Marxist cultural criticism, by its nature, walks the tight rope between the Scylla of purely instrumental and didactic analysis and the Charybdis of descriptivism and romanticism. Yet there are times in which Marxist cultural critics must make directly political interventions, emphasizing that indeed we are, in Ash Sarkar’s inimitable phrase, literally communists. This was what gave rise, for example, to Red Wedge statements in support of many of the struggles of the last few years. Speaking for myself as a writer and editor, I took the initiative in not merely a hostile review of Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies, but as well, in helping to shape our general line in response to the emerging current that many of us have come to call “normie socialism” and to situate ourselves as defenders of transgression. This approach can be summed up in Peter Frase’s call for us to “Keep Socialism Weird”. To not merely strike out against conservative politics and aesthetics, but to provide a cultural and political alternative, without any pretence of drawing roadmaps of the future. It has also, as in the present set of circumstances, attempted to make sense, or sometimes render the possibility of “making sense” nonsensical, of the tragedies of the spiraling doom in these times.
It has become all too frequent that we see another event that brings us nearly beyond words, yet what we have seen this week, over fifty human beings killed in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand renders one nearly speechless and certainly without much ability to draw on that space between thought and expression. The moment brings to mind Theodor Adorno’s oft-misunderstood phrase about there being no poetry after Auschwitz. Adorno’s point was far more supple than articulating a moment of mourning, yet it does not ignore that mourning. Hamid Dabashi makes the point that for Adorno, as for us, “it is near impossible for the cultural critic to find a moral space outside the culture it wishes to criticize. We are here in a hall of mirrors, where culture and cultural criticism keep reflecting each other, generating the illusion of defiance, consolation, liberation - but in effect plunging us ever deeper into the abyss.”
How is one to speak of a moment of fascism, when in this “idle chatter” can easily become part of the machine it attempts to criticize? After all, we see a moment of the concatenation of the emerging violent Islamophobia, first stoked after the Iranian revolution and becoming near common-sense, accelerating even further after 9/11, with the traditional forces of white supremacy and fascism. Islamophobia is such common sense, worldwide, that when an elected representative in Australia blames the victim, all he gets is an egg in the face. To make the types of statements he made, “contextualizing” the attacks by virtue of some imaginary Islamic conspiracy is akin to blaming the attack on Jews in Pittsburgh or African American Christians in Charleston as being provoked by George Soros or Black Lives Matter. Yet while the latter two conspiracy theories likely do make the rounds in the cesspool of shit-posters, they could never be publicly uttered without fear of recrimination.
Thus we can speak of a continuum of Islamophobia that allowed first for Anders Breivik to credit western figures like Pamela Gellar and other professional Islamophobes of the pre-Trump years, it now allows the New Zealand shooter, Brentan Tarrant, to openly claim inspiration from not merely the white supremacist core but the president of the United States of America. He wrote a manifesto, known as “The Great Replacement”, hearkening right back to the Charlottesville chants that “Jews will not replace us”, in that sense the Jews not being the people who replace the victims of “white genocide”, rather they being the masterminds of a plot to replace white Europeans with Latinx and/or Muslim migrants. I wrote about this in the face of the Pittsburgh attacks here at Red Wedge. Perhaps the best analysis of this phenomenon and its co-constitutive and foundational relationship with queerphobia and transphobia comes from Joni Alizeh Cohen. Yet just as theological Judeophobia predates modern conspiratiorial and racial Anti-Semitism, theological – and indeed territorial Islamophobia predates modern conspiratiorial and racial Islamophobia. Thus this is a swerve of two seemingly divergent social relations revealing its always-existing but now no longer occluded co-constitutive quality.
In the case of Muslims being the “replacers” within the “white genocide” framework”, here is we see this toxic concatenation. As Islamophobia has its own internal logic that predates this concatenation, and while it has always occupied a similar conspiratorial logic akin to Anti-Semitism, it has been predicated upon a different type of fear, a fear of being killed or conquered and subject to “Sharia law”. The fear that Trump had to stoke, he also had to construct, modernize and conjure, when it comes to Latinx migrants. Yet given the longstanding common-sense Islamophobia, even with the pushback on Trump’s Muslim ban, Islamophobia is still such common sense that when Ilhan Omar ruffled feathers when speaking about AIPAC, and then was taunted with Islamophobic death threats, the latter was hardly mentioned in the bourgeois media. This continuum was clearly visible to the students in New York who confronted Chelsea Clinton, unwilling to accept her false crocodile-teared solidarity given her own role in perpetuating a global common sense that produces a Brenton Tarrant.
Thus modern Islamophobia can contain both the critique of the attack on Christchurch as well as the attack itself. This was Adorno’s point, as a critic of what he saw – perhaps gilding the lily, but understandably so – as the totalitarian logic emerging in near all advanced human societies, liberal-democratic or Stalinist, and the complete integration of the critic with that with which they criticize. Even two years ago this wasn’t the case. After Charlottesville, with the exception of the likes of Mitt Romney and the memeable killer of baby Hitler, Jeb! Bush, very few Americans articulated what the left and anti-fascists were saying, and it cost nothing for the Mormon or the Texan to stand tall. Liberals needed to condemn Charlottesville but denounce “Antifa”, something Romney courageously refused to do. Even some parts of the Left made it a habit of ostentatiously avoiding anti-racist politics, one presumes in good faith not necessarily due to their racism (though certainly due to their roles as bearers of racist structures), but due to a deluded class-reductionism, a workerism without workers. Other “Tankie” parts of the Left replicate Islamophobic “war on terror” rhetoric when speaking about Syria. The rot is very deep.
In the wake of the Christchurch attack, everyone is suddenly “deeply aware” of the threat of Islamophobia. Network television from CNN to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation are featuring former professional Islamophobes, veterans of the CIA, FBI and other such gangs, to hold forth on their newly discovered threat of white supremacy. As “former” intelligence officials fatten the staff of news organizations like “former” military did in the salad days of Iraq, you have a wide manner of hall-of-mirrors types ready to bloviate on the topic of the day. Working within federal entities, they are a diverse crowd, but always ready to do service for the perceived national interest. I saw one ex-spy look indignant, even purely, viscerally angry. He made the obvious point that the attack in New Zealand was influenced by Trump’s “rhetoric”. Others expanded this point, no doubt realistically, to speak of other right-wing politicians, in the US and worldwide, and “polarization”.
And here is where we come to the limits of critique within the context of the logic of Islamophobia itself. The liberal types, the spies and the hacks of D.C., London, Ottawa and so forth, can never really – understand – the phenomenon of white supremacy as they are the executors of its legacy. There – can – be poetry after Christchurch then, if we pay attention to our limited task at hand, the task of critique. The buzzword of the last five years, give or take, has been “radicalization”. First applied to Islamists, it has been used by the “extreme centre” to denote any and all politicization partially or entirely mediated by social media and the internet generally speaking. It is entirely true that Islamists, Shit-posting alt-rightists and Soros/Truther type conspiracists were proverbially “red pilled” online. On the other hand, the internet in general and social media in particular has provided a glue with which the teacher’s strikes and other labour struggles have come to organize outside the purview of the bureaucracy. Tumblr has been a space in which queer young people come to understand and reconstruct their identities and affiliations.
So I’ve always found myself doubtful of the “radicalization” rhetoric, used as it is by the aforementioned spy types. It reminded of decades of blaming heavy metal, horror movies and hip-hop for acts of violence. A man is serving time as we speak for his hip hop lyrics. Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, Oliver Stone, Marilyn Manson, all have been excused of being veritable unindicted co-conspirators in the mass attacks of the last thirty odd years. But in the case of white supremacy, this “radicalization”, while obviously existing beyond the internet and predating it – like far left politics, fandom and porn, has really come into its own in the “internet age” or in Richard Seymour’s words, “the Twittering Machine”. In order to maintain our critique as actual critique, not the ouroboros of replicable critique ala Adorno, or what Marx, riposting to Young Hegelians, called “critical critique”, we must not assume that we are outside of any of this. Yet that doesn’t mean we can’t retain the aura of aesthetic objects, and the specificity of any historical event – even Auschwitz – as an object of analysis that leads us to conclusions that can only lead to a fork in the road. That fork can lead back to capitalist realism, or towards the necessity of replacing this rotten-ass mode of production already.
Where the liberals go wrong in their analysis, whoever it is, when they simply see the instrumentalization of demagogic rhetoric as reflective of the demagogues themselves. An egg in the face, or, in Trotsky’s phrase, introducing a fascist’s head to the pavement, is out of the question for liberals, who cherish moments of “dialogue” and even want to “understand” the likes of Richard Spencer, reminiscent of those wretched books that “explain” Hitler or justify the actions of the likes of Heidegger or Robert McNamara or Ramon Mercador. A better way of situating the trend of Trump can be seen in how the likes of Enzo Traverso or Dylan Riley provide analyses, either in the vein of historical social theory or historical sociology, of the rise of fascism and its – popular – movements. And these movements have spread laterally and centrifugally through the modern medium of mass communication, the internet, YouTube, 4Chan and so on. To properly analyze, to engage in the craft of historical materialism, in the present conjuncture is the first step towards even having the capacity to engage in critique.
click for larger image
Perhaps the best analysis of this particular phenomenon, then, comes from Robert Evans by way of the Belling Cat collective, and reading it is akin to UN reports on climate change – it is scary and demoralizing. In Evans’ analysis, the shooter, Tarrant, is well aware of the narratives surrounding internet radicalization, and thus, his entire act was one big murderous “shit-post”. Belling Cat terms this “inspirational terrorism”, where Roof and Breivik, among others, are figures to emulate, Tarrant wants to be emulated. Thus Tarrant’s act was reactionary propaganda-of-the-deed, A Clockwork Orange type murder with no regrets, simultaneously an act within a post-ironic imaginary global civil war. All of his actions need to be seen beyond the surface, but as a whistle being blown to fellow “anons”, ready to be the next Roof, the next Breivik.
Posting a manifesto, ala Ted Kaczynski or Anders Breivik was itself a sort of shit-post, “the act of throwing out huge amounts of content, most of it ironic, low-quality trolling, for the purpose of provoking an emotional reaction in less Internet-savvy viewers”. He deliberately cited a viciously anti-immigration woman of colour as his choice of inspiration, a calculated plan to provoke division. The manifesto itself, in Evans’ reading, is almost entirely internet in-jokes, memes, references to RPGs, odd 8chan and 4chan in-jokes. Prior to the shooting spree, he posted to 8chan’s pol board, that it was ““time to stop shitposting and time to make a real life effort”. Even upon being arrested, he proudly threw up the white-power hand gesture. Far beyond the imagination of the hack Spiked cadre Angela Nagle, he really did want to “kill all normies”, livestreaming his massacre on Facebook, using the audio of a song written and recorded as a tribute to Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic.
These are all unique attributes, and contain within them implicitly, the point that following the critique to its logical conclusion would mean seeing the connections within the Islamophobic continuum. When even the Canadian white supremacist Faith Goldy is tweeting out “#NotAllMuslims” and condemning the attacks in the same breath as denying responsibility, we can see this vicious totality that renders complicit Tarrant, Goldy – and Chelsea Clinton, Joe Biden, Beto O’Rourke, Angela Merkel and Angela Nagle. All of those that deny the salience of racism and structural Islamophobia in modern politics are on the hook for this one. It reminds one of Robert Hunter’s poem “He’s Gone”, which, with Jerry Garcia writing the music, became a Grateful Dead song, “nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile,” Hunter wrote in the face of the Kent State Massacre and US bombing of Cambodia. To smile, to truly smile is not to ignore the abyss, but it is to stare into it and be stuck once again, between thought and expression, to steal your face right off your head. Those who want to talk about Christchurch but won’t talk about capitalism will guarantee one, two, three more Christchurches, perhaps in the next few months.
Jordy Cummings is coordinating editor at Red Wedge.