Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power

By L. T. Koepnick | Go to book overview

7
FASCIST AESTHETICS REVISITED

Only a few months before the German capitulation, Joseph Goebbels used the premiere of the feature film Kolberg in January 1945 as an opportunity to hammer home the credo of his unique approach to mass politics once more: “Gentlemen, in one hundred years' time they will be showing a fine color film of the terrible days we are living through. Wouldn't you like to play a part in that film? Hold out now, so that 100 years hence the audience will not hoot and whistle when you appear on screen.”1 Informed by Benjamin's critical matrix and Susan Sontag's often-quoted essay about the fascinating aspects of fascism, generations of critics have read remarks such as these as self-explanatory testimonies to the Nazis' theatrical blurring of boundaries between reality and fiction, appearance and essence. Aesthetic resources, following such readings, transformed the Nazi state into a Wagnerian total work of art, a carefully choreographed spectacle of ethereal bodies and geometrical shapes Accordingly, Nazi art not only helped posit a deceptive identity of art and life, image and original, but also glorified gestures of surrender and idealized figurations of death. Nazi aesthetics taught us how to hold out - heroically and manly - in the face of total destruction. This view of Nazi art and aesthetics as ferociously rhetorical is still dominant today. An integral part of a highly ritualized and operatic public sphere, Nazi art employed authoritative modes of address and triggered politically effective emotions. It reshaped common ideas of beauty in order to render aesthetic pleasure a direct extension of political terror: a form of violence in the service of future warfare.

But Nazi rule and society, as seen from the perspective of contemporary historiography, were of course much less homogenous than Benjamin's aestheticization thesis would suggest. Not all pleasures and aesthetic materials circulated under fascism took the form of masochist feasts of submission, and we therefore - as so many historians have pointed out - can no longer

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Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Abbreviations ix
  • Introduction: Fascism, Mass Culture, and the Avant-Garde 1
  • One - Benjamin and the Fascist Spectacle 27
  • Introduction to Part I 29
  • I - Baroque Drama and the Quest for Autonomous Politics 35
  • 2: Carnival Industrial Culture and the Politics of Authenticity 53
  • 3: Aesthetic Dictatorship 83
  • 4: Medusian Politics 109
  • 5: Modern Visual (Culture and the Politics of Phantasmagoria 141
  • 6: Perseus's Paradox 164
  • Two - Rethinking the Spectacle 175
  • Introduction to Part 2 177
  • 7: Fascist Aesthetics Revisited 187
  • 8: Benjamin's Actuality 213
  • Notes 239
  • Index 269
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