Florian Cramer on Fri, 7 Jul 2017 16:56:00 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The alt-right and the death of counterculture

[Olivier Jutel wrote an extensive review of Angela Nagle's new book "Kill
All Normies - Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the
alt-right" (Zero Books, 2017) for the Australian journal Overland:
It's an essay in its own right; I'm reposting it here with Olivier's kind
permission. An other, less favorable review of the same book can be read
here: https://medium.com/@curple.turnle/i-didnt-like-kill-all-norm
ies-very-much-225c17868d78   -Florian]

The alt-right and the death of counterculture
By Olivier Jutel

Angela Nagle has written an indispensable book that allows both the
extremely online- and meme-illiterate to grasp the IRL implications of the
online culture wars. From the rise of Trump as a lulzy agent of base
enjoyment and unrestrained conspiracy, to the collapse of meaning in these
perilously ridiculous times, all are products of an ascendant online
culture which privileges affect and transgression. Nagle navigates a sea of
anime Nazis, gamers, white nationalists, masturbation abstainers and
violent misogynists in mapping the contours of online reaction and fascism.
What is essential and most controversial in her thesis is the symbiosis
between what we can call the ‘Tumblr liberal-left’ and the alt-right. Both
are products of an online cultural vanguardism that has been lauded by
techno-utopians, nominally leftist academics and journalists alike. Nagle
wields a forceful critique of the online left’s aestheticised resistance as
both self-satisfied and lacking the dynamism to undercut the alt-right’s
discourse of modern alienation, however nonsensical. This book is not an
attempt at righteously slam dunking on the basement dwelling nerds of the
alt-right or rehashing the excesses of campus identitarians. Instead it
takes on the ideological deadlocks of the left that have been masked by the
tech-fetishism of late capitalism.

The title ‘Kill All Normies’ embodies the wry humour of this book,
necessary to deal with the risible nature of the alt-right and the
horrifying obscenity, racism and misogyny that fuels the movement. At its
origin, the alt-right amounts to a lament of web 2.0 inclusivity which
ruined the memes and the ‘mean internet’ safe spaces of predominately young
white male misanthropes. At its core, the alt-right is the equivalent of a
new convert to punk complaining that ‘modern music today is so terrible’.
In Gabriella Coleman’s book on 4-Chan and the hacker collective Anonymous,
she extensively profiles the archetype troll Andrew Auernheimer, aka weev.
weev is a truly contemptible figure, an avowed white supremacist and
supporter of Dylan Roof who during the Trump campaign dedicated himself to
‘Operation Pepe’. As with so much of the alt-right, weev is equal parts
laughable and evil, claiming that his weaponisation of Pepe the Frog memes
will incite the coming race war. And despite his undeniable status as an
uber-troll of the alt-right, his interview with Coleman captures a pathetic
grandiosity in trying to impress the fact that he ‘was in the room when the
lulz was first said’. It is so jarringly stupid to think that the renewal
of fascism and white supremacy would be driven by a nerdy subcultural
one-upmanship but this is the genesis of the online culture wars identified
by Nagle.

For Nagle, the rise of the alt-right is not so much about the ideological
currency of reactionary politics but the techno-enthusiastic embrace of
transgression and disruption deracinated from politics. As with many
discussions on the state of the left, Nagle considers the epochal moment of
’68 and the youth-led demands for individual emancipation from hierarchy.
She writes, the alt-right ‘has more in common with the 1968 left’s slogan
“It is forbidden to forbid!” than it does with anything most recognize as
part of any traditionalist right.’ Where for fifty years conservatives have
been fighting sexual liberation and ‘liberal cultural excess,’ the
alt-right have formulated a style which is counter-cultural, dynamic, and
thrives, at least temporarily, on its own incoherency. Embodying the best
traditions of conservative hucksterism, Milo has been a key figure in
providing a fascist chic and garnering mainstream media access, elevating
his brand and online provocations into a reactionary culture-jamming. Nagle
observes that Richard Spencer’s ‘spitting disdain about the vulgarity of
the US consumer culture-loving, Big-Mac munching, Bush-voting, pick-up
truck owning pro-war Republican’ could be ripped from a mid-oughts edition
of AdBusters.

The alt-right has latched onto the transgressive and paranoid libertarian
style of culture jammers and hackers, which always sat uncomfortably on the
left, and celebrates the liberation of the individual against ghastly
sheeple and normie culture. In the process they have disrupted the poles of
youth culture, allowing for an easy slippage between gaming, lib-hating,
trolling, unbridled misogyny and fascism. As Nagle writes: ‘When we’ve
reached a point where the idea of being edgy/counter-cultural/transgressive
can place fascists in a position of moral superiority to regular people, we
may seriously want to rethink the value of these stale and outworn
countercultural ideals.’

One of the intellectual legacies of ‘68 and the new left that Nagle
identifies is the shift of concern from a universalist politics of state,
party, the public and economy, to cultural studies, new forms of political
identity and privatised resistance. There has been a great deal of
intellectual energy devoted to conceptualising political emancipation in a
manner that evades the stubbornly persistent questions of party
organisation and militancy. In this retreat from the collective and embrace
of the new, there has been a tremendous amount of exuberance from nominally
left academics, sometimes with chairs paid for by tech companies, about the
radical potential of new media. Jodi Dean in her 2009 book Democracy and
Other Neoliberal Fantasies, presaging Occupy Wall Street, wrote of the
‘techno-democracy fetish’ in which new forms of communication in themselves
do the hard of work of ideology and organisation in our place. The reality
of techno-democracy was the ‘collapse of symbolic efficiency,’ meaning an
endless circular procedurialism and clarification of terms which prevented
participants from making the radical ethical gamble of politics that
requires an individual subsumption to a collective discipline.

It was through this mix of techno-utopianism, political indeterminacy and
the carnivalesque that figures like weev and the hackers of Anonymous could
be turned into progressive allies by the likes of Coleman, Molly Crabapple
or philosophy professor Peter Ludlow. The glaring white supremacy of weev
was seen simply as trolling and lulzy transgression, while the cesspool of
4-Chan that spawned Anonymous was responsible for this ‘force for good in
the world’ wielding lulz as a weapon of resistance. Anonymous have since
been thoroughly eclipsed by the alt-right as the inheritors of this legacy.
This appalling omission rests on a thoroughly Nietzschean tech-elitism, as
Nagle writes, ‘it is certainly hard to imagine even a hint of approval
being tolerated in academia if the subjects at hand were ordinary
blue-collar normies of the far right like Tommy Robinson, despite his far
milder views than what has characterised 4chan and trolls like weev for
many years.’ This nerd solidarity and tech-elitism informs Laurie Penny’s
profile of Milo devotees as ‘Lost Boys’ with anxiety disorders, as opposed
to fascists politically responsible for their actions.

The idea that lulzy racism and transgression is either polysemic or the
corollary to a new disruptive network enabled democracy owes to a cheap
Deleuzianism deployed by tech-utopians, culture jammers and autonomist
Marxists alike. The Rhizome, the Multitude, the wisdom of crowds and
peer-produsage all rest on an ideal of a latent affective human
connectivity, that passes between bodies in cyberspace, enabling new
decentralised forms of resistance and democracy. (See footnote for an
extraordinary rhetorical flourish of this nature.) Nagle’s critique of this
network-determinism, pervasive during Tahrir Square and the Occupy moment,
does not simply touch on the failure to seize power or the tyranny of
structurelessness, but the pure nihilistic potential of the network.
Perhaps the black-pill trajectory of this discourse should have been clear
when AdBusters described ISIS as rhizomatic and superior to the ‘Western
rationalist approach.’

The failure of online connectivity to stabilise around a radical left ethic
is, as Dean notes, both a product of its individuating effects, and the
failure of communication itself to overcome the ideological deadlocks of
the left. Affect and the lulz may create a short circuit here, but it is
not the humanist teleology supposed by cyber-enthusiasts, rather a
self-fecund ‘ironical in-jokey maze of meaning.’ Nagle writes, ‘every
bizarre event, new identity and strange subcultural behaviour that baffles
general audiences … can be understood as a response to a response to a
response, each one responding angrily to the existence of the other.’ Nagle
correctly identifies that this self-referential world has as its end an
amoral ‘liberation of the individual and the id’, and a pathological
enjoyment at the expense of an other. The role of the other in
psychoanalytic terms figures prominently in the online neuroses of the
Tumblr liberal-left and unrestrained malice of the alt-right. Nagle hints
at this libidinal economy but is unable to devote it sufficient time in her
task of drawing the battle lines of the culture wars.

What the Tumblrites embody is a taxonomical politics which is driven (drive
in psychoanalytic terms) by the techno-fetishist belief in pure
communication and individual empowerment. It is in this way that language
has become so central to politics. The clarification of terms, the
bracketing of difference and the weighing of utterances from different
subject positions, cis-males at the bottom, all attempt to make the
banality of online life urgent and political. In a manner that mirrors the
data colonisation of the social by new media companies, every difference
must be celebrated, problematised and deconstructed. Thus there are
hundreds of genders, Marxist universalism is misogynist, and effacement of
agency requires reparations through any number of micro-payment platforms.
Any slight sarcasm or scepticism about these facts is violence. The claim
to truth of such politics is purely affective, as challenging political
statements from a left-ethical position may elicit the refrain its not my
job to do the emotional labor of explaining this to you. The political
speech-act becomes about amplifying marginal voices towards an in-group
consensus, and the concept that ideas be rigorously scrutinised in debate
‘seems to anguish, offend and enrage this tragically stupefied shadow of
the great movements of the left.’

Nagle quite rightly castigates this as a joyless and vicious politics that
does not expand the quality of left thought so much as garner converts to a
woke clergy. It is also an ontologically impossible politics that cannot
succeed on its own terms. In Lacanian libidinal theories of language,
communication is defined by its impossibility, what Lacan calls symbolic
castration, which launches us into the world of subjectivity through a gap
and lack between the symbolic and the subject. The attempt of Tumblrites to
produce politics through language is doomed; we are always haunted by the
other ‘what did they mean?’, ‘did I deny agency?’, ‘have I internalised
cis-male discourse?’. The efforts to eradicate this indeterminacy, rather
than make an ethico-political commitment, can only result in a vicious and
impotent lashing out. Thus we have seen what Nagle describes as a ‘culture
of purging’ in these online spaces against the left, as an identitarian
elite looks to translate a surfeit of virtue into a scarce social capital
for online cultural gatekeepers.

This extremely online politics produces a drive to self-destruction and
paralysis within a nominally left identitarianism, while providing the
alt-right with an obscene pathological enjoyment that defines its entire
universe. While Nagle quite rightly takes pains to distinguish between
alt-lights (Milo, Gavin McInnes, Mike Cernovich), the Manosphere (Roosh,
Paul Elam) and the Nazi alt-right (Spencer, weev), the connective tissue is
trolling as libidinal pathology. The logic of trolling corresponds
precisely to what Lacan calls jouissance, that is, an enjoyment that is
dependent upon another who steals it from us. Trolling is the obsession
over and debasement of the other for amorphous crimes against the
subculture. Thus for the alt-right, identitarians are an object of constant
ridicule that should be, in the language of sexual violence, ‘triggered’
with misogynist, racist and anti-semitic memes as both a matter of
enjoyment and internet justice. Yet for all of the complaints about liberal
snowflakes and grievance culture, trolls are obsessed with what is served
in the cafeteria of a private liberal arts college they’ve never heard of.
There is an inability to enjoy while this pervasive other threatens their
memes, video games, traditional marriage and even Western civilisation.

This logic of jouissance as stolen by a nefarious, contradictory and
overdetermined other is neatly evinced by the obsession with sexual
hierarchy. Nagle’s great insight here is in understanding the alt-right’s
reversion to intense misogyny as a pathological libidinal frustration and
self-hatred. She writes, ‘their low-ranking status in this [sexual]
hierarchy is precisely what has produced their hard-line rhetoric about
asserting hierarchy in the world politically when it comes to women and
non-whites’. The default insult of liberal men and Never-Trump
conservatives as ‘cucks’ depicts the ‘fuck or get cucked’ logic of
jouissance. If you do not have the will to embrace the ‘red pill’ truth
about politics, gender and race and engage in radical transgression you can
expect to have your jouissance stolen by way of immigrants, liberals, or,
in the original meaning of this metaphor, miscegenation. Here we have the
deadlock of jouissance, the very thing that gives the alt-right enjoyment
reinforces the racial other’s virility as a direct threat to their own

This is Žižek’s great insight into the logic of fascism and antisemitism:
the figure of the Jew in a contradictory evil – both aristocratic and
slovenly, intellectual and carnal – whose enjoyment is based on stealing
the people’s social jouissance. Whether through the manipulation of media
and finance, or the destruction of Western civilisation, the fascist’s
enemy (Jew, Feminist, Marxist, POC) lives to deny an organic order of
gender and racial and religious hierarchy. The enemy’s enjoyment extends to
the very control of enjoyment, as nicely evinced by the recent Daily
Stormer story, that Jews are controlling the porn industry to make men
masturbate to plus-size models in order to weaken the white race. The enemy
is necessary for the very existence of this idea of natural order, and
grows more powerful as the alt-right is confronted with the impossibility
of ‘Western civilization’ or patriarchy as they conceive it. This
inevitable failure requires both a violent lashing out, to cover this lack,
and an obsessive conspiracy which feeds the cycle of jouissance and
frustration. Even if ‘Pizzagate’, the conspiracy alleging that the
Democratic Party is a vast paedophile ring, was created by 4-Chan trolls,
its logic corresponds perfectly with how trolls conceptualise their enemy
and their politics of enjoyment. The fact that Pizzagate is so widely
believed by Republican voters and that the favourite pursuit of online Fox
viewers devotees’ is now ‘triggering snowflakes’ speaks to the broader
political currency of this fascist jouissance.

The great threat of the alt-right identified by Nagle is that they best
embody the political potential of networked affect, and that they are able
to use this infrastructure to accelerate a pure fascist politics of
jouissance and libidinal frustration. The prevailing tendency on much of
the self-identified left has been to retreat from the kind of broad popular
struggle that could be attractive to the politically curious, making ‘the
left a laughing stock for a whole new generation.’ Nagle’s conclusion is
harsh, and though it is always complicated unravelling various left
threads, in the wake of the liberal resistance’s floundering and their
continued obsession with Bernie Bros, it holds true.

The alt-right meanwhile will continue to be wracked by their own
self-loathing, the diminishing returns from online cultural victories, and
an inevitable sectarianism. In this moment of post-ideology it is fitting,
however grotesque their beliefs, that even our fascists are second rate.
There will be no Steve Bannon-inspired National Socialist New Deal and the
alt-right will have to be content with the wages of jouissance. Where this
does threaten to verge into new radical territory is with a black pill
nihilism that lauds mass shooters and the political violence of Dylan Roof,
Elliot Rodgers and Jeremy Joseph Christian. Where networked politics was
supposed to be liberatory, it has become a conduit for a violent acting out
of this libidinal impasse, that can only grow in the absence of an IRL left
militant universalism.


‘And yet, peering through the computer, we find Anonymous in any instant to
be an aggregate sack of flesh – meshed together by wires, transistors, and
wi-fi signals – replete with miles of tubes pumping blood, pounds of
viscera filled with vital fluids, an array of live signalling wires,
propped up by a skeletal structure with muscular pistons fastened to it,
and ruled from a cavernous dome holding a restless control center, the
analog of these fabulously grotesque and chaotically precise systems that,
if picked apart, become what we call people. Anonymous is no different from
us. It simply consists of humans sitting at their glowing screens and
typing, as humans are wont to at this precise moment in the long arc of the
human condition. Each body taken alone provides the vector for an
irreducibly unique and complex individual history – mirroring in its
isolation the complexity of all social phenomenon as a whole – which can
itself be reduced yet further to the order of events: mere flights of
fingers and an occasional mouse gesture which register elsewhere, on a
screen, as a two-dimensional text or a three-dimensional video; the song
their fingers play on these keyboards ringing forth in a well-orchestrated,
albeit cacophonous and often discordant, symphony; it is sung in the most
base and lewd verse, atonal and unmetered, yet enthralling to many: the
mythical epic of Anonymous.’ – Excerpt from page 115 of Gabriella Coleman’s
Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Story of Anonymous, Verso, 2014

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