Nato Thompson's Culture as Weapon' in the Shadow of a Political Spectacle

Nato Thompson reminds us that battles are fought not just over culture, but with it.

Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life

Publisher: Melville House
Length: 288 pages
Author: Nato Thompson
Price: $26.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-01

What a difference a day makes.

Only time will tell whether the collective American consciousness will continue to think in terms of before and after 8 November 2016, but at the time of this writing, just days after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Americans are definitely living in the election's shadow. It dominates the news, daily conversations, and already popping up here and there are the first books to speculate about life under a Trump administration.

Nato Thompson’s Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life, published in January 2017 by Melville House, though technically arriving after the election, already feels like a pre-Trump book. This is not fair, not the author’s fault, but it's undeniably true.

To his credit, Thompson was clearly paying attention to the spectacle of the election, and in particular to Trump as a cultural icon as well as political figure, when he was writing this book. He points out that online bloggers had already begun advising marketers to steer clear of emotional appeals to joy or sadness, “and instead focus the emotional packaging of their products in anger or surprise”. He sees this marketing strategy in Trump’s campaign: “Trump is appealing not because of his brazen lack of political correctness, but because he is always surprising, angry and contagious.” Rather ominously, at the end of the same paragraph, Thompson notes in passing that “it was like this with the speeches of Hitler in the 1930s...”.

Now that the US Presidential election is over, one wishes that Thompson had developed the connections between marketing and fascist propaganda more thoroughly.

This would not have been implausible. The second chapter provides a cursory overview of the Nazi use of art, technology and propaganda in its messaging. Unfortunately, it contributes nothing new to what most general readers already know. Moreover, Thompson’s tone is occasionally flippant, and his comments are at times banal, as when he tells readers that “Hitler’s rise to power came as a catalytic crescendo of the forces of culture as they combined the growing techniques of public relations and advertising with the burgeoning technology of cultural distribution. Mix all that with Hitler’s rabid racism and one gets a historically unprecedented powder keg. The Aryan nation rolled through Deutschland like a precapitalist rock concert.” He adds, “the cocktail of anti-Semitism, propaganda, and Nazis, combined with the growing techniques of culture, exploded to produce one of the largest meltdowns of that thing we call humanity.”

What's frustrating about passages like these are not the smugness or the lack of depth, but the nagging realization that Thompson is smarter and more serious than this bricolage of platitudes suggests.

Yes, of course Nazi rallies, like Trump’s rallies, were “primarily cathartic”. But as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt School critics famous for their writings on culture, art and fascism, point out, Hitler's lack of a coherent political platform, flagrant ignorance and absurdities are nothing new in politics. In his essay “Freudian Theory and the Theory of Fascist Propaganda”, Adorno tells us that Germans would make fun of the propaganda and the speeches. “Nevertheless, these appeals do not seem to have lost their attractiveness. Rather, their very phoniness may have been relished cynically and sadistically as an index for the fact that power alone decided one’s fate in the Third Reich, that is, power unhampered by rational objectivity.” One cannot help but think of images in the media of bare-chested white men shouting “Trump! Trump! Trump!” over reporters’ questions.

At the end of the book, Thompson rightly maintains that “rather than focusing on what Trump is saying... one has to appreciate the emotional texture of what is said, and how that texture -- whether fear, racial paranoia, indignation, or surprise -- plays into the virality of emotionally charged information.” This is a very cogent observation clearly made on the eve of the election, and evidence of Thompson’s savvy.

Yet it's again Adorno, cited too infrequently and frequently to little effect by Thompson, who tells us that people do not truly believe in their leaders. “They do not really identify themselves with him but act this identification, perform their own enthusiasm, and thus participate in their leader’s performance.” In short, people engage in participatory art.

When culture is a weapon, a fact made eminently clear in Thompson’s chapter about the cultural turn in military methodology entitled “The Insurgents”, and when influence is an art, then the staging, choreography and performance of the electoral process deserve closer scrutiny, closer than what Thompson provides here.

To be sure, Thompson is not to be blamed for failing to predict the outcome of the election, but Culture as Weapon seems to miss opportunities to interpret more deeply the ways we are influenced by culture, preferring a cursory, generally superficial description of the deployment of culture for capitalist or military ends to a more thorough analysis.

Like the Germans living under Hitler, Americans today are influenced by “refined techniques of affect, of emotion, of those parts of humanity beyond irrational decision-making.” But in a book about culture as a weapon, any discussion of Leni Riefenstahl’s infamously successful Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935) should certainly draw attention to its construction of myth. Thompson recognizes the importance of narrative, but does little more than say as much.

And what about symbols? “Hitler,” we are told, “was determined that his party have a flag more red, brilliant, and striking than their communist competitors. Hitler found himself in not only a political struggle, but also an aesthetic one.” So why not pause to consider what the colors and symbols of the flag do psychologically, socially, aesthetically? Further into the book colors come up again, in an entirely different context. That is, with regards to the mass marketing of Campbell’s soup and the art of Andy Warhol. “The imagery of Campbell’s, based on red, black and white became iconic.” Yet, isn’t it striking that the colors on the soup can are the same as the colors on the National Socialist flag?

Culture as Weapon is not a bad book. In fact, if it disappoints, this is only because it could be a better book. In his introduction, Thompson declares: “I want to explain the ways in which those in power have to use culture to maintain and expand their influence, and the role that we all play in that process.” One might say that he succeeds in chronicling that influence, but fails in his explication of it.


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(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

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(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

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