The Downward Spiral
Still from Quadrophenia (1979)
In this month’s column, Dean Kissick writes about what happens when subcultures emerge from the underbelly of the internet, Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies, and how the culture wars of the 90s have come back to haunt us.
This spring, when I was trying to make sense of what was going on in an increasingly divided West as it appeared to me through the prism of my social networks, I came across a couple of great, much shared essays by Irish journalist Angela Nagle considering the new online right from the perspective of the more traditional left to which she belongs. “Paleocons For Porn” was published by Jacobin in February and then “The New Man of 4chan” was published by The Baffler in March. Since finishing her dissertation on online anti-feminism, she has continued to take up the rather unappealing task of covering a subject that is often considered unworthy of our attention and, furthermore, is hard to write about without sounding rather confused, misguided and sick: the darkest reaches of the internet. Old media is in its death throes, opinion-formers and cultural gatekeepers are becoming obsolete, and a new wave of obscure and frequently anonymous content producers are replacing them. The people have spoken, and what they have to say is disgusting, as it’s intended to be.
This proliferating, constantly changing spaghetti of user-generated words and memes is the subject of Nagle’s first book, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Donald Trump (Zero Books, 2017), which charts the rise of a new online right, with roots in the nihilism and gleeful offensiveness of 4chan’s messageboards, but also a new online left, as seen in the wilfully extreme identity politics of Tumblr and the performative callout culture of Twitter, in which almost anything can be described as misogynistic, transphobic, white supremacist or similar. Both movements are nonconformist and anti-establishment and, she says, should be read as subcultural rather than political.
It’s been a long time since radical subcultures resided in artist-run spaces, or fashion collectives, or nightclubs, even though, as Natasha Stagg (writing on Spike Online) observed last week, “everyone in magazines and in advertising is obsessed with Studio 54.” From my own experience of working at fashion magazines I know that they are always searching for contemporary equivalents of the style and music subcultures that drew my generation to their pages in the first place, even though those plainly no longer exist. Today’s subcultures abandoned the streets and, like everything else, moved onto the internet, to online publishing platforms where anyone can say whatever they like and where, for the first time in decades, they have rediscovered their power to shock, whether through fascist offensiveness or militant worthiness.
These internet youth movements don’t just disgust the bourgeois establishment, they also disgust one another. Nagle’s thesis is that we’re experiencing a return of the culture wars of the 1990s, only this time around demands for censorship are coming from the left and celebrations of transgression from the right. She goes so far as to trace a lineage of transgression passing from the Marquis de Sade through the nineteenth-century Parisian avant-garde, via Georges Bataille and the Surrealists, to the soixante-huitards before arriving, in a détournement worthy of the Situationists, at present-day “chan culture”, the emergence of which is described as “the full coming to fruition of the transgressive anti-moral style, its final detachment from any egalitarian philosophy of the left or Christian morality of the Right.” While those on the left (particularly those interested in avant-garde art) have long supported strategies of transgression and believed in the utopian possibilities of the leaderless internet, in recent years these forces have been harnessed to greater effect by their ideological opponents.
Subcultures are, by definition, not representative of wider culture, although they do illuminate it and offer clues to its future. Nor should these new subcultures be thought of as representative of their respective sides of the political spectrum: the struggle for LGBTQIA+ rights should not be undermined because some Tumblr users identify as pansexual dragons, just as the dangers of fascism should not be trivialised because some of the people making Trump memes are doing it for a laugh. Nonetheless it’s through stories that societies are formed, and clearly these wild new stories that we’re telling one another have greatly expanded the window of acceptable political discourse in both directions.
The return of the culture wars has brought creeping into the mainstream ideas that would have been hard to imagine only a few years ago, including the idea that a person can change gender many times over the course of a day, or that a man associated in the popular imagination with a Nazi-sympathising cartoon frog would make a suitable leader of the free world. While the flying cars or holidays on the moon that we were promised may not have arrived, the extent to which the nature of political discourse, the forms of its storytelling, the authors of its stories, and the positions taken up by radical subcultures have changed over the last few years is staggering. A major reason for this, in Nagle’s telling, is that the new online right and left are responsible for one another, and remake themselves in opposition to the image of the other. As the former grows more offensive, the latter grows more sensitive, and vice-versa, and in this way they reaffirm one another’s worst thoughts about the world and things continue to escalate. “Both sides,” she writes, “have become increasingly unmoored to any cultural mainstream, which scarcely resembles either bleak vision.”
Going a bit further, both sides are so opposed to the establishment they may well have more in common with one another than with the socialist left or the conservative right. The popularity of their alternative narratives points to a future in which subcultural figures with all sorts of unconventional, attention-grabbing views will gather more and more support, opening up space for new kinds of candidates and parties to emerge, from left and right and elsewhere, and fundamentally changing the way politics is done.
DEAN KISSICK is a writer based in Oxford.