Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-RightKill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kill All Normies is like three books in one.

A reader coming to it casually will focus on its useful if somewhat cursory tour of the various factions of the new political right, their intellectual roots in right-wing anarchism or left fascism from Sade to Bataille, and their consequent difference from most forms of traditional conservatism descending from Burke, Christian thought, or, in the case of neoconservatism, even Marxism.

It is for the second layer of Nagle’s argument that her book has become infamous in some quarters, because she also spends about two chapters—including her conclusion—and her most incendiary rhetoric on what she calls “Tumblr-liberalism,” the identitarian victimological cultural politics that came to dominate culturally left-wing Internet platforms in tandem with the rise of the alt-right. Nagle claims that this version of left politics, to which she counterposes her own “materialism,” was both the goad to and the inspiration for the alt-right:

And yet, amid all the vulnerability and self-humbling, members of these subcultures often behaved with extraordinary viciousness and aggression, like their anonymous Pepe-posting counterparts, behind the safety of the keyboard.

But the rather aimless organization of Kill All Normies conceals a purpose deeper even than Nagle’s apportioning of blame to the Tumblr liberals: in holding our culture’s embrace of “transgression” in all its forms responsible for the turn toward irrationalism and identitarianism in both the left and right Internet subcultures (i.e., Tumblr and 4chan) that have begun to dominate IRL politics, she is carrying on an old, old Marxist argument (which I have written about in the context of Georg Lukács’s literary criticism) against the entire tradition from Romanticism to postmodernism of trying to correct capitalism through art and culture. Nagle’s vintage Lukácsian dismissal of Nietzsche, whom she judges simply as a forerunner of Nazism and not as a complex and ironic thinker, is the tell for her quiet dissemination of what I would somewhat inflammatorily call a neo-Stalinist cultural politics that is no less of a twentieth-century dead end than are the Tumblr and 4chan ideologies, or what Nagle rightly labels “two rival wings of contemporary identity politics,” marring collective life in the twenty-first century. At the end of her penultimate chapter, Nagle writes:

The alt-right often talks about the mind-prison of liberalism and express their quest for that which is truly radical, transgressive and ‘edgy’. Half a century after the Rolling Stones, after Siouxsie Sioux and Joy Division flirted with fascist aesthetics, after Piss Christ, after Fight Club, when everyone from the President’s fanboys to McDonalds are flogging the dead horse of ‘edginess’, it may be time to lay the very recent and very modern aesthetic values of counterculture and the entire paradigm to rest and create something new.

Readers of my essays on writers as various as Georges Bataille, Boris Groys, and Grant Morrison will know that I sympathize with this downgrading of the avant-garde and the counterculture. Yet the revivified Marxism for which Nagle stands has never shown sufficient psychological awareness of the human necessity for revolt expressed by the ideology of transgression. In seeking to eliminate transgression as a cultural ideal in the name of collective peace and freedom, Marxism and related traditions (Nagle seems likewise drawn to a second-wave-style feminism) have often created the kind of repression that makes someone like Bataille look more convincing than perhaps he should.

My own work of this decade, both critical and creative, has been a long attempt to avoid all three of these political and cultural alternatives—fascism, identity politics, and Marxism, which I tend to see as three expressions of one underlying error: the wedding of resentful pathos to totalizing logos—by identifying and perpetuating a rival tradition that incorporates what is best in the avant-garde and neutralizes what is dangerous in it. I have discussed this rival tradition under the heading of the “modern novel,” though it also includes all sorts of other cultural expressions in poetry, painting, film, and comics. I champion it because it can outdo identity politics and Marxism by giving voice to submerged, exploited, or oppressed subjects without using their expression to hypostatize race, gender, and class, while it can outdo fascism and its valorization of transgression by merging transgression’s vital ruptures into narrative continuities that dissolve the aesthetics of mindless destruction in flows of irrepressible significance.

While I may sound as if I am alluding to some very hidden body of thought, I refer only to the mainstream of the modern literary tradition from Shakespeare and Cervantes through Woolf and Ishiguro; it is just that this tradition has never been taken seriously enough as politics and as philosophy, which has left the field empty for the partisans of group identity and group eliminationism to clash ignorantly by night. Nagle shows little awareness that this tradition I refer to exists; in one telling moment, she even confuses Harold Bloom with Allan Bloom, naming Allan Bloom as Camille Paglia’s grad school adviser (which is funny if you try to imagine it; by the way, it was not Paglia but Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick whom the author of The Closing of the American Mind influenced).[*] Yet if Harold Bloom, along with Paglia, were read seriously instead of being demonized by the left-liberal literati, the political potential of a literature that has attempted, in Bloom’s words, “to transcend the human without forsaking humanism” might be better appreciated.

Despite all my criticisms above, I do appreciate Nagle’s forthright admission of political complexities that too many commentators prefer to ignore:

What constitutes movements of the right and left in Anglophone culture wars discourse is based on a political compass that has long been reorienting, rethinking and reconstituting itself. In particular, class politics and social liberalism have not always sat comfortably together, nor did social conservatism with free-market economics for many decades until the neocons perfected the formula when in power.

As for Nagle’s concretely political analysis, I think she is on the right track with her careful discrimination among new right factions. As readers of this country’s founding documents—or of its great novels The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick—should grasp, America is a machine for converting chaos and conflict into stability. So lost in reinterpreting America, we forget to be properly puritanical; we are so mesmerized by the open-ended meaning of our quest-object that we re-narrate monomaniacal tragic allegory as comic-parodic metafictional symbolism. Intolerant of extremes, America just moves the center in response to extremist agitators, which is both the best and the worst thing about this country.

Look at the liberal magazines of the last month to see the center in motion: The Atlantic is in effect publishing ideas associated in the Obama era with notorious types like Steve Sailer (curiously not mentioned in Nagle’s account) as advice to the Democrats, while  Harper’s has put Zadie Smith on the cover to say much the same about identity politics as Nagle so controversially has said—though even Nagle doesn’t label any identitarian liberal ideas as Nazi the way Smith does. Meanwhile, from the other side, what Nagle calls the alt-light is on a similar march away from the alt-right fringe. She rightly identifies Mike Cernovich as an example. While still using the Internet mobbing/shaming tactics deployed both by the alt-right and the “social justice warriors,” he is visibly shedding the ideological appurtenances of right-wing extremism, sometimes even of mainstream social conservatism: I watched one of his videos wherein he told his wife she shouldn’t say “retarded” and another wherein he explained to his viewers that he believes in using trans people’s correct pronouns. I am sure he would hate to hear it, but I believe he is a new variant of neoconservative (with different foreign policy preferences, it should be said), and I suspect it is his politics and those of his fellow-travelers that will dominate the coming decade—which will inevitably be a more conservative one, like the ’50s, ’80s, and ’00s—not those of the rather ludicrous Richard Spencer and the neo-Nazis. This is all bad news if you were hoping for social justice but good news if you were expecting the total end of the world.

I do not quite believe in “justice” in the relevant sense in any case. The wisdom of atheism tells us that man is an animal, subject to the law of nature: the big fish eats the little fish. The wisdom of religion tells us that man is inherently corrupt, bearer of original sin or bound to the wheel of desire, and so unable to do more than approximate holiness on earth. Taken either way—atheistically or religiously—humanity will not be just or it will not be humanity. Using the mysterious resource of human consciousness, however, which makes both the transcendent science of the atheist and the transcendent theology of the religious possible, we are able to render life’s inevitable hierarchies more amenable to reform, more intellectually tenable, and more beneficial to everyone organized within them. The misguided pursuit of justice, in the sense of total human emancipation from any and all dominance (a species of religious fanaticism, in that it seeks to bring heaven down to earth by force), can only distract from this goal, and that is when it is not seized by opportunists to create hell on earth.

In short, both those who wish for apocalypse and those who fear it will probably find that life remains a variousness and a chaos. Normies have perhaps always been a bit more aware of this than we intellectual extremists, “we knowers,” as Nagle’s behated Nietzsche calls us with his withering and self-implicating irony. Normies, but also novelists—novelists being those intellectual extremists forced through our wrestling with the aesthetic material of narrative to reckon with the normal, the everyday: the stream of time rather than the break of catastrophe.


[*] The Bloom/Bloom mix-up has been corrected in subsequent printings and revised, Soviet-style, in every iteration of the ebook, including ones already downloaded, like my own. But I didn’t imagine the mistake: if you can find the earliest printing, the error is on page 83, as pictured:

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  1. An engaging post, as always.

    I am an avid reader of your prose and literary insights, and an admirer of your humanistic cultivation.

    I am also a social justice warrior sympathizer and firmly left-wing thinker, and I have three major responses to your article. They are the observations of a naive recent college graduate who has not admittedly read Angela Nagle’s book. My third point relates most directly to your aesthetic-political outlook, but feel free to skip over any of my writing. I make no demand on your time.

    1) A brief defense of tumbler SJW leftism (I think it would be a mistake to call it “tumblr liberalism” – I more associate that description with the rationalist-utilitarian set, themselves a fascinating political subgroup): it came, it seems to me, out of the so-called progressive institution’s racial optimism and diversity training, which smothered the existence of real inequality with platitudes, as well as the co-existence of a prejudiced culture, which justified its bigotry in “edginess” and “subversiveness” – there is a orthodoxy to heterodoxy, and it is one that grated me in my formative years. SJW thought seeks to break through this high and low cultural stifling and talk honestly about privilege and prejudice in society. From this beginning, I think it has achieved a lot of good; this is not to say that identity politics should dominate universalist politics – a healthy balance of fighting for the good of all and the good of certain oppressed groups will do fine.

    2) The idea that the next decade “will inevitably be a more conservative one” I find a dubious proposition. I think your method of assigning a conservative politics to certain decades a simplistic one, and I am more apt to believe the thesis that the past 4 decades have constituted a neoliberal age that stifled the moderate but meaningful left-wing reforms of the great society age that came right after WWII. A leftward drift for our next political era seems likely: corporate globalization and austerity economics are losing supporters each day, social conservatives can only argue for their ideas in esotericism, and an interventionist foreign policy is becoming more fraught. Predicting the future, however, I find to be a foolish endeavor. As for your criticism of left-wing ideas of justice, I too reject its Platonic form, but I find it useful to use the idea of justice to understand how, as a professor of mine explained, Sweden is a fairer and better society than North Korea!

    3) Your argument for an ethos that will “transcend the human without forsaking humanism” is compelling, but it seems to me not a political orientation but a religious one. Or, rather, a way of finding transcendence and life-affirmation with a atheistic, materialistic outlook. A kind of transgressive aestheticism based on humanity’s great artistic achievements is one I am attracted to, but I don’t see it as particularly helpful for political realities (as Michael Berube put it, how did Lionel Trilling help the passage of the Civil Rights Act?).

    This romantic humanism, does, I think, point to a flaw in Christian culture: it embraces human fallibility but then steps back and offers a divine perfectionism to condemn the human, even the relatively inoffensive aspects. Erasmus, the great Christian humanist, could write an Encomium by Moriae but not an Encomium truly of Moriae. This is his wanting, for isn’t human folly – the folly of love, the folly of art, the folly of youth – part of an essential and brilliant aspect of humanity?

    Again, these are the ramblings of young person who lacks knowledge of large swaths of literature and human experience. If my writing has tired you, I offer no apologies, but some regret.

    • Thanks so much for your very thoughtful comment!

      In response to your points:

      1. I appreciate your defense of the much-maligned Tumblr social justice movement, and I think you are right about its origin in the hypocrisies of liberalism and inadequacies of radicalism. However, to explain the hostility of someone like Nagle–and many of the reviewers of her book, who pronounce themselves refreshed by it, as I in part was–consider that there have been contradictions in social justice as well. It often seemed that the net effect of this movement was to make contingent and precariously employed people at every level of education, the arts, and various bureaucracies feel that they were threatened with unemployment by an alliance of the social justice kids and the same administrators and corporate bosses who had always been in charge, including in charge of the situation that, as you say, inspired the social justice movement in the first place. That is why for some of us the social justice movement or Tumblr liberalism or whatever has been a very ambiguous thing, especially now that the right is using the same tactics with some success.

      2. In saying “conservative,” I was referring only to culture, and even then in terms of tone and affect rather than ideas or policy preferences. I count as a conservative turn precisely something like Nagle and her cohort’s refurbished old-fashioned socialism with its skepticism toward individualism, irony, etc.–essentially anything that minimizes assertions of particularity in favor of universal truth, which from the point of view of our romantic cultural inheritance will always look conservative. Whereas while social justice seems to deal in universals, in practice each individual within the movement is treated as a monad in need of radical defense and whose experiences are incommunicable to anyone who does not share the same experience. Think of how the left in the Cold War (the eastern bloc) defended traditional high culture–ballet, figurative painting, realist novels–while the right combatted this with avant-garde art and pop music. In short, I think left and right politics/economics can have variably radical or conservative cultural expressions, and it is culture, rather than economics, that may become more conservative. As to decades, it’s the same with generations–our experiences are organized that way if and because we think they are, and these things do seem to have somewhat predictable cycles of action-reaction-counterreaction as far as I have experienced.

      3. Well said, especially your point about art’s correction of Christianity by validating or valorizing the imperfections religion scorns from the perspective of the absolute.

      Thanks again!

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