Between Facts and Normies: An Interview with Angela Nagle (Part One)- Krishna Srikumar

August 2016. A man sits in front of a webcam, in a room with walls adorned with sheets of paper containing what look suspiciously like exam notes: he wears round, horn-rimmed glasses, and an acuminate dark blue beanie, and scraggly, brown facial hair contours the splotches of tango pink on his nose and cheeks. He is not alone: an interlocutor, whose face cannot be seen, his voice carried by electronic interface, asks him a number of general questions about his life and his work, but only after he becomes unsuccessful in getting to the meat of his subject’s extremely reactionary politics: the bearded, bespectacled man says that he actually doesn’t “get political”, and alleges misattribution, pinning the blame on his “assistant”. Intermittently pausing to take gulps of water from a tall cylindrical jar on his desk, the subject turns the tables on his questioner, asking him about his background, focusing especially on his poor career decisions as a journalist. The attempts to deflect from his own poor career decisions palpably failing, the bearded man proceeds to hurl abuse, calling him a ‘pussy’, and a ‘cracker’, saying:

 

“I wanna be totally straightforward with you: you will never, in a million years, get a job at a publication as prestigious as The New York Times; that little pipe-dream is never gonna happen. You will be blogging and tweeting until you are dead, and nobody will care. Nobody will ever read anything you wrote and say to themselves: ‘man, this is important! I need to know more about this!’ Nobody’s ever gonna read a page that you wrote and say to themselves, ‘damn, I’m glad that I read that’. They’re just gonna– it’s just fuckin’ popcorn. You write the mental equivalent of popcorn. And you will neeeeeeever get a job at The New York Times; they’ll look at your resume, and just go, ‘eeuuuuggghhh, this guy’s a fuckin’ idiot!’ What do ya think about that?!”

 

Not before calling him a ‘blockhead’ and unfastening a deafening screech directly into the phone, our bewhiskered belligerent exchanges kind salutations with his interviewer and the tête-à-tête is brought to an incongruously genial close.

 

The uncouth interviewee is Sam Hyde, the most prominent member of experimental sketch comedy troupe Million Dollar Extreme. The man on the phone asking him questions is Joseph Bernstein, the New York-based senior technology editor for Buzzfeed. Shortly after he ‘interviewed’ Hyde, Bernstein produced what was effectively a compendium of all of the really inflammatory and problematic work and stunts Hyde and MDE had done — including spouting homophobic conspiracy theories at a comedy event in 2013, and inventing the character of a trigger-happy pro-Gamergate Internet personality and tricking people into thinking that there was some kind of a plot against game developer Brianna Wu.

Bernstein argues that Hyde, based on what he has repeatedly said on social media, has “been remarkably consistent in engaging with the major concerns of and personalities in” a far-right movement made up of anti-feminists, white supremacists, anti-communists, nativists, fetishists of feudalism, and numerous token opportunist ironists, trolls and agents provocateurs who really seem to have no dog in this (or, for that matter any other) fight, but all share (until, perhaps, very recently) a sense of almost filial piety and loyalty to Donald J. Trump, who was then the Republican Party’s nominee for President of the United States.

In his subsequent piece on Hyde and MDE, Bernstein calls the troupe the “preferred court jesters” of this subcultural movement; The Atlantic went even further, describing Hyde as an “unapologetic member” of the “alt-right”. Everything came tumbling down for MDE in December last year, when Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace, their controversial series on Adult Swim, was cancelled amid accusations of sexism and racism. Between the first and second of his ‘post-interview’ Hyde articles, Bernstein was hit with a deluge of vituperatively anti-semitic obloquy from Hyde’s fans on social media.

 

 

 

……

 

May 2017. Another man resembling a failed spoken word artist from Shoreditch sits in front of a camera; he too has an interlocutor on the phone — the Irish journalist and cultural critic Angela Nagle. I asked Nagle about Hyde and MDE, and the movement to which they are said to be a part. “Ah! He’s a strange one”, she replies, “Sam Hyde is the one who I think is the most difficult to pin down politically”

Nagle has demonstrated an extraordinary adroitness at “pinning people down politically”: in her piece for The Irish Times entitled ‘What the Alt-right is really all about’, she taxonomizes the rather sickly collection of reactionary bullies and chancers Hyde is associated with, and from whom he is given near-cultish adoration. She describes the Alt-right as a social and political movement propelled by a fascination with race, and a seemingly debilitating fear of the collapse of Western (white) civilization as a result of “increased racial impurity, cultural decadence, cultural Marxism and Islamification”. This extremist contingent includes the following figures: Richard Spencer, the president of white nationalist organization National Policy Institute; Steve Sailer, columnist for Taki’s Magazine; and Jared Taylor, editor of white supremacist magazine American Renaissance.

Alt-lite is the name given to the less orthodox, extreme members of this congregation, who nonetheless still share the bile and hostility mobilized by Taylor, Spencer, and Sailer (and others) towards political correctness, feminism, Islam, what remains of social democracy, and the left-wing (or left-leaning) tranche of what the late philosopher Mark Fisher famously termed ‘identitarianism’. The bigwigs to watch out for here are Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes and former senior Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos.

 

I asked Nagle if, in making this bifurcation, she was in fact referring to two very distinct and separate movements.

 

“Yeah, I mean…kind of. They’re very– I mean, if you look at them on Twitter, for example, you can see that they constantly interact. They’re very close to each other, they have each other on their shows: for example, Gavin McInnes has had Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor on his show, and so they’re very intertwined. Now if you don’t make an absolute distinction between them, they kind of blow up and they get very angry about it: so Richard Spencer is always saying, you know, ‘Milo is not Alt-right! Milo is not Alt-right!’. But you know, it’s kind of a– it’s a very subcultural thing. To the outside world, these are all kind of more or less the same. But to them, they are enraged if they are in any way conflated. But clearly they do interact, and they do have a similar sensibility.”

 

I ask her if she has already seen instances of ‘siblicide’ — of the kind you’d normally expect to see or read about in a puritanical, schismatic religious sect, or in a crumbling Cliffite groupuscule.

 

“Yeah, I saw recently — just as an example — Gavin McInnes was saying, ‘I don’t want Nazis in my movement’, and, ‘we American men fought the Nazis’. And then Richard Spencer re-tweeted and said: ‘And why did we fight them, Gavin?’ And he really meant it, and he was saying, ‘tell me why this was a good idea? Maybe it was a mistake?’ And he thinks it is — or was.”

 

Whatever disdain the alt-lite undoubtedly holds for the Alt-right, and vice versa, it is always dwarfed by the reservoir of vitriol and contempt both are willing to dump on anyone who is to the left of either of them ideologically, partially because of the genuine fear of being seen as mired in self-abnegation and witch-hunting as, well, a puritanical, schismatic religious sect, or a crumbling Cliffite groupuscule:

 

“[T]hey hate their common enemies with the Alt-right and they feel under attack from them, so they have to frame it like ‘don’t punch to the right!’. So they don’t want to– and also they hate the whole culture of being forced to denounce things — which is an annoying culture, actually, I mean, I get why that’s annoying to them — so they don’t want to be forced to denounce anyone, basically, because they’re used to being denounced themselves.”

 

Nagle knows whereof she speaks here, having authored, in Current Affairs, a witty and astute critique of a culture built on the rewarding of the tendency to “self-flagellate” in contemporary social and political discourse, mostly from the left-of-centre. I asked her where she saw such a culture reaching its terminus.

 

“I think– My sense is that it is declining. The self-flagellation culture on the left because there are enough other people on the left who don’t see it as a productive thing politically; and I think it’s been quite– it’s been satirized in quite a funny way as well. So I think that is dying — I hope it is! — and I think it will probably fade out rather than come to an abrupt end. And that will be a good thing because I don’t really think it’s done anyone any good….And it’s a hard argument to make because when you make it, people think you’re saying ‘oh I shouldn’t have to feel bad about anything’. But I just don’t think feeling– I just don’t think that people feeling guilty has actually ever created a mass movement. I mean, people create their own movements. Other people feeling sorry for them has never done that. So I just think that it’s a kind of vanity, and very, very destructive politically — especially in terms of sectarianism within the left.”

 

 

……

 

A rudimentary examination of the value placed on ‘transgression’ in the subcultures in which Sam Hyde and his MDE colleagues, Charls Carroll and Nick Rochefort, flourish would help shed some light on their antics. Nagle’s latest major work, Kill All Normies, a copy of which I purchased when I attended the book’s launch nearly a month after my phone interview, contains an incredibly exhaustive 12-page study of the role of the transgressive in the history of ideas and in cultural history, and its currency for the various creative and intellectual trailblazers for whom moralism was treated with contempt, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Siouxsie Sioux. Nagle identifies two tragic events chronicled in Whitney Phillips’ This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things as especially illustrative case studies — one of which is the suicide of Minnesotan schoolboy Mitchell Henderson.

Shortly after Henderson’s death on April 20th, 2006, a classmate left a comment on his MySpace memorial page about how the seventh-grade student was “an hero to take that shot, to leave us all behind.” This error served as the inspiration for the ‘An Hero’ meme, now an incredibly popular suicide joke that often crops up on posts encouraging suicide. Cruel black humour also arose from another detail on the memorial page — Henderson’s loss of his iPod; Nagle writes that this became such an elaborate joke that:

 

“Henderson’s MySpace page was hacked, while another placed an iPod on Henderson’s grave, took a picture, and posted it to 4chan. His face was pasted onto spinning iPods and hard-core porn scenes, and a re-enactment of Henderson’s death soon appeared on YouTube, involving a shattered iPod. Mitchell’s father received prank calls to his house, in which callers said things like: ‘Hi, I’ve Mitchell’s iPod’ and, ‘Hi, I’m Mitchell’s ghost, the front door is locked. Can you come down and let me in?’”

 

Suicide as a central theme and obsession in the argot of what Nagle calls ‘chan-culture’ can manifest as jocular sadism but also as grief-stricken candour: some people in forums confessing that they have at some point wrestled with (or are still wrestling with) suicidal ideation, and others encourage them (maybe half-jokingly) to realize those fantasies and daydreams. This becomes a kind of a weird feedback loop of confession and denunciation, partly tongue-in-cheek, partly in earnest, with people talking about ‘an hero-ing’ themselves to a baying horde calling for ‘an hero-ing’, where both parties are shielded by anonymity, and both act as ‘transgressors’ insofar as both “the act of suicide and the displays of insensitivity toward suicide victims” are going against “the perceived sentimentality of the mainstream media’s suicide spectacles”, and reconstitute them as a “dark spectacle” in their own little microcosm.

 

The word ‘normies’, the third and last in the title of Nagle’s breezy treatise on the Alt-right, the alt-lite (spelled ‘alt-light’ in the book), and its precursors and opponents, succinctly conveys the glorification of transgression in such an environment; Nagle elucidated the meaning of the word ‘normie’, its provenance, how the focus and the targets of the online subcultures that she researched as a PhD student at Dublin City University, changed over time, and how such subcultures could more easily find analogues in the realm of music criticism than in political activism:

 

“The reason I kind of fixated on the word is because what I’m really looking at is how the subcultures– is what are the cultures that define themselves in opposition to mainstream culture. So ‘normie’ as a pejorative, you know, is significant in that these movements are similar to music subcultures than they are to political movements. So ‘normie’ just means a person who is outside of the subculture, who doesn’t understand the, kind of, inner workings — of the slang, the imagery, and the memes, and so on — of the subcultures. Now, this has kind of changed over time because we start to see, very recently, the Alt-right looking much more to formal politics. But I’m focusing on the last five to eight years, where most of the stuff is in embryo in forums. So they were very much identifying as subcultures. I literally started looking at– well, when I started looking at them, about eight years ago, all the energy in the, kind of…the new reactionary online subcultures was more about feminism, it was about being anti-feminist. Over the time period of the book, it becomes much more about race towards the end — that becomes the main preoccupation. The ones that had all of the energy that was giving…they’re…they were very much about anti-feminism. What was interesting to me about them — the reason why I started studying them — is because I thought it was interesting that, basically, these kind of emerging anti-feminist, kind of, internet subcultures didn’t look anything like previous forms of anti-feminism, which were typically traditionalist — something like the Iona Institute — they tended to be kind of Christian conservative, and so on. And these were really foul-mouthed, loved porn, really into video games, big into all of the kind of niche, elitist subcultural behaviours that I kind of recognized even from being a kind of music subcultural elitist when I was younger.”

 

 

It is through the lens of transgression that Nagle throws into sharp relief the failure of commentators and critics to view the wave of reaction currently proliferating, most strikingly, across the Internet as very much a new, unfamiliar phenomenon. Among those designated for criticism is the British feminist writer Laurie Penny, whose writings misdiagnose, according to Nagle in “The New Man of 4chan” (which appeared in the March 2016 issue of The Baffler) such a viciously misogynist culture as simply “the politics of conservatism and patriarchy reproducing itself anachronistically in new media”, or the “emanation of hegemonic masculinity”. Three years earlier, Nagle had this about Penny in her review of the latter’s Cybersexism:

 

“Faced with the difficult proposition that the root of online misogyny can’t be traced to something like Toryism or neoliberalism but instead might spring from precisely the anarchic anonymous online geek cultures that Penny herself has spent years praising, she simply repeats — as if it will become true through repetition — that the problem is a hangover from the old conservative non-digital world which the liberating power of the internet has yet to correct: “We have a brave new world which looks too much like the cruel old world” which “recreates offline prejudices” […] “Although the technology is new, the language of shame and sin around women’s use of the the Internet is very, very old.” And so on, and so on.”

 

Nagle instead asserts that these geek cultures have foisted a repudiation of everything we have come to recognize as ‘hegemonic masculinity’, with gay and trans pornography being freely circulated on 4chan’s /b/, and the same site being a space for open, surprisingly welcoming discussions about sexual orientations and gender identities that stand well apart from the antiquated heteronormative model, and the trope of the athletic, muscular and sexually successful young man, known as “Chad Thundercock”, being gleefully eviscerated, with his female equivalent “Stacey”, both of whom exist also exist as symbols of consumerist popular culture. The variant of sexism pervading online subcultures has much more in common, Nagle argues, with the “loathing of the symbolically feminine taming influence of suburban domesticity, conformity, and mass consumer culture” of the counterculture of the 1950s and the 1960s.

 

Kill All Normies also makes the case that this rank hostility towards traditional and conventional conceptions of the feminine, and of the patriarchal more generally, anchors it historically more deeply in the annals of transgressive thought and artistic expression than in any Tory promulgations about God, family, and natural law. Indeed, the brand of anti-feminism espoused from these quarters result from a philosophical tradition that emerges from the rejection of God, family, and natural law; Nagle writes about the debt paid to the incendiary writings of the French aristocrat-turned-revolutionary-ideologue Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade — better known as the Marquis de Sade — who championed “sexual sovereignty” and “excessive behaviour without purpose”, and saw “non-procreative sex as an expression of the sovereign against instrumentalism” — by the reliably ribald custodians of chan-culture. A key cipher for this interpretation, which posits a common parentage for contemporary far-right anti-feminism and misogyny and the proponents of transgressivism, in a deep-seated, vitriolic hatred of ‘nature’, is Sexual Personae author Camille Paglia:

 

“Paglia argued that de Sade’s depiction of human evil as innate was a form of satire directed against the Rousseauist tradition, from which contemporary feminism springs. De Sade’s work famously features sexual violence as well as abhorrence for family and procreation, instead creating a violent transgressive sexuality based on the values of libertinism and individual sovereignty. In Juliette one rule of The Sodality of the Friends of Crime was, ‘True libertinage abhors progeniture.’ Paglia argued that de Sade’s devaluing of the procreative female body, and his preoccupation with heterosexual and homosexual sodomy, also shared by chan culture, were not merely the product of a homosexual impulse, as argued by feminist Simone de Beauvoir, but a ‘protest against relentlessly overabundant procreative nature.’”

 

Nagle told me she felt that Penny was “trotting out all of the cliches from ‘60s and ‘70s feminism that aren’t even new adaptations of them”, and that many of the feminist commentators of that ilk were working from the illusion that all of us inhabited a “perpetual 1950s”, where their regressive opponents in the battle of ideas are “totally undifferentiated from church-going Christian conservatives who are interested in bigger families”.

When I asked her if it was fair to characterize her stance as that of a feminist who had a ‘hotter place in Hell’, so to speak, for other feminists — particularly liberal feminists — what came to the fore was not revulsion or resentment, but the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger admonition typical of a weary (ex-)comrade:

 

“[Y]eah, I’m more critical of people who are a bit closer to me politically, in the way that most people are, in that in making those criticisms, what I’m really trying to do is sort of understand, and work out myself, why it is people who are on my side politically are getting things wrong. So it’s not that I want to have a go at anyone personally.[…] And I think as well– I’m 33, and my introduction to the world of politics was through feminism — so I was about 15, or something like that. So I’ve been listening to this stuff for a long time, and I think at a certain point, you really get– you really say, ‘I’m sorry I can’t hear jargon phrases any more. I need to hear real arguments that deal with reality.’”

 

This is not to say that traditionalism is completely absent, and Nagle clarified that the hard Alt-right were “getting stricter” and becoming so much more prominent than the tiny online subcultures that germinated them that they were starting to overpower and eclipse their aggressively libertine forebears.

In late February, almost a year after “The New Man of 4chan” was published, Nagle wrote “Paleocons for Porn” for Jacobin; in the piece, which reads almost like a preamble or an introduction to Kill All Normies, Nagle writes about the “schizophrenic incoherence” created by the alliances between these different subcultural factions, and also their paradoxical relationship with the cultural landscape of Europe, stating that:

 

“The alt-right mourns European culture’s decline but has itself created the most degraded and degenerate forms of culture the West has ever seen in its own fetid forums. It romanticizes the West but hates its Christian “slave morality” and the best of its intellectual traditions. The alt-right uses the now completely bankrupt language of counterculture and transgression when they talk about being “the new punk,” which should serve as a reminder of how empty those ideas have become.”

 

Nagle discussed this dissonance, and other very strange phenomena identified in the Jacobin piece, on the Chapo Trap House podcast. When I brought this up to her, she described the episode’s bizarre reception, and told me that the online right have brought her even further to the Left:

 

“[A]fter I did the Chapo podcast, a couple of them were tweeting at me; they were saying — they were giving me examples of quotes from Greek and Roman philosophers, or something like that, about patriarchy, and saying “oh you don’t understand what the Alt-right is about because here’s our little meme with the quote about how duty is more important than rights” and this kind of thing. But my whole bloody point was that they were patriarchal in theory, but in practice so absurdly different — which is what makes it funny. So there they are, often conforming to the kind of ‘Mother’s Basement Gamer’ stereotype, absolutely hating women — in many cases, totally rejecting women — but then, in theory, they say what they want is the restoration of patriarchy, their actual lives are the opposite to what it would actually take to create such a society, you know.

Another funny thing about it is, because they have no sense of economics whatsoever, they don’t have any sense of the fact that if your movement needs to get rid of half of the workforce — the female half — how are you going to do that?  You’re going to decline as a global power if you halve the size of the economy.

But it’s interesting because they have such confidence for people with really crazy, not-very-well-thought-through ideas. They’re very, kind of…  in a way, they’ve almost made me return to more radical politics because it’s kind of–…you know, because in a way it’s kind of– what makes it so surprising and shocking for our generation, our age or whatever, is that they– they’re not…they’re kind of rejecting the very centrist, technocratic kind of  establishment politics, and they’re aiming straight for this totally theoretical, faraway kind of ideas that maybe aren’t terribly realistic.

But we haven’t seen that kind of politics for a long time because I think  a lot of people have been very ground down by that kind of End of History, technocratic centrism that always says: “Oh no, you’re being childish, you’re being unrealistic”. So in a way it’s kind of– I have to say, you know, while they certainly haven’t thought through the technical elements of it, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if there kind of are other movements who actually have the confidence to think bigger, you know?

[…]

Like non-fascist movements, I mean [laughs]”

CORRECTIONS AND CLARIFICATIONS:

1. An earlier version of this article contained minor typographical/ grammatical errors.

2. An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted a section of Nagle’s description of the word ‘normie’.

The original rendering was:

“The reason I kind of fixated on the word is because what I’m really looking at is how the subcultures– is what are the cultures that define themselves in opposition to mainstream culture. So ‘normie’ as a pejorative, you know, is significant in that these movements are similar to music subcultures than they are to political movements. So ‘normie’ just means a person who is outside of the subculture, who doesn’t understand the, kind of, inner workings — of the slang, the imagery, and the memes, and so on — of the subcultures. Now, this has kind of changed over time because we start to see, very recently, the Alt-right looking much more to formal politics. But I’m focusing on the last five to eight years, where most of the stuff is in embryo in forums. So they were very much identifying as subcultures. I literally started looking at– well, when I started looking at them, about eight years ago, all the energy in the, kind of…the new reactionary online subcultures was more about feminism, it was about being anti-feminist. Over the time period of the book, it becomes much more about race towards the end — that becomes the main preoccupation. The ones that had all of the energy that was giving…they’re…they were very much about anti-feminism. What was interesting to me about them — the reason why I started studying them — is because I thought it was interesting that, basically, these kind of emerging anti-feminist, kind of, internet subcultures didn’t look anything like previous forms of anti-feminism, which were typically traditionalist — something like the Iona Institute — they tended to be kind of Christian conservative, and so on. And these were really foul-mouthed, loved porn, really into video games, big into all of the kind of niche, elitist subcultural behaviours that I kind of recognized even from being a kind of music subcultural elitist when I was younger.”

3. An earlier version of this article misquoted a portion of Nagle’s account of the life and death of Mitchell Henderson in Kill All Normies.

The original rendering was:

“Henderson’s MySpace page was hacked, while another placed an iPod on Henderson’s grave, took a picture, and posted it to 4chan. His face was pasted onto spinning iPods and hard-core porn scenes, and a re-enactment of Henderson’s death soon appeared on YouTube, involving a shattered iPod. Mitchell’s father received prank calls to his house, in which callers said things like: ‘Hi, I’ve Mitchell’s iPod’ and, ‘Hi, I’m Mitchell’s ghost, the front door is locked. Can you come down and let me in?’”

[14/8/2017]

 

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