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Modernity and Charisma

Modernity And Charisma

Modernism and Charisma. Agnes Horvath. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.


This book appears in the “Modernism and …” series, edited by Roger Griffin, which aims to find trans-disciplinary approaches to modernity, going beyond conventional conceptual frameworks. Griffin, whose seminal work Modernism and Fascism set the model for the series, writes in his editorial preface that modernism “is not a general historical condition […] but a generalized revolt against even the intuition made possible by a secularizing modernization that we are spiritual orphans in a godless and ultimately meaningless universe.” In other words, modernism refers to various conceptions of alternative modernities opposed to a disenchanted, anomic, and nihilist world. Examples of such alternative modernities include the secular eschatologies of communism and fascism, the resentful rebellions of anarchism and terrorism, the escapist trends of utopianism, science fiction and regionalism, and the many forms of post-secular religiosity, such as occultism, fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, and the various traditionalist revivals in Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and Orthodox Christianity.

Evidently, such a complex approach to modernity cannot employ the frequently simplistic dichotomies of mainstream social science (modern vs. traditional, secular vs. religious, global vs. regional, and so forth); nor can it follow the social sciences in their attempt to rationalize social structures and social conduct. It requires, at least in part, a new vocabulary that accounts for modernity as insufficiently characterized by disenchantment, but rather permeated in all its dimensions by the irrational. Moreover, such an approach must overcome the simplistic images of human nature underlying theories such as rational choice and behaviorism, which have been developed by the social sciences in their attempt to emulate the natural sciences and to achieve a comparable predictability regarding human conduct.

Agnes Horvath describes her own approach as political anthropology, an approach that she and other scholars explore and articulate in the journal International Political Anthropology. The approach is based on the claim that the conceptual framework built up by researchers of pre-modern cultures can help us better understand modern societies. More precisely, Horvath suggests that the condition of liminality, originally denoting the middle, transitory stages of tribal rituals, has become the general condition of human existence in the contemporary world. In other words, modernity is perpetual or permanent liminality.

The concept of liminality became widely known through the works of Victor Turner; however, Horvath prefers the earlier and less popular studies by Arnold van Gennep, whose concept of liminality better allows for an application to large scale social and historical processes and more clearly points out the somber dimension of the liminal. Liminal situations are, writes Horvath, “periods of uncertainty, anguish, even existential fear; a facing of the abyss of the void.”

In this context, Horvath introduces another figure from anthropological literature: the trickster. Paul Radin once claimed that the figure of the trickster, which he originally found in the folktales of the Winnebago, is an omnipresent and inter-civilizational mythical character. In Horvath’s narrative, the trickster is the deluding politician who takes advantage of the liminal situation, of its distress, anxieties, and uncertainties. Typically the trickster suffers from inner contradictions and an ambivalent character; he is full of self-doubt and, at the same time, driven by ambition. While appearing as a loving and caring leader and offering easy solutions, he deludes whole societies into preparing their own ruin. The idea of a trickster, finally, explains the title of Horvath’s book. It indicates an attempt to redefine the Weberian category of charisma as the situational quality of false leaders who use liminal situations for the emotional mobilization of the masses.

This interpretation allows Horvath to differentiate between, on the one hand, the trickster as a “liminal authority” and imitator of leadership and, on the other hand, the true political leader who derives charisma from idealism, deliberate determination, decency, and coherence between the intellectual and the ethical. This differentiation between liminal authority and true charisma may come in handy for scholars who have felt uncomfortable about lumping together figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Adolf Hitler in the same category of “charismatic leaders.” Liminal authority, Horvath seems to say, is situational and imitative, while charisma is a true personal quality. In historical reality things are probably more complex, but this does not negate the ideal-typical value of these categories for the analysis of leadership.

In order to uncover the origins of modern liminality, Horvath offers us five chapters, each exploring a particular historical period, from the Upper Paleolithic to 20th century communism and fascism. The first chapter provides an interpretation of the so-called “Shaft scene” in the prehistoric cave in Lascaux. The image is hidden in a recess and is the only one depicting a human being. A man with a bird-shaped head is lying on the ground, apparently in a state of sexual excitement. Next to his hand lies a stick with a bird on the top. A heavily wounded bull is standing before the man and looking at him. A broken spear crosses the body of the bison and seems to have ripped open its belly. Finally, a rhinoceros is fleeing the scene in terror. Something atrocious must have happened, so it seems. There is no question that the image is disturbing and a major departure from the magnificent depictions of animals that made Lascaux famous. But how to interpret it?

Horvath suggest that the animal images in the main halls and passages of the cave express a life in accordance with nature and the golden mean. No hunters or weapons are depicted; art represents nothing but harmony, beauty, and grace. The “Shaft scene,” however, expresses incommensurability, a loss of authenticity, the end of harmony and reciprocity between the human, the animal, and the divine; in anthropological terms, it represents a moment of liminality. In Horvath’s view, this first instance of liminality marked the end of equilibrium, bringing about a sense of isolation, insinuation, and subjugation. This, in turn, for Horvath, is the precondition for the birth of the practical subjugation of nature we call technology.

The reader may occasionally have the impression of a slight over-interpretation of the “Shaft scene,” considering how little agreement there is among scholars as to the meaning of prehistoric cave paintings in general. Nevertheless, Horvath’s argument that the scene represents a major disturbance in existence is convincing. What requires more explanation, however, is the extent to which the chapter makes a historical argument. Horvath’s argument implies that the abandonment of the caves and the end of cave painting around 10,000 BCE are somehow related to this existential disruption, rather than to external factors such as climate change. This is a fascinating thought, but can a single image carry the narrative weight of a lost golden age and liminality entering human existence?

The second chapter deals with the emergence of metallurgy in the Bronze Age and, from an epoch-spanning perspective, with alchemy as an underlying theory. As Horvath asserts, the technique of metallurgy comes with an awareness of pain, “using suffering to force objects to give up their original physical properties.” Human beings discover ways to imitate the creative forces of nature and, finally, to reproduce these imitations. Horvath describes the metallurgic and alchemical disintegration and isolation of elements as techniques of keeping matter in liminality. This chapter is perhaps the most difficult in the book. Despite the persuasiveness of the argument, it remains unclear how material liminality relates to liminality in the human sphere. One clue is Horvath’s reference to the alchemical quest for the philosopher’s stone, a substance produced by the re-aggregation of elements to effect the divinization of man. In other words, the technological disruption of matter ultimately aims at the disintegration of humanity from its natural limits. After reading the chapter one is tempted to rethink recent theories of trans-humanism in terms of alchemy and liminality.

Chapter three shifts the focus of the analysis to the medieval and early modern periods. Among other things, it contains a remarkable interpretation of Leon Battista Alberti’s Momus. Momus, written around 1450, tells the story of the mocking minor god Momus, who first instills doubts in the gods about the quality of their creations and then undermines human respect for the divine. Horvath puts Momus in line with the mythological trickster figures and suggests reading Alberti as an analyzer of liminality. She makes much of a passage right at the beginning of the book (I,4) where all gods, save Momus, confirm their obedience to the supreme god and creator, Jupiter, by presenting him with their own creations. Momus’ refusal to present a gift is indicative of his vain, idle, even self-hating character. Moreover, if Marcel Mauss is right in his claim that gifts form the basis of social relations, Momus’ refutation reveals an anti-social attitude. He cannot make gifts, because he has nothing to give, except for destructive and negative creations. In Alberti, Momus ultimately “filled the world with bugs, moths, wasps, hornets, cockroaches and other nasty little creatures, similar to himself.” In Horvath, the trickster fills a social order based on dignity and honor with “hatred, revenge, criminality, lie, guile, cunning or deceit,” but still finds ways to obtain the worship of the people. The trick is to make instincts instead of spiritual factors the moving factors in society.

Chapter four provides a daring juxtaposition of Isaac Newton and the baroque etcher and printmaker, Jacques Callot (1592-1635), both situated at the dawn of the Enlightenment. Horvath claims that both these men represent an innovation of early modernity that forms a precondition of permanent liminality: the void becomes the primary reality. In Newton, the void allows for the disintegration of absolute time and space from the relational context of concrete objects. In the new cosmology things are no longer self-supported; rather, it is the void itself that “keeps things in in infinite movement and power.” According to Horvath, Jacques Callot’s art is akin to Newton’s physics, as it does not fear disorder, chaos, and void, but rather makes them the principles of his art. The chapter provides a detailed analysis of Callot’s series The Balls of Sfessania, a sequence of frivolous, often obscene motives taken from the Commedia dell’Arte. Horvath concludes: “Callot, just as Newton, did not invent things. Rather, he captured the very essence of his liminal times in which the mime play (and the modern theatre) developed, showing mechanical reproductivity as the outcome of the proliferation of insipid characters and trickster figures into life.”

In another twist, Horvath suggests that the physics of Newton and the art of Callot are indicative of a more comprehensive fascination with the void in early modern society that finds expression in the political world as well. As the void is without its own substance, it can only produce by imitation. Revolutionary agitation, as the political consequence of enlightenment thought, is accordingly described as rooted in a fascination with chaos, disorder, and void, culminating in “orgiastic mimesis.” The liminal social reality is an in-authentic reality, a reality composed of sequences of imitations emerging from the void. In Horvath’s view this also explains one of the most basic puzzles of totalitarian studies: the “actual pettiness” of leaders, such as Adolf Hitler or Stalin, who are often characterized by dullness and failure in their academic or professional undertakings as well as in their private lives. The answer seems to be that in the liminal situation their inner void can become productive. Where truly charismatic leaders are absent, the imitators of leadership, the liminal authorities take over, with their fake solutions and delusions of grandeur.

The fifth and concluding chapter provides a summary and a reconsideration of the basic anthropological concepts employed in the studies of this book. Some of them, which deserve further consideration, have not been discussed in this review, such as George Bateson’s concept of “schismogenesis” and Gabriel Tarde’s “passionate interests.”

Agnes Horvath’s book displays an immense degree of learning; it combines prehistory, art history, the history of the sciences, and the study of modern totalitarianism, while never losing sight of the leading questions derived from the anthropological perspective. Additionally, the book is interspersed with references to classical philosophy, especially Plato. Certainly, the underlying narrative is not unproblematic. The reader has the impression that ever since the Neolithic, we have been on a road toward the forgetfulness of natural being, a narrative reminiscent of Martin Heidegger, who is occasionally referred to in the book. This narrative easily lends itself to cultural despair and to a diagnosis of the modern situation according to which withdrawal into imagined worlds of primordial beauty and harmony remains the only dignified option. It also remains somewhat unclear whether the post-totalitarian situation is essentially different from the totalitarian one. Moreover, the masses are often presented as pure matter without a will of their own. If modernity is permanent liminality, then the people are (now?) by nature blind and devoid of orientation. Civil society does not appear on the horizon; it rather seems that a return to authenticity is at best available to the few who have distanced themselves completely from social modernity. This is not necessarily Horvath’s message, but the book allows this interpretation.

These critical remarks do not dispute the analytical value of several concepts introduced in this book. Once seriously considered, the concepts of liminality and the figure of the trickster are difficult to banish from one’s perception and understanding of modern politics. Admittedly, even after this book it remains an open question whether an anthropological framework can comprehensively capture political modernity. However, it also becomes clear how much modern political theory can still gain from anthropology, particularly for the study of leaders and their followers in times of crisis. To repeat what I said earlier, Horvath’s normative (but nevertheless analytical) understanding of charisma and its differentiation from the trickster’s appearance provides an interesting alternative to Weber’s “value-free” description.

Matthias RiedlMatthias Riedl

Matthias Riedl

Matthias Riedl is an Associate Professor of History at Central European University in Budapest.

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