What a time to be alive, that’s what I have to say. We live in plastic times, where the long ossified habits of our collective Social-Entity have begun to thaw, and for the first time in the memory of many, some kind of change at least seems possible. But we know all this already. I consider myself an accelerationist, but one who only holds out hope not for a better world when all’s said and done, but only for a decent book about what transpired. When I saw Angela Nagle’s new book Kill All Normies, I was tempted to wonder, was that book already here?
Nagle is a PhD after all, one who’s contributed to distinguished publications like The Atlantic, Jacobin, The Baffler, not to mention the massively popular blog-post comment section audio-book publisher Chappo Trap House. Her intellectual background is as an IRCHSS Scholar in the Department of Communications at Dublin City University. Her dissertation, “An investigation into contemporary online anti-feminist movements,” “unpacks the cultural politics” of “transgressive, countercultural-identifying antifeminism” in contrast to the optimism of Harraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” the well-known founding text of the 1980’s Cyberfeminists.
It was not just all this that made me curious. No, Kill All Normies is published by none other than Zer0 Books, who, as the Guardian fawned in a 2012 article, have “been particularly good at identifying a nexus of young, savvy writers — such as Owen Hatherley, Laurie Penny, Nina Power and Mark Fisher (better known as K-Punk)”. Nagle's slim new volume appears in the publisher’s catalog alongside books with such impressive sounding titles such as: Continuity and Rupture: Philosophy in the Maoist Terrain, Dark Matters: A Manifesto for the Nocturnal City, Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts, Towards a Conceptual Militancy, Can Architecture Be an Emancipatory Project, etc. These were good signs, signs that I was on the right track for, if not an insightful, at least an entertaining explication of what this whole AltRight thing is really supposed to be about.
It’s on the latter expectation that the book truly disappoints. We live in a time of plasticity, one that challenges us to reconceive our entire process of Societal Consensus generation and political organization. That’s a worthy challenge, but it’s also one that unfortunately requires us to make sense of material that can often feel beneath our attention: Gamergate, 4chan, Proud Boys. In my mind, if anything, this makes the challenge an even more attractive one for anyone believing themselves to be in possession of a creative, intellectually vigorous, insightful stamp of mind. The kind of mind that aspiring intellectuals of the left like Nagle, Penny, and Gais often position themselves as having.
Nagle’s argument can be more or less summarized as follows:
The radical post-60’s left, through years of enshrining transgression as its own virtue, have paved the right’s way to a takeover of transgression itself. This was accomplished, seemingly single-handedly, by Milo Yiannopoulos, with his (admittedly brilliant) application of his trademark flamboyancy and a cool punk rock aesthetic (Sex Pistols, c’mon). Lurking within the Altright, however, is the viper of ultra-hardcore, genuinely evil and hate-filled right-wing extremism, as exemplified by the absolute worst-of-the-worst the Altright has to offer: Richard Spencer.
Milo, inevitably, is ousted, as the droves of angry young male followers looking for nihilistic laughs who initially flocked to him, are radicalized, or ‘memed’, if you will, into adopting Spencer’s hate-filled hyper-nationalism. In the end it turns out the people who really lose out by this are the conservatives, both the Buckleyites and the orthodox socialist left, who find themselves mutually opposed on the one side by the Altright, and on the other, by the Tumblr Left, two factions united in a tradition of violent transgressionism going back to de Sade.
Structurally Kill All Normies is bookended by two sections dealing with ‘Men’s Rights’ and Anti-Feminist trolling. From there the book goes on to a conceptual-theoretical orientation of the Altright vis-à-vis the tradition of performative transgression. Nagle then proceeds to a reading of this politics of transgression, as exemplified especially by Milo Yiannopoulos, against Post-War conservative politics, from the National Review to Pat Buchanan. This is then mirrored with a discussion of parallel developments on the Left and the effect they had in freezing out the more respectable politics of orthodox class-solidarity. Finally, Nagle recapitulates her analysis of Men’s Rights in a largely redundant section which weaves in material from her previous writings and rehashes the tales of Rebecca Watson and Brianna Wu in predictably uncritical terms.
There are a few different bits to chew on here, as well as a few unexamined premises of the author which form gaps in Nagle’s conceptual framework as she attempts to draw together all the disparate elements into some kind of coherent synthesis.
That Right-Wing positions assumed through the AltRight have little or no independent intellectual validity or appeal.That these same ideas work in a feedback loop of radicalization among the losers and failures that seek refuge in them to precipitate an inevitable explosion of violence or, ultimately, genocide.
This review will move through a brief analysis of each of these three unexamined premises, beginning with the first. There is more in Nagle’s book worth discussing, but given the format we’ve adopted, there is only time here to touch upon some of the core conceptions of Nagle’s analysis. Kill All Normies, in the sense that it’s able to inspire such discussion, accomplishes its aim admirably, and for that Nagle deserves credit, but I must reserve ultimate judgement until we have considered the strength and consequences of the author’s more deeply held preconceptions, in turn, to see what her book is really made of.
The Substructure of Inceldom:
As explained above we will begin with the first of Nagle’s unexamined premises, that of sexual failure as the material precondition of the Altright’s turn towards deconstructive nihilism. This goes to the issue of the justification of this nihilism, a concept which becomes central to Nagle’s exposition of the Altright, and not undeservedly so either, I might add. Chic Nihilism is a term we hear thrown around, and though Nagle doesn’t use the term, the blackpill still emerges as the deepest, darkest carrier of the Altright mind virus.
By justification of the Altright’s chic nihilism, I mean whether it can be said to amount to a legitimate complaint. Legitimate in the sense of it being a proportioned response or reaction to a real and existing external cause. Needless to say, considering the sometimes seemingly absolute bleakness of the blackpilled outlook, that real and existing cause must be a truly weighty one to warrant such an extreme reaction. Whether or not there is that true reciprocation, between a genuine world state and the ultra-nihilism that the Altright zealously upholds, is a more basic question that should precede much of Nagle’s argument, but it’s one she sadly buries in order to clear the way for a more aggressive (and more sellable) treatment.
Nagle, from the get-go, appears intolerant to such excuse making. Given the nastiness and hatred of the chic nihilist Altright, under no circumstances could anything conceivably exist to justify such flagrant and transgressive acts as a legitimate cultural posture of response and criticism. The errors of Nagle’s own ‘side’, and she is woman enough to identify them as errors, are ones she believes may at least be proportionally justified. The Anti-Milo Berkeley riots, for instance, she calls a “giddy display of momentary muscle” which “provided a temporary relief from the unfamiliar feeling of relentlessly losing.” It was stupid, she admits, but maybe understandable. Morality was, or at least should have been, on their side.
The Altright receives no such sympathy from Nagle however, not even as simply a project of nihilistic transgression and online speech. Actual violence and rioting from the Left is stupid, but such reactions may be plausibly sympathized with compared with everything that’s going on. Mere written criticism, satire, mockery, indifference and contempt from online commenters, however, lack any justifiable basis in real events or experiences.
The qualification of proportionality is important because Nagle does admit of at least the existence of some justifiable complaints possibly held by MRAs and members of the AltRight:
“The sexual revolution that started the decline of lifelong marriage has produced great freedom from the shackles of loveless marriage and selfless duty to the family for both men and women. But this ever-extended adolescence has also brought with it the rise of adult childlessness and a steep sexual hierarchy. Sexual patters 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.” But, she goes on, “the pain of relentless rejection has festered in these forums and allowed them to be the masters of the cruel natural hierarchies that bring them so much humiliation.” “This psychological compensation,” she continues, “is nothing new. Nietzsche's fetish for physical male strength, hierarchy and the exertion of will, which his Nazi followers were attracted to in his writing, contrasted in a similarly pathetic way to the realty of his physical state — myopia, nervous prostration, chronic ill-health, digestive disorders, and of course the bitter rejection by women.”
So though young men living in a world where Tinder has replaced marriage might have some room to maneuver, their assertion of a legitimate right to transgress is ultimately unfounded as it is their own weakness, degeneracy and neurosis from which their most intimate sufferings truly arise.
The complaint then, for Nagle, is inadmissible; the chic nihilism of the Altright is not a proportional cultural posture of response to a real and existing world state experienced by radicalized incels, but possesses a false and delusive claim to legitimacy due to the root cause of their perspective being an entirely personal kind of failure which the Altright is too emotionally immature to psychologically come to grips with.
Here though I’m not so sure I’m able to follow Nagle’s train of thought, as she appears much too in haste to dispose of all such possible justifying complaints, so much so that her predisposition to rule against the admissibility of such evidence raises questions about the overall sincerity of her enterprise.
The evidence, I believe, deserves to be heard, for the sake of letting the reader come to his own conclusions about its consequent impact on the justification of chic nihilism:
Today we encounter a situation where women dominate in publishing, academia, and pedagogy, and the shared experiences of many of the Altright go beyond mere sexual frustration, but to a whole set of recurring patterns and incidents which color their perception of both Feminism and the progressive world view to which it belongs more generally. They are ‘bright,’ according to objective testing standards, and this is usually discovered as a result of testing done in response to noticed behavioral deviations by teachers and administrators who are statistically more likely to be women.
The boy sits in a room with his parents and a female guidance counselor as they go over the results, and he hears about his own above average intelligence and about his own failings in the realm of emotional development. Medication is suggested and eventually employed to help balance these incongruent elements of his nature. At the time the child lacks the emotional resources not only to resolve this incongruency himself but also to understand the ways in which the medication he is given affects who he is and what he feels.
In the post-Columbine world, it is this boy who finds himself in the cross-hairs of invasive psychosexual meddling by teachers who, as women influenced by Feminist oriented pedagogy, are in a deadly position to make grave and irreversible mistakes in how the lives of these otherwise innocent boys will develop.
One story which always comes to mind in particular is that of Justin Carter, a Texas high school student whose life has been mercilessly destroyed by careless zero-tolerance policies and female busy bodies who believe they’re stopping another Columbine by interfering in a kind of black humor riffing that is, if we’re finally being honest with ourselves, something that can come quite naturally (and perfectly healthily) to teenage boys when left to their own devices. After joking he was going to go on a rampage during a game of League of Legends, a Canadian woman informed the local police and Carter was hauled away and imprisoned.
It’s not that such statements can never be true, and that they should always be taken only as jokes, it’s that there was no leniency following an investigation into the situation when it became clear it was more than likely only a bit of humor that accidentally reached an unintended audience. Carter, only a teenager mind you, was sexually assaulted by fellow inmates, and in order to protect him following such incidents, was eventually locked in solitary confinement. The whole while the system attempting to process and digest Carter’s case seemed unable to simply shut off, it had assumed a life of its own.
There seems to be no institutional recourse for many young men like Carter, who find themselves starring down panels of graven-faced administrators with no one to speak for them or make their case. In some ways, Nagle is a continuation of this trend, another academic pedagogue with misplaced priorities when it comes to the well-being of the young men she believes must be saved from themselves. Rather than give their complaints a hearing, Nagle resolves to remove the one recourse they seem to have left: chic nihilism.
After emerging into adulthood through situations like these young men find themselves confronted on all sides by the myriad problems of the world, of environmental depletion, demographic collapse, fracturing social consensuses and rising uncertainty and impotence in the face of what more and more appear to be insurmountable obstacles to the continuation of civilization itself. The only permissible framework available from within which to understand and begin tackling these issues, however, is the same bureaucratic techno-feminism which so utterly failed them throughout their many unproductive and painful years of schooling. That they should automatically be distrustful that panels of academic feminists discussing the possible end of the world is the most expedient approach is almost a foregone conclusion.
The Critical Prehistory of Transgression
Now we turn our attention to the second unexamined premise, the question of inherent or independent validity and value of many of the ideas Nagle associates with the Altright. Much of her overriding concern is on Feminism and the experiences of young professional female bloggers or game developers as victims of this new hatred. Other supposedly Right-Wing themes like xenophobia, racism, anti-Islam, anti-Semitism etc. etc. etc. figure in Kill All Normies as more of an afterthought to be paid lip service to next to the more sinister threat of a little online bruising of the feminine ego. Nagle’s academic specialty being digital anti-feminism, we can perhaps excuse her if at times one gets the sense that she hasn’t expended the same effort digging into the experience of other victim-groups at the hands of the Altright menace.
Still, less does Nagle make any attempt to connect these impulses to any stable system of ideas. She, at one point, admits of a certain respect for the Proud Boys as one of the only Altright masculines possessing of any real intellectual coherence. Each of these impulses, against women, immigrants, minorities, etc. is seen as a plain manifestation of a hate which emanates indiscriminately in every direction from the Altright troll following nihilistic irradiation by apocalyptic, thermonuclear personal failure. Criticism of the institutions of Progressive Liberalism is here less founded on any rational recognition of the issues facing our society than it is on blind rage and fomenting hatred as a kind of psychological projection of misanthropy onto Society.
Her critique of transgressiveness is central to this runaround of Right-Wing beliefs. She turns from the dark mind of failure pervading generation Altright, to a positioning of it within a Sadean tradition of dominance politics, concluding that the foulest and deepest beliefs of the most derelict Altright are not just an accidental outcome of the transgressive undermining of positive values, but actually their logically inevitable conclusion:
“Just as Nietzsche appealed to the Nazis as a way to formulate a right-wing anti-moralism, it is precisely the transgressive sensibility that is used to excuse and rationalize the utter dehumanization of women and ethnic-minorities in the Altright sphere now. The culture of transgression they have produced liberates their conscience from having to take seriously the potential human cost of breaking the taboo against racial politics that has held since WWII. The Sadean transgressive element of the 60's, condemned by conservatives for decades as the very heart of the destruction of civilization, the degenerate and the nihilistic is not being challenged by the emergence of this new online right. Instead, the emergence of this new online right is the full coming to fruition of the transgressive anti-moral style, its final detachment from any egalitarian philosophy of the left or Christian morality of the Right.”
This is Nagle’s political model in miniature. An Egalitarian Leftist Tradition she traces to Rousseau. A Christian moral tradition associated with pre-internet Conservatism in the style of Burke to Buckley. And finally, a Sadean tradition of Transgressiveness running through Nietzsche to the Nazis to Richard Spencer today.
Within this structure, the question of independent value becomes an unexamined premise. Milo used transgressiveness in an attempt to Make Conservatism Great Again. He did so by employing the deconstructive tactics of Post-Modernism which that same conservatism spent generations decrying and warning against. In so doing he opened a Pandora’s box, meddled with forces he couldn’t control and unleashed the true Fascistic spirit inherent to transgressiveness as a moral and political virtue.
If the ideas possess independent value though, this narrative fails to unfold so neatly. A constructive project of the Right is not taken by Nagle as a serious possibility, but if we consider the off-chance that such a thing does or at least could exist, the Transgressiveness of the Altright turns out to be less a wellspring of sadomasochistic dominance politics, and more a methodological path-clearing to rehabilitate and develop Right-Wing politics as a rational and constructive political project. Milo, for Nagle, has memed sexually frustrated teens into Far-Right adjacent viewpoints to be preyed upon the Richard Spencers of the world. But might it not be that the Right is approached by young men seeking not Nazi anti-moralism to justify their own uncontrollable hatred, but precisely a more spiritually constructive virtue politics than is available to them through either of the alternative traditions of political morality.
It’s interesting then that Nagle uses Rousseau as a reference point to orient the Equalitarian Left, in opposition to the possibly inherently Fascistic tradition of Transgression, as here we encounter a thinker we find echoes of more in the Altright today than we do anywhere on the Left. The great philosopher of Equality turns out to an even greater philosopher of Virtue, one for whom the Feminist politics of Nagle would make little sense.
In the opening of Rousseau’s pedagogical handbook, Emile, for example, Rousseau takes contemporary women to task for abandoning their motherly duties. He argues that the weakness and fragility of modern man is likely a result of mothers abrogating their duties to their children. He rails against the use of nurse maids and severely reprimands mothers for poisoning their new born children with the sickly air of the metropolis rather than face the horrors of confinement in the boring and uncomfortable countryside. This all sounds like it could easily have been lifted from some Red Pill forum post, but this in Nagle’s interpretation is one of the founders of the Equalitarian Feminist movement.
Rousseau, in the Discourse on Inequality, further makes the troubling point that rape is a social construct. He’s usually understood as having believed in a natural equality, one that, when shared by man in his primitive condition, precludes any need for dominance, violence, rape etc. But for Rousseau, the state of nature is not so peaceful. Primitive man did not abstain from violence or rape, he just lacked the concepts of equality, justice, freedom etc. that are necessary to understand these actions across the same psychological, moral and philosophical dimensions that modern man has read into his contemporary world by means of philosophical artifice.
Rousseau proceeds from the alienation of modern man as caused by the progress of polite culture to a critique of modern notions of Equality as themselves enslaving us within a conceptual network that is the true source of the experience of inequality among man. He holds up the virtues of Sparta over those of Athens and conceives of the patriarchal republican city-state as the basic unit of political virtue.
To read Rousseau as Nagle does is questionable, to say the least, but it is not central to her argument that Rousseau serves as the founder of the Equalitarian tradition, just that such a tradition exists in contrast to an independent line of Transgressive crypto-fascism. But in reading Rousseau alternatively, not just as a proto-Marxian, but as Proto-Fascist as well, it becomes clear that in so doing there may turn out to be a deeper intellectual tradition and heritage beyond Transgression, one that may in truth of point possess a value independent of how well it serves as a vehicle for the nihilistic sadomasochism of the dispossessed failure.
In the central sections of Kill All Normies Nagle reads the cultural politics of Milo Yiannopoulos against the more familiar backdrop of Christian Conservatism in Post-War America. It’s befuddling to her that the tactics of deconstructive post-modernism, which conservatives have positioned themselves against for decades, should be embraced by this new generation of the Altlight and Altright alike. Gramscians of the Altlight, she calls them, conservatives who have adopted performative transgression in order to influence and seize the culture to make way for a hoped-for restoration of conservative cultural politics as the center of American social life.
Nagle conceives of this deconstructive tradition in overly narrow terms, seeing it as a modern strategy of the Post-Marxist left, rather than a deeper component of modern socio-political thought predating the emergence of Leftism as we’ve come to understand it since the 19th century. That the Right should draw on this tradition should not come as so much of a surprise really, as the modern Altright contains not only a nihilistic/destructive urge to destroy a contemporary set of cultural norms they feel personally slighted by, but also a constructive tendency to reassert what they understand as a more fundamental Western civilizational consciousness which they believe to be more capable of weathering the turbulent coming storms of environmental, economic and demographic crisis.
The Enlightenment, above Democracy, Freedom, or Equality, privileged criticism as a universal ethic of the philosophes. The cultural values, as propagated by institutions of church and state, had become pernicious in their application by the powerful as a way to maintain personal status and wealth. Though usually understood along conventional faultlines of class and religion, the spirit of criticism which pervades the birth of early-modern political thought cuts across all directions. Arguments advanced against the oppressive institutions of yesteryear appear in a contemporary light to challenge much of our own popular socio-political wisdom in 2017, because it was the hegemony of taste, of manners, of culture that the philosophes held in lowest contempt.
Montesquieu is the founder also of many of the tendencies to ‘race realism’ which Nagle points at disapprovingly in her tour of the Altright. His sociology of biology, climate, and geography as shaping the ‘spirit’ of each people or nation is today a kind of analysis that‘s been rejected by respectable leftist politics. It’s a self-consciously ‘scientific’ approach that’s today more often associated with the Right than it is with an Equalitarian Left in their prioritization of economic solidarity.
Likewise, Hume’s skeptical historicism completely undercuts all arguments revolving around the ‘current year,’ or around ‘the right side of history,’ as he rejects in his History of England the use of such overarching historical narratives to morally justify political policies and positions he believes can only be established by an appeal to their pragmatic effectiveness in mitigating social conflicts. That a symbolic politics of progressive triumphing over hate would ever meet with Hume’s approval is something I very much doubt.
Finally, Goethe, whose sympathy to both Islam and Judaism has earned him canonization within the pantheon of humanistic equalitarianism, rejects what he calls ‘physical freedom’ from outward political constraint which forms the very basis for so much of our era’s activist politics. It’s a strain of his thought difficult to come to terms with, which holds up Promethean renunciation of freedom from physio-political external fate as the key to an internal and autonomous freedom of the spirit which he understands as the true condition of harmonious psychological fulfillment.
These are just a sampling of the views across the early-modern tradition of socio-political thought, and the point isn’t to assert that this tradition is indeed inherently Right-Wing, but to demonstrate that any attempt to divorce these allegedly Right-Wing elements from a deeper origin in accepted social-political rationality is deeply deceptive in its one-sided simplicity.
To return then, to the question of inherent value, I’m not sure I can agree with Nagle’s analysis of Transgression as the ultimate source of the ‘hateful’ ideas of the Altright. They are, she believes rooted primarily in a psychologically motivated reaction by alienated young men against dual traditions of Christian and Equalitarian respectability, but both of these schools of thought have spent decades trying to divorce themselves from many of the ideas mentioned above. Though they’re often treated as being so, these ideas are not purely anachronistic, and neither are they really either inherently ideas of the left or right. They are the result of the architects of early modern society confronting and attempting to develop rationally workable solutions to issues that are all too familiar to us: globalization, societal alienation, economic inequality, etc. Do the ideas of the Altright, such as immigration limitation, really represent a full blown Transgressive nihilism exploding into unbounded hatred? Or is it at least not possible that these ideas have an independent value as options worthy of rational consideration?
Nagle’s familiarity with early modern philosophy is one inherited from increasingly niche works of theory that recycle reinterpretations of reinterpretations of classical philosophical themes from a relatively narrow set of authors and thinkers. The Prometheanism of Goethe is not only a major source of the Nietzschean anti-moralism Nagle questions but also of similar tendencies in Marx. The Altright doesn’t begin with de Sade, but represents a deeper probing of the neglected and shut off corners of the overall mainline of modern Western thought, and that they should discover the roots of post-modernism there in the origins of the modernity itself should really not come as a surprise to anyone.
Though Nagel comes out as opposed to Transgression, one wonders what place she might leave for satire and criticism. Does she consider Socrates to be a member of her Transgressive tradition? She at one point laments that Roosh is no Swift, and while that much is certain, still I found myself wondering what the difference between transgression and acceptable satire and criticism is for Nagel. Is it merely a matter of intelligence? Or is such behavior only justifiable in service of those ideas she accepts as inherently moral and worthwhile? If the latter case then the Altright project seems doomed in Nagle’s eyes before it even begins.
My Twisted World as Abortive Bildungsroman
Around 10:30 the morning of Saturday, September 18th, 2010, a 35-year-old named Mitchell Heisman walked up the steps of Harvard Memorial Church with a silver revolver hidden beneath his trench coat. It was a moment which, from Heisman’s own strange perspective, would be the culmination of his life’s work of laying bare the fundamentally untenable basis of modern civilization.
This could very well be the introduction to one of the episodes deployed (somewhat exploitatively I might add, given the authors own ambitions and moral-perspective anyway) throughout Kill All Normies to demonstrate the inescapable violence which Nagle believes will always result from transgressive chic nihilism. In both the opening and closing sections of the book which deal with the ‘Manosphere’ and Altright Masculinities, Nagle spends paragraph after paragraph counting the bodies, from Brianna Wu’s pride to those lain dead at the hand of Elliot Rodger himself.
These incidents are exploited in such a way as to draw a genealogical connection between what Nagle sees as a nihilistic transgressiveness leading to sadomasochistic murder, and a psycho-sexual pre-condition of impotence and rejection brought about by neurosis and self-contempt. And though Nagle isn’t incorrect to analyze characters like Rodger in such terms, still, there remain cases like Heisman which complicate the successful generalization of such a model across the entire spectrum of outsider crypto-right-wing anti-modern, transgressive social politics.
Heismann, though armed, harmed no one but himself when he committed suicide, at least not in any literal sense. He was by all accounts a loving brother and son. He kept to himself and liked to read. He didn’t actually go to Harvard and lived a rather minimal existence working in book stores. For years Heismann labored on his own secret book, entitled Suicide Note, which, after killing himself in front of a tour group, he released online to the general bafflement of everyone who tried to read it after hearing about the story somewhere or other online.
The nearly 2,000 page tome is a lengthy, and excruciatingly detailed repudiation of modern western values. Chapters have titles like: “The Seditious Genius of the Spiritual Penis of Jesus,” and “ The Secularization of Hell within the Desecration Machine of Auschwitz”. There’s an over 20-page bibliography appended to the end that includes books on the Norman conquest, the History of Judaism and Antisemitism, Nietzsche, Fukuyama, Post humanism, genetics and other familiar topics.
Unlike the schizophrenic ramblings found in similar novelties like the famous Time Cube rant, Heisman’s Suicide Note, at least in individual passages, demonstrates not only an internal conceptual coherence but also a curious and creative intellect at work that it can be pleasurable to observe going about its synthetic business for its own sake. Exactly why an intelligent man like Heisman was so unable to integrate himself and his talents into society in a constructive way is the question at the heart of his tragedy, and whatever ultimate merit his book might have, it can’t be said his tale doesn’t arouse a certain sympathy despite his admittedly disturbed cast of mind.
The tragedy of Isla Vista killings and the tragedy of Mitchell Heisman differ in some crucial respects. The two men were of different generations, they differed in personality, and their final Promethean unshacklings took very different, if similarly ugly turns at the end. Still, though, there is something shared between them that allows them to exert a similar appeal over those who come across their stories, and it’s here we uncover Nagle’s third unexamined premise: that of ultimate consequences. What does it say about their innermost beliefs that the Altright ‘owns’ tragedies like Rodgers’? Does this not amount to an all but explicit endorsement by ironically-detached blackpilled trolls of the Nietzschean politics of power supremacy and psychologically over-compensatory sexual violence? In other words, do tragedies like those of Heisman and Rodger only represent the violent daydreams of the chic nihilists simply being played out in the real world?
Years ago, lurking on Something Awful, my go-to destination was always the E/N forum, where users came to relate their problems to other readers in hopes of finding sympathy and advice. Rarely were posters so lucky, however, and usually, they met with torrents of criticism and abuse directed towards their bad decisions and useless self-pity. E/N posts were a curious peek into a world of depression, anxiety, and dysfunction, and it was a world I often found myself relating to as I looked and failed to find either success or happiness in the years leading up to, and following my college career. You could always say while reading a particularly shameful confession by a poster on E/N, that at least you hadn’t fallen that far. At the same time though, I often found myself, and in the cruel comments of responding trolls, I was often forced to question myself and my own self-pitying as what was really holding me back.
Gradually the eco-system began to shift, and the forum began to morally reorganize itself around Feminism and Gender-Conscious ideological viewpoints. People were no longer free to even be failures, and even their worst transgressions became subject to a problematization at the hands proto-social justice warriors. Men’s Rights, which I had never looked into previously, was frequently attacked and every comment that cut against the grain was accused of being sympathetic to what amounted to a gender-orientated kind of white nationalism. It was then that I first became curious.
What I found is something, which, in many ways, is, in fact, deserving of the criticism leveled against it from all sides, but at the same time, is also not quite what those most scandalized by its existence represent it as being. It was here I rediscovered both the genuine inner sadness of lost young men I related to and the savage hostility towards their lack of discipline and self-sufficiency that I found strangely inspiring.
“Before delving into yet another aspect of the culture wars that typically generates all heat and no light, let me say that I’m not at all unsympathetic to the genuinely egalitarian goals of fairness found in the men’s rights movement … And yet, observing these online spaces, it is simply impossible to deny the rampant hateful misogyny, bitterness, conspiratorial thinking and generally foul character that seems to run through them. … my descriptions … are not representative of what you might call ‘the men’s rights movement’ in general, but of the darker online underbelly that has flourished online.”
This is how Nagle introduces her second pass at Altright masculinities towards the end of her book, and one can see, again, how she preemptively sidelines any discussion of the substantive motivations that animate the communities under her microscope. She completely divorces the parts she approves of from those she doesn’t, despite, in the very same passage, also admitting their inexorable relationship to one another. The focus remains on the supposed female victims of harassment to the exclusion of a reconstruction of the internal psychological ethos motivating the proliferation of such tendencies across such an otherwise fragmented post-political landscape.
Though Nagle believes it would surprise many on the Altright, it was really never any secret that much of the Men’s Rights Movement proper was predicated upon a new-age gender egalitarianism of male-female sharing. Still though, here one could find stories that at times really resonated, of abuse, female sociopathy, injustice at the hands of family and divorce courts, and bright futures snatched away by college administrators looking to publicize their own commitment to arbitrary standards of Neo-Victorian sexual morality.
This was matched and quickly surpassed by a more pro-active approach to the problems of contemporary masculinity which drew heavily on the relentlessly savage criticism heaped on those who would rather wallow in pity than do anything to help themselves. Some men visited Red Pill communities to find ways to reinvigorate their marriages, some to find advice on just how to become more attractive to women, some to just find ways to lessen their dependence on relationships and female attention and approval as a means of personal fulfillment.
This necessitates a deeper and darker perspective on Femininity than is generally permitted, one emphasizing the psycho-sexual over the Victorian preoccupation with women as inherently prudish and chaste. The beta male, like Elliot Rodger, idealizes women to an unhealthy extent, divorcing them from their own psychology and their own pursuit of sexual satisfaction and pleasure. What would an Elliot Rodger even do with a woman if he got his hands on one? The beta male shrinks at the thought of defiling his ideal, even if it turned out her desire for sexual gratification and release was foremost in her psychology as it was in the porn addicted depravity of the typical 4chan user.
The ideal that propagated in these communities was one of self-mastery and self-sufficiency. Discussion drew attention to the insecurities and anxieties of millennial women with regards to family, marriage, and success. Mental illnesses like histrionic and borderline personality disorder were reinterpreted due to their higher prevalence among female cases according to the ways they seemed to reveal the uncomfortable psychological tensions underlying modern femininity. Men who frequented Red Pill blogs and comment sections were encouraged to take care of themselves first, not only as a means of becoming more attractive to women, but as a way of protecting themselves from the pitfalls of relationships in the age of online dating.
The cruelty of critical commenters as they pierced the egoist self-conceptions of other posters is not only a nihilistic act of transgression but a positive call to arms. The love-shy college beta male was stripped of his self-delusions, called pathetic and given the option of either taking responsibility for his own life and happiness, or suffering merciless ostracization at the hands of a pitiless audience of harsh critics.
In parallel to this development, the Left incubated the so-called Social Justice Movement, which assumed an entirely antithetical perspective on issues of obtaining happiness in an unfair and at times even unjust world. Here the emphasis was on a materialistic conception of identity determination. The self is sculpted by the institutions we move through, the schools, the prisons, the workplaces, etc. that we submit to. If you are unable to feel pride in yourself, if you have no self-worth, it is ultimately the fault and responsibility of the institutions who bred this into your personality through sustained acts of intellectual manipulation and overseen development. Rather than assume power over your own life, your own appearance, your own happiness, rather than work to overcome the sources of your own failure, it became central dogma to this new movement to demand formal accommodation from the institutions which we concede control over ourselves to in the name of justice.
The antagonism between these two perspectives is quite natural, and the call to self-improvement becomes, in the ears of the social justice warrior, unbearable. The cruel mockery directed not only without but within, to the part of ourselves who shares in the failures of our target, becomes positive force towards the materialist, causally conditioning their own ability to understand themselves in an inescapable fashion. Meanwhile, this same cruelty becomes, for the Altright, a kind of Promethean unshackling of potential. A deceleration that if man has control over anything, it's over his own mind and his own spiritual destiny. A refusal to accept any standard other than one founded on the aim of a full development of one’s human potential conceived as an act of will that social mechanisms of control are lack any final moral authority to override.
Elliot Rodger, and those like him, are the ultimate E/N stories, stories of failure and tragedy, of narcissism winning out over personal responsibility, of the darkness of succumbing to the world, rather than confronting it with all the power one can muster.
If Rodger worship has an intellectual pre-history, it might be found in a character like Goethe’s Werther. At the close of Goethe’s novel we learn that Werther’s own suicide has put the life of the woman he supposedly loved more than life itself in jeopardy.
The reader is invited to wonder to what extent the hopeless-case of Werther is responsible, and in context of the conventions of the sentimental novel, it’s difficult not to implicate him directly in Lotte’s hypothetical death. Here we have a disturbed individual, unable to overcome the prison of subjectivity, driven to enact a tragedy as a means of self-expression and assertion against an unyielding universe. The character was, as is generally well-known, enormously popular, but at the same time, was met by contemporary responses that morally problematized him and his actions in a similar way that Feminists do of everything today. Werther’s story was not wholly fiction either but drew on episodes and personalities well-known across the social networks Goethe and other budding writers traveled in at the time.
Werther was an E/N post elevated to poetry, and though the tragedy of Elliot Rodger isn’t fiction, it elicits not only an ironic canonization of Elliot among the nihilistic foe-mind of 4chan, but one of sincere, if complicated sympathy towards his case as representing some of the deepest dangers facing young men as they attempt to construct a stable character for themselves amidst a culture where Feminist concerns and ambitions dominate the quest for self-realization as it’s played out by millions of 20-something men today. What lurks behind transgression, in this case, is a deeply felt humanity, one who knows no other way of co-existing with the strange aspects of our modern existence than the Promethean rejection of the inevitability of tragedy for those who find themselves without an easy way out through the darkness of the modern self.
Having now worked my way through Nagle’s arguments I feel in a better position to render a final verdict on her work, and to be honest, though I disagree with many of the conclusions she draws, I can’t really say much of her analysis is necessarily even wrong. At times that analysis is familiar in all the worst ways, but others I have to admit, I found myself truly engaged with her line of argument, and for that, I do appreciate her efforts.
I called the book exploitative and used the term “self-plagiarism” to describe the work, and there I believe I’m not wholly in the wrong either. It’s not that Nagel has somehow ‘stolen’ material from herself, but that the book has a certain cheapness to it unbecoming of the intellectual ambitions of the author. Reading it at times I felt it belonged more to the genre of timely and exploitative political cash-in than it did to the genre of academic socio-political theory, and this I felt was unfortunate given what I felt Nagel really would have liked to accomplish.
There’s a seedy preoccupation with Milo Yiannopoulos throughout Kill All Normies, and the grandiose terms his career breakdown are stated in smack of the very same schadenfreude that Nagle in other places laments. Here is not just a theoretical deconstruction of the Altright, but a book whose topicality the author appears keen enough to use to her commercial and professional advantage. Likewise, her familiar treatment of the stories of Rebecca Watson, Brianna Wu, Anita Sarkeesian and others, lacks critical introspection into who these people are or why their moral entrepreneurialism would meet with disapproval. Nagle sees them merely as victims, and as heroes.
Much of the material on Gamergate and online harassment of women then feels recycled and sits uneasily alongside the more meta-political historical analysis at the center of the work, and I never felt Nagle truly succeeded in integrating the two disparate strains of material. Reading some of her past articles in research for this review, I was also struck by the way some passages seemed lifted word for word from previously published material. There are certainly many reasons why this could be the case, and no, this form of self-plagiarism is by no means a repudiation of the intellectual content of Nagle’s argument, it just lent to the certain feeling of lightweight cheapness that you sometimes catch a whiff of while reading Kill All Normies.
The introductory terms she uses to discuss certain concepts or people have a repetitive quality to them that is sometimes tedious, and there were a few moments where I found myself flipping back with the feeling I had seen her repeat (without development) an argument from a previous chapter. These points, individually, really boil down to quibbles, but together they also add up to paint a picture of confused and competing intellectual and commercial ambitions.
Nagle doesn’t appear to have interacted much with the typical 4chan users and internet trolls she means to investigate, and I feel like some of the unexamined premises which underlay the book’s weaker lines of arguments could have been shored up had she made a more sincere attempt to enter the perspectives she was trying to unpack. There are no real stories here, only 4chan green text posts taken at face value, and Nagle never succeeds in getting beyond anonymity to the faces and thinking of the people who serve as the subject for her whole book.
I do not think it a bad thing that Nagle longs for a return to the golden age of Leftist intellectualism, of class solidarity and intellectually vital and morally grounded cultural criticism. That would certainly be an improvement over the Tumblr Leftism she also skewers. That she is ambitious of being one of the writers who makes leftist intellectualism great again is something I certainly cannot fault her for, but whether Kill All Normies is truly worthy of that ambition is something of which I’m not completely certain.