ANTISOCIAL: More Thoughts on Counterculture and the New Right (PART 1)
When I started the audiobook of Andrew Marantz’s recent work “Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation,” I was worried I’d spent $16 on a dud. The prose was compelling, but the content struck me at first as old news. As someone that keeps up with the subject matter both via articles and full length books, the personality tics and ideological (semi-)foundations of alt-right YouTubers is familiar territory. But perhaps because I’m so accustomed to the declarative posture of most critical journalism and academic writing, I was not prepared for Marantz’s masterful ability to pack nuance and meaning into nonfictional storytelling. I also was not expecting to walk away from the book with one of my least popular theories about the rise of the online far right reinforced.
Now, I frankly doubt the author intended to illustrate the rise of the alt-right as a crisis of counterculture in the age of the internet. He certainly understands and points out how many key figures came from subcultural and even leftist backgrounds. But I’m not sure he’d go as far as his telling makes me want to go, and I have my own trepidation about even stating the case. But it seems to me we can only hear so many times that Paul Ryan’s favorite band was Rage Against the Machine, or that Mike Cernovich has read Lacan, before we have to reckon with the the new far right’s relationship to subculture.
And it has to be a reckoning that goes beyond the standard tellings where cynical ideologues simply repackage fascistic ideas in countercultural garb to make them more palatable. This is a common and, I believe, fallacious way of understanding belief and its role in modern social and political life. Throughout “Antisocial” I was struck not by stories about people who merely manipulated counterculture but who had thoroughly bought in to many of its key tenets and espoused their politics as a form of authentic rebellion. It’s worth revisiting the trajectory of pop culture and subculture throughout the 80s, 90s and 00s particularly because some of the most influential figures on the alt-right either lived through this progression or came of age directly in its wake. While much of what follows has been acknowledged, I don’t feel it’s been adequately spelled out, especially for those born after the turn of the millennium.
I was a preteen in the 80s and a teenager in the 90s. I came into a consciousness of pop culture during the Reagan era, when action films were morality plays about the Cold War — notably often the rough-and-tumble humanistic and flawed Rocky or Maverick character against the inhuman robotic Soviets. Fantasy and sci-fi films wanted to emulate the Spielberg/Lucas model of box office success, and so copied the Spielberg/Lucas model of sentimentalist storytelling. Sitcoms from Family Ties to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Roseanne always didactically delivered a lesson about love, forgiveness, honesty, and friendship while their afternoon teen drama counterparts did the same thing with the issues that effected middle and high schoolers like drug abuse, shoplifting, and peer pressure. Musicians were often social activists fighting world hunger and advocating for world peace like Bob Geldof and Bono. Popular youth-targeted films often portrayed hateful rich people (“yuppies”) as antagonists.
The conspicuous moral scaffolding created by these overground monoliths provoked a couple of responses. First, underground musicians and filmmakers began to kick back against the blockbuster sap and prime time lectures with increasingly provocative rejections of their polite norms. Films like “Heathers” and “The River’s Edge” preferred a darker more satirical tone and deployed murder of kids by other kids as a key plot device. But these kinds of films were still in the business of taking moral sides. They were beginning to address angst and nihilism more head on — at least more so than “Saved By the Bell” or “Pretty In Pink.” If you wanted to go a bit further, say, Penelope Spheeris’ “Suburbia” or Alex Cox’s “Repo Man” you could see emerging a new kind of anti-sentimentalist, anti-moralist culture as a clear and obvious reaction to the popular media of the time. The anti-hero wasn’t a new idea but it was becoming increasingly popular.
Underground music was more thoroughly and forcefully rejecting mainstream norms. At the most extreme, punk bands were espousing revolutionary politics, metal bands were more brutal in their assault on the business class and the politics the rich making war for profit, while industrial artists were challenging the very foundations of art with intentional moral content.
Postmodern detachment wasn’t an invention of the underground, you could find it everywhere from Jim Henson’s Muppet movies to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” But gradually as being “offbeat” and “surreal” became critical positives, the distance between signifier and signified became less essential to success. In fact the strangeness that could be derived from that uncoupling started to bring its most formidable practitioners a great deal of money and success. David Lynch was both a prime time TV storyteller and major motion picture director. Tim Burton’s morbid expressionism got him from quirky “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” to the godfather of modern comic book films in four years’ time.
By the early 90s, the underground/overground split became a paradigm shift. Postmodern detachment and absurdity was used to tell anti-hero stories. Moral didacticism gave way to the “gritty realism” of films like “Reservoir Dogs” which acted as a kind of purging of the Spielberg era. Gone were the orchestral swells signaling now was the time to tear up over the love between a boy and his tender alien friend, we were now cutting off ears and saying the “n” word to meticulously curated rare backcatalog soundtracks. Why? To even ask was to prove you didn’t “get it.” To reveal yourself as a naive believer that art is a delivery system for values and meaning.
This was the age of Top 100 shows on VH1, the rise of political punditry, and the initiation of all consumers of culture as commentators and critics. Of course people had always had strong opinions about art and discussed them. But increasingly fans were emulating commentators, and the art on which they pronounced seemed mainly to serve the commentary. Meanwhile values weren’t gone entirely; transgression and authenticity not only sat at the top of the conversational hierarchy, they increasingly sat alone.
Explaining the basic constellation of values here is extremely important for getting around to the alt-right and the online clusterfuck of the 2010s. One was expected to know that what made Reservoir Dogs a good film was that hearing the “n” word dropped constantly was authentic: this is how criminals would speak. It was also transgressive of the unspoken codes of blockbuster entertainment. One absorbed these transgressions from above them, not as someone endorsing them. You knew that the kinds of people who band together for a heist are the kinds of people who use racial epithets. One’s ability to understand this as a non-racist and appreciate it in a work of art set them apart from those who simply ate whatever Hollywood and the sitcom values set embraced. This was all part of being able to appreciate complexity, to appreciate new values hierarchies and new ways of articulating those values.
Transgression and authenticity became the marketing ethos that replaced pomp and pyro in the wake of the golden age of hair metal-as-pop music. Even the sitcoms transitioned away from lighthearted family drama to The Simpsons and Married With Children. Bono, Van Halen, Family Matters, and Stephen Spielberg — all of this was simplistic. Unrealistic. Preachy. A symptom of Reagan-era optimism and naivete. This accelerated quickly…
Rhinestone cowboy boots became dingy Docs or combat boots, and bandanas became knit beanies. Cocaine and Jack Daniels were 80s passe, 90s rock stars knew heroin was a signal of being “real.” So overt were these signals, so overground was the messaging that the bio of Sublime’s lead singer Brad Nowell, as well as the 90s junkie eras of Ministry’s Al Jourgenson and Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan all contain the same thread: each became addicted to heroin because they understood it as authentically dark, dangerous, and transgressive.
People also understood that there was a cultural directive for how to treat things which were once authentic and transgressive but had been packaged for consumption by what would one day be referred to as “normies.” What were you supposed to do when the handsome guy on the football team with the hot girlfriend got into Metallica? Get into Pantera. What did you do when Pantera hit the Billboard charts at #1? You went further. More transgressive was more authentic, and vice-versa. By the mid to late 90s, industrial rock that trafficked in violent, often misogynistic fantasies was on the verge of becoming the new stadium rock. The one-upsmanship of the authenticity-and-transgression rat race had been fused with the market for a while, but it had now proven itself a reliable and lucrative model for blockbuster, mainstream entertainment.
With Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson singing about violent sex and “hating every motherfucker” on afternoon MTV, it was broadly understood that one related to these in the same way the jock related to Metallica lyrics about the military-industrial complex. This was a new iteration of the consumer who is above the work but understands its value in relation to a previous regime of morality peddling. By the early 2000s, the mainstream entertainment industry had so thoroughly commodified the postmodern anti-hero, the authentically transgressive, and the secondary nature of meaning and belief, that a future icon of the libertarian wing of the Republican party could jock out to anthems about black nationalism. People make fun of him for not “getting it” but in a very real way, Paul Ryan absolutely “got it.”
Then came widespread high speed internet connectivity and then came social media…
THE INTERIM a: IDGAF
The arrival of Eminem, The Spice Girls, and NSYNC into the realms of superstardom could be thought of as the authenticity and transgression ethos trying to figure out what to do next. Eminem articulated and embodied what would become one essential disposition for the new century: “I am a bad guy, but I admit that I am openly, therefore my honesty is more authentic than those that hide it.” This came as an augmentation to the supposedly shared understanding that the murder fantasies and “n” words (in Eminem’s case, the “f” word, referring to homosexuals) were a goof. It was a joke you got precisely because you were not misogynistic, homophobic, or racist. After all, how can transgressive entertainment entertain with its transgression unless the boundary exists to be transgressed? One was supposed to find Eminem entertaining because he “just didn’t give a fuck” about anyone who thought he really was the person he portrayed in his lyrics. After all his lyrics were about not giving a fuck. This IDGAF posture was added to the authenticity and transgression hierarchy, near the top.
The other essential disposition came from the boy and girl bands: “We admit it’s a glossy, prepackaged item for shallow consumption, therefore the way to enjoy it is by authentically embracing your consumption of prepackaged gloss.” Put another way, there were to be no more “guilty pleasures.” If one took one’s pleasures honestly — whether that pleasure was misogynistic cruelty or Disney-wrapped adolescent sexuality, it was fair game. As long as you were open about it. As long as you let everyone know you were in on it. Rich corporations want to exploit my weaknesses and feed me junk food? Well, I like junk food and if I say so, then I’m not fake. In fact, indulging in junk food honestly could be a new form of authenticity. What better to accompany this than a heap of intellectual anti-elitism?
THE INTERIM b: CODE SWITCHING AND KNOWING HOW TO PLAY
Even the Return to Teen Pop, the ascendancy of Eminem, and the associated pop punditry associated with knowing how to explain the correct and complex way to relate to these things was bound to mutate. Increased usage of the internet meant more content to absorb and more conversation about it. Stable narratives became less stable. At every step of the above outlined progression has been the presence of a widespread and tacitly understood (but rarely overtly articulated) function of ideology to art, ideas to culture and counterculture.
These things were subject to the same disruption as the rest. Debates between “popists” and “rockists” broke out. But while the disruptions happened and accelerated, it’s important for me to assert here that I believe it is quite clear that most millennials, Gen X as a whole, and even some of the youngest Boomers, entered the social media era of the internet with this cultural background and with these sets of values more or less firmly in place. It is also important here to express that these values of postmodern detachment, authenticity, transgression, and IDGAF were, by the time of the mid 2000s, firmly mainstream, overground, popular ideas. They were commodified and they existed largely in service of selling cultural products. These are no longer the domain of the outsider, or of the rebel kicking against bourgeois morality. They are the domain of the consumer who has fashioned themselves as a rebel in the image of the market.
If the late 1990s gave rise to the commentary regime, social tech in the mid 2000s elevated it to a guiding principle and a social constant. Everyone had a broadcast, every broadcast was part of a competition amongst newly disrupted categories. The fight over the new right way of interpreting art, the “conversation” as the tech moguls call it, became of primary importance. Art itself, more than at any time in recent memory, could be more accurately thought of as fodder for that conversation. Opinions proliferated, egged on by comment sections and corporations from Amazon to Yelp to Brooklyn Vegan encouraging people everywhere to think and speak like reviewers and cultural critics. It was in this atmosphere of heightened informational exchange that one last ingredient was added to the hierarchy: code switching.
No longer could one be satisfied to merely take a side, rockist or popist, Britney Spears or Arcade Fire, Eminem or Outkast, is it right or is it wrong to say certain words in a song or a movie — one needed to prove they could articulate an increasingly complex set of opinions on these matters. It was best if it was a variety of contrarian provocation and traditional assumptions, but that variety needed to be as free floating and malleable as meaning was on social media. One increasingly showed one’s cultural savvy by correct (and early) adoption of slang phrases and reference to recent memes. Incorrect references or references to old material now showed you were behind the curve, and the inability to understand that black metal was simultaneously serious and funny, that the “n” word could be said in this song by this person but not that song by that person, proved you were part of a dying regime of overly simplistic folks, ill-adapted to the new social conversation.
Clearly, as in the education of white people in why they shouldn’t use the “n” word, this evolution had its positive effects. But something strange happened and it didn’t take long. I attribute it not to any coordinated decision-making process on behalf of any tech company or social group, but rather to something that was organic (insofar as it occurred within the confines of social media profit incentives).
Not overnight, but almost, it seemed that the entire postmodernist/authenticity/transgressive/IDGAF hierarchy built from the 80s-00s which a great many people took as a consensus, was turned on its head. The code switchers had decided that postmodern detachment was fine for one kind of memes but not for others. And instead of addressing the conceptual question of postmodern detachment, they began advancing new dogmas. Rather than giving new conceptual understandings, they elevated and accelerated code-switching. One learned not from principles but from social exposure. Which meant by being very, very online.
The annihilation of previously accepted strategies of interpretation has to be recognized as a profitable development for social tech companies. As the debate currently drags on over “wokeness” I find myself increasingly exhausted with the unwillingness to see first and foremost a profitable phenomenon and second to attach value to it. In other words, I tend to think that “disrupting” long-held consensus is simply a recipe for high-valence emotion, for intense debate and therefore it’s good for the attention/data economy. This comes before whether I value the reconsideration of Confederate monuments in public space (I do) or the reconsideration of The Jewish Question (I don’t.)
Which is to say that I don’t read any intrinsic value in the destruction of the interpretation schematic — it seems to me it fits first and foremost into a business model where reveling in the destruction of popularly-held ideas because it makes people feel activating emotions and gets them talking. This is the last ingredient before returning more rigorously to the phenomenon of the online right as a crisis in counterculture. The demands of social media profitability, a new regime of cultural commodification, introduces itself to the old one.
Eager to again prove they can adapt, an increasingly older crowd of people unquestioningly adopts the mentality of social platforms. But as before, they adopt it not because they understand it as what “the man” wants them to do — they buy wholeheartedly into the packaging of the product. Freedom from gatekeepers — a new cyberpunk utopia where questioning everything is going to lead inevitably to the kind of world they’ve been taught to want. As with all the times before, they understand themselves as the rebels, not as people who have been sold an identity and an ideology packaged as freethought and rebellion. But this new ingredient would prove to be incompatible with the previous, and a crisis developed amongst those who had been weaned throughout previous years on the value and values of counterculture.