Somewhere around 1880, Western Civ died.
Lots of folks thought so at the time, anyway, and this attitude produced the aesthetic we variously call Decadence, aestheticism, the Fin de siècle, etc., depending on which aspect of it you’re emphasizing. You know the kind of thing I mean:
You might not recognize the artist (Aubrey Beardsley), but you know the style. Decadence (or whatever) is like pr0n — you know it when you see it. Modern life is anonymous, mechanical, and meaningless, these guys argued, and so there’s nothing left but art for art’s sake. It can look spectacular — Edward Burne-Jones posters are on every other dorm room wall in America for a reason — but it’s ultimately empty.
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
as a Decadent throwback once put it.
So, too, with their politics, and here’s where it gets interesting. The Fin de siècle was in love with cloak-and-dagger stuff. Unshaven black-clad anarchists rioting made Advanced Thinkers moist back then, just as it does now — there’s a reason the Campus Ches and Trust Fund Trotskies all talk like Haymarket Square was just yesterday. Then as now, they’re in love with the style, the gesture, the look. It’s cosplay politics — despite the wishcasting of Progressive historians (BIRM), there was no real danger of Western Europe going communist at the turn of the 20th century. The Revolution happened in Russia for a reason — it’s so far out in Western Civ’s suburbs that it’s practically Mongolia.
History goes in cycles, you know? We’re 17 years past the turn of the 21st century, but we’re most definitely living in a Fin de siècle culture. Modern life is anonymous, mechanical, and meaningless, all right — back then it was factory work, today it’s retweets and thumbs-ups, but the dynamic is exactly the same. And so is the response. Our politics is all cosplay, too. It’s entirely gestural. What does this….organism….want?
Xzhe doesn’t know, any more than this guy does:
They’re just gesturing frantically, trying to hold back the dark with funny costumes and rhyming slogans.
And that’s problematic, as the kids these days say, because if we’re condition to think of politics as nothing but gestures — and again, describe one substantive policy proposal either of those two geeks has — then the best-dressed gesturer wins. And we know who does great with uniforms, armbands, slogans, torchlight parades…..