Banality Critique: History of a Genre
The bon mot from Hannah Arendt’s report on Eichmann’s trial has spawned, sixty years later, an entire genre of liberal think piece. Arendt’s emphasis on the bureaucratic exoskeleton of Nazism was insightful because the appearance and social characteristics of the perpetrators stood in such extreme contrast to their actions. It is still worth thinking about the fact that educated, middle-class Germans were capable of murdering millions of innocent Jews; that the process involved not only terror but methods that conformed to mass industrial processes; and that the bureaucratic reason at the heart of modernity is not in and of itself progressive but a source of domination. The fact of the thing was and remains shocking, even to a generation for whom mass violence has become normalized.
But today the liberal commentariat sees the “banality of evil” everywhere. This not only trivializes the insight but also leads to the question of why, if it is so obvious and ubiquitous, it is worth writing about at all. There is a New Yorker piece on “the banality of scamming,” which covers a system of corruption at the center of higher education. Just a few weeks before they ran a piece titled “The Pure American Banality of Donald Trump’s White House Fast-Food Banquet,” after Trump decided to serve the Clemson football team fast-food because of the government shutdown.
The New York Times could consider replacing “all the news that’s fit to print” with “the banality of Trumpism,” a more accurate picture of their editorial direction. There is, of course, an actual op-ed piece with that title by Paul Krugman, which is in competition with an identically titled piece in the New Statesman. The New Republic tried its hand at the Trump subgenre with a nice reversal: “Donald Trump and the Evil of Banality.”
And Trump’s not the only perpetrator of the banal. Modern life in America has spawned a long list of destructive side-effects that slip into the formula. There is the banality of racism, of white nationalism, of voter repression, of sexual abuse. The moniker is also applied to specific phenomena as well, like the “banality of the Equifax breach” or the “banality of the attack on the Borussia Dortmund bus.” Append some generic or particular right-wing political fact to “the banality of…” and you have an op-ed fait accompli.
The Culture Wars of Boredom
What is the meaning of all this banality signaling? What does it say about the writers themselves, about the contemporary culture of elite liberal opinion? And, perhaps most importantly, why is it worth reviewing this strange genre of cultural detritus in the first place?
There seem to be two dimensions to the banality moment of liberal commentary, its “manifest” as well as “latent” functions.
Let’s begin with the obvious.
The rise of Trumpism has made the liberal intellectual class bipolar. They move from a manic, hysterical denial of reality to an attitude of exhaustion and detachment. Not knowing whether to emphasize Trump’s flamboyance or his thoroughgoing averageness, everyman-like cultural proclivities, and general ineptitude, they decided to pursue both. As the shock value of Trump’s particular form of conservatism waned, and as people realized that he is not a “fascist” but a more senile and perhaps candid exemplar of the run-of-the-mill racist, anti-immigrant, anti-working class politics that has been more or less standard since Reagan, banality commentary became an expedient: new skins for the old wine of superior indignation. Outrage at Trump’s mere existence was traded for a depressive state and its symptomatic repetitions: it’s all just pointless, tasteless.
Because they are fundamentally shameless they saw no reason why they shouldn’t exploit these degenerate vacillations to maintain their readership. On the surface, banality lit is thus a sort of compromise formation for a class of people who make a living by shoveling coal into the public sphere which they and their conservative counterparts have reduced to a machine for generating impotent outrage.
To this material function can be added an ideological one.
Banality lit exemplifies the dual purpose of mainstream criticism in the era of neoliberal breakdown: promoting hysteria while maintaining political apathy and historical amnesia. Politics is back on the agenda after the decades-long neoliberal assault on working class organizations of self-determination. The rise of radical alternatives to the status quo puts mainstream liberalism in a bind. They know that Trump is an existential threat to “decency” and the efficacy of American global hegemony. On the other hand, they have to make sure that people do not use this as an excuse to fall in line with radical segments that are kicking into gear now that class-based politics is growing in popularity and ambition.
The ideological side of the “banality of evil” racket is thus a fetish of maturity, civility, and moderation, of “realism” versus the “extremism” of the most basic social-democratic, common sense reforms. Enforced political amnesia and a desire to appear like the “adults in the room” has long been part of the suppression of radicalism. If, as Adolph Reed Jr. put it in his essay “Nothing Left,” “Exaggerating the differences between Democratic and Republican candidates…encourages the retrospective sanitizing of previous Democratic candidates and administrations,” today it is worse: many liberals now look back at reptiles like Bush and McCain as exemplars, compared to Trump, of brutality that was at least civilized. At the same time, they are being faced with a small group of hugely popular politicians like Bernie Sanders, who give the lie to their false sense of resistance by actually challenging power. Their method of dealing with him seems to be to pretend he doesn’t exist.
This hypocrisy is perhaps the most scandalous thing about banality lit: the fact that centrist liberalism’s civility policing and across-the-aisle mongering functions as a cover for their failure to use their eight years in power to save the middle class from the immiseration that made Trump possible in the first place. The liberal’s hysterical reaction to Trump had to be based less in a disagreement about who should control the economy than his daily refusal of the mind numbing professional-managerial politics so central to their world view. As a result, the material effects on working people of any given policy are less important than their cultural significance or symbolic meaning. Who cares if the working people of Alabama, South Carolina, or Georgia don’t have health insurance or clean water, or if their elections are rigged, or if abortion is outlawed? Donald Trump is feeding their football teams hamburgers in the White House.
To draw a distinction, then, between both the right and the burgeoning left, and in order to maintain the sense of anxiety and total collapse that feeds both the booming daily news culture industry in the Trump era as well as their claims to power, liberals have to stay focused on issues of culture and decorum while suppressing political movements that stand to replace them. The con is to sell “RESISTANCE” without actual politics, to cover Trump’s policies while always reminding the audience that his greatest crime is the tasteless flouting of the sanctity of Presidential office. Banality lit is part of this move.
With this the liberal has already replaced Arendt’s political analysis with the culture wars. Journalism is now less about uncovering the mechanisms of power—the naming of names and the telling of facts—and more about the expression of cultural distress, the long sigh of “how could we possibly get this low.” Their sense of radical resistance, here playing out through cultural fatigue, is in fact only a veil over their wounded egos, and a defense against the awareness that their model of governance is being challenged from all sides.
Anxiety about the latter perhaps gets us to the latent content of this genre, its secret core. Is there any reason to believe that we can learn something from seemingly random cultural formations such as this, that by interpreting the cultural detritus of a particular group or class we can find something, perhaps unconscious, that is expressed through it? That here, in these seemingly irrelevant expressions, we will encounter the truth of a particular perspective?
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that at the heart of this genre is a form of projection. Psychoanalysis teaches us that we tend to split off uncomfortable truths about ourselves and project them outward, as if they do not come from us but from bad, painful things outside.
The slightest interpretive efforts force us to recognize that banality is in fact the moderate liberal’s basic criteria of political competence. The Mueller obsession was just one extreme example of this fact, but it would be fruitless to spend too much time on instances of this unconscious attitude. How else should we interpret the constant discourse about electability than that it refers to the candidate of such thorough averageness that their policy beliefs—which no doubt diverge from much of the electorate—become irrelevant? The entire genre appears as an unconscious image of liberal elites and their technocratic worldview, a catchword for the mimesis of maturity in a world where being “normal” and “well adjusted” means successfully internalizing capitalism’s insane and unnatural demands: that we work more, harder, and for less; that we make sacrifices without expecting anything in return; that we capitulate to a future that promises nothing but destruction; and that we abandon any semblance of political self-determination and simply let the expertise of capital’s hired hands organize the society we have to live in.
What we are witnessing here is an expression of the profound political impotence of a liberal establishment that cannot square the managerial politics it is comfortable with and the demands of average Americans. Despite titanic feats of hysterical denial, the sacrifice of untold man hours promoting conspiracy theories, and the endless search for a scapegoat—such as the guilt of other, more popular leftist candidates and their supporters—the liberal commentariat has inevitably sensed that the benefits of political moderation can no longer be taken for granted among working people. Its expertise lies in managing expectations downward, while the American people are gaining a new sense of political ambition. The banality genre is a bit of cultural diversion, along with many others, used to drown out the noise from this tension.
Kit Kensington is a latte artist and part-time valet living in Rancho Cucamonga.