The Necessity of History, the Tragedy of Aesthetics

When we tear down statues, it is an attempt to alter the trajectory of history. Not history as just “what has happened,” which we can never change as much as reinterpret. No, this is history as a great unfolding, as something that is taking place and will take place on one route or another depending on what is done in this moment. You can hear it in the reactions of the right. In their barely contained apoplexy, their cries of “you can’t erase history,” they are, however unwittingly, announcing that there is consequence to how that history is experienced in the here and now.

Aesthetics, particularly those that exist as part of public space, are never merely about how something is rendered. Symbols and tributes that are hegemonic enough cannot simply have the channel changed on them. The more all-encompassing an aesthetic is, the easier it can hide in plain sight, the more urgent it becomes to reveal their machinations and expose the possibility of ripping it up and starting again.

A book everyone should read (daunting though it may be given its density) is Tom Bunyard’s Debord, Time, and Spectacle. Summing up the book here in any detail that does it justice would take more space than I currently have available to me, but, briefly…

Bunyard examines the thought of Guy Debord, the primary mover and theorist of situationism. Probably the most referenced aspect of situationist thought is that of “the spectacle.” Primarily, this is understood through a media studies or anti-consumerist lens, and this version of it is best captured by slick advertising, the kind that is designed to paper over the inequities of a product or service by making us feel we have an emotional investment in it. The product is fun, it will fulfill you, so best ignore that it was made in a sweatshop on occupied West Bank land and that its CEO has his name in Jeffrey Epstein’s little black book.

It’s a useful understanding on its own terms, but as Bunyard argues, it’s also exceedingly narrow. It siphons off art/culture/media from economics/politics/sociology, as if each general realm responds to wholly different laws. Bunyard excavates, through Debord’s study of Hegel, how the concept of the spectacle was a critique of all aspects of life under capitalism. In essence, the spectacle is full-spectrum, the ways in which culture, economy, politics, and aesthetics all conspire under the sway of capital to divorce the individual from history and therefore control over their own lives. It is not so much that media comes to replace politics as it is that politics becomes highly mediated, aestheticized, the illusion of being under our control so that our own subjugation is more easily consented.

In this respect, the toppling of statues is of profound importance. We might understand such acts as de/re-aestheticization from below. Or, bringing in Walter Benjamin, the way in which fascism’s penchant for aestheticizing politics is inverted by communism’s ability to politicize aesthetics.

In this framework, no artistic work or gesture is politically neutral. Any signifier that comes from a moment of uprising can be co-opted and rehabilitated by the establishment. But unlike some who see this as a reason to surrender the realm of aesthetic struggle, who insist such engagement is a fool’s errand, Bunyard’s argument necessitates we do aesthetics better, more collectively, attempting to get in front of detournement whenever we can, just as we always have to do with our understandings of economics and politics. Aesthetics are not divorced from these realms. Ceding them to convention can have serious implications.

The kerfuffle over the “Black Panthers Revolutionaries Atlanta Chapter” reveals in a painfully trenchant way how the spectacle, the aesthetic uncoupling of people from their subjectivity, plays out. It’s surely one of the most bizarre episodes of this current resurgence in Black Lives Matter. Pictures and reports of young mostly black women and men dressed in all black, wearing berets, and carrying semi-automatics at a BLM march in Decatur, Georgia two weeks ago went instantly viral. To some it was a sign that the spirit of black militancy had revived the most iconic black revolutionary groups in American history.

To others it was confusing. They seemed to dress and carry themselves quite differently from the anti-semitic poseurs of the “New Black Panther Party” that have been around for the past twenty-five years. But they had no web presence, nobody seemed to have heard of them. Some observers pointed out that their patches were not those of the original Panthers but of the 66th Infantry Division. That there were also photos of these Atlanta Panthers posing arm-in-arm with police (!!!) was just doubly confusing.

Then came the truth: the small group of armed Panthers were, in fact, actors. They had purchased the clothes and guns, and had shown up at the demo to, essentially, cosplay. All seem sincere in their apology, and going out of one’s way to denounce them seems a waste of energy. But the fact that remains that the whole sequence is utterly baffling. What could possess this group of young men and women, presumably in sympathy with the aims of Black Lives Matter, to do something like this? It would be one thing to attempt a refoundation of the Black Panther Party, however confused such an attempt might be, but this wasn’t that. These were people pretending to be Panthers, consciously choosing to do so. What’s more, they were doing it badly. Nobody who knows anything of substance about the Black Panthers would ever think any of its members would pose for a smiling photo op with a police officer. The cops, after all, were their most well-known and visible enemy.

There is at least a partial explanation in the fact that they are actors. I don’t say this as any kind slight or dig against actors themselves. The entertainment world applies immense pressure to conform to an ahistorical view of the world. I was told by acting teachers that the best actors know nothing about history, politics, or current events.

This is not unique to acting though. In fact it’s inevitable in the commodification of any craft, which is to say literally everything. The breakdown of skill into measurable and hyper-rationalized components removes each gesture and action from their context. Everything becomes an empty signifier. Flowing inevitably from this, events and history become performance, the blurring of the lines between actually making history and just, well, acting like you are. As a friend and comrade said, “I hate when Baudrillard is right, but Baudrillard is right.”

The flurry in Atlanta confirms this as a phenomenon that goes well beyond the ranks of the left, but it also presents a specific challenge for us given that it is our job more than anyone else’s to change history. There is nothing wrong with cosplaying or LARPing in general, but when the shape of this same practice comes to shape how you do politics, it becomes at best laughably ineffectual, at worst dangerous. The “best” are those who have read enough books about this or that revolution and think that all that is needed now is rote replication, a practice recognizable in any innumerable toy-Bolshevik group today. As for the worst examples, it is best captured by the practices of the Red Guards. They think they are recreating Shining Path; all they’re actually doing is the cops’ job for them.

There is, to be sure, a liberal version of this confusion, and it is one that most corporations are becoming very good at lately. Spotify and Netflix release Black Lives Matter selections and playlists, though they obviously won’t call for the abolition of police. Chase gives its employees half a day off for Juneteenth, but won’t pay reparations despite having demonstrably profited from slavery. That these companies are saying anything at all publicly has everything to do with the arrival of sustained mass protest, but they are also done out of cynicism, in the hope that appearances can be mistaken for substantive concessions.

If events are ultimately the real content of history, we can take heart in the fact that it didn’t take long for the Fake Panther story to fall off people’s timelines. They are replaced by far more consequential, significant, history-making stories. Not just the bringing down of statues (and the profound transformation it brings to public space), but the move by teachers unions to ban cops from schools, or by labor councils to kick out police unions. Or the Supreme Court rulings which bans the firing of queer and trans folks, or blocking Trump from ending the DACA program. In the grand scheme, they are small victories, trivial compared to the wholesale abolition of police or the closure of the ICE detention centers. But they will also make material difference in people’s lives, how they view and experience the world, their notion of what it is to fight and win. And they also came courtesy of a moment of mass protest.

Which brings us back to the toppling of statues. What exactly is it that makes this wave so different from cosplaying or the corporate push to co-opt? For one thing, bringing down a statue has less to do with how we change ourselves and more to do with how we change ourselves by changing our surroundings. It is a radically ontological act first and foremost, effectively acting upon the unique and specific role that aesthetics plays in politics.

When our public lives are lorded over by celebratory likenesses of slave owners, genocidal colonists, and murderous eugenicists, it enforces a kind of floating spatial apartheid. Even outside of redlining and other forms of physical segregation, in spaces that are supposedly neutral, their presence affirms the dominance of one version of history over another. The “great men” of a society killed, tortured, raped. And when enough people grasp this, particularly people descended from those who were abused by these men, then they become less welcome in this space.

To reject and reverse this ethereal domination, to tear down these specific symbols, is not merely symbolic. It leaves a hole in the perceived order of a space, a hole left by the people who did the toppling. Ponder that hole long enough, and you start to wonder what other parts of everyday life are informed by exploitation, by vicious repression. If you brought down this part, what’s to stop you from doing so with the others? What might you replace them with?