Fascism Among Us: Susan Sontag’s “Fascinating Fascism” and Modern Sexual Politics

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.

7 thoughts on “Fascism Among Us: Susan Sontag’s “Fascinating Fascism” and Modern Sexual Politics

  1. I like the thought that ideas can become inheritable and adaptable. It makes an intuitive sense to me that an idea such as patriarchy or fascism can be transmittable, mutable, and very much alive, in the sense that it possesses continuity and yet is necessarily subject to progress, or at least, change.

  2. Great post Riley! I’ve just got a few thoughts, love to open a bit of a debate about this:

    (This became away too much of a TLDR, so skip to the last few paragraphs for the gist of it)

    I don’t think I would say that fascism is inherently patriarchal, but rather the other way around. I don’t think there is inherently anything patriarchal, or even sexual, in the fascist aesthetic of domination and submission, best articulated by Hegel’s dialectic and his theorization on Absolute Spirit.

    If fascism is the desire for power, here articulated by Michel Foucault in his introduction to Deleuze and Guattari’s “Anti-Oedipus,” that it is primarily the pursuit of power inside of all of us which causes us to love power in the first place, to desire the very thing which inevitably denies us our pleasure, I think patriarchy necessarily follows, and not the other way around. Stick with me a minute:

    Patriarchy, generally, is the normative elevation of “masculine” values, however defined, above “feminine.” It presuposses and constructs the binary that you correctly identify as one which channels violent and masculine values into a form of expression and redirects femininity into “chaste” and suppressed expression. But I think this stems from a deeper desire for power, and even a certain desire for oppression (on both the part of patriarchs and those whom they oppress) than it does out of an originary supposition of sexual, or even gender relations. I think those necessarily follow the internalization of the dialectic of fascism and power.

    So then, for Deleuze and Guattari, the dialectic of spirit and history becomes a dialectic of power and repression, whereby systems of authority and oppression become the very things standing against the “dominant” mode of power (aestheticized fascism as a form of resistance to the overwhelming “freedom” of capitalism, etc). This history of sexuality (I would argue, inclusive of Foucault’s history of sexuality) is the history of fascism, and nothing but.

    Accordingly, I don’t think this dialectic can ever be escaped: Everything becomes a product of power, and every act of resistance is only possible “resistance” by being opposed to a more masterful “power” system or logic. That is, transgression is only possible after the creation of a prior “rule” to be violated. That’s what gives queer politics its force: The creation of rules that queer populations can then violate.

    I guess, to finally get around to it (excuse the rambling!), that this is a defense of fascist aesthetics, and for two reasons: One is that they are inevitable (RE: The dialectic of history is really a dialectic of power and repression,) and the second is that they provide the possibility of a meaningful resistance. Let’s just theorize what the world of “equitable, sustainable and peaceful” societies would look like. Presumably, there are no “unequal” power relations, in the sense that fascism is actively avoided; sustainable, in that the war machines of fascism and patriarchy are curtailed by this equality, and “peaceful” in the sense that violence is probably avoided on a conscious level.

    But in that society, if it is to be in resistance to fascism, including on a personal level, what possibility is there for transgression? To get a little Lacanian, it seems intuitive to me that when nothing is forbidden then nothing is permitted: Implicitly, an action can only be “resistance” when it is fighting something, and in your future society I see a world where there can no longer be a political struggle; In the end of history, I see a profound depoliticization. Coming from a Nietzschean standpoint, I tend to see an inherent value in struggle as something profoundly self-affirming, in resistance to the collectivist tendencies that the struggle for equality and consensus necessarily entails. That is, resistance always has value and only has value because it is resistance as-such, fighting against norms that declare it “deviant.” Fascism and fascist aesthetics seem then to offer the creation of norms which people can fight against, give themselves value in that fight against norms, and in reclaiming their own aesthetics from the consensus required by egalitarian politics. That’s how gender identities are created: Through systems of actualized resistance (the retreat into fascist aesthetics in capitalist societies of freedom) people can construct their own identity in a way that meaningfully resists against norms, rather than struggling in a depoliticized society, presumable with no norms to resist. It might be a little controversial to bind myself to this kind of ontology of political activism, but I think that meaningful identity can only be constructed against the backdrop of a normative political framework, and that fascism accordingly creates the conditions for resistance in the first place. Again, to quote Lacan, “if god is dead, nothing is forbidden.” The homogenizing tendencies of this eternal resistance to power seems to close out the possibility of reclaiming power as a site of resistance providing the meaningful groundwork for any politics of resistance.

    1. Not knowing beforehand what a “tldr” is, I read and re-read your comment with interest, and let me say, I’m flattered that you took the time and energy to respond so thoroughly to my post. Let me also say that I agree with many of your points, and you’ve clearly read a lot more modern philosophy than I have.

      As far as I understand, your logic is sound for most of your response. I think you are quite accurate in pointing out that the history of sexuality is in fact, the history of fascism… or at least, that’s how it’s been. After that, I’m afraid, our opinions diverge remarkably. You open your next paragraph with this claim: “Accordingly, I don’t think this dialectic can ever be escaped: Everything becomes a product of power, and every act of resistance is only possible “resistance” by being opposed to a more masterful “power” system or logic.” You could call me a sentimental fool, but I see no reason to assume that simply because something has always been a certain way, it must continue that way. I enjoy queer theory because I find that it renders rules inviolate, that is to say, it negates the rules. I get it. The Slave achieves consciousness first, we identify ourselves by what we are not.

      Ever read any Gloria Anzaldua? In her article “La Conciencia de la Mestiza: Towards a new Cosnciousness” she says “As a Mestiza I have no country, my homeland cast me out; yet all countries are mine because I am every woman’s sister or potential lover. (As a lesbian I have no race, my own people disclaim me; but I am all races because there is the queer of me in all races.) I am cultureless because, as a feminist, I challenge the collective because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet.”

      This hefty block quote is quite important to me, because it shows your argument: she has no country because hers has rejected her, she is the Slave in this situation. But notice, later, she says that she challenges the collective because she is attempting to divest herself of it.

      Dialectics, and fascism, and fascist aesthetics are a fundamental facet of our society. Dialectics is a very significant and powerful force. I find it alienating and depressing that this is so. I think where you missed the point is when you assumed I was attempting a logical argument, an attack on the fundamental structure of fascism and fascist aesthetics. I was trying to point out some of the ways this seemingly fundamental social structure reproduces some trends I dislike, disagree with, and find it worthwhile to denigrate. I was trying to shed light on how something I think is ugly and evil reproduces itself.

      If you’re satisfied to accept dialectics because it’s an easy, convenient way for you to establish an identity, I can’t argue against that. But I think it’s sadly defeatist (not to mention overly simplistic) to assume that “resistance” reproduces the dialectic. I prefer to try to think of new ways of consciousness.

  3. I’ll be honest, I’m left with the sneaking suspicion that your argument is logically sound. In that respect, I think I should qualify by saying that I don’t necessarily disagree with you. I was just trying to offer an alternative reading of my article that was slightly more productive. I’ve read many articles and essays (Much of Susan Sontag’s work, for instance) which are not perfectly sound, either logically or rhetorically, and yet, by the force of their creativity, generate much productive thought when read with a generous eye.

  4. Of course, I’m not trying to deny the worthwhile quest for a more creative (or I guess, auto-generative?) expression of identity beyond the hegemony of dialectics, I’m just wondering if maybe the dialect of fascism/history provides the ground by which people construct identities (generally), then I’m willing to take this argument to a stronger version that all identity is constructed in the form of a dialectic. Before people have an understanding of “I,” obviously, they must have an understanding of the “Other” (your argument that the slave achieves consciousness first); necessarily identity is contingent.

    Acts of self-affirmation, then (even if in the form of self-denigration through fascist aesthetics), can only be in resistance to the “You,” to separate myself from the “Other” as an act of ontological separation: Only then can I begin the creation of myself FOR myself, rather than as a necessarily command of the Other. It is through struggle, then, that this dialectic manifests itself into particular expressions of identity: Sodomites challenging the standard norm of behavior, later metastasized into homosexuals with the rise of the medicalization of discourse, eventually morphed into queers who deny all reductions to biology in sexuality; Lesbians embracing one another, themselves morphed into homosexuals, and likewise into queers, equally in resistance as a part of the dialectic. I’m trying, but can’t, think of an identity forged without a relation of resistance/difference (differance if we want to get all deconstruction up in here) that is not itself the product of an opposing dialectic, this one from the point of the master. If, then, all identity is in relation to the Other and contingent to my knowledge of myself in relation to them, I think this becomes especially true for “queer” populations. Originally deployed as a signifier of “deviancy,” always already presupposing a norm being violated, “queer” has become the very thing identifying much of modern sexual politics–the force of the word, and its possibility for reclamation or rearticulation, only become possible by the very norm it tries to subvert, and thus the dialectic of power keeps it in play eternally, the queer and the breeder locked in the struggle of affirmation that is always impossible.

    Now, of course, you say your argument is not that fascism or its aesthetics are “bad” per se, but rather “ugly,” which reproduces itself, and is “evil,” and that primarily you are concerned with opening the possibility of a new space for a creative/auto-generative source of identitarian politics (which, in my reading, is not bound to a contingent relation to the Other, but feel free to correct me if I am mischaracterizing you–this is just on a quick reading), but I guess I’ll take a divergence with you that dialectics are “depressing.” I find it profoundly hopeful and optimistic to formulate a possibility of identity bound to the Other–I am not an isolated ego floating in free space, cogitating as Descartes would have us–but rather that I myself am always contingent on my perception of a radical otherness which I cannot comprehend, and which may thus compel me to an ethical relation to the Other whereby I am responsible for my actions to them because I am contingent upon them. I guess this is again the

    The violent tendencies of fascism lie, in modern society, not as a truly violent political project (that assertion would be absurd) but because it poses a FORMAL challenge to the dictums of Western capitalism (that all are free and equal beings, bound into competition with one another, who act as free egos floating in free space calculating rational self-interest), that it occupies the space of the negation in Hegel’s dialectic. I also thing this gives queer politics a far more radical position as a form of activism than a space of purely auto-generative identity would be. As Lee Edelman writes in “No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive” (A great book that frankly is not taken very seriously in contemporary queer studies, unfortunately) (Secondly, please excuse this grossly long quote!):

    To figure the undoing of civil society, the death drive of the dominant order, is neither to be nor to become that drive such being is not to the point. Rather, acceding to that figural position means recognizing and refusing the consequences of grounding reality in denial of the drive. As the death drive dissolves those congealments of identity that permit us to know and survive as ourselves, so the queer must insist on disturbing, on queering, social organization as such -on disturbing, therefore, and on queering ourselves and our investment in such organization. For queerness can never define an identity; it can only ever disturb one. And so, when I argue, as I aim to do here, that the burden of queerness is to be located less in the assertion of an oppositional political identity than in opposition to politics as the governing fantasy of realizing, in an always indefinite future, Imaginary identities foreclosed by our constitutive subjection to the signifier, I am proposing no platform or position from which queer sexuality or any queer subject might finally and truly become itself, as if it could somehow manage thereby to achieve an “essential queerness.” I am suggesting instead that the efficacy of queerness, its real strategic value, lies in its resistance to a Symbolic reality that only ever invests us as subjects insofar as we invest ourselves in it, clinging to its governing fictions, its persistent sublimations, as reality itself It is only, after all, to its figures of meaning, which we take as the literal truth, that we owe our existence as subjects and the social relations within which we live-relations we may well be willing, therefore, to give up our lives to maintain” (Edelman, Pp. 19-20).

    Thus, for Edelman, and for myself, an identity is only such in relation to the Other; the possibility of queerness (or any other “deviant” position) is only ever possible after the prior command that such an identity is not to be entertained. Its existence is predicated on the logic which would exclude it. And indeed, that is what gives it force: Ironically, because it is produced by the dialectic as the necessary completion of the negation of heterosexuality, queerness stands as the rupture in the logic, the Lacanian gap between the Real and the Symbolic which as-such determines the possibility of resistance to power and oppression; Auto-generative/creative identity, then, is always depoliticized–isolated from the struggle of the dialectic, it can never rupture or challenge any dominant reality.

    This is where I find the optimism in Edelman and Hegel, and fascism in all its forms: The identity of resistance is created and required by the dominant logic as a foundation of existence–it is the radical Otherness which it tries to eliminate–which thereby invests in queerness a radical ontological and political power. I think, then, as queer citizens, we (or at least I) have an obligation to embrace the dialectic as foundational of political activism. Power comes and goes–resistance follows and is only resistance in relation. In embracing the dialectic of fascism, I think that I’m allowing the possibility of a form of resistance that can ONLY exist in the dialectic, and accordingly which gives the identity of the queer an ethical weight it would otherwise lack. Queerness under the dialectic of fascism always holds open the possibility for a rupture in the political, for an understanding that reality might not be what it appears, but as soon as we surrender or concede that being is shaped by creation (rather than arguing that creation is itself a contingent act within the dialectic), I think we are giving up too much. Radicality requires embracing normativity, which is why I find the dialectical view far more optimistic, rather than depressing or boring, as an account of reality than one I guess I’ll call “poetic” where individuals engage in constant creative construction of identity beyond the dialectic. It is because I think that my existence is always created and required by dominant logic that I isolate in it a mode of resistance: “Queerness” implies a “norm” it does not follow–to say anything but is for me to erase myself, right? Or am I just misunderstanding how identity is created?

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