In the Shadow of the Swastika

A Reply to Lindsay Parkhowell’s ‘Irony and Historical Detachment’

It all started with a Facebook post. Upon arrival at London Gatwick airport, professor and Public Seminar editor Michael Weinman saw an advertisement on which someone had drawn a Swastika. Shocked, he uploaded a hastily taken photograph. One commenter argued that the Swastika should not be shocking because it is an ancient religious symbol. I commented too. Without defending it, I argued that the graffiti is an example of a specifically British form of blunt ironic humor. Weinman’s former student, writer and activist Lindsay Parkhowell, responded with the essay ‘Irony and Historical Detachment’ for Public Seminar. It deserves a reply.

Parkhowell criticizes the use of irony in Anglophone cultures through the lens of Fredric Jameson’s distinction between “parody” and “pastiche.” For Jameson, parody is satirical. It is a “systematic mimicry” of an eccentric style (e.g. Faulkner’s long sentences, D.H. Lawrence’s use of nature imagery and colloquial speech, and Mahler’s mixture of “high orchestral pathos” with traditional peasant music). Pastiche, however, is depoliticized mimicry. It lacks parody’s ulterior motive, and Jameson decries it as the imitation of dead styles in the dead language of the global culture industry (e.g. “retro” films in the style of “1930sness” or “1950sness”).

With this distinction, Parkhowell claims that irony divides the speaker into two people: one connected to the event, another detached from it. Even if intelligent and insightful, irony is a strategy for not intervening into situations already beyond the speaker’s control. For Parkhowell, the Swastika graffiti “doesn’t even come close to stimulating reflection on the present by ironically referencing a past object.”

Another of Parkhowell’s worries was the appearance of the image amid the eclectic content of his scrolling news feed. “In such a situation of discourse immanence,” he writes, “in which the validity of a claim (including humor) is secured by internal and not external criteria, objective reality is the loser, because only other internal criteria are successful in combatting the claim.” This is a different sort of argument, belonging to what we might call the “phenomenology of cyberspace” particularly relevant for discussing “post-truth” politics. I will, however, focus on Parkhowell’s first point.

Parkhowell correctly identifies part of the problem by focussing on what Jameson called the “crisis of historicity” — our inability to order our experience of time and images. In response, I want to re-assert my original comment about nationally-specific attitudes. This comes with the caveat that Parkhowell is right about the pitfall’s ironic “historical detachment,” but I want to reject his approach. This is because what Jameson calls “pastiche” applies to cultural production (films, novels, photographs), but it is inappropriate to apply it to this piece of graffiti, which doesn’t mimic anything.

To my mind, the problem is not the intentions of the graffitist. Parkhowell thinks they have tried to shock the viewer, but in doing so they have emptied the symbol of meaning. He thinks that, as a result, it has lost any scandalous power it could have because it does not refer to the background image. I think, however, that the person who drew the Swastika on the advertisement is not trying to shock anyone. It is more likely that they are just alleviating their own boredom while they wait in a long queue at passport control. The problem then comes down to the Swastika’s “potential explosive impact.” I would like to argue that this has faded in contemporary Britain. This is, I think, because a distorted image of what fascism was or is saturates British culture. Even among people old enough to remember the Second World War, fascism and its visual language belong to someone else (the Germans). It has already been partially emptied of meaning, and “common sense” English liberalism plays a role here.

The public display of the Swastika does not necessarily violate British law. In Germany, Austria, and France, for example, those found guilty of displays of Nazi insignia (except for artistic purposes) can be fined or jailed. In the United Kingdom, it is only a criminal offense if prohibited under Section 5(1) of the Public Order Act (1986). This forbids, amongst other behavior, “displays [of] any writing, sign, or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive, or insulting within sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.” This would be defended by those subscribing to philosopher John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” developed in the book On Liberty. This states that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

The law and the harm principle permit freedom of expression, such as using Nazi symbols or publishing fascist screeds, but stop people from picketing the funeral of a Holocaust survivor dressed in full Nazi regalia. With few restrictions placed on provocative fashion items, British punks of the 1970s appalled their parents by wearing Swastika armbands. Prince Harry even infamously wore a Nazi uniform to a 2005 costume party, disgusting the tabloid press. The image that shocked Weinman and Parkhowell is not so devastating in the image-world of 21st century Britain. It is no more horrifying than the primitively scrawled Swastikas found on school desks countrywide.

One issue here is the faulty construction of a national memory. Britain interprets itself, with limited justification, as the fearless victor of the Second World War. Few far-right groups before or after the war used the Swastika. There are also only very few examples in which the symbol was displayed on British territory in an official capacity. All this means that the Swastika elicits a different response in Britain than other countries. This has indeed produced a form of “historical detachment.” This is, however, not tied up with ironic “pastiche,” but a complacency about the apparently marginal status of fascist politics and imagery in the UK.

Of the few notable examples of the official public display of the Swastika in Britain, one was the football match between England and Germany on 4th December 1935. Held at White Hart Lane, the home ground of Tottenham Hotspur (a club with a historically Jewish following), the flag of Nazi Germany flew proudly above the stadium. The crowd — both German and some English — responded to the German national anthem with the fascist salute. The other is the rarely-discussed German occupation of the tiny islands of Jersey, Guernsey, and Alderney, British Crown Dependencies in the English Channel near the coast of France. Swastikas appeared on several businesses of alleged collaborators, people selling goods on the black market, and those seeking favor with the occupying forces. It is unclear, however, if the flags of the United Kingdom, or the local flags of the islands, were replaced with that of Nazi Germany.

The Swastika is even rare among British far-right groups. The symbol of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists was a futurist-style white lightning bolt inside concentric blue and white circles on a red background. Another pre-war fascist group, the Imperial Fascist League, did use the Swastika, placing it in a white circle in the middle of the British “Union Jack” as their flag between 1928-1939. A variant of this image was used by the post-war National Socialist Movement 88 — Britannia, while other later groups, such as the British Peoples’ Party and November 9th Society, used the familiar white circle on a red background.

There are significant continuities between “classical fascism” and the British far-right, notably the National Front, but far-right politics in the United Kingdom mostly shies away from explicit Nazi references. The attitudes of these groups, especially when affiliated with the Conservative Party, mostly consists of the “jingoistic” nationalism of “nativists” who wish to preserve what they see as traditional British culture. A significant aspect here is a proud emphasis on the defeat of Nazi Germany.

The image that worried Weinman and Parkhowell says little about the rise of fascism in the UK. Nor does it say much about “pastiche.” It speaks volumes, however, about the complacency with which the Second World War is memorialized. The trauma of Britain’s “finest hour” — the bravery of the soldiers, the suffering of civilians, the world-historical significance of the Battle of Britain and the Normandy Landings — is discussed daily in the British media. Though it is right not to speculate about how ordinary people would have acted if the Nazis had successfully invaded, there is little self-reflection about using the war as a source of national pride. Perhaps these discussions cynically mitigate cultural anxieties about the decline of the British empire, as if memorialization of the war effort was the only stitch holding together the fragile social fabric of post-imperial multicultural society.

There is only one adequate line of response to all this, especially during a moment of acute national identity crisis like Brexit. Only an emphasis on “decentered” self-reflection will help deal with the failures of collective memory. This is the condition for a social life founded on “hospitality” towards others, a cosmopolitan outlook, and the robust defense of democratic institutions. All this is under threat. One way to advance those views is to critique fascism when we see it — hiding in plain sight less often than the shadow of the Swastika.

Max L. Feldman is a writer, art critic, and adjunct instructor-type based in Vienna, Austria. He is currently studying for a PhD in Philosophy at The Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.

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