Now I know the pedants in the room will be quick to jump on how trademark is more limited than copyright, that the use of “Hakuna Matata” within the Lion King and the use of Día de Muertos in the (insufferable) Coco does not prevent people from using the expression or enjoying the holiday but that’s the thing: as Disney has shown with their most recent trademark shenanigans, they’re perfectly willing to attempt to take ownership of the idea of Loki notwithstanding the usual barriers of specific design or context that limit trademark. Frankly it doesn’t matter whether something Disney claims ownership is claimed via copyright or trademark. The truth is that in both cases it’s Disney expressing a territory.
Let’s not have a misunderstanding. Disney has no right to ownership of the Little Mermaid, Rapunzel, Hua Mulan, Beauty and the Beast, Día de Muertos, Hakuna Matata or Loki. All they did in all these cases was to adapt extant public-domain material. That they then try to claw these stories, characters and concepts out of the public domain, and that anybody complies says nothing about the nature of copyright or trademark law but rather just demonstrates that all laws kneel below sufficient power and sufficient hubris.
I have not been watching Loki. This is, in fact, because I was quite fond of Thor: Ragnarok which I consider to be the best of the MCU films by a considerable margin. Loki’s arc ended there and it was a satisfactory ending. That the MCU decided to retcon him back to a prior, more usable, state at the expense of character growth is a perfect example of the corrosive violence to art that Disney represents. However I know some people are watching it and enjoying it.
If this is you I have just one request: find some way to watch this show that doesn’t give Disney a single penny of your money. I don’t care about the details but the only way to make Disney relax its avarice about this or that cultural artifact is to make it worthless to them. So do that thing.
If we wanted to put a pin in the beginnings of the resurgence of the far-right it would likely be 2013. Within art this was marked by two principal social conflicts in which the outline of the nascent reactionary movement can be seen. The first was the release of Depression Quest and the second was the inauguration of the first Sad Puppies campaign. Both of these events, in 2013, seemed minor. Depression Quest was a Twine game – effectively the indiest of all indy game platforms. Zoë Quinn was, at the time, a very minor figure in gaming. Depression Quest was a browser game that also attracted some attention via Steam Greenlight but considering Greenlight’s history of lax acceptance standards and vast panoply of games available, this is hardly something that should have stood out above the noise. However Quinn’s meditation on illness received some critical attention and this led to sour grapes with an ex-boyfriend in what became the initial casus belli for the Breitbart-affiliated Gamergate movement.
Simultaneously, Larry Correia struggled to get his novels onto the Hugo ballot and in the process of what largely seems to have been a self-promotion effort fomented the arm of the same reactionary forces behind Gamergate into science fiction and fantasy literature. The decade that followed subsequently saw the mainstreaming of neoreactionary ideology – which shaped what E.L. Sandifer described in Neoreaction A Basilisk as, “an entirely sympathetic anger that people with power are making obvious and elementary errors,” into a tool for fascist entry via the very same platforms (again, Breitbart was central). This then metastasized into the Trumpism and the alt-right: the modern anglosphere Fascist movement that then dominated the half decade starting in 2016.
But it might be somewhat puzzling why, with the obvious movement of fascism in the sphere of politics at this time (Breitbart was also heavily involved in the Tea Party movement,) I am choosing to peg this resurgence to such specifically artistic indicators.
This is because I think it’s important to situate the extent to which fascism is an aesthetic movement.
Fascism as an aesthetic
Fascism has been rather unique among ideologies in how difficult it is to pin down. There are three definitions that are often passed around: the definition provided by Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascist essay, Lawrence Britt’s 14 Characteristics of Fascism, and Roger Griffin’s, “palingenetic form of populist ultranationalism.” Of these, Britt’s description is probably the least-useful. Britt wasn’t any particular expert and it seems to have been, in my eyes, something of an attempt to correct what he may have seen as deficiencies in Eco’s definition. However if this is the so I think Britt over-corrected as I find Eco’s argument in the Ur-Fascism essay far more relevant to understanding the phenomenon. Griffin’s definition of fascism certainly holds the quality of precision and conciseness that you would expect from a political scientist and an historian and I do want to stress that this lens is critical to understanding fascism but it aims more at the ultimate consequence of what fascists coordinating tend to do to a political milieu than at the underlying project of a fascist qua fascist.
I think this helps explain the longevity of Eco’s description of Fascism; Eco, an artist and semiotician, realized something critical about fascism that Griffin missed. Fascism is largely an aesthetic position. “Even though political regimes can be overthrown, and ideologies can be criticized and disowned, behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives,” Eco says, and these cultural habits, these obscure instincts and unfathomable drives aren’t a political program exactly, they’re not an ethic nor even an anti-ethic. Rather, as I discussed in my essay on the concept of degeneracy, much of what underpins fascism is a sense of what is beautiful and, more critically, what is ugly. The fascist is, at the root of it all, somebody with an exceptionally powerful revulsion for ugliness and a very specific set of criteria for what makes something ugly.
The fascist is a narcissist par excellence. In fact the only thing a fascist sees beauty in is himself. All of Eco’s 14 points on ur-fascism extend logically from this point of absolute narcissism. The fascist constructs an irreconcilable dualism of self and other and associates all beauty with the self, all ugliness with the other. He loves the cult of tradition because he sees himself in the approving eyes of his ancestors. And from the cult of tradition, Eco rightly points out the rejection of modernity follows. Eco describes how fascism is irrational and unable to withstand systemic critique. The irrationality is, yet again, an inevitable result of the fascist’s solipsism. Any input that destabilizes the duality of absolute self and absolute other must be expelled regardless of whether or not it is reasonable. The syncretism of fascism and its instability in the face of critical scrutiny follows from its irrationality and fascism’s fear of diversity is an immediate property of fascist solipsism again. When we then look at Eco’s description of fascist nationalism this appears again in a remarkable form when we consider the idea of the nation as an imagined community.
Terrible Imagined Communities
When I discussed the idea that there was no such thing as a total community I was largely pointing toward the idea of the imagined community. There is an abstraction to “the genre community,” “the gaming community,” or even to, “Canada,” that belies that these attempts at total communities are fictions notwithstanding ideological differences. It is relevant that there is no room for nazis and their victims in one community, but it’s just as relevant that there will be no true encounter between me and, “Joe from Canada, I think he lives in Vancouver, or maybe it was Halifax?” If a community is predicated upon some sort of group interaction, an imagined community is one where that group interaction has become so vague, so abstract, that it is effectively fully alienated from the people within it. In the sixth and seventh Theses on the genesis of the terrible communities, Tiqqun say:
The Word advances, prudently, filling the spaces between singular solitudes, it swells human numbers in groups, pushing them together against the prevailing winds - effort unites them. This is almost an exodus. Almost. But no pact holds them together, except the spontaneity of smiles, inevitable cruelty, and accidents of passion.
This passage, similar to that of migrating birds, with murmurs of shifting pain, little by little gives form to the terrible communities.
We can see how these terrible communities, these enclosing and entrapping spaces, these prisons that must be deserted all at once as a spontaneous and total jailbreak, arise as imagined communities. Nations and fandoms alike are held together by, “smiles, cruelty and accidents of passion.” These things are traps. They capture people and create artificial in-groups and out-groups. And it is only a very short slip from, “this is mine,” to, “this is me.”
Fandoms and nations alike both point toward the cancerous undifferentiated bodies that Deleuze and Guattari warn of in November 28, 1947: How Do You Make Yourself a Body Without Organs? “take a stifling body of subjectification, which makes a freeing all the more unlikely by forbidding any remaining distinction between subjects. Even if we consider given social formations, or a given stratic apparatus within a formation, we must say that every one of them has a BwO ready to gnaw, proliferate, cover, and invade the entire social field, entering into relations of violence and rivalry as well as alliance and complicity,” and they provide that carcinogenic ground for these cancerous bodies without organs in part by forming themselves as an imagined space where idealized others are just like me. If I like Star Wars – if Star Wars is mine – if Star Wars is me – if Star Wars is him too – then he is also me. As Bataille said, “a man who finds himself among others is irritated because he does not know why he is not one of the others.” A person who is making a cancerous body without organs has fallen fully into this trap. His sense of his own potential is ready to cover and invade the entire social field – this idea that anybody might not be just like me becomes such a psychic violence to him that he will countenance any cruelty in order to respond to it.
This is entirely an aesthetic action. There’s no sense of the good in any of this. There isn’t even a twisted rejection of the good here. No virtue is possible nor any universalism to build a deontological frame beyond the universalism of, “it is good because it is me,” or, “it is bad because it is not me.” There is no consideration of utility nor is there a question of ambiguity or uncertainty. Just a boot on a neck, a hand holding down a head, a brutish force to clear the line of the fascist’s sight of anything that might offend him.
The incapability of loving destruction
The fascist is incapable of loving destruction for precisely this reason. The fascist cannot destroy what he loves because he only loves himself. This sort of self-annihilation is inimical to the cancerous, metastasizing nature of fascist ideologies. But this has dire (though unsurprising) consequences for the fascist aesthetic. Artistic creation, authentic artistic expression, is bound indelibly to loving destruction. To create art you must identify the thing you love and utterly destroy it in order to create it anew. What has never lived cannot be reborn, and this rising and falling creative cycle is essential to the introduction of the novel, the creative spark arises when the sparks of love and destruction glow together. And this means that the fascist can recognize what he sees as beauty but cannot contribute to its creation. He is all that is beautiful to himself. There is no purer fascist artistic statement than to stand, alone, in a box in which all six walls are covered entirely in mirrors: an endless self recursion without change or derivation. A universe filled with the self. Just like Agent Smith. Fascism mutilates artistic capability because of this solipsism. And so the fascist steals.
We all know the struggle: you like a thing and then the Nazis roll in and take the thing over. People get disgusted with all the Nazis hanging around and then all that’s left surrounding the thing are the Nazis. They did it with solar diagrams. They did it with esotericism. They did it with Norse mythology. They did it with Pepe the Frog. They even try to take the Hammer and Sickle from the left through their hollow, loveless appropriations. Over and over again we see the same pattern.
We must momentarily step back and discuss some basic semiotics. A form of communication, such as an artwork, contains two central components: a signifier and a signified. The signified is the thing communicated, the signifier is the thing that carries that communication. Saussure, who did much of the groundwork for this idea, posited that the relationship between a signifier and a signified was somewhat arbitrary. The value of a signification depended on two relations: the relation between the specific signifier and the specific signified and the relation between the signification and other significations within the system. In economic terms Saussure described these relations as the exchange value of a quantity of currency for bread and the relationship between a quantity of currency and a different quantity of the same currency.
This helps to situate how words relate etymologically to each other and, in turn, how aesthetic concepts relate to each other into a system. But it still makes signification a remarkably arbitrary process. As Lyotard says while describing the development of lexical systems, “Signification would thus find itself pushed out beyond the system of significative units, inasmuch as it could embody any one of these units, then abandon it, only to invest another, without ever seeming to be frozen in an invariant set of oppositions.”
Discourse, Figure is fascinated with the role art, especially visual art, impacts signification, attempting to course correct from Saussure’s preference for the word by giving preference to the image as a signifier. Lyotard presents a view of visual art that allows for the encoding of vast quantities of meaning. But even this doesn’t escape the ultimately arbitrary character of signification.
The picture is such an inefficient trompe l'oeil that it requires the eye to access the truth, and it is, in a sense, nothing more than a call to the eye to be acknowledged. Even if the picture resembles nothing (and it really does resemble nothing, even when it is figurative, since its visible function is to give the given), the eye takes back from it the right it had given up in order to allow the picture to be: the right to believe itself the place from which the world-even in the process of manifesting itself-is seen manifesting itself, manifests its manifestation.
This disconnect between the signifier and the signified is the flaw via which fascism sneaks into art. Fascism is incapable of creating new permutations of meaning but it has become very adept at precisely one artistic act: overcoding a chain of signification with the body of the despot, which is, ultimately a solipsistic reflection of the fascist’s own self-image. Standing alone in his box of mirrors, the fascist says, “Yes me, me me; also me.” Fascism swarms into the infected signifier and attempts then to crowd out any competing signified objects besides itself. The solar cross of Buddhism is no longer a symbol of the radiant beauty of the dharma. It just means the body of the despot. The hammer and the sickle no longer a symbol of the alliance of farmer and factory worker. It just means the body of the despot. The anthropomorphic frog is no longer a symbol for unashamed and sybaritic self-enjoyment (“feels good man”) – it just means the body of the despot.
There’s a story that gets passed around anti-fascist circles: a Nazi bellies up to the bar at a punk rock club and orders a drink. He isn’t bothering anyone except by presenting fascist images on his clothes. The bartender pulls out a baseball bat and chases the Nazi off. A bystander asks the bartender why he chased away the Nazi and the bartender explains that any bar that doesn’t chase away the first Nazi will become a Nazi bar in time, that the Nazi population will grow and as it does it will push the limits of the offense it can cause. Eventually, inevitably, the Nazis will become violent and then all you have left is a Nazi club.
The Dead Kennedys hinted at this too with Nazi Punks Fuck Off – where they proposed that the Nazi punks weren’t really any different than the hegemonic coaches, businessmen and cops who run the imperial core. “When you ape the cops it ain’t anarchy.” They were just stealing a style they didn’t understand. “Trash a bank if you’ve got real balls.” The painful truth is that when Nazis are allowed to overcode a signifier with themselves it is exceedingly difficult to recover that symbol. While some Buddhists and Jainists may be frustrated about the theft of the Swastika you still can’t trust somebody flying it just because they say they’re Buddhist. Matt Furie held a funeral for Pepe the Frog. It can be frustrating to watch as Nazis spread all over this symbol or that – but this just makes the urgency to push back against any attempt to overcode a symbol with fascist solipsism all the greater.
I’ve talked before about the idea of art as a field in which ownership of intellectual property denotes ownership. This is something of a related phenomenon to overcoding. In overcoding a signifying chain is overlaid with a new signified object. In territorialization boundaries are drawn around signifying blocks and we are told these things belong together, these are the boundaries that should not be crossed. Overcoding disregards territorialized boundaries but then it spills out and covers the territory. It puts up walls and guards at the gates and says, “only I may enter here.” It over-writes old boundaries in the process of reifying ones that suit the overcoder. It proceeds like Tetsuo from Akira, like Smith from the Matrix, replacing everything in its path with more of the same, creating a deadening monotony. It isn’t that every reterritorialization is fascist – when I talked about this phenomenon in The Millers vs the Machines I mentioned how it recreated boundaries, not that those boundaries were cancerous or solipsistic; nor is every consumptive fan community doomed to fascism. But it’s important that we recognize that these movements, the walling off of the collective intellectual commons behind boundaries of ownership, the construction of an identity that mistakes an object of desire for the self, and a desire to make things, “like me,” are the ingredients from which fascism arises.
Fascism is difficult to define because it doesn’t have just one origin or just one manifestation. The paranoia of Agent Smith or of nazi punks aping cops can arise out of any social field; but the social field created by capitalism is particularly vulnerable to the manifestation of fascism because it creates fertile preconditions for the arising of this phenomenon.
If we are to resist fascism in the aesthetic field it cannot be by a counter-move of engaging in a pitched battle over staked territories already subsumed. The fascist incorporation of all into the body of the despot leaves a stink that can’t be washed out. We can start by refusing to cede new territory to the fascists – by showing them the door with a baseball bat in hand but this isn’t always easy to do in the art world, in online spaces, in places where the territories are conceptual rather than points on a field of earth. But this doesn’t mean that resistance is a problem even in these circumstances.
Engage willingly with cycles of creation and loving destruction. These cycles exist. We can enter them. And the fascist, trapped in self-love, cannot follow here. Be a thief, as they say, “be gay, do crimes.” Go out beyond the territories you know and return with treasure. Break the jewels you return with to microscopically fine sparkling dust and then reconstitute new gems from it, imbued with both your own being and your love of the other. Make art like making love – not a process of dialectics where two become one but a scizzing movement where two become many. Love your fate and love your resistance to it. Break rules. Break taboos. Be degenerate and deviant. Be a monster. Remember you are not on moral ground and so disregard the ethical imperatives and instead create a beauty that fascists cannot tolerate. Show that beauty to the world to inoculate them against fascist solipsism. Love the other. Don’t become a singularity holding everything in, trying to own the world. Instead allow yourself to be the wandering point dancing across little pools of nothing; be willing to shed identities and to assume them but tend the identities you assume. Avoid paranoia. Since there is no universal community, create communities that are like the sack of humanity unpicked and sewn back up with the moon inside, be alien and strange and beautiful and terrible and evangelize a vision of the world that loves difference, that is unafraid of cycles of birth and death and birth and death. Find the power in your beauty and your assumption of it but wield that power not to make everything like you but rather to make everything unlike you – to make everything strange.
Degenerate: late 15th century: from Latin degeneratus ‘no longer of its kind’, from the verb degenerare, from degener ‘debased’, from de- ‘away from’ + genus, gener- ‘race, kind’.
The Tower of Blue Horses disappeared after World War 2. Franz Marc was a German expressionist painter who died during World War 1 but his death, nor that it was in service of Germany during wartime didn’t prevent the nazis from labeling him a degenerate, confiscating his paintings from galleries, and displaying this one at the degenerate art exhibition. Marc had two strokes against him: first he came from a family of Jewish ethnic origin (they had converted to Catholicism, you know, because of all the antisemitism in Europe). Second, his work, which was steeped in mysticism and a visceral response against the violence of war was seen as being actively debasing to the aesthetic purity the Nazis strove toward.
Degenerate, in the context of aesthetics, carries a lot of connotation. It implies art that is no longer art (no longer of its kind) it is debased art – art that moves art away from what it should be. It implies a movement out of its genre: painting that is like sculpture or like a wood print. It implies a mixing of races, and it is no surprise that much of the art at the Degenerate Art exhibit was art that was affected by the exposure to foreign aesthetics brought about by colonialism. Matisse’s fauvism was heavily influenced by Japanese printmaking, as were many post-impressionists prior. The flattening of perspective these styles preferred moved art away from the renaissance preference of depth of field. Cubism, like that of Picasso, owed a deep debt to the art pillaged from Africa and its colonies and abstractionists also drew heavily on middle-eastern motifs. Fellow degenerate and expressionist painter Marc Chagall was Jewish and Jewish mysticism pervades his work.
I bring this up mostly because I want it to be clear that, first off, degeneracy has always principally been an aesthetic accusation rather than an ethical one. Those who hate the degenerate do so because they find it ugly. Second, it’s important to situate that art called “degenerate” is art that is inseparable from the impact of colonialism. Between the advent of the impressionists in the mid-1800s and the end of WWII, visual art in Europe underwent a transformation the scope of which had not been seen since the Renaissance, and just as the Renaissance was brought about by the reintroduction of classical ideas via expanded contact with the Middle East, so too was modern art explicitly informed by the impact of colonialism. Matisse took from Japanese art freely and Picasso from African art but it wasn’t a moral reaction against those appropriations but rather a revulsion to what these appropriations entailed that upset the fascists. This situates the Nazi revulsion for the degenerate aesthetic as being a clear and obvious expression of their fear that the colonial project would change the imperial core and make those seats of empire no longer like their genus.
The deterritorializing and nomadic quality of modern art is not intrinsically moral either. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is, in my eyes a work of transcendent beauty but it is also a product of theft. Degenerate art goes out beyond the boundaries of its genre and brings in the new. But what is new within the imperial core was the legacy of a thousand years elsewhere.
I say all this because I want to point out that when supposed leftists speak of the degeneracy of, “transgenderism,” or when they try to lionize Socialist Realism over degenerate, ugly, decadent (rotting or decaying) art, they are speaking with the tongue of Nazis. I have always been proud to call myself a degenerate. These paintings I shared are, in my eyes, some of the greatest ever produced by Europeans explicitly because they went beyond the boundaries of European art and expanded the realm of the aesthetic in doing so. I have no desire to show fidelity to my genre. But this is not an ethical position. All these men, even Chagal, were thieves as for all that his Jewish mysticism shone through his canvases, they did so in the smiling simulation of an African mask.
But why say all this? Why simultaneously claim the term degenerate, announce that its enemies are Nazis and undermine it by laying bare its colonialist framework? Because the moral and the moralizing should be banished from art. It is critical to recognize that the attacks levied against “degenerates” in the present age has no grounding in ethics. It does not live there. For all that self-deceiving liars might harp on the safety of children, on the idea of harm, on the dubious proposition that this or that aesthetic position represents a violation of consent we must recognize that what is being said by these fork-tongued descendants of the Nazis isn’t, “this is evil,” but rather, “this is ugly.” And beauty is not intrinsically good nor ugliness evil.
There is cruelty and danger and wrath in our beauty. The Nightbreed of Midian crave flesh. There is beauty in the skull and the ruin as much as in the flower and the sunrise. The Nazis were immoral butchers. They slaughtered their way across Europe, committed genocides against anybody perceived different from them: Jews, Roma, Gays, Communists. But they were also narrow-minded ugly people who inured themselves against any beauty they didn’t recognize as being of their genre. It’s too easy to flatten these two perspectives, but this leaves us vulnerable.
When we hear people speaking sweet moralizing words, when they talk about liberating workers and organizing the working classes, when they claim revolutionary intent and then turn around and say Nazi things about sex and art it can be disorienting because they’re not Nazis. They said so, right?
But it’s important to remember that the reactionary current is as much an aesthetic position as a moral one. The reactionary is unwilling to accept that our concept of beauty grows as our concept of “us” does. They call for a mass movement then lock the door and say, “not you, you’re too ugly.” So, especially this month, when you encounter some petty person, even a putative leftist, calling kink at pride or trans people degenerate, decadent, or ugly, black their eyes and call them a fucking Nazi. They’ve earned it.