What exactly is propaganda and why do we hate it so deeply?
I recently watched the fascinating documentary The Eye of Vichy, by Claude Chabrol. Instead of ''reviewing'' it, I thought it would be more fun to try to figure out just how we identify propaganda when we see it. The Eye of Vichy is a documentary composed almost entirely of Nazi and Vichy government propaganda that was shown in France during the occupation, albeit with a new and critical narration added. And yet much of the original footage shown is propaganda that claims to be documentary, often with its own equally critical narration. Is Chabrol's film, therefore, anti-Nazi propaganda? And, if so, is there anything wrong with anti-fascist propaganda?
Propaganda is basically political speech simplified for a mass audience. The name comes from a certain type of religious speech- propandum fidei, or the propagation of the faith- which was also aimed at a mass audience. Propaganda is basically the secular/political form of the propandum fidei. The idea behind it is that most political ideas will likely only be comprehended by an educated elite but must be accepted by a wide audience. Propaganda, therefore, seeks to convince its audience to accept government or party programs in a simple, non-reflective, generally emotional way. It is basically populist speech.
Propaganda is often identified with kitsch, and indeed I think it is a specific sort of kitsch. I have called propaganda a genre of kitsch that attempts to contextualize simple and universal human emotional responses. It shows us a mother feeding her baby to evoke a certain emotional response, while making it clear that she is specifically of our country. Saul Friedlander, who believes that all kitsch aims at a mass audience, makes a similar distinction between kitsch that is commercial, which aims at universality, and kitsch that is ideological, which tries to be specific and rooted. So, if kitsch in general says things like ''Little kids are sweet and endearing'', propaganda says ''The little kids of our nation are sweet and endearing.'' It's the chauvinism of this statement that offends us.
I disagree with Friedlander, however, that kitsch is necessarily mass culture, and therefore political. I think kitsch is essentially a sort of sentimental art that aims at evoking a non-cognitive emotional response in the viewer and fails- therefore when we call something ''kitsch'', we are making an individual subjective judgment. This is how I distinguish kitsch from sentimental or whimsical art more generally, and why I can make the judgment that E.T., for example, isn't kitsch- that is, it doesn't strike me as kitsch.
But, I think we're both right that most propaganda is a sort of ideological kitsch. I would distinguish between three types of propaganda, all of which are on display in this film:
1. Sweet Propaganda- this is contextualized kitsch. These are the images of apple-cheeked, blond, smiling children, playing on a hillside, puppies, and other such tripe. Here we see newsreels about French families on holiday- all very Aryan- that are stultifying in their banality. Friedlander has, shrewdly I think, noted that this sort of propaganda has little effect on viewers outside of its context. Here is an example of sweet propaganda, which I consider to be of higher quality than the films in The Eye of Vichy.
2. Horror Propaganda- the polar opposite of sweet propaganda, this is hate kitsch. It wants to scare you. Essentially, it contextualizes horror, or more often schlock imagery. In The Eye of Vichy, we see bits of an anti-Jewish propaganda film that aims to scare us through images of swarming rats. Being terrified of rats myself, it freaked me out! It aims at a deep, non-cognitive, emotive response and then contextualizes that response by inter-cutting the rats and images of orthodox Jews. It is as dark as the sweet propaganda is light.
3. Warrior/Event Propaganda- this is propaganda that aims at the quality of news, but which is as unreflective and simplistic as the other sorts of propaganda. It is generally in the form or war hero stories and tends to be alternatively light and dark, evoking death as well as sentimental cliches. Many of the Nazi newsreels shown here evoke the horrors of war in a fairly garish way, while promising that ''our men'' will eventually overcome the ''British hordes''. It is propaganda that tends towards melodrama. I think it's actually the most successful sort of propaganda, and also the most insidious, because it really does imitate news, but taking a certain tone. It tends to follow the same storyline: the enemy army has committed these atrocities, they are uniquely brutal, our very existence is in jeopardy, but nevertheless, our brave warriors will be victorious. Imagine cable news, but... well, just imagine cable news.
Therefore, I'd say that the cure for propaganda is simply critical reading of that propaganda. Chabrol's film is therefore a sort of anti-propaganda, noting all of the lies and half-truths in the original Vichy footage. Somewhat unnervingly, this does not make the original propaganda much less effective.