- (New) Fascism: Contagion, Community, Myth by Nidesh Lawtoo
In (New) Fascism: Contagion, Community, Myth, Nidesh Lawtoo reclaims the legacy of mimetic theory from Nietzsche to Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. Lawtoo argues [End Page 171] that this theory is more urgent than ever to understand what is happening to politics today. Written in the beginning of Trump's presidency, or "apprentice presidency" as Lawtoo pleasantly calls it as a wink to reality shows, the book suggests that we need to go back to 19th-century crowd theory to understand the madness of our age. Mass hypnosis, identification and contagion were described by Gustave Le Bon and Freud, and it is hard to deny that such phenomena constitute a major symptom in current American and European political polarization and herd mentality. Lawtoo also borrows concepts from Georges Bataille to read new forms of abjection, sacred, and transgressions, that are spreading in the age of social media and television. How are heterogeneous elements channeled, used or tamed by today's demagogues? Could those elements be channeled to non-fascist ends? We know, and Lawtoo reminds us, how vexed the question was for Bataille, who in the 1930s was fascinated with fascism before boldly rejecting it.
The resurgence of extreme movements subsumed perhaps inaccurately under the name of "populism" bears witness to the unleashing of affects channeled by new charismatic leaders. In the 1990s, Lawtoo reminds us, neuroscience discovered the existence of mirror neurons—a finding that confirmed and reignited mimetic theory. Lawtoo contends that man is Homo mimeticus. To be sure, the mimetic function is at work among other animal species. However, the way in which imitation and contagion work in humans is characteristically political.
Back to the 1930s, consider the way in which at fascist rallies people all chanted together, marched together, and mirrored each other (horizontally) and their leader (vertically). Are we seeing a return of the fascist myth? Lawtoo suggests that we are, albeit via different modes due to the transformation of technologies and media. We are seeing the same mimetic pathos and unconscious that animated the fascist crowd a hundred years ago. At Trump rallies, people hypnotized by the leader were chanting violent slogans.
One question that Lawtoo might have explored is that in Europe (France for instance) and the U.S., it seems that the far right is imitating fascism (itself based on the mimetic unconscious) more than genuinely embodying it. There is a dimension of performance and theatricality which, although present of course in the fascist drama, seems today a mere 'phantom' or parody of the original. And yet, theater or not, this performance has real consequences—such as the victims of the January 6 occupation of the Capitol, such as victims of racist mobs, etc. Dismissing the new manifestations of fascism as mere farce, then, would not really do justice to this old and new phenomenon. Lawtoo is right to warn against this return of the fascist myth.
Although indulging in repetition and at times jargon, Lawtoo's book is a compelling reminder that continental philosophy, sociology (à la Mauss, Durkheim, and Bataille), and psychoanalysis continue to be relevant to our understanding of the present. [End Page 172]