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.

Author: Chris Beausang

I am a person who is PhD’ing in NUI Maynooth, using the open-source statistical programming language R to perform operations on large textual corpora in order to situate the novelists Anne Enright and Eimear McBride in a more nuanced and informed way to early to mid-twentieth century modernism. My interest in the topic is based on the fact that I find too many people describe Enright and McBride as being influenced solely by Joyce or Beckett, which is fine, and probably not inaccurate, but it gets tedious, and I think there’s a lot of mileage yet to be gotten out of investigating their indebtedness to Stein, Mansfield or Woolf; we don’t necessarily have to attribute everything interesting in Irish letters to Irish men.

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