Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Black Friday and the Aesthetics of Fascism

Window-mounted cat beds, Amazon review: "It's been nine months and Tucker still loves this bed ten times more than anything else I've bought him." Image Source: Buzzfeed.

In North America, Thanksgiving weekend is the cornerstone of consumption-based capitalism. Thanksgiving is celebrated in the United States on the fourth Thursday in November, this year on November 22nd, followed by Black Friday and Cyber Monday, which have become pre-Christmas discounted shopping bonanzas. Stores are selling everything you could imagine, down to the window-mounted cat bed. This weekend is lucrative enough to tempt merchants in other countries to use the same gimmick to boost their fourth quarter sales.

Kohler Pedestal Sink. These sinks retail at Home Depot in the USA for USD $600-$800. Image Source: Miley Photos.

Essex Metal 24" Console Bathroom Sink with Overflow by Cheviot. Regular priced at Wayfair for CAD $830.25, on sale on Black Friday for CAD $584.99. Image Source: Cheviot.

Waldorf Ceramic 24" Wall Mount Bathroom Sink with Overflow by WS Bath Collections. Regular priced at Wayfair for CAD $1109.99, on sale on Black Friday for CAD $849.99. Image Source: homeclick.

This week, I saw some Black Friday examples which reminded me of an earlier commentary, Fascism at a Hairpin Turn. In a series of posts on this blog, I am considering how 1940s' fascism became a part of modern global culture in ways which are poorly understood. Above, are sinks by Kohler, Cheviot and WS Bath Collections. Kohler Co. was founded in Wisconsin in 1873 by Austrian Americans; it employs a sharp German aesthetic in its high end lavatory designs.

I was struck by the aesthetic similarity between today's sinks and 1940s' institutional sinks. Below, are sinks in an autopsy room and in another room from the French concentration camp near Strasbourg, Natzweiler-Struthof, where human experiments were conducted.

Sinks at Natzweiler-Struthof. Images Source: La Vie est Bonne.

Of course, sinks made outside fascist Europe in the 1940s would also resemble today's designs and their modernist style could be pre-World War II, derived from interwar Bauhaus. When I mentioned this similarity between past and present, my friend, C., said,
"The fascist aesthetic ... merged what ... [the fascists] wanted of [the] modern aesthetic (some aspects of architecture and NO aspect of the fine arts) and aspects of the neoclassic as well as empire styles, both of which were adopted as official styles by Napoleon's ... régime. ... Makes one think that everything that happened[,] including sinks, New York skyscrapers, and concentration camps were all a part of leaving the feudal system."
The Nazis definitely took that white porcelain neoclassical look and made it theirs. Going forward from 1945, there is no way a designer could be ignorant of that aesthetic reference when creating a consumer product in that style. This is why it was startling to see Nazi-esque sinks on sale on this Black Friday at Home Depot. I can't say that the example of the sinks proves anything in terms of demonstrable historical aesthetic lineage because I have not researched that. But it made me ask why and how that aesthetic has been absorbed into mainstream North American culture and values.

What is Fascism?

There has been a lot of talk lately about a resurgence of fascism. But what is fascism? For most people, the automatic definition refers to German Nazism. That is, fascism is state-sponsored oppression, surveillance, and hyper-control, driven by homogeneous identity politics. It involves breaking all rules of communal decency to create shock factors, enabling its proponents to kill or destroy their opponents. Fascists clear the political arena of heterogeneous voices and create an echo chamber to broadcast big lies about the survival of the nation. Fascist states destroy free speech with propaganda and censorship and legalize the murder of minorities. Fascists love big building projects as well as rapturous mass rallies, presided over by a single, charismatic leader.

I believe that fascism is a more complex phenomenon than these pragmatic descriptors. Fascism involves a phoenix-like shift to a different way of living and a distinct mentality. It comes in many guises, and can appeal to anyone. There are of course people who consciously choose to be newfangled fascists. But there are also people who are non-fascists who can start living in a fascistic way and believing fascist ideas without realizing what they are doing. They can also, just as quickly, revert to a more placid political stance.

In this post, I am describing aesthetics or behaviour which may be fascistic, or linked to the formative values of fascism. But that doesn't mean that people now relating to those aesthetics or behaviour are fascists.

Fascism and the Collective Unconscious: The Quasi-Fascistic Cultural Vaccine

It is important to reconsider what fascism is and to drop all preconceived ideas about it. I believe that fascism is a political institutionalization of the collective unconscious. Moreover, I think that many principles of 20th century fascism were absorbed into post-1945 lifestyle culture, in which one spends money on consumer goods and experiences to create a social ego. I described this trend in my post, Subliminal Slavery of the Subconscious Self.

Modern mass entertainment depends heavily on unconscious and subconscious tropes. Once you grasp this formula, it becomes possible to deconstruct celebrities. I don't mean who they are (or once were) as private people, but the public personas they create and inhabit. Many of them, especially A-listers, play roles of themselves as 'stars,' and each of those roles is an archetypal puppet-character of the unconscious, or what Freud would call the Id.

The highbrow artistic efforts which receive the most gushy, high-profile attention and are considered 'unique' and 'creative' are also often cardboard cut-out expressions of unconscious or subconscious ideas. Contemporary culture is like an kindergarten class for the masses on primordial fears and desires.

The Subliminal Slavery post explained how Austrian psychoanalysts after the war believed that fascism had released the suppressed Id or collective unconscious of repressed Christian societies, and, in moments of enantiodromia, allowed the shadow side of people's natures to take over their public selves.

In an American post-war attempt to stop fascism from reappearing, marketers and policy-makers built on this Austrian psychoanalytic interpretation to implement deliberate campaigns to allow people to constantly indulge aspects of the unconscious in small ways. In Christian America, these efforts were somewhat erroneously labeled as a promotion of vice. They did involve vice, but the original intention was never to let the pressure cooker blow its top off again in an overly-proper society. This is a curious assessment, considering that Weimar Germany was not that repressed, at least in Berlin.

At any rate, it was considered better in the post-war period to release tensions through popular access to drugs, sex, and simulated violence, with the harsh consequences removed as much as possible.

In the realm of bad ideas, this was a really bad idea. Conceptually, it was analogous to the idea of immunization, ingesting a bit of the disease you want to prevent in order to stop the disease itself.

The fascistic cultural vaccine was an experiment in unleashing the unconscious of the populace in dribs and drabs, instead of containing it, as the Roman Catholic Church had sought to do for centuries.

This experiment has infected all of global culture and unconscious elements and tropes are now considered the mainstream cultural norm. This whole exercise can be criticized rationally and non-prudishly given that it was a failure in terms of its original goal, namely, to stop fascism from reappearing. It failed because one cannot make the whole world quasi-fascistic and then be surprised when that world breeds fascists and fascism.

Fascism and Irresponsibility

The experiment failed on another count too, because it created irresponsible societies. It also destroyed general propriety and morality, but at this point, most people don't care about that. I would argue that irresponsibility is more toxic than immorality, because it encourages the second aspect of fascism: blindness to the meaning of one's actions.

In real fascism, there are consequences to one's actions; there are actual outcomes. There is violence in the streets. People die. In the post-1945 dulled-down vaccine version of quasi-fascistic impulses, actions were and are divorced from consequences. Responsibility is disconnected from intention. And yet, there are consequences to these indulgences. People become addicted. People go bankrupt. People die. For example, part of the anti-fascistic experiment was the promotion of cigarette smoking. Advertising campaigns - initially sanctioned by medical doctors! - which encouraged cigarette smoking from the 1950s through the 1980s led to rising cancer rates and consumers' deaths.

Fascism and Escalating Behaviour

Grant the unconscious dominance over social actions, and then divorce the unconscious from people's internal senses of guilt and responsibility, and you will get an escalation and intensification of behaviour.

That escalation is also fascistic. The usual definitions assume that fascists attack the unconventional, but I would argue that fascism indulges non-normative urges with whole-hearted and reckless abandon. The superficial control of uniformed fascism and its oppressive sameness is misleading. Contrary to appearances, fascism lets its proponents break all the rules.

Fascistic behaviour pairs mass conformity with a perverse kind of liberation, a regeneration and rebirth into a new shadow identity. The only rule is that you are not allowed to follow the old rules or conventions anymore. That's it. Beyond that, it is a free-for-all. The oppression comes in here, because fascism enforces that credo with ironclad seriousness and inner serenity. The fascist is finally freed to do the unthinkable. Those who dare to stay inside the old boundaries and count on the old measures of decency, safety and security are done for. The fascist will tolerate no fellow citizen who is a mirror of his or her former self as the journey inward begins.

Fascism and Repetition: Mimesis, Memes, Conformity, Copycatting

In a related post, Post-Apocalypse Rehab, I described how other researchers concluded that fascism is characterized by mimesis, conformity, and imitation. The idea is that in the fascist state, all the normal rules have broken down, so people do not know how to behave. In the absence of moral and social signposts, people look to the most self-assured and confident individuals in their social group or larger society. Regardless of what those individuals are doing, even if they are orchestrating genocide, average people will go along to get along, and will imitate and parrot whatever those individuals are doing or saying in order to survive.

The more out-of-control and threatened the average person feels in this all-bets-are-off zone, the more he or she will take cues from leading figures, and will repeat actions and ideas automatically. The more the individual does this, the more they feel empowered and in control of themselves and their environment again. In fact, what is happening is that they are spiraling more and more out of control. In future posts, I will discuss whether Internet memes are part of this phenomenon.

Fascism: Illusion, Delusion, Inverted Meanings and Cognitive Dissonances

Thus, fascism also involves an element of deliberate blindness to the true meaning of one's actions and an inversion of values.

Fascists think they are saving themselves when they are in fact destroying themselves and others. Values are inverted under fascist conditions; real security would require doing the opposite of whatever action feels most safe. This goes against all human instincts in a dangerous situation.

Rational thoughts and values are also decoupled from basic instincts and actions of the Id. The fascist is almost like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He thinks he is doing something good, when he is actually doing terrible things, and he becomes unable or unwilling to see the true meaning of his actions. This is partly because the fascist's 'good' is so closely associated with, (1) the survival of a triggered ego in a state of extreme defensiveness, who is doing all the talking and providing social excuses in situations where there are no more rules; and (2) an unfettered subconscious self, who is doing all the acting. In some cases, the fascist blinds himself to his responsibility and guilt. In others, he is aware he is committing crimes, but he takes an ends-justify-the-means stance.

For the fascist's battered and beleaguered ego, anything bad that may ensue from this catastrophe of the unleashed unconscious is still good, as long as it preserves the ego's illusory control, and ensures the continued survival of the individual ego, projected onto the group ego.

The Reverse Psychology of Black Friday

Of course, in identifying various fascistic themes related to Black Friday, I am not saying that shoppers or businesses are fascists or overtly fascistic in any way. I am saying that fascistic elements are at play in the buying sprees, from the aesthetics of the stuff up for sale, to the compulsion to buy, to the way the consumers pay for those sprees.

Personal loans secured against residential real estate in Canada (2012-2017). Image Source: Better Dwelling via Vancouver Real Estate Anecdote Archive. See Canadian government information on this trend, here and here.

The shopping model in mainstream America is the sprawling warehouse, the suburban box store. One of these companies, Home Depot, is devoted to home improvement. Renovations are big business, and not just because of conspicuous consumption. In the USA and Canada, Home Depot offers loans up to USD $55,000 and CAD $50,000 respectively to fix up a house. That is really sobering, when you consider that Home Depot is just a store. It's not a bank. It's not an institution. It's a franchise chain, which like many other stores, is stepping into the financial sector to loan consumers huge amounts of money when the banks will not. Or more likely, these are banks, masquerading as stores, since the financial side of these loans is handled by them anyway.

Home improvement sounds superficial and cosmetic, an endeavour devoted to keeping up with the neighbours and the latest fads, but it isn't. The home-owners who survived the 2010s' housing crisis are stuck. Since the crisis, debt-burdened consumers relied on the equity on their houses as their main store of wealth and they borrowed against that store to make ends meet. The value of houses declines over time unless renovations are done. Heavily mortgaged properties must be kept up to maintain their value. To do that, consumers borrow more, ironically and tragically against those very properties. With the usual Millennial inverted meanings at work, where conspicuous consumption once indicated a display of wealth, it now reveals the consumer's degree of indebtedness. This is the dirty little secret that will not be coming up at lavish holiday house parties.

All of this reflects the subtle reversal of former western positives, still deeply ingrained in reflexive assumptions and social conditioning.

The whole attempt to make a property picture perfect opposes the ephemeral Japanese ethos of wabi-sabi. From Wiki:
"The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is 'imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete'. It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法印 sanbōin), specifically impermanence (無常 mujō), suffering (苦 ku) and emptiness or absence of self-nature (空 ). Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes. ... For Richard Powell, 'Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.'"
In other words, not Home Depot. Nor is wabi-sabi the aesthetic of another American home reno box store, Lowe's, which markets itself under the perfectionist motto, "Never Stop Improving." Lowe's started as a hardware store in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, USA in 1921. It is now a conglomerate with assets of USD$35.29 billion. It has sucked a lot of wealth out of the sector it claims to be improving.

Mass-produced wabi-sabi, supposedly an anti-perfectionist aesthetic revealing the homeowner's greater personal authenticity, is being implemented with the usual western hard-headed perfectionism. The Website, Italian Bark, explains how to make your house look like a rotted out warehouse or put up peeled turquoise wall finish. Image Source: SH Interiors.

When these businesses promote an aesthetic like wabi-sabi, their aim is to mass produce and monetize it, which is why across North America, people are buying brand new furniture and rugs which look like they've been moldering in a shuttered garage for forty years. This western Post-Postmodernism takes the aesthetic of 'living in harmony with nature' and produces 'uniqueness' and 'harmony' on an industrial scale. Western wabi-sabi perfects the art of making things look imperfect.

Even with all this wrong-headedness about what organically-generated, true Japanese wabi-sabi actually is, industrialized wabi-sabi accurately reflects conflicted collective unconscious feelings around wealth and its decay. The fad of this broken down quasi-Japanese aesthetic is all the more ironic, given that it is punctuated with Nazi-esque bathroom sinks.

There are many such mixed messages in the housing sector. The whole notion of property as an established, fixed possession has been transformed into something malleable, rebrandable by marketers and stylists, an exploitable commodity that is no longer a safe shelter. The house is not a home, rather a place where value must be continually added and stored to obscure the hideous truth that properties are being turned into great caverns of debt. The illusions of stable wealth, independence, freedom, associated with home ownership persist, but the reality is that houses are fast becoming the preserves and properties of everyone but the homeowners.

Thus, homeowner debt is not a measure of the vanities of suburbanites. Rather, it reveals a titanic struggle on the part of individual citizens to retain and regain wealth that is slipping through their fingers, with the only tool available to do it rapidly, namely, with debt, the wealth destroyer.

It's hard for the mind to overcome the constant reinforcement of contradictions. Yes-No. Rich-Poor. Past-Present. Ideal-Reality. Everything that once represented security is now a liability. The monuments we erect to permanence confirm our transience.

That tension between illusion and reality is fundamental to everything that ails us. One of my earlier posts, Bitcoin: Economy of the Eternal Now, suggested that technology is forcing us to pivot so that we can no longer borrow against future hopes and dreams, and fashion a castle in our minds while ignoring the present. But I would argue further that that instability, masquerading as stability, is one of the fundamental precepts of fascism, as is the confusion about what lucrative purchases really mean, when they are bankrolled by negative equity.

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