Overcoming the Failures of Political Enthusiasm

Although my focus is on the composition of power relations that constitute a given scene of enthusiasm and the ways amateur labour is commodified, the other bigger project that I hope to eventually turn to (after doing my existing project justice) is the question of contemporary political enthusiasm. Hopefully this will explain why I am seem to be fascinated by enthusiasm. One of my theses is that the emergence of enthusiasm within a citizenry of a given democratic nation state is framed by the mainstream media as an exception to its normative functioning. Enthusiastic uprisings are represented as exceptions. The problem is that the world faces problems on a scale that require the drive of enthusiasm. Working back from Ralph Emerson’s observation that “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm” is that for something ‘great’ to be achieved requires ‘enthusiasm’.

The operational character of enthusiasm has not changed much since the pre-Kantians discussed it as a synonym for ‘fanaticism’. Subjects of enthusiasm pursue a singular task at the exception of all others and, at the same time, enthusiasm is affectively contagious. The work of many thinkers over the course of the 18th and 19th Centuries was to use ‘enthusiasm’ as a negative example in the functioning of a rational citizenry and representive government. They were on the side of Enlightenment Rationality fighting the forces of Religious Mystification. Except for a few asides, it was not until Kant’s comments on the character of spectators supporting the French Revolution did ‘enthusiasm’ gain a positive political meaning. Kant argued that the general support of spectators for the revolution meant that they recognised the Idea of the Good in the revolution and therefore the collective valorisation by spectators of the revolution demonstrated that the revolution transcended practical judgement and was an example of good moral judgement.

The problem in the contemporary era is not judgement per se, but firstly the problem of collective mobilisation born of collective disenchantment (and therefore a lack of enthusiasm) for the mode governance of modern representative democracies. Public debates represented in the media thwart enthusiasm, or, to put it another way, enthusiasm is modulated and harnessed in hegemonic ways. Most citizens are encouraged to be enthusiastic about their own interests, which they are told are shared with many others, at the expense of larger social problems. In Australia this is best represented by the hegemonic relation between the conservative media and the conservative side of politics (that is currently dominant in both major parties). Columnists like The Australian’s Andrew Bolt present his readers’ own enthusiasms back at them as the fundamental truth of a given situation. Conservative politicians, such as Tony Abbott, militantly corral this enthusiasm, shaping it into a blunt weapon to attack the progressive elements of the nation.

The danger in this for conservative politicians is that they must continually ride the wave of enthusiasm and therefore can never properly formulate rational policies based beyond facile arguments about refugees. When a conservative government does try to introduce policy that can’t help but be understood as against their constituents’ own material interests (such as the Howard government’s Workchoices industrial relations policies), enthusiasm turns in a flash against them. The progressive elements of Australia’s representive democracy (as well as the progressive elements of other representative democracies) are curently experiencing a failure of enthusiasm. It doesn’t matter how ‘correct’ (scientific or otherwise) they are in their policies, without a collective enthusiasm behind them whatever project they hope to introduce or catalyse in the population shall fail.

Greater visibility has to be produced around the progressive enthusiasms already set to the tasks of producing a more equitable and sustainable world. Beyond the collective drive that it produces, the other political efficacy of enthusiasm is that it is contagious. Progressive political enthusiasm has to be represented in the media to effect any change.

2 thoughts on “Overcoming the Failures of Political Enthusiasm”

  1. Sorry, I have an off-topic question. Didn’t Deleuze write somewhere that “you should only write about what you love”? I am sure I remember reading this somewhere, but do not remember where, can anyone help? Thank you so much.

  2. Hi Jeroen,
    I can’t recall anything like that. Deleuze did say something like that he follows his interests and when he begins a new project he forgets everything from before and starts again. I don’t think he would use the word ‘love’ (or if it has been translated as such it is a poor translation) in this context.

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