Ten Theses on Charisma

20 March 2018

Editor’s noteThe following post by Vincent Lloyd is based on the arguments in his new book out this month from Columbia University Press, In Defense of Charisma.


1. Charisma is everywhere.


Wherever we look, in the present or in the past, among elites or among ordinary people, among men or women, we find charisma. Charisma may look different, but the phenomenon itself is the same in all places, at all times. Political leaders can be charismatic, and so can neighbors; lecturers and also aunts.


2. Charisma expresses humanity.


What draws us to someone who has charisma, that extraordinary gift of charisma, is humanity itself. When we can see who you are beyond what you are, you have charisma. We are intrigued, enchanted. Charisma is a supernatural gift, a gift from God, if you like, insofar as we are gifted with our humanity, insofar as the human exceeds the natural world. Wherever there is humanity, there is charisma. But most of the time we forget about humanity, caught up in the inertia of the ordinary or in the structures of rationality. Charisma reminds.


3. Charisma conceals or reveals.


Revealing who you are beyond what you are requires toying with expectations. It means demonstrating the inadequacy of the concepts the world gives us. Some charisma exceeds expectations, displaying an excess of humanity—an excess of wisdom, an excess of beauty, an excess of goodness. This is authoritarian charisma. It gives an audience what they want—and more. Such charisma promises to show the human, but it only offers an image of humanity, concealing the human. In contrast, democratic charisma reveals the human by juxtaposing the ordinary and extraordinary. Socrates was wise but also ugly, spoke of abstract things but began with worldly things. Moses led a people, but he stuttered. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke with unmatched eloquence but was short. When we see the ordinary and extraordinary together, our expectations are short-circuited, and we know that the human exceeds all worldly categories. Democratic charisma pulls us beyond the world; the sleek, slick performance of authoritarian charisma makes us feel as if we are being pulled beyond the world when we are actually being tethered all the more tightly to the world.


4. Mediation is essential to charisma.


We encounter the human when we reach the limits of mediation. Authoritarian charisma pretends to transcend mediation, to offer presence: the one who has charisma looks directly in your eyes, speaks directly to your heart. In fact, authoritarian charisma conceals mediation, even as charisma employs the various technologies of media, from the internet to the video recording to newspapers to rumors to language itself. Democratic charisma calls attention to mediation, and so reveals its limits. Moses did not speak directly to the masses—that was Charlton Heston, Moses mediated by Hollywood. Moses spoke to Aaron who spoke to the Israelite elders who spoke to the people. All hesitated, faltered, reminding the Israelites that something extraordinary was at work, irreducible to human categories. To communicate it in human categories would necessarily fail.


5. Charisma circulates or short-circuits ideology.


Charisma relies on mediation, and mediation carries the wisdom of the world. Mediation carries the ideas of the wealthy and the powerful. It makes them seem natural. Authoritarian charisma interpellates. By concealing mediation, by offering direct presence, the ideas of the wealthy and the powerful are communicated directly to us, become our ideas, become obvious. Authoritarian charisma solidifies the hold of patriarchy, homophobia, nationalism, xenophobia, and capitalism. Democratic charisma de-naturalizes ideology. It makes us realize that the human cannot be reduced to what the world says it is, that we cannot be reduced to what the world says we are. Authoritarian charisma assures us that everything fits together smoothly, and we fit in the world comfortably. Democratic charisma—of the community organizer or religious genius, of Michel Houellebecq or Houria Bouteldja—reminds us that something is amiss, prompting us to ask new questions, over and over.


6. Charisma establishes authority.


We respond to charisma by ceding our ordinary judgment. We defer to one who possesses the extraordinary gifts that entail charisma. Authoritarian charisma uses this deference to its own advantage, molding the desires of followers to advance the self-interest of the charismatic (which coincides, ultimately, with the interests of the powers that be). Democratic charisma requires ceding our ordinary judgment in favor of an authority irreducible to the world, to the authority of critique. Democratic charisma teaches us that our intuitions, reasons, and affects fail to account for the human. We get the world wrong and we get ourselves wrong. The authority of democratic charisma motivates us to ask how and why, pulling us beyond our world, in the direction of the true, the good, and the beautiful.


7. Charisma conceals and reveals.


We never encounter charisma that is purely democratic or purely authoritarian. Charisma that from one perspective conceals, from another perspective reveals. When Martin Luther King Jr. first began speaking about a bus boycott to the masses in Montgomery, Alabama, he had unmistakable oratorical gifts, but he was also just 26 years old, a new minister who had only received his Ph.D. a few months before. He was talented but not perfectly polished, calling attention to his own humanity. A decade later, King could not escape the mass-mediated image of himself. Time shifts the meaning of charisma; in other cases, differing contexts, differing forms of mediation, shift its meaning, or differing forms of mediation. Even in its ambivalence, charisma remains, at its essence, about the human. Objects may enchant, and may circulate ideology, but objects cannot have charisma, not even icons—unless they mediate the charisma of a human, of one who is at once extraordinarily gifted and utterly ordinary.


8. Charisma requires choice.


While charisma requires deferring to an authority beyond the self, the fundamental ambivalence of charisma requires witnesses to judge. To which authority should I defer? To the authority of a particular person with an extraordinarily polished performance or to something else, beyond the world? Because of the ambivalence of charisma, we are always pulled in two directions when we encounter it, by gravity and by grace, by the world and against the world. Witnesses are called to judge and to choose.


9. Charisma is contagious.


Once you see the human in another, you notice the human in yourself. You realize you must be more than the sum of descriptions the world has for you, that you must somehow evade the categories given by the world. When the worker hears the labor organizer describe that there is more to workers than their bosses see, that workers can gain power by uniting together and fighting together, she recognizes the human in herself. Under the sway of charisma’s authority, pulled beyond the world, she is compelled to speak up, too, attacking the people and forces that dehumanize her, displaying her humanity. She has caught charisma, and she will now pass it on to others. But the powers that be are strong, and they take advantage of charisma’s ambivalence to halt the spread of democratic charisma with the temptations of authoritarian charisma.


10. Charisma threatens violence, promises love.


To see the human in the other is to love the other: charisma at its best, democratic charisma. To be entranced by the other, by her polish, her extraordinary qualities, and so to defer to her: charisma at its worst, authoritarian charisma. In the latter case, the self is deformed for the sake of the other, the authority; in the former, the mysteries of other, self, and world intrigue. Socrates or the sophists? But the question is never so clear. Our first encounter with charisma is our first encounter with authority, and our first encounter with love: our parents. From the perspective of the child, the parent, as super-human, as master of the normative order, deserves deference. Then we discover that the parent is ordinary, only to us extraordinary: the narrative engine of great literature, and of life. We must learn to love properly, first the parent, then the teacher, then the political leader. We must learn to see the extraordinary and the ordinary at once, and so to see the human, to choose the human—this is democratic charisma. This we can learn best not from photogenic leaders, nor from clever tweeters, nor from self-help gurus, but from paradigms of charisma writ small. We learn to witness democratic charisma in the neighbor, in the cousin, at the community meeting, at the bus stop. There, we learn to love.


Photo Credit: YouTube Movies, The Ten Commandments (1956) – Trailer [Screenshot], via YouTube, Fair Use.


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