The process of writing my research blog over the course of my M.A programme was one that I felt no small initial apprehension about. However, in retrospect, the process may yet prove to have been key in terms of the development of my M.A thesis.
When confronted with the notion of creating my first blog post, I initially found myself drawing a blank. What, after all, was there to say, when staring into the empty vacuum of an unused webpage? I found myself clawing for thoughts, fumbling for words, casting back and forth for some apposite jumping-off point for this new and unusual task. It was not in a moment of panicked searching, however, but a moment of leisure that the germ of an idea first developed.
The Netflix binge is generally conceptualised as a solitary pursuit in our lives; a shared experience between you, your laptop, and your junk food of choice. To commit to watching an unhealthy amount of unbroken streaming television with a group of others is to share what is, if we’re being honest here, an intense experience under even the most favourable of conditions. This particular streaming spree, however, was something we all came to prepared for an emotional harrowing, as we were gearing up to watch the new season of ‘Black Mirror’, Charlie Brooker’s biting dystopian sci-fi anthology series that takes a form similar to a collection of short stories, each one with a common theme- the bleak and potentially destructive effects of a near-future in which our love affair with technology takes a turn for the worse.
In these most inauspicious of circumstances, as I lay sprawled on a friend’s couch, devouring Black Mirror on Netflix, I was struck by my own recognition of Freudian themes liked to the theory I’d been reading as part of my course. In hindsight, perhaps it had to be Freud. As I’d taken Psychology in my Undergraduate years, I’d been told repeatedly that the work of Freud on Psychoanalysis was outdated, outmoded and discredited in the field. However, as I pursued English, the figure of Freud re-emerged, and I came to understand him in a context I had not expected, not as part of psychological theory, but literary theory. Throughout my academic career, Freud’s influence had followed my studies. I had come to recognise this influence almost by instinct. So when Freud, who in one essay I recall naming as possibly “the logical conclusion of Enlightenment thought”, reared his head again before me, I saw an opportunity at last to develop an idea, and dip my toe in the world of scholarly blogging.
The show’s greatest strength, after all, is that each standalone episode offers a commentary on how we live in these modern times. Moreover, the show is imbued with a sense of intellectual depth that most of its contemporary series forgo. To refer back to “Be Right Back”, one of the show’s strongest instalments, in my opinion, I recently rewatched it in preparation for the new series, and found, to my surprise, that it was dealing with the same Freudian theory that I had been studying for my M.A. The episode, in a nutshell, posits “what if you could replace your deceased loved ones with a copy, assembling their personality from their online presence”. From this premise Brooker explores the Freudian concept of Das Unheimliche, or the Uncanny, something which is “strangely familiar”, both known and unknown, and the effects that such dissonance can have on the psyche of the perceiver. In “Be Right Back”, the uncanny effect of the doppelgänger replacement is used to highlight the fact that, despite putting so much of ourselves into our online media, that self-curated representation of ourselves will never be able to truly capture the essence of who we are. The episode simultaneously explores the nature of a healthy and unhealthy model of grieving, similar to Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, in which Freud differentiates between the healthy psychological process of mourning- in which grief is experienced, but the object of the grief is let go by the subject, who can then move forward in life, versus melancholia, in which the subject internalises and holds onto their grief, essentially refusing to fully accept the loss of the object. Could there be a more clear cut example than an attempt to recreate a deceased loved one? Fittingly, the conclusion invokes one last Freudian mainstay: repression. Unable to continue to live with the artificial copy she has created, yet simultaneously unable to let go of her grief, the protagonist consigns her beloved’s doppelgänger to the attic, never to leave, amongst pictures of deceased family members, and other symbols of pain too great to be felt.
The process of developing this seed of an idea into an analytical blog post was very helpful in becoming comfortable with the format. By looking to current events and contemporary popular culture, and applying the knowledge gleaned from my studies, I felt I had found my preferred formula for the process of blogging. It was to current events, then, that I turned for inspiration for the next instalment of the blog- and at the start of November 2016, there was one story that dominated all others.
It almost felt as though it would have been disingenuous to skirt around the story of the United States Presidential Election. It was a monumental, monolithic presence in the popular consciousness, and one of the most shocking and yet fascinating stories in years. At the same time I was aware that with the amount of retrospectives being produced on the election and in particular the Trump campaign, that a conventional analysis would merely amount to so much white noise. However, a mere three days later, a brash, unconventional loudmouth would again enjoy success and the media would cast spotlight on Conor McGregor. For me, McGregor was the link. I had often compared him in my mind to the late Muhammad Ali, but now a new comparison struck me, to the then-President Elect.
Love him or hate him (and the reaction he gets on social media suggests you’re either in one camp or the other), the Trump effect on the media during the race was very real. Every word the then-candidate uttered was hung on, by supporters and detractors alike. While his fans revelled in the unconventional bombast of Trump’s rhetoric, his opposition were similarly ensnared, searching, dissecting and hoping for the slip up that would stymie a politician who was seemingly exempt from the normal rules of engagement, one who’s entire campaign, being based on a foundation of saying that which no other serious politician could get away with saying. The effect of this, combined in the General Election with Hillary Clinton’s campaign allowing comparatively sparing exposure to the media for their candidate, was that Trump successfully made the election about himself. It is impossible to overstate how much this exposure must have aided the Trump campaign. It allowed them to drive the direction of the media news cycle, even as they criticised the media’s biases. In the world of American round-the-clock cable news channels such as Fox and CNN, the ability to dominate the 24 hour news cycle is the key to political self promotion, and it took Donald Trump from what was considered a joke candidacy to a very real presidency.
This polarizing, controversial approach to self-promotion may seem to be an unprecedented phenomenon in the modern political arena. However, there is an arena in which Trump’s strategy may seem more at home, and it’s located in the heart of Trump’s own home city of New York: Madison Square Garden. In a move that may have facilitated his campaign’s growth and eventual success, Donald Trump took to the political game with a strategy from the fight game. To anyone familiar with the publicity-seeking theatrics that fighters in sports such as boxing, or more recently mixed martial arts, have indulged in, Trump’s courting of controversy, and his entire combative persona, seemed familiar.
Perhaps the archetypal example of this approach is The Greatest himself, The Louisville Lip, the late Muhammad Ali. Although politically, it would seem that there was a vast gulf between the positions of the former champion and the future president, they were similar in one key area: the sales pitch. While Ali is eulogised as a universally beloved and charismatic figure, it bears remembering that in his time, Ali himself was a polarising, outspoken figure, roundly criticised in media circles for his conduct. His controversial conduct attracted many detractors as well as fans, but all the while, Ali’s profile rose, affording him more money, fame, and opportunities. It was Ali’s own braggadocious, outrageous, and often outright insulting rhetoric that garnered this attention, calling opponents everything from “bum”, to “embarrassment” to “ugly little man”. One could just as easily imagine the Trumpian epithets of “Crooked Hillary” or “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” coming in Ali’s trademark Kentucky drawl as in his own New York variant. The attention-grabbing, polarising “draw” of Ali and Trump was essentially the same, half of the people would tune in to see Ali victorious, the other to see him humbled. Regardless of their intent, their attention turned boxing in to The Muhammad Ali Show, and catapulted him to worldwide popularity. Both Trump and Ali perceived this simple truth; that nothing creates a platform like controversy.
Researching for this post saw me spending a great deal of time reading about people’s reactions to the Trump victory and campaign. One thread that was impossible to avoid were the accusations that Trump or his supporters were harbouring and encouraging implicitly fascistic elements. It was thus, appropriately, with Fascism on my mind that I began to examine potential thesis topics, and very quickly a question began to form in my mind. Hadn’t I heard a great deal of talk regarding Fascist connections when studying the modernists? As a Twentieth century movement, wouldn’t modernism have coexisted with the rise of Fascism in Europe? What connection might there be between the two contemporaneous movements? I decided to begin my examination at the point in study where I had first noted this connection, the works of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Studying Modernities naturally entails a heavy focus on 20th century material. When we think of Modernism, we may perhaps think of progressive influences such as the rise of feminist writing. However, as we all know, the early-to-mid 20th Century was the staging ground for a major surge of totalitarian politics pre-WWII. And actually, a lot of significant Modernist literature written during this period shows the distinct influence of these shifting political tides. From the preoccupation of the German National Socialists with Nietzschean ideas of the superman, Ezra Pound’s infatuation with Italian Fascism, I believe there is a significant connection between these contemporaneous movements. For my dissertation, it is my hope to explore these connections, and the parasitizing influence of Totalitarian thought on Modernism.
Modernism takes its influence from thought such as the Enlightenment, rooted in post-Christian values. Though the man himself would likely balk at being called a “modernist”, Late Romantic Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and his famous “God is Dead” dictum was an important contributor in the thrust towards modernism.
However, an examination of the perversion of Nietzsche’s legacy by Nazi propagandists illustrates my point regarding the corrupting influences of the fascist movement on art, literature, and philosophy, and shows how it could usurp the very roots and origins of modernism for its own ends, much as it could do to the movement proper.
Nietzsche’s philosophy, and in particular, his notorious “Ubermensch” or “Superman” concept have been burdened with an infamous connection with Fascism the pseudoscientific racial purity doctrines of German National Socialism. Nietzsche was massively popular in Germany in the 1920s and 30s, and upon rising to power, Adolf Hitler and his ilk used their forceful control of the media to lay claim to his legacy.
The enduring parallels drawn by the Nazi regime between Nietzsche’s “superman” and the idea of a “Master Race” illustrate the way in which the rising tide of totalitarianism in the first half of the 20th century fed off ideas in art, literature and philosophy of the time in order to propagate itself
As I researched the Fascist connection of Nietzsche’s work for the blog, I began to refine the focus of this potential thesis topic, honing in on the idea of totalitarianism parasitizing and appropriating art and literature in the name of propaganda and propagation. The natural next point of focus for my research, then, seemed to be the Italian Futurists, a modernist movement touched upon in our seminars that provides a more definitively Modernist example of the way in which Fascism subsumed such a movement.
Italian Futurism was founded by Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, author of the Futurist Manifesto, and founder the Futurist Political Party, which would go on to merge with the Italian Fascist Party of Benito Mussolini
Futurism was a movement that emphasised speed, technology, youth, and violence. Many Italian Futurists supported Fascism in the hope of modernizing a country divided between the industrialising north and the rural, archaic South. Like the Fascists, the Futurists were Italian nationalists, radicals, admirers of violence, and were opposed to parliamentary democracy.
Although Futurism became identified with Fascism, it did have leftist and anti-Fascist supporters, who opposed Marinetti’s artistic and political direction of the movement. Unfortunately, however, the anti-Fascist voices in Futurism were silenced with the annexation of Abyssinia and the Italo-German Pact of Steel in 1939
Marinetti made numerous moves to ingratiate himself with the regime, becoming less radical and avant-garde with each. He even sought to make Futurism the official state art of Fascist Italy, but failed to do so. Mussolini was personally uninterested in art. However, he chose to give patronage to numerous styles and movements in order to keep artists loyal to the regime. Mussolini recognised the value that contemporary, modern producers of art had to the fascist regime, and his patronage of movements such as Futurism is indicative of the manner in which Totalitarianism was and still is capable of parasitizing art and literature in order to grow.
By this point the process of blogging had allowed me to determine that the connection between Fascism and Modernism would indeed be my chosen thesis topic. I decided to continue to utilise the blog in order to develop concepts for the dissertation. On the topic of Italian Fascism, one significant modernist writer, Ezra Pound, notoriously entangled himself with that movement. Pound, who developed the style of Imagist poetry, was a major figure in early modernist literature. It was Pound who I chose to next incorporate into my thesis as evidence of Modernism’s connections to Fascism.
[Pound] serves as an example of a writer who, in contrast to Nietzsche being posthumously appropriated by Fascism, was personally drawn in by the ideas of the movement. Pound was disgusted by the carnage of the First World War. He came to believe that the cause of World War I was finance capitalism, which he called “usury”. He came to believe that Fascism was the ideal vehicle for the social reform needed to counter the ill of usury. This idea would later become overtly Anti-Semitic, as Pound characterised usury as a product of Jewish influence. On 30 January 1933 Pound met personally with Benito Mussolini. During the meeting Pound tried to present Mussolini with his economic ideas, but Mussolini brushed them aside, though he called the Cantos “entertaining”.
Despite this dismissive attitude, Pound was utterly taken by his meeting with Il Duce, proclaiming that “nobody seemed to GET his ideas as quickly”. Pound would go on to become an expatriate, relocating to Italy. During wartime, Pound would broadcast his own brand of pro-fascist propaganda over the State-controlled Rome Radio. Once again, we see the tendency for Fascism to absorb modernism into a propaganda apparatus of the state. The fact is that when the two movements dovetailed in the early-to-mid 20th Century, Fascism showed a capability to absorb, appropriate, and cannibalise Modernist works and authors to propagate its own agenda.
For the remainder of the blog, my focus was on developing the way I wrote regarding my chosen topic, “The Connections of Modernism to Fascism”, and fleshing out my arguments. In order to develop and illustrate the thrust of my idea, that Fascism has the ability to exploit weaknesses within modernism in order to usurp it, I decided to return to a more contemporary focus for my next post, a look at the contemporary political trend most associated with Fascism, the group known as the Alt-Right.
Thus far I’ve used this blog to explore the links of modernism to Twentieth century Fascist and Totalitarian political movements. It is my belief that modernism and the post-modern reaction that succeeded it are responsible for the underpinnings of much of our modern culture. If then, as the old idiom holds, politics is downstream from culture, then I believe it is an imperative to investigate and recognise the more totalitarian, anti-democratic facets of these movements, and thus glean a greater awareness of such potential tendencies within our own modern zeitgeist.
It might therefore be appropriate to examine a burgeoning movement within the modern political sphere which is often associated with Fascism, both by its detractors and many of its proponents: the so-called “Alt-Right”…
…While an examination of the politics of the Alt-Right may be distasteful, it is important that the origins of the movement be documented and examined, so that such a seemingly shocking development in contemporary politics can be better understood and contextualised. Certainly, I find it appropriate, given my area of study for my own dissertation, to bear in mind that the rise of Fascist-style politics was not some magical event, it was not unforeseeable, and its success in achieving political power did not defy understanding. If one examines the rhetoric of the Alt-Right regarding the political system, one phrase reoccurs with noticeable regularity: the concept of the “Overton Window”, the supposed range of political and ideological speech and thought which is deemed acceptable and valid within mainstream culture. A stated aim of Alt-Right groups is to shift this window to the right of the political spectrum, simultaneously legitimising currently taboo Far-Right ideas, and discrediting contemporarily popular left-wing values. This, to me, seems a key concept in understanding not just the Alt-Right, but the spread of Fascism in the 20th Century, and its interactions with Modernism. Using this struggle for strategic positioning in the ideological battlefield, the intention of Fascists both past and present is not to win the intellectual argument, but to position themselves through the proliferation of their ideas in the mainstream culture, and, culture being upstream from politics, in the corridors of power proper; there to use systematic power and authority to render mute their opponents, not through victory in debate, but through sheer political force. The modernists were keepers of the culture in the 20th Century. They inherited the role from the Romantics, just as many argued the Post-Modernists did from them, but during their tenure, there were those among their ranks who were co-opted, seduced, or merely convinced by the burgeoning Fascist movement into handing cultural power to those who would wield it as a tool of dominance, oppression, and ultimately atrocity. This is the crux of my area of study, that the fate of human history turned on the successful infiltration and appropriation of culture by totalitarianism. It is a moment in history which today’s political landscape can help us understand, and thus, crucially, a moment which could foreshadow the history yet to be written.
At the close of the blog, I attended the seminar given by Professor Graham Allen on Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and the novel Red Alert, by Peter George. In many ways, the figure of Strangelove in Kubrick’s film struck me as a perfect illustration of the issue which I was tackling throughout my blog and would be examining in my dissertation.
Strangelove’s character fits perfectly into my wider theme. He is the personification of the subversive Fascist, manipulating those around him while masking his true nature and intentions, while working to resurrect a totalitarian system in the post-Apocalypse. It is especially poignant that this resurrection occurs in the latter half of the 20th Century, after the defeat of the Axis powers. This captures the ultimate point of my thesis, that Fascism’s legacy is not necessarily consigned to the graveyard of history, so long as there exists a susceptibility in the culture to the totalitarian instinct.
Ultimately, the process of writing the blog was invaluable to my development of a thesis topic and the direction of the argument underlying it. The process allowed me a space to find my own voice and develop my own theories on the topic.