Dale Beran, “It Came From Something Awful: How A Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump Into Office” (2019) – I’ve come to call it the Mark Fisher school of social criticism. Mark Fisher, for those of you unfamiliar, was a British cultural studies writer who wrote about contemporary culture, especially online culture. If you’ve heard the phrase “capitalist realism,” that’s one of his. His work has proven highly influential on many writers in the same areas, in terms of ideas, themes, and tone. I think it is fair to say, at this point, that he is the object of what could be called a cult (think more like the Marian cult or the cult around Foucault, not Heaven’s Gate). A lot of writers in the “online discourse hell” space hail Fisher as not just an influence, but as something of a prophet, a saint figure, complete with martyrdom at the hands of the force that Fisher understood as fundamental to contemporary life: the depression and malaise induced by late capitalist existence.
I don’t want to dismiss Fisher intellectually, and I don’t want to downplay people’s emotional attachment to a writer who they felt understood what they themselves were going through, and who died, leaving a lot of people feeling bereft. That said, the thought produced by Fisher’s epigones has a lot of severe weaknesses, and a meta-weakness- the cult of Fisher, for all of its wide-ranging criticality, does not do self-criticism very well beyond ritual invocation of its own fecklessness and inability to effect change.
I’d like to say that this book encapsulates the Fisher school’s weaknesses and its strengths, but that’s only maybe a quarter true. It doesn’t have all the weaknesses of the Fisher school. “It Came From Something Awful” doesn’t have the wounded defensive quality Fisherite work often does, and doesn’t show the sympathy for the far right that often occasions displays of that defensiveness. Beran stumbles into other Fisher school mistakes, but not those, thankfully. The book’s strengths, on the other hand, are less that of Fisher and his epigones and more that of fairly solid, middle-of-the-road history or journalism: fine research, well-organized findings, the relating of an important and interesting story. I suppose where the Fisher school comes in at all is that the author’s embeddedness in some of its precepts undermines him, turns what could have been a great work into a decent one.
I avoided this book when it first came out for a stupid but honest reason: it’s title, subtitle, and cover all made it look deeply inane. But some commentators who I take reasonably seriously took this seriously, and for a while I was trying to keep up with altright-explainers, so I figured I’d give this late entry a try.
Right off the bat, Beran distinguished himself from other writers on the subject (most notably Fisher-cultist turned “main reason people googled ‘social patriot’ circa 2019” Angela Nagle) by actually knowing what he was talking about. Talking to Nazis like Richard Spencer, or even the boot boys, is like looking at bugs in a terrarium. Actually going into their spaces, especially the fora, is more like levering open a rock and sticking your face into what’s underneath. Journalists and scholars don’t like it, and usually can’t tell when someone fakes it (the sheer lack of new information in “Kill All Normies” should have been a clue, but hey, it was 2017). But Beran not only did it- he had been doing it for a while, at least lightly. He was a habitue of the titular “Something Awful” and no stranger to the chans, especially in the early days. He actually talked to people involved, not just founder figures like “Lowtax” Kyanka, “Moot” Poole, and Fredrick Brennan, but everyday, anonymous users of the boards.
And it shows. Beran lays out a sensible, comprehensible history of anonymous forum culture. He starts with early, pre-web message boards like the Well — which tried allowing users to be anonymous, but quickly wrapped up that experiment — to the beginning of contemporary forum culture with Something Awful (I had friends who were big into it on the early aughts) to the terrible marriage of Japanese anime image boards and American entrepreneurial innovation we came to call the chans.
In terms of interpretation of this story, Beran is on somewhat shakier ground, but makes some decent connections and points. His biggest point is about a conjuncture between the spread of forum culture and the death of counterculture. By the time the late nineties rolled around, every single counterculture since the Beats, including mutually antagonistic ones such as hippies and punks, and even those that eschewed the whole game, like grunge, had been co-opted, defanged, and commoditized by the overarching capitalist monoculture. Seemingly the only thing the culture industry could not sell, by the time Lowtax was starting Something Awful, was the rejected backwash of Gen X grunge ‘tude: cynicism, indifference, and a certain soupçon of fascination with gory death and sexual violation (it turns out that somebody could indeed sell those things, but I guess the fora habitues were past caring by then).
I split the difference on this. It’s an unsubtle reading and ignores or misreads some important factors (I’m still rewriting my birthday lecture which covered some of this ground- patience!). But it’s not so wrong as to be unusable, and also probably represents something like the historical common sense of a lot of the people who helped make the forum culture, and at least part of the story as understood by many participants in it today (including, mutatis mutandis, the Fisher cult).
One thing Beran gets, that a lot of writers both in and out of the internet-discourse fail to grasp, is that a lot can change in twenty years, and it’s not all meaningless signifier churn. At various points, the people on the boards bestirred themselves to do things other than swap funny or grotesque pictures, and abuse themselves and others. Anonymous grew out of 4chan, and while a lot of people pooh-pooh it now, whatever else it represented, it represented at least some people rejecting Gen Xer nihilism for some sort of collective, values-based project. And then, of course, various snitches snitched and it collapsed. A more organized movement probably would not have collapsed like that, but when you’re organized by whoever can talk the biggest on an IRC channel…
Into the gap left by both the decline of Anonymous and the collapse of the “hope and change” Obama dream — and I think a lot of us undersell exactly how high the hopes were for Obama because we don’t want to review how badly most of us, myself included, suckered — came the same sort of nihilism of the kind of people who, at the turn of the millennium, made mocking teenage suicides a sport… but changed. It got sharper and even meaner, weirdly more desperate, more violent. The rise of the incel culture seems to have been a leading indicator, that the nihilism was going to leave the realm of jokes and pranks and start getting bloody… and, for the product of groups of supposedly anything-goes jokesters, weirdly self-serious. I still sometimes try to imagine the reception on “the old internet” that I only watched from a distance to the idea that anyone was entitled to sex… well, between the rise of both internet porn and dating apps (the latter of which could be seen to quantitatively prove nerds’ inadequacy) and the egging on of cultural/political entrepreneurs like Milo Yiannopolous, Mike Cernovich, and eventually Trump’s man Steve Bannon, a new crew of culture industry vultures found ways not just to commodify a counterculture’s dissent, but to weaponize it.
Here is where things start to fall apart in this book. First, so the blame doesn’t all go to the Fisher school, Beran relies way more on Hannah Arendt for his analysis of the right than makes sense. I tend to think this probably comes down to a mixture of simple… I don’t want to say ignorance, but maybe just unawareness of the way the study of fascism has gotten past/around the grand old lady, and the ways in which Arendt’s analysis actually coheres rather nicely with the hopelessness of the Fisher school. Even here, Beran isn’t completely off-base, and makes good use of some of Arendt’s ideas about déclassé upper class types allying with similarly deracinated lower orders to create fascist mobs, which suits the likes of Yiannopoulos and his gamer cohort to a T. But there’s some extreme flattening of historical patterns here that make it hard to see the differences between now and the periods Arendt writes about. I’m something of a lumper myself but it got a bit out of hand here.
This leads to the overarching weakness of the book, where it meets up with the weakness of the Fisher school of contemporary-awfulness analysis (and, in a weird way, Arendt). The Fisher school is so thoroughly invested in the all-encompassing awfulness of our lives under late capitalism that it can’t see anything else… including features of that awfulness that aren’t part of its pre-established menu of tropes and laments. Basically, they really, really don’t get offline. The further Beran gets from a screen (he laments “the screen” without getting into why it’s so much worse than “the page” or “the stage” or “the epic poem”) the less he knows what he’s talking about. Unlike some Fisher epigones, his hopelessness about/spite towards the left doesn’t lead him to hate on online libs/leftists to the detriment of his analysis. His chapters on tumblr are quite thoughtful.
But leftist opposition to the altright, to Trump, and to other instantiations of the right-wing resurgence we’ve seen post-2008 didn’t come from, or even mainly from, tumblr teens and their concerns for personal validity. Hell, if you want to blame the internet for the many weaknesses of today’s left, tumblr wouldn’t be where I’d look- I’d look at Twitter, which Beran does little with, mostly treats as a neutral medium. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that not only is antifa not a group — and that “black bloc” isn’t one (from Philadelphia?? Beran claims) either — but that whatever concerns those of us who do antifascist direct action may share with the stereotypical tumblr-teen, they/we didn’t get into this because they/we were mad about racist Halloween costumes. To think this betrays the ways in which Beran — and here is where his weaknesses sync up most completely with the Fisher school — really cannot imagine a world apart not from the internet, but from his version of the internet, to the extent that even googling what black bloc does not seem to have occurred to him.
Beran, unlike Nagle or some other Fisher acolytes, doesn’t add hatred and ax-grinding to the problems this intellectual inheritance brings with him. He does not seem to actively resent anyone who would actually try, however unlikely they are to succeed, to do something about our capitalist-depressive-realist state (and potentially show up the poster-philosophes in the bargain), which I’ve seen a lot of in online essays and comment sections. But the ways in which cynicism and the barest filigree of theory fill in for commitment to thoroughgoing understanding — which would imply much more work, in the archive and the long watch of thought, even if you don’t think it would also imply taking to the street, as I and my comrades do — did a lot to hamper his work. I’m probably making this sound worse than it is, but I think that’s because the good parts and the bad parts stand in the starkest contrast in this book. Moreover, the good parts are good in a simple way — they do the job — and the bad are better fodder for comment… perhaps reflective of the larger incentive structure motivating the fecklessness of the Fisher school. In any event, this book is better than many, for all of its flaws, but somewhat disappointing. ****