Foreword by Olivier Roy

Bloomsbury, July 2019"

“This bold and laudably readable defense of the humanities links both the market worship of the neoliberal right and the empty relativism of the left to the abandonment of culture in kitsch. Even more, it offers clever and detailed analyses of a full range of contemporary sensibilities.” GARY CROSS, author of Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire.

 

“The book is both an ardent and well–argued defense for the leading role of the humanities in contemporary world and academia—the only reliable way to reculturation.” MIKHAIL EPSTEIN, S. C. Dobbs Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature, Emory University, 

"Botz-Bornstein shows that everything is kitsch, from art to ethics or knowledge because everything is the hazardous recomposition of signifiers that refer only to themselves and to the gaze of the spectator who looks for what he has already found: a narcissistic evidence. Botz-Bornstein forces himself to show how the different fields of human activity are recomposed by globalization: art, of course, but also truth, rationality, and measurement. That’s the originality of this book." OLIVIER ROY, European University Institute in Florence, Italy

On this website, the content of this book is presented on two different pages. On the present page you find a general presentation of the book. On another page you find a presentation of the  book's chapter 5: "Cute, Interesting, Excellent, Sublime."

See also articles in The Conversation and in the Los Angeles Review of Books

The New Aesthetics of Deculturation

According to Islam scholar Olivier Roy, Fundamentalist religions tend to see themselves as positive quasi-sciences. However, religion is not the only realm where we can observe the production of “absolute” truths through deculturation. In contemporary education, a neoliberal environment has separated learning from culture by emphasizing standardization and quantified learning outcomes. In decultured education, the only remaining reference is the culturally neutral term “excellence.” Excellence is an absolute value and it is similar to the “truth” of religious fundamentalists. Being measurable and packaged with the help of quantifying methods, excellence-based knowledge is suitable for immediate “take-away” consumption in globalized environments.

Kitsch is aesthetic fundamentalism

The book establishes conceptual links between religious fundamentalism, neoliberal excellence, and kitsch.

The phenomenon is not limited to education. An entire apparatus of neoliberal culture excels in quantitative measuring and standardization and produces a decultured environment. The infernal machine of quantification resembles that of religious fundamentalism and kitsch. In bureaucratic reason, the capacity to reflect truths against a broader spectrum of culture is lost. Quantified truths are “kitsch truths.”

On the aesthetic level, deculturation is embodied by kitsch.  Kitsch is  aesthetic fundamentalism. And it arises when art is seen in terms of “excellence.”

The distribution of information on the internet avoids confrontations with “other” ideas or simply with “the other.” It fosters perpetual narcissist acts of self-discovery. The unraveling of selfies is the most literal manifestation of this phenomenon. Another manifestation is the multiplication of alternative truths. Alternative truths are not due to misinformation but rather to the kitschification of truth itself. Kitsch is an “alternative aesthetic truth,” which becomes clear when comparing Harry Frankfurt’s popular analysis of alternative truths (the famous “bullshit theory”) with the rules of kitsch in aesthetics. Like Salafist religious values and like neoliberal excellence, kitsch thrives through deculturation. Kitsch abounds when concrete truths rooted in concrete cultural environments are not available. Then self-enjoyment becomes the major aesthetic reference. So-called alternative truths are mounted on similarly circular models of self-affirmations; and religious truth current in fundamentalism as well as quantified truths based on a culturally empty idea of excellence are established along the same lines. What all those “truths” have in common is that they are not dialectically derived from confrontations with concrete cultural realities but establish themselves autonomously by narcissistically affirming their own truth.

Excellence is an absolute value and it is similar to the “truth” of religious fundamentalists. In art it appears in the form of kitsch.

Twin Tower kitsch

There is a strong link betwen kitsch and narcissism

The parallel with religious fundamentalism is not exaggerated

Quantification kitsch

Disney kitsch

In bureaucratic reason, the capacity to reflect truths against a broader spectrum of culture is lost. Quantified truths are “kitsch truths.” In kitsch, aesthetic “truths” are derived from immediate experiences of enjoyment that lack cultural depth. The person who enjoys art in a fundamentalist kitsch way will usually not have those cultural references. The result is the creation of alternative truths or – if the mechanism persists – of alternative realities. In this sense, algorithms, which have begun to determine many parts of our existences, have invented a separate reality. Algorithms tell us which books we like, based on previous choices. In algorithms, signs are quantified and classified along the guidelines of abstract forms of excellence. The model has a narcissist structure. The individual is told that by following algorithms she is free because she is merely following herself. True, she is free because she is not linked to any form of cultures established by other elements than herself. 

Jihadi kitsch

The internet user who follows her own algorithms does not have to adhere to the “essential” tendencies of her ethnicity, nationality, religion, and not even of her gender. Therefore the world governed by algorithms will be propagated as a world of maximal freedom. But we are not free at all: algorithms lock us into the bubble of our own preferences. They lock us into the narcissistic, quantified, alternative reality that the algorithms have created. Neoliberal technocrats will explain the limitations that this model produces as a maximized freedom. We are supposed to accept our own essentialization through quantification and construe it as an act of freedom because what has been quantified are our own choices. However, this life is not a life guided by free decisions. It is rather a “kitsch-life” guided by narcissism. Real freedom has been stifled by the calculators’ ambition to construct the image of statistical regularity (which is an alternative reality) that users are supposed to accept as the result of their free choice.

Culture, which is the only reality reference in terms of experience, emotions, and cognition, is replaced with abstract notions of universal truths based on culture-less notions of excellence.

Neoliberal kitsch in Dubai

Both algorithms and fundamentalists work towards deculturation. Culture, which is the only reality reference in terms of experience, emotions, and cognition, is replaced with abstract notions of universal truths based on cultural-less notions of excellence. All this happens in the context of a scientification of reality. However, once truths are disconnected from cultural realities, it is possible to produce alternative truths and alternative realities. This is the specialty of both fundamentalism and algorithm culture. In aesthetic terms, the realities produced by those systems are kitsch because they are based on a narcissist referral to their own truths in order to justify a decultured truth in their own – abstract – terms.

Quantified truths are “kitsch truths.”

Trumpian kitsch

The culture of excellence that this book criticizes is not only the product of harsh, globalized capitalism and conservative neoliberalism. It is also the result of “progressive” thinking common among leftist liberals. When it comes to deculturation, there is not much difference between neoliberals and progressive liberals. Both put forward a culture-less notion of excellence, and both do so in the name of freedom. All liberals preach freedom for everybody and the logical consequence is that the liberal self (or what is today regarded as the civilized Western human) must be “liberated” from all cultural contingencies. In other words, the liberal is free only because she has accepted her own cultural disembodiment. 

Contents

 

Foreword by Olivier Roy

Acknowledgements

Introduction: Fundamentalism, Neoliberalism, Kitsch

1. A Religion of Excellence

2. Kitsch: An “Alternative Aesthetic Truth”

3. Kitsch Liberalism

4. A Culture of Narcissism

5. Cute, Excellent, Sublime, Interesting

6. Can Liberalism be Saved?

7. Immigration and Relativism: Towards a better Liberalism?

8. Three Anti-Liberals: Burckhard, Evola, Meinecke

9. The Narcissistic Culture of Quantification

Conclusion: The Hermeneutic Solution

 

Bibliography

03/2019

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