Transgression has been embraced as a virtue within Western social liberalism ever since the sixties. So elevated has the virtue of transgression become in the criticism of art, argues Kieran Cashell, that contemporary art critics have been faced with a challenge: “Either support transgression unconditionally or condemn the tendency and risk obsolescence amid suspicions of critical conservatism.” But, Cashell writes, the value placed upon transgression in contemporary art has had consequences: “In the pursuit of the ‘irrational,’ art has become negative, nasty, and nihilistic.”
Those who claim that the new right-wing sensibility online today is just more of the same old right, undeserving of attention or differentiation, are wrong. Although it is constantly changing, in this important early stage of its appeal, its ability to assume the aesthetics of counterculture, transgression, and nonconformity tells us many things about the nature of its appeal and about the liberal establishment it defines itself against. It has more in common with the 1968 left’s slogan “It is forbidden to forbid!” than it does with anything most recognize as part of any traditionalist right. Instead of interpreting it as part of other right-wing movements, conservative or libertarian, I would argue that the style being channelled by the Pepe meme–posting trolls and online transgressives belongs to a tradition that can be traced from the eighteenth-century writings of the Marquis de Sade, surviving through to the nineteenth-century Parisian avant-garde, the Surrealists, the rebel rejection of feminized conformity of post-war America, and then to what film critics called 1990s “male rampage films” like American Psycho and Fight Club. In these, as in the rightist chan culture, interpretation and judgment are evaded through tricks and layers of metatextual self-awareness and irony.
The cult of the moral transgressor as a heroic individual is rooted in Romanticism. The psychopath, like the artist, privileges id over superego, and desire over moral constraints. Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, asserts his own right to transcend the morality of the lesser masses when he kills a “worthless” old woman. Echoed in the style of contemporary transgressive anti-moral cultures like 4chan that later fused with the alt-right, is French writer Maurice Blanchot’s dictum that “the greatest suffering of others always counts for less than my pleasure.”
They reject the perceived sentimentality of the mainstream media and instead remake it as their own dark spectacle, in which pity is replaced by cruelty.
From One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization and R. D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience, madness was consistently recast as nonconformity in this transgressive style. For de Sade, the Surrealists, and later for the sixties anti-repression cultural politics most closely associated with R. D. Laing, insanity was considered a creative source, a rejection of mainstream norms and a political act of rebellion. The surreal became a pre-rational creative expression. The throwing off of the id that characterized this transgressive countercultural traditional also characterized sites like 4chan, and its culture of trolling and taboo-breaking anti-moral humor, which is often described as insane or unhinged to baffled outsiders.
This view of psychopathy and rejection of imposed morality runs through the ethos and aesthetic of the rightist trolling culture. In one early self-description, a 4chan/b/ enthusiast wrote:
/b/ is the guy who tells the cripple ahead of him in line to hurry up. /b/ is first to get to the window to see the car accident outside. /b/ is the one who wrote your number on the mall’s bathroom wall. /b/ is a failing student who makes passes at his young, attractive English teacher. /b/ is the guy loitering on Park Ave. that is always trying to sell you something. /b/ is the one who handed his jizz-drenched clothes to Good Will. ( . . . ) /b/ is a hot incest dream that you’ll try to forget for days. /b/ is the only one of your group of friends to be secure in his sexuality and say anything. /b/ is the guy without ED who still likes trying Viagra. /b/ is the best friend that tags along for your first date and cock-blocks throughout the night. The decent girl you’re trying to bag walks out on the date, /b/ laughs and takes you home when you’re drunk, and you wake up to several hookers in your house who /b/ called for you. /b/ is a friend that constantly asks you to try mutual masturbation with him. /b/ is the guy who calls a suicide hotline to hit on the advisor. /b/ is nuking the hard-drive next time someone knocks on his door. /b/ is the one who left a used condom outside the schoolyard. /b/ is the voice in your head that tells you that it doesn’t matter if she’s drunk. /b/ is the friend who constantly talks about your mom’s rack. /b/ is the only one who understands what the hell you saying. /b/ is someone who would pay a hooker to eat his ass, and only that. /b/ is the uncle who has touched you several times. /b/ is still recovering in the hospital, after trying something he saw in a hentai. /b/ is the pleasure you feel guilty of when you tried playing with your anus during masturbation. /b/ is wonderful.
The forum’s preoccupation with suicide often takes the form of painful expressions of anonymous users’ desire to commit suicide themselves, and at the same time it mocks suicide victims and those who express sympathy with the victims. Forum users come to the most arguably unsympathetic place imaginable to tell others of their suicidal fantasies anonymously, where they will probably be half-jokingly told to do it. They thus reject the perceived sentimentality of the mainstream media’s suicide spectacles and instead remake it as their own dark spectacle, in which pity is replaced by cruelty. And yet, because both the act of suicide and the displays of insensitivity toward suicide victims are perceived as forms of transgression, both found a home within this strangely internally coherent online world.
What kind of ideas and styles are being drawn upon by this new transgressive rightist sensibility?
Nietzsche, one of the main thinkers being channeled by rightist chan culture knowingly or otherwise, argued for transgression of the pacifying moral order and instead for a celebration of life as the will to power. As a result, his ideas had appeal to everyone from the Nazis to feminists like Lily Braun. Today, the appeal of Nietzsche’s anti-moralism is strong on the alt-right because their goals necessitate the repudiation of Christian codes that Nietzsche characterized as slave morality.
Meme culture, in which enormous human effort is exerted with no obvious personal benefit, is paradigmatically transgressive in an age of Protestant instrumental rationality.
Perhaps the most significant theorist of transgression, Georges Bataille inherited his idea of sovereignty from de Sade, stressing self-determination over obedience. Although rightist chan culture was undoubtedly not what Bataille had in mind, the politically fungible ideas and styles of these aesthetic transgressives are echoed in the porn-fuelled shocking content of early /b/ and in the later anti-liberal transgressions of the later /pol/. Bataille revered transgression in and of itself and, like de Sade, viewed non-procreative sex as an expression of the sovereign against instrumentalism, what he called “expenditure without reserve.” For him excessive behavior without purpose, which also characterizes the sensibility of contemporary meme culture, in which enormous human effort is exerted with no obvious personal benefit, was paradigmatically transgressive in an age of Protestant instrumental rationality.
Chan culture became what you might call the unwanted gift, a twist on Mauss’s The Gift that early Internet theorists used as a central metaphor for the non-instrumental culture of sharing that it nurtured. In The Revolution of Everyday Life by the Situationist thinker Raoul Vaneigem, Mauss’s principle of the gift, originally used to describe reciprocal gift-giving systems in pre-modern societies, was celebrated on the grounds that only the purity of motiveless destruction or ruinous generosity can transcend instrumentalism. The Situationists’ critique of “the poverty of every day life,” like Baudelaire’s “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom,” articulated a common sentiment—found from the Romantics through to contemporary online cultures of transgression—that ennui, boredom, and inertia requires a counterforce of extreme transgression. But while the Situationists had a better world in their hearts, the nihilistic application of the transgressive style already took shape in the sixties counterculture. “The Manson murders,” Reynolds and Press argue in their book The Sex Revolts, “were the logical culmination of throwing off the shackles of conscience and consciousness, the grim flowering of the id’s voodoo energies.”
Another conceptualization of transgression that applies to this culture has been the idea of the carnivalesque. In The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, Stallybrass and White consider the carnivalesque to be a form of radical transgression against hierarchy and hegemony: “The grotesque tends to operate as a critique of a dominant ideology which has already set the terms, designating what is high and low.” This is very much how 4chan has long self-described and how it was described by its early “progressive” boosters, except that the dominant ideology in the time of 4chan has been cultural liberalism, and the “low” therefore meant un-PC poor taste, rudeness, shock, offence, and trolling. The carnivalesque was also theorized by Bakhtin, whose ideologically flexible and ambivalent definition sounds like much like some of the self-descriptions of trolls on what trolling is doing:
Carnival laughter is the laughter of all the people. Second, it is universal in scope; it is directed at all and everyone, including the carnival’s participants. The entire world is seen in its droll aspect, in its gay relativity. Third, this laughter is ambivalent; it is gay, triumphant, and at the same time mocking, deriding.
The transgressive style is not without precedent on the formally political conservative right, either. The Federation of Conservative Students in the UK famously shocked with a poster saying “Hang Nelson Mandela” and criticized Thatcher for her soft touch, perhaps an early version of the “cuckervative” jibe. They also had libertarian and authoritarian wings of thought, but certainly constituted a break from the decorum of the Burkeans, adopting some of the harder edge of the Thatcher era, even flirting with far-right ideas. The reformist-left writer Christopher Lasch applied the Freudian conception of transgression as anti-civilizational to his critique of the vacuous nihilism and narcissism of post-sixties American consumer society.
But since the sixties, the norm has until now been that critics of transgression have generally come from the right. Theorist of post-industrial society Daniel Bell lamented the transgressive ethos of the sixties and warned of its “obsessive preoccupation with homosexuality, transvestism, buggery, and, most pervasive of all, publicly displayed oral-genital intercourse.” The transgressive irreverent style of the sixties counterculture was everything the right hated in previous culture wars. The “adversary culture” bemoaned by conservative anti-feminists like Phyllis Schlafly and the neocons of Commentary magazine warned against the destructive impulses of the transgressive sensibility.
Feminism’s relationship to the cultural politics of transgression is more complicated still. When the second wave of feminism burst forth in the sixties, captured in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, it was regarded by the right as part of the broader sexual revolution and the transgressive culture that was going to destroy the U.S. family, moral restraints, and tradition. In the battle over Roe v. Wade and Phyllis Schlafly’s war on the Equal Rights Amendment, feminism was very much on the side of the transgressive tradition of de Sade, as it sought to destroy moralism and free the id. However, for some feminists the id of their transgressive male peers proved a little too free. Criticisms of the inequities of “free love,” and the hypocrisies and inequalities experienced by women in anti-war and other activist movements in the sixties and seventies, started to emerge from feminist writing as a kind of critique of the counterculture. The pornified culture produced by the sexual revolution soon came under its harshest criticisms from feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon by the eighties, and soon the war-on-porn feminists even aligned with conservatives, who had previously denounced feminism as central to the debauchery of the sixties.
As Lasch understood, for progressive politics anti-moral transgression has always been a bargain with the devil, because the case for equality is essentially a moral one.
During the recent online culture wars, and their spillover into campus and protest politics, feminists have tried to embrace transgression with the Slut Walk movement and sex- positive pro-trans, pro-sex worker and pro-kink culture that was central to Tumblr. However, like the right, it has run up against a deep philosophical problem about the ideologically flexible, politically fungible, morally neutral nature of transgression as a style, which can characterize misogyny just as easily as it can sexual liberation. As Lasch understood, for progressive politics anti-moral transgression has always been a bargain with the devil, because the case for equality is essentially a moral one.
Equally hated and loved critic Camille Paglia argued that de Sade’s depiction of human evil as innate was a form of satire directed against the Rousseauvian tradition, from which contemporary feminism springs. De Sade’s work famously features sexual violence as well as abhorrence for family and procreation, instead creating a violent transgressive sexuality based on the values of libertinism and individual sovereignty. In Juliette one rule of The Sodality of the Friends of Crime is, “True libertinage abhors progeniture.” Paglia argues that de Sade’s devaluing of the procreative female body, and his preoccupation with heterosexual and homosexual sodomy, also shared by chan culture, are not merely the product of a homosexual impulse, as argued by feminist Simone de Beauvoir, but a “protest against relentlessly overabundant procreative nature.” Author Susan Suleiman wrote that:
The founding desire behind Sadeian fantasy is the active negation of the mother. The Sadeian hero’s anti-naturalism ( . . . ) goes hand in hand with his hatred of mothers, identified as the “natural” source of life.
That the transgressive values of de Sade could be taken up by a culture of misogyny and characterized an online anti-feminist movement that rejected traditional church-going conservatism should not be a surprise. The Blakean motto adopted by the Surrealists, “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires,” dominance as sexual “sovereignty” and the freeing of the id from the constraints of the conscience have all descended from this transgressive tradition. 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 alt-right online 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 sixties, 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.
Excerpted from Angela Nagle’s new book, Kill All Normies (Zero Books), out in paperback this week.