Monday, November 24, 2008

Obama as kitsch

An outstanding essay from Dennis Dale about Barack Obama and the politicized sentimentalism that has seen him into power:
The appeal of Barack Obama is best understood as kitsch.

The Obama campaign, as any, is more a work of art than of argument. It is (present tense, for it continues) a narrative blend of hagiography, historical fiction, mythology and propaganda. Like any work of art it may blend various genres and themes, but it is ultimately of one specific type. All political movements rely more or less on kitsch, but the Obama campaign, stripped to its essence, is kitsch.

This phenomenon-as-political movement is a masterwork of improvisational, interactive environmental theatre, with the electorate as its participatory audience. But a political campaign is no mere work of fancy or fabrication. When power is the end for which the narrative is the means, one cannot refuse his role in the play, even in opposition. We are all players now in Barry's melodrama.

What do I mean herein by “kitsch”? Not the common usage that has rendered the word little more than a synonym for "inferior." Nor any of the only slightly narrower meanings of unsophisticated, anachronistic, culturally irrelevant or crude. I do not mean merely that it is sentimental; though sentiment is its active ingredient. I refer specifically to that self-conscious and obliquely self-referential aspect of kitsch; of kitsch as the celebration of a given sentiment as its own end and justification, as an ennobling thing it its own right.


It would be unfortunate if one political faction or other were to successfully fashion [kitsch] into an adjectival anchor to weigh down their adversaries, creating a new term of calumny to go with "fascist", "communist", "racist", et cetera ad nauseum. But we're well served in better understanding it, so as to better understand ourselves and that vast area of effective human behavior that is neither wholly rational nor studiously moral, but desperately and sometimes dangerously emotional.

What makes kitsch bad art, its unearned catharsis, makes it the most effective demagogy. It requires nothing of us other than acquiescence to the sentiment. Because kitsch is the willed absence of doubt, it acts as a neatly closed emotional system, impervious to skepticism and hostile to introspection--herein lies its political genius. Through propaganda, kitsch arouses revolutionary ardor and imposes totalitarian control. Kitsch fires up the rabble and cows the mass.

Well worth the read.