I had heard of Angela Nagle’s “Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right” while glancing at article titles on some news sites. The main title is of course 10/10 and a great band name, but everything after the colon put me off. I’m usually wary of books written so soon after the fact so I was hesitant to read an explanation of something we’re currently living though. Almost all first passes of history are wrong which makes me cautious about reading journalistic books at the expense of always being behind current criticism. And writing about online discourse/subgroups is almost always awful; less because authors generally don’t get or take seriously the subject and more because there’s less “there” than is often supposed. What online venue isn’t almost all noise?
What brought me to it was when I posted on facebook a complaint about dumb nomenclature I kept seeing when browsing the Left Internet. I was annoyed about stupid slang referring to things which don’t a name (“incel” is needless taxonomy) or is just some pointless shibboleth (“wypipo” is just argot for signalling purposes). I felt like it was just purposeful obfuscation. A friend replied they were a “product of internet call out culture which is a product of the left and right,” and pointed out analogous phrases employed by the alt-right. I hadn’t heard of almost all of them. He then pointed out the the alt-right’s ironic appropriation of language found in social justice circles. Remembering Nagle’s book I asked him if he read it to which he replied he hadn’t but if I did then to please tell him about it. So I took advantage of having way too much free time and read it.
The book opens with a mystery: what happened to the earnestness in politics which has seemed to evaporate in little less than a decade? It’s a strong hook. I’m as misanthropic as they come but I don’t relish cynicism. Relishing cynicism is fetishisizing a crutch.
It’s a fair account. Nagle has as much to say about the Internet Left as she does about the Internet Right but avoids any easy equivocation. She’s intellectually honest in her approach to both sides but never forgets “only one side saw their guy take office…[and] had in their midst faux-ironic Sieg Hiel saluting, open white segregationists and genuinely hate-filled, occasionally murderous, misogynists and racists.”
As an avid Wired reader in the 00s, I always have a kind of apostate’s satisfaction whenever I see a good breakdown of techno-utopian ideals. There was always a strong streak of libertarianism, contrarianism and transgression but the space was still dominated by leftist strains of these. Nagle argues that though these features have been predominantly associated with the Left for decades there is nothing inherent to them that precludes them from being adopted by elements of the Right. There was no reason to believe the “Leaderless Machine” would adhere to the ideology of its early adopters.
Her criticism of the alt-right is not the most interesting part of the book. Her approach is more of an expose because does she really need to write too sophisticated of an argument spelling out why Nazism, death threats, rape threats, antisemitism, ultra-nationalism, segregation is wrong. She has more than enough citations and direct examples to stave any claim of oversimplification or characterization. I felt legitimate sorrow imaging her transcribing archived /b/ posts. There’s plenty of critique of traditionally published works and figures present in conventional media; she’s not just picking the worst comments in a reddit thread.
Her criticism of the Internet Left (she coins “Tumblr liberalism”) is more interesting. Tumblr liberalism is based around identity politics. It’s adopted the worst aspects of academic conventions. There’s the usual argument that call-out culture drove some to the alt-right and how the transgressive attitude of the alt-right, which differentiates it from a lot of classical conservatism, is a reactionary response to PC-culture. What sets Nagle apart isn’t her critique in Tumbler Liberalism’s role in creating the alt-right but in its inability to combat it. She claims the call-out culture which viciously attacks anyone whose virtue signaling isn’t just right where the only conversations are internecine and dissent is non-existent precludes Tumbler Liberalism from being capable of fighting the monster it helped create.
There are occasionally weak points in her writing. Sometimes she dispenses of quotes and given the generally well-cited and broad cited material the section becomes comparatively weak. I never believe in she’s purposefully mischaracterizing but without quotes it sometimes feels like she’s a rallying against a strawman, but these section are sparse. This is minor but she does give a strange presentation of Fight Club which misses how Tyler Durden is the villain. But considering the community which appropriated Fight Club is comically missing the point of the novel it doesn’t hurt that passage too much.
Interestingly, I actually found myself in disagreement when she strays away from writing about the online culture. The book mainly explores the relationship and opinions of an online faction to a particular topic. When she does inject her opinion on the topic instead of on the online group I almost always thinking she’s wrong. Nagle and I have very different views on video game and porn.
I came to Kill All Normies already holding some of the book’s tenets. I was engrossed with the anthropology aspect of this book. It wasn’t eye-opening because I was enough of this to make the conscious decision not to delve too deeply into those parts of the Internet. Nagle definitely suffered for her reader’s sake in her exploration. Her analysis is nuanced and interesting and her approach is erudite without being overly pretentious. She’s a good clear writer. And that’s always enjoyable.
I hate the term PC and think it’s too overused to be useful but I don’t know of a good replacement.
More books would be better if they used “basic bitch” in the first three pages.
The Cathederal and The Dark Enlightenment sounds fucking sexy and metal.
“It is forbidden to forbid” must sound must better in French.
“The moral neutrality of transgression” is a great phrase.
“Creating scarcity in an online economy of virtue” is another winner.
“‘The Spoon Theory’ (actually a metaphor)” is great (parenthetical) shade.
“Self-flagellation became a core-characteristic of the new identity politics, especially among white, male, heterosexual, cis, or able-bodied members of the subculture.” I don’t believe in self-flagellation. I leave my flagellation to a professionals.
And with “The Joke Isn’t Funny Any More” she ends strong.