Henrik Enroth

Toward an Aesthetic Theory of Political Life: The Crisis of Liberal Democracy

The crisis of liberal democracy has been the occasion of much attention and concern. While political scientists have done important work to describe and analyze the situation, the crisis of liberal democracy is, I argue in this book project, not well understood. To better understand this crisis we need a broader and longer perspective, extending beyond a narrow focus on political institutions and processes. The project argues that what we are seeing in the current crisis of liberal democracy is a clash between two fundamental attitudes that we find in many areas of human endeavor, notably the aesthetic: an emphasis on expression, authenticity, and immediacy, on the one hand; against an emphasis on form, rules, and mediation, on the other. The project explores the dynamic between these attitudes as variously treated by a series of writers and theorists in the continental European cultural tradition, especially Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Mann, Hannah Arendt, and Theodor Adorno. On the basis of the analysis, an analytical framework is constructed to better understand the crisis of liberal democracy. The project is important in two ways. First, by analyzing the dynamic between these fundamental attitudes it may help us get past the deadlock and polarization in the crisis of liberal democracy. Second, the project provides a fuller understanding of political life in general by highlighting how this dynamic plays out in political life as well as in other domains of human endeavor.
Final report
This project has sought to develop a new perspective on the crisis of liberal democracy, drawing on a selection of writers and philosophers, mainly in the continental European cultural tradition, to develop conceptual tools to better understand this crisis – in aesthetic terms. The project’s working hypothesis has been that the deadlocks and tensions between the critics and defenders of liberal democracy that we see today – in political practice as well as in public and academic discourse – are a specific manifestation in political life of what the project analyzes as two general aesthetic attitudes: an emphasis on expressiveness, authenticity, and immediacy, on the one hand; and an emphasis on form, rules, and mediation, on the other. During my sabbatical, I have been working on a manuscript for a monograph on this theme. The work on the book has consisted of a double interpretation: to show how these attitudes appear in the project’s historical material, and to show how this material helps us to understand how the same attitudes appear today, not only in political life but in culture and society at large.

At present, the manuscript is essentially complete. Some editing remains before the manuscript is sent to publishers. I am in contact with editors at a number of leading international university presses. Below I present the results of the project, chapter by chapter. Then I briefly describe other activities during the project, as well as upcoming activities in research and collaboration to which the project has given rise.

Chapter 1. Democracy and Its Discontents. In this introductory chapter, I argue for an aesthetic perspective on the crisis of liberal democracy and present the book’s ambition, framework, and central concepts. In the current version of the chapter, the aesthetic aspects of the crisis of liberal democracy are highlighted in a brief discussion of the storming of the U.S. Capitol in 2021. I also engage in a critical discussion of existing research on liberal democracy and its crisis.

Chapter 2. Apollo and Dionysus. This chapter analyzes the notions of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, on the basis of Friedrich Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy. In this chapter and the following, I want to show that this conceptual pair has constituted an influential articulation of the two aesthetic attitudes I analyze in the book. The chapter includes a discussion of the background to The Birth of Tragedy as well as an interpretation of this work with some claim to originality in relation to existing literature. I emphasize that in The Birth of Tragedy – unlike in some of his later works – Nietzsche does not appear as an apologist for the Dionysian, which is a common misconception. Rather, the relationship between the Dionysian and the Apollonian is intricately dialectical, in line, I show, with ideas Nietzsche adopted from classical philology and the study of myth in German Romanticism. The chapter also wants to show that the novelty of The Birth of Tragedy is the way in which Nietzsche expands the use of the notions of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, from the narrowly philological-historical to a broader discussion of contemporary culture and social life, including the political, while the aesthetic appears as the domain in which such a broader discussion can take place.

Chapter 3. Apollo and Dionysus, Redux. In this chapter, I analyze how the Apollonian and the Dionysian were interpreted in Nietzsche’s time and immediate aftermath, considering a number of influential readers of Nietzsche’s work, including Carl Jung, Ferdinand Tönnies, and – most notably – Thomas Mann. Here I want to show how different readers of Nietzsche have seized on different meanings of the Apollonian and the Dionysian and put these notions to use in different dimensions, from the psychological to the ethical to the religious to the political, while the interpretive battles circle around the aesthetic domain in which Nietzsche placed the notions. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how the Apollonian and the Dionysian animate Mann’s early short stories, especially “Tonio Kröger” and “Death in Venice.” I emphasize – and this is a contribution to existing research – that in these short stories Mann deals not only with the perils of the Dionysian, which is a well-established theme in Nietzsche, but above all with the ambivalence of the Apollonian: the perceived necessity of, but also the hazards in, the search for form and regularity.

Chapter 4. The Polity as Work of Art. This chapter pursues that theme further in a discussion of the fear of the aesthetic in political life that has characterized the post-war period, against the background of World War II and the Holocaust. I discuss the critique of the role of aesthetics in political life by Susan Sontag and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, among others, and the chapter concludes with an in-depth critical reading of Hannah Arendt’s attempt to separate the aesthetic and the political. In a both internal and external critique of Arendt, I want to show that this ambition is analytically and normatively flawed, and that we cannot come to terms with modern democracy and its challenges without paying attention both to the necessity and to the perils of the aesthetic in political life. Specifically, I argue, in a partly original reading, that what Arendt in The Human Condition calls “work” – which I refer to in the book as “fabrication” – is an indispensable element of political life.

Chapter 5. Presence and Representation. This chapter deals with the lure of immediacy and authenticity, with a particular focus on present-day understandings of representation. The chapter addresses two simultaneous changes: one, an increasing attention both in academic discourse and in the public sphere to aesthetic aspects of political representation; two, an increasing attention in contemporary culture and social life to political aspects of aesthetic representation. While these processes point in seemingly different directions, the chapter demonstrates that in both processes the understanding of representation is grounded in the presence of what is to be represented rather than in its absence, in contrast with the historically established core meaning of the concept.

Chapter 6. Negative Dialectic, Civil Repair. In this chapter, I come back to Thomas Mann’s work, specifically Mann’s critique of Nazism and defense of liberal democracy during World War II. Focusing on Mann’s Doctor Faustus, and on the influence of Theodor Adorno’s work in Doctor Faustus, the chapter addresses the overarching question of how the two aesthetic attitudes discussed in this project can be related to each other. Further developing the discussion from Chapters 2 and 3, I argue the need for a dialectical understanding of the relationship between these two attitudes. I also discuss the double challenge of such a dialectical understanding, a challenge brought to a head today: to avoid, on the one hand, capitulating to the loud and sometimes violent claims to authenticity, expressiveness and immediacy that we are now hearing; but also to avoid, on the other hand, having liberal democracy’s necessary elements of form, rules and mediation appear exclusionary in relation to the social groups and social problems in whose name claims to authenticity, expressiveness and immediacy are today voiced most loudly and violently.

Chapter 7. Toward an Aesthetic Theory of Political Life. This chapter summarizes the book, presents its main findings, and draws conclusions from these in relation to the project’s starting points. On a general level, I stress that the continental European discourse on the aesthetic in which I make stopovers throughout the book can help us to better understand the crisis of liberal democracy. The use-value in this respect is not least the possibility of seeing connections between areas of human endeavor that the specialization of the social sciences and the humanities in our time renders invisible. I also revisit the objections to the aesthetic and its role in political life that have previously been discussed. In more substantial terms, I argue that the tension demonstrated in the book between expressiveness, authenticity, and immediacy, on the one hand, and form, rules, and mediation, on the other, is a fundamental feature of liberal democracy that we need to understand better, but that this has less to do with liberal democracy as such than with the deep-seated cultural-historical legacy that has provided the material for this book project.

During the project, in addition to completing the manuscript, I have also presented the project and its results both nationally and internationally. During my sabbatical, I have had two stays at Yale University, Center for Cultural Sociology, where I am a Faculty Fellow. On both occasions I enjoyed ideal conditions for writing, and received valuable comments on the manuscript. I have also been invited as a panelist to a conference in cultural sociology at Uppsala University, and to Södertörn University for a seminar on the book project at the School of Culture and Education.

In addition to the monograph, the project has also resulted in a forthcoming contribution to The Elgar Companion to Hannah Arendt. In addition, three separate articles based on my readings of Arendt, Nietzsche, and Mann are in the planning stage. Mann’s defense of liberal democracy in the light of his fiction and essays is the theme of a project-in-planning spawned during my work on the book. Hopefully a project on this theme can be institutionally linked to the Thomas Mann House in Pacific Palisades. Through my work on the book project, I have established contact with Benno Herz, Director at Thomas Mann House, who has expressed an interest in further collaboration.
Grant administrator
Linneaeus University, Växjö
Reference number
SEK 1,027,900
RJ Sabbatical
Social Sciences Interdisciplinary