Archive for the 'Society' Category

Book Review: Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle

kill all normiesI bought the audiobook version of Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies for a bike ride we took this summer. It’s a fairly short book and it did make the ride more enjoyable. The book lists a number of Internet phenomena that have occurred in recent years and links them to broader social and political movements. It starts out strong, has a strong middle, but it does seem to fall into the trap of simply bemoaning various transgressions of the 4chan crowd in its final chapters.

The incidents, memes and hate campaigns mentioned in the book are ones that most of us have lived through. The great thing about the book is that it collects these together in a single work. I was going to say it collects them into a narrative, but that would not be accurate. There are stories to be told when recounting the events, but the larger narrative arc seems to fall apart. I’m not sure it was even the intention of the author to draw one. In any case, the episodes – starting with Harambe – work well by themselves. It goes all the way to Pat Buchanan and introduces his idea of the culture war to younger readers. If there is a longer historical arc here, it does not burrow further than that. Kids reading the book are probably not familiar with the orchestrated effort behind the ludicrous idea of a culture war, and it’s good to have it written out like this.

For anyone who was already familiar with all the events described in the book and who already knows how the culture war (such as it is) has progressed thus far, the meat of the book is in the relentless barrage of examples from the junkheap of the Internet. As with many other books about online culture, it’s heartbreaking. Of course, if you love the Internet and all its potential, you don’t have to crawl through its sewers and participate in the horrors of 4chan culture or the rest of it. But knowing that it’s there matters. The online attacks against women, for example, are something you simply have to know about in order to have an intelligent conversation about what the Internet has become. Seeing all this fuckery laid bare in front of you is arresting, and it should be. It is also profoundly sad.

If the Internet was only the junk Nagle sifts through in her book, we would all opt out. It would simply be the playground for nasty children who shout at people from the bushes. Luckily, it’s not. It is a vast online space you can use for the betterment of those around you and explore to your heart’s content. It is a place of commerce. It provides all kinds of possibilities for everyone who has access to it. The idiotic snark that tries to pollute it may be a trace of the nerd culture that started it all, but it doesn’t really matter where the moronic cynicism came from. The Internet is far bigger than that now, but people who are not to be taken seriously remain. We need ways of discrediting and dismissing them. There are many tools for doing this. “Don’t feed the troll” is one of them. And I don’t advocate punching people, but have you heard of the Nazi blowhard Richard Spencer since he was punched in the face on TV and became a meme? There are many ways of reacting to online bile, that’s all I’m saying. Some of them work better than others in different contexts.

Discussions like Nagle’s book tend to look at surface-level phenomena online that reduce people and issues into one-dimensional memes. Richard Spencer is now the face-punch guy. It doesn’t matter what he says, because he is now the face-punch guy. Violence is an extreme way of memefying someone, but in his case it did the trick. People become simple images, complicated issues hashtags. This process is in itself tragic, because it kills thought in public discourse. It deprives us from any intelligent analyses of phenomena that guide our thought, politics and our lives. What, then, is to be done to counteract this rot? I’m not sure, but I have come to the conclusion that Twitter is for cute animal videos, Facebook for feeding your self-styled Tamagochi-avatar, and Instagram is for holiday snaps and advertisements of luxury items. The serious matter of thought takes place elsewhere and we should quit pretending it can survive on social media or the 4chan-cesspools of the Internet.

Making Sense of Trump with Emerson

emersonI had to give a lecture today about American Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Emerson, Thoreau and the like. This lecture is usually pretty easy and I normally enjoy it very much. Today, however, much of what I love in Emerson and even Thoreau seemed different. The can-do attitude  that, following the British Romantics, embraced the everyman and shunned the establishment, elitism and tradition had gone a bit stale. The anti-intellectualism, however intellectually stimulating in all sorts of interesting ways, seemed slightly offensive. The Yankee version of German Idealism was still fine, and it was wonderful, as always, to explore the possible implications of the universal mind we see animated into communities in Emerson’s amazing prose. His language never grows old even if some of the things he wrote seemed off today.

Transcendentalism served a need at the time. In the lecture, I illustrated this with Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s lament in The Hasheesh Eater (1857) about the narrow-mindedness of empirical science:

The Transcendentalists are, indeed, climbers over, as their name signifies, yet not over sound reasoning nor the definite principles of truth, but over that ring-fence of knowledge brought in through mere physical passages, with which a tyrannous oligarchy of reasoners would circumscribe all our wanderings in search of facts and laws.

In this passage, Ludlow was voicing the view that the world was more than a materialist perspective can assume. We do not have to revert to mysticism to see this in Transcendentalist thought. Emerson’s passionate calls for a new American culture pointed out that we are all connected by language and language, in turn, is connected to the world and spirit. In “Nature” (1836), he wrote that words are not merely linguistic codes. They send us back to nature. Nature, in turn, is not merely a pile of material. It is also spiritual. To put all this in more modern language, there is a relationship between the world, language and the human mind that is forever in motion. It is not a simple subject-object relationship. If it were, nothing would ever change. We would forever be subjects staring at objects.

What we see changes us, that changes how we see the world, which in turn changes the world as it is seen by us, and so on. The best part is that this mechanism can be reverse-engineered. We can imagine a new world, a new culture, one that is ours and ours alone, and make it happen. There is virtually nothing holding us back. No tradition or status quo can resist an idea once it becomes powerful enough. The human world, in a very real sense, is made of language. This does not mean there are magic words we can say to make the world into whatever we please. However, together we can shape it and change it – if we only have the language with which we can imagine it together. The possibilities are endless.

The language Emerson talked about was the language of the common man. It is frighteningly powerful, because it unites us all into a collection of minds that are virtually one single organism. In “History” (1841), Emerson wrote:

There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has be-fallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.

Go read Plato and you will understand him the same way Plato’s first students understood him. Think of a friend in distress and you will know his distress. We share our existence with others in a way that is almost embarrassingly intimate. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise, an Emersonian orator might want to add. You know what it is like to be the Other. It is a trippy idea and quite convincing dressed in Emerson’s beautiful rhetoric.

However, “History” ends with a passage that has caused me sleepless nights. Emerson said:

Broader and deeper we must write our annals, — from an ethical reformation, from an influx of the ever new, ever sanative conscience, — if we would trulier express our central and wide-related nature, instead of this old chronology of selfishness and pride to which we have too long lent our eyes. Already that day exists for us, shines in on us at unawares, but the path of science and of letters is not the way into nature. The idiot, the Indian, the child, and unschooled farmer’s boy, stand nearer to the light by which nature is to be read, than the dissector or the antiquary.

What he said is subversive, revolutionary and frightening. The old order has to fall and be replaced with something less and more than science and letters. With a preacher’s fervor, Emerson handed over the role of our conduit to nature to the idiot and the unschooled. I cannot reason away his anti-intellectualism here, nor do I think one should.

Is it a wonder we have seen Trump’s clumsy rhetoric win over the voters? Changes had to be made, we were told. The old status quo had to fall. The language of the common man was the vehicle which made it possible to reignite the spark in the hearts of those who still believed in the Great Experiment Emerson sketched out in his speeches and essays. As far as I can see, those who stood behind Trump did the right thing by their own traditions when the flag was flown. I do not like the way things turned out at all myself, but I can see why they turned out the way they did. The clown politician, the idiot, was the one who, in the minds of many, spoke the truth, and they followed.

In the end, it all comes down to faith, as always. But the elections have also shown the world the power of a tradition that started out as a way of destroying old traditions in favor of the new. It will turn on itself again soon enough. In the meantime, I think everyone should brush up on their rhetoric and study the tradition to end all traditions very carefully. The next turn of the wheel should not come as a surprise even if it is impossible to predict what exactly will happen when it happens.

The Stagnated Rhetoric of Political Extremism

m_90621Helsingin Sanomat published an odd story about a Finnish neonazi group this Sunday. Apparently, the reporters infiltrated an online forum where members, several whom were doxxed and had their names printed in Finland’s largest newspaper, discussed the group’s planned propaganda campaigns. The London Review of Books published Slavoj Zizek’s piece on the Charlie Hebdo attacks where he concludes that “we have to abandon the idea that there is something emancipatory in extreme experiences, that they enable us to open our eyes to the ultimate truth of a situation.” He calls this perhaps the “the most depressive lesson of terror.” Tariq Ali has been promoting his new book The Extreme Centre: A Warning where he seems to go Russell Brand on readers who have become totally apathetic with politics. Prince Charles expressed his concerns about the radicalization of young people on the BBC.

Warnings about political extremism have become a tool for established politicians and media personalities to promote their stale ways of thinking and to maintain their hold on power. An unthinking person might jump to the conclusion that to refuse to participate in this circus is a suggestion to join an extremist group, but this would be missing the point. Politicians have recruited radicalism and extremism to serve their own ends. Anyone who embraces extremism, it seems, will only be a useful idiot to those already in power. The discourse has been appropriated into the system and resistance seems futile. What, then, is to be done when the possibility of a revolutionary vanguard has been pre-emptively neutered by the clammy hands that guide the media?

Perhaps the first thing we could do is to recognize the stagnated rhetoric of political extremism and the even more foul-smelling use of the rhetoric of extremism by those already in power. Politicians who claim to be the only bulwark of reasonableness between us and extremism are not there to keep us safe and spotless. Their job is to get into office and their rhetoric does not essentially differ from the propaganda of extremist groups. Extremist groups, on the other hand, are hardly an option for most people who like to think themselves sane.

We should remember that great old William James quote: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” We should recognize that what is being presented to us instead of thinking are thinky toys© which we are then expected to play with, preferably in the privacy of our own heads. Their use in journalism and the media to sell papers and books should be made more obvious to everyone. Eventually, the media might do it all by itself just by producing more lazy journalism and spouting tired rhetoric as news. If the ruse becomes grotesquely obvious, people will notice, get bored with them and finally resist them. That’s a big “if”, but where there is banality, there is hope.

Je suis Charlie

je suis charlie
In the spring of 2013, I was nervously putting together a defense for my dissertation on satire. I had played it safe and written a study about eighteenth-century satire, but I wanted to link what I had to say to contemporary issues in a little speech. There was no shortage of ridiculous attempts at censorship by anal bureaucrats and there were many examples to choose from when it came to moronic retaliations against those who had taken the piss and succeeded rather too well. Today, we have seen yet another retaliation far more hideous than the ones I had to choose from. Fine (and sometimes crude) wits and people around them have been shot down in Paris by monsters who have disgraced themselves and their cause in an unimaginably cruel attack.

It’s an attack that will fuel the fires of extremism, be it Islamic fundamentalism or the hardcore right-wing xenophobic cause. It’s an attack that will “accelerate history”, as the author Michel Houellebecq put it in a recent interview. He was referring to his own book, but the effect of the attack will be the same if not more dramatic. The faces of extremism are more or less identical, especially when two sides are engaged in furious battle. And this is how the catastrophe unfolds: two sides locked in a life-and-death struggle. Bad journalism will make it worse. It’s our time to grow up as a multicultural Europe, but try saying that to a bunch of immature children with guns and antiquated political ideals. What we should never forget in this affair is that there are not two sides to the story. There are at least three, and the representatives of one of those parties are now dead.

In the seventeenth century, one of the great men of the country I currently call home wrote wise words about the role of the satirist in society. The poet, playwright and critic John Dryden had absorbed the best lessons from those Greeks and Romans who were foundational for Western culture. One of their lessons was that a common culture was a fragile creation. The Greek notion of paideia was created to keep it healthy and strong. What is not always emphasized enough is that not only Greeks could take part in its maintenance. If you were part of its sphere of influence, you were a true participant in its creation. No matter where you came from or where you had been. Dryden, musing on these issues, noted that one of the tests of its health and soundness was satire. Satirists were the people who held in their hands the instrument of determining how mad we had become. When the satirist was persecuted, we could be sure that there was something gravely amiss.

Now, brave satirists are dead because of their work. They are dead because they did their civic duty as satirists. In the grand scheme of things, they were not part of the opposition or the status quo, right or left, West or East. They were the minders of our sanity, as satirists have always been. Now, more bravery and more satire is desperately needed. More ideological rebellion, more fuck yous, more determined piss-taking, more mockery of those who would bring all of us to our knees. Make fun of that pompous idiot in a dress who wants to tell you how to think. Make fun of the corrupt politicians who want to tell you how to act. If you do that, great things may happen. If you don’t, they’ve already won.