Hate is All Around: The Politics of Enthusiasm (and its Discontents)

“My Favorite Things” scene, from The Sound of Music.

In the headline for his interview with the architecture critic and urban theorist Geoff Manaugh, Simon Sellars coined the felicitous phrase, “the politics of enthusiasm,” inspired in part by Manaugh’s comment, “Arguably, nothing’s boring; it comes down to whether you’re alert enough to find something of interest. If you’re willing to embarrass yourself expressing unexpected enthusiasms, for instance, then nothing’s ever boring.” By way of example, Manaugh cites “the international departure lounge at the Chicago airport,” which “may sound like the most boring place on earth, but seen from a parallax view, philosophically speaking, is rich in latent content, argues Manaugh: “Freudian/sexual interest, Marxist/revolutionary interest, rightwing/Monarchist interest.”

“The politics of enthusiasm seems to have a lot to do with plucking significance out of seemingly depthless things.”

In the end, Manaugh and Sellars never put much theoretical flesh on its conceptual bones, but the politics of enthusiasm is a phrase so perfectly turned that its poetic power—the way it stirs up a cloud of meanings in our minds, inviting us to give it an interpretive spin of our own—compensates for its inexactness as a term.

Negativland, "Our Favorite Things."

For Sellars, the politics of enthusiasm seems to have a lot to do with plucking significance out of seemingly depthless things. Think of William Eggleston’s supersaturated snapshots of vending machines and parking meters and other transcendently ordinary subject matter in the ’70s. Or Ed Ruscha’s iconic, affectless paintings of Southern California’s geography of nowhere. Or Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food, which includes no songs about buildings or food, disappointingly enough, but gestures, nonetheless, toward an ironic aesthetic whose enthusiasm—make that “enthusiasm”—for the phosphor-lit wastelands of American sprawl (exurban office parks and freeway underpasses, big-box outlets and dead malls) is at heart political. (Talking Head David Byrne elaborated this aesthetic in the deadpan Pop-ism of Your Action World: Winners Are Losers With a New Attitude, with its blank-brained snapshots of empty cafeterias and budget hotel rooms. In his Bicycle Diaries, a free-associated philosophical travelogue, his enthusiasms seem to be shedding their ironic quotation marks, as in the entry where Byrne rejoices in the “frontier Puritan fundamentalism” of a prefab corrugated metal church and the gravy-brown box of a nameless building, structures so bleakly featureless they make 20th century modernism “look positively baroque—and therefore less moral.” A new politics of enthusiasm?)

Ironic appreciation— “liking things,” rather than liking things, as in: the members of the mordantly cynical industrial band Throbbing Gristle justifying their love for Abba or early-oughties hipsters wearing trucker hats—makes the politics of enthusiasm obvious.


More From Thought Catalog

  • Joseph

    Cabinets of wonder have a pedagogical function in that they create a drive to learn fact from fiction, mythology, and yes that has a lot to do with how they implicate the viewer.

  • http://twitter.com/auweanuox David Smith

    The negative in this world will always find SOME way to justify itself, I guess.

  • Beckaboss

    I think this here writer might just be my soul mate.

  • John

    This is just such a wonderful concept, all around;… my favorite TC article, I think.

  • Markdery

    Thanks, @John, @Beckaboss. Gratifying to hear my modest little (cough cough) effort rattled a few neurons out there.

  • http://markdery.com/?p=205 Shovelware › The Politics of Enthusiasm vs. The Pleasures of Hating

    […] Hate is All Around: The Politics of Enthusiasm (and its Discontents) […]

  • http://twitter.com/rudytheelder Rudy Rucker

    Thanks, Mark! You've motivated me to finally create a (crude) Lifebox page which uses Google to search the extensive materials I've placed on line.

    • Markdery

      Fantastic. Let me know when the artificially intelligent amanuensis of our dreams becomes a reality! Who was it that said all writing is an argument with death? Cesare Pavese? (Who lost that argument, by the way.) I want my words to survive me, to rant and muse *interactively*. Not an argument *with* death, but an argument that *survives* death, taking all comers. We need this technology, Rudy. Get on it!

  • http://twitter.com/_justvibing @_justvibing

    'because what is Facebook friendship, after all, … a monument to mutually enabling narcissism'

  • Big Tim Cavanaugh

    I can see how you can make a world view (or as Mark does in this wonderful last-graf list, a self-fashioning) out of negative as well as positive obsessions.

    I think a politics made out of this material would not be conducive to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Sorry for an argumentum ad Hitlerum, but the standout philosopher of friend/enemy- or enmity-based philosophy is Carl Schmitt, and who wants more of his kind of stuff?

    • Markdery

      A useful prod to clarity, Big Tim. Thanks for that. What I meant in my repurposing of Sellar's phrase “the politics of enthusiasm” was not a politics founded on affinity or as the case may be enmity—that is, a politics whose ideology *is* enthusiasm—but rather the hidden ideological subtext in much online gushing about whatever. In other words, what are politics for which this all this enthusing is a duck blind? What are the politics of Like-ing things and Favorite-ing things, really? That's the question speared on the end of my bayonet. Make sense? Sorry to be so labored.

  • http://maaaaaan.tumblr.com/ wackomet

    what if I’m enthusiastic about Black Flag


  • John

    Wonderful article.

  • http://brainwane.dreamwidth.org/ Sumana Harihareswara

    Thought-provoking piece. I especially liked your phrasing “rhapsodic rather than analytic.”

    Regarding the hater-hatin': There is a healthy balance between hating critics for harshing my squee and being completely neutral towards hedonic utility. Sometimes, because I'm going through a rough time, I just need to listen to John Finnemore on The Now Show or reminisce about my favorite _Babylon 5_ episodes. And I privilege my immediate need for comfort over the fair-minded need to listen to critique.

    What are your thoughts on working towards an alternate perspective on building one's identity? Prescriptively, I mean. Instead of “what I like,” do you prefer “what I make,” “whom I love,” or perhaps something less direct.

    • Markdery

      “Squee”: Hadn't heard that one. I'll add it to my lexicon of OMG-isms. Thanks for the props. (Do you kids still say that?) Not sure I agree with the binary you've constructed, which wasn't the dichotomy I addressed in my argument. The choice, I think, isn't between hating the haters—trolls who live for the lulz of killing other peoples' buzzes—and chasing the endorphin buzz of your enthusiasms; as I argue, it's between the unquestioned assumption that we're defined solely by what we like and a more anarchic politics of enthusiasm, one that wonders if we're equally defined by our dislikes, or, stepping outside that confining binary, by things we both like AND dislike, simultaneously—our “attractive repulsions and repulsive attractions.” And what about things we feel a certain kinship with, an ineffable commonality—things we're drawn to, inexplicably, by a feeling that isn't exactly like OR dislike OR any combination of the two, but rather a compulsion, an obsession, some kind of love that has no name because it isn't really love at all, but more of a psychic magnetism (whatever that is)? As for identity construction, I think what I was groping toward, in my argument's peroration, was a theory of identity as SELF-assembling, the sum of all the things we Favorite, and all the things we Hate, and all the things that Favorite US. The self as a portal through which a lifetime of passing infatuations, abiding obsessions, cordial loathings, ardent desires, and so forth all pass, some changing us profoundly, others passing without a trace. Does that make any sense?

  • Unsure guy

    not sure what i'm supposed to pick up from this or how it is practical

    • Markdery

      Maybe practicality is the wrong yardstick for measuring this one?

      • http://www.charge-shot.com Craig

        I concur. I think it would've failed as an article if it were easily summed up as a “do this or do that” argument. That said, it's certainly got me thinking about how I just clicked “Like” for Thought Catalog.

  • Distill

    That anyone could derive anything but depressing meaninglessness from that familiar feature of boingboing, the ubiquitous just-look-at-them-bananas is sort of amazing . Good job wresting something of value from that purposely ridiculous meme.

    As far as the “liking” goes, it seems like, unfortunately, when you “like” something, you end up reducing yourself to the role of cheerleader/fan in the service of some commercial entity. That doesn't have to be a bad thing, but, needless to say, it is “friendship” in name only.

  • Doug

    Mark I am midway through this article and I am stuck on a little something, a bit of gristle, as it were. Though it is not throbbing, it has prevented me from moving forward, so I have to comment now before I finish.

    Either I am misreading you, or you have gotten Alice Roosevelt Longworth's philosophy and the meaning of the quote embroidered on her pillow completely assbackwards. That is decidedly no moralizing homily. You suggest with the phrases “positivity gospel” and “tut tutting,” that she was a benevolent matriarch who wants to be near the crab apples to cheer them up with some Norman Vincent Pealish pep talk. Quite the contrary. She had a notoriously acerbic wit and was an unrepentant gossip; the pillow is in fact a call out to all other “haters” to come and dish the dirt with her. Did I mistake your intention there?

  • Doug

    OK, now that I have posted my quibble and read the whole article (twice) I am back to comment again.

    Though I am a bit type-tied, as my current mood is of a more enthusiastic bent, and I am afraid of falling into uncritical booster rah rah mode. Such a detailed dissection of liking and disliking leaves one a bit self-conscious about any sort of effusive praise. Oh how to be rhapsodic and analytic at the same time? Reminds me of the fine line trod at the magazine Ode, “for intelligent optimists.” It is indeed a quandry, balancing our Pollyannas with our Cassandras.

    There is also an interesting overlap in the “commodity fetishization” section of this piece with Rob Walker's Consumed column project in the NY Times Sunday Magazine, with its individual case studies.

    If anyone else's interest was piqued by the “(the excavation, from sand dunes near L.A., of the lath-and-plaster ruins of Cecil B. DeMille’s City of the Pharoah from his silent version of The Ten Commandments)” as I was, here is a link to an article on the man obsessed with it:

    I guess ultimately what there is to say is thanks Mark. You are now on my radar of writers to seek out and a person of interest for ideas to nosh on. All because Cory at Boing Boing commanded me, Moses style, to “Look at this. Just look at it.”

  • Rick Poynor

    In “Notes on 'Camp'” Susan Sontag likewise affirms the necessity of breaking free from what Mark calls the “confining binary of loving versus loathing”. She proposes liking and disliking, in the same breath, as a vital precondition for analysis:

    “For no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it; he can only, whatever his intention, exhibit it. To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.”

    • Markdery

      Rick: I'm staggered to see you here. Having your comment in this thread is like—I don't know, noticing that the guy behind you in the checkout line at Whole Foods is Milton Glaser? In any event, the Sontag quote is one of my favorites, but given queer theorists' excorciations of the not-so-latent homophobia of “Notes On Camp” (an essay I love, be it said) and the marvelous close reading Josh Glenn gave it in HERMENAUT (“Notes on Notes on Camp,” if memory serves), I'm inclined to italicize the “revulsion” in “modified by revulsion.” Despite the seeming sympathy of that essay, there's a detectable shudder of contempt rippling through it in spots, Sontag's own lesbianism not withstanding. Then, too, she forgets that some of the most cogent analyses of a “sensibility” always come from fan cultures. To be a fan is not, by definition, to be critically neutered. I'm thinking of Henry Jenkins's forays into fan ethnography, and Erik Davis's unforgettable “Klingon Like Me” article, which features STAR TREK fans analyzing their sensibility in some depth. Anyway, thanks for sparking these conceptual arcs!

    • Doug

      Rick I thought your talk here http://www.typotheque.com/arti…/ sets up an interesting dialogue with Mark's essay. Indeed they both begin with a found phrase that is used as a departure point: “the politics of enthusiasm” and “the time for being against.”

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  • Markdery

    Inspiring to know the *pesticide* Black Flag, whose tagline I was punning on (“kills bugs on contact”), has such rabid fans.

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