by Ping-Ko Chiu
Kitsch — “The absolute denial of shit” as Kundera would say in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
I take Kundera’s war on kitsch as a war on ideologies. In particular, I want to focus on the totalitarian kitsch that Sabina considers as her enemy. It is the absolute denial of shit under the veil of a political ideology that has been drilled into the depths of human mind. The Orwellian doublethink comes to mind as the perfect example of totalitarian kitsch — right is wrong and wrong is right.
Fiction aside, we see this kitsch in all forms of political organization whether it be nationalism, democracy, or communism. While Sabina focuses on communist Kitsch, the holocaust and the Indonesian genocide comes to mind as two examples that stem from anticommunist sentiments.
Hannah Arendt coined the term “The Banality of Evil” to describe the unoriginality in the human capacity to do evil as she was observing the War Crimes trials of the German soldiers after WW2. She observed that individual morals and personal integrity did not apply to the German soldiers that orchestrated and carried out the genocide. What happened to the sensible Germans? Have they always been demons waiting to inflict pain on the world? Was it just Hitler, Eichmann, or the other leaders of Nazi Germany to blame? Arendt thinks not. She made the conclusion that it is the whole society’s morality inversion that caused such destruction. Such inversion is only possible through a collective effort to twist what is bad into good. Judeo-Bolshevism conspiracies circulated intellectual circles at first but through Nazi’s propaganda efforts, it was accepted by the minds of many. It rendered the Jews and the communists as less than human in the eyes of the majority. Why should a society consider human rights for something that is less than human? It is what lead engineers to build facilities to efficiently kill. It is what allowed the everyday soldier to not flinch at the act of evil. This whole process lacks individual thought and those with different opinions were completely silenced. Such banality is kitsch.
Decades later, on the other side of the world, a genocide against the Chinese is carried out in Indonesia under a similar sentiment. Joshua Oppenheimer’s two-piece film, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, brings us close and personal to the perpetrators who never had to reconcile with the crimes they committed. Decades have passed since the local militia groups killed countless innocent ethnically Chinese Indonesians and anyone who stood against the local authority. All of it was done in the name of anticommunism. When Oppenheimer interviewed the perpetrators of violence about their past, they bragged about their bravery and heroism for the extermination of the Communists and acted it out in horrific detail. But as you follow these characters, you see glimpses of contradiction in their logic. In one moment, some of them would admit that the killings are wrong, but in the very next moment, they would deny responsibility or would justify their killing in the name of anticommunism. The totalitarian effort to cause the absolute fragmentation of a person’s moral framework is kitsch. In another scene, a man was shown describing the details of his father’s death in front of his friends. Except, his friends are all directly responsible for his fathers death and he told it in the form of self-deprecating humor. He was beginning to breakdown when groupthink kicked in and his friends assured him that the killing was justified. The “minor deviation” from the norm was adjusted. This denial of a man’s individual experiences and perspective is kitsch.
There isn’t anything inherently communist about communist kitsch just as there isn’t anything inherently anticommunist about anticommunist kitsch. One can probably swap out communism with any other ideology and justify any kind of shit. Can the human existence escape kitsch? It seems any ideology eventually succumbs to kitsch for its execution and mass adoption. Even Sabina realizes that she also falls prey to some form of sentimentality at the end. While I think kitsch is just an all too human condition, Kundera at least makes us keenly aware.tags: Book - Evil