Angela Nagle’s ‘Kill all Normies’

It should be stated at the outset that the structure of Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies deflects the inevitable critiques that will comes its way. Kill All Normies cannot be evaluated in the same way as other non-fictive socio-political texts, given the fact that it supposedly presents an anthropological investigation into a particular subculture with no references, no overall evaluation of sources, methodological reflection, statistics, ethnographic accounts, interviews, review of extant literature or even definition of terms. All too often, phrases which are evidently freighted with significance are deployed (e.g. ‘ultra Puritanism’) without explication. The resulting indeterminacy of the ideas the text aims to convey find reflection in the mechanics of Nagle’s prose, which manifests repetition, sentence fragmentation, typos, random capitalisations, poor formatting, etc. Kill All Normies is a book badly in need of an editor.

While we could attribute this to the nascency of the field, Nagle’s analysis involves discussing the work of thinkers such as Frederich Nietzsche, the Marquis de Sade and Antonio Gramsci. Furthermore, manifestations of a fervent, newly-emboldened right are hardly new, and it is on this basis that I would have appreciated at least an apologetic preface to account for the reasons why this genealogy of the alt-right is so decidedly impressionistic. Of course, to dwell on these points would be unfair, given that that it is the publisher’s aim, as I understand it, to get the book out while these issues remain topical. While Donald Trump is the President, things cannot be expected to remain in their current state for long.

Nagle clearly possesses a broad knowledge of the irredentist sect of the moment, and is aware of how the fragmented 4chan, 8chan, the PUA and MRA movements initially developed, clashed, split and exist in their current, fragmentary state. As a catalogue of the horrors inflicted by the alt-right on women, Nagle’s book is very effective. Problems arise in Nagle’s attempts to correlate the growth of ‘this network,’ with the current American administration. Trump is a disaster on Twitter of course, but it is important to remember that he is not just as a troll, but as the son of a real estate developer and a reality TV star given a platform by a number of media outlets despite his abhorrent views, because he represents a revenue opportunity. Throughout the book, the collective actions of trolls is given far more credit than it deserves in bringing far right opinion into mainstream media discourse, at the expense of media outlet’s puff profiles on dapper Nazis, or their consistent expressions of bigoted views.

Another crux of Nagle’s argument is that contemporary manifestations of the left, with its sustained focus upon identity politics, is responsible for the aggressive tone of the alt-right. It’s at least slightly bathetic to come, after sustained research upon such a specific sub-culture that would seem to be possible only within the contemporary, networked media landscape, to come away with a variation on horseshoe theory, i.e. there’s extremes on both sides of the argument. Nagle undergirds this line of reasoning from her concept of the notion of transgression, which she traces through the writings of de Sade and Nietzsche. As Nagle would have it, the alt-right is both an avant-garde and the true inheritor of the taboo-busting tendencies of ‘the 60s’ (how leftist activism in its entirety is being encompassed in this case is not clear) in its ‘libertinism, individualism, bourgeois bohemianism, postmodernism, irony and ultimately…nihilism’. In proving that the feminist movements of the sixties (civil rights movements are not discussed in any depth), derived at least some of their impetus from de Sadean notions of transgression, Nagle cites right-wing thinkers who believed feminism was out to destroy the nuclear family, not necessarily the sources I would defer to in characterising second-wave feminism.

I have not read enough history or theory to cast informed doubt on the idea that second-wave feminism was ‘very much on the side of the transgressive tradition of de Sade,’ nor to what extent it exists upon a de Sadean / Rousseauist spectrum, as Nagle argues, but I am definitely uncertain, as to whether the struggle for feminism ‘is essentially a moral one,’ as she contends. Perhaps within some sectors it is, but I would think that the struggle for equality is more a matter of political economy than morality, and that substantial contingents of feminist theory and praxis would dispute that any one morality constructed via any one text or male thinker ones, is adequate in characterising what motivates its activists. I am of course, open to being corrected on this point, but this is one of the most glaring instances in which sources are lacking and broad, indistinct cultural trends are being made to bear a significant burden of proof. To give a final example, I have no notion what phrases such as ‘racial politics that has held since WWII’ are supposed to amount to, or mean.

The chapters in which these arguments are made would probably have benefited from more systematic, and perhaps chronological account of the left from the sixties to the present day, rather than Nagle’s tendency to move back and forth interchangeable between the eighteenth century, the nineteen sixties/nineties. An analysis rooted in chronology might have focused Nagle’s attention on trends such as lapses in class consciousness, (expedited by anti-union policies enacted by British and American administrations), the war on drugs, (a veneer for a sustained assault upon communities of colours’ capacity to organise themselves) the recession of the early 2000’s or globalisation, economic developments I would identify as more pertinent to political trends on the left than semiotics of the transgressive.

In portraying specific trends within intersectional leftist discourse Nagle identifies the calling out of racism and sexism as ‘crying wolf’, false calls for help which presaged the arrival of ‘the real wolf’, or the alt-right. Nagle also characterises the school of thought by focusing on how it manifests itself within tumblr sub-groups such as otherkin, spoonies, and people who get their limbs surgically removed [citation needed] because they identify as disabled, rather than sustained attention to the writings or activism of bell hooks or Angela Davis. By delineating intersectionality as people identifying as dragons (which isn’t to throw them under the bus, identify as whatever you want, I don’t mind) undermines the very real struggles of trans people seeking to eke out safe existences for themselves. To take just one Guardian story from yesterday as indicative, a survey of young LGBTQ+people arrived at the finding that 50% of trans teens have attempted suicide. Personally I think solidarity in the struggle for their rights is a good thing and I’m not sure a leftism willing to relegate trans or race issues to second place is a leftism worth having, which is why the polarity Nagle upholds at one stage: ‘Milo and his Tumblr-dwelling gender fluid enemies’, is so mystifying. Milo’s enemies could just as easily be described as women of colour in the real world, or the trans folk he was planning to out during his campus tour. It is unfortunately typical for Nagle’s analyses to take insufficient account of power relations, providing sympathetic points of departure for alt-right agents, such as male suicide rates and an ‘intolerant’ or ‘dogmatic’ feminists, but not leftist contingents composed of BAME groups or the disabled.

Nagle’s argument that the alt-right developed in opposition to the left is also peculiar, as it seems to me at least that racism, anti-semitism, isolationism emerges from a political tendency that is readily identified. Further, rather than taking Milo seriously when he says things like this, one could argue that these figures foremost within the alt-right have opportunistically pinpointed a number of demographic scapegoats which media platforms are not above bashing persistently. Perhaps longer term historical trends such as racism or the war on terror might be more to blame for these views entering the mainstream than the left, or Gramscian theory.

In closing, I will note that Nagle maintains the irksome canard, of failing to meaningfully distinguish liberalism from leftism. This intermittently makes for entertaining reading when she attempts to represent the performatively self-abnegating comments of no-marks such as Arthur Chu as symptomatic, while simultaneously implying that leftist academic discourse, summarised relative to Noam Chomsky and Gramsci, has been co-opted by a right-wing insurgency and was instrumental in deciding the 2016 presidential election. Whether leftism was responsible for Trump, or is pathologically incapable of forming coalitions of power, progressive or otherwise, Nagle never seems quite sure.

The golden rule holds true; never trust a writer who cites the Sokal hoax.

Collocations in Modernist Prose

I have recently begun to experiment with Natural Language Processing to determine how particular words in modernist texts are correlated. I’m still getting my head around Python and NLTK, but so far I’m finding it much more user-friendly than similar packages in R.

Long-term I hope to graph these collocations in high-vector space, so that I can graph them, but for the moment, I’m interested in noting the prevalence of the term ‘young man’, Self and Baume being the only authors that have female adjective-noun phrases, and the usage of titles which convey particular social hierarchies; Joyce, Woolf and Bowen’s collocations are almost exclusively composed of these, as is Stein’s, with the clarifier that Stein’s appear shorn of their ‘Mr.’, ‘Miss.’ or ‘Doctor’.

Here’s all the collocations in the modernist corpus:

young man; robert jordan; new york; gertrude stein; old man; could see; henry martin; every one; years ago; first time; long time; hugh monckton; great deal; come back; david hersland; good deal; every day; edward colman; came back; alfred hersland

Canonical modernist texts:

young man; robert jordan; gertrude stein; henry martin; new york; every one; old man; could see; years ago; long time; hugh monckton; first time; great deal; david hersland; come back; good deal; every day; edward colman; alfred hersland; mr. bettesworth

Contemporary texts, Enright, Self, Baume, McBride:

fat controller; phar lap; von sasser; first time; per cent; could see; old man; one another; even though; years ago; new york; front door; young man; either side; someone else; dave rudman; last night; living room; steering wheel; every time

Djuna Barnes

frau mann; nora said; english girl; someone else; long ago; leaned forward; london bridge; come upon; could never; god knows; doctor said; sweet sake; first time; five francs; terrible thing; francis joseph; hôtel récamier; orange blossoms; bowed slightly; would say

Eimear McBride

kentish town; someone else; first time; last night; jesus christ; something else; years ago; five minutes; every day; hail mary; take care; next week; arms around; never mind; every single; little girl; little boy; two years; soon enough; come back

Elizabeth Bowen

mrs kerr; lady waters; mrs heccomb; major brutt; mme fisher; lady naylor; miss fisher; good deal; said mrs; first time; lady elfrida; one another; young man; colonel duperrier; aunt violet; last night; ann lee; one thing; sir robert; sir richard

Ernest Hemingway

robert jordan; old man; could see; colonel said; gran maestro; catherine said; jordan said; richard gordon; long time; pilar said; thou art; pablo said; nick said; bill said; girl said; captain willie; young man; automatic rifle; mr. frazer; david said

F. Scott FitzGerald

new york; young man; years ago; first time; sally carrol; several times; fifth avenue; ten minutes; minutes later; richard caramel; thousand dollars; five minutes; young men; evening post; old man; next day; saturday evening; long time; last night; come back

Gertrude Stein

gertrude stein; every one; david hersland; alfred hersland; angry feeling; family living; independent dependent; jeff campbell; julia dehning; mrs. hersland; daily living; whole one; bottom nature; madeleine wyman; good deal; mary maxworthing; middle living; miss mathilda; mabel linker; every day

James Joyce

buck mulligan; said mr.; martin cunningham; aunt kate; says joe; mary jane; corny kelleher; ned lambert; mrs. kearney; stephen said; mr. henchy; ignatius gallaher; father conmee; nosey flynn; mr. kernan; myles crawford; cissy caffrey; ben dollard; mr. cunningham; miss douce

Marcel Proust

young man; faubourg saint-germain; long ago; caught sight; first time; every day; one day; great deal; des laumes; young men; could see; quite well; next day; one another; would never; nissim bernard; victor hugo; would say; louis xiv; long time

Samuel Beckett

said camier; said mercier; miss counihan; lord gall; miss carridge; mr. kelly; panting stops; said belacqua; mr. endon; said wylie; said neary; one day; otto olaf; dr. killiecrankie; come back; vast stretch; mrs gorman; push pull; something else; ground floor

Sara Baume

even though; tawny bay; living room; old man; passenger seat; bird walk; maggot nose; shut-up-and-locked room; stone fence; food bowl; lonely peephole; low chair; old woman; kennel keeper; rearview mirror; shih tzu; shore wall; safe space; every day; oneeye oneeye

Virginia Woolf

miss barrett; mrs. ramsay; mrs. hilbery; young man; st. john; could see; years ago; peter walsh; mrs. thornbury; miss allan; said mrs.; young men; mrs. swithin; human beings; wimpole street; mrs. flushing; mr. ramsay; mrs. manresa; sir william; door opened

Anne Enright

new york; per cent; eliza lynch; dear friend; years old; even though; first time; came back; years ago; long time; michael weiss; señor lópez; living room; every time; looked like; could see; one day; said constance; pat madigan; mrs hanratty

Will Self

fat controller; phar lap; von sasser; one another; old man; could see; first time; per cent; dave rudman; let alone; front door; young man; skip tracer; quantity theory; jane bowen; los angeles; young woman; either side; charing cross; long since

Flann O’Brien

father fahrt; good fairy; father cobble; said shanahan; mrs crotty; said furriskey; said lamont; mrs laverty; one thing; sergeant fottrell; said slug; old mathers; public house; far away; cardinal baldini; monsignor cahill; mrs furriskey; red swan; black box; said shorty

Ford Madox Ford

henry martin; hugh monckton; edward colman; privy seal; mr. bettesworth; mr. fleight; young man; mr. sorrell; sergius mihailovitch; young lovell; new york; jeanne becquerel; lady aldington; kerr howe; anne jeal; miss peabody; mr. pett; great deal; marie elizabeth; robert grimshaw

Jorge Luis Borges

ts’ui pên; buenos aires; pierre menard; eleventh volume; richard madden; nils runeberg; yiddische zeitung; stephen albert; hundred years; erik lönnrot; firing squad; henri bachelier; madame henri; orbis tertius; vincent moon; paint shop; seventeenth century; anglo-american cyclopaedia; fergus kilpatrick; years ago

Joseph Conrad

mrs. travers; mrs verloc; mrs. fyne; peter ivanovitch; doña rita; miss haldin; mrs. gould; assistant commissioner; charles gould; san tomé; chief inspector; years ago; captain whalley; could see; van wyk; old man; dr. monygham; gaspar ruiz; young man; mr. jones

D.H. Lawrence

young man; st. mawr; mr. may; mrs. witt; blue eyes; miss frost; could see; one another; mrs bolton; ‘all right; come back; said alvina; two men; of course; good deal; long time; mr. george; next day

William Faulkner

uncle buck; aleck sander; miss reba; years ago; dewey dell; mrs powers; could see; white man; four years; old man; ned said; division commander; general compson; miss habersham; new orleans; uncle buddy; let alone; one another; united states; old general

How big are the words modernists use?

It’s a fairly straightforward question to ask, one which most literary scholars would be able to provide a halfway decent answer to based on their own readings. Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein more likely to use short words, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf using longer ones, the rest falling somewhere between the two extremes.

Most Natural Language Processing textbooks or introductions to quantitative literary analysis demonstrate how the most frequently occurring words in a corpus will decline at a rate of about 50%, i.e. the most frequently occurring term will appear twice as often as the second, which is twice as frequent as the third, and so on and so on. I was curious to see whether another process was at work for word lengths, and whether we can see a similar decline at work in modernist novels, or whether more ‘experimental’ authors visibly buck the trend. With some fairly elementary analysis in NLTK, and data frames over into R, I generated a visualisation which looked nothing like this one.*

*The previous graph had twice as many authors and was far too noisy, with not enough distinction between the colours to make it anything other than a headwreck to read.

In narrowing down the amount of authors I was going to plot, I did incline myself more towards authors that I thought would be more variegated, getting rid of the ‘strong centre’ of modernist writing, not quite as prosodically charged as Marcel Proust, but not as brutalist as Stein either. I also put in a couple of contemporary writers for comparison, such as Will Self and Eimear McBride.

As we can see, after the rather disconnected percentages of corpora that use one letter words, with McBride and Hemingway on top at around 25%, and Stein a massive outlier at 11%, things become increasingly harmonious, and the longer the words get, the more the lines of the vectors coalesce.

Self and Hemingway dip rather egregiously with regard to their use of two-letter words (which is almost definitely because of a mutual disregard for a particular word, I’m almost sure of it), but it is Stein who exponentially increases her usage of two and three letter words. As my previous analyses have found, Stein is an absolute outlier in every analysis.

By the time the words are ten letters long, true to form it’s Self who’s writing is the only one above 1%.