Aestheticization as propaganda  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of beauty and the moral value of art, so aestheticization as propaganda is the process of presenting any form of behaviour considered dangerous or threatening as an acceptable means of promoting a political aim, for example violence that may involve injury or death.



Each culture formulates mechanisms for considering the acceptability of behaviour and its outcomes. For example, utilitarianism may take the ontological view that the greatest good will be achieved for the largest number of people if violence is used in particular situations, i.e. morality as utility is expressed in the form of a cost-benefit analysis.

Propaganda is a method used to influence the discourse by offering alternative constructions of the paradigms of social acceptability, no matter whether the tests are described as moral, ethical, pragmatic or otherwise. Anything that is said or shown through the mass media can be true or false, sincere or dishonest, but propaganda is distinguishable from conventional types of political or religious communication.

In communication theory it is described as framing in that the words or images selected are packaged to sell an interpretation of events to a specific audience. If the framing is successful, the paradigms will expand to admit the proposed or actual violence into the class of events considered acceptable (or, in some cases, desirable).

The aestheticization of violence for political purposes

Though many tools are available for political purposes, the threat or use of violence attracts those of a more proactive disposition as the simplest way to resolve any conflict or achieve any ends, because its strategies are well-known and weapons easily obtained. When asked to identify alternative nonviolent techniques, people find it difficult to visualise effective methods; moreover, sceptics can quickly raise moral and practical dilemmas to complicate any set of choices until violence appears the easiest option.

Thus, this topic is relevant across a spectrum of causes from those who disagree about social or commercial practices within their local community, to those unhappy with the political regime in their own country, to those who believe that another country is a threat.

Nevertheless, a person or group wishing to use violence as a strategy must overcome objections from both prospective supporters and the other interested parties. No cause will prosper until the majority agrees with the justifications offered for the decision to use force, because all who adopt aggressive strategies require emotional and logistical support from the local community for success.

Hence, the aestheticization process is used to direct the audience's interpretation of events by shifting the values of the lexical words used to minimise consideration of the moral, ethical or other costs. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell proposed that the means to achieve complete control of people's minds or their ability to think rationally about the issues at stake is to invent a new language, more primitive and less articulate than current "oldspeak". That is the intention of aestheticization. It seeks to subvert the rationality of the current paradigms through doublespeak and goodthink, and to persuade the majority that the use of violence in the particular context is not merely necessary or expedient, but just and glorious in the prosecution of higher ideals.

Whether the use of violence is or is not justifiable is irrelevant for these purposes. The sole interest lies in the mechanism for the transfer of the particular use from the paradigm of unacceptable into the paradigm of acceptable. In contemporary terms, this brings semiotics into a position of prominence both to set the frame and to deconstruct it.

An example of semiotic analysis

In January, 2003, the U.S. implemented a battle plan based on a concept developed at the National Defense University. Called "Shock and Awe" (see Americanism), its stated purpose was the psychological destruction of the enemy's will to fight rather than the physical destruction of his military forces. The choice of name is revealing, even at a denotative level.

Shock refers to the surprise and distress caused by events and, when associated with battles, means the violent interaction of individuals or groups as they join in combat. Meanwhile, awe is an overwhelming sense of wonder or admiration that may, to a greater or lesser extent, be associated with fear. But, at a connotative level, the use of the words is intended to fulfil several distinct aims:

In reality, the army may be going to kill large numbers of people, both combatant and non-combatant. These words are not the actions but they represent them at a symbolic level. Analysis shows that the words fall within the paradigm of lexical words signifying the emotional responses to external stimuli: responses that can only be experienced by those who are alive. The intended implication is that enemy soldiers and civilians will be so disoriented by the display of power that they will simply surrender rather than face the threatened injury or death. Hence, the enemy casualty count will be low and the immediate gains will significantly outweigh the moral, ethical or other costs of the enterprise.

All warfare involves death and destruction on a scale that may be shocking to the sensibilities of the ordinary person, so what is the value of these words? Applying the commutation test, substitutes for "shock" might be: excitement, impact, and surprise, as opposed to: scare, trauma, and upset.

The substitutes for "awe" might be: admiration, reverence and wonder, as opposed to fear, horror, and terror. Both words are capable of signifying less appealing qualities but, by setting them in a conjoined relationship, the expectation is that they will both be given the same value. The sui generis rule applies so that second and subsequent words in a conjoined sequence define the class. Evaluating the substitutes for "shock", the degree of match as synonyms seems reasonably adjacent and the balance of connotation can be considered balanced.

This would give the word "shock" a relatively neutral value. Since the preponderance of connotation to "awe" is positive (the negative substitutes are less directly synonymous), the relationship in the phrase is intended to invoke values suggesting a certain degree of magnificence in the technology and the manner of its delivery. Not only those on the receiving end are expected to experience awe: all external observers may be impressed by this display of power, and, perhaps, feel not a little afraid — a useful general propaganda gain.

The connotation of the word awe tends to refer to unequal power relationships, e.g. a beginner may be in awe of the skills of a professional, an ordinary mortal is in awe of a deity, etc. The implication is that this war is such an asymmetrical contest that the enemy might just as well give up before the battle is joined with such an overwhelmingly superior force.

Figurative usages provide what the semiotician Roland Barthes called a "pleasure of the text" (1970), i.e. the pleasurable reaction produced by a clever arrangement of signs. So figurative words are more memorable than literal words, particularly when used in unexpected contexts. Using this phrase in the otherwise literal context of declaring the opening of violent hostilities is incongruous and that contextualisation has made the phrase memorable, effectively displacing all the imagery of imminent death and destruction that might otherwise have dominated.

Monosyllabic words wield considerable rhetorical might: they are short, punchy, and memorable. Through the careful mixing of short and long words, the impact provided by the short words stands out against the rhythmic flow provided by long words. Rhetorical theory maintains that any proposition can be expressed in a variety of ways.

Hence, when persuasion is the overriding goal, the rhetorical perspective suggests that the manner in which a statement is expressed may be more important than its propositional content. In this instance, the repetition of two sounds, a binary pair of semi-onomatopoeic words, produces hyperbole. Whether written or spoken with an appropriate intonation and body language, the phrase is memorable and serves its aestheticization function.

See also

Propaganda of the deed


  • Barthes, Roland (1970/1988), "The Old Rhetoric: An Aide-Memoire," in The Semiotic Challenge. tr. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.

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