By Kyle Craig
Emergent Conversation 17
This essay is part of the series PoLAR Online Emergent Conversation on Aesthetics and Politics of Far Right Movements
This Emergent Conversation brings together global, interdisciplinary perspectives on the role aesthetic expressions and practices play in shaping, maintaining, reviving, and promulgating right-wing, authoritarian, and populist politics. Much of the scholarship on the recent rise of international right-wing movements has examined the economic, religious, and cultural processes that lay the foundations of such movements. Less critical attention has been paid to how everyday people, authoritarian strongmen, and everyone in-between feel, experience, and do politics through aesthetic forms that imbue those politics with meaning and potentiality. Aesthetics are fertile ground for cultivating right-wing agendas. Without closely examining them, we risk reinforcing a misleading distinction between supposedly “real” politics and a world of mere representations (Butler 1999). It is not that politics have aesthetic qualities, but rather that aesthetics are politics. As anthropologist Jessica Winegar recently noted, we continue to take the aesthetic for granted at our peril (Winegar 2022).
This series casts a wide analytical net to capture a diverse range of definitions and locations of aesthetics and their unfolding in right-wing, authoritarian, and populist contexts. Essays in this collection examine aesthetics in relation to style or arts and cultural productions, practices, and expressions, showing how they are co-constitutive of national imaginaries, class subjectivities, truth and fiction, temporalities, and desires. The collection also brings into relief how affects, judgments, and gestures involving the senses and “the sensible” in everyday life act as modes of knowing, embodying, and acting out right-wing struggles for power (Rancière 2010, Mookherjee 2011).
The first collection in this series presents three perspectives on how aesthetics give force to right-wing politics in spectacular and banal ways that are nonetheless powerful in their allure and capacity to shape action. Joseph Moore examines how, through a complex and unorthodox set of aesthetic rituals and practices, self-described “sovereign citizens” in the US reject the legitimacy of the US government to exert legal authority over them. William H. Westermeyer discusses how visual art and sartorial choices shape what one might call experiences of “mutuality” among members of the US-based Tea Party Movement by ordering contemporary right-wing grievances and ideology into shared revisionist narratives of the country’s founding (see Hage 2012, Jazeel and Nayanika 2015). Finally, Krisztina Fehérváry investigates how Hungary’s right-wing nationalist and religious groups promote their agendas by linking them with the country’s decades-old Organicist aesthetic and its attendant positive sentiments—an aesthetic originally developed to replace “ugly” Soviet architecture.
The second part of this series sheds light on the cultivation and mobilization of right-wing aesthetic politics across digital spaces. Natasha Raheja and Ghazal Asif Farrukh’s essay examines the recent circulation of internet memes debasing Pakistani politicians by depicting them as Hindu gods. While such memes reflect longstanding efforts to excise Hindu minority communities from the Pakistani national body, Raheja and Farrukh argue, these memes also demonstrate intimate knowledge of Hindu iconography and cosmology that “emerge from within the hauntings of an interreligious milieu.”
Gabriel Bayarri Toscano and Concepción Fernández-Villanueva (forthcoming) draw attention to the widespread appeal of the superhero genre as source material for expressing support for far-right politicians. Memes depicting far-right leaders as heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) glamorize the far-right—both figuratively and visually through the aesthetics of “shine”—by exploiting popular depictions of superheroes as benevolent figures with a divine duty to protect the helpless masses through unabating masculinist violence.
Robert Imre and Attila Kustán Magyari discuss the digital circulation of images of the map of greater Hungary before its division following the signing of the Trianon Treaty after WWI. Imre and Magyari suggest that right-wing groups and the ruling Fidesz party use the ubiquity of the map in the Hungarian public sphere to promote their aspirations for expanding Hungarian territory while promoting an extremely narrow ethnoreligious and ethnoracial vision of national belonging.
Together these contributions to Part 2 of this ongoing series distinctly question what taking digital aesthetic practices such as meme production and circulation seriously can tell us about the banal or even playful qualities of spectacularly violent forms of world-building. More broadly, these essays complicate romantic framings of digital media as liberating technologies, underscoring cyberspace as one site of political struggle in a mutually reinforcing relationship with other spaces.
Because the study of aesthetics and right-wing political movements is developing rapidly, this conversation is truly emergent, and we encourage authors to submit to the discussion. At the present moment of rising global authoritarianism, anthropologies of far-right aesthetics and affect are critically important. New contributions will be considered and published on a rolling basis in the form of short essays (1000-2500 words) as well as multi-media explorations, such as photo essays, short ethnographic films, or podcast episodes. To contribute to this series, please submit abstracts of 250 words to Kyle Benedict Craig (firstname.lastname@example.org). Authors will be notified of a decision within a week of submission.
Kyle Craig is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern University. His dissertation, based on ethnographic fieldwork in Amman, Jordan, examines the intersections of graffiti/street artists’ visions of the ideal future city, neoliberal logics of urban development, and state governance of public aesthetics. As a PoLAR Digital Editorial Fellow, Kyle is curating the series The Aesthetic Politics of Far Right Movements, which focuses on the under-examined topic of how aesthetic expressions and practices give form to right-wing, authoritarian, and populist politics across the globe. If you would like to contribute to this series, reach out to him at: email@example.com.
Butler, Judith. 1999. Gender Trouble: Tenth Anniversary Edition. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203902752.
Hage, Ghassan. 2012. “The Everyday Aesthetics of the Lebanese Transnational Family.” In ASA Firth Lecture. https://www.theasa.org/publications/firth.shtml.
Jazeel, Tariq and Nayanika Mookherjee. 2015. “Aesthetics, Politics, Conflict.” Journal of Material Culture 20(4): 353-359. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1359183515607249?journalCode=mcua;
Mookherjee, Nayanika. 2011. “The Aesthetics of Nations: Anthropological and Historical Approaches.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17(s1): S1–20. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9655.2011.01686.x.
Rancière, Jacques. 2010. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Winegar, Jessica. 2022. “The Continued Search for Dignity and the Allure of Authoritarian Aesthetics.” Social Science Research Council, February 22, 2022. Accessed February 23, 2022. https://items.ssrc.org/10-years-after-the-arab-spring/the-continued-search-for-dignity-and-the-allure-of-authoritarian-aesthetics/.
There is one comment
wondering why Trump’s ethics are trashy and his aesthetics are trashy too — what is the connection between gilt furniture and beauty queens and being a fascist? I think it may have to do with how fascists see the world. He doesn’t look at a room as a place where you might enjoy living, a comfort when you are grieving, a place celebration with friends or playing with kids. He views it as a way to impress people as idiotic and emotionally stunted as himself. He doesn’t view a woman’s face as the repository of a soul but as a way to prove to his Dad that he is manly enough to “get” a woman — so he doesn’t care if her eyes are dead-bored or invisible behind a mask of make-up. You all should write something about heterosexual kitsch. And Zionist kitsch.