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Artillery Row

How we killed ideas and kept impressions

We have to rediscover ideas and not just the idea of ideas

In contemporary political discourse, political theory is not so much understood, as it is constellated. Just as stargazers perceive patterns in the night sky, participants of the sainted discourse perceive patterns between slogans, symbols, and buzzwords. It is these perceived patterns, these constellations of political theory, which are disseminated throughout contemporary political discourse, rather than the theory itself, causing a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion.

Ironically, misunderstandings are downstream of attempts to make political theory more “accessible” — that is, easier to understand. It is comparable to an astrologer who believes his ability to differentiate between Leo and Virgo carries within it the mathematical complexities which come with a basic understanding of astrophysics.

Consequently, people cease to build their understanding of their own beliefs — and inadvertently, the beliefs of others – on theoretical grounds. Instead, politics ceases to be thought of in political terms, becoming closer to an aesthetical prejudice, further ingraining the already problematic development of politics being treated in terms of status symbols.

As a heavily depoliticised society, Britain has long deprivileged the role of theory in understanding contemporary politics, so much so that one can reach the heights of political journalism without a basic understanding of any of the currents of thought and opinion. 

However, this contradiction is not sustainable, and with political journalism being dominated by insular braggadocious frauds, assured of their own superiority to everyone unlike them, such a contradiction is bound to produce some high-quality gaffs.

In one episode of The News Agents, Emily Maitlis — a member of the highly-educated metropolitan so-called New Elite — claimed with great confidence that a book published in the early 2000s, written by a “Francis Fukushima”, proclaimed the everlasting victory of liberal democracy; a victory which, according to Maitlis’ opinion, is being debunked in real-time by Emmanuel Macron and his attempt to amend France’s residence permits.

Whilst referring to Fukuyama as Fukushima is very funny, it’s not my main point of contention here. From spoonerisms to eggcorns to mondegreens, malapropisms are generally innocent and unintentional quirks of speech, especially those hard of hearing. Nor am I trying to suggest that misunderstanding Fukuyama is an unforgivable crime, or that pretending to look well-read is a sin unique to journalists.

Rather, it’s that the idea of a work, rather than the ideas contained within the work, increasingly form the basis of people’s political understanding, turning political discourse into a melting-pot of adjectives, rather than a serious exchange of beliefs.

Allow me to use G.K Chesterton as an example. To be “Chestertonian” has little to do with whether one agrees with the content of Chesterton’s writing. In fact, to be a “Chestertonian” has little to do with Chesterton’s writing at all; at least, no more than an unattributed quote which can be found on Goodreads.

Rather, to be “Chestertonian” is to partake in an aesthetic — a constellation of signs which make you “Chestertonian”. It means wearing a tweed jacket, smoking a pipe, grumbling about big cities, distrusting technology, and being Catholic (at the very least, presenting as one).

On account of being an aesthetic — perhaps better understood as a “vibe” — that which is considered “Chestertonian” will often overlap with other constellations, such as “Conservative”, “Tory”, “Catholic”, “Communitarian”, and “Integralist”. Just as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor are connected via the North Star, Chestertonians and conservatives are connected via an unspecified preference for Tradition, from which they are inferred to be interchangeable.

People know what a Chestertonian is, they’ve “seen” it before, but when asked to define it, they can only provide a slapdash bouquet of other concepts — an assortment which would be considered arbitrary to anyone that didn’t already know what they were talking about. A Chestertonian is a conservative which is a communitarian which is an Integralist and so on.

In short, to be “Chestertonian” has nothing to do with the ideas of Chesterton and how they relate to one another, but the vibe of Chesterton — the idea of a disgruntled reactionary shaking his fist at modernity, tottering about Cathedrals, shoving second breakfast down his gullet. There is an idea of G.K Chesterton, some kind of abstraction.

“Nietzschean” is another good example. Like Chestertonian, “Nietzschean” has two meanings, depending on who you ask. To adherents, it means violence, eugenics, and nihilism, but in a cool, trendy, vitalist sort-of way. To opponents, it means violence, eugenics, and nihilism, but in a cringey, destructive, edgelord sort-of way, the underlying irony of which is two-fold. 

Firstly, as already mentioned, one doesn’t have to agree with Chesterton to partake in the aestheticization of Chesterton. In fact, its most avid proponents are often bitter opponents of Chesterton’s philosophy — or what they consider to be Chesterton’s philosophy, based on adherents to the Chestertonian vibe or just anyone who comes within discomforting range or it, intentional or not.

Secondly, as a big part of being a Nietzschean is not being a Chestertonian, and a big part of being a Chestertonian is not being a Nietzschean, neither being founded on a theoretical understanding, both are prone to re-articulating stated beliefs of the other in refutation of the aestheticized other. Consider the following paragraph from Chesterton’s “The Blunder of Our Parties” (1924):

If Bolshevism were to blow up the whole City with dynamite, hurling the cross of St. Paul across the Thames and sending the Monument flying beyond the hills of Highgate, it would then become the duty of the respectable Conservative to conserve these fragments in the precise places where they had fallen, and to resist any revolutionary attempt to put them back in their proper place.

A passage such as this wouldn’t look out of place in a futurist progressive Nietzschean “I’m not a conservative; I’m not like other right-wingers, don’t you know?” opinion piece. Alas, Chesterton and Nietzsche are not writers with words to their name, they are not thinkers with ideas, people with idiosyncrasies or presuppositions which must be conceded to them in order to be understood.

… we must return to sound political theory and cultivate a sincere appreciation for its role

Instead, Chesterton is a stuffy sentimental Christian man, stoically enduring degeneracy in the belief God will smite him for raising his voice, Nietzsche is a deformed prophet of genocide, brimming with pagan fury and anti-humanist aggression, and for some reason, both many of their respective “adherents” and “opponents” agree. On the whole, a terrible way of interpreting two very interesting men.

As things stand, it is borderline impossible to read an article or listen to a podcast on any humanities-related subject without reading or seeing “a sort of…” thrown in every five sentences, or the liberal use of “-esque” — especially after someone’s surname. The more niche, the better! This shouldn’t be the case. At a time of burgeoning politicisation, we must return to sound political theory and cultivate a sincere appreciation for its role in understanding current affairs and the application of political alternatives. Without it, we shall remain transfixed on the stars as the grass beneath our feet turns to cinder and ash.

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