Neil Levi on Carl Schmitt and the Question of the Aesthetic

Point and Shoot, 2008, by Martha Rosler

Point and Shoot, 2008, by Martha Rosler

It’s a common accusation of the left that politics, liberal and conservative alike, becomes “aestheticized” through persistent suspensions of law anddeclarations of emergencies. But what, exactly, Neil Levi asks, in a timely, subtle paper on Carl Schmitt, is so “aesthetic” about political decisionism, a doctrine still fresh on our lips in the Obama era. The following, well-known quote from Schmitt’s Political Theology sums up this philosophy succinctly:

“The exception is more interesting than the rule. The rule proves nothing; the exception proves everything: It confirms not only the rule but also its existence, which derives only from the exception. In the exception the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.” (PT, 15)

Richard Wolin, whose interpretation of this passage is widely shared, finds the image of politics promoted here “aesthetic” in spirit, on account of its celebration of “rupture, discontinuity, and shock, which Wolin describes as ‘aesthetic values.’

“Yet Wolin never tells us why Schmitt’s interest in exceptions, hardly unusual in the humanities and social sciences, is ‘quasi-aestheticist,’ never explains why rupture, discontinuity, and shock are especially ‘aesthetic values.’ He takes their status as such for granted and does not ever seem to find it necessary to explain what he means by the term aesthetic.” (Neil Levi, “Carl Schmitt and the Question of the Aesthetic,” New German Critique 34, No. 2 (Summer 2007): 27-43: 35)

But on the other hand, perhaps there is something ‘aesthetic’ about transgression, ‘breaking through the crust’:

“Yet Wolin’s sense that there is something ‘aesthetic’ about Schmitt’s proclamations on the state of exception is understandable. The notion of the extreme has a certain fascination that one might compare to that exerted by certain transgressive works of art. To dwell on the state of exception is obviously to dwell on the more dramatic aspects of political life, on moments that are conflictual and intense. But do these considerations make an interest in the extreme situation quasi-aesthetic?” (35)

Levi indeed observes that Schmitt’s image of transgression “evokes the Russian formalists’ idea of estrangement, or ostranenie“, except that instead of “calling into question […] outmoded moral and political conventions […] Schmitt’s estrangement seems designed rather to give one a sense of the awesome sovereign power authorizing and enforcing the laws that govern everyday behavior. Shklovsky’s estrangement ruptures everyday conventions to change the status quo; Schmitt’s exception works to reinforce it” (Levi “Schmitt” 36). Is this, then, the mode of “aesthetics” critics of Schmitt have in mind when they use the term pejoratively?

It would seem not, in that the more progressive theories with which Schmitt’s is contrasted do “not assume that the aesthetic component of a political idea automatically disqualifies it from the realm of politics proper”. Benjamin’s much-touted remarks in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” are for this reason largely inapplicable here, a fact Levi conveys succinctly when he observes that Benjamin’s point was that, for some — e.g. Marinetti, — war, specifically, was “already a work of art”. “Aestheticization” was thus, for Benjamin, more a “mode of perception” than a component of political theory per se (at least in this instance), although, in a different sense entirely, Schmitt does at times define the political “as anintensity, so that any conflict or opposition, once it attains a certain degree of existential antagonism, becomes political” (Levi “Schmitt” 30), a proposition with which Benjamin would most certainly have agreed.

With the more polemical understandings of “aestheticization” out of the way, Levi then turns to Schmitt’s own views on the matter, noting in passing that, “As it happens, Schmitt takes great pains to encourage his readers not to think about politics as aesthetic. What is ultimately so interesting, even amusing, about the charge of aestheticization against Schmitt is that it targets precisely those situations that Schmitt himself thinks distinguish the political from the aesthetic” (Levi “Schmitt” 37). Schmitt in fact spends a great deal of time trying to separate the latter from the former. “The aesthetic,” Levi observes, “functions as a kind of disturbing presence that Schmitt repeatedly disavows” (Levi “Schmitt” 37).

Linking this phenomena to “contemporary diatribes against postmodern irony, especially during the soul-searching that took place in the United States for a few weeks after September 11, 2001” (39), Levi then proceeds to enumerate Schmitt’s identification of “aesthetics” with decadent European bourgeoisie “arts and entertainment”, which for Schmitt categorically functions as the fundamental obstacle to the political. Though Schmitt, and perhaps decisionism in general, does view the arts as a purely negative force, they are nonetheless seen as a powerful and inextricable force acting on, or within, political forces. For Schmitt, the dominance of an “aesthetic perception” announces and prepares political defeat.

“Schmitt sees the aesthetic as the existential negation of the political in two apparently contradictory ways. On the one hand, he suggests that the dominance of aesthetic perception is a precursor to destruction of the Lebensform, to political defeat: “Everywhere in political history the incapacity or the unwillingness to make [the] distinction [between friend and enemy] is a symptom of the political end” (The Concept of the Political, 68). For example, before the Revolution the Russian bourgeoisie romanticized the Russian peasant, he says, while “a relativistic bourgeoisie in a confused Europe searched all sorts of exotic cultures for the purpose of making them an object of its aesthetic consumption” (CP, 68). For Schmitt, romanticization and exoticization of the other are modes of aestheticization. Aesthetic consumption, he thinks, is a condition, like [page] consumption proper, with fatal consequences. It negates political perception—negates, that is, the ability to recognize a mortal threat when one sees it.” (Levi “Schmitt” 38–39)

This final point, which concludes Levi’s piece, points to the limits of the “aestheticization” hypothesis — in several ways. For one, it shows how explicitly-militant political doctrines like Schmitt’s must in the end rely upon a paradoxical relation between aesthetic forms and political disavowals thereof. The bourgeoise romanticiziation of the Russian peasant, much like, say, contemporary American exoticizations of the Middle East, was a form of enmity, not a distraction from it. Indeed, in light of the extensive work on cultural mechanisms of colonial control, represented most forcefully by Said’sOrientalism, Schmitt’s opposing of “romanticization” to “enemy” seems symptomatic of his own clearly militant (not to mention proto-Nazi) political doctrine. Levi’s paper serves to highlight this important distinction, and in the process re-focuses attention away from the aesthetic image summoned up by political discourses to the cultural role of art and aesthetics assigned bythose theories, which is something else entirely.