“All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” Compared to the People’s Front of Judea’s comical political ignorance in Monty Python’s satire The Life of Brian, post-Enlightenment European countries were deeply familiar and preoccupied with Roman legacies. It is this obsession of European empires with imitating the enigmatic and primordial empire that Julia Hell’s newest book, The Conquest of Ruins, a 576-page volume on the Roman Empire’s multiple European afterlives, explores. By seeking to mirror Rome in their own times, latter-day empires could attach themselves to the glory, the promise, and the anxieties of empire.
And yet, Hell’s book is about more than simply European nation-states’ attempts at justifying colonial oppression and resource extraction: Rome, as inspiration and trauma, offers up ways for later empires to deal with their real fears of imperial decline. In that, the book eerily speaks to the contemporary American moment; the specter of Rome is never too distant in the far-right imagination, after all. In a telling scene in Alison Klayman’s 2019 documentary on Steve Bannon, The Brink, the man himself explicitly links his own filmmaking prowess to that of Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, who was obsessed with Rome, perhaps evidenced most famously in the legendary cinematographic fade from Myron’s statue Discobolus to a living, breathing, Nordic athlete: “What would Leni Riefenstahl do? How would she cut this scene?”
If The Conquest of Ruins is an ornate and often unrestrained account of the paranoid praxis of attempted imperial resurrection, Klayman’s documentary serves as a disconcertingly apt empirical counterpart to Hell’s conceptual apparatus. The documentary, unreasonably decried in the New Yorker as “feeding the beast” by “inadvertently honoring” the jowly populist, shows just how effective the fear of imperial decline can be at generating, financing, and sustaining antidemocratic movements.
You don’t have to look to the 2016 soft-core fantasy Torchbearer, the title of which Bannon pretends to have forgotten, to recognize the contemporary obsession with empires past. The title of Klayman’s documentary is taken from an Abraham Lincoln passage Bannon cites early in the film: “We are now on the brink of destruction. It seems like the Almighty is against us, and I can hardly see a ray of hope.” What Hell allows us to see more clearly is the eschatological fixation of the West on imperial time—“this disciplined border zone of the time before the end”—and multiple efforts at averting inevitable endings, disrupting the cyclicity of rise and fall, and prolonging the current moment. Read against one another, Hell’s and Klayman’s works provide ways of understanding historical and contemporary emperors without centering their personas, as well as the quotidian performance of citizenship in the quest for system stability.
Empires are strange creatures. Obsessed with their own end-time, they enlist the help of the katechon—a form of political sovereignty that “delays or maintains the end of time”—to postpone the inevitable, and stretch out time before the end. The obsessive fear of decline and an active engagement with trying to delay the end of empire is something that links contemporary right-wing movements to Himmler’s, Spengler’s, and Friedrich Ratzel’s temporal understandings of the basis for the National Socialist empire. The difference between then and now is that Hitler’s “solution” to the racial diversity he diagnosed as one of the core problems contributing to the cyclicity of empires and their inevitable decline was the murder of those the National Socialist regime deemed to be barbarians.
Still, “barbarians” continue to appear at the gates of American civilization in the guise of immigrants and refugees, and Bannon’s Aeneas is Abraham Lincoln, looming over a fireplace in the well-appointed Washington, DC, townhouse serving as headquarters for The Movement. Although objecting to The Movement’s imperial character—Bannon says, “We are not an imperial power; we are a revolutionary power”—his actions as conservative revolutionary become intelligible when read within Hell’s framework. What are his attempts at setting up a cosmopolitan and transnational populist alliance, if not katechontic efforts that promise to slow down the inevitable decline of the West?
“The end” in imperial-paranoid visions of the future is marked by the fall of empire. After the fall comes a new political order, governed by the previously oppressed (the insolence!). The power relations between the conquered and their conquerors are at the foundation of what Hell calls scopic scenarios, visual scripts that reveal both the urgent desire to see and the desire to master what is seen. In lieu of a conclusion, Hell suspends her book with an epilogue on the German artist Anselm Kiefer’s series of photographs called Zersetzungen, or Disarticulations, in which he anticipates the future as ruins and imagines seeing “the grass growing over New York.” Whereas Spengler’s and British historian and colonial administrator T. B. Macaulay’s ruin-gazing scenarios offer a singular gaze that preserves the European ruin gazer’s position of mastery, Kiefer’s scopic scenario is dispersed, in that who is master and who is vanquished is not immediately obvious.
Since Rome, Hell argues, scopic scenarios have centered on ruin gazing, the nostalgic act of observing ruins in their broken beauty, all the while yearning for the unbroken. If the “law of ruin” postulates that all empires must come to an end, imperial administrators found solace in the promise of disrupting the cyclical constant through repetition with a difference. Whereas rubble becomes an invitation to colonize—justifying la mission civilisatrice—ruins take on a different valence: they belong to the conquerors, signify imperial glory, and initiate their very own theo-political order. And yet it is in this theorizing of power relations that Hell’s book falls short. The recurrence of images and fears of the formerly colonized taking over and in turn becoming the colonizer is compelling, but one is left to wonder why Hell solely focuses on the colonizers’ dystopian imagination and does not draw on the revenge fantasies of the currently colonized, of which there were undoubtedly many. As a consequence, and, at this point, almost par for the course in intellectual histories, the colonized remain without a voice throughout the entirety of the book.
The power relations and meaning-making practices that Hell points to but cannot explore on account of the limitations inherent in her sources are untangled in contemporary ethnographic work. Katechontic activities today are more democratically accessible than during Hell’s empires, and extend far beyond imperial sovereigns’ masking efforts. Ethnographies of political and civic engagement allow us to peek into interactional processes at the micro level, and provide insights into just how contemporary conservatives are dealing with the fear of end-time in their own political engagements.
In her study Prophets and Patriots, Ruth Braunstein explodes the cultural underpinnings of political action, by tracing how conservative religious Americans actively enact citizenship as a collective response to America’s decline on the global stage, which they personally experience as the erosion of the middle class.1 Having “played by the rules,” Braunstein’s interlocutors are nauseated by their experience of American decline and try to remedy the situation—and by extension, ward off the end of American empire—by actively reasserting their voices in the hopes of making politicians accountable.
Forms of active citizenship also occur in more subtle if not less consequential forms. Homing in on modalities of news consumption, Francesca Tripodi analyzed how conservative Christians engage in what she calls “scriptural inference,” a practice of reading the news that privileges personal interpretation of the original texts over reading traditional journalistic outlets.2 The men and women she interviewed believed that they were engaging in careful media literacy practices by returning to original texts and using the search engine Google as fact-checker. Not understanding search engine optimization, filter bubbles, or how search engine rankings work, they were, in the process, often exposed to more radical ideas than the ones they sought to fact-check in the first place. Truth warriors and active citizens are katechons, working overtime to keep the American empire off life support.
If “The Conquest of Ruins” is an ornate and often unrestrained account of the paranoid praxis of attempted imperial resurrection, Klayman’s documentary serves as a disconcertingly apt empirical counterpart to Hell’s conceptual apparatus.
If you believe critics, the problem with the The Brink is that Alison Klayman is neither Michael Moore nor Leni Riefenstahl. Klayman’s fact-checking works through exposition and smart edits, rather than on-the-nose narrative style (like Michael Moore’s). She focuses on the political actions and ideas of Bannon, rather than on his personality or biography, as Riefenstahl would have done. For this, both she and Errol Morris (who made the other documentary on Bannon) were reprimanded in several publications. If coastal critics fear that an unsuspecting audience will innocently walk into The Brink, mistaking it for the latest installment of the Marvel franchise, and emerge from the film with a newfound respect for Bannon, their worries are misplaced. Although critics somewhat unbelievably take Bannon to be an unknown figure outside of progressive metropolitan coastal circles, the film’s likely audience—progressives going to art-house cinema screenings—is unlikely to be bamboozled into idolizing Bannon for his limited charms.
That Bannon comes across as anything less than a raging psychopath in his interpersonal relations does not speak against the documentary but rather highlights the particular epistemic commitments of critics. Had they only read Max Weber, they would not duplicate the bumbling futility of early postwar scholarship that sought to understand the Holocaust through Adolf Hitler’s personality. Sometimes, terrible people are pretty charming, and, sometimes, progressives end up being unfathomably abusive. Klayman’s focus on ideas and processes rather than personality quirks is the only ethical way to engage with this type of agitator.
After all, whether or not he is a narcissist, Bannon is out to convert. In a town hall–style meeting, he proclaims, “I’m on a mission to convert as many of these people as possible to the populist cause. ’Cause they understand—the elites in our country, and actually throughout the world, but particularly in the United States—are comfortable with managing our decline.” His conversion rhetoric may be incendiary but ultimately works in the familiar and mundane ways of political oratory, the endless repetition of turns of phrases. Klayman manages to unveil the vacuity of the campaign trail as much as the political opportunism of cosmopolitan and transnational coalition-building. Even if she is not allowed to film the group when they are discussing the financing of Bannon’s nonprofit group, Citizens of the American Republic, a smart audience will have no trouble figuring out that money is coming from unsavory and often non-American sources. In the pursuit of prolonging empire, cosmopolitanism and globalism no longer sound so bad if they bring in the money.
You should watch The Brink. But should you also read The Conquest of Ruins? Anyone who manages to plow through 25 chapters is rewarded with a meditation on four enduring themes and theories of empire—the eschatological, addressing the question of inevitable endings; the cyclical, exploring the rise and fall of empires; the mimetic, entailing a range of imitative practices; and the paranoid-imperial, conveying the conqueror’s fears of having the colonized gaze at the conqueror’s own future ruins.
If these themes and the questions they raise are supremely interesting, The Conquest of Ruins falls short on a number of commitments. While the book speaks a lot about theorizing, it rarely delivers on the promise. Hell writes that Nietzsche’s “contribution to the theory of neo-Roman mimesis” is “the gap between original and copy, Roman and neo-Roman masks.” That remains the full extent of that theoretical argument as well as its empirical basis. Hitler is described as “an imperial theorist in the new-Roman vein,” but Hell, once again, leaves this claim—without further support—to the reader to digest. Couple this with the infelicitous habit of using excessive cliff-hangers—some chapters end with conclusions that do not appear to relate to the chapter content, while other sections of chapters end with a sentence that promises a theoretical intervention but then never deliver it—and this book of dazzling empirical breadth and the potential achievement of peak-of-career marker is seriously weakened.
Where a strong theoretical argument could have contained and structured the many sources—including Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings of forested ruins; the travelogues of Georg Forster, the German Jacobin onboard Cooks’s second voyage, in 1772–75; Louis Bertrand’s theo-political neo-Roman North African project; Carl Schmitt’s imperial imagination; and, less loftily, the German foreign ministry’s 1938 documentation of Hitler’s visit to Rome, The Key to Peace—the book instead stumbles along a weakly theorized and winding road, with its chapters as unreliably spaced roadside markers, ranging from seven to several dozen pages each.
Letting the sources guide the book is a risky move. It pays off handsomely in some chapters, such as chapter 15, with its discussion of Wilhelm Jensen’s 1903 novel Gradiva, and less so in others, such as chapter 11, which strays somewhat indecisively among Michelet, Bertrand, Spengler, Schmitt, and the Luxor Obelisk. Jensen’s novel “stages the perfect act of imitation” through a young German woman, Zoë, literally following the footsteps of a Roman woman depicted on a frieze that her future spouse, the classicist Norbert Hanold, had fallen in love with. By becoming the woman on the frieze and engaging in a mimetic act of the past in the imperial present, Zoë and Norbert allow the readers of the novel to enter “this in-between space of the imperial imaginary in which the past exists in the present.” The in-between space, so beautifully described in the discussion of Jensen’s novel, remains under-theorized, although the “twilight zone” even receives its own chapter (17). Twilight zones are murky spaces. They are either undefined or intermediate between two other, more clearly defined spaces; they hold immense promise as metaphor, but, in Hell’s account, become simply a site of mimetic performance that is neither quite part of the imperial present nor of a Roman past.
The Conquest of Ruins teases us with the promise of theory, only to abandon readers to a few tantalizing morsels of empirical evidence. Hitler invents “a genealogy that merged Germanic tribes and Roman conquerors,” in which the uncivilized German tribes are likened to 20th-century Poles in order to justify the National Socialist dictatorship’s annexation of Eastern Europe. While Hell hints that this reading of history contradicted Himmler’s idealization of Germanic tribes, we are not told how this volte-face from official propaganda was justified (and whether it was, at all). In other chapters, barbarians turn into conquerors, but the precise nature of the transformation remains murky, and subjectivities remain under-explored, unless you count the variable mask-donning of the conquerors. Even for conquerors, the only subject position available is one of Augustan mimesis, without much space for improvisation.
Hell attempts to combine theorizing with a close reading of textual, architectural, and visual sources to provide insights into neo-Roman mimetic practices. Ultimately, it is this tension between theorizing and empiricism and Hell’s inability to sustain either project fully that proves debilitating for the overall success of a bold idea. And yet this is a book unlike many of its peers. It is audacious and empiricist, and, while almost impossible to read, contains important insights into contemporary nationalism’s excesses.
This article was commissioned by Max Holleran.
- Ruth Braunstein, Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy across the Political Divide (University of California Press, 2017). ↩
- Francesca Tripodi, “Searching for Alternative Facts: Analyzing Scriptural Inference in Conservative News Practices,” Data & Society Research Institute report, May 16, 2018. ↩