The Imagination of the Heart
“Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, is now one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic.” — Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction“
In a very short period of time, we have gone from “culture of narcissism” to “new normal” to “post-truth society” as phases in the total disintegration of modern man. “Absurd”, “bizarre”, or “surreal” are not adequate any longer to describe the terrain we are entering. Such terms have already been worn-out by overuse. “Nihilism” sounds even too abstract. It’s a No Man’s Land which may even become — and certainly has the potential to become — a literal reality.
No one deliberately and consciously plotted such a course for the Late Modern Era. The road from “culture of narcissism” to “new normal” to “post-truth” — memes which attest to the degeneracy of the Modern Era overall — wasn’t consciously engineered. But it was paved by the “imagination of the heart”, as we might call it. The Old Testament attests that the deluge was brought about when God saw that “the imagination of their hearts was violence continuously”. It was this “imagination of the heart” that judged and sentenced. And it is this same “imagination of the heart” of which Walter Benjamin is speaking.
This “imagination of the heart” is how the Old Testament describes what is now called “intentionality of consciousness”. William Blake simply calls it “Imagination” and fittingly describes it as “God” because it is the formative potency. Nietzsche, too, saw that this same “imagination of the heart” was tending towards the thanatic in the way described by Benjamin later. Nietzsche already described this implicit and terrible will to perish in Zarathustra, and it informs his anticipation of “two centuries of nihilism”. Nietzsche could confidently say “incipit tragoedia” — the tragedy begins — because he did see into this “imagination of the heart”. And it is this same “imagination of the heart” become thanatic — that is no longer identified with life and the life process, that has become mechanical and robotic — that gives Gebser confidence in forecasting a “global catastrophe” in the making. For this is what “self-alienation” amounts to — a will that is no longer identified with life, and has become anti-life; that has become a purely mechanical will.
Einstein recorded his own shock and dismay upon hearing an unnamed colleague of his — someone involved with the Manhattan Project — express the conviction that atomic warfare would not be such a bad thing, as it would cleanse the Earth of its human pestilence. It would “cleanse the Earth” of much more than the human pestilence, of course, but the anecdote exemplifies perfectly Benjamin’s concerns about the imagination of self-annihilation as an aesthetic pleasure — of a morbid and thanatic will. It’s not the uncommon a sentiment, in fact (although it’s seldom made so explicit).
If Mr. Trump is the “candidate for his times”, as someone once stated, we have to reflect on Benjamin’s statement and inquire how much of that same thanatic will he represents and for which he serves as exemplar and avatar. His latest jaw-dropper, quite beyond the Pale — an invitation of “Second Amendment people” to consider doing something about Hillary Clinton — was clearly incitement to assassination. But that is, overall, consistent with his earlier statement that he could kill somebody and not lose the support of his base, let alone his reputed readiness to freely use nuclear weapons. We have to wonder how much “Trumpism” reflects Benjamin’s (and Nietzsche’s) remarks about nihilism.
The “Assassin Prince” seems to be becoming the governing principle of post-modernity. Trump, in that respect, comes to resemble Putin or, extravagantly, the Assassin Prince of the Philippines Mr. Duterte. (But is this much different than Obama’s or Clinton’s use of drones for assassination? Trump’s Svengali-like suggestion that “Second Amendment people” might do him a favour by taking out Hillary treats potential or imagined assassins as drones — as symbols and memes in Late Modernity, the drone and the zombie have much in common — a mechanical or technical will no longer identified with life and the life process).
Self-alienation, self-contempt, and a mechanical will — a will that has become emptied of life and awareness — are associated things. It’s one of the common symptoms of narcissism, which is self-alienation, that one feels empty or like a machine.
The zombie meme, so prevalent today in the imagination, is a symptom and symbolisation of exhausted life and of a will that has become purely mechanical and unfree. In the zombie, especially, we see the form and shape of Benjamin’s imagination of self-annihilation as an aesthetic pleasure. What’s a zombie? A creature that, although dead, hungers for life and tries to get it by consuming the life of others.
Benjamin’s remark about self-alienation become a self-annihilating and thanatic will presents a problem in the face of “denialism”, particularly as regards the existential threat of climate change. If it is true that modern man’s self-alienation has reached such a degree that the imagination of self-annihilation becomes an aesthetic pleasure, the more climate change becomes undeniable, the greater the denial, and the more resistance there is to doing anything about it. You see the dilemma. And, unfortunately, there is very convincing evidence that this is so — that the more undeniable the evidence is that we are following a self-destructive course, the more denial, and the more resistance there is to changing course.
Here, then, we are literally “beyond the Pale”.