to younger sons. It was handed down in short form to sons and grandsons, with the authority of age, in proverbs; with an often long-winded eloquence, as tales; sometimes as stories from foreign lands, at the fireside.—Where has it all gone? Who still meets people who really know how to tell a story?”
Walter Benjamin (Experience and Poverty, 1933)

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  1. Great read John thanks for writing The woman in the picture with Haile Selassie is the young Queen Elizabethhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46l17LlB6-M

  2. John Steppling says:

    i know that. (was a joke….of sorts).

  3. Tamara Sykes says:

    So much to return to here but I wanted to thank you before I get to processing them within my own framework. Your theme of personal experience and its loss seems exactly what I needed to hear at this moment.

    One anecdote I think is worth sharing: during the first few weeks of the covid lockdown, as I began wondering how so many otherwise smart people were falling for the global narrative where Fauci’s Big Pharma would be our savior, I watched a video featuring Gabor Mate. In it, he spoke about how people’s response to trauma seems correlated to their childhood experiences. This helped me make sense of some of the most rapid and rabid turn-arounds of certain acquaintances who’d previously expressed distrust of government oversight and western medicine dictates. According to my interpretation of Mate’s talk, if they had survived their trauma by identifying with their oppressors and had never come to terms with it, they were deep into their “default” mode.

    Of course, Mate himself soon turned this lens on anti-vaxxers stating that they were the ones who hadn’t processed their trauma, really distressing when one considers his parents survived the Holocaust. But there we have yet another examples of how experience is only acceptable if it fits within the dominant narrative and is to be dismissed (or denounced) if it doesn’t.

    On another note, you and/or your readers may enjoy the most recent interview with RFK Jr and TJ Coles.


  4. John Steppling says:

    thanks, tamara- and for the interview.-

  5. To thank you is all I can do now, paypal doesn’t work from Russia.

  6. George Mc says:

    “In his contribution to the Commentary series “The Crisis of the Individual,” Löwenthal had laid the modern phenomenon of atomization at the doorstep of totalitarian terror and found its most devastating effect to consist in the “breakdown of the continuum of experience.””

    Such a breakdown is familiar to me and is, I think, the central experience of the Western individual today – and has been for a considerable time. I was employed as a shift worker in a printed circuit board factory (a job whose materials were already totally disembodied and inscrutable) and when I was paid off and I left for the last time I had the strangest feeling that my entire time there (about three years) had never happened at all.

    After that I joined one of those government schemes that aimed at getting graduates into employment by supplying them as unpaid labour for a while to “get them in the door”. One of the participants had been through one such placement which did not work out and he gave voice to the very experience I have described i.e. the day he left, all his work experience in the placement had seemed like a dream. And that is my overall impression of – frankly my entire life. It is like a collection of jigsaw pieces scattered around. Or like one of those sci-fi programmes (“Quantum Leap”, “Sliders”) that feature the cast jumping through various times or dimensions, each episode having a stand-alone nature. And none of it seems to cohere unless through an artificially applied external plot.

  7. Regino Robainas says:

    Sonnet to Anecdotal Experiences Including Dreams

    Under the Fires of the Tyrant Nuke

    I sweated and mistook

    A Desire that I forsook

    For a Star.

    So, I’ll Fly magnetically confused.


  8. Regino Robainas says:
  9. John Steppling says:

    ive been meaning to say thanks. Of course paypal wouldn’t. Appreciate the comment anyway.

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