Thoughts on Totalitarian Kitsch

Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements…

Whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch. When I say “totalitarian,” what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life… Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

There was a bit of a vogue a couple of years ago among some of my acquaintances for bagging artefacts of ‘totalitarain kitsch’ as souvenirs of travels and business trips in Africa and Asia. Gaddafi watches and rugs, Pakistan army mugs and stickers and scary gilt-framed photos of (now deposed) Tunisian dictator Ben Ali were just a few of the items that were brought back home, to be met with a delicious mixture of horror and hilarity by friends and colleagues.

This all suddenly seems in somewhat poor taste given recent events in North Africa. Ben Ali and Mubarak have gone, and Gaddafi is still clinging on to power as Libya burns. Perhaps it will only be after the dust settles on the crisis that the outside world will be able to get anything like real insight on what life has been like for Libyans under the repressive and secretive Gaddafi regime.

Sam Leith did a great piece in The Evening Standard earlier in the week analysing the way in which the Western media has turned the undeniably bonkers Libyan despot Gaddafi into a figure of fun (for an example of this tendency, see this slide show in Vanity Fair on Gaddafi’s fashion sense). By having a good old laugh at Gaddafi’s hilarious outfits and hot female bodyguards, Leith argues, we have turned him into a bogeyman – and this has rather masked extent of his brutality.

Tony Blair‘s government started flogging him arms and buying oil from him; and the general conversation rehabilitated Gaddafi as a comic character. He wasn’t the first it has happened to. Think of Turkmenbashi, with his rotating golden statues and his bonkers poetry; or of stack-heeled, bouffy-haired Kim Jong-Il, singing “I’m so rone-ery!” in Team America: World Police.

Peter York did a book called Dictator’s Homes a couple of years ago: a Hello!-style album of funny photographs of the kitsch ways in which despots did up their front rooms. My dear, the vulgarity! It seemed to epitomise the way sophisticates end up occluding what they know about very bad men by making a joke out of them.

Of course, to make bogeymen look absurd is the proper task of ridicule. But by making them cartoony, we also risk making cartoons of the people who suffer under them. We risk forgetting why they are bogeymen. From the student with his bust of Lenin and his Che Guevara T-shirt to the hipster wearing the Chairman Mao wristwatch, the ironic appreciation of foreign mass-murderers is a sort of connoisseurship.

It makes trinkets of monsters – bringing a version of them into our self-enclosed world as an accessory, and driving out the need to imagine what it is to live in theirs. It’s strange how shallow and silly we can be, in other words, when we’re being sophisticated. Remember those 200 dead Libyans, not getting the joke. Might be possible to be too sophisticated, hey? (see here for full story)

Does collecting bits of ‘totalitarian kitsch’ from travels also have the same effect? I think very possibly it does. I’m not going to be a hypocrite here because I think that this is a form of humour I wholeheartedly participated in at one point in my life. It’s just that it doesn’t seem quite so funny now.

There is a really amusing (and often painfully true-to-life) website called ‘Stuff Expat Aidworkers Like’. It includes such gems as #15 dressing like a local and #9 war junk (expat aidworkers just love to pose next to burned-out tanks!). I think I would also include ‘collecting Totalitarian Kitsch’ as something that expat aid workers like; also journalists, political analysts, business execs and students.

Pakistan army window stickers: whose poor taste?

Mundane artifacts (for want of a better word) do often reveal a fascinating subtext about political and economic processes. If you want to check out two very different and rather eccentric ‘collections’ of objects from overseas travels compare/contrast these two examples: War rug and this ‘Informal Museum of Foreign Grocery Products’. In my book there is nothing that wrong with collecting bits and pieces  when you are abroad that intrigue/amuse you or that tell a story , but when we go into the realm of pieces of ‘totalitarian kitsch’ you have to wonder whom the joke is really on…



3 Responses to “Thoughts on Totalitarian Kitsch”

  1. as someone who is 100% guilty of this (i had a ucpn-m political poster as my computer desktop background three years before i even thought i would ever go to nepal), good food for thought. thanks for the post.

  2. what a funny thought! thanks for stopping by xx

  3. GUILTY.

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