Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-right (2017) is at once insightful and ambitious, but also somewhat hubristic and perhaps too narrow in focus. In the book, Nagle explores the relationships between particular internet subcultures and the rise of right-wing nationalist politics, particularly in the U.S.A. The book combines historical accounts of activities conducted by these online communities that filtered into the mainstream, the results of ethnographic study and philosophical and theoretical critique of both left and right as they manifest themselves on the internet. There are, unfortunately, some careless passages in this book that make it difficult to champion but similarly I cannot denounce it. There is an obvious need for a detailed examination of those strands of the internet that foster right-wing extremism and Kill All Normies provides a compelling account of some of the discursive operations that structure this movement. Similarly, the left’s use of the internet also needs to be subject to critique, and some of what Nagle provides in this regard is astute; painful but necessary. The denouncements and praise heaped upon Kill All Normies and Nagle herself have been extraordinarily problematic. Those hailing it as a blow to identity politics have done so with an enthusiasm that is in dire need of critical reflection, while those claiming the book to be an example of the same kind of racism and misogyny that it purports to examine are well wide of the mark. Kill All Normies is a book that takes steps into new grounds that are at once familiar and unexplored but with an unfortunate tendency to bluster through where care is needed.
Nagle’s point on how right-wing discourse on the internet operates is an extremely welcome one. She argues that the transgressive practices, that for so long were thought to be the preserve of some kind of inherent progressivism, are instead contextually contingent in their articulation.
One gap in the book is the relative lack of consideration of the materiality of the media in question and the experience of it: the particularity of accessing a network that allows you to see everything all the time. For the material media side, we could look to Friedrich Kittler’s work that sought to show how the militaristic origins of contemporary communication technology has built into it certain violent authoritarian tendencies. An example of the more experiential side could be found in Adrian Nathan West’s The Aesthetics of Degradation (2016), which strengthens it’s critique of the exploitation and abuse found in pornography by building in a first-person account of the ease and compulsiveness with which such media is consumed and the loneliness that this behaviour stems from and reproduces. West’s is a very particular example and there are more conventional ways to provide such a perspective. However, with both of the media-historical and techno-phenomenological frames missing for the most part, at times the critique of the Alt-right’s discourse seems devoid of an experiential context, which renders the various discursive horrors somewhat inexplicable. That said, Kill All Normies is a short book and to add a sufficient exploration of both the relevant media archaeology and media phenomenology would at least double its length and abstract it from its main focus, which is the operation of the discourse of the Alt-right online.
Nagle’s point on how right-wing discourse on the internet operates is an extremely welcome one. She argues that the transgressive practices, which for so long were thought to be the preserve of some kind of inherent progressivism, are instead contextually contingent in their articulation. Transgression can as easily serve oppression as emancipation. For example, in the 60s a moderate liberal feminist project could be scandalous to those who would consider themselves in the political mainstream. Such a violation of accepted norms gave the demands for gender equality (not even so much as emancipation) a transgressive power in the service of a progressive agenda. The transgression of the sexist normative rules of the system was a way to show how unjust these rules were and thus build a case and a movement to progress beyond them. Today, with the appearance that the values of gender equality themselves now constitute the mainstream, the quickest route to engage transgressive power is not to push these values further into gender emancipation but instead to challenge the established notion of equality. Here the previous norm is defiantly reasserted as if the previous transgression was somehow against some kind of natural justice and in need of being revoked.
The transgression of norms, in general, is, by its very nature, disruptive and disruption can carry with it the power and pleasure of the spectacle. This, Nagle argues, is the governing logic of transgression rather than any latent progressive politics. Thus transgression is an ambivalent action, the politics of which are entirely dependent on the politics of the norms and laws that prohibit it. Furthermore, it is perhaps in the notion of appearance that the weakness of transgression, as it relates to discourse, is located. Feminism need not have actually overcome the patriarchy for the perception of its dominance, albeit in a neutered branded form, to be discursively produced in the mainstream. The perception of feminism-as-mainstream imbues the act of violation of the perceived law (feminist gender equality) with the social incentives of for its transgression. This is a dynamic of which we, who claim to be engaged in leftist politics, need to be more aware and ready to meet. And this is certainly a point Nagle makes well in her critique of the internet left, namely that discourse is so fungible that it cannot be thought to replace material political action. For example, policing the use of language within a small community online doesn’t necessarily lead to the emancipation of a repressed group in general. And, despite the real benefits to personal wellbeing and safety such prohibitions may bring, it will also produce a backlash that we should be mindful of. However, for a historical materialist like Nagle, the critique of how leftist discourse produced the alt-right discourse may be, at times, overstated.
There is more to be excited within Kill All Normies, however. Nagle’s work is underpinned by solid in-depth research (research that the publisher should have insisted on displaying in a bibliography), which makes this not only an important condensation of historical research but also critical sociology. This is particularly clear in the chapter on men’s rights activists “Entering the Manosphere” , in which Nagle’s expertise of online anti-feminist groups shines through. She gives a nuanced account of the motivations of these groups whilst critiquing the misogynistic logic on which they are based. For example, on the muddled puritan morality and misogyny of many contemporary men’s rights groups, Nagle writes;
A frustrating contradiction and hypocrisy you find in many of these online spaces and subcultures is that they want all the benefits of tradition without its necessary restraints and duties. They simultaneously want the best of the sexual revolution (sexual success with pornified women, perpetually dolled up, waxed and willing to do anything) without the attendant insecurities of a society in which women have sexual choice and freedom.
This is exactly the kind of immanent critique we need, if we are to have any hope of winning the argument against the swarm of anonymous twitter eggs behind which hide perhaps legions of dangerously fragile young men. Though there are curious moments that stem from this engagement that I wish would be more developed. Namely, what feels like a grudging admiration for the effectiveness of the alt-right.
It is, of course, important to critique how categorization can be little more than pseudo-politics of discourse and, indeed, oppressive in itself. That said, I doubt that this is best achieved by using the skills associated with your PhD to ridicule the mostly young people of Tumblr in their clumsy attempts at establishing a sense of identity and community along broadly progressive politics.
There is almost an affection for the alt-right in the chapter “The leaderless digital counter-revolution”. This affection for the transgression chasing sub-groups of the alt-right is complex, however, as it is not directed at the particular content of the groups but more their form of peculiar nihilistic freedom, unburdened by certain leftist political pieties. I should state here that, unlike as it is suggested in other reviews, Nagle’s politics are clearly feminist, anti-racist and directed towards a project of class emancipation. That said, I think something is missing but that may also require its own book: a close examination of what has made the right so beguiling to so many, explored in the context of online culture. Dale Beran’s piece on medium from earlier this year provided an account of the appeal of the right to their target demographic (young white men) and some of the aforementioned techno-phenomenological context that helps to make the behaviour of these groups more comprehensible. Without this, the connection between the material conditions of our culture and the horrors practised by this community remain somewhat opaque.
My main frustration with reading Kill All Normies book, however, was its aloofness that can come across as a disregard for the very people, the left, Nagle ostensibly wants to bring over to help construct an emancipatory project. There are moves made that are at once unnecessary and alienating. When providing an account of the what is referred to as Gamergate, Nagle writes;
First, let me be clear of my own position on gaming. If you’re an adult, I think you should probably be investing your emotional energies elsewhere. And that includes feminist gaming, which has always sounded about as appealing to me as feminist porn; in other words, not at all.
This just creates noise. Regardless of the validity, or lack thereof, of her position, nothing comes of stating it, as all that follows is a relatively straightforward account of the controversy. All the critique serves to do is place the authorial voice way above her subject of analysis, like an easier-to-read Adorno. To add the hamfisted comedy tag about feminist porn to the end of this pointless remark is just gilds the exclusionary lilly.
When critiquing the so-called Tumblr left in the chapter “From Tumblr to the Campus Wars” Nagle provides a list of different gender identities that can be found on the social media platform. Each entry comes with a definition that imbues the list with a kind of deadpan ridicule that again serves very little. It is, of course, important to critique how categorization can be little more than pseudo-politics of discourse and, indeed, oppressive in itself. That said, I doubt that this is best achieved by using the skills associated with your PhD to ridicule the mostly young people of Tumblr in their clumsy attempts at establishing a sense of identity and community along broadly progressive politics.
More pointless noise is generated later in the chapter when Nagle discusses how she sees the operating logics of Tumblr spill onto university campuses when she makes the following remark;
Trigger warnings had to be issued in order to avoid the unexpectedly high number of young women who had never gone to war claiming to have post-traumatic stress disorder.
This is a great way to make sure the people who you think need to listen to your critique will not listen to you. It’s clearly intended to be a joke at the expense of the privileged but it’s not delivered with the required precision to avoid collateral damage. Because it’s a joke one can ask why is it funny? The most common reason something is funny is that it sets up and then subverts expectations. But, as I have written elsewhere, laughter can release also be a release of the rush of excitement at asserting your superiority over others. To include this remark in a critique of leftist-social-justice-virtue-signalling weakens the book’s argument, as such remarks arguably represent the critic of identity politics’ own brand of virtue signalling. As one-offs, these kinds of remarks would be forgivable, as intention is often difficult to carry over into the ambiguous and slippery world of signs, but their frequency indicates carelessness, at the very least. And it is irritating to see an argument devolve to this level, which is itself reminiscent of a comments section. That said, I don’t read this remark as overly malicious, rather lacking in self-reflection.
What is clear is that Kill All Normies does contribute important resources and perspectives to the debate about the future of politics in an age in which the illusory centre seems to have dropped out of politics and history has, zombie-like, gotten itself started again.
To get a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of Kill All Normies, it is perhaps useful to look to the particular. Nagle refers to Mark Fisher’s critique of what can be termed online identity politics, in his essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, where she lists off the unfair and at times vile response he received from those who previously could have been considered comrades. This is perhaps where nuance is needed most.”Exiting the Vampire Castle” is far from Fisher’s best work. It discusses real problem that the left seems unable to address, the chilling effect on discourse and communication that takes place, particularly online but also IRL, stemming from the crass application of theories of identity and social justice in forums, on platforms and in institutions that are geared to produce competition and conflict rather than solidarity. The problem with “Exiting the Vampire Castle” essay is that Fisher clumsily characterises those he considered most responsible for this as blood-sucking demon spawned; vampires. This not to say that there is nothing monstrous or vampirically drain about political discourse on the left, especially on monetized platforms, but to place this label so carelessly close to people rather than the systems they are ensconced in creates too much noise. By reading the painful phenomenology of personal and political frustration at the start of the essay, it is possible to read past the problematic metaphor, though for many the essay itself became just another entry in their own phenomenology of frustration. In short, the circumstances that produced the need for critique also made it very difficult for Fisher to write a critique that could be read in a productive way by those who didn’t already sympathise with his position.
Kill All Normies is a work that certainly does sympathise and, for good and ill, it carries the spirit of “Exiting the Vampire Castle” forward into the contemporary moment. Good in that it is an attempt to refocus on the true enemy of leftist political projects; the Right, in its contemporary alternative attire. The bad in that it lets it’s frustration with the impotence and infighting of the left-wing get the better of it and, in turn, has produced yet more infighting. Perhaps all this will lead somewhere productive, it is too soon to tell. What is clear is that Kill All Normies does contribute important resources and perspectives to the debate about the future of politics in an age in which the illusory centre seems to have dropped out of politics and history has, zombie-like, gotten itself started again. I wish only Kill All Normies had done a better job of bringing more people along.
Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-right is published by Zer0 Books. You can pick up a copy (later this week) at ark books on Møllegade.
Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-right by Angela Nagle
The Truth of the Technological World by Freidrich Kittler
The Aesthetics of Degradation by Adrian Nathen West
“4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump” by Dale Beran
“Exiting the Vampire Castle” by Mark Fisher