Category Archives: Tradition

Marxist Conservatism

One ought to recognize in the Marxist critique of capitalism a covert loyalty to an antecapitalist community. Marx was too sophisticated, too urbane to throw in his lot with those he dismissed as utopian socialists, yet, as his early writings show, his animus against capitalism derived, like theirs, from a reaction against capitalism’s desecration–desacralization–of traditional, patriarchal norms. He was, at heart a romantic reactionary, but forced by intellectual vanity to give his anticapitalism an avant-garde “progressive” cover, a project facilitated by the mental suppleness he absorbed from Hegelian dialectics.

If this covert nostalgia for the predeluvian past at the heart of Marxism is acknowledged, then the tendency of communist revolutions to bring to power archly paternal figures like the Man of Steel and the Great Helmsman can be appreciated as preservative of an ancient notion of regality. In effect, communism was able to give an absolutism threatened by the encroaching democratic corruption a new lease on life, thus safeguarding in distorted but still recognizable form the authority of the Great Father. Insofar as masculinity and what today is disparaged as “authoritarianism” are essentially the same thing, communism can be credited with having found a way to reinvent heroic virility as a modern virtue. This is why the monuments and edifices that remain from the Stalinist era, despite efforts to dismiss them as bombastic anachronisms or icons of “totalitarianism,” are paragons of aesthetic probity compared to the hysterically performative structures to which the postmodern cult of lameness has accustomed us.

Communism ultimately failed because, like modernism in general, it could not sustain the contradiction of attempting a modern, secular, humanist revival of a world that modernity, secularism, and humanism had destroyed. Nonetheless, the passing of modernism has left a void because modernism, for all its paradoxes, was the last heroic gesture that a senescent Western civilization was capable of before it completely surrendered to flaccidity.

Midas Touch

Art has always served power but in the premodern period, power, though associated with wealth was not its product. Contemporary power is corporate. It is the power of dead capital, which means that we are subjects not of the Sun King or the Pope but of the nameless, seemingly contingent forces that rule the global economy. This is a power that art is hard-pressed to exalt. The real story of modern art, once one gets past the self-heroicizing bluster of the avant-garde, is the story of the difficulties that had to be surmounted (the craft that had to be forgotten, the qualms that had to be allayed) before art could be sufficiently debased to serve capital.

For art to serve capital, it had to develop the means to give vacuity the appearance of effervescence. And beyond that, it had to develop means to glorify a wholesale inversion of values. Adapting to an ugly age, art learned to glorify ugliness. Adapting to a materialist age from which the sacred had been banished, it learned to glorify superficiality. Adapting to an age of diminished men, it learned to glorify stunted tastes and feelings. Adapting to an age in which the worship of technology had nullified virility, it learned to glorify effeminacy, lameness, and confusion. Adapting to an age “emancipated” from patriarchy, it learned to glorify perpetual adolescence, impotent rebellion, and formlessness. At every step, these adaptations had to overcome the resistance of artists, intellects, standards of taste and probity that retained some filiation with nobility. Finally, with the advent of postmodernism, a succession of triumphs over every lingering trace of decency was consolidated under a rubric that apotheosisized perversion and made an explicit principle out of the elevation of the marginal.

With each step forward into debasement, the diminution of quality has been accompanied by an expansion of quantity until, today, the term art is applied to the slightest affectation. We are now drowning in the excreta of swarms of “performative” mountebanks. Everything today is tainted by “art.” It is as if we are afflicted by the modern equivalent of the Midas touch–now revealed to be the curse of the total commodification of the world and the transformation of everything in it into a hectoring signifier of exchange value.

The deeper meaning of this wholesale artification of the late modern world is that it is driven by the need to aestheticize spiritual, cultural, and artistic degeneration, making the evil consequences of capital’s dominion appear deliberate, provocative, transgressive.

This is the fundamental mystication that underlies all modern “countercultural” ideologies. Thus, capital’s desecration of sex and sexuality is given the cover of a rebellion against “heteronormative” and patriarchal strictures. The destruction of tradition and the banalization of every aspect of existence are given avant-garde lustre. And, finally, every possible degeneration of taste, manners, and character is affirmed as “progressive,” so that the fatuous notion of progress becomes a synonym for civilizational putrefaction.

Formalism

One can grant that formalism once served a purpose as a bourgeois antidote to the bourgeois moralism that threatened to envelop art from the moment it was “emancipated” from aristocratic patronage and became a signifier of bourgeois elevation. The limitation of formalism has always been that it could never be more than a secular stopgap against the profanation of art. In this, it is of a piece with Kant’s overall attempt to rationalize tradition, without his comprehending the violation that such a rationalization would inflict on the rationalized principles, whose authority is either absolute (and inhuman) or else nonexistent. All of formalism’s notorious blindspots, starting with Kant’s ridiculous notion of disinterested judgement issue from this misguided effort.

The economic stakes involved in the game of art should by now be sufficiently evident to not require more than a mention. Yet formalist discourse withholds even a mention. It completely forecloses any hint that the work of art circulates as a commodity. The aesthetic object (which only becomes an aesthetic object after formalist discourse has succeeded in dislocating it from any context other than that of its connection with other such dislocated objects) undergoes an isolation that forces its meaning to depend on a wordless communion with a subject who is conceived as equally removed from any symbolic network. Once this operation is accomplished, all manner of ineffable qualities can be found in the object corresponding exactly to the investment that went into ripping it out of its context. In other words, what the formalist worships in pure form is his own capability to abduct the object from every relationship other than with himself. Pure form is the mediating term of narcissism.

That the formal qualities of an object structure its meaning is not to be disputed but form has meaning within an intersubjective (social, cultural) context. The discourse of beauty never takes us far here because beauty only indicates the effectiveness of the Gestalt, the lure. This lure only has a purpose within a structure that structures a subject to be caught by it. The object is the embodiment of a pact, which as Lacan never ceases to insist, is what every symbol is first and foremost. Ranciere’s hallowed statue of Athena is erected and placed in a temple to reinforce the group identity of the Athenian citizenry–which is why the looting and destruction of temples and public monuments is one of the priorities of conquering armies to this day.

Panofsky defined art as consisting of objects that “demand” to be considered aesthetically. But if objects demand anything, it is because they are apprehended as speech, which always calls for a response. This is what formalism does not want to know, in so far as it wants to preserve the aesthetic object in its alienation as the mirror image of the self, a self already conceived as an object, an ego–so that the aesthetic experience can then take place as an encounter between objects. For it is only as a relationship between objects, both mortified to the point of inertness, that one can postulate the disinterest of disinterested contemplation.

What we encounter in formalism is in fact typical of modern anti-modern ideologies, which recoil from the banality of modernity but are compelled to oppose this banality in modern terms (i.e. on rational, secular grounds) because they dare not affirm tradition.

Identity Fetish

Modernity is anonymizing, atomizing, patricidal. It involves a vast uprooting from land and community, an unmooring from all the coordinates that used to sustain a sense of orientation and self-worth. The modern fetishization of identity is an attempt to replace by self-nomination what used to be assigned by fate, caste and tradition. It is a poor replacement, as evidenced by the violence with which these synthetic identities need to be continuously asserted.

While it is fashionable to equate contemporary identitarianism with a renewal of tribalism, the analogy does not bear examination. In the tribal unit, identity is bestowed by the tribe and marked by rituals that firmly establish the subjugation of the individual to the larger entity. In contrast, self-declared, voluntary identities are narcissistic declarations of exemption from both reality and social obligation. Nothing could be more removed from the spirit of tribalism and its reverence for tradition and ancestral authority than the glorification of childish identities cobbled together from self-aggrandizing phantasms.

Rather than a “regression” to tribalism, identitarianism symptomizes in the form of mass psychosis the advance of the social disintegration inaugurated by modernity.

Masochists

Art history is fiction, a compilation of nice stories people tell themselves because they want to believe that there is a logic, a progression, that links one style or trend to the next. There is indeed a logic, but it is a crude one, too crude to ever concern professional art historians. The logic of art history is determined by whatever at any given time and place captivates the rich and powerful. It is solely their whims that art, understood only as art, signifies.

The problem for the modern artist is that the rich and powerful no longer actually voice their whims or explicitly direct the artist to do their bidding. On the contrary, they insist that the artist should be solely guided by his vision, even to the point of appearing to be contemptuous of bourgeois taste. Like game fishermen, they want the fish they hook to give them a fight. In reality, no transgression that articulates itself within the frame of art can in any way threaten the bourgeoisie because bourgeois taste is quintessentially a taste for vapid novelty. Shocking the bourgeoisie and pandering to it have always been one and the same thing. Hence the masochism that characterizes the avant-garde’s most “radical” gestures. The performance art of the last 50 years or so (actually going all the way back to Dada) is full of spectacles of artists subjecting themselves to torturous and debasing ordeals. Why? Because the closest that art can come to stating the truth about itself in the modern era is to repetitively stage its own debasement, beyond which it cannot advance. A positive art, a sacred art, would be an art that served a consecrated culture and would therefore be an art that no longer had the qualities we associate with art since it would be bereft of the false autonomy of bourgeois art. The condition of art today reflects the impossibility of either art or the society that encloses it achieving sacredness. Instead, they both dwell in banal sacrilege, and art is forced to vomit as aesthetic spectacle the evidence of its impotence.

The very notion of history is a product of the profanation of culture. For history embodies a linear notion of time that marks the loss of contact with the eternal, which is radically timeless. Sacred art has no history. It does not progress. It can only be incorporated into art history once it has become a dead thing, a husk abandoned by the spirit.

Phantom

This “Cultural Marxism” that conservatives like to invoke as the source of every cultural outrage is really just a mask for the anti-cultural agency of capitalism itself. Progressivism has always nicely aligned with capitalism’s drive to dismantle all traditions that impede the absolute supremacy of money. This is why patriarchy and masculinity are objects of unrelenting progressive assault. For money to rule without restriction, all residual patriarchal notions of honor and integrity had to be discredited as outdated and oppressive. Unable or unwilling to comprehend what Marx had already figured out by 1848, that capitalism profanes everything formerly holy and turns everything solid “into air,” the right responds by invoking nostalgia for a slightly less developed less-monopolistic capitalism and wishing for the restitution of pre-1960s ideals of masculinity. Someone like Jordan Peterson, for instance, is reduced to advising his readers to clean up their rooms, stand straight, and refrain from telling untruths, advice that any schoolmarm might in the past have dispensed. He too rails against “Cultural Marxism,” but avoids noticing how well the evil designs of this phantom Cultural Marxism mesh with the requirements of corporate-driven consumerism: how, for instance, feminist and queer claims about the constructedness of gender feed into making gender a commodity, how the conscription of women into the labor force has undercut wages and benefited corporations, how identity politics has fractured the working class and disabled its resistance to capitalism.

So the net effect of “Cultural Marxism” has actually been to further entrench the globalist corporate order. Where is the “Marxism” in that?

Indefensible

An authentic traditionalist has to be willing to accept that tradition is in modern terms indefensible. The modern mind is a stunted apparatus that can only acknowledge and comprehend what is measurable. The eternal verities transmitted by tradition will not fit into the confines of this apparatus and would only be nullified by any attempt to force them into it.

In the same way that tradition is rationally indefensible, modernity and its abominations are rationally irrefutable since today reason has at its disposal only the vocabulary of utilitarianism. It is, for instance, pointless to look to genetics to disprove the pernicious doctrine of the social construction of “identity” because that doctrine is itself but one expression of the instrumental outlook upon which modern science is founded. After all, it is science itself that provides the surgical and pharmacological means to alter gender and, beyond that, the means to artificialize the human organism at the cellular level. These means today are glorified as “empowering,” as demonstrating our overcoming of the harsh cultural boundaries that hedged in our benighted ancestors. But what they actually indicate is the toxicity of modern science, whose effect is to render us ever more artificial and, therefore, ever more fragile. Thus, what we misconstrue as empowerment is actually the enlargement of our susceptibility to extinction.

Faith in tradition seeks no modern validation because it is fully cognizant of modernity’s evanescence. The freak menagerie assembled by modernity is not a harbinger of the future but an indication that modernity has no future. What will refute modernity will be its own perishing. Indeed, is modernity anything but a perishing?

Validation

The empirical validation of some fragmentary remnant of tradition always comes too late and counts for very little. This is because the truth of tradition is eternal, i.e. outside duration, invariant, primordial, whereas empiricism is always bound by the limited interval of observation and can never prove or disprove any principle that operates in cycles of a breadth that exceeds that interval. The modern conceit is that whatever resides outside the possibility of phenomenal observation is unknowable. It ignores and devalues faculties receptive to other, and superior, forms of knowledge. Consequently, there is something childlike about the enthusiasm that greets the occasional scientific validation of some truth that tradition understood implicitly, as if tradition had all these millennia been waiting for modern science to come along and give it a proper grounding. For instance, one can only be amused by the importance currently assigned to the scientific validation of sexual difference, a validation utterly trivial when compared to the vastly richer knowledge of sexual difference and its implications available to the ancients.

The wisdom of tradition is not amenable to empirical validation. Today, this wisdom can only reveal itself negatively, via the dismal consequences of what has replaced it.