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.

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.