Kundera on Kitsch, Kitsch on 2023

July 21, 2023 08:32
Photo: Amazon

When Kundera penned The Unbearable Lightness of Being in the early 1980s, he was living in France whilst the ossified Soviet Union was crumbling under the weight of its successive generations of gento-cratic leadership. Whilst the novel was set broadly in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring, the author was himself largely immune from the horrors of totalitarianism that he had escaped through exile.

The New York Times interview with the gentleman in 1985 by Olga Carlisle described Kundera as having “brought Eastern Europe to the attention of the Western reading public, and he has done so with insights that are universal in their appeal.”

One example of such universal insight would be the ubiquity of injustices under regimes that tolerate minimal dissent, precipitate conformity of thought, and that encourage blind obeisance in defiance of nakedly and blatantly true, truths. Another would be the banality of kitsch - a phrase I coined to describe the commonness, the non-descript, and indeed, the so-overt-that-it-is-almost-taken-for-granted nature of kitsch, as per in the seminal work published in 1984.

But what is kitsch? Kundera argues that it is an aesthetic ideal “in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist”. So it’s about being pollyannish, then? Perhaps not - after all, kitsch is an exclusionary tool of erasure: it effectively erases room and space for “everything […] essentially unacceptable in human existence”, ontologically intertwined with the promulgation of politics in the contemporary era.

Totalitarian regimes embrace kitsch - indeed, they are kitsch, for the singularity of the political movement, focus, and ideological commitments transforms society into effectively a ‘kumbaya universe’, one in which critiques, dissent, and calling-out of problems become sidelined, then crushed, then pulverised by the odious apparatus of the state. To differentiate the individual from the collective, Kundera muses, would be a “spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood”, the latter an affectionate euphemism for effectively the censorious spirit undergirding communities founded upon superimposed orthodoxy.

But I am not a literary theorist. Nor am I a writer - at least, not of the kinds of fiction (or non-fiction) Kundera grapples with; his literary merit far exceeds mine, contra those who facetiously compare him with Havel (or more absurdly, a counterpart from another country altogether, Walesa). What does kitsch mean in this day and age, and can we ever escape it? Is the totalitarian bent in kitsch merely a coincidental feature of it, or is it intrinsic to kitsch?

First, kitsch arises when political discourses become holier-than-thou in their moralising. The constant search for the moral high ground -- and the desperate attempt to claim it even despite the flimsy nature of grounds for so doing. The bizarre assertion that the ‘Friends’ are right and the ‘Enemies’ are wrong: Schmitt didn’t justify the friend-enemy distinction by appealing to moralising fictions; he embraced the fact that, as Kundera puts it bluntly, we were all “shit” anyway, and thus should recognise the nature of the political as a struggle, as a constant struggle between those who fell into our camps, and the others. Contrast that with the supercilious tendency of politicians today to characterise aligned parties, countries, and international organisations as being ‘in the right’, touted through empty slogans and calls of ‘Democracy!’, ‘Equality!’, ‘Justice for the Global South!’. And the other side must be eradicated, suppressed, removed at any cost - for they do not comport with the known ‘facts’, the ‘new truths’ of morality that are written with blood and in newspeak.

Second, kitsch inheres and endures throughout the expansive surveillance apparatus under which we live our seemingly ordinary lives. The Panopticon surveils through governmental agencies, cyber-infrastructural monitors, opinion formers and shapers who are in turn little more than foils and lackeys to the hidden systems that be, laws and rules written to serve those in positions of power and not the people. Yet the Panopticon also imposes its tyrannical rule through capitalistic means - the predictive algorithms aimed at smoothening your user experience, the matching algorithms screening out ‘undesirables’ on dating apps, or, indeed, the very applications with which we structure and calculate, constantly, our next moves and steps. Fitbit is an invitation for the Wolf of Tech to probe into our deepest, physical secrets - yet is normalised as a part of our hyper-health-conscious yet systemically unhealthy lives. Surveillance authoritarianism and capitalism are two sides of the same coin, and can co-exist across democracies and non-democracies alike. I’d like to think the mundaneness of this all, the seemingly innocuous nature of this all… is a direct product and symptom of kitsch. We know we are being surveilled, and yet we are thrilled at forgetting surveillance’s existence.

Third, kitsch is what happens when sycophancy becomes the norm, especially in top-down systems underpinned by the most shockingly inane of rules and ‘principles’. Those who fail to adhere to rigidly established and transmitted lines, are told that they have transgressed and abused their privileges. Those who toe the line are granted disproportionate room and space to climb the well-greased ladder, to seek out their next plush job. Kitsch is when meritocracy is subverted, subdued, and then reversed to favour the anti-meritocrats, bent on pulling down systems that - whilst flawed - at least recognise competence and celebrate integrity. Kitsch is omnipresent, and thus it feels absent; it fades into darkness.

2023 is a great year to re-read Kundera. I think I know what my next book will be, accompanied by some punchy summer wine (I don’t drink).

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Assistant Professor, HKU