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SEHR, volume 5, Supplement: Cultural and Technological Incubations of Fascism
Updated December 17, 1996

fascism-in-the-making

Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht and Jeffrey Schnapp


THIS ISSUE OF THE Stanford Humanities Review devoted to the topic of "Cultural and Technological Incubations of Fascism," originated as a research seminar conducted by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Timothy Lenoir, and Jeffrey Schnapp in the winter quarter of 1993. It was built to an unusual degree around hands-on archival research performed at Stanford's Hoover Institution and in Green Library's Special Collections, and it brought together a remarkable cross-section of advanced students from disciplines as variegated as History, History of Science, Classics, Comparative Literature, Drama, English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian Studies. It was not intended as a course 'about fascism' in any strict or narrow sense. Nor did it focus upon the concatenation of historical events and circumstances that led to the rise of fascist movements and to their triumph in various parts of the globe during the 1920s and 1930s. Rather, the seminar was set up as an interdisciplinary research forum concerned with the socioeconomic, cultural, and technological preconditions that played different roles as catalysts for the emergence of fascism - even if their relationship to 'fascism' can rarely be described by such terms as causality or necessity.

As post-World-War II scholarship on the subject has established time and again, fascism was an elusive and sometimes contradictory phenomenon. Certain features were, of course, constants: totalitarianism, the militarization of civil society, mystical nationalism, anti-bolshevism, xenophobia. But always more a mobile constellation of leitmotifs than a systematic doctrine, fascism usually amounted to little more than a complex of ethical principles, credos, and aversions, held together - sometimes tenuously - via rhetorical-aesthetic sleight of hand. Hence fascism's lack of internal coherence, and its tendency to undergo constant self-redefinition; hence also the sometimes sharp divergences between the various forms it has assumed, from Spanish falangismo to Belgian rexisme to German nazism to Brazilian integralismo. This mutability at fascism's core was recognized from the start both by proponents, who often celebrated it as a sign of vitality, and by critics, who denounced it as a symptom of emptiness, opportunism, and/or duplicity. Other proponents sought to outfit fascism with, for example, a new Hegelian theory of state (Giovanni Gentile), a metaphysics (Julius Evola), or (as some have argued) an Ontology (Martin Heidegger). But the fact remains that fascism never developed into a full-blown philosophical system capable of negotiating such endemic conflicts as those between populist and elitist currents, between its call for modernization and for the resuscitation of the nation's glorious past, or between its cult of individualism and its institutional summons to law and order.

In short, fascism's instability renders all efforts at a global explanation and definition difficult, or at the very least, tends to oblige all such accounts to declare a particular variant (usually the Italian or German) as normative, and to gauge all other varieties according to their greater proximity or distance from this norm. By favoring the metaphor of "incubations" in the organization of the seminar, and in the selection of essays contained in this volume, we have opted for a contrasting approach, which rather than attempting to theorize fascism's "essence," reinserts fascisms-in-the-making within the complex cultural-historical continuum of the first decades of the twentieth century. The metaphor of "incubation" is borrowed from François Furet's seminal work on the history of the French Revolution (most notably in his Histoire de la Révolution Française, first edition 1965). By "incubations," we understand a multiplicity of discontinuous sites, simultaneously present within the cultural-historical and social field, where fascisms or proto-fascisms were being 'hatched' irrespective of the political agenda or stated intentions of the agents in question, and irrespective of whether a fascist movement eventually arose within the given setting. An important part of this approach was to include technical instruments, technology, scientific research and their effects (frequently referred to as psycho-physics), in the underlying notion of culture.

In accordance with these presuppositions, the seminar was divided into a series of nine thematic units (whose imprint can still be felt in the overall contours of the present volume): the organization and coordination of society; genetics and the discourse of history; bodies and machines; pilots and leaders; the culture and technology of total war; electrification and mobilization; politics of/and spectacle; recording, transmitting, and storing information; and nature and conservative revolution. The development of these categories in the essays that follow map out a diversity of sites and sectors within which (thus our retrospective hypothesis) key-components of fascism could - but would not always - shape up. Some contributions to our volume investigate the turn-of-the-century history of social science and medical discourses: euthenics, eugenics, the re-embedding of culture within physical culture, scientific management, and rehabilitation; all of these look into the history of particular technologies - photography and film in particular - and examine the possibilities that they open up on the psychological and social plane, possibilities that fascism would later (but not always necessarily) exploit. Deliberately probing contexts where full-blown fascist or fascistoid movements did not develop, many of the essays cover terrain that is readily charted within a framework of this sort.

Michael Golston ("'Im Anfang war der Rhythmus:' Rhythmic Incubations in Discourses of Mind, Body, and Race from 1850-1944") documents a broad fascination, culminating in the decades after 1900, with defining, measuring, and imposing rhythms; this is a fascination that points to a sometimes programmatic, sometimes preconscious desire to organize and coordinate the pace of individual existence and social life. Such structuring of time converges with certain efforts, particularly widespread in the United States, to shape space on the basis of obsessive ethical norms, which lie at the center of Christine Holbo's essay ("Euthenic America: Hygiene, Habitation, and Americanization, 1890-1920"). While both rhythm and architecture coordinate interactions among human bodies without affecting their biological autonomy, Matt Price ("Bodies and Souls: Rehabilitation of Wounded Soldiers in the Aftermath of the Great War") and Phil Thurtle ("The Creation of Genetic Identity: The Implications for the Biological Control of Society") describe practices for which biological autonomy no longer marked a limit to possible interventions. With the restoration of maimed bodies through artificial limbs after 1918 and with dreams of race-breeding and gene manipulation (which then enjoyed little prestige among the best scientists), the concept of shaping national bodies ceased to be a metaphor. This de-metaphorized ideal of the national body derived its legitimacy from an ideologically biased picture of athletics in ancient Greece. It survives, until the present day, in certain staging forms and rituals of the modern Olympics many of which have developed their media-friendly identity since the 1936 Berlin Games. For the first time, the Berlin Olympics codified a specific affinity between fascism and the medium of film, a topic which undergoes a genealogically grounded re-examination in Melissa Goldman's contribution ("Entrapped Agency: Constituting the Reality and Subjectivity in Motion Pictures, 1877-1916"). In some regards, Yasushi Ishii's overview of some central features of Japanese culture during the third decade of our century ("How Ghostly Were the 1920s in Japan? A Projection Without Sources") can be read as an allegory for this special issue of Stanford Humanities Review. For the question of whether Japan, the Asian ally of Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany, represents yet another fascist system tends to disappear behind the flicker of a fascinating range of phenomena. Taken together, these essays point to a convergence of cultural configurations within a frame of chronological simultaneity.

If our seminar had ever yielded to its multiple Hegelian temptations it might well have ended on the question of whether what we placed at a historical remove under the rubric of fascism was in reality anything more than a comparatively naive stage within a larger take-off towards the dominant cultures of the present era.

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