How the Internet Turned Sour: Jon Rafman and the Closing of the Digital Frontier

This essay was first published by IM1776 on 17th August 2021

A tumble-drier is dragged out into someone’s garden and filled with something heavy — a brick perhaps. After setting it spinning, a figure in a camouflage jacket and protective face visor retreats from the camera frame. Immediately the machine begins to shudder violently, and soon disintegrates as parts fly off onto the surrounding lawn. 

This is the opening shot of Mainsqueeze, a 2014 video collage by the Canadian artist Jon Rafman. What comes after is no less unsettling: a young woman holds a small shellfish, stroking it affectionately, before placing it on the ground and crushing it slowly under her heel; an amateur bodybuilder, muscles straining grotesquely, splits a watermelon between his thighs. 

Rafman, concerned about the social and existential impact of technology on contemporary life, discovered these and many other strange performances while obsessively trawling the subaltern corners of the internet — communities of trolls, pranksters and fetishists. The artist’s aim, however, isn’t to ridicule these characters as freaks: to the contrary, he maintains: “The more marginal, the more ephemeral the culture is, the more fleeting the object is… the more it can actually reflect and reveal ‘culture at large.’” What looks at first like a glimpse into the perverse fringes, is really meant to be a portrait of online culture in general: a fragmented world of niche identities and uneasy escapism, where humor and pleasure carry undercurrents of aggression and despair. With such an abundance of stimulation, it’s difficult to say where satisfaction ends and enslavement begins.

Even as we joke about the pathologies of online life, we often lose sight of the depressing arc the internet revolution has followed during the past decade. It’s impossible to know exactly what lies behind the playful tone of Twitter and the carefree images of Instagram, but judging by the personal stories we hear, there’s no shortage of addiction (to social media, porn, smartphones), identity crisis, and anxiety about being judged or exposed. It seems much of our online existence is now characterized by the same sense of hyper-alert boredom, claustrophobia and social estrangement that Rafman found at the margins of the internet years ago.

Indeed, the destructive impulses of Rafman’s trolls seem almost quaint by comparison to the shaming and malicious gossip we take for granted on social media. And whereas a plurality of outlooks and personalities was once the glory of the internet, today every conceivable subject, from art and sports to haircuts, food, and knitting, is reified as a divisive issue within a vast political metanarrative.

In somewhat of an ironic twist, last year, Rafman himself was dropped or suspended by numerous galleriesfollowing accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior, leveled through the anonymous Instagram account Surviving the Artworld (which publishes allegations of abusive behavior in the art industry). The accusers say they felt taken advantage of by the artist; Rafman insists that there was a misunderstanding. It’s always hard to know what to make of such cases, but that social media now serves as a mechanism for this kind of summary justice seems symptomatic of the social disintegration portrayed in works like Mainsqueeze.

Even if these accusations mark the end of Rafman’s career, his efforts to document online culture now seem more valuable than ever. His art gives us a way of thinking about the internet and its discontents that goes beyond manipulative social media algorithms, ideological debasement or the culture wars. The artist’s work shows the evolution of the virtual realm above all as a new chapter of human experience, seeking to represent the structures of feeling that made this world so enticing and, ultimately, troubled.

The first video by Rafman I came across reminded me of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Begun in 2008, the visionary Kool-Aid Man in Second Life consists of a series of tours through the virtual world platform Second Life, where users have designed a phantasmagorical array of settings in which their avatars can lead, as the name suggests, another life. In the video, our guide is Rafman’s own avatar, the famous Kool-Aid advertising mascot (a jug of red liquid with the weird rictus grin) — a protagonist that reminds us we’ve entered an era where, as Rafman puts it, “different symbols float around equally and free from the weight of history.” For the entire duration, Kool-Aid Man wanders around aimlessly in a surreal, artificial universe, sauntering in magical forests and across empty plains, through run-down cityscapes and futuristic metropolises, placidly observing nightclub dance floors, ancient temples, and the endless stages where the denizens of Second Life perform their sexual fantasies.

Kool-Aid Man in Second Life is best viewed against the backdrop of the great migration onto the internet which started in the mid-2000s, facilitated by emerging tech giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook. For the great majority of people, this was when the internet ceased being merely a toolbox for particular tasks and became part of everyday life (the art world jargon for this was ‘post-internet’). The artwork can be seen as a celebration of the curiosity, fun, and boundless sense of possibility that accompanied this transition. Humanity was stepping en-masse out of the limits of physical space, and what it found was both trivial and sublime: a kitsch world of selfies and cute animal as well as effortless new forms of association and access to knowledge. The euphoric smile of Kool-Aid Man speaks to the birth of online mass culture as an innocent adventure.

Similar themes appear also in Rafman’s more famous (and ongoing) early work The Nine Eyes of Google Street View, in which the artist collects peculiar images captured by Google Maps’ vehicles. Scenes include a magnificent stag bounding down a coastal highway, a clown stepping into a minibus, a lone woman breastfeeding her child in a desolate landscape of dilapidated buildings. As in Rafman’s treatment of Second Life, such eclectic scenes are juxtaposed to portray the internet as an emotional voyage of discovery, marked by novel combinations of empathy and detachment, sincerity and irony, humour and desire. But in hindsight, no less striking than the spirit of wonder in these works are the ways they seem to anticipate the unravelling of online culture. 

If there’s something ominous about the ornate dream palaces of Second Life, it comes from our intuition that the stimulation and belonging offered by this virtual community is also a measure of alienation. The internet gives us relations with people and things that have the detached simplicity of a game, which only become more appealing as we find niches offering social participation and identity. But inevitably, these ersatz lives become a form of compulsive retreat from the difficulties of the wider world and a source of personal and social tension. Rafman’s Second Life is a vivid metaphor for how virtual experience tempts us with the prospect of a weightless existence, one that can’t possibly be realised and must, ultimately, lead to resentment. 

Equally prescient was Rafman’s emphasis on the breakdown of meaning, as words, images, and symbols of all kinds become unmoored from any stable context. Today, all ‘content’ presents itself much like the serendipitous scenes in The Nine-Eyes of Google Street View – an arbitrary jumble of trivial and profound, comic and tragic, impressions stripped of semantic coherence and flattened into passing flickers of stimulation. Symbols are no longer held firm in their meaning by clearly defined contexts where we might expect to find them, but can be endlessly mixed and refashioned in the course of online communication. This has been a great source of creativity, most obviously in the form of memes, but it has also produced neurosis. Today’s widespread sensitivity to the alleged violence concealed in language and representation, and the resulting desire to police expression, seems to reflect deep anxiety about a world where nothing has fixed significance. 

These more ominous trends dominate the next phase of Rafman’s work, where we find pieces like Mainsqueeze. Here Rafman plunges us into the sordid underworld of the internet, a carnival of adolescent rebellion and perverse obsessions. A sequence of images showing a group of people passed-out drunk, one with the word “LOSER” scrawled on his forehead, captures the overall tone. In contrast to Rafman’s Second Life, where the diversity of the virtual realm could be encompassed by a single explorer, we now find insular and inaccessible communities, apparently basking in an angry sense of estrangement from the mainstream of culture. Their various transgressive gestures — swastikas, illicit porn, garish make-up — seem tinted with desperation, as though they’re more about finding boundaries than breaking them.

This portrayal of troll culture has some unsettling resonances with the boredom and anxiety of internet life today. According to Rafman himself, however, the wider relevance of these outcasts concerns their inability to confront the forces shaping their frustrated existence. Trapped in a numbing cycle of distraction, their subversive energy is channelled into escapist rituals rather than any kind of meaningful criticism of the society they seem to resent. Seen from this perspective, online life comes to resemble a form of unknowing servitude, a captive state unable to grasp the conditions of its own deprivation.

All of this points to the broader context which is always dimly present in Rafman’s work: the architecture of the virtual world itself through which Silicon Valley facilitated the great migration onto the internet over the past fifteen-odd year. In this respect, Rafman’s documentation of Second Life becomes even more interesting, since that platform really belonged to the pre-social media Cyberpunk era, which would make it a eulogy for the utopian ethos of the early internet, with its dreams of transcending the clutches of centralised authority. The power that would crush those dreams is represented, of course, by Rafman’s Google Street View’s car — the outrider of big tech on its endless mission to capitalise on all the information it can gather.

But how does this looming corporate presence relates to the disintegration of online culture traced by Rafman? The artist’s comments about misdirected critical potential suggest one depressing possibility: the internet is a power structure which sustains itself through our distraction, addiction and alienation. We might think of Huxley’s Brave New World, but with shitposting and doom-scrolling instead of the pleasure-drug soma. Rafman’s most recent animation work, Disaster under the Sun, seems to underscore this dystopian picture. We are given a God’s-eye perspective over a featureless grey landscape, where crowds of faceless human forms attack and merge into one another, their activities as frantic and vicious as they are lacking any apparent purpose. 

It’s certainly true that the internet giants have gained immense wealth and power while overseeing the profound social and political dislocations of the last decade. But it’s also true that there are limits to how far they can benefit from anarchy. This, might explain why we are now seeing the emergence of something like a formal constitutional structure to govern the internet’s most popular platforms, such as with Facebook, whose Oversight Board now even provides a court of appeal for its users — but also Twitter, Google, and now PayPal. The consolidation of centralized authority over the internet resembles the closing of a frontier, as a once-lawless space of discovery, chaos and potential is settled and brought under official control. 

Rafmans’ work allows us to grasp how this process of closure has also been a cultural and psychological one. We have seen how, in his art, the boundlessness of the virtual realm, and our freedom within it, are portrayed not just as a source of wonder but also of disorientation and insecurity. There have been plenty of indications that these feelings of flux have made people anxious to impose order, whether in the imagined form of conspiracy theories or by trying to enforce new norms and moral codes.

This isn’t to say that growing regulation will relax the tensions that have overtaken online culture. Given the divergence of identities and worldviews illustrated by Rafman’s depiction of the marginal internet, it seems highly unlikely that official authority can be impartial; drawing boundaries will involve taking sides and identifying who must be considered subversive. But all of this just emphasises that the revolutionary first chapter of internet life is drawing to a close. For better or worse, the particular spirit of discovery that marked the crossing of this frontier will never return.

How the Celebs Rule Us

Who should we call the first “Instagram billionaire”? It’s a mark of the new Gilded Age we’ve entered that both women vying for that title belong to the same family, the illustrious Kardashian-Jenner clan. In 2019, it looked like Kylie Jenner had passed the ten-figure mark, only for Forbes to revise its estimates, declaring that Jenner had juiced her net worth with “white lies, omissions and outright fabrications.” (Her real wealth, the magazine thought, was a paltry $900 million). So, as of April this year, the accolade belongs to Jenner’s no less enterprising sister, Kim Kardashian West.

Social media has ushered in a new fusion of celebrity worship and celebrity entrepreneurship, giving rise to an elite class of “influencers” like Jenner and Kardashian West. Reality TV stars who were, in that wonderful phrase, “famous for being famous,” they now rely on their vast social media followings to market advertising space and fashion and beauty products. As such, they are closely entwined with another freshly minted elite, the tech oligarchs whose platforms are the crucial instruments of celebrity today. Word has it the good people at Instagram are all too happy to offer special treatment to the likes of the Kardashians, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga – not to mention His Holiness the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church (that’s @franciscus to you and me). And there’s every reason for social media companies to accommodate their glamorous accomplices: in 2018, Jenner managed to wipe $1.3 billion off the market value of Snapchat with a single tweet questioning the platform’s popularity. 

It’s perfectly obvious, of course, what hides behind the embarrassingly thin figleaf of “influence,” and that is power. Not just financial power but social status, cultural clout and, on the tech companies’ side of the bargain, access to the eyeballs and data of huge audiences. The interesting question is where this power ultimately stems from. The form of capital being harvested is human attention; but how does the tech/influencer elite monopolise this attention? One well-known answer is through the addictive algorithms and user interfaces that turn us into slaves of our own brain chemistry; another invokes those dynamics of social rivalry, identified by the philosopher René Girard, whereby we look to others to tell us what we should want. 

But I think there’s a further factor here which needs to be explored, and it begins with the idea of charisma. In a recent piece for Tablet magazine, I argued that social media had given rise to a new kind of charismatic political leader, examples of which include Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, Jordan Peterson and Greta Thunberg. My contention was that the charisma of these individuals, so evident in the intense devotion of their followers, does not stem from any innate quality of their personalities. In stead, charisma is assigned to them by online communities which, in the process of rallying around a leader, galvanise themselves into political movements.

Here I was drawing on the great German sociologist Max Weber, whose concept of “charismatic authority” describes how groups of people find coherence and structure by recognising certain individuals as special. And yet, the political leaders I discussed in the Tablet piece are far from the only examples showing the relevance of Weber’s ideas today. If anything, they are interlopers: accidental beneficiaries of a media system that is calibrated for a different type of charismatic figure, pursuing a different kind of power. I’m referring, of course, to the Kardashians, Biebers, and countless lesser “influencers” of this world. It is the twin elite of celebrities and tech giants, not the leaders of political movements, who have designed the template of charismatic authority in the social media age. 


When Weber talks about charismatic authority, he is talking about the emotional and ideological inspiration we find in other people. We are compelled to emulate or follow those individuals who issue us with a “calling” – a desire to lead our lives a certain way or aspire towards a certain ideal. To take an obvious example, think about the way members of a cult are often transfixed by a leader, dropping everything in their lives to enter his or her service; some of you will recall the scarlet-clad followers of the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the 2018 Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country. Weber’s key observation is that this intensely subjective experience is always part of a wider social process: the “calling” of charisma, though it feels like an intimate connection with an exceptional person, is really the calling of our own urge to fit in, to grasp an identity, to find purpose and belonging. There’s a reason charismatic figures attract followers, plural. They are charismatic because they represent a social phenomenon we want to be a part of, or an aspiration our social context has made appealing. Whatever Rajneesh’s personal qualities, his cult was only possible thanks to the appeal of New Age philosophy and collectivist ways of life to a certain kind of disillusioned Westerner during the 1960s and ’70s. 

Today there’s no shortage of Rajneesh-like figures preaching homespun doctrines to enraptured audiences on Youtube. But in modern societies, charismatic authority really belongs to the domain of celebrity culture; the domain, that is, of the passionate, irrational, mass-scale worship of stars. Since the youth movements of the 1950s and 60s, when burgeoning media industries gave the baby-boomers icons like James Dean and The Beatles, the charismatic figures who inspire entire subcultures and generations have mostly come from cinema and television screens, from sports leagues, music videos and fashion magazines. Cast your mind back to your own teenage years – the time when our need for role models is most pressing – and recall where you and your chums turned for your wardrobe choices, haircuts and values. To the worlds of politics and business, perhaps? Not likely. We may not be so easily star-struck as adults, but I’d vouch most of your transformative encounters with charisma still come, if not from Hollywood and Vogue, then from figures projected into your imagination via the media apparatus of mass culture. It’s no coincidence that when a politician does gain a following through personality and image, we borrow clichés from the entertainment industry, whether hailing Barack Obama’s “movie star charisma” or dubbing Yanis Varoufakis “Greece’s rock-star finance minister.”

Celebrity charisma relies on a peculiar suspension of disbelief. We can take profound inspiration from characters in films, and on some level we know that the stars presented to us in the media (or now presenting themselves through social media) are barely less fictional. They are personae designed to harness the binding force of charismatic authority – to embody movements and cultural trends that people want to be part of. In the context of the media and entertainment business, their role is essentially to commodify the uncommodifiable, to turn our search for meaning and identity into a source of profit. Indeed, the celebrity culture of recent decades grew from the bosom of huge media conglomerates, who found that the saturation of culture by new media technologies allowed them to turn a small number of stars into prodigious brands.

In the 1980s performers like Michael Jackson and Madonna, along with sports icons like Michael Jordan, joined Hollywood actors in a class of mega celebrities. By the ’90s, such ubiquitous figures were flanked by stars catering to all kinds of specific audiences: in the UK, for instance, lad culture had premiership footballers, popular feminism had Sex and the City, Britpoppers had the Gallagher brothers and grungers had Kurt Cobain. For their corporate handlers, high-profile celebrities ensured revenues from merchandise, management rights and advertising deals, as well as reliable consumer audiences that offset the risks of more speculative ventures.

Long before social media, in other words, celebrity culture had become a thoroughly commercialised form of charismatic authority. It still relied on the ability of stars to issue their followers with a “calling” – to embody popular ideals and galvanise movements – but these roles and relationships were reflected in various economic transactions. Most obviously, where a celebrity became a figurehead for a particular subculture, people might express their membership of that subculture by buying stuff the celebrity advertised. But no less important, in hindsight, was the commodification of celebrities’ private lives, as audiences were bonded to their stars through an endless stream of “just like us” paparazzi shots, advertising campaigns, exclusive interviews and documentaries, and so on. As show-business sought to the maximise the value of star power, the personae of celebrities were increasingly constructed in the mould of “real” people with human, all-too-human lives.

Which brings us back to our influencer friends. For all its claims to have opened up arts and entertainment to the masses, social media really represents another step towards a celebrity culture dominated by an elite cluster of stars. Digital tech, as we know, has annihilated older business models in media-related industries. This has concentrated even more success in the hands of the few who can command attention and drive cultural trends – who can be “influencers” – through the commodification of their personal lives. And that, of course, is exactly what platforms like Instagram are designed for. A Bloomberg report describes how the Kardashians took over and ramped-up the trends of earlier decades:

Back in the 1990s, when the paparazzi were in their pomp, pictures of celebrities going about their daily lives… could fetch $15,000 a pop from tabloids and magazines… The publications would in turn sell advertising space alongside those images and rake in a hefty profit.

Thanks to social media, the Kardashians were able to cut out the middle man. Instagram let the family post images that they controlled and allowed them to essentially sell their own advertising space to brands… The upshot is that Kardashian West can make $1 million per sponsored post, while paparazzi now earn just $5 to $10 apiece for “Just Like Us” snaps.

Obviously, Instagram does not “let” the Kardashians do this out of the kindness of its heart: as platforms compete for users, it’s in their interests to accommodate the individuals who secure the largest audiences. In fact, through their efforts to identify and promote such celebrities, the social media companies are increasingly important in actually making them celebrities, effectively deciding who among the aspiring masses gets a shot at fame. Thus another report details how TikTok “assigned individual managers to thousands of stars to help with everything, whether tech support or college tuition,” while carefully coordinating with said stars to make their content go viral.

But recall, again, that the power of celebrities ultimately rests on their followers’ feeling that they’re part of something – that is the essence of their charisma. And it’s here that social media really has been revolutionary. It has allowed followers to become active communities, fused by constant communication with each other and with the stars themselves. Instagram posts revealing what some celeb had for breakfast fuel a vast web of interactions, through which their fans sustain a lively sense of group identity. Naturally, this being social media, the clearest sign of such bonding is the willingness of fans to group together like a swarm of hornets and attack anyone who criticises their idols. Hence the notorious aggression of the “Beleibers,” or fanatical Justin Bieber fans (apparently not even controllable by the pop star himself); and hence Instagram rewriting an algorithm to protect Taylor Swift from a wave of snake emojis launched by Kim Kardashian followers. This, surely, is the sinister meaning behind an e-commerce executive bragging to Forbes magazine about Kylie Jenner’s following, “No other influencer has ever gotten to the volume or had the rabid fans” that she does. 

In other words, the celebrity/tech elite’s power is rooted in new forms of association and identification made possible by the internet. It’s worth taking a closer look at one act which has revealed this in an especially vivid way: the K-Pop boy band BTS (the name stands for Bangtan Sonyeodan, or Beyond the Scene in English). Preppy outfits and feline good looks notwithstanding, these guys are no lightweights. Never mind the chart-topping singles, the stadium concerts and the collaborations with Ed Sheeran; their success registers on a macroeconomic scale. According to 2018 estimates from the Hyundai Research Institute, BTS contributes $3.6 billion annually to the South Korean economy, and is responsible for around 7% of tourism to the country. No less impressive are the band’s figures for online consumption: it has racked up the most YouTube views in a 24-hour period, and an unprecedented 750,000 paying viewers for a live-streamed concert. 

Those last stats are the most suggestive, because BTS’s popularity rests on a fanatical online community of followers, the “Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth” (ARMY), literally numbering in the tens of millions. In certain respects, the ARMY doesn’t resemble a fan club so much as an uncontacted tribe in the rainforest: it has its own aesthetics, norms and rituals centred around worship of BTS. All that’s missing, perhaps, is a cosmology, but the band’s management is working on that. It orchestrates something called the “Bangtan Universe”: an ongoing fictional metanarrative about BTS, unfolding across multiple forms of media, which essentially encourages the ARMY to inhabit its own alternate reality. 

Consequently, such is the ARMY’s commitment that its members take personal responsibility for BTS’s commercial success. They are obsessive about boosting the band’s chart performance, streaming new content as frequently and on as many devices as possible. The Wall Street Journal describes one fan’s devotion:  

When [the BTS song] “Dynamite” launched, Michelle Tack, 47, a cosmetics stores manager from Chicopee, Massachusetts, requested a day off work to stream the music video on YouTube. “I streamed all day,” Tack says. She made sure to watch other clips on the platform in between her streaming so that her views would count toward the grand total of views. […]

“It feels like I’m part of this family that wants BTS to succeed, and we want to do everything we can do to help them,” says Tack. She says BTS has made her life “more fulfilled” and brought her closer to her two daughters, 12 and 14. 

The pay-off came last October, when the band’s management company, Big Hit Entertainment, went public, making one of the most successful debuts in the history of the South Korean stock market. And so the sense of belonging which captivated that retail manager from Massachussetts now underpins the value of financial assets traded by banks, insurance companies and investment funds. Needless to say, members of the ARMY were clamouring to buy the band’s shares too. 


It is this paradigm of charismatic authority – the virtual community bound by devotion to a celebrity figurehead – which has been echoed in politics in recent years. Most conspicuously, Donald Trump’s political project shared many features with the new celebrity culture. The parallels between Trump and a figure like Kylie Jenner are obvious, from building a personal brand off the back of reality TV fame to exaggerating his wealth and recognising the innovative potential of social media. Meanwhile, the immersive fiction of the Bangtan Universe looks like a striking precedent for the wacky world of Deep State conspiracy theories inhabited by diehard Trump supporters, which spilled dramatically into view with the Washington Capitol invasion of January 6th.

As I argued in my Tablet essay – and as the chaos and inefficacy of the Trump presidency demonstrates – this social media-based form of charismatic politics is not very well suited to wielding formal power. In part, this is because the model is better suited to the kinds of power sought by celebrities: financial enrichment and cultural influence. The immersive character of online communities, which tend to develop their own private languages and preoccupations, carries no real downside for the celebrity: it just means more strongly identified fans. It is, however, a major liability in politics. The leaders elevated by such movements aren’t necessarily effective politicians to begin with, and they struggle to broaden their appeal due to the uncompromising agendas their supporters foist on them. We saw these problems not just with Trump movement but also with the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon in the UK, and, to an extent, with the younger college-educated liberals who influenced Bernie Sanders after 2016. 

But this doesn’t mean online celebrity culture has had no political impact. Even if virtual communities aren’t much good at practical politics, they are extremely good at producing new narratives and norms, whether rightwing conspiracy theories in the QAnon mould, or the progressive ideas about gender and identity which Angela Nagle has aptly dubbed “Tumblr liberalism.” Celebrities are key to the process whereby such innovations are exported into the wider discourse as politically-charged memes. Thus Moya Lothian Mclean has described how influencers popularise feminist narratives – first taking ideas from academics and activists, then simplifying them for mass consumption and “regurgitat[ing] them via an aesthetically pleasing Instagram tile.” Once such memes reach a certain level of popularity, the really big celebrities will pick them up as part of their efforts to present a compelling personality to their followers (which is not to say, of course, that they don’t also believe in them). The line from Tumblr liberalism through Instagram feminism eventually arrives at the various celebrities who have revealed non-binary gender identities to their followers in recent years. Celebs also play an important role in legitimising grassroots political movements: last year BTS joined countless other famous figures in publicly giving money to Black Lives Matter, their $1 million donation being matched by their fans in little more than a day.

No celebrity can single-handedly move the needle of public opinion, but discourse is increasingly shaped by activists borrowing the tools of the influencer, and by influencers borrowing the language of the activist. Such charismatic figures are the most important nodes in the sprawling network of online communities that constitutes popular culture today; and through their attempts to foster an intimate connection with their followers, they provide a channel through which the political can be made to feel personal. This doesn’t quite amount to a “celebocracy,” but nor can we fully understand the nature of power today without acknowledging the authority of stars.

The Charismatic Politics of Social Media

This essay was originally published by Tablet Magazine on 21st April 2021.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, the tone of politics has become much quieter, and not just in the United States. It’s amazing how much room this man’s personality took up in the public conversation. But we should remember that what silenced Trump was not losing an election in November 2020. It was being kicked off social media after his supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

The decision to take away Trump’s megaphone was the natural outcome of a phenomenon that emerged around 2015, when politics was transformed by a new type of charismatic leader, unique to our own era, who emerged from a culture increasingly centered around social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. But Trump is just one example, albeit a dramatic one. On the left there is also Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the Opposition in the United Kingdom. There is the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and the cult philosopher Jordan Peterson. These men and women “went viral,” their individual charisma spread by a new, decentralized media system, and they galvanized movements that defined themselves as fighting against the established order.

Some of these figures’ time in the limelight is already over. But others will take their place, because the forces that gave rise to them are still here. To understand their appeal, we only have to turn to the influential German sociologist of the early 20th century, Max Weber. It was Weber who popularized “charisma” as a political term. And it is Weber’s concept of charismatic leadership that seems more relevant now than ever before.

Born 157 years ago tomorrow, Weber lived at a time when Western societies, and Germany especially, were being transformed by industrialization at a frantic pace. The central aim of his work was to understand how modern societies evolved and functioned in contrast to those of the past. Hailed as a brilliant young intellectual, Weber suffered a nervous breakdown around the turn of the 20th century, and subsequently produced a gloomy account of the modern world that was to be his greatest legacy. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published in 1905, he argued that the foundation of modernity was an ultrarational approach to organizing our lives and institutions, especially in pursuit of profit—a culture he compared to an “iron cage.”

It is against this backdrop that we find Weber’s most famous ideas about charismatic leadership. There was, he observed, a weak point in the iron cage of rationality. The modern principle that the right to govern comes from the people created an opening for charismatic politicians to gain immense power by winning the adoration of the masses. In his influential 1919 lecture Politics as a Vocation, Weber suggested the best example of this was the 19th-century British politician William Gladstone. But after Weber’s death in 1920, his theory of charismatic leadership achieved new renown, as it seemed to predict the dictatorships of Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin.

A century later, Weber’s vision of “dictatorship resting on the exploitation of mass emotionality” fits nicely into the current moment, and may even have fed the reflexive portrayal of Trump as some sort of proto-fascist ruler. But in fact, this understanding of political charisma as purely a tool of modern demagogues is a misreading of Weber’s ideas.

Weber believed that charismatic individuals shape the politics of every era. A charismatic leader, he wrote in the posthumously published Economy and Society, has “a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” For Weber, the crucial element is to understand that charisma has a social function. He didn’t see charisma merely as a character trait belonging solely to the leader. He saw the desire to follow charismatic individuals as a necessary ingredient that binds groups of people together. Hence, when he laid out the three forms of authority that organize all societies, he included “charismatic authority” alongside legal structures and tradition.

What’s more, this mutually binding power of charisma doesn’t only sustain societies, according to Weber—it also transforms them. He actually thought the purest example of charismatic authority came from religious movements led by prophets, of the kind that shaped the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Here Weber describes charisma as a “revolutionary force,” because of the way prophets unite their followers with a sense of confidence and conviction that can shatter existing structures of authority. Charisma is like a spark that ignites sweeping social and cultural change.

This is the Weberian insight that opens the door to understanding the charismatic leaders of our own time. To grasp what makes an individual charismatic, we shouldn’t just focus on their personality: We should look at the people who are brought together by their mutual recognition of a leader.

Today, the social basis for much political ideology and activism comes from online subcultures, where people develop common worldviews based on spontaneous and widely shared feelings, like the sense of being betrayed by corrupt elites. It is from these virtual communities that political movements emerge, often by discovering and adopting a charismatic figure that galvanizes them. Through the rapid circulation of video clips and social media posts, an individual can be turned into a leader almost overnight.

What is remarkable about this paradigm is how much the standard relationship between leaders and followers has been reversed: These new movements are not created by their leaders, even though the leaders may command tremendous devotion. The followers “choose” their leader. The movements exist first in an unrealized form, and conjure up leaders that allow them to fully manifest and mobilize themselves.

Weber spoke of charisma being “recognized,” emphasizing the way leaders inspire their followers with a sense of purpose or spiritual “calling.” People gravitate toward individuals who give them a language to express their shared feelings and an example to follow. But what matters most is that, through this collective recognition of a figurehead, the followers cement their own social bond.

When we look at the charismatic leaders who have emerged in recent years, we don’t in fact see authoritarian figures who control their movements and bend their followers to their own distinct political visions. What we see are leaders who rise suddenly and unexpectedly, and whose actual beliefs are less important than their ability to embody the emotions that unite their devotees. Today it is the leaders who are shaped by the attitudes of their movements rather than the other way around.

Thus, Trump’s followers were never all that interested in how effectively he turned campaign slogans into reality. What held the MAGA movement together was not the content of Trump’s rather inconsistent and half-hearted declarations about policy, but the irreverent drama of rebellion that he enacted through the political theater of his rallies and Twitter posts. His leadership gave birth to intense internet communities, where diehard supporters cooked up their own narratives about his struggle against the establishment.

The point isn’t that Trump had no real power over his followers, which of course he did. The point is that his power depended on—and was limited to—the role of culture war icon that his movement created for him. Trump was effective in this role because he had no apparent strategy apart from giving his audience what it wanted, whether photo-ops brandishing a Bible, or nods and winks at online conspiracy theories.

Likewise, Sanders and Corbyn were both old men who unexpectedly found themselves riding tidal waves of youthful support. But their sudden rise from relative obscurity led to some awkward moments when some of their more strongly held views did not align with the wishes of their followers. Sanders’ campaign for president changed significantly from 2016 to 2020, as the mass movement that chose him as its leader molded him into a champion of their immigration preferences, which he had previously opposed. Similarly, in his time as leader of the British Labour Party from 2015 to 2020, Corbyn had to abandon his lifelong opposition to the European Union because he was now leading a movement that cherished EU membership as one of its core values.

Finally, consider two cases from outside the realm of official politics. Greta Thunberg is treated as a modern saint who has inspired millions to march through the world’s cities demanding action against climate change. But Thunberg’s enormous presence in the environmental movement is not matched by a unique philosophy or any organizational power. She went viral on social media during her 2018 strike outside the Swedish parliament, and her fame now rests on being invited by political and religious leaders to shout at them on camera about how her generation has been betrayed. “I understand that people are impressed by this movement,” Thunberg told the Times in 2019, “and I am also very impressed with the young people, but I haven’t really done anything. I have just sat down.”

Then there’s Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. Thanks to a few viral videos about free speech in 2016 and a series of controversial media engagements thereafter, Peterson went from teaching Christological interpretations of Disney films to being hailed as the messiah of the anti-woke movement. Peterson has continually stressed that he’s interested in psychology, not politics, yet what followers find captivating are his filmed broadsides against social justice ideology, which have been viewed millions of times on YouTube.

All these figures have been imbued with a certain magical status, which deepens the shared identity of their followers. Movements have gathered around them as totems embodying a fight against injustice and a spirit of revolt. Consequently, they command strong emotional attachments, though their followers are only interested in them insofar as they stay within the limits of the movement they were chosen to lead. The power of their charisma depends, therefore, on conforming to parameters set by the imagination of their followers.

Obviously, individual personality is not irrelevant here. Charismatic figures are generally regarded as authentic, based on the perception that they are not trying to meet social expectations or simply advance their careers. Seen in this way, it makes sense that a generation accustomed to the shifting trends and constant self-promotion of social media would warm to old-timers like Sanders and Corbyn, who had been stoically banging the same drum for decades.

Interestingly, both Trump and Thunberg have often had their personalities pathologized by critics: Trump on account of his “narcissistic personality disorder,” Thunberg on account of her autism and single-minded commitment to her cause. But supporters see these same qualities as refreshingly direct. This kind of appeal is necessary for leaders who want to offer their followers the personal “calling” which Weber saw as key to charisma. No one is inspired to take on the establishment by people who look and sound like they belong to it.

Nonetheless, following Weber’s lead, we don’t need to think about charisma as something that’s simply inherent to these influential personalities. In the sudden explosion of hype surrounding certain figures on social media, we see how the conviction that an individual is special can be created through collective affirmation. This is the virtual equivalent of the electrifying rallies and demonstrations where followers have gathered to see figures like Trump, Corbyn, and Thunberg: The energy is focused on the leader, but it comes from the crowd.

So what does all this tell us about the future of the new charismatic movement politics? Weber insisted that to exercise real power, charismatic authority cannot keep relying on the spiritual calling of committed followers. It must establish its own structures of bureaucracy and tradition. According to Weber, this is how prophetic religious movements of the past created lasting regimes.

But the way that today’s charismatic leaders are chosen for their expressive qualities means they usually aren’t suited to consolidating power in this way. There is a remarkable contrast between the sweeping legislative program being enacted by the uncharismatic Biden presidency and Trump’s failure to deliver on most of his signature proposals.

This does not mean that the movements inspired by charismatic figures are irrelevant—far from it. They will continue to influence politics by reshaping the social and cultural context in which it unfolds. In fact, the potential for these movements is all the more dramatic because, as recent years have shown, they can appear almost out of thin air. We do not know who the next charismatic leaders will be until after they have been chosen.

Tradition with a capital T: Dylan at 80

It’s December 1963, and a roomful of liberal luminaries are gathered at New York’s Americana Hotel. They are here for the presentation of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee’s prestigious Tom Paine Award, an accolade which, a year earlier, had been accepted by esteemed philosopher and anti-nuclear campaigner Bertrand Russell. If any in the audience have reservations about this year’s recipient, a 22-year-old folk singer called Bob Dylan, their skepticism will soon be vindicated. 

In what must rank as one of the most cack-handed acceptance speeches in history, an evidently drunk Dylan begins with a surreal digression about the attendees’ lack of hair, his way of saying that maybe it’s time they made room for some younger voices in politics. “You people should be at the beach,” he informs them, “just relaxing in the time you have to relax. It is not an old people’s world.” Not that it really matters anyway, since, as Dylan goes on to say, “There’s no black and white, left and right to me anymore; there’s only up and down… And I’m trying to go up without thinking of anything trivial such as politics.” Strange way to thank an organisation which barely survived the McCarthyite witch-hunts, but Dylan isn’t finished. To a mounting chorus of boos, he takes the opportunity to express sympathy for Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin who had shot president John F. Kennedy less than a month earlier. “I have to be honest, I just have to be… I got to admit honestly that I, too, saw some of myself in him… Not to go that far and shoot…”

Stories like this one have a special status in the world of Bobology, or whatever we want to call the strange community-cum-industry of critics, fans and vinyl-collecting professors who have turned Dylan into a unique cultural phenomenon. The unacceptable acceptance speech at the Americana is among a handful of anecdotes that dramatize the most iconic time in his career – the mid-’60s period when Dylan rejected/ betrayed/ transcended (delete as you see fit) the folk movement and its social justice oriented vision of music. 

For the benefit of the uninitiated, Dylan made his name in the early ’60s as a politically engaged troubadour, writing protest anthems that became the soundtrack of the Civil Rights movement. He even performed as a warm-up act for Martin Luther King Jnr’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. Yet no sooner had Dylan been crowned “the conscience of a generation” than he started furiously trying to wriggle out of that role, most controversially through his embrace of rock music. In 1965, Dylan plugged in to play an electric set at the Newport Folk Festival (“the most written about performance in the history of rock,” writes biographer Clinton Heylin), leading to the wonderful though apocryphal story of folk stalwart Pete Seeger trying to cleave the sound cables with an axe. Another famous confrontation came at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966, where angry folkies pelted Dylan with cries of “Judas!” (a moment whose magic really rests on Dylan’s response, as he turns around to his electric backing band and snarls “play it fuckin’ loud”). 

In the coming days, as the Bobologists celebrate their master’s 80th birthday, we’ll see how Dylan’s vast and elaborate legend remains anchored in this original sin of abandoning the folk community. I like the Tom Paine Award anecdote because it makes us recall that, for all his prodigious gifts, Dylan was little more than an adolescent when these events took place – a chaotic, moody, often petulant young man. What has come to define Dylan, in a sense, is a commonplace bout of youthful rebellion which has been elevated into a symbolic narrative about a transformative moment in cultural history. 

Still, we can hardly deny its power as a symbolic narrative. Numerous writers have claimed that Dylan’s rejection of folk marks a decisive turning point in the counterculture politics of ’60s, separating the collective purpose and idealism of the first half of the decade, as demonstrated in the March on Washington, from the bad acid trips, violent radicalism and disillusionment of the second. Hadn’t Dylan, through some uncanny intuition, sensed this descent into chaos? How else can we explain the radically different mood of his post-folk albums? The uplifting “Come gather ’round people/ Wherever you roam” is replaced by the sneering “How does it feel/ to be on your own,” and the hopeful “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind” by the cynical “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Or was Dylan, in fact, responsible for unleashing the furies of the late-’60s? That last lyric, after all, provided the name for the militant activist cell The Weathermen.

More profound still, Dylan’s mid-’60s transformation seemed to expose a deep fault line in the liberal worldview, a tension between two conceptions of freedom and authenticity. The folk movement saw itself in fundamentally egalitarian and collectivist terms, as a community of values whose progressive vision of the future was rooted in the shared inheritance of the folk tradition. Folkies were thus especially hostile to the rising tide of mass culture and consumerism in America. And clearly, had Dylan merely succumbed to the cringeworthy teenybopper rock ’n’ roll which was then topping the charts, he could have been written off as a sell-out. But Dylan’s first three rock records – the “Electric Trilogy” of Bringing It All Back HomeHighway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde – are quite simply his best albums, and probably some of the best albums in the history of popular music. They didn’t just signal a move towards a wider market of consumers; they practically invented rock music as a sophisticated and artistically credible form. And the key to this was a seductive of vision of the artist as an individual set apart, an anarchic fount of creativity without earthly commitments, beholden only to the sublime visions of his own interior world. 

It was Dylan’s lyrical innovations, above all, that carried this vision. His new mode of social criticism, as heard in “Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” was savage and indiscriminate, condemning all alike and refusing to offer any answers. Redemption came in stead from the imaginative power of the words and images themselves – the artist’s transcendent “thought dreams,” his spontaneous “skippin’ reels of rhyme” – his ability to laugh, cry, love and express himself in the face of a bleak and inscrutable world.

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves

Here is the fantasy of artistic individualism with which Dylan countered the idealism of folk music, raising a dilemma whose acuteness can still be felt in writing on the subject today. 

But for a certain kind of Dylan fan, to read so much into the break with folk is to miss the magician’s hand in the crafting of his own legend. Throughout his career, Dylan has shown a flair for mystifying his public image (some would say a flair for dishonesty). His original folksinger persona was precisely that – a persona he copied from his adolescent hero Woody Guthrie, from the pitch of his voice and his workman’s cap to the very idea of writing “topical” songs about social injustice. From his first arrival on the New York folk scene, Dylan intrigued the press with fabrications about his past, mostly involving running away from home, travelling with a circus and riding on freight trains. (He also managed to persuade one of his biographers, Robert Shelton, that he had spent time working as a prostitute, but the less said about that yarn the better). Likewise, Dylan’s subsequent persona as the poet of anarchy drew much of its effect from the drama of his split with the folk movement, and so its no surprise to find him fanning that drama, both at the time and long afterwards, with an array of facetious, hyperbolic and self-pitying comments about what he was doing. 

When the press tried to tap into Dylan’s motivations, he tended to swat them away with claims to the effect that he was just “a song and dance man,” a kind of false modesty (always delivered in a tone of preening arrogance) that fed his reputation for irreverence. He told the folksinger Joan Baez, among others, that his interest in protest songs had always been cynical – “You know me. I knew people would buy that kind of shit, right? I was never into that stuff” – despite numerous confidants from Dylan’s folk days insisting he had been obsessed with social justice. Later, in his book Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan made the opposite claim, insisting both his folk and post-folk phases reflected the same authentic calling: “All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities. … My destiny lay down the road with whatever life invited, had nothing to do with representing any kind of civilisation.” He then complained (and note that modesty again): “It seems like the world has always needed a scapegoat – someone to lead the charge against the Roman Empire.” Incidentally, the “autobiographical” Chronicles is a masterpiece of self-mythologizing, where, among other sleights of hand, Dylan cuts back and forth between different stages of his career, neatly evading the question of how and why his worldview evolved.

Nor, of course, was Dylan’s break with folk his last act of reinvention. The rock phase lasted scarcely two years, after which he pivoted towards country music, first with the austere John Wesley Harding and then with the bittersweet Nashville Skyline. In the mid-1970s, Dylan recast himself as a travelling minstrel, complete with face paint and flower-decked hat, on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. At the end of that decade he emerged as a born-again Christian playing gospel music, and shortly afterwards as an Infidel (releasing an album with that title). In the ’90s he appeared, among other guises, as a blues revivalist, while his more recent gestures include a kitsch Christmas album and a homage to Frank Sinatra. If there’s one line that manages to echo through the six decades of Dylan’s career, it must be “strike another match, go start anew.” 

This restless drive to wrong-foot his audience makes it tempting to see Dylan as a kind of prototype for the shape-shifting pop idol, anticipating the likes of David Bowie and Kate Bush, not to mention the countless fading stars who refresh their wardrobes and their political causes in a desperate clinging to relevance. Like so many readings of Dylan, this one inevitably doubles back, concertina-like, to the original break with folk. That episode can now be made to appear as the sudden rupture with tradition that gave birth to the postmodern celebrity, a paragon of mercurial autonomy whose image can be endlessly refashioned through the media.

But trying to fit Dylan into this template reveals precisely what is so distinctive about him. Alongside his capacity for inventing and reinventing himself as a cultural figure, there has always been a sincere and passionate devotion to the forms and traditions of the past. Each of the personae in Dylan’s long and winding musical innings – from folk troubadour to country singer to roadshow performer to bluesman to roots rocker to jazz crooner – has involved a deliberate engagement with some aspect of the American musical heritage, as well as with countless other cultural influences from the U.S. and beyond. This became most obvious from the ’90s onwards, with albums such as Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, composed entirely of covers and traditional folk songs – not to mention “Love and Theft, a title whose quotation marks point to a book by historian Eric Lott, the subject of which, in turn, is the folklore of the American South. But these later works just made explicit what he had been doing all along.

“What I was into was traditional stuff with a capital T,” writes Dylan about his younger self in Chronicles. The unreliability of that book has already been mentioned, but the phrase is a neat way of describing his approach to borrowing from history. Dylan’s personae are never “traditional” in the sense of adhering devoutly to a moribund form; nor would it be quite right to say that he makes older styles his own. Rather, he treats tradition as an invitation to performance and pastiche, as though standing by the costume cupboard of history and trying on a series of eye-catching but not-quite-convincing disguises, always with a nod and a wink. I remember hearing Nashville Skyline for the first time and being slightly bemused at what sounded like an entirely artless imitation of country music; I was doubly bemused to learn this album had been recorded and released in 1969, the year of Woodstock and a year when Dylan was actually living in Woodstock. But it soon occurred to me that this was Dylan’s way of swimming against the tide. He may have lit the fuse of the high ’60s, but by the time the explosion came he had already moved on, not forward but back, recognising where his unique contribution as a musician really lay: in an ongoing dance with the spirits of the past, part eulogy and part pantomime. I then realised this same dance was happening in his earlier folk period, and in any number of his later chapters.

“The madly complicated modern world was something I took little interest in” – Chronicles again – “What was swinging, topical and up to date for me was stuff like the Titanic sinking, the Galveston flood, John Henry driving steel, John Hardy shooting a man on the West Virginia line.” We know this is at least partly true, because this overtly mythologized, larger-than-life history, this traditional stuff with a capital T, is never far away in Dylan’s music. The Titanic, great floods, folk heroes and wild-west outlaws all appear in his catalogue, usually with a few deliberate twists to imbue them with a more biblical grandeur, and to remind us not to take our narrator too seriously. It’s even plausible that he really did take time out from beatnik life in Greenwich Village to study 19th century newspapers at the New York Public Library, not “so much interested in the issues as intrigued by the language and rhetoric of the times.” Dylan is nothing if not a ventriloquist, using his various musical dummies to recall the languages of bygone eras. 

And if we look more closely at the Electric Trilogy, the infamous reinvention that sealed Dylan’s betrayal of folk, we find that much of the innovation on those albums fits into a twelve-bar blues structure, while their rhythms recall the R&B that Dylan had performed as a teenager in Hibbing, Minnesota. Likewise, it’s often been noted that their lyrical style, based on chains of loosely associated or juxtaposed images, shows not just the influence of the Beats, but also French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, German radical playwright Bertolt Brecht, and bluesman Robert Johnson. This is to say nothing of the content of the lyrics, which feature an endless stream of allusions to history, literature, religion and myth. Songs like “Tombstone Blues” make an absurd parody of their own intertextuality (“The ghost of Belle Starr she hands down her wits/ To Jezebel the nun she violently knits/ A bald wig for Jack the Ripper who sits/ At the head of the chamber of commerce”). For all its iconoclasm, Dylan’s novel contribution to songwriting in this phase was to bring contemporary America into dialogue with a wider universe of cultural riches. 

Now consider this. Could it be that even Dylan’s disposable approach to his own persona, far from hearkening the arrival of the modern media star, is itself a tip of the hat to some older convention? The thought hadn’t occurred to me until I dipped into the latest round of Bobology marking Dylan’s 80th. There I found an intriguing lecture by the critic Greil Marcus about Dylan’s relationship to blues music (and it’s worth recalling that, by his own account, the young Dylan only arrived at folk music via the blues of Lead Belly and Odetta). “The blues,” says Marcus, “mandate that you present a story on the premise that it happened to you, so it has to be written [as] not autobiography but fiction.” He explains:

words first came from a common store of phrases, couplets, curses, blessings, jokes, greetings, and goodbyes that passed anonymously between blacks and whites after the Civil War. From that, the blues said, you craft a story, a philosophy lesson, that you present as your own: This happened to me. This is what I did. This is how it felt.

Is this where we find a synthesis of those two countervailing tendencies in Dylan’s career – on to the next character, back again to the “common store” of memories? Weaving a set of tropes into a fiction, which you then “present as your own,” certainly works as a description of how Dylan constructs his various artistic masks, not to mention many of his songs. It would be satisfying to imagine that this practice is itself a refashioned one – and as a way of understanding where Dylan is coming from, probably no less fictitious than all the others.

How Napoleon made the British

In 1803, the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote to a friend about his relish at the prospect of being invaded by Napoleon Bonaparte. “As to me, I think, the Invasion must be a Blessing,” he said, “For if we do not repel it, & cut them to pieces, we are a vile sunken race… And if we do act as Men, Christians, Englishmen – down goes the Corsican Miscreant, & Europe may have peace.”

This was during the great invasion scare, when Napoleon’s Army of England could on clear days be seen across the channel from Kent. Coleridge’s fighting talk captured the rash of patriotism that had broken out in Britain. The largest popular mobilisation of the entire Hanoverian era was set in motion, as some 400,000 men from Inverness to Cornwall entered volunteer militia units. London’s playhouses were overtaken by anti-French songs and plays, notably Shakespeare’s Henry V. Caricaturists such as James Gillray took a break from mocking King George III and focused on patriotic propaganda, contrasting the sturdy beef-eating Englishman John Bull with a puny, effete Napoleon.

These years were an important moment in the evolution of Britain’s identity, one that resonated through the 19th century and far beyond. The mission identified by Coleridge – to endure some ordeal as a vindication of national character, preferably without help from anyone else, and maybe benefit wider humanity as a by-product – anticipates a British exceptionalism that loomed throughout the Victorian era, reaching its final apotheosis in the Churchillian “if necessary alone” patriotism of the Second World War. Coleridge’s friend William Wordsworth expressed the same sentiment in 1806, after Napoleon had smashed the Prussian army at Jena, leaving the United Kingdom his only remaining opponent. “We are left, or shall be left, alone;/ The last that dare to struggle with the Foe,” Wordsworth wrote, “’Tis well! From this day forward we shall know/ That in ourselves our safety must be sought;/ That by our own right hands it must be wrought.”

As we mark the bicentennial of Napoleon’s death on St Helena in 1821, attention has naturally been focused on his legacy in France. But we shouldn’t forget that in his various guises – conquering general, founder of states and institutions, cultural icon – Napoleon transformed every part of Europe, and Britain was no exception. Yet the apparent national pride of the invasion scare was very far from the whole story. If the experience of fighting Napoleon left the British in important ways more cohesive, confident and powerful, it was largely because the country had previously looked like it was about to fall apart. 

Throughout the 1790s, as the French Revolution followed the twists and turns that eventually brought Napoleon to power, Britain was a tinder box. Ten years before he boasted of confronting Napoleon as “Men, Christians, Englishmen,” Coleridge had burned the words “Liberty” and “Equality” into the lawns of Cambridge university. Like Wordsworth, and like countless other radicals and republicans, he had embraced the Revolution as the dawn of a glorious new age in which the corrupt and oppressive ancien régime, including the Anglican establishment of Britain, would be swept away. 

And the tide of history seemed to be on the radicals’ side. The storming of the Bastille came less than a decade after Britain had lost its American colonies, while in George III the country had an unpopular king, prone to bouts of debilitating madness, whose scandalous sons appeared destined to drag the monarchy into disgrace. 

Support for the Revolution was strongest among Nonconformist Protestant sects – especially Unitarians, the so-called “rational Dissenters” – who formed the intellectual and commercial elite of cities such as Norwich, Birmingham and Manchester, and among the radical wing of the Whig party. But for the first time, educated working men also entered the political sphere en masse. They joined the Corresponding Societies which held public meetings and demonstrations across the country, so named because of their contacts with Jacobin counterparts in France. Influential Unitarian ministers, such as the Welsh philosopher Richard Price and the chemist Joseph Priestly, interpreted the Revolution as the work of providence and possibly a sign of the imminent Apocalypse. In the circle of Whig aristocrats around Charles James Fox, implacable adversary of William Pitt’s Tory government, the radicals had sympathisers at the highest levels of power. Fox famously said of the Revolution “how much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world, and how much the best.”

From 1792 Britain was at war with revolutionary France, and this mix of new ideals and longstanding religious divides boiled over into mass unrest and fears of insurrection. In 1795 protestors smashed the windows at 10 Downing Street, and at the opening of parliament a crowd of 200,000 jeered at Pitt and George III. The radicals were met by an equally volatile loyalist reaction in defence of church and king. In 1793, a dinner celebrating Bastille Day in Birmingham sparked three days of rioting, including attacks on Nonconformist chapels and Priestly’s home. Pitt’s government introduced draconian limitations on thought, speech and association, although his attempt to convict members of the London Corresponding Society with high treason was foiled by a jury. 

Both sides drew inspiration from an intense pamphlet war that included some of the most iconic and controversial texts in British intellectual history. Conservatives were galvanised by Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, a defence of England’s time-honoured social hierarchies, while radicals hailed Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, calling for the abolition of Britain’s monarchy and aristocracy. When summoned on charges of seditious libel, Paine fled to Paris, where he sat in the National Assembly and continued to support the revolutionary regime despite almost being executed during the Reign of Terror that began in 1793. Among his supporters were the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the utopian progressive William Godwin, who shared an intellectual circle with Coleridge and Wordsworth. 

Britain seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Bad harvests at the turn of the century brought misery and renewed unrest, and the war effort failed to prevent France (under the leadership, from 1799, of First Consul Bonaparte) from dominating the continent. Paradoxically, nothing captures the paralysing divisions of the British state at this moment better than its expansion in 1801 to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The annexation of Ireland was a symptom of weakness, not strength, since it reflected the threat posed by a bitterly divided and largely hostile satellite off Britain’s west coast. The only way to make it work, as Pitt insisted, was to grant political rights to Ireland’s Catholic majority – but George III refused. So Pitt resigned, and the Revolutionary Wars ended with the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, effectively acknowledging French victory.

Britain’s tensions and weaknesses certainly did not disappear during the ensuing, epic conflict with Napoleon from 1803-15. Violent social unrest continued to flare up, especially at times of harvest failure, financial crisis, and economic hardship resulting from restriction of trade with the continent. There were, at times, widespread demands for peace. The government continued to repress dissent with military force and legal measures; the radical poet and engraver William Blake (later rebranded as a patriotic figure when his words were used for the hymn Jerusalem) stood trial for sedition in 1803, following an altercation with two soldiers. Many of those who volunteered for local military units probably did so out of peer pressure and to avoid being impressed into the navy. Ireland, of course, would prove to be a more intractable problem than even Pitt had imagined.  

Nonetheless, Coleridge and Wordsworth’s transition from radicals to staunch patriots was emblematic. Whether the population at large was genuinely loyal or merely quiescent, Britain’s internal divisions lost much of their earlier ideological edge, and the threat of outright insurrection faded away. This process had already started in the 1790s, as many radicals shied away from the violence and militarism of revolutionary France, but it was galvanised by Napoleon. This was not just because he appeared determined and able to crush Britain, but also because of British perceptions of his regime. 

As Yale professor Stuart Semmel has observed, Napoleon did not fit neatly into the dichotomies with which Britain was used to contrasting itself against France. For the longest time, the opposition had been (roughly) “free Protestant constitutional monarchy” vs “Popish absolutist despotism”; after the Revolution, it had flipped to “Christian peace and order” vs “bloodthirsty atheism and chaos.” Napoleon threw these catagories into disarray. The British, says Semmel, had to ask “Was he a Jacobin or a king …; Italian or Frenchman; Catholic, atheist, or Muslim?” The religious uncertainty was especially unsettling, after Napoleon’s “declaration of kinship with Egyptian Muslims, his Concordat with the papacy, his tolerance for Protestants, and his convoking a Grand Sanhedrin of European Jews.” 

This may have forced some soul-searching on the part of the British as they struggled to define Napoleonic France, but in some respects the novelty simplified matters. Former radicals could argue Napoleon represented a betrayal of the Revolution, and could agree with loyalists that he was a tyrant bent on personal domination of Europe, thus drawing a line under the ideological passions of the revolutionary period. In any case, loyalist propaganda had no difficulty transferring to Napoleon the template traditionally reserved for the Pope – that of the biblical Antichrist. This simple fact of having a single infamous figure on which to focus patriotic feelings no doubt aided national unity. As the essayist William Hazlitt, an enduring supporter of Napoleon, later noted: “Everybody knows that it is only necessary to raise a bugbear before the English imagination in order to govern it at will.”

More subtly, conservatives introduced the concept of “legitimacy” to the political lexicon, to distinguish the hereditary power of British monarchs from Napoleon’s usurpation of the Bourbon throne. This was rank hypocrisy, given the British elite’s habit of importing a new dynasty whenever it suited them, but it played to an attitude which did help to unify the nation: during the conflict with Napoleon, people could feel that they were defending the British system in general, rather than supporting the current government or waging an ideological war against the Revolution. The resulting change of sentiment could be seen in 1809, when there were vast celebrations to mark the Golden Jubilee of the once unpopular George III. 

Undoubtedly British culture was also transformed by admiration for Napoleon, especially among artists, intellectuals and Whigs, yet even here the tendency was towards calming antagonisms rather than enflaming them. This period saw the ascendance of Romanticism in European culture and ways of thinking, and there was not and never would be a greater Romantic hero than Napoleon, who had turned the world upside down through force of will and what Victor Hugo later called “supernatural instinct.” But ultimately this meant aestheticizing Napoleon, removing him from the sphere of politics to that of sentiment, imagination and history. Thus when Napoleon abdicated his throne in 1814, the admiring poet Lord Byron was mostly disappointed he had not fulfilled his dramatic potential by committing suicide. 

But Napoleon profoundly reshaped Britain in another way: the long and grueling conflict against him left a lasting stamp on every aspect of the British state. In short, while no-one could have reasonably predicted victory until Napoleon’s catastrophic invasion of Russia in 1812, the war was nonetheless crucial in forging Britain into the global superpower it would become after 1815. 

The British had long been in the habit of fighting wars with ships and money rather than armies, and for the most part this was true of the Napoleonic wars as well. But the unprecedented demands of this conflict led to an equally unprecedented development of Britain’s financial system. This started with the introduction of new property taxes and, in 1799, the first income tax, which were continually raised until by 1814 their yield had increased by a factor of ten. What mattered here was not so much the immediate revenue as the unparalleled fiscal base it gave Britain for the purpose of borrowing money – which it did, prodigiously. In 1804, the year Bonaparte was crowned Emperor, the “Napoleon of finance” Nathan Rothschild arrived in London from Frankfurt, helping to secure a century of British hegemony in the global financial system. 

No less significant were the effects of war in stimulating Britain’s nascent industrial revolution, and its accompanying commercial empire. The state relied on private contractors for most of its materiel, especially that required to build and maintain the vast Royal Navy, while creating immense demand for iron, coal and timber. In 1814, when rulers and representatives of Britain’s European allies came to Portsmouth, they were shown a startling vision of the future: enormous factories where pulley blocks for the rigging of warships were being mass-produced with steam-driven machine tools. Meanwhile Napoleon’s Continental System, by shutting British manufacturers and exporters out of Europe, forced them to develop markets in South Asia, Africa and Latin America. 

Even Britain’s fabled “liberal” constitution – the term was taken from Spanish opponents to Napoleon – did in fact do some of the organic adaptation that smug Victorians would later claim as its hallmark. The Nonconformist middle classes, so subversive during the revolutionary period, were courted in 1812-13 with greater political rights and by the relaxation of various restrictions on trade. Meanwhile, Britain discovered what would become its greatest moral crusade of the 19thcentury. Napoleon’s reintroduction of slavery in France’s Caribbean colonies created the conditions for abolitionism to grow as a popular movement in Britain, since, as William Wilberforce argued, “we should not give advantages to our enemies.” Two bills in 1806-7 effectively ended Britain’s centuries-long participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Thus Napoleon was not just a hurdle to be cleared en route to the British century – he was, with all his charisma and ruthless determination, a formative element in the nation’s history. And his influence did not end with his death in 1821, of course. He would long haunt the Romantic Victorian imagination as, in Eric Hobsbawm’s words, “the figure every man who broke with tradition could identify himself with.”

The Philosophy of Rupture: How the 1920s Gave Rise to Intellectual Magicians

This essay was originally published by Areo magazine on 4th November 2020.

When it comes to intellectual history, Central Europe in the decade of the 1920s presents a paradox. It was an era when revolutionary thought – original and iconoclastic ideas and modes of thinking – was not in fact revolutionary, but almost the norm. And the results are all around us today. The 1920s were the final flourish in a remarkable period of path-breaking activity in German-speaking Europe, one that laid many of the foundations for both analytic and continental philosophy, for psychology and sociology, and for several branches of legal philosophy and of theoretical science.

This creative ferment is partly what people grasp at when they refer to the “spirit” of the ’20s, especially in Germany’s Weimar Republic. But this doesn’t help us understand where that spirit came from, or how it draws together the various thinkers who, in hindsight, seem to be bursting out of their historical context rather than sharing it.

Wolfram Eilenberger attempts one solution to that problem in his new book, Time of the Magicians: The Invention of Modern Thought, 1919-1929. He manages to weave together the ideas of four philosophers – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin and Ernst Cassirer – by showing how they emerged from those thinkers’ personal lives. We get colourful accounts of money troubles, love affairs, career struggles and mental breakdowns, each giving way to a discussion of the philosophical material. In this way, the personal and intellectual journeys of the four protagonists are linked in an expanding web of experiences and ideas.

This is a satisfying format. There’s just no denying the voyeuristic pleasure of peering into these characters’ private lives, whether it be Heidegger’s and Benjamin’s attempts to rationalise their adulterous tendencies, or the series of car crashes that was Wittgenstein’s social life. Besides, it’s always useful to be reminded that, with the exception of the genuinely upstanding Cassirer, these great thinkers were frequently selfish, delusional, hypocritical and insecure. Just like the rest of us then.

But entertaining as it is, Eilenberger’s biographical approach does not really cast much light on that riddle of the age: why was this such a propitious time for magicians? If anything, his portraits play into the romantic myth of the intellectual window-breaker as a congenital outsider and unusual genius – an ideal that was in no small part erected by this very generation. This is a shame because, as I’ll try to show later, these figures become still more engaging when considered not just as brilliant individuals, but also as products of their time.

First, it’s worth looking at how Eilenberger manages to draw parallels between the four philosophers’ ideas, for that is no mean feat. Inevitably this challenge makes his presentation selective and occasionally tendentious, but it also produces some imaginative insights.

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At first sight, Wittgenstein seems an awkward fit for this book, seeing as he did not produce any philosophy during the decade in question. His famous early work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, claimed to have solved the problems of philosophy “on all essential points.” So we are left with the (admittedly fascinating) account of how he signed away his vast inheritance, trained as a primary school teacher, and moved through a series of remote Austrian towns becoming increasingly isolated and depressed.

But this does leave Eilenberger plenty of space to discuss the puzzling Tractatus. He points out, rightly, that Wittgenstein’s mission to establish once and for all what can meaningfully be said – that is, what kinds of statements actually make sense – was far more than an attempt to rid philosophy of metaphysical hokum (even if that was how his logical-empiricist fans in Cambridge and the Vienna Circle wanted to read the work).

Wittgenstein did declare that the only valid propositions were those of natural science, since these alone shared the same logical structure as empirical reality, and so could capture an existing or possible “state of affairs” in the world. But as Wittgenstein freely admitted, this meant the Tractatus itself was nonsense. Therefore its reader was encouraged to disregard the very claims which had established how to judge claims, to “throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.” Besides, it remained the case that “even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.”

According to Eilenberger, who belongs to the “existentialist Wittgenstein” school, the Tractatus’ real goals were twofold. First, to save humanity from pointless conflict by clarifying what could be communicated with certainty. And second, to emphasise the degree to which our lives will always be plagued by ambiguity – by that which can only be “shown,” not said – and hence by decisions that must be taken on the basis of faith.

This reading allows Eilenberger to place Wittgenstein in dialogue with Heidegger and Benjamin. The latter both styled themselves as abrasive outsiders: Heidegger as the Black Forest peasant seeking to subvert academic philosophy from within, Benjamin as the struggling journalist and flaneur who, thanks to his erratic behaviour and idiosyncratic methods, never found an academic post. By the end of the ’20s, they had gravitated towards the political extremes, with Heidegger eventually joining the Nazi party and Benjamin flirting with Communism.

Like many intellectuals at this time, Heidegger and Benjamin were interested in the consequences of the scientific and philosophical revolutions of the 17th century, the revolutions of Galileo and Descartes, which had produced the characteristic dualism of modernity: the separation of the autonomous, thinking subject from a scientific reality governed by natural laws. Both presented this as an illusory and fallen state, in which the world had been stripped of authentic human purpose and significance.

Granted, Heidegger did not think such fine things were available to most of humanity anyway. As he argued in his masterpiece Being and Time, people tend to seek distraction in mundane tasks, social conventions and gossip. But it did bother him that philosophers had forgotten about “the question of the meaning of Being.” To ask this question was to realise that, before we come to do science or anything else, we are always already “thrown” into an existence we have neither chosen nor designed, and which we can only access through the meanings made available by language and by the looming horizon of our own mortality.

Likewise, Benjamin insisted language was not a means of communication or rational thought, but an aesthetic medium through which the world was revealed to us. In his work on German baroque theatre, he identified the arrival of modernity with a tragic distortion in that medium. Rather than a holistic existence in which in which everything had its proper name and meaning – an existence that, for Benjamin, was intimately connected with the religious temporality of awaiting salvation – the very process of understanding had become arbitrary and reified, so that any given symbol might as well stand for any given thing.

As Eilenberger details, both Heidegger and Benjamin found some redemption in the idea of decision – a fleeting moment when the superficial autonomy of everyday choices gave way to an all-embracing realisation of purpose and fate. Benjamin identified such potential in love and, on a collective and political level, in the “profane illuminations” of the metropolis, where the alienation of the modern subject was most profound. For Heidegger, only a stark confrontation with death could produce a truly “authentic” decision. (This too had political implications, which Eilenberger avoids: Heidegger saw the “possibilities” glimpsed in these moments as handed down by tradition to each generation, leaving the door open to a reactionary idea of authenticity as something a community discovers in its past).

If Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Benjamin were outsiders and “conceptual wrecking balls,” Ernst Cassirer cuts a very different figure. His inclusion in this book is the latest sign of an extraordinary revival in his reputation over the past fifteen years or so. That said, some of Eilenberger’s remarks suggest Cassirer has not entirely shaken off the earlier judgment, that he was merely “an intellectual bureaucrat,” “a thoroughly decent man and thinker, but not a great one.”

Cassirer was the last major figure in the Neo-Kantian tradition, which had dominated German academic philosophy from the mid-19th century until around 1910. At this point, it grew unfashionable for its associations with scientific positivism and naïve notions of rationality and progress (not to mention the presence of prominent Jewish scholars like Cassirer within its ranks). The coup de grâce was delivered by Heidegger himself at the famous 1929 “Davos debate” with Cassirer, the event which opens and closes Eilenberger’s book. Here contemporaries portrayed Cassirer as an embodiment of “the old thinking” that was being swept away.

That judgment was not entirely accurate. It’s true that Cassirer was an intellectual in the mould of 19th century Central European liberalism, committed to human progress and individual freedom, devoted to science, culture and the achievements of German classicism. Not incidentally, he was the only one of our four thinkers to wholeheartedly defend Germany’s Weimar democracy. But he was also an imaginative, versatile and unbelievably prolific philosopher.

Cassirer’s three-volume project of the 1920s, The Theory of Symbolic Forms, showed that he, too, understood language and meaning as largely constitutive of reality. But for Cassirer, the modern scientific worldview was not a debasement of the subject’s relationship to the world, but a development of the same faculty which underlay language, myth and culture – that of representing phenomena through symbolic forms. It was, moreover, an advance. The logical coherence of theoretical science, and the impersonal detachment from nature it afforded, was the supreme example of how human beings achieved freedom: by understanding the structure of the world they inhabited to ever greater degrees.

But nor was Cassirer dogmatic in his admiration for science. His key principle was the plurality of representation and understanding, allowing the same phenomenon to be grasped in different ways. The scientist and artist are capable of different insights. More to the point, the creative process through which human minds devised new forms of representation was open ended. The very history of science, as of culture, showed that there were always new symbolic forms to be invented, transforming our perception of the world in the process.

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It would be unfair to say Eilenberger gives us no sense of how these ideas relate to the context in which they were formed; his biographical vignettes do offer vivid glimpses of life in 1920s Europe. But that context is largely personal, and rarely social, cultural or intellectual. As a result, the most striking parallel of all – the determination of Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Benjamin to upend the premises of the philosophical discipline, and that of Cassirer to protect them – can only be explained in terms of personality. This is misleading.

A time-traveller visiting Central Europe in the years after 1918 could not help but notice that all things intellectual were in a state of profound flux. Not only was Neo-Kantianism succumbing to a generation of students obsessed with metaphysics, existence and (in the strict sense) nihilism. Every certainty was being forcefully undermined: the superiority of European culture in Oswald Spengler’s bestselling Decline of the West (1918); the purpose and progress of history in Ernst Troeltsch’s “Crisis of Historicism” (1922); the Protestant worldview in Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans (1919); and the structure of nature itself in Albert Einstein’s article “On the Present Crisis in Theoretical Physics” (1922).

In these years, even the concept of revolution was undergoing a revolution, as seen in the influence of unorthodox Marxist works like György Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness (1923). And this is to say nothing of what our time-traveller would discover in the arts. Dada, a movement dedicated to the destruction of bourgeois norms and sensibilities, had broken out in Zurich in 1917 and quickly spread to Berlin. Here it infused the works of brilliant but scandalous artists such as George Grosz and Otto Dix.

German intellectuals, in other words, were conscious of living in an age of immense disruption. More particularly, they saw themselves as responding to world defined by rupture; or to borrow a term from Heidegger and Benjamin, by “caesura” – a decisive and irreversible break from the past.

It’s not difficult to imagine where that impression came from. This generation experienced the cataclysm of the First World War, an unprecedented bloodbath that discredited assumptions of progress even as it toppled ancient regimes (though among Eilenberger’s quartet, only Wittgenstein served on the front lines). In its wake came the febrile economic and political atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, which has invited so many comparisons to our own time. Less noticed is that the ’20s were also, like our era, a time of destabilising technological revolution, witnessing the arrival of radio, the expansion of the telephone, cinema and aviation, and a bevy of new capitalist practices extending from factory to billboard.

Nonetheless, in philosophy and culture, we should not imagine that an awareness of rupture emerged suddenly in 1918, or even in 1914. The war is best seen as an explosive catalyst which propelled and distorted changes already underway. The problems that occupied Eilenberger’s four philosophers, and the intellectual currents that drove them, stem for a deeper set of dislocations.

 Anxiety over the scientific worldview, and over philosophy’s relationship to science, was an inheritance from the 19thcentury. In Neo-Kantianism, Germany had produced a philosophy at ease with the advances of modern science. But paradoxically, this grew to be a problem when it became clear how momentous those advances really were. Increasingly science was not just producing strange new ways of seeing the world, but through technology and industry, reshaping it. Ultimately the Neo-Kantian holding pattern, which had tried to reconcile science with the humanistic traditions of the intellectual class, gave way. Philosophy became the site of a backlash against both.

But critics of philosophy’s subordination to science had their own predecessors to call on, not least with respect to the problem of language. Those who, like Heidegger and Benjamin, saw language not as a potential tool for representing empirical reality, but the medium which disclosed that reality to us (and who thus began to draw the dividing line between continental and Anglo-American philosophy), were sharpening a conflict that had simmered since the Enlightenment. They took inspiration from the 18th century mystic and scourge of scientific rationality, Johann Georg Hamann.

Meanwhile, the 1890s saw widespread recognition of the three figures most responsible for the post-war generation’s ideal of the radical outsider: Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx. That generation would also be taught by the great pioneers of sociology in Germany, Max Weber and Georg Simmel, whose work recognised what many could feel around them: that modern society was impersonal, fragmented and beset by irresolvable conflicts of value.

In light of all this, it’s not surprising that the concept of rupture appears on several levels in Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Benjamin. They presented their works as breaks in and with the philosophical tradition. They reinterpreted history in terms of rupture, going back and seeking the junctures when pathologies had appeared and possibilities had been foreclosed. They emphasised the leaps of faith and moments of decision that punctuated the course of life.

Even the personal qualities that attract Eilenberger to these individuals – their eccentric behaviour, their search for authenticity – were not theirs alone. They were part of a generational desire to break with the old bourgeois ways, which no doubt seemed the only way to take ownership of such a rapidly changing world.

 

The politics of crisis is not going away any time soon

This essay was originally published by Palladium magazine on June 10th 2020

A pattern emerges when surveying the vast commentary on the COVID-19 pandemic. At its center is a distinctive image of crisis: the image of a cruel but instructive spotlight laying bare the flaws of contemporary society. Crisis, we read, has “revealed,” “illuminated,” “clarified,” and above all, “exposed” our collective failures and weaknesses. It has unveiled the corruption of institutions, the decadence of culture, and the fragility of a material way of life. It has sounded the death-knell for countless projects and ideals.

“The pernicious coronavirus tore off an American scab and revealed suppurating wounds beneath,” announces one commentator, after noting “these calamities can be tragically instructional…Fundamental but forgotten truths, easily masked in times of calm, reemerge.”

Says another: “Invasion and occupation expose a society’s fault lines, exaggerating what goes unnoticed or accepted in peacetime, clarifying essential truths, raising the smell of buried rot.”

You may not be surprised to learn that these two near-identical comments come from very different interpretations of the crisis. The first, from Trump-supporting historian Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution, claims that the “suppurating wounds” of American society are an effete liberal elite compromised by their reliance on a malignant China and determined to undermine the president at any cost. According to the second, by The Atlantic’s George Packer, the “smell of buried rot” comes from the Trump administration itself, the product of an oligarchic ascendency whose power stems from the division of society and hollowing-out of the state.

Nothing, it seems, has evaded the extraordinary powers of diagnosis made available by crisis: merciless globalism, backwards nationalism, the ignorance of populists, the naivety of liberals, the feral market, the authoritarian state. We are awash in diagnoses, but diagnosis is only the first step. It is customary to sharpen the reality exposed by the virus into a binary, existential decision: address the weakness identified, or succumb to it. “We’re faced with a choice that the crisis makes inescapably clear,” writes Packer, “the alternative to solidarity is death.” No less ominous is Hanson’s invocation of Pearl Harbor: “Whether China has woken a sleeping giant in the manner of the earlier Japanese, or just a purring kitten, remains to be seen.”

The crisis mindset is not just limited to journalistic sensationalism. Politicians, too, have appealed to a now-or-never, sink-or-swim framing of the COVID-19 emergency. French President Emmanuel Macron has been among those using such terms to pressure Eurozone leaders into finally establishing a collective means of financing debt. “If we can’t do this today, I tell you the populists will win,” Macron told The Financial Times. Across the Atlantic, U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has claimed that the pandemic “has just exposed us, the fragility of our system,” and has adopted the language of “life or death” in her efforts to bring together the progressive and centrist wings of the Democratic Party before the presidential election in November.

And yet, in surveying this rhetoric of diagnosis and decision, what is most surprising is how familiar it sounds. Apart from the pathogen itself, there are few narratives of crisis now being aired which were not already well-established during the last decade. Much as the coronavirus outbreak has felt like a sudden rupture from the past, we have already been long accustomed to the politics of crisis.

It was under the mantra of “tough decisions,” with the shadow of the financial crisis still looming, that sharp reductions in public spending were justified across much of the Western world after 2010. Since then, the European Union has been crippled by conflicts over sovereign debt and migration. It was the rhetoric of the Chinese menace and of terminal decline—of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation,” to quote the 2017 inaugural address—that brought President Trump to power. Meanwhile, progressives had already mobilized themselves around the language of emergency with respect to inequality and climate change.

There is something deeply paradoxical about all of this. The concept of crisis is supposed to denote a need for exceptional attention and decisive focus. In its original Greek, the term krisis often referred to a decision between two possible futures, but the ubiquity of “crisis” in our politics today has produced only deepening chaos. The sense of emergency is stoked continuously, but the accompanying promises of clarity, agency, and action are never delivered. Far from a revealing spotlight, the crises of the past decade have left us with a lingering fog which now threatens to obscure us at a moment when we really do need judicious action.

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Crises are a perennial feature of modern history. For half a millenium, human life has been shaped by impersonal forces of increasing complexity and abstraction, from global trade and finance to technological development and geopolitical competition. These forces are inherently unstable and frequently produce moments of crisis, not least due to an exogenous shock like a deadly plague. Though rarely openly acknowledged, the legitimacy of modern regimes has largely depended on a perceived ability to keep that instability at bay.

This is the case even at times of apparent calm, such as the period of U.S. global hegemony immediately following the Cold War. The market revolution of the 1980s and globalization of the 1990s were predicated on a conception of capitalism as an unpredictable, dynamic system which could nonetheless be harnessed and governed by technocratic expertise. Such were the hopes of “the great moderation.” A series of emerging market financial crises—in Mexico, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Russia, and Argentina—provided opportunities for the IMF and World Bank to demand compliance with the Washington Consensus in economic policy. Meanwhile, there were frequent occasions for the U.S. to coordinate global police actions in war-torn states.

Despite the façade of independent institutions and international bodies, it was in no small part through such crisis-fighting economic and military interventions that a generation of U.S. leaders projected power abroad and secured legitimacy at home. This model of competence and progress, which seems so distant now, was not based on a sense of inevitability so much as confidence in the capacity to manage one crisis after another: to “stabilize” the most recent eruption of chaos and instability.

A still more striking example comes from the European Union, another product of the post-Cold War era. The project’s main purpose was to maintain stability in a trading bloc soon to be dominated by a reunified Germany. Nonetheless, many of its proponents envisaged that the development of a fully federal Europe would occur through a series of crises, with the supra-national structures of the EU achieving more power and legitimacy at each step. When the Euro currency was launched in 1999, Romano Prodi, then president of the European Commission, spoke of how the EU would extend its control over economic policy: “It is politically impossible to propose that now. But some day there will be a crisis and new instruments will be created.”

It is not difficult to see why Prodi took this stance. Since the rise of the rationalized state two centuries ago, managerial competence has been central to notions of successful governance. In the late 19th century, French sociologist Emile Durkheim compared the modern statesman to a physician: “he prevents the outbreak of illnesses by good hygiene, and seeks to cure them when they have appeared.” Indeed, the bureaucratic structures which govern modern societies have been forged in the furnaces of crisis. Social security programs, income tax, business regulation, and a host of other state functions now taken for granted are a product of upheavals of the 19th and early 20th centuries: total war, breakneck industrialization, famine, and financial panic. If necessity is the mother of invention, crisis is the midwife of administrative capacity.

By the same token, the major political ideologies of the modern era have always claimed to offer some mastery over uncertainty. The locus of agency has variously been situated in the state, the nation, individuals, businesses, or some particular class or group; the stated objectives have been progress, emancipation, greatness, or simply order and stability. But in every instance, the message has been that the chaos endemic to modern history must be tamed or overcome by some paradigmatic form of human action. The curious development of Western modernity, where the management of complex, crisis-prone systems has come to be legitimated through secular mass politics, appears amenable to no other template.

It is against this backdrop that we can understand the period of crisis we have endured since 2008. The narratives of diagnosis and decision which have overtaken politics during this time are variations on a much older theme—one that is present even in what are retrospectively called “times of calm.” The difference is that, where established regimes have failed to protect citizens from instability, the logic of crisis management has burst its technocratic and ideological bounds and entered the wider political sphere. The greatest of these ruptures was captured by a famous statement attributed to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in September 2008. Pleading with Congress to pass a $700 billion bailout, Bernanke claimed: “If we don’t do this now, we won’t have an economy on Monday.”

This remark set the tone for the either/or, act-or-perish politics of the last decade. It points to a loss of control which, in the United States and beyond, opened the way for competing accounts not just of how order could be restored, but also what that order should look like. Danger and disruption have become a kind of opportunity, as political insurgents across the West have captured established parties, upended traditional power-sharing arrangements, and produced the electoral shocks suggested by the ubiquitous phrase “the age of Trump and Brexit.” These campaigns sought to give the mood of crisis a definite shape, directing it towards the need for urgent decision or transformative action, thereby giving supporters a compelling sense of their own agency.

***

Typically though, such movements do not merely offer a choice between existing chaos and redemption to come. In diagnoses of crisis, there is always an opposing agent who is responsible for and threatening to deepen the problem. We saw this already in Hanson’s and Packer’s association of the COVID-19 crisis with their political opponents. But it was there, too, among Trump’s original supporters, for whom the agents of crisis were not just immigrants and elites but, more potently, the threat posed by the progressive vision for America. This was most vividly laid out in Michael Anton’s infamous “Flight 93 Election” essay, an archetypal crisis narrative which urged fellow conservatives that only Trump could stem the tide of “wholesale cultural and political change,” claiming “if you don’t try, death is certain.”

Yet Trump’s victory only galvanized the radical elements of the left, as it gave them a villain to point to as a way of further raising the consciousness of crisis among their own supporters. The reviled figure of Trump has done more for progressive stances on immigration, healthcare, and climate action than anyone else, for he is the ever-present foil in these narratives of emergency. Then again, such progressive ambitions, relayed on Fox News and social media, have also proved invaluable in further stoking conservatives’ fears.

To simply call this polarization is to miss the point. The dynamic taking shape here is rooted in a shared understanding of crisis, one that treats the present as a time in which the future of society is being decided. There is no middle path, no going back: each party claims that if they do not take this opportunity to reshape society, their opponents will. In this way, narratives of crisis feed off one another, and become the basis for a highly ideological politics—a politics that de-emphasizes compromise with opponents and with the practical constraints of the situation at hand, prioritizing instead the fulfillment of a goal or vision for the future.

Liberal politics is ill-equipped to deal with, or even to properly recognize, such degeneration of discourse. In the liberal imagination, the danger of crisis is typically that the insecurity of the masses will be exploited by a demagogue, who will then transfigure the system into an illiberal one. In many cases, though, it is the system which loses legitimacy first, as the frustrating business of deliberative, transactional politics cannot meet the expectations of transformative change which are raised in the public sphere.

Consider the most iconic and, in recent years, most frequently analogized period of crisis in modern history: Germany’s Weimar Republic of 1918-33. These were the tempestuous years between World War I and Hitler’s dictatorship, during which a fledgling democracy was rocked by armed insurrection, hyperinflation, foreign occupation, and the onset of the Great Depression, all against a backdrop of rapid social, economic, and technological upheaval.

Over the past decade or so, there have been no end of suggestions that ours is a “Weimar moment.” Though echoes have been found in all sorts of social and cultural trends, the overriding tendency has been to view the crises of the Weimar period backwards through their end result, the establishment of Nazi dictatorship in 1933. In various liberal democracies, the most assertive Weimar parallels have referred to the rise of populist and nationalist politics, and in particular, the erosion of constitutional norms by leaders of this stripe. The implication is that history has warned us how the path of crisis can lead towards an authoritarian ending.

What this overlooks, however, is that Weimar society was not just a victim of crisis that stumbled blindly towards authoritarianism, but was active in interpreting what crises revealed and how they should be addressed. In particular, the notion of crisis served the ideological narratives of the day as evidence of the need to refashion the social settlement. Long before the National Socialists began their rise in the early 1930s, these conflicting visions, pointing to one another as evidence of the stakes, sapped the republic’s legitimacy by making it appear impermanent and fungible.

The First World War had left German thought with a pronounced sense of the importance of human agency in shaping history. On the one hand, the scale and brutality of the conflict left survivors adrift in a world of unprecedented chaos, seeming to confirm a suspicion of some 19th century German intellectuals that history had no inherent meaning. But at the same time, the war had shown the extraordinary feats of organization and ingenuity that an industrialized society, unified and mobilized around a single purpose, was capable of. Consequently, the prevailing mood of Weimar was best captured by the popular term Zeitenwende, the turning of the times. Its implication was that the past was irretrievably lost, the present was chaotic and dangerous, but the future was there to be claimed by those with the conviction and technical skill to do so.

Throughout the 1920s, this historical self-consciousness was expressed in the concept of Krisis or Krise, crisis. Intellectual buzzwords referred to a crisis of learning, a crisis of European culture, a crisis of historicism, crisis theology, and numerous crises of science and mathematics. The implication was that these fields were in a state of flux which called for resolution. A similar dynamic could be seen in the political polemics which filled the Weimar press, where discussions of crisis tended to portray the present as a moment of decision or opportunity. According to Rüdiger Graf’s study of more than 370 Weimar-era books and still more journal articles with the term “crisis” in their titles, the concept generally functioned as “a call to action” by “narrow[ing] the complex political world to two exclusive alternatives.”

Although the republic was most popular among workers and social democrats, the Weimar left contained an influential strain of utopian thought which saw itself as working beyond the bounds of formal politics. Here, too, crisis was considered a source of potential. Consider the sentiments expressed by Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school of architecture of design, in 1919:

Capitalism and power politics have made our generation creatively sluggish, and our vital art is mired in a broad bourgeois philistinism. The intellectual bourgeois of the old Empire…has proven his incapacity to be the bearer of German culture. The benumbed world is now toppled, its spirit is overthrown, and is in the midst of being recast in a new mold.

Gropius was among those intellectuals, artists, and administrators who, often taking inspiration from an idealized image of the Soviet Union, subscribed to the idea of the “new man”—a post-capitalist individual whose self-fulfillment would come from social duty. Urban planning, social policy, and the arts were all seen as means to create the environment in which this new man could emerge.

The “bourgeois of the old Empire,” as Gropius called them, had indeed been overthrown; but in their place came a reactionary modernist movement, often referred to as the “conservative revolution,” whose own ideas of political transformation used socialism both as inspiration and as ideological counterpoint. In the works of Ernst Jünger, technology and militarist willpower were romanticized as dynamic forces which could pull society out of decadence. Meanwhile, the political theorist Carl Schmitt emphasized the need for a democratic polity to achieve a shared identity in opposition to a common enemy, a need sometimes better accomplished by the decisive judgments of a sovereign dictator than by a fractious parliamentary system.

Even some steadfast supporters of the republic, like the novelist Heinrich Mann, seized on the theme of crisis as a call to transformative action. In a 1923 speech, against a backdrop of hyperinflation and the occupation of the Ruhr by French forces, Mann insisted that the republic should resist the temptation of nationalism, and instead fulfill its promise as a “free people’s state” by dethroning the “blood-gorging” capitalists who still controlled society in their own interests.

These trends were not confined to rhetoric and intellectual discussion. They were reflected in practical politics by the tendency of even trivial issues to be treated as crises that raised fundamental conflicts of worldview. So it was that, in 1926, a government was toppled by a dispute over the regulations for the display of the republican flag. Meanwhile, representatives were harangued by voters who expected them to embody the uncompromising ideological clashes taking place in the wider political sphere. In towns and cities across the country, rival marches and processions signaled the antagonism of socialists and their conservative counterparts—the burghers, professionals and petite bourgeoisie who would later form the National Socialist coalition, and who by mid-decade had already coalesced around President Paul von Hindenburg.

***

We are not Weimar. The ideologies of that era, and the politics that flowed from them, were products of their time, and there were numerous contingent reasons why the republic faced an uphill battle for acceptance. Still, there are lessons. The conflict between opposing visions of society may seem integral to the spirit of democratic politics, but at times of crisis, it can be corrosive to democratic institutions. The either/or mindset can add a whole new dimension to whatever emergency is at hand, forcing what is already a time of disorientating change into a zero-sum competition between grand projects and convictions that leave ordinary, procedural politics looking at best insignificant, and at worst an obstacle.

But sometimes this kind of escalation is simply unavoidable. Crisis ideologies amplify, but do not create, a desire for change. The always-evolving material realities of capitalist societies frequently create circumstances that are untenable, and which cannot be sufficiently addressed by political systems prone to inertia and capture by vested interests. When such a situation erupts into crisis, incremental change and a moderate tone may already be a foregone conclusion. If your political opponent is electrifying voters with the rhetoric of emergency, the only option might be to fight fire with fire.

There is also a hypocrisy innate to democratic politics which makes the reality of how severe crises are managed something of a dirty secret. Politicians like to invite comparisons with past leaders who acted decisively during crises, whether it be French president Macron’s idolization of Charles de Gaulle, the progressive movement in the U.S. and elsewhere taking Franklin D Roosevelt as their inspiration, or virtually every British leader’s wish to be likened to Winston Churchill. What is not acknowledged is the shameful compromises that accompanied these leaders’ triumphs. De Gaulle’s opportunity to found the French Fifth Republic came amid threats of a military coup. Roosevelt’s New Deal could only be enacted with the backing of Southern Democratic politicians, and as such, effectively excluded African Americans from its most important programs. Allied victory in the Second World War, the final fruit of Churchill’s resistance, came at the price of ceding Eastern and Central Europe to Soviet tyranny.

Such realities are especially difficult to bear because the crises of the past are a uniquely unifying force in liberal democracies. It was often through crises, after all, that rights were won, new institutions forged, and loyalty and sacrifice demonstrated. We tend to imagine those achievements as acts of principled agency which can be attributed to society as a whole, whereas they were just as often the result of improvisation, reluctant concession, and tragic compromise.

Obviously, we cannot expect a willingness to bend principles to be treated as a virtue, and nor, perhaps, should we want it to. But we can acknowledge the basic degree of pragmatism  which crises demand. This is the most worrying aspect of the narratives of decision surrounding the current COVID-19 crisis: still rooted in the projects and preoccupations of the past, they threaten to render us inflexible at a moment when we are entering uncharted territory.

Away from the discussions about what the emergency has revealed and the action it demands, a new era is being forged by governments and other institutions acting on a more pressing set of motives—in particular, maintaining legitimacy in the face of sweeping political pressures and staving off the risk of financial and public health catastrophes. It is also being shaped from the ground up, as countless individuals have changed their behavior in response to an endless stream of graphs, tables, and reports in the media.

Political narratives simply fail to grip the contingency of this situation. Commentators talk about the need to reduce global interdependence, even as the architecture of global finance has been further built up by the decision of the Federal Reserve, in March, to support it with unprecedented amounts of dollar liquidity. They continue to argue within a binary of free market and big government, even as staunchly neoliberal parties endorse state intervention in their economies on a previously unimaginable scale. Likewise, with discussions about climate policy or western relations with China—the parameters within which these strategies will have to operate are simply unknown.

To reduce such complex circumstances to simple, momentous decisions is to offer us more clarity and agency than we actually possess. Nonetheless, that is how this crisis will continue to be framed, as political actors strive to capture the mood of emergency. It will only make matters worse, though, if our judgment remains colored by ambitions and resentments which were formed in earlier crises. If we continue those old struggles on this new terrain, we will swiftly lose our purchase on reality. We will be incapable of a realistic appraisal of the constraints now facing us, and without such realistic appraisal, no solution can be effectively pursued.

What was Romanticism? Putting the “counter-Enlightenment” in context

In his latest book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Steven Pinker heaps a fair amount of scorn on Romanticism, the movement in art and philosophy which spread across Europe during the late-18th and 19th centuries. In Pinker’s Manichean reading of history, Romanticism was the malign counterstroke to the Enlightenment: its goal was to quash those values listed in his subtitle. Thus, the movement’s immense diversity and ambiguity are reduced to a handful of ideas, which show that the Romantics favored “the heart over the head, the limbic system over the cortex.” This provides the basis for Pinker to label “Romantic” various irrational tendencies that are still with us, such as nationalism and reverence for nature.

In the debates following Enlightenment Now, many have continued to use Romanticism simply as a suitcase term for “counter-Enlightenment” modes of thought. Defending Pinker in Areo, Bo Winegard and Benjamin Winegard do produce a concise list of Romantic propositions. But again, their version of Romanticism is deliberately anachronistic, providing a historical lineage for the “modern romantics” who resist Enlightenment principles today.

As it happens, this dichotomy does not appeal only to defenders of the Enlightenment. In his book The Age of Anger, published last year, Pankaj Mishra explains various 21st century phenomena — including right-wing populism and Islamism — as reactions to an acquisitive, competitive capitalism that he traces directly back to the 18th century Enlightenment. This, says Mishra, is when “the unlimited growth of production . . . steadily replaced all other ideas of the human good.” And who provided the template for resisting this development? The German Romantics, who rejected the Enlightenment’s “materialist, individualistic and imperialistic civilization in the name of local religious and cultural truth and spiritual virtue.”

Since the Second World War, it has suited liberals, Marxists, and postmodernists alike to portray Romanticism as the mortal enemy of Western rationalism. This can convey the impression that history has long consisted of the same struggle we are engaged in today, with the same teams fighting over the same ideas. But even a brief glance at the Romantic era suggests that such narratives are too tidy. These were chaotic times. Populations were rising, people were moving into cities, the industrial revolution was occurring, and the first mass culture emerging. Europe was wracked by war and revolution, nations won and lost their independence, and modern politics was being born.

So I’m going to try to explain Romanticism and its relationship with the Enlightenment in a bit more depth. And let me say this up front: Romanticism was not a coherent doctrine, much less a concerted attack on or rejection of anything. Put simply, the Romantics were a disparate constellation of individuals and groups who arrived at similar motifs and tendencies, partly by inspiration from one another, partly due to underlying trends in European culture. In many instances, their ideas were incompatible with, or indeed hostile towards, the Enlightenment and its legacy. On the other hand, there was also a good deal of mutual inspiration between the two.

 

Sour grapes

The narrative of Romanticism as a “counter-Enlightenment” often begins in the mid-18th century, when several forerunners of the movement appeared. The first was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Social Contract famously asserts “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau portrayed civilization as decadent and morally compromised, proposing instead a society of minimal interdependence where humanity would recover its natural virtue. Elsewhere in his work he also idealized childhood, and celebrated the outpouring of subjective emotion.

In fact various Enlightenment thinkers, Immanuel Kant in particular, admired Rousseau’s ideas; he was arguing that left to their own devices, ordinary people would use reason to discover virtue. Nonetheless, he was clearly attacking the principle of progress, and his apparent motivations for doing so were portentous. Rousseau had been associated with the French philosophes — men such as Thiry d’Holbach, Denis Diderot, Claude Helvétius and Jean d’Alembert — who were developing the most radical strands of Enlightenment thought, including materialist philosophy and atheism. But crucially, they were doing so within a rather glamorous, cosmopolitan milieu. Though they were monitored and harassed by the French ancien régime, many of the philosophes were nonetheless wealthy and well-connected figures, their Parisian salons frequented by intellectuals, ambassadors and aristocrats from across Europe.

Rousseau decided the Enlightenment belonged to a superficial, hedonistic elite, and essentially styled himself as a god-fearing voice of the people. This turned out to be an important precedent. In Prussia, where a prolific Romantic movement would emerge, such antipathy towards the effete culture of the French was widespread. For much to the frustration of Prussian intellectuals and artists — many of whom were Pietist Christians from lowly backgrounds — their ruler Frederick the Great was an “Enlightened despot” and dedicated Francophile. He subscribed to Melchior Grimm’s Correspondence Littéraire, which brought the latest ideas from the Paris; he hosted Voltaire at his court as an Enlightenment mascot; he conducted affairs in French, his first language.

This is the background against which we find Johann Gottfried Herder, whose ideas about language and culture were deeply influential to Romanticism. He argued that one can only understand the world via the linguistic concepts that one inherits, and that these reflect the contingent evolution of one’s culture. Hence in moral terms, different cultures occupy significantly different worlds, so their values should not be compared to one another. Nor should they be replaced with rational schemes dreamed up elsewhere, even if this means that societies are bound to come into conflict.

Rousseau and Herder anticipated an important cluster of Romantic themes. Among them are the sanctity of the inner-life, of folkways and corporate social structures, of belonging, of independence, and of things that cannot be quantified. And given the apparent bitterness of Herder and some of his contemporaries, one can see why Isaiah Berlin declared that all this amounted to “a very grand form of sour grapes.” Berlin takes this line too far, but there is an important insight here. During the 19th century, with the rise of the bourgeoisie and of government by utilitarian principles, many Romantics will show a similar resentment towards “sophisters, economists, and calculators,” as Edmund Burke famously called them. Thus Romanticism must be seen in part as coming from people denied status in a changing society.

Then again, Romantic critiques of excessive uniformity and rationality were often made in the context of developments that were quite dramatic. During the 1790s, it was the French Revolution’s degeneration into tyranny that led first-generation Romantics in Germany and England to fear the so-called “machine state,” or government by rational blueprint. Similarly, the appalling conditions that marked the first phase of the industrial revolution lay behind some later Romantics’ revulsion at industrialism itself. John Ruskin celebrated medieval production methods because “men were not made to work with the accuracy of tools,” with “all the energy of their spirits . . . given to make cogs and compasses of themselves.”

And ultimately, it must be asked if opposition to such social and political changes was opposition to the Enlightenment itself. The answer, of course, depends on how you define the Enlightenment, but with regards to Romanticism we can only make the following generalization. Romantics believed that ideals such as reason, science, and progress had been elevated at the expense of values like beauty, expression, or belonging. In other words, they thought the Enlightenment paradigm established in the 18th century was limited. This is well captured by Percy Shelley’s comment in 1821 that although humanity owed enormous gratitude to philosophers such as John Locke and Voltaire, only Rousseau had been more than a “mere reasoner.”

And yet, in perhaps the majority of cases, this did not make Romantics hostile to science, reason, or progress as such. For it did not seem to them, as it can seem to us in hindsight, that these ideals must inevitably produce arrangements such as industrial capitalism or technocratic government. And for all their sour grapes, they often had reason to suspect those whose ascent to wealth and power rested on this particular vision of human improvement.

 

“The world must be romanticized”

One reason Romanticism is often characterized as against something — against the Enlightenment, against capitalism, against modernity as such — is that it seems like the only way to tie the movement together. In the florescence of 19th century art and thought, Romantic motifs were arrived at from a bewildering array of perspectives. In England during the 1810s, for instance, radical, progressive liberals such as Shelley and Lord Byron celebrated the crumbling of empires and of religion, and glamorized outcasts and oppressed peoples in their poetry. They were followed by arch-Tories like Thomas Carlyle and Ruskin, whose outlook is fundamentally paternalistic. Other Romantics migrated across the political spectrum during their lifetimes, bringing their themes with them.

All this is easier to understand if we note that a new sensibility appeared in European culture during this period, remarkable for its idealism and commitment to principle. Disparaged in England as “enthusiasm,” and in Germany as Schwärmerei or fanaticism, we get a flavor of it by looking at some of the era’s celebrities. There was Beethoven, celebrated as a model of the passionate and impoverished genius; there was Byron, the rebellious outsider who received locks of hair from female fans; and there was Napoleon, seen as an embodiment of untrammeled willpower.

Curiously, though, while this Romantic sensibility was a far cry from the formality and refinement which had characterized the preceding age of Enlightenment, it was inspired by many of the same ideals. To illustrate this, and to expand on some key Romantic concepts, I’m going to focus briefly on a group that came together in Prussia at the turn of the 19th century, known as the Jena Romantics.

The Jena circle — centred around Ludwig Tieck, Friedrich and August Schlegel, Friedrich Hölderlin, and the writer known as Novalis — have often been portrayed as scruffy bohemians, a conservative framing that seems to rest largely on their liberal attitudes to sex. But this does give us an indication of the group’s aims: they were interested in questioning convention, and pursuing social progress (their journal Das Athenäum was among the few to publish female writers). They were children of the Enlightenment in other respects, too. They accepted that rational skepticism had ruled out traditional religion and superstition, and that science was a tool for understanding reality. Their philosophy, however, shows an overriding desire to reconcile these capacities with an inspiring picture of culture, creativity, and individual fulfillment. And so they began by adapting the ideas of two major Enlightenment figures: Immanuel Kant and Benedict Spinoza.

Kant, who spent his entire life among the Romantics in Prussia, had impressed on them the importance of one dilemma in particular: how was human freedom possible given that nature was determined? But rather than follow Kant down the route of transcendental freedom, the Jena school tried to update the universe Spinoza had described a century earlier, which was a single deterministic entity governed by a mechanical sequence of cause and effect. Conveniently, this mechanistic model had been called into doubt by contemporary physics. So they kept the integrated, holistic quality of Spinoza’s nature, but now suggested that it was suffused with another Kantian idea — that of organic force or purpose.

Consequently, the Jena Romantics arrived at an organic conception of the universe, in which nature expressed the same omnipresent purpose in all its manifestations, up to and including human consciousness. Thus there was no discrepancy between mental activity and matter, and the Romantic notion of freedom as a channelling of some greater will was born. After all, nature must be free because, as Spinoza had argued, there is nothing outside nature. Therefore, in Friedrich Schlegel’s words, “Man is free because he is the highest expression of nature.”

Various concepts flowed from this, the most consequential being a revolutionary theory of art. Whereas the existing neo-classical paradigm had assumed that art should hold a mirror up to nature, reflecting its perfection, the Romantics now stated that the artist should express nature, since he is part of its creative flow. What this entails, moreover, is something like a primitive notion of the unconscious. For this natural force comes to us through the profound depths of language and myth; it cannot be definitely articulated, only grasped at through symbolism and allegory.

Such longing for the inexpressible, the infinite, the unfathomable depth thought to lie beneath the surface of ordinary reality, is absolutely central to Romanticism. And via the Jena school, it produces an ideal which could almost serve as a Romantic program: being-through-art. The modern condition, August Schlegel says, is the sensation of being adrift between two idealized figments of our imagination: a lost past and an uncertain future. So ultimately, we must embrace our frustrated existence by making everything we do a kind of artistic expression, allowing us to move forward despite knowing that we will never reach what we are aiming for. This notion that you can turn just about anything into a mystery, and thus into a field for action, is what Novalis alludes to in his famous statement that “the world must be romanticized.”

It appears there’s been something of a detour here: we began with Spinoza and have ended with obscurantism and myth. But as Frederick Beiser has argued, this baroque enterprise was in many ways an attempt to radicalize the 18th century Enlightenment. Indeed, the central thesis that our grip on reality is not certain, but we must embrace things as they seem to us and continue towards our aims, was almost a parody of the skepticism advanced by David Hume and by Kant. Moreover, and more ominously, the Romantics amplified the Enlightenment principle of self-determination, producing the imperative that individuals and societies must pursue their own values.

 

The Romantic legacy

It is beyond doubt that some Romantic ideas had pernicious consequences, the most demonstrable being a contribution to German nationalism. By the end of the 19th century, when Prussia had become the dominant force in a unified Germany and Richard Wagner’s feverish operas were being performed, the Romantic fascination with national identity, myth, and the active will had evolved into something altogether menacing. Many have taken the additional step, which is not a very large one, of implicating Romanticism in the fascism of the 1930s.

A more tenuous claim is that Romanticism (and German Romanticism especially) contains the origins of the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment, and of Western civilization itself, which is so current among leftist intellectuals today. As we have seen, there was in Romanticism a strong strain of cultural relativism — which is to say, relativism about values. But postmodernism has at its core a relativism about facts, a denial of the possibility of reaching objective truth by reason or observation. This nihilistic stance is far from the skepticism of the Jena school, which was fundamentally a means for creative engagement with the world.

But whatever we make of these genealogies, remember that we are talking about developments, progressions over time. We are not saying that Romanticism was in any meaningful sense fascistic, postmodernist, or whichever other adjective appears downstream. I emphasize this because if we identify Romanticism with these contentious subjects, we will overlook its myriad more subtle contributions to the history of thought.

Many of these contributions come from what I described earlier as the Romantic sensibility: a variety of intuitions that seem to have taken root in Western culture during this era. For instance, that one should remain true to one’s own principles at any cost; that there is something tragic about the replacement of the old and unusual with the uniform and standardized; that different cultures should be appreciated on their own terms, not on a scale of development; that artistic production involves the expression of something within oneself. Whether these intuitions are desirable is open to debate, but the point is that the legacy of Romanticism cannot be compartmentalized, for it has colored many of our basic assumptions.

This is true even of ideas that we claim to have inherited from the Enlightenment. For some of these were these were modified, and arguably enriched, as they passed through the Romantic era. An explicit example comes from John Stuart Mill, the founding figure of classical Liberalism. Mill inherited from his father and from Jeremy Bentham a very austere version of utilitarian ethics. This posited as its goal the greatest good for the greatest number of people; but its notion of the good did not account for the value of culture, spirituality, and a great many other things we now see as intrinsic to human flourishing. As Mill recounts in his autobiography, he realized these shortcomings by reading England’s first-generation Romantics, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This is why, in 1840, Mill bemoaned the fact that his fellow progressives thought they had nothing to learn from Coleridge’s philosophy, warning them that “the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole.” We are committing a similar error today when we treat Romanticism simply as a “counter-Enlightenment.” Ultimately this limits our understanding not just of Romanticism but of the Enlightenment as well.

 

This essay was first published in Areo Magazine on June 10 2018. See it here.

Social media’s turn towards the grotesque

This essay was first published by Little Atoms on 09 August 2018. The image on my homepage is a detail from an original illustration by Jacob Stead. You can see the full work here.

Until recently it seemed safe to assume that what most people wanted on social media was to appear attractive. Over the last decade, the major concerns about self-presentation online have been focused on narcissism and, for women especially, unrealistic standards of beauty. But just as it is becoming apparent that some behaviours previously interpreted as narcissistic – selfies, for instance – are simply new forms of communication, it is also no longer obvious that the rules of this game will remain those of the beauty contest. In fact, as people derive an ever-larger proportion of their social interaction here, the aesthetics of social media are moving distinctly towards the grotesque.

When I use the term grotesque, I do so in a technical sense. I am referring to a manner of representing things – the human form especially – which is not just bizarre or unsettling, but which creates a sense of indeterminacy. Familiar features are distorted, and conventional boundaries dissolved.

Instagram, notably, has become the site of countless bizarre makeup trends among its large demographic of young women and girls. These transformations range from the merely dramatic to the carnivalesque, including enormous lips, nose-hair extensions, eyebrows sculpted into every shape imaginable, and glitter coated onto everything from scalps to breasts. Likewise, the popularity of Snapchat has led to a proliferation of face-changing apps which revel in cartoonish distortions of appearance. Eyes are expanded into enormous saucers, faces are ghoulishly elongated or squashed, and animal features are tacked onto heads. These images, interestingly, are also making their way onto dating app profiles.

Of course for many people such tools are simply a way, as one reviewer puts it, “to make your face more fun.” There is something singularly playful in embracing such plasticity: see for instance the creative craze “#slime”, which features videos of people playing with colourful gooey substances, and has over eight million entries on Instagram. But if you follow the threads of garishness and indeterminacy through the image-oriented realms of the internet, deeper resonances emerge.

The pop culture embraced by Millennials and the so-called Generation C (born after 2000) reflects a fascination with brightly adorned, shape-shifting and sexually ambiguous personae. If performers like Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga were forerunners of this tendency, they are now joined by more dark and refined way figures such as Sophie and Arca from the dance music scene. Meanwhile fashion, photography and video abound with kitsch, quasi-surreal imagery of the kind popularised by Dazed magazine. Celebrated subcultures such as Japan’s “genderless Kei,” who are characterised by bright hairstyles and makeup, are also part of this picture.

But the most striking examples of this turn towards the grotesque come from art forms emerging within digital culture itself. It is especially well illustrated by Porpentine, a game designer working with the platform Twine, whose disturbing interactive poems have achieved something of a cult status. They typically place readers in the perspective of psychologically and socially insecure characters, leading them through violent urban futurescapes reminiscent of William Burrough’s Naked Lunch. The New York Times aptly describes her games as “dystopian landscapes peopled by cyborgs, intersectional empresses and deadly angels,” teeming with “garbage, slime and sludge.”

These are all manifestations both of a particular sensibility which is emerging in parts of the internet, and more generally of a new way of projecting oneself into public space. To spend any significant time in the networks where such trends appear is to become aware of a certain model of identity being enacted, one that is mercurial, effervescent, and boldly expressive. And while the attitudes expressed vary from anxious subjectivity to humorous posturing – as well as, at times, both simultaneously – in most instances one senses that the online persona has become explicitly artificial, plastic, or even disposable.

*   *   *

Why, though, would a paradigm of identity such as this invite expression as the grotesque? Interpreting these developments is not easy given that digital culture is so diffuse and rapidly evolving. One approach that seems natural enough is to view them as social phenomena, arising from the nature of online interaction. Yet to take this approach is immediately to encounter a paradox of sorts. If “the fluid self” represents “identity as a vast and ever-changing range of ideas that should all be celebrated” (according to trend forecaster Brenda Milis), then why does it seem to conform to generic forms at all? This is a contradiction, that in fact might prove enlightening.

One frame which has been widely applied to social media is sociologist Erving Goffman’s “dramaturgical model,” as outlined in his 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Every Day Life. According to Goffman, identity can be understood in terms of a basic dichotomy, which he explains in terms of “Front Stage” and “Back Stage.” Our “Front Stage” identity, when we are interacting with others, is highly responsive to context. It is preoccupied with managing impressions and assessing expectations so as to present what we consider a positive view of ourselves. In other words, we are malleable in the degree to which we are willing to tailor our self-presentation.

The first thing to note about this model is that it allows for dramatic transformations. If you consider the degree of detachment enabled by projecting ourselves into different contexts through words and imagery, and empathising with others on the same basis, then the stage is set for more or less anything becoming normative within a given peer group. As for why people would want to take this expressive potential to unusual places, it seems reasonable to speculate that in many cases, the role we want to perform is precisely that of someone who doesn’t care what anyone thinks. But since most of us do in fact care, we might end up, ironically enough, expressing this within certain established parameters.

But focusing too much on social dynamics risks underplaying the undoubted sense of freedom associated with the detachment from self in online interaction. Yes, there is peer pressure here, but within these bounds there is also a palpable euphoria in escaping mundane reality. The neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has made this point while commenting on the “alternative identity” embraced by young social media users. The ability to depart from the confines of stable identity, whether by altering your appearance or enacting a performative ritual, essentially opens the door to a world of fantasy.

With this in mind, we could see the digital grotesque as part of a cultural tradition that offers us many precedents. Indeed, this year marks the 200th anniversary of perhaps the greatest precedent of all: Mary Shelley’s iconic novel Frankenstein. The great anti-hero of that story, the monster who is assembled and brought to life by the scientist Victor Frankenstein, was regarded by later generations as an embodiment of all the passions that society requires the individual to suppress – passions that the artist, in the act of creation, has special access to. The uncanny appearance and emotional crises of Frankenstein’s monster thus signify the potential for unknown depths of expression, strange, sentimental, and macabre.

That notion of the grotesque as something uniquely expressive and transformative was and has remained prominent in all of the genres with which Frankenstein is associated – romanticism, science fiction, and the gothic. It frequently aligns itself with the irrational and surreal landscapes of the unconscious, and with eroticism and sexual deviancy; the films of David Lynch are emblematic of this crossover. In modern pop culture a certain glamourised version of the grotesque, which subverts rigid identity with makeup and fashion, appeared in the likes of David Bowie and Marilyn Manson.

Are today’s online avatars potentially incarnations of Frankenstein’s monster, tempting us with unfettered creativity? The idea has been explored by numerous artists over the last decade. Ed Atkins is renowned for his humanoid characters, their bodies defaced by crude drawings, who deliver streams of consciousness fluctuating between the poetic and the absurd. Jon Rafman, meanwhile, uses video and animation to piece together entire composite worlds, mapping out what he calls “the anarchic psyche of the internet.” Reflecting on his years spent exploring cyberspace, Rafman concludes: “We’ve reached a point where we’re enjoying our own nightmares.”

*   *   *

It is possible that the changing aesthetics of the Internet reflect both the social pressures and the imaginative freedoms I’ve tried to describe, or perhaps even the tension between them. One thing that seems clear, though, is that the new notions of identity emerging here will have consequences beyond the digital world. Even if we accept in some sense Goffman’s idea of a “Backstage” self, which resumes its existence when we are not interacting with others, the distinction is ultimately illusory. The roles and contexts we occupy inevitably feed back into how we think of ourselves, as well as our views on a range of social questions. Some surveys already suggest a generational shift in attitudes to gender, for instance.

That paradigms of identity shift in relation to technological and social changes is scarcely surprising. The first half of the 20th century witnessed the rise of a conformist culture, enabled by mass production, communication, and ideology, and often directed by the state. This then gave way to the era of the unique individual promoted by consumerism. As for the balance of psychological benefits and problems that will arise as online interaction grows, that is a notoriously contentious question requiring more research.

There is, however, a bigger picture here that deserves attention. The willingness of people to assume different identities online is really part of a much broader current being borne along by technology and design – one whose general direction to enable individuals to modify and customise themselves in a wide range of ways. Whereas throughout the 20th century designers and advertisers were instrumental in shaping how we interpreted and expressed our social identity – through clothing, consumer products, and so on – this function is now increasingly being assumed by individuals within social networks.

Indeed, designers and producers are surrendering control of both the practical and the prescriptive aspects of their trade. 3D printing is just one example of how, in the future, tools and not products will be marketed. In many areas, the traditional hierarchy of ideas has been reversed, as those who used to call the tune are now trying to keep up with and capitalise on trends that emerge from their audiences. One can see this loss of influence in an aesthetic trend that seems to run counter to those I’ve been observing here, but which ultimately reflects the same reality. From fashion to furniture, designers are making neutral products which can be customised by an increasingly identity-conscious, changeable audience.

Currently, the personal transformations taking place online rely for the most part on software; the body itself is not seriously altered. But with scientific fields such as bioengineering expanding in scope, this may not be the case for long. Alice Rawsthorn has considered the implications: “As our personal identities become subtler and more singular, we will wish to make increasingly complex and nuanced choices about the design of many aspects of out lives… We will also have more of the technological tools required to do so.” If this does turn out to be the case, we will face considerable ethical dilemmas regarding the uses and more generally the purpose of science and technology.

When did death become so personal?

 

I have a slightly gloomy but, I think, not unreasonable view of birthdays, which is that they are really all about death. It rests on two simple observations. First, much as they pretend otherwise, people do generally find birthdays to be poignant occasions. And second, a milestone can have no poignancy which does not ultimately come from the knowledge that the journey in question must end. (Would an eternal being find poignancy in ageing, nostalgia, or anything else associated with the passing of time? Surely not in the sense that we use the word). In any case, I suspect most of us are aware that at these moments when our life is quantified, we are in some sense facing our own finitude. What I find interesting, though, is that to acknowledge this is verboten. In fact, we seem to have designed a whole edifice of niceties and diversions – cards, parties, superstitions about this or that age – to avoid saying it plainly.

Well it was my birthday recently, and it appears at least one of my friends got the memo. He gave a copy of Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death, a sequence of woodcuts composed in 1523-5. They show various classes in society being escorted away by a Renaissance version of the grim reaper – a somewhat cheeky-looking skeleton who plays musical instruments and occasionally wears a hat. He stands behind The Emperor, hands poised to seize his crown; he sweeps away the coins from The Miser’s counting table; he finds The Astrologer lost in thought, and mocks him with a skull; he leads The Child away from his distraught parents.

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Hans Holbein, “The Astrologer” and “The Child,” from “The Dance of Death” (1523-5)

It is striking for the modern viewer to see death out in the open like this. But the “dance of death” was a popular genre that, before the advent of the printing press, had adorned the walls of churches and graveyards. Needless to say, this reflects the fact that in Holbein’s time, death came frequently, often without warning, and was handled (both literally and psychologically) within the community. Historians speculate about what pre-modern societies really believed regarding death, but belief is a slippery concept when death is part of the warp and weft of culture, encountered daily through ritual and artistic representations. It would be a bit like asking the average person today what their “beliefs” are about sex – where to begin? Likewise in Holbein’s woodcuts, death is complex, simultaneously a bringer of humour, justice, grief, and consolation.

Now let me be clear, I am not trying to romanticise a world before antibiotics, germ theory, and basic sanitation. In such a world, with child mortality being what it was, you and I would most likely be dead already. Nonetheless, the contrast with our own time (or at least with certain cultures, and more about that later) is revealing. When death enters the public sphere today – which is to say, fictional and news media – it rarely signifies anything, for there is no framework in which it can do so. It is merely a dramatic device, injecting shock or tragedy into a particular set of circumstances. The best an artist can do now is to expose this vacuum, as the photographer Jo Spence did in her wonderful series The Final Project, turning her own death into a kitsch extravaganza of joke-shop masks and skeletons.

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From Jo Spence, “The Final Project,” 1991-2, courtesy of The Jo Spence Memorial Archive and Richard Saltoun Gallery

And yet, to say that modern secular societies ignore or avoid death is, in my view, to miss the point. It is rather that we place the task of interpreting mortality squarely and exclusively upon the individual. In other words, if we lack a common means of understanding death – a language and a liturgy, if you like – it is first and foremost because we regard that as a private affair. This convention is hinted at by euphemisms like “life is short” and “you only live once,” which acknowledge that our mortality has a bearing on our decisions, but also imply that what we make of that is down to us. It is also apparent, I think, in our farcical approach to birthdays.

Could it be that, thanks to this arrangement, we have actually come to feel our mortality more keenly? I’m not sure. But it does seem to produce some distinctive experiences, such as the one described in Philip Larkin’s famous poem “Aubade” (first published in 1977):

Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.

Larkin’s sleepless narrator tries to persuade himself that humanity has always struggled with this “special way of being afraid.” He dismisses as futile the comforts of religion (“That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die”), as well as the “specious stuff” peddled by philosophy over the centuries. Yet in the final stanza, as he turns to the outside world, he nonetheless acknowledges what does make his fear special:

telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.

Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

There is a dichotomy here, between a personal world of introspection, and a public world of routine and action. The modern negotiation with death is confined to the former: each in our own house.

 

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When did this internalisation of death occur, and why? Many reasons spring to mind: the decline of religion, the rise of Freudian psychology in the 20thcentury, the discrediting of a socially meaningful death by the bloodletting of the two world wars, the rise of liberal consumer societies which assign death to the “personal beliefs” category, and would rather people focused on their desires in the here and now. No doubt all of these have had some part to play. But there is also another way of approaching this question, which is to ask if there isn’t some sense in which we actually savour this private relationship with our mortality that I’ve outlined, whatever the burden we incur as a result. Seen from this angle, there is perhaps an interesting story about how these attitudes evolved.

I direct you again to Holbein’s Dance of Death woodcuts.As I’ve said, what is notable from our perspective is that they picture death within a traditional social context. But as it turns out, these images also reflect profound changes that were taking place in Northern Europe during the early modern era. Most notably, Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation had erupted less than a decade before Holbein composed them. And among the many factors which led to that Reformation was a tendency which had begun emerging within Christianity during the preceding century, and which would be enormously influential in the future. This tendency was piety, which stressed the importance of the individual’s emotional relationship to God.

As Ulinka Rublack notes in her commentary on The Dance of Death, one of the early contributions of piety was the convention of representing death as a grisly skeleton. This figure, writes Rublack, “tested its onlooker’s immunity to spiritual anxiety,” since those who were firm in their convictions “could laugh back at Death.” In other words, buried within Holbein’s rich and varied portrayal of mortality was already, in embryonic form, an emotionally charged, personal confrontation with death. And nor was piety the only sign of this development in early modern Europe.

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Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors (1533)

In 1533, Holbein produced another, much more famous work dealing with death: his painting The Ambassadors. Here we see two young members of Europe’s courtly elite standing either side of a table, on which are arrayed various objects that symbolise a certain Renaissance ideal: a life of politics, art, and learning. There are globes, scientific instruments, a lute, and references to the ongoing feud within the church. The most striking feature of the painting, however, is the enormous skull which hovers inexplicably in the foreground, fully perceptible only from a sidelong angle. This remarkable and playful item signals the arrival of another way of confronting death, which I describe as decadent. It is not serving any moral or doctrinal message, but illuminating what is most precious to the individual: status, ambition, accomplishment.

The basis of this decadent stance is as follows: death renders meaningless our worldly pursuits, yet at the same time makes them seem all the more urgent and compelling. This will be expounded in a still more iconic Renaissance artwork: Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599). It is no coincidence that the two most famous moments in this play are both direct confrontations with death. One is, of course, the “To be or not to be” soliloquy; the other is the graveside scene, in which Hamlet holds a jester’s skull and asks: “Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?” These moments are indeed crucial, for they suggest why the tragic hero, famously, cannot commit to action. As he weighs up various decisions from the perspective of mortality, he becomes intoxicated by the nuances of meaning and meaninglessness. He dithers because ultimately, such contemplation itself is what makes him feel, as it were, most alive.

All of this is happening, of course, within the larger development that historians like to call “the birth of the modern individual.” But as the modern era progresses, I think there are grounds to say that these two approaches – the pious and the decadent – will be especially influential in shaping how certain cultures view the question of mortality. And although there is an important difference between them insofar as one addresses itself to God, they also share something significant: a mystification of the inner life, of the agony and ecstasy of the individual soul, at the expense of religious orthodoxy and other socially articulated ideas about life’s purpose and meaning.

During the 17thcentury, piety became the basis of Pietism, a Lutheran movement that enshrined an emotional connection with God as the most important aspect of faith. Just as pre-Reformation piety may have been a response, in part, to the ravages of the Black Death, Pietism emerged from the utter devastation wreaked in Germany by the Thirty Years War. Its worship was based on private study of the bible, alone or in small groups (sometimes called “churches within a church”), and on evangelism in the wider community. In Pietistic sermons, the problem of our finitude – of our time in this world – is often bound up with a sense of mystery regarding how we ought to lead our lives. Everything points towards introspection, a search for duty. We can judge how important these ideas were to the consciousness of Northern Europe and the United States simply by naming two individuals who came strongly under their influence: Immanuel Kant and John Wesley.

It was also from the Central German heartlands of Pietism that, in the late-18thcentury, Romanticism was born – a movement which took the decadent fascination with death far beyond what we find in Hamlet. Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the eponymous artist shoots himself from lovesickness, led to a wave of copycat suicides by men dressed in dandyish clothing. As Romanticism spread across Europe and into the 19thcentury, flirting with death, using its proximity as a kind of emotional aphrodisiac, became a prominent theme in the arts. As Byron describes one of his typical heroes: “With pleasure drugged, he almost longed for woe, / And e’en for change of scene would seek the shades below.” Similarly, Keats: “Many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death.”

 

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This is a very cursory account, and I am certainly not claiming there is any direct or inevitable progression between these developments and our own attitudes to death. Indeed, with Pietism and Romanticism, we have now come to the brink of the Great Awakenings and Evangelism, of Wagner and mystic nationalism – of an age, in other words, where spirituality enters the public sphere in a dramatic and sometimes apocalyptic way. Nonetheless, I think all of this points to a crucial idea which has been passed on to some modern cultures, perhaps those with a northern European, Protestant heritage; the idea that mortality is an emotional and psychological burden which the individual should willingly assume.

And I think we can now discern a larger principle which is being cultivated here – one that has come to define our understanding of individualism perhaps more than any other. That is the principle of freedom. To take responsibility for one’s mortality – to face up to it and, in a manner of speaking, to own it – is to reflect on life itself and ask: for what purpose, for what meaning? Whether framed as a search for duty or, in the extreme decadent case, as the basis of an aesthetic experience, such questions seem to arise from a personal confrontation with death; and they are very central to our notions of freedom. This is partly, I think, what underlies our convention that what you make of death is your own business.

The philosophy that has explored these ideas most comprehensively is, of course, existentialism. In the 20thcentury, Martin Heidegger and Jean Paul Sartre argued that the individual can only lead an authentic life – a life guided by the values they deem important – by accepting that they are free in the fullest, most terrifying sense. And this in turn requires that the individual honestly accept, or even embrace, their finitude. For the way we see ourselves, these thinkers claim, is future-oriented: it consists not so much in what we have already done, but in the possibility of assigning new meaning to those past actions through what we might do in the future. Thus, in order to discover what our most essential values really are – the values we wish to direct our choices as free beings – we should consider our lives from its real endpoint, which is death.

Sartre and Heidegger were eager to portray these dilemmas, and their solutions, as brute facts of existence which they had uncovered. But it is perhaps truer to say that they were signing off on a deal which had been much longer in the making – a deal whereby the individual accepts the burden of understanding their existence as doomed beings, with all the nausea that entails, in exchange for the very expansive sense of freedom we now consider so important. Indeed, there is very little that Sartre and Heidegger posited in this regard which cannot be found in the work of the 19thcentury Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard; and Kierkegaard, it so happens, can also be placed squarely within the traditions of both Pietism and Romanticism.

To grasp how deeply engrained these ideas have become, consider again Larkin’s poem “Aubade:”

Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Here is the private confrontation with death framed in the most neurotic and desperate way. Yet part and parcel with all the negative emotions, there is undoubtedly a certain lugubrious relish in that confrontation. There is, in particular, something titillating in the rejection of all illusions and consolations, clearing the way for chastisement by death’s uncertainty. This, in other words, is the embrace of freedom taken to its most masochistic limit. And if you find something strangely uplifting about this bleak poem, it may be that you share some of those intuitions.