IRL Trolling on Tottenham Court Road ‘08
Inevitably, Angela Nagle’s new polemical non-fiction book, Kill All Normies sent me on a trip down memory lane.
Around ten years ago I was a socially isolated 17-year old, and read (online) about a protest against the Church of Scientology. This followed the Church’s abortive efforts to have embarrassing footage of Tom Cruise pulled from the internet on copyright grounds. This move caused a perhaps undue amount of outrage among internet communities. Coordinated internationally, the resulting demonstrations drew thousands around the world to peacefully protest outside local Scientology headquarters. The first London protest was held outside the front door of the ‘Dianetics’ shopfront, on Tottenham Court Road. The main banner was a large unfurled longcat, and baked goods were in plentiful supply, giving rise to the chant: “We have cake, they have lies!”. For its part, the Church continued its usual operations while also dispatching surreptitious photographers (presumably part of the Church’s shadowy internal security force, the OSA, well known for collecting data on its critics). Protesters took to wearing Guy Fawkes masks, and other face coverings.
The monthly events which formed after this were a politically defined strange medley of civil libertarian, New Atheist, leftwing, or the simply inane; all drawn around the shared culture of memes. After the London protests we peeled off to the Jack Horner Pub, striking up many otherwise unlikely friendships. My fellow protesters included an irrepressibly enthusiastic socialist on long term disability benefit, a charismatic social media entrepreneur, an affable anarcho-communist, more than one geeky public schoolgirl, a young ex-Scientologist clearly still coming to terms with having left the cult, several closeted teenage furries, and a trainee doctor with a startling aptitude for trolling. As entry points to political activism come, it was by turns bizarre, brutish, and relatively genteel.
Besides hassling a New Religious Movement, #London Anonymous’s “IRL operations” ranged from a ‘Rick Roll’ of Liverpool Street Station, to flash mobbing an undeserving Gamespot demanding a videogame released in 1991 (Battle Toads), to a more dubious event known as ‘Troll Paedo’, where an unsuspecting would-be child molestor baited online was lured into a public place to be given an unexpected greeting by a jubilant crowd.
Simultaneously ‘Anonymous’ was a term covering a wide range of online groups (effectively anyone who chose to adopt the moniker). A demarcation arose as the protests drew in many well meaning outsiders to Chan culture. The anti-Scientology campaign (known as Project Chanology) became quickly ridiculed by much of Chan culture. In response to the relatively well meaning “IRL” events the cruelty of online acts seemed to intensify, in a bid to associate what was usually termed “moralfaggotry”, or “cancer”. Activities of online trolls included efforts to hack feminist websites, and ‘raids’ inserting strobe images on epilepsy forums. The Church of Scientology compiled a DVD listing these manifold horrors, and declared Anonymous a “terrorist group”.
I was puzzled to find the ‘Chanology Years’ (c.2008-2009) missing from Kill All Normies, which begins its account of the ‘internet culture wars’ in around 2010 (when ‘Anonymous’ was one actor in the inchoate sprawl of Occupy.) This late start omits the peculiar, yet international, beginnings of internet culture’s creep into “meatspace” politics.
Nagle’s omission of these early years of “IRL” Chan-related activism is sadly a typical feature of her often sloppy prose. Throughout, strange gaps and unfortunate typos appear, producing an overall ‘half baked’ affect. Barack Obama’s name is misspelled on the first page. Of course, Nagle alone cannot be blamed for this incomplete quality of her short book. Zero Books appear to have not bothered to edit the manuscript at all, a marked contrast to the promotional blitz which has already made the book something of a sensation among left-wing circles.
Unfortunately, beneath the surface level errors which basic professional proofreading might have easily avoided, major flaws in both historical recounting and political analysis also define this book. I will examine a few of these key failings in this piece, with the hope of promoting a more fruitful reading of internet culture and contemporary fascism.
Omitting Class, Avoiding Explanation
While Nagle is a self-identified materialist, class analysis is effectively absent from Kill All Normies. This is despite much work clearly being needed on the class composition of Alt-Right. Evidence here is in abundance, if quite mixed. Pro-Trump YouTuber and alleged cult founder Stefan Molyneux’s rants against socialism (including objecting to even the term ‘working class’ itself) are clearly in service of the small business owner’s perspective. The Daily Stormer’s Andrew Anglin is keen to summarise the Alt-Right as ‘a bunch of NEETs’ or his ‘NEET army’. Similarly Scottish vlogger Millennial Woes lengthy videos often seem like free motivational therapy for (white) long-term unemployed men. Contrastingly The Right Stuff clearly attempt to evoke an aristocratic elitism, explicitly seeking to draw from classical Roman ruling class ideology and the history of the US slaver class. And it’s certainly hard to imagine Milo Yiannopoulos ever having enjoyed such a successful media career without his cut-glass tone, and Received Pronunciation. The ‘Dark Enlightenment’ style self-fashioning of refined reactionaries is certainly pretentious, but not reducible to mere posturing. Various Alt-Right figures around the orbit of white nationalist ‘Counter Currents Publications’ have been exposed as major property owners, and active participants in the gentrification of Atlanta, Georgia.
Nagle’s work contributes nothing to undoing the mystification and ‘class camouflage’ clearly at work in these reactionary self-stylings. At very least it should be noted that the commonplace liberal attribution of Trump’s success to the mythic ‘white working class’ can be shown up as an oversimplification through basic scrutiny of the Alt-Right. As dryly noted by Ash Sarkar: ‘So much for the sans-culottes of the deindustrialised rust-belt: when the citizenry of Trump’s “forgotten” America showed up in Charlottesville last weekend, it was in sports jackets and chinos.’
Kill All Normies’ avoidance of the challenging work of extracting and interpreting the interplay of class positions is one aspect of the overall avoidance of explanation which reigns for much of this book. Nagle is largely happy to insinuate, rather than argue. Unclear argumentation crowds many of the book’s pages, with points seeming to have been sketched and then not returned to.
For instance one example of the left ‘crying wolf’ Nagle provides is Canadian premier Justin Trudeau being termed a ‘white supremacist’, which the reader is presumably meant to take as patently absurd on face value. In reality criticism of Justin Trudeau’s continuation of earlier ‘land grabs’ of indigenous lands by the Canadian state extends well beyond Tumblr. Nagle later hints (but does not state) that diagnoses of PTSD to women who are not former soldiers are illegitimate, a retrograde position she’s unlikely to be able to support.
Throughout, the book favours compilation over explanation. While certainly bolstering the work’s aptitude as an introductory piece for those not versed in internet culture, and surely including much material which will shock those unfamiliar with recent turns in online discourse, the consequence is the book as a whole appears as a sprawling collection of disjointed anecdotes.
Worse still a selective bias limits the grasp of many important issues it touches upon. At its weakest, Kill All Normies straightforwardly reproduces the claims made by much of the Alt-Right. One example is the conclusion to chapter six, ‘Entering the Manosphere’, where Nagle explicitly states her own agreement with Incel (“involuntary celibacy”) communities that:
Sexual patterns that have emerged as a result of the decline of monogamy have seen a greater level of sexual choice for an elite of men and a growing celibacy among a large male population at the bottom of the pecking order.
One wonders if this claim was discussed with any sex workers prior to publication, if it has been drawn from some statistical inquiry or historical comparison in particular, or whether it’s simply based on Nagle’s own intuition.
Nativism and Anti-Semitism
Anti-Catholic migrant nativist propaganda
Nativism has been a core feature of right-wing movements throughout modernity, and is central to the Alt-Right and its ‘fellow travellers’. The overwhelming hostility towards migration and the intransigent biological racism of the Alt-Right are two of its most characteristic features. Among the least convincing claims of the Breitbart piece written by Milo Yiannopoulos Nagle cites is that this racism is simply ‘ironic’ (the Daily Stormer’s Andrew Anglin produced a ferocious post disputing this claim, significant at the time given that his blog was then probably the most popular Alt-Right publication). The racism and anti-semitism of the Alt-Right are tacitly downplayed throughout the book, which provides no clear explanation of why so much ground has been gained by them in bringing these features to the fore of right wing politics.
Nagle fails to draw connections between the primarily anglophone material she focuses on, and the more global success of nationalist populism in recent years: there is no mention of Hungarian fascist party Jobbik (who have used the internet in addition to street teams to promote their brutal agenda beyond parliament). Nor the PEGIDA protests which began shortly after I moved to the provincial German city of Dresden in 2014, filling the city centre with protesters against ‘Islamism’ each Monday. By night, hooligans would fan out through Dresden’s streets, ensuring queers, migrants and People of Colour felt unsafe using public transport. PEGIDA was originally arranged over social media by a small number of far-right activists. Greece’s Golden Dawn and France’s Génération Identitaire have been explicitly cited as inspirations for US groups such as the Traditionalist Workers’ Party and Identity Europa. Also unmentioned here is the well known ‘troll army’ of Vladimir Putin, or the recent success of Hindutva, which has featured a notoriously ferocious and seemingly well co-ordinated trolling campaign supporting the ruling BJP.
Nor is the Alt-Right contextualised in light of other earlier and on-going trends in the Anglophone right. For instance there is no evaluation of the English Defence League, or older groups such as the Orange Order. Even National Action (a recently banned British group unambiguously part of the ‘nipster’ wing of the Alt-Right, while drawing on the legacy of earlier British neo-nazi tendencies such as ‘Rock Against Communism’ and Combat 18) are not mentioned, despite their aggressive and innovative internet presence.
Instead, Nagle is reliant on a schema produced by the Alt-Right itself: the division between the Alt-Right proper (hardcore national socialists and white supremacists) and Alt-Light (who mostly avoid overt racism, instead deploying a more ‘civic’ western chauvinism). Nagle fails to note how this distinction has been used instrumentally by the Alt-Right itself. In the run-up to Richard Spencer’s notorious ‘hail Trump!’ speech at the National Policy Institute’s 2016 conference, Daily Stormer’s Andrew Anglin was pillorying Spencer as an ‘Alt-Light’ figure (for offences including his flirtation with Tila Tequila, and Jewish attendees being interviewed at his conference). Spencer’s ferocious speech (not only closing with a ‘Hail’, but also using the Nazi Germany era term ‘Lügenpresse’, or ‘lying press’) immediately succeeded in mollifying Anglin, while alienating others in the movement. In other words, a regulatory or disciplinary aspect is clearly at work in this term.
One of the greatest failures of historical contextualisation is making no effort to relate the Alt-Right to its equally internet-centred predecessor, Counter-Jihad.
Counter-Jihad was a loose grouping of movements which promoted a ‘Clash of Civilisation’ in which the West was at war with Islam. The so-called ‘Alt-Light’ is not straightforwardly reducible to a continuation of this stance (for instance Stef Molyneux attempted to frame Trump as relatively unlikely to start a war against Russia, as compared to Hillary Clinton). However much of their positioning has a direct inheritance in that Counter-Jihad framed immigration as inevitably leading to an ‘Islamic takeover’, possible to equate to an invasion. This draws from a longstanding view developed prior by the Alt-Right, in works such as Mark Steyn’s “America Alone”.
It must be noted that there is no discernable way in which Counter-Jihad can be termed necessarily ‘less extreme’ than neo-Nazism: this ideology was effectively an outgrowth of the enhanced role anti-Muslim racism came to play in the global security state during the War on Terror, and as well as justifying the worst extremes of the conflicts that involved it has also been a primary influence for white terrorists including Anders Breivik.
The differentiation is not extremity, then, but taxonomy: most Counter-Jihad activists are happy to include Jewish people as part of ‘The West’ (and indeed see Israel as a key outpost of “Civilisation”). By contrast the Alt-Right defines their politics around white identity, which usually excludes Jewish people from whiteness (and casts them as a sinister threat, exactly because of their lack of differentiation along the lines of so-called “phenotype”.) Understanding the Alt-Right, then, requires grasping contemporary anti-semitism.
Unfortunately, another of the book’s greatest failures is the lack of dedicated treatment of anti-semitism. As there is effectively no material to engage with here, I will attempt my own sketch of the role played here. Anti-semitism and nativism become entwined in the Alt-Right proper, providing a ready made means of explaining immigration policies which both factions are agreed are producing the end of ‘European civilisation’.
In short, a shared assumption of the Alt-Right and Counter-Jihad is that Muslim immigration is an existential threat to the West. While nativists outside the Alt-Right claim that this is the result of centre-left parties hoping to import voters, the Alt-Right proper considers mass immigration to be only one “anti-white” plot hatched by the west’s Jewry.
One upshot of this is an explanatory role played by anti-semitic thinking in the Alt-Right. The “globalists” (a term used by Steve Bannon and Donald Trump) in the Alt-Right worldview are simply the Jews, and many “cuckservatives” can be accounted for in these terms. The Alt-Right seeks to expose the influence of what they term “Jewish Power”, which accounts for perhaps the most widespread Alt-Right meme (the use of echoes surrounding a name, now adopted by many Jewish public figures in their Twitter handles).
That the Alt-Right seeks to divide the right between those who do and do not take what’s perceived to be a sufficiently harsh stance against immigrants is nothing new: the term “RINO” has long been in use by the Republican right against centrists for exactly this end. The Alt-Right’s “Cuckservative” simply overloads the term with racist overtones: a conservative seen as soft on migration must want to see his wife sleep with a black man. The key new development of the Alt-Right is reviving classical anti-semitism towards the end of promoting nativist policies. This process desublimates the racist core implicit in more mainstream nativism, rendering the implicit content of ‘strong borders’ rhetoric explicit. Conservatives seen as not sufficiently anti-immigration are therefore part of a “globalist” fifth column, or victims of a miscegenatist psycho-sexual disorder, rather than simply traitors to the movement.
This strange position could be termed the “anti-centrism of fools”, in that it draws on the objectively apparent ideological indeterminacy of the US elite towards the end of promoting anti-Jewish hatred.
The rehabilitation of political anti-semitism into the public sphere is a key aim of Alt-Right proper, and indeed even a cursory reading of their material shows this to be an overriding concern. Andrew Anglin has summarised his motivation in the line: ‘Somebody’s got to do something about those kikes’. The Right Stuff (better known as TRS) runs a podcast entitled ‘The Daily Shoah’, a reference to the Holocaust denialism which is at the core of the hosts’ worldview. TRS was recently rocked by the revelation one of the Daily Shoah’s hosts, Mike Enoch, had a Jewish wife. In a strange case of auto-objectification, members of the Alt-Right often adopt the persona of a Jewish plotter, and refer to those this character is attempting to con as ‘Goyim’. Considerable progress has been made by this faction, with chants by the thousand or more activists assembled at Charlottesville including ‘Jews will not replace us’.
However, simply considering the likes of Milo and Mike Cernovich as a ‘milder’ form of the Alt-Right will clearly not suffice. The substantive role anti-semitic thinking plays for the Alt-Right (and for the so-called “Alt-Light” is replaced by) requires explicit examination.
Without this frame, Nagle is effectively left implying that the Alt-Right is divisible in terms effectively defined by extremity, rather than interpreting the split origins and subsequent contradictions of the movement. While at one point engaging in a brief, by-the-numbers introduction of the Neoconservatives, Nagle then drops this point without further reflection.
This failure becomes especially clear in an ill advised chapter comparing Milo Yiannopoulos (by this point something of an irrelevance), with dinosaur paleoconservative Pat Buchanan. (Consistent to the poor editing found elsewhere, Nagle oscillated between spelling “Buchannan” throughout the chapter.) This chapter fails to make it clear that Pat Buchanan’s longstanding aim has been the ‘defeat’ of the Neoconservative Right, which Milo Yiannopoulos was briefly a tacit figurehead for. Buchanan’s The American Conservative was a consistent voice against the foreign policy of George Bush Jr., indeed considerably more so than America’s liberal establishment. By contrast Milo was avowedly in favour of projections of US power. This position which both made him considerably more palatable to much of the right, and at odds with anti-war figures like Andrew Anglin, and Richard Spencer (a former employee of Buchanan). A comparison to either of these latter two figures would probably have proven more rewarding (not least given Milo has now become an irrelevance.)
The likes of Buchanan, Anglin and Spencer are agreed on the importance of a state prioritised towards defence and ‘law and order’ (i.e. securing the pre-eminence of white Americans and property owners through heavy policing). Paleoconservatives and Alt-Right consider the primary foe of securing this subversive elements, who they blame for both the disastrous record of the US’s recent foreign policy, and what they perceive as cultural degeneration. In this light, the Bush era’s military adventures are depicted as a distraction from the true role of the US state in very similar terms by paleoconservatives and the Alt-Right.
Paleoconservatives and the Alt-Right also share key conspiracy theories. Buchanan is as responsible as any other one figure in American public life for the crypto-antisemitic association of the Frankfurt School as responsible for ‘cultural marxism’ as a wide-reaching plot to take over America. Buchanan advanced this bizarre view in his 2001 magnum opus The Death of the West, and effectively views the neo-conservatives as a mirror image of the Frankfurt School: an external school around Leo Strauss (leaving both the ‘globalist’ factions Buchanan opposes conveniently founded by Jewish emigres). There are therefore direct intellectual ties between paleoconservatives and the Alt-Right project of rehabilitating political anti-semitism. Indeed the term ‘alt-right’ was originally coined in 2009 by a paleoconservative historian, Paul Gottfried (a one-time mentor of Spencer). These ties remain in urgent need of examination.
At the book’s worst points, Nagle’s lack of an explanatory framework causes her to become all too forgiving of key groups and figures on the so-called “Alt-Light”.
In a section lamenting the ‘brain drain’ inflicted by the contemporary left’s failings, Nagle produces an introduction to University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson which exemplifies the one-sided recounting found throughout the book. Nagle contents herself with describing the activist campaign against Peterson, making no mention of his homebrewed worldview (expressed in his numerous, if repetitive, YouTube entries). Peterson’s ideology is a distinctive mix of evolutionary psychology, right wing interpretations of early psychoanalyst Karl Jung, a self-help inflected reading of Nietzsche, and existentialism (particularly Martin Heidegger). Nagle’s insinuation that Peterson can be considered a voice ‘drained’ from right to left seems unfounded: intellectuals of the right have existed for as long as the right has.
Nagle’s sympathy for Peterson is ultimately quite curious. While they agree on the perils of postmodernism, presumably they diverge on the gender pay gap (which Peterson clam is inevitably founded in a competitive drive towards hard work found in men, over women). Indeed, Peterson is explicitly opposed to the basic aims of gender egalitarianism. Typical for a right-wing showman he stresses the intractability of social inequalities (giving them a positivist veneer by claiming to break personality types into quantifiable characteristics), while styling himself as prophet of personal responsibility. This approach combined with his baiting of non-binary trans people has proven lucrative: internet patrons alone provide Peterson with over $50,000 a month (funds Peterson has said he’s planning to use to devise a new form of university course, presumably run along the lines set by his atomist worldview.) In short, this worldview is clearly articulated, obviously a right liberal one, and has proven very successful in attracting Alt-Right supporters. There is no reason to believe Peterson, who describes himself accurately enough as a ‘classical liberal’, would have been on the left in another era.
Kill All Normies' treatment of recently founded white power group the Proud Boys (who Nagle misleadingly terms a movement, a recurring tic also applied to the ‘spoonie movement’ and the ‘decolonize your mind movement’) is equally poor. Nagle contents herself with a surface level reading of the organisation, who are defined by a strange inheritance from Pick Up Artistry which includes a pact not to masturbate. Unmentioned by Nagle, the Proud Boys have added a further initiation ritual which demands attacking a left wing protester:
‘Fourth degree — The final step involves “a major fight for the cause,” McInnes said. “You get beat up, kick the crap out of an antifa” and possibly get arrested.’
The group have already made physical force attacks on Black Lives Matter events in the United States, allegedly staged a knife attack against an NYC anti-fascist activist, and disrupted an otherwise peaceful indigenous demonstration in Canada. It would be good to know if any of this makes the group seem less amusing. The group’s slogan: ‘The West is the Best’, pithily summarises the continuation of Counter-Jihad western chauvinism into the ‘Alt-Light’ wing. But whether this should be seen as a lightweight version of fascism at all remains unproven. It seems simpler to see the Proud Boys and their National Socialist movement counterparts as rival variants of street fascism. In one of the book’s weakest passage, Nagle displays the odd naivety which characterises her scrutiny of the right, a stark contrast to her scathing rebukes of the left:
...there is an attempt at some certain internal coherence to its moral system. Proud Boys seeks to return to a more traditional way of life, but it also adopts a conservative approach to pornography and masturbation, and claims to ‘honor the housewife’. It’s still not much of a recommendation, but at least it is less overtly hateful towards women at least in principle.
What’s in a Gamergate?
Beginning in August 2014, “Gamergate” had a profound impact on internet culture, producing a new era of contention, and fear. Gamergate is seen by many as effectively the starting point for the coalescence of what is today called the ‘Alt-Right’ (especially the intensification of ties and shared rhetoric between right libertarians with white nationalists). Initially Nagle’s treatment of this topic appears promising: she correctly notes the mildness of the ‘Feminist Frequency’ series, and wholly disproportionate rage it produced by established gamers. However, Nagle is less sparing in her treatment of feminist video game designer Zoe Quinn, who was the other main target of the Gamergate trolls. When introducing Quinn’s place in the controversy, this book seems to abandon any pretence at scholarship over prejudice.
Depression Quest was a 2013 video game in which the player follow the protagonist through confronting the eponymous condition. From the outset, pathways which would most improve the plight of the player character are ‘scratched out’ as choices, and further decisions which exacerbate the condition cause more and more of these to be eliminated. The gameplay is therefore primarily centred around exploring the limits to agency in freeing oneself from the depressed state.
Personally, I found the game helpful in coming to terms with my own mental health problems. While it’s a simple and earnest piece of gameplay, it conveys effectively the limitations of ‘personal responsibility’ in overcoming a highly stigmatised condition. It sets out plainly the difficulties living with depression poses not only to one’s working life but meaningfully recreation and healthy relationships. From her treatment of it, Nagle clearly disagrees. Across the space of two paragraphs, she describes Depression Quest as ‘bad’, ‘dreadful’, and ‘terrible’.
While making her distaste for the game clear, it’s a lot less certain what the qualitative substance of her critique is: as well as dismissing Depression Quest, Nagle dismisses video games as a medium more generally (implying they are unsuitable for mature adults, and in a simply baffling sentence claiming a feminist video games are as inconceivable as feminist pornography.) Nagle is entitled to her cultural limits, however this research clearly could have benefitted from consultation with the works of specialists. Much of the relevant context surrounding the Gamergate controversy is missing from this book, leaving it seeming like an inscrutable ‘overreaction’ to an unspecified stimulus.
Depression Quest was a game produced using Twine, a primarily text based interface which results in games resembling the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ story books. While Depression Quest a relatively elaborate Twine game (featuring a soundtrack which varied in intensity as the protagonist continued their descent into despair), this form of game was still perceived as illegitimate by many self-identified gamers.
Since the controversy, Twine games have continued to be used in the years since by queer video game developers, along with other efforts to renew videogames as means of understanding sexuality and culture. Porpetine, who produced a commissioned game for the New Inquiry’s issue on ‘Games’, Merritt K (whose accompanying book to her Twine pieces, ‘Games for Humans’ was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award), and ‘Twine essayist’ Colin Spacetwinks who has used the medium to produce influential criticisms of the comic book industry. Queer videogame makers have often been at the forefront of ‘innovation through necessity’: for instance Robert Yang’s The Tearoom is a cruising simulator which was carefully edited to ensure continued distribution on Twitch. In short Twine in the mid 2010s was one example of this on-going trend in formal innovation among queer video game makers, which has continued since.
With this context in mind controversy can be explained: Gamergate drew together an antipathy towards queer and women game designers with a pair of pretexts against Quinn (one moral: a blogpost alleging her infidelity, and one formal: the complaint that Depression Quest was “not a game”.) Demonstrating the post hoc nature of the justifications, as the controversy snowballed Quinn was also charged with having cashed in her game, despite it having been released for free.
The political dimensions of backlash against this narrative form by reactionary gamers is something Nagle’s account proves inevitably oblivious to, given her tout court dismissal of video games as a medium. A reader otherwise uninformed about the Gamergate controversy would not be well equipped with the hazy picture provided here to grasp the basic terms or stake of the dispute.
Judith Butler & Non-Binary Genders
Hijra group portrait, 1880s
Nagle is no more illuminating or judicious in her treatment of Judith Butler, who she casts as the most influential figure over Tumblr (and presumably by extension also trans politics).
The summary of Butler’s argument is succinct enough: ‘the coherence of the categories of sex, gender and sexuality were entirely culturally constructed through the repetition of styled and cultivated bodily acts, which created the appearance of an essential ontological ‘core’ gender.’ Yet nothing else about this account of either Butler’s thought or influence is satisfying.
Nagle frames the proliferation of gender related language on Tumblr on Butler’s performativity thesis. This ignores that ‘performativity’ was always developed as an idea counterposed to gender as expressive. As Butler had it in her 1988 essay "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution":
The distinction between expression and performativeness is quite crucial, for if gender attributes and acts, the various ways in which a body shows or produces its cultural signification, are performative, then there is no preexisting identity by which an act or attribute might be measures; there would be no true or false, real or distorted acts of gender, and the postulation of a true gender identity would be revealed as a regulatory fiction...As a consequence, gender cannot be understood as a role which either expresses or disguises an interior 'self', whether that 'self' is conceived as sexed or not.
For her part, Butler has consistently opposed readings of her work which promote gender as a ‘radically free’ field, with her own perspective being considerably more pessimistic than the view that gender has an intrinsically liberatory focus.
It is also not unambiguously true that ‘Tumblr liberalism’ (as Nagle unconvincingly terms her target) is Butlerian. One of the most influential living writers on trans issues, Julia Serano (who Nagle seems not to have read), instead provides a view of gender as based around ‘intrinsic inclination’. In this view one is born with an in-built sense of gender affiliation (which can be repressed, but not dispensed with), that either receives a means of cultural expression or remains unfulfilled. This position is intentionally opposed to Butler’s stance on gender as lacking an ontological core, and is a much more widely accepted among trans activists as a basic position than Butler’s “centre-less” performativity perspective.
A weak grasp of the relevant theory is unfortunately not the limit of this chapter’s failings.
Across two pages of the book, Nagle reproduces a list of non-binary identities and conditions, which she tells us are “drawn directly from Tumblr. Without any evidence (and again, echoing primarily the arguments and humour of the Alt-Right), Nagle claims:
These gender orientations on Tumblr are closely related to, and often make direct reference to, another online subculture of identity fluidity known as otherkin.
This is simply an Alt-Right slur, akin to the commonplace joke: “I self-identify as an attack helicopter”. Why Nagle reproduces a claim originally intended to discredit and humiliate trans people in her first published book is quite unclear to me.
Absent in this unhappy section is any links to the original blogposts, which could well have been parodies (Nagle in fact rarely addresses humour, a key affect in both left and right wing internet culture.) Or else the work of socially isolated teenagers, who have become increasingly reliant on the internet given the widespread decline of social centres, and the closure of commercial LGBT spaces.
Instead of contextualising, these abstracted snippets follow clearly the format set by one key Alt-Right breeding ground, the “Tumblr in Action” subreddit. Here the reader browses through a collection of outlandish claims, each accompanied by a scathing exegesis mocking the original author.
No arguments are provided for why such terminology (even if we are to accept them as the absurdities Nagle clearly takes them to be) would produce in young men so fervid a response they would commit to an ethnostate, or supporting a Trump presidency. Here Nagle’s arguments are especially weakened by her lack of historical contextualisation. Fascist movements purporting themselves to be necessitated by developments in gender politics is nothing new. A primary theme of Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, which works through the memoirs of former Freikorps troops, is their dreams being haunted by a “Red Woman”, a distillation of their sexual repression and fear of communism. In the 1930s, the Nazis were quick to close cabaret venues known for ‘travestie’ performances, many of whom were sent to death camps.
That the Alt-Right would produce strange and unsettling caricatures of contemporary gender politics is therefore unsurprising, and is entirely congruent with the earlier history of fascism.
Finally, Nagle radically overstates the role of both Tumblr and Judith Butler in the generation of non-binary gender positions. These have existed throughout a range of cultures and eras. The suppression of non-binary and transitional subject positions was an outcome of brutal colonial rule, ranging from the outright massacres of Spanish Conquistadores, to hijra being outlawed by the British Empire. Historians from Susan Stryker to Peter Drucker have produced research demonstrating how transgender identities have existed transhistorically, and engagement with any of this work can be found nowhere in the book.
The historical novelty provided by Tumblr and other social media outlets is simply providing a means to forge ‘discursive communities’ (groups which congregate around shared writing) across previously impractical distances. Whereas isolation was the rule for trans people outside of a handful of cosmopolitan areas, today immediate communication (of some kind) has eased this previously pervasive alienation, and particularly allowed for those trans people currently living closeted lives, or outside of the metropole, to participate in some kind of broader over-arching seriality of transgender life.
That Nagle can see only see this development in a negative light is a major limitation of Kill All Normies.
The Indisputable Transphobia of Germaine Greer
A group of women with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome
Continuing her hostile stance towards contemporary trans activists, Nagle’s introduction of the controversy surrounding Germaine Greer’s views on trans women amounts to apologia for Greer, and barely touches upon the terms of the debate in question. By Nagle’s account, Greer’s previously impeccable reputation as a leader of the women’s movement was suddenly damaged by extremist trans activists, who cast her as a criminal. This is quite far from the truth. Greer’s transphobia is well established, and has long been an influence on both her thought, and her activism.
In Greer’s worldview, sex is simply and ultimately reducible to a twofold chromosome structure: XX for female, XY for male. Greer ultimately sees the notion of a ‘male woman’ as offensive, and as such has voiced a negative view both towards trans women generally, and seemingly every particular trans women she has encountered. For instance, she described a handshake from a transgender fan of her work as a ‘rapist’s grip’. In short, she exhibits a strong personal bigotry ostensibly justified through the indispensable female conditioning she perceives as uniquely accessible through the possession of a second X chromosome.
This mystifying approach to the Y chromosome is not unprecedented in feminism (also found in Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto), and is also commonplace among reactionaries (this definition was used by some of the ‘bathroom bills’ which sought to ban transgender women from women’s public toilets). It is also, however, oblivious to the latest research in endocrinology, and political efforts taken towards trans and intersex liberation.
Importantly, Greer is not simply an advocate for ideas at odds with contemporary trans politics. She also personally led a campaign to have her colleague Rachel Padman ousted from her post after her transgender status was revealed. Greer argued that Padman was in fact both ‘male’, and ‘a man’, and therefore ineligible as a fellow at a women’s college. Thankfully, this effort failed. During her campaign against Padman (a talented Physicist), Greer provided a quote for a Guardian article which was so slanderous that the article was later retracted. Following this dispute, Greer resigned her university post.
Between this and her innumerable writings and media statements against trans women, there can be no doubt left concerning Greer’s transphobia. In a thoughtful piece for the London Review of Books, Jacqueline Rose writes:
I tend to be opposed to no-platforming...Hearing (Greer) as an undergraduate in Oxford in 1970 was a key moment in setting me on the path of feminism. But reading this, I am pretty sure that, were I transsexual, I wouldn’t want Greer on any platform of mine.
It’s not only transgender women who are ‘left out in the cold’ by Greer’s hamfisted taxominising, but many intersex women. Women androgen insensitive are usually assigned female, while genetically XY. In a memorable exchange, members of the Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome Support Group (which includes both those with the condition, and expert endocrinologists) wrote to Greer expressing their concerns. One letter began:
I must say that I am very disappointed that you have used half-baked and poorly researched ideas to make cheap sensationalistic points at the expense of a group of women--those with AIS, like me--who often have a hard enough time understanding their condition and living their lives in peace. And I am surprised your publishers have allowed such an ill-researched chapter to get published in an otherwise very interesting and well-written book.
Famous for her forthright style, Greer seemed at a loss to respond, attempting to brush off her correspondent’s concerns as “(extremely vocal) minority discussion”, and later telling her (rather patronisingly): “you might get further if you worked on your own basic assumptions about what male and female are.” She did not even attempt reply to the patient explanations by the Group’s professional endocrinologists. No revision of the book has been forthcoming, and her recent transphobic diatribes suggest little impact was made on her crude X/Y view of gender.
A similar story holds for black feminists: Greer has consistently failed to respond to critical race theory, or objections from aboriginal activists. From this view, Greer’s position prior to the furore around her more recent provocations was not that of a sterling leader of the women’s movement, but an already dated and unresponsive figure. Her uninformed comments on transgender women are more an act of crass attention seeking than fruitful iconoclasm.
Arguing with Milo Yiannopoulos
('Dangerous Faggot' Tour Slide.)
Towards the book’s close, Nagle embarks on perhaps her most irresponsible misrepresentation of the Alt-Right’s development. According to the account found in Kill All Normies, Milo’s Breitbart funded tour was a rhetorical tour de force, during which he enjoyed ‘countless’ encounters with leftists, who were unable to offer him decisive reply. Defeated by way of right-wing reason, the left was forced to resort to violence, demonstrating the failings of their ‘Tumblrised’ condition. (Once again, it is a simple fact that Nagle’s account follows closely with Alt-Right retellings.)
In reality, Milo’s “Dangerous Faggot” tour had not simply presented arguments for right wing positions, but actively encouraged students to report ‘illegals’ on campus to ICE. Milo had also outed and misgendered a transgender student protesting against him, drawing on tropes of trans women as sexual predators to accuse her of ‘forcing his (sic) way into women’s bathrooms’. According to the organisers of the protest Nagle objects to, Milo had planned at his cancelled talk to present a list of names of undocumented migrants. In other words, the ‘Dangerous Faggot Tour’ was not simply a vehicle for presenting Alt-Right (or ‘Alt-Light’) arguments, and instead was a means for intensifying the harassment already faced by the most vulnerable students and workers at the campuses visited. Such moves stretched, and of course were intended to stretch, the definition of ‘free speech’, encouraging harassment and state action against migrants and trans students. This was a live action re-articulation of Milo’s earlier Twitter career: assembling a mob, and assigning them targets. These speech acts were clearly not reducible to simple ‘arguments’, as Nagle would have it. (It’s hard to know what meaningful argument an undocumented migrant might hope to mount against an ICE deportation team.) It’s perfectly understandable that local activists would organise to prevent this occurring.
Nagle’s incomplete account of Milo’s final tour takes a downright irresponsible turn when addressing the violence that broke out in the latter half of the Tour. Only after a breathlessly sensational description of events (which she characterises as a ‘riot’), Nagle alludes to the violence which dogged the earlier tour in the vaguest possible terms:
On this night the right was on the receiving end of violence, but on another, an anti-Milo protester was shot.
The poor phrasing here results in a blurred timeline occluding the fact that the shooting occurred prior to the Berkeley cancellation. The shooting took place in Seattle on January 21 (President Trump’s inauguration day). The victim, Joshua Dukes, was a member of the international union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). According to the prosecution in the on-going court case, Dukes was shot in the stomach by a pair of pro-Trump protesters, who contrived to make the attack appear as an act of self-defence. This attack was one example of escalation of force on the part of far-right activists, for instance following the stabbing of 10 counter-demonstrators at a Traditionalist Workers’ Party rally in Sacramento in 2016. In these circumstances defeating the arguments of Milo Yiannopoulos would seem to be something of a secondary concern, next to the protection of protesters from the immediate risk posed to them by the far-right. There was no equivalent violence at any stage of Milo’s tour on the part of the left.
After the events of Charlottesville, this violence can be clearly seen as an escalation of violence led by the Alt-Right, which led to Heather Heyer being killed, and 20 other protesters being hospitalised. To perhaps state the obvious, the Alt-Right’s commonplace violent fantasising about attacks on left wing activists seems to play a key motivating role in this violence (a popular meme among fans of The Right Stuff nostalgically references the massacres of Pinochet as “free helicopter rides”.)
The campaign against Milo’s speech at Berkeley was relatively open, and the authors of an ‘Anti-MILO Toolkit’ were named by Breitbart and targeted by the Alt-Right for harassment.
Consistent with her avoidance of engagement with her left wing targets, Nagle does not respond to any of this material when making her assessment, and does not seem to have drawn directly on the experiences of organisers through either interview or reading the several accounts they published online. Her account is accordingly one quite pleasing from an Alt-Right perspective, at the cost of accuracy to the actual events that transpired, and certainly any helpful contribution to the contemporary US struggle against the Alt-Right. This August an enormous protest in Berkeley, featuring many anti-fa, followed a similar event in Boston which also dwarfed the protesters (now that Milo has been invited to return to Berkeley, further mobilisation seems inevitable). I fail to see any useful insights which Kill All Normies might have had to offer these huge crowds of anti-fascists.
Return to the Vampire Castle (On the Legacy of Mark Fisher)
One argument from Nagle which deserves extended response is her citation of the late British theorist Mark Fisher’s most controversial article: Exiting the Vampire Castle, published online in 2013.
Nagle clearly thinks highly of both this internet essay and its author. That ...Vampire Castle is highlighted so prominently is perhaps appropriate. Mark Fisher co-founded Zero Books in 2007, leaving partially over a dispute concerning the publication of an anti-semitic book, The Wandering Who (still sold on Zero’s website), and founded a second imprint, Repeater Books. Fisher also wrote what remains by far Zero’s most popular book (and one of the most popular works of Marxist theory in recent years), Capitalist Realism.
As a teenager (when not baffling Scientologists), I was an intense fan of Fisher’s famous blog K-Punk, which provided a mixture of cultural analysis and high theory quite unlike any blog I’d read before. No other blog I knew featured an extended, historically informed paen to Disneyland.
K-Punk (as I knew Fisher then) introduced me to theorists including Derrida, Deleuze and Foucault, and innumerable avenues in music from dubstep, to disco, to pop. Fisher’s writing was also at times unbearably frank about the impact chronic mental health problems and an insecure place within the capitalist political economy had on him. These experiences he clearly drew from profoundly in his thoroughgoing attacks on the system as a whole, both on his blog or other online venues, and in some of the most powerful passages of Capitalist Realism. K-Punk provided thought drawn from a life lived, and I know that I’m not alone in finding it an index of reasons not to truly despair, at some of my life’s bleakest points.
I can also say that Nagle does not do justice to Fisher in her treatment of his 2013 polemic, a profound failure indeed given she considered him ‘the most powerful voice’ of the politics she advances.
Another reading of the essay’s content, context, and impact is found in Jeremy Gilbert’s critical eulogy My Friend Mark. As Gilbert’s masterful essay shows beyond doubt, Fisher’s career can only be meaningfully understood as a contribution to exactly the ‘French Theory’ Nagle elsewhere in the book trashes and dismisses. Fisher’s theoretical training also is clearly in evidence in ...Vampire Castle, which rather than calling its categories Ideal Types (in the Weberian style) terms them: ‘Libidinal-discursive formations’ (clearly drawing from Lyotard). This aggressive application of Continental Philosophy is exactly the source of the essay’s power, and a large part of why it proved so inscrutable to many who it targeted. In this respect ...Vampire Castle was a marked contrast to Fisher’s best known work, Capitalist Realism, which expanded the audience for key insights of Marxist theory well beyond the graduate level seminar rooms they are all too often confined to.
Shared with Nagle’s book, when on the attack ...Vampire Castle omitted meaningful class analysis, besides a single line at odds with the reality of many heavy Twitter users relying on Job Seeker’s Allowance: ‘Like the denizens of the Vampires’ Castle, neo-anarchists usually come from a petit-bourgeois background, if not from somewhere even more class-privileged.’ This assessment is especially confusing as it draws on Marxist relational terminology, an unexplained shift from the more commonplace use of ‘working class’ to describe Russell Brand (by 2013 surely a millionaire, and therefore presumably no longer part of the proletariat). This lack of analytic clarity is a marked contrast to one of Fisher’s finest pieces, “...And when the groove is dead and gone”, which recounted the career of the recently deceased Michael Jackson as shaped around the fate of the black working class in Detroit (home of Motown).
While a worthy addition to the history of left polemic, ...Vampire Castle did not serve as a working introduction to the best of Fisher’s thought. Summarising the whole intense controversy generated by the piece, Gilbert remarks of Fisher that ‘If he’d written a 20,000 word essay with full footnotes and references, then he might have been able actually to win over a lot of the people he was criticising. As it was, the polemic worked for those who already agreed with him, but mystified and enraged many who didn’t.’ One can only imagine how narrow must have been the audience able to grasp formulations such as: ‘First of all, it is imperative to reject identitarianism, and to recognise that there are no identities, only desires, interests and identifications.’ (I’m still uncertain of what ‘identifications’ means, here.) The outcome of the essay’s impact, as Gilbert correctly identifies it, was that of a retrenching of the lines of intra-left conflict, rather than any kind of mutual disarmament.
Having been a fan of Fisher’s internet writings for the majority of my adult life, in 2013 I found myself unable to defend him. (Although as a non-Twitter user, I doubtless missed the most venomous invective hurled in his direction.) The sensation upon reading ...Vampire Castle was not a betrayal so much as an abrupt, and quite unexpected, parting of ways. I could only read the most caustic passages as symptomatic of his longstanding depression (his blog would speak in similarly dehumanising terms of his university administration as ‘grey vampires’). I could appreciate why those he clearly had in mind were drawn into a glib dismissal of his work, even as this vindicated his point that ‘workerism’ had become an empty signifier. Fisher’s work read as a whole could not have been further to the Marxist Neoconservatism denounced by Butler in her essay "Merely Cultural". When he died, Fisher was working on a book called "Acid Communism" exploring the revolutionary potential of 20th century counter-culture, hardly the concern of a staid social democrat. But the framing and terms of the 2013 debate ultimately produced primarily flame wars. This sickly dialectic left no positive impact on the left that I could see. I have grave concerns that Nagle’s treatment of the episode will be a similar story.
With this said, there can be no defence of those few who openly celebrated Fisher’s death. Nagle is correct to identify this as an offence to decency (even if her approach of naming the worst offender rather closely resembles the ‘call outs’ she so despises).
Due to a persistent vagueness in targets and refusal to respond to the best arguments presented by those she loosely groups together, Nagle does not provide the thoroughgoing and immanent treatment of the left which would be required to achieve the profound intervention she clearly intended. Nor does she grapple with the difficult implications figures like Greer (with her transphobic campaign against a vulnerable colleague) and Milo (with his direct advocacy for the nativist and carceral state) present for free speech absolutists. And indeed, the blurring their specifically shared transphobia causes for distinguishing between left and right wing social analysis.
In genre terms, Nagle’s writing is best described as travel writing for internet culture. Kill All Normies provides a string of curios and oddities (from neo-nazi cults, to inscrutably gendered teenagers) to an audience expected to find them unfamiliar, and titillating. Nagle attempts to cast herself as an aloof and wry explorer, but at various points her commitments become all too clear. Nagle implicitly casts her reader as the eponymous normies, overlooking those of us who live through lives with transgenders, in the wake of colonialism, despite invisible disabilities (including depression), and all the rest.
This is both a shame and a missed opportunity, because the deadly violence the Alt-Right has proven itself capable of is in urgent need of evaluation, but so too are the very real dysfunctions which afflict the left (both online and IRL). After this book patient, discerning, explanatory, and immanent readings of internet culture remain sorely needed. The best that can be said for Kill All Normies is, as the old meme goes, “An attempt was made.”
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