Introducing for the first time
Pharaoh on the microphone
Sing all hail
What will be revealed today
When we peer into the great unknown
From the line to the throne
The New Pornographers, “The Laws Have Changed”
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 that the celebrated historian Yuval Noah Harari is, if not an aesthete, then an aestheticist, someone who would reduce practical reality to aesthetic (un)reality. This is clear from his article, “Humankind: The Post-Truth Species,” which reveals an aestheticism driven by naturalism, the belief that there is but one domain of reality, “the natural.” Because of it, Harari thinks that everything outside of nature amounts to no more than “stories,” “fantasies,” “myths,” or “fictions,” all of which are but “human inventions that exist solely in our own imagination.”
Harari distinguishes between these stories, to be sure, but only as regards their usefulness, by which he means their ability to promote cooperation. It is because we humans can believe in stories that, unlike the other animals, we have learned to collaborate effectively and so rule the world. Harari considers the most significant stories to be those behind religions, which he views as but very old forms of “fake news,” and those behind nations and ideologies, which are somewhat newer forms of the same thing. What religions, nations, and ideologies have in common is that they are often manipulated in order to induce people to cooperate in doing terrible things. Harari mentions Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda techniques. He also mentions how, in our day, developments in media and other technologies have meant that the bubble these stories create has grown so large that it might very well engulf reality altogether.
But notice what he does not mention: the difference between fictional stories and nonfictional ones. The latter are the kind that are supposed to be told by journalists, social critics, and, yes, historians, among others. They are the stuff of the practical rather than the aesthetic; indeed, they are judged better or worse according to how well they manage to be true to it. And if by “reality” we mean, at least in part, to refer to the state of the world as it actually is rather than as we may wish it to be, then we should recognize that the practical is as real, albeit in a different way, as the natural. After all, doesn’t the very idea of nonfiction exclude “making stuff up”? Moreover, even when what’s being interpreted is a fictional text, the interpretations can help us make sense of practical, and sometimes even natural, reality. Surely we can learn something about fatherhood, say, or loyalty from King Lear? And wasn’t that a dream (one of a snake biting its own tail) which inspired August Kekulé to come up with the benzene molecule’s ring structure? So at least some made up stories are not as detached from reality as Harari would have us believe. Perhaps, then, there’s much more to religions, nations, and ideologies than fake news. And perhaps there’s a sense in which even the aesthetic lays claim to a certain reality, since it’s not as if “anything goes” when one wants to say something accurate about King Lear or ouroboroses. After all, are not unicorns more real than “duocorns”?
Returning to the practical, if all stories really are but “human inventions that exist solely in our own imagination,” none being more true than any other, then what would be the point of conversation in politics, of the good faith attempt to convince one’s fellow citizens that one interpretation of the common good is better than another? Harari seems to have room for only a pernicious relativism, the kind which, he’ll be appalled to learn, received praise from none other than Mussolini: “There is nothing more relativistic than Fascist attitudes and activity.… From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable.” This enforcement is carried out, above all, by the fascist leader who, supposedly, is no ordinary person but someone endowed with divine powers. In reality he is but a simulacrum of the divine, an image, a fantasy, an idol. And, as many religions have long warned, he is what we get “when we peer into the great unknown / from the line to the throne.” Fake news indeed.