Friday, 29 March 2013

Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a New Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler

'O man-projected Figure, of late 
Imaged as we, thy knell who shall survive? 
Whence came it we were tempted to create 
One whom we can no longer keep alive? "
Thomas Hardy, God's Funeral, 1908, in A. N. Wilson's God's Funeral

If you wonder whether or not you should buy this book, I will try to save you time: go and buy it now, read it first and maybe later come and read this post. In the following paragraphs I might appear more critical of the work than I actually mean to be, and that is only for a couple of reasons: first, reading -and writing- a review that has only praises to share is fairly boring, and second, criticism of such a dense and structured theory prompts, as it should, the groping development of my own ideas, and provide me with a platform to put them in form. 
When Stanley G. Payne writes this book is 'the most important to appear in the history of fascism in a decade or more' I think it is not only to keep his seat in the canonical assembly of the New Consensus, but because this is truly a step forward for his field both in terms of method and of content, a big step on the slippery slope of fascism studies that could have proven fatal to anyone less rigorous, well read and well established than Roger Griffin.

Roger Griffin has published four books, a collection of essays, edited a number of key sources in the area and, Iordachi tells us, written more than a hundred articles. In the process he largely engineered the emergence of a "new consensus" in the field of comparative fascism studies, essentially a definition and interpretation of fascism as an international phenomenon, including both Nazism and Italian Fascism, as well as number of other more or less embryonic related movements throughout the world, stretching from the early XXth century to contemporary examples. 

If you would like a better grasp of the notion, and how he differentiates it from previous accounts of the fascist phenomenon, you will find him unpacking his concept time and again, and summing up the state of scholarly research in the field (here for example) both online and offline - but for the time being, let us focus on the more condensed definition he provides, in its more concise incarnation: 

"Palingenetic Ultranationalism" he finds to capture the essence of the phenomenon, iin somewhat sibylline terms. But Griffin leaves nothing to chance and repeatedly proceeds to explore the meanings of both terms with great skills and minute precision; To keep it short one could define ultranationalism as a form of authoritarian and often violent concern with homogeneity - both ideological and biological - "palingenetic," on the other hand, present a bigger challenge, but also the true specificity of Griffin's interpretation, for it refers to fascism's alleged irrational, mythic and 'political religious' content, an area difficult enough to grapple with for historians already treading a narrow path, to the point it had often before been belittled or completely ignored. 

Palingenesis, more specifically, refers to the quest of (national) rebirth, that New Beginning the subtitle of the book refer to; And indeed, Modernism and Fascism, more than any of his previous books is partly abstracted in order to focus on concepts, and on palingenesis in particular, an elusive notion which Griffin confronts with an extended arsenal of concepts often lifted from studies of modernity and modernism, ranging from Zygmunt Bauman to Modris Eckstein, but also Frank Kernode or, as we will see, Victor Turner. This makes for a rather different book from what his readers might have been used to, stretching defiantly his field of expertise. Save the two central examinations of modernism in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, do not expect the dense, focused, surgical prose one finds elsewhere in his work: this is an ambitious work of theory, of 'reflexive narrative' as the author calls - and as ambitious his endeavour, it worked for me on at least two levels: both in providing a compelling and original analysis, and on introducing me to a entire range of sources and concepts carefully handpicked across many unfamiliar disciplines.  

I suspect an emerging trend of historians calling onto anthropological concepts to untangle difficult notions the 'post-modern' approach did not provide for (just yesterday I heard UCL David D'avray make a similar case.) Here and there they might be found raving defiantly against the Cultural Turn lobby, but it's armed with a precise conceptual apparatus (his signature Weberian 'ideal type' or the 'reflexive narrative') borrowed from very respectable authorities that Griffin sets out on the Grand Projet to provide his readership with an autobahn stretching from generic fascism to the roots of modernism, and even way beyond this into the age old 'psychodynamics' of mankind as a whole:

Umberto Boccionio - Fusion Of A Head And A Window - 1912 - 

"Destruam et Aedificabo"
Joseph Proudhon's motto, of contentious signification
quoted in James H. Billington's Fire in the Minds of Men

The book first attempt to produce a working definition of modernity, in anthropological terms, as a gaping hole left in the ideological fabric of the West, a 'black hole' absorbing mankind's virtus and high-minded ideals. This rotting corpse left over from God's aborted funerals exhale an angsty stench that has fueled many artistic and ideological movements since the Enlightenment. Escaping this dire metaphysical condition, Griffin's modernists experience sparse but intense epiphanic moments, timeless and overwhelming mystical experiences flowing often from Modernity's very heart, and, on the late, set out to construct a world that could render this extra-temporality permanent. 
The construction of atemporality is found to justifies the dual fascist (and modernist) imaginary, often perceived as paradoxical: futural and modernist on the one hand, arcadian, pastoral and sometimes primitive on the other.

Throughout the book he presents his reader with several compelling examples of the oft occulted relationship between modernism and fascism in art and design, from which, for example, I borrowed here. As confirmed by the rich bibliography he provides, the association of fascism with modernism is not as rare he sometimes make it out to be: the real and riskier thesis of his book lies elsewhere, namely in the atavistic interpretation of modernism itself, as the cultural dynamic that spawned and sustained fascism.
Modernism is a movement, loosely defined and certainly blurry on the edges, but none the less recognizable - where it becomes problematic is in identifying it's source and it's logic, since it is undeniably bound up to modernity, not unlike fascism itself: either through conscious identification, or as hostile reaction. Griffin attempts to outline an image of programmatic modernism that transcends the modernist/reactionary duality, but it sometimes feels like somewhat of a pragmatic reaction, attempting by the means of modernity to reconstruct a pre-modern ideal. In order to encompass the cultural pessimism admittedly axial to any interpretation of the development of fascism, Griffin I believe favours the second interpretation, that of modernism being a reaction, to modernity, and to that pervasive 'low-brow' form of secularization Weber coined the 'disenchantment of the world'. 

If modernism was often elusive a concept, modernity is one broad behemoth of a notion, that feels sometimes like it has been misplaced, like belonging to the 'theology shelf' rather than the 'sociology' or 'history' one: to put it differently, modernity might well have drained the world from much magic, but this only made modernity all the more numinous; 
For Griffin's fascists, modernity has robbed the West of it's certainties, of it's meaning and of it's purpose: deprived from an integrated, coherent and self-contained representation of the world, man cannot ward off any longer the ever-present existential terror inherent to his condition as a sentient being. Modernism, the author finds to be a nebula of attempted solutions to this spiritual crisis, particularly acute under the raging capitalism of XIXth century Europe. It manifests itself either in epiphanic form (essentially the contemplation of this numinous modernity I referred to earlier), or, more importantly for the subject of the book, in programmatic fashion, that is as an organized attempt at constructing wholly a re-enchanted world, to forge anew the 'Great Chain of Being' with which to fetter anew the world as it stands.
This is what Griffin calls political modernism, a concept that we could to define away from the ageing tropes of totalitarianism so as to integrate Zionism for example, or democratic nationalism in the colonies. In my eyes this notion, if indirectly treated, appear to be one of the cores of the book's many headed hydra, and it is easy to picture how comparative analysis of political modernism might bring crucial new concepts to the table. 
The other core concept I think is the characterization of fascism as essentially modernist - but a modernism that is not merely an isolated, self-conscious and indulgent aesthetic aping, but a 'primordial', universal and heartfelt reaction to an existential condition. This approach the author wants to be a solution to the perceived "aporias" of fascism, as resolving the paradoxes that have now for decades eluded or polarized scholarship.

This is a courageous stand point, the polar opposite of the still often encountered pathologisation of fascism, and if it by no means justifies or sympathizes with fascist ideology, it also ensures to keep at bay any assertions of fascism's "exceptionalism", in it's psychological or sociological forms. 
As to the resolution of fascism's paradoxes, I am maybe less convinced, as I have come to think of at least some fascist thinkers  as self-consciously, -perversely, even- paradoxical (NR in particular, but also cultural pessimists/traditionalists, and some of the artistic 'fellow travelers', all of which hold a preponderent position in Griffin's narrative). In his interpretation, the modernist, utopian drive, essentially pictures a sort of palingenetic Progress as transcending time to bring about a world where physical and cultural technology has largely been abstracted. This, to me, fails to address to it's full extent fascism's refusal of progress, and their embrace of paradox as transcendence  This would take into account the instrumentalisation of anti-enlightenment thinkers (Joseph de Maistre etc.) of many fascist or proto-fascist movements (for example Action Française) and the theological elements sometimes construed as rhetorical. 

The modernist and fascist peculiar fusion of utopian and arcadian imaginaries is not fully explained by their alleged striving for an extra-temporal, permanent civilization: anarcho-primitivists (by no means fascists!) for example offer an often immanent understanding of the future as a new past. In their case, as, I believe, in some manifestations of fascist (often volkish) thought, it is not progress that is understood to abstract from contemporary existence an idyllic pastoral, but it's very refusal, an epoch-making process not of innovation but of brutal regression. 

Caspar David Friedrich, Zwei Männer am Meer, 1817

"Wie scheint doch alles Werdende so krank"
Georg Trakl, quoted by Theodor Adorno in
Spengler nach dem Untergang, 1950

Anthropology sometimes reminds me of political theology: in Carl Schmitt's often quoted "All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development - in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent god became the omnipotent lawgiver," one can discern the same concern with distinguishing (or establishing) a permanent order of social relations, and an integrated model of both inner and social life.
Anthropology, though, for all it's concern with tribal societies, wrestle heroically a model of change, of transformation, whereas Schmitt, Evola or even at some extent Eliades, are in search of permanence to legitimize their own modern existences, or that of particular regimes.
What Griffin's interpretation, to my surprise, does not take into account, something central to my intuition as to fascist reflexivity, is the understanding of modernity as being essentially irremediable, permanent - In the fascist spectacle, the predominance of style, as is sometimes argued, evidence acute awareness of the sheer infeasability of its project, and fully embrace the subsequent tragedy. It does not so much attempt at re-enchanting the world, as it pretends it does: the true blackness and nihilism of the fascist movement is to be found in this half-acknowledged awareness of the futility, and hence ultimately of it's mere aesthetic character, of attempting any resistance in the face of modernity, 

Griffin here and there throughout the book shows he is quite aware of the uncannily parallel trajectory an historian is bound to follow when attempting to evidence (or to conjecture) the peculiar mindset that would have presided to the development of fascism: his own narrative of this emergence, in all it’s sweeping ‘trandisciplinarity’ and reflexive essentialism, is not without analogy with the very ludic recombination, he elsewhere found to characterize the autodidact intellectuals of the New Right. Sternhell, I hear, was often to be found on the shelves of NR and radical right, but I would not be surprised would his historical work soon come to be dwarfed by Griffin's volume.
This in and of itself does not strike me as problematic in the least, but if the outcome of an informed research work by the leading scholar in the field produce an ideological map so similar to that followed by the alleged fascists themselves, we might need to add on that map some sort of indication as to this peculiar fascist self-consciousness:

Victor Turner, whom I have before mentioned in the context of the ludic metaphore, provides Griffin with the master-key to his 'primordial' interpretation of fascism and modernism interrelations: Turner, an anthropologist (famed for his advocacy of performance studies, and a close collaborator of Richard Schechner) is often remembered for his compelling interpretation of ritual and performance interrelations. 

But what Griffin lifts from Turner's vast analytical framework is a less popular assemblage, a universal typology of crisis. Turner's theory advances that every institutional response to transgressions or conflict, be it in modern or pre-modern societies, takes place in  a peculiar isolated space and time, a land of symbols and rituals both escaping the routine and crucial in maintaining it. Crucially, this enclave Turner finds to act as the 'reservoir' of social and cultural change, providing both a framework and a justification for innovation and adaptation. 
In Turner's model, when a society experience a crisis that requires change, it is often unable to effect those changes itself in it's day to day process - it needs to call for the delimitation of a special time and place, somehow situated outside of the normative boundaries of tradition, a spatio-temporal state of exception if you will, where structural changes and innovation that would elsewhere be perceived as hostile, are allowed to take place. This space and time, that of rituals but also of organized justice, is what Griffin and Turner refer to as the liminal (when it aims at perpetuating the existing order) or liminoid (when it attempts at creating a new one.)

Unknown - Yesterday and Today - 1925

Theatre is, indeed, a hypertrophy, an exageration, of jural and ritual processes; 
it is not a simple replication of the “natural” total processual pattern of social drama. 
There is, therefore, in theatre something of the investigative, judgemental, 
and even punitive character of law in action, and something of the sacred, mythic, numinous, 
even “supernatural” character of religion action – sometimes to the point of sacrifice.” 

Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, 1982

Griffin sizes the well formed anthropological model as the core of his reflexive narrative of modernity - modernity becomes an extended, permanent sense of crisis, and modernism's ritual and symbolic agitation an attempt at harnessing the power of the liminoid to put an end to the modern condition.
One is bound to agree that all consideration of such titanic concepts as modernity could hardly be pursued without a narrative of sort - yet as Griffin selected, from the gigantic interconnected body of work proposed by Victor Turner (stretching from such universal conceptions as Social Drama, all the way to performative praxis of rituals in school - which in Griffin case's would admittedly be taking "methodological empathy" a step too far!) one is surprised to find he leaves out Turner's emphasis on the relation between reflexivity and performance: in ‘From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play”, he for example advances the existence of a continuum stretching between ritual, a true ‘ideal type’ lost in the midst of conjectural history, and theatre or performance, reflexive and modern. 

Griffin is well aware of the collusion between modernist theatre and political praxis (see his ‘Staging the Nation’s Rebirth' or his quoting from Falasca-Zamponi) - but to my surprise, the model through which the author analyses and deconstruct both fascism and modernism gives surprisingly little credence to the development of this reflexivity: whereas he is at pains to insist on the legitimizing presence of the said reflexivity in his own narrative interpretation of modernity, in modernism and fascism, it seems that for all his methodological empathy, he did not find in the fascist train of thought, nor, more surprisingly, in the the modernist one either, enough self-awareness to address nor question the ritual pattern, the ‘eternal return’ of an atavistic concern allegedly transcending time. Reasons and excuses abound when looking at the existing scope (and size!) of the book as it is written – but I cannot help but think that, for example, the Benjaminian debate over fascism manifesting the aesthetization / sacralisation of politics would be seen under a different light if modernism, political or otherwise, came to be interpreted as a spectacular and performative (if not downright parodic) re-enactment of a fabled, yet total and coherent golden-age.

But let's be honest: I am pretty glad he left that much out, because as those who will or have read the book might notice, there is little on this blog that could pass as anything else than a paraphrase of Pr. Griffin in general, and of this one book in particular!