“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake.”
Withnail and I
Informed of a rival’s demise, the scheming, turn-of-the-19th-century French diplomat Talleyrand could be heard muttering, “I wonder what he meant by that?” So goes “the great game of politics,” in which even death is perceived as but another move. Of course, real politics is no game; still, there’s a long tradition of confusing the two. It’s the same with war, which is why Clausewitz once felt it necessary to declare that “war is no pastime; it is no mere joy in daring and winning, no place for irresponsible enthusiasts. It is a serious means to a serious end.”
To treat something serious as if it were a game is to aestheticize it − to take it out of the domain that we might call “the practical” and put it in “the aesthetic.” The practical is where we strive to fulfil our values or interests; to do things, that is, for our sakes. By contrast, in the aesthetic we take on a disinterested attitude and so do things for “their own sakes,” as the saying goes. This can be a lot of fun, and fun is the ultimate goal, but we can only reach it indirectly, which is why, to repeat the point, a game’s rules are respected for their own sakes rather than for some practical end. Why should I kick the ball in that goal or shoot the puck in this net? Because that’s how the game is played, nothing more. And why can’t I pick up the ball with my hands or kick the puck in with my skate? Because these things would violate the rules − rules, again, which exist simply because we couldn’t play without them. Of course it’s possible to play a game seriously, which is what professional athletes do, for example. But their salaries or glory are things that exist outside of the game, in the practical rather than in the aesthetic, since one can always play for free or without a care for the recognition of others.
There are three other modes of the aesthetic, and these exist alongside playing for fun and often overlap with it. They are disinterested appreciating, as when you savour something or enjoy its beauty, whether it be an artwork, a fine wine, or a person; disinterested imagining, when you fantasize by using your imagination in ways unrestricted by fact, letting it “run free”; and disinterested presenting, when you put on an entertaining show, a spectacle.
I came to recognize the four modes of the aesthetic by watching my kids, who dedicate every waking moment to them. Children are the ultimate aesthetes. Not that there is anything wrong with that. For, you see, my problem is strictly with the adults, with people like Donald Trump.
One would think that a businessman would take a practical approach rather than an aesthetic one, but business, too, has been conceived as if it were a game. And this is surely how Trump sees it. So it’s no surprise that, since he moved to politics, “that ignoble distraction of mediocre intellects,” as Huysmans once referred to it (for aesthetes are also those who are devoted to a single aesthetic mode while decrying the others as decadent), Trump’s been playing it as well. But not just playing, since he also enjoys making a big, indeed huuge, not to mention beautiful, show of it. And then there are the fantasies, Trump’s conspiracy theories. Not that he actually believes any of them − though he’s not lying, either, because Trump is a bullshitter rather than a liar; he is so deeply ensconced in the aesthetic that he couldn’t care less about truth or falsity.
Now, it says a lot about the state of the discipline that John Rawls, considered by many to be the greatest political philosopher of the last century, was, if not an aesthete, then an aestheticist, someone who would reduce practical reality to aesthetic (un)reality. The expression above, “the great game of politics,” is from him, not Talleyrand, and here’s what he has had to say about just politics, his ideal: “In much the same way that players have the shared end to execute a good and fair play of the game, so the members of a well-ordered society have the common aim of cooperating together to realize their own and another’s nature in ways allowed by the principles of justice.” In fact, Rawls dedicated his life to writing the rulebook for this “game,” his famous theory of justice, as well as to denouncing as “unreasonable” all those who refuse to play it. But we are the opposite of unreasonable, since we know that justice is not the kind of thing that can be captured in a theory, a set of principles with necessary and sufficient conditions. To attempt to do so is, as Wittgenstein showed, to “sublime the logic of our language,” to ensure that it “goes on holiday.” Otherwise put, it is to aestheticize it. And, as Walter Benjamin warned, this is precisely what fascism does to politics.