By: Riley Walker
This is not Nuremberg. I am not, as fun as it would be, preparing an elaborate indictment of Operation Paperclip, and I am not attempting some McCarthyist character assassination. This is Wetlands, and we’re here to talk about sex, gender, and bodies. Unfortunately, as Carol Hanisch pointed out in 1969, things like bodies and sex can rarely, if ever, escape the realm of politics. In this post, I’m going to play a variation on a theme composed by the habitual heretic and consummate critic, Susan Sontag and demonstrate the pervasive plasticity of damaging ideologies such as patriarchy and fascism.
In 1974, Sontag, living in Paris, encountered two books which prompted her to write the essay which provides our embarkation point. The essay can be found here: Fascinating Fascism, courtesy of the New York Review of Books. The first book is a book of photographs of an African tribe by Nazi propagandist and later avant-garde darling Leni Reifenstahl, entitled The Last of the Nuba. Though it is seemingly another modernist consolatory elegy on the loss of a society we would call primitive, Sontag would have us view the book as a continuation of Riefenstahl’s prolific career in Nazi propaganda. Sontag says “Although the Nuba are black, not Aryan, Riefenstahl’s portrait of them evokes some of the larger themes of Nazi ideology: The contrast between the clean and the impure, the incorruptible and the defiled, the physical and the mental, the joyful and the critical.” These values are based in a fundamental binary code, and, much like patriarchal conceptions of gender, are part of the process that keeps Hegel’s master/slave dialect an operational social force.
Riefenstahl finds the Nuba worthy of celebration because of her grounding in Nazi ideology, and it is apparent through the cultural traditions she chooses to elevate. Sontag draws our attention to the loving way Riefenstahl depicts the Nuba ritual of wrestling, representing as it does the “unifying symbols of communal culture—where success in fighting is the ‘main aspiration of a man’s life.”’ Sontag also points out how Riefenstahl glorifies Nuba culture for its patriarchy, using Riefenstahl’s own words to demonstrate how feminine sexual desire is sublimated into appreciation of the spectacle of male wrestling matches. Finally, the last enumerated quality Riefenstahl admires in the Nuba is their passive acceptance of death as a “matter of fate.”
“Fascist art,” Sontag says, “glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death.” The direction, which I do not intend to follow, that Sontag takes this line of thought is to analyze the aesthetic characteristics of fascist art in conjunction with the performance of sadomasochism. Fascist aesthetics, dependent as they are on the “containment of vital forces,” represent something alien to the new consumer capitalist ideology which prevailed, in the West, over fascism after the Second World War. Where fascism is a highly repressive and simplified expression of the Hegelian master/slave dialect, the society most of us were raised in is one of superabundance, where we are encouraged not to sublimate our desires in favor of prescribed virtues, but instead to indulge our desires to unattainable satiety.
If our capitalistic society resists the reductionism and containment of fascism, how does the master/slave cycle remain relevant in our society? Return, for a moment, to Riefenstahl’s celebration of Nuba culture—their glorification of the physicality of masculinity expressed in violence and competition, their redirection of feminine sexuality into chaste, submissive appreciation, their passive acceptance of death. These values are not inherently fascist. They have been a part of medieval societies, communist societies, colonial societies… These are inherently patriarchal values. Fascism, then, is not just a specific ideology located in history, but the monstrous face of a homogenous patriarchy. In this sense, a tendency to reduce to fascism is inherent in almost every interaction between people and institutions and across cultures from redlining in the insurance industry to slut-shaming in your high school.
Sontag does not allow fascism as much fluidity in expression as I do here, but she does presuppose my argument to some extent. She says, near the end of her essay, in a discussion on sadomasochism, “The fad for Nazi regalia indicates something quite different: a response to an oppressive freedom of choice in sex (and in other matters), to an unbearable degree of individuality; the rehearsal of enslavement rather than its reenactment.” Capitalism, to a certain extent, has created markets where before there were none, even markets for sexual titillation and vicarious thrill. Sontag claims, regarding Nazi symbolism (jackboots, black leather, swastikas, etc.) in sadomasochism that “Never before was the relation of masters and slaves so self-consciously aestheticized.” Maybe it was never so aestheticized before, but it definitely has been after.
Anyone not currently running adblocking software on their web browser knows that every imaginable category of female body (nude or otherwise) has been photographed, photo-shopped, and otherwise manipulated to support prevailing heterosexual social conventions for female appearance and propped up at the altar of instant (male) gratification. Never before has the illusion of dominance, of power, been so accessible. We have the ability to see any imaginable combination of sexually stimulating situations, and it’s not limited to the internet. Television sitcoms and Hollywood romcoms are guilty of aestheticizing female submission to the male gaze. Child beauty pageants help parents encourage their kids to adopt this perspective. If fascism requires some “Super Spectator” who holds all the power, this particular avatar of fascism allows us to simulate the ultimate authority. We can stop, play, rewind, or skip ahead to the good parts, all the while without any the burden of any real power.
Which is why this post is not Nuremberg. It is not my intent to put everyone I know on trial, nor is this the intention of feminism or Wetlands Magazine. Rather, I think it important to understand the mechanics behind the perpetuation of fascist aesthetics and damaging dialectics, that we may work toward an equitable, sustainable, and peaceful society.